Bloody Sunday: Fiftieth Anniversary
Subregional Stadia Programme for Soccer
Daisy Hill Hospital: Emergency General Surgery
Clogher Valley Rugby Club
Mrs Carol McCann
Planning Act 2011
Respite and Day-Care Services
Standing Orders 10(2) to 10(4): Suspension
Rural Policy Framework for Northern Ireland
School Age Bill: First Stage
Welfare Supplementary Payment (Extension) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2022
Charities Bill: Further Consideration Stage
Public Service Pensions and Judicial Offices Bill: Legislative Consent Motion
Employment (Zero Hours Workers and Banded Weekly Working Hours) Bill: Second Stage
The Assembly met at 12:00 pm (Mr Speaker in the Chair).Members observed two minutes' silence.
Mr Speaker: I advise Members that, in light of the Executive's decision to ease social-distancing restrictions, the Business Committee agreed at its meeting last Tuesday that social distancing in the Chamber for Question Time, questions for urgent oral answer and ministerial statements will be reduced to 1 metre. Chairs and microphones have been provided in the additional places for use only during those items of business. For all other items of business, social distancing remains at 2 metres. The Business Committee will review the arrangement in a couple of weeks as necessary and appropriate.
Mr Speaker: If Members wish to be called to make a statement, they should indicate so by rising continually 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, and interventions will not be permitted. I will not take points of order on this or any other matter until the item of business has finished.
Mr Delargy: I am proud to be from the Bogside. I am proud to be from Derry. This weekend, more than ever, I was proud to represent Derry, to stand with the families of Bloody Sunday, whose dignity, courage and resolve reverberate in struggles across the world.
For 50 years, the Bloody Sunday families have marched, campaigned and demanded truth and justice. The people of Derry and Ireland have stood with them, but some of their demands remain unmet. The British Government are intent on preventing any prosecution, through an amnesty for the British soldiers who murdered 14 innocent men and boys on the streets of Derry, injuring another 17. Accountability also lies with the British Army generals and successive British Governments who oversaw the murders and denied opportunities for justice.
The following words are etched on the monument in Rossville Street:
"Their epitaph is in the continuing struggle for democracy".
The men, women and children who marched on that day marched for civil rights. They marched for democracy. They marched to ensure that future generations would never again be treated as second-class citizens, but 14 of them never got the opportunity to enjoy the equality that they helped to achieve. As a representative of a new generation, I say that we are forever indebted to them. We will remember them, and we will speak their names with pride.
Jackie Duddy, aged 17; Michael Kelly, aged 17; John Young, aged 17; Kevin McElhinney, aged 17; Hugh Gilmour, aged 17; William Nash, aged 19; Michael McDaid, aged 20; Jim Wray, aged 22; William McKinney, aged 27; Patrick Doherty, aged 32; Gerald McKinney, aged 35; Barney McGuigan, aged 41; John Johnston, aged 59; and Gerald Donaghey, aged 17, who, along with all those who were killed and injured on 30 January 1972, was innocent.
Mr Dunne: It is time for the Communities Minister to finally deliver the long-awaited subregional football stadia funding programme. Football across Northern Ireland is on the up, with record crowds, investment and excitement surrounding our local game week in, week out at all levels, from the grassroots to the Irish Premiership, and including our international men and women's senior teams. Local football clubs in my constituency and right across our country have been crying out for the release of this long-awaited funding and have now lost patience with the Minister.
In a response to an Assembly question in August 2021, Minister Hargey advised me that she would update her Executive colleagues on proposals for a way forward for the programme in the coming weeks. Some 24 weeks have passed since that date and that commitment, and there is still not a penny from the Minister for this long-overdue funding for local football clubs.
In September 2021, the Minister reiterated publicly her commitment that the programme would be rolled out in the short time ahead and within this mandate. That was followed up by a commitment from senior DFC officials, who reiterated it at a meeting of the Communities Committee in early December. Many football clubs have already invested significantly in drawing up innovative plans and designs to improve their facilities. Many clubs have received planning permission, and others have live applications in the system, all while materials and building costs continue to increase because of the Minister's delay.
Those plans will not only benefit football clubs on the pitch, but will transform our local clubs into vibrant community hubs with better facilities, increasing participation for all ages and improving physical and mental health. Many are, rightly, asking, "What is the problem? Why the delay? What is going on with this Minister to deliver that funding?"
Now is the time for kick-off for the Minister. Clubs deserve delivery, and the Minister has failed for far too long. Now is the time to get on with delivery.
Ms McLaughlin: I, too, stand with pride to thank the Bloody Sunday families and the Bloody Sunday Trust for organising an impressive and inclusive fiftieth anniversary commemoration event. It was an important milestone for the people of Derry, and it was important, too, that it be dignified and respectful — it was all of that.
What happened that day was unspeakable. Innocent civilians were slaughtered on the streets of my city, and families, friends and neighbours were left in turmoil. It was unlawful, plain and simple, but, despite that, the families have been forced into spending a lifetime fighting for justice that continues to be denied to them.
The injustice of Bloody Sunday is in the heart and soul of our people in Derry. This transgenerational trauma cannot simply be wiped away at the behest of the British Prime Minister, who wants to abandon justice through his legacy proposals. Reconciliation requires sustained effort and considered approaches that engage directly with those most affected. That is how we can build a brighter future together.
I am proud that my MP and party leader stood on the Floor of Westminster and named "Soldier F", but I am also ashamed that he had to do so. The UK Government have decided to put justice beyond the reach of Bloody Sunday families. "Soldier F" went on an uncontrolled killing spree in my home town in January 1972. He deserves recognition for his murderous acts. How does an amnesty help the families to draw a line under their pain and suffering? "Callous" and "heartless" barely even cover it. People will listen and say, "But what about —?". I will say two things. The murder of one person never justifies the murder of another; and — this I stress — there is a higher burden of responsibility for state forces to obey the law and to act with humanity. They act in my name; the Provisional IRA never did.
The Parachute Regiment, on Bloody Sunday, carried out murder on the streets of Derry. Those who have erected Parachute Regiment flags on our lamp posts make a statement that is unwelcome across all our communities. I ask everyone to remember the names of those who died simply for seeking civil rights and justice. May we all overcome.
Ms Bradshaw: Last Thursday, the Public Accounts Committee published its findings on addiction services in Northern Ireland, and they should shock us all. As is confirmed in the report, we have long known that we are a long way from where we should be on this issue and that a fully resourced strategic plan is necessary to tackle the misuse of drugs and alcohol. In 2020 alone, 351 people in Northern Ireland suffered an alcohol-related death. The latest figures tell us also that, in 2019, 191 people suffered a drugs-related death. Those figures are staggering, and, sadly, they demonstrate a considerable increase since 2010.
Prevention and support services are pivotal in supporting people, but, without dedicated resources, that is impossible. The Department of Health outlined its new strategy to combat drug and alcohol misuse in September, but it cannot be implemented effectively without a budget available for the strategy as a whole. We already know, for example, that services such as counselling are heavily sought after but often to no avail as waiting lists are so extensive. We need clear actions and resources allocated to fix that.
Worryingly, the report also details the impact of prescription medication on drug-related deaths, which has long been a problem disproportionately greater here than elsewhere. For example, Northern Ireland has the highest prescription rate of pregabalin in the UK and the effects of its overuse on our communities are already taking their toll. In 2019, that one drug was responsible for 40% of drug-related deaths here. The report details that there is little evidence to suggest that any effective intervention has been made.
We can also see from the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency (NISRA) figures last week that, over the past five years, people living in areas of high deprivation are almost four times more likely to suffer an alcohol-related death than those elsewhere. It is vital that we support those communities and provide the essential support needed to address that issue. The Department of Health must ensure that local organisations are supported sustainably to work with young people in those areas and to support them to prevent addiction or move away from it.
I place on record my thanks to those community and voluntary sector organisations that currently provide such support services. Without them, the statistics would be worse and the families would not have their much-needed intervention and programmes. I hope that we ensure that this growing issue, which is causing so much pain and suffering, will be sustainably prioritised.
Ms Bailey: Since 1998, the people of Northern Ireland have got used to being let down by politicians at Stormont. The traditional parties have offered us division, indecision and, far too often, the collapse of devolution itself. Tomorrow, we have a collective opportunity to show the courage and leadership that are needed to get us on the path to new ways of delivering the action that we need to safeguard our children and grandchildren's future.
The breakdown of our climate is the most urgent and important issue facing us as leaders, legislators and human beings. In December 2020, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change told the world that we were at "code red for humanity". At COP26 in Glasgow, a few months ago, we heard that we are not on target to prevent temperatures rising by above 1·5°C, as global leaders pledged in the 2016 Paris Accord, because, so far, we have failed to make the changes required.
In Northern Ireland, we have been failing. While England, Scotland and Wales have made efforts to reduce carbon by up to 45%, Ireland, North and South, has not. The North has delivered less than that of GB; instead, we have chosen to continue with the business-as-usual model. We have failed to invest, to deliver and even to maintain an Executive for three years of this mandate. The South actually increased its emissions during that time and has now set its ambition to facilitating net zero by 2050.
Every one of our rivers, lakes and coastal waters has failed to meet basic quality standards. We are the twelfth highest region in the world for biodiversity loss. We have the highest per capita emissions across these islands. We remain the only place in western Europe without climate legislation. It is 2022, yet we have no strategies on air pollution, ammonia or waste. The recently published energy strategy paves the way for blue hydrogen, yet we still invest public money in fossil fuels. We are the only part of these islands with no net zero ambition.
We can do better; indeed, it is morally just to do so. We must ensure that any climate legislation that the Assembly passes is ambitious enough to meet the scale of the crisis that we face and enables all sectors to move forward sustainably. The eyes of future generations are on us. The issue goes beyond party political interest, short-term electoral cycles and, certainly, the interests of corporate lobbyists. It is about securing our future and that of our children. For too long, Stormont has failed our people and our planet. It is time that we changed that.
Mr Lunn: I want to talk about the tragic case of Lisa Dorrian, a young woman of 25 who disappeared and is now presumed dead.
The name will be familiar, but I will give some detail. Lisa was 25 and was a personable and friendly young woman with everything to live for. She disappeared without trace on 28 February 2005, which, in a few weeks' time, will be 17 years ago. An intensive and far-reaching PSNI investigation is ongoing, but, despite its best efforts and many searches, no trace of Lisa's whereabouts or where she is buried has been found, the assumption being that she was murdered and her body hidden.
Lisa attended a small gathering of friends in a caravan in Ballyhalbert on that night. There were about six or seven people, apparently. They were comparatively new friends. Gradually, as the evening progressed, they left, until just two were left: Lisa and a young man. At some point, the story goes, they heard voices outside and, rather than stay inside the caravan and lock the door, they decided to leave. They did so but were separated and ran in different directions. Lisa has never been seen since then. The description of events that I have just given is that related by the young man whom Lisa was with.
My reason for raising the case is the torment caused to the family by the absence of a body and, therefore, the inability to give Lisa a Christian burial and bring some level of closure to her relatives. I appeal to anyone with information about where Lisa may be to come forward and share it. There are people out there who know something that may be useful. If they have any humanity and feelings, they should do so. They could use the Crimestoppers confidential phone line or contact the Independent Commission for the Location of Victims' Remains (ICLVR) in confidence and anonymity. If they are hesitant about doing that, I invite them to contact me. I will talk to them in complete confidence, whether or not they were in any way involved in what happened. I do not need to know who they are, and I do not need to meet them; I just need them to tell me whether they can shed light on a dreadful situation. Leave me a message; send me a note; talk to me. The only information that I want is that which may lead to the whereabouts of Lisa's body; not who told me; indeed, I probably would not know who they were.
I firmly believe, as does the family, that someone — or several people — knows enough to identify where Lisa was left. I hope that they will make contact and put an end to the nightmare. The anguish suffered by the Dorrian family over 17 years must be unbearable, and they should be enabled to lay Lisa to rest in the proper manner. I implore anyone who knows anything to search their conscience and do the right thing.
In closing, I will mention the other disappeared. They are familiar names: Columba McVeigh, Joe Lynskey and Captain Robert Nairac. I hope that, some day, we can obtain closure for those families as well.
Ms Kimmins: Last week, we learned that emergency general surgery is to be temporarily withdrawn from Daisy Hill Hospital in Newry at the end of February. That announcement inevitably caused widespread worry and anger across Newry and the surrounding area, as the community believes that it is another covert attempt to downgrade Daisy Hill. Let me be clear: Sinn Féin will resist any dilution of the services at Daisy Hill and remains focused on the retention of services and the upgrade and expansion of the hospital to enable it to reach its full potential.
While the trust is proposing this as a temporary measure, it represents a significant loss of important services at the hospital and is deeply concerning. The Southern Health and Social Care Trust has confirmed that only two of the required six general surgery consultant posts have been filled. The pending resignation of another surgeon will further reduce that number. That is another stark reminder of the chronic staff shortages across Health and Social Care. Sinn Féin has been consistent in its calls for the Minister of Health and his Department to come forward with a workforce plan as a matter of urgency. I reiterate that call today. We must have a workforce plan if we are to stop the loss of vital services like these across Health and Social Care.
Daisy Hill has been under constant threat over the years, due to lack of investment and poor workforce planning. Enough is enough. We cannot keep lurching from crisis to crisis, creating instability and fear across our communities. We cannot play games with the lives of people in south Armagh, south Down and further afield, where travelling to Craigavon Area Hospital for urgent treatment is not a viable option. Daisy Hill is a first-class hospital, staffed by committed and diligent workers. Sinn Féin stands firmly with staff, patients and the community on this important issue. We have fought hard over the years, in conjunction with the community, to retain Daisy Hill's services, and we will not stop now. Daisy Hill is the only hospital between Drogheda and Portadown. It is therefore essential that it is in a position to serve the people of that whole region. The trust and the Health Minister must urgently bring forward solutions to recruit and retain staff to ensure that we are never faced with a situation like this again.
Mrs Erskine: They say that all politics are local. I stand today as a proud Clogher Valley woman, and I see other Members from Fermanagh and South Tyrone in the Chamber. I am glad that I still have my voice this morning, following the wonderful victory of my local rugby team, Clogher Valley, who played Ballyclare in the All-Ireland Junior Cup Final. I send my commiserations to the South Antrim representatives in the House but am absolutely delighted and chuffed that the Clogher Valley men were victorious at Ravenhill on Saturday evening. The atmosphere was electric, and it was wonderful to see clubs in Ulster, such as Clogher Valley and Ballyclare, doing so well in that prestigious competition. The community surrounding such clubs was evident on Saturday night. I was one of 3,000-odd supporters who travelled to Ravenhill to watch their team play.
The buzz was evident in Clogher Valley in the run-up to the match. The team does so much for the community. Clubs like that are vital in tackling social isolation and promoting better health, well-being and community relations. Not least, the club has done so much to raise money for charities, while also producing Ulster and Ireland players, such as Chris Farrell, who is an Ireland international.
I am so proud of the club. However, it is crying out for investment and funding for better facilities. I support the club fully in that campaign. A number of months ago, former Fermanagh and South Tyrone MLA Arlene Foster and I had a meeting with the club and the Communities Minister to urge her to help it. We must do better in helping grassroots sports across the board. They bond our communities and help to support our young people. Clogher Valley Rugby Football Club provides programmes and training for children and young people, male and female, from as young as three. We are fortunate to have a team like Clogher Valley in our rural community. I know that that is replicated across the country in other towns and villages. I repeat my call to ensure that we adequately fund and promote our grassroots clubs.
I send my congratulations to Clogher Valley Rugby Football Club. We are so proud of you for your win at the weekend.
Ms Mallon: I know that I speak for all of us when I say that we are indebted to all the staff across our nursery, primary and post-primary schools for always going over and beyond the call of duty, particularly during the pandemic. I pay tribute today to one lady in particular, a lady of great character, composure, commitment and compassion: Mrs Carol McCann, who, as a former pupil, came back to St Dominic's, and, for 14 years, was its principal. She has just retired. Over those 14 years, under her leadership, St Dominic's has gone on a transformative journey. It is not possible to list all her achievements in the time permitted, but I intend to highlight a few.
Under Mrs McCann's leadership, St Dominic's achieved specialist school status in English and drama. It regularly achieved being in the top three performing schools in the North. It was awarded the 'Sunday Times' Northern Ireland school of the year on two occasions. That award recognises not only academic achievement but the wider engagement by the school with students, parents, staff and external bodies to create an outstanding learning experience for all.
Mrs McCann also ensured that there was a wider range of extracurricular activities in the school so that there was something there for every girl, all with a strong focus on bringing out the best in the girls, instilling greater confidence and self-belief. As well as building strong links across the community with other schools, particularly through the Politics in Action project, Mrs McCann actively encouraged the girls to get involved in social action projects locally and internationally, teaching that important Dominican value to give back and bring about positive change in society.
Carol McCann leads by example. All those who worked alongside her say that she has been an inspirational leader on a daily basis, demonstrating the core values of St Dominic's — truth and compassion — to students and staff. Over the past 14 years, she has inspired and transformed the lives of thousands of girls and young women. I have no doubt that, when those girls reflect on their time at St Dominic's, they will be grateful that they had Carol as their principal. It is on their behalf that I say, "Thank you, Mrs McCann. Thank you for everything that you have done". As St Dominic's enters a new chapter under the leadership of Mrs O'Neill, I, like many other past pupils, will continue to watch with great pride as the school flourishes.
Mr Muir: At the outset, I share the call by Trevor Lunn for people to bring forward information on the whereabouts of Lisa Dorrian's body. That was a horrendous crime. The pain and suffering that that family have had to endure is despicable. I encourage anyone with any information to come forward to enable the recovery of Lisa's body.
I will speak about the report on the implementation of the Planning Act 2011 that was released late on Thursday evening by the Infrastructure Minister. As Alliance Party infrastructure spokesperson, I was disappointed that the statement was released on a Thursday evening and that there was no statement to the Assembly about it, meaning that there was no opportunity for MLAs to ask questions. The report has been long awaited. The consultation finished in April of last year.
I must say that, on reading the report on Thursday evening, my initial response was this: is that it?
Northern Ireland's planning system significantly affects local communities. It is a key driver for economic growth and can enable us to tackle the climate crisis. The evidence that was presented during the review highlighted a wide range of concerns about our planning system and the need for action. Sadly, the report falls well short. Let us recall that, in Northern Ireland, major planning applications take an average of 56·4 weeks, against a target of 30 weeks. Some of the worst offenders among statutory consultees rest in the Department for Infrastructure, the Department that is responsible for planning. Regionally significant applications have been sitting with the Department not for weeks or months but for years. There is also real concern about how applications are undertaken and the need for reform. The planning system is not fit for purpose in our race to net zero.
Recently, the CBI in Northern Ireland reported on the issue and made clear recommendations for action. In the report, it outlined that, in Scotland, the target for major applications is four months, and, in England, it is 13 weeks. In England, 88% of decisions on major applications are made on time. In Northern Ireland, the target is 30 weeks, and we still miss it. There are clear recommendations in the CBI report, such as putting the pre-application process on a statutory footing and introducing processing agreements, yet the report that was released on Thursday evening is littered with the comment that, "The Department is not persuaded". There is no movement on third-party right of appeal, which is already in place in Ireland, nor are there any changes to enforcement. It is hard for me not to conclude that the refusal to take forward many of the changes proposed by consultees shows that the Department is keeping its head in the sand on the need for reform of the planning system.
I urge the Minister to reconsider her decision not to pursue the many major changes proposed by consultees, given that the consultation closed last April, and review her position —
Mr Speaker: The Member's time is up.
Mr Muir: — on the report.
Mr Gildernew: I ask Members to reflect on the following words:
"I still feel like I am in the first lockdown. Not much has really changed for us."
Those words could describe the situation of any number of people who rely on respite and day-care services and short breaks or those who attend local day centres. The pandemic started nearly two long years ago. The initial closure of services was eventually followed by cautious guidance and instruction. That, effectively, turned off the tap of support for so many families, carers and service users. Since then, respite and day-care services have never returned to anywhere close to pre-pandemic levels. That is despite the roll-out of vaccines, changes to self-isolation requirements and access to rapid mass testing. Put simply, users of day centres and respite services have been left behind.
We know that the trusts and the Department of Health are fully aware of the situation. Countless questions and pleas for support have been heard. Nearly seven months after the Minister asked the Public Health Agency to review the guidance, there has been no announcement or light at the end of this dark tunnel. At present, there is no plan or timetable for the full resumption of respite and day-centre services, despite restrictions and lockdown measures being lifted elsewhere. Virtually nothing has changed for those who attend day care or respite or for their families and carers.
Last week, I wrote to the Public Health Agency, each of the trusts and the Department to ask hard questions about when we will see a plan to restore day centres and respite services. The Department of Health needs to wake up urgently to the plight of some of the most vulnerable people across our communities. It needs to publish the review and set out a plan and a timetable for the full restoration of those vital services. Many of the families are not at breaking point; they are beyond it. There is an absolutely urgent need to restore those badly needed services to them.
Mr Speaker: That concludes Members' statements.
Mr Butler: I beg to move
That Standing Orders 10(2) to 10(4) be suspended for 31 January 2022.
Mr Speaker: Before we proceed to the Question, I remind Members that the motion requires cross-community support. Order, Members, please.
Question put and agreed to.Resolved (with cross-community support):
Mr Speaker: I ask Members to take their ease for one moment, please.
(Mr Principal Deputy Speaker [Mr Stalford] in the Chair)
Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: I have received notice from the Minister of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs that he wishes to make a statement. Before I call the Minister, I remind Members in the Chamber that, in the light of social distancing being observed by parties, the Speaker's ruling that Members must be in the Chamber to hear a statement if they wish to ask a question has been relaxed. Members participating remotely must make sure that their name is on the speaking list if they wish to be called. Members present in the Chamber must also do that, but they may do so by rising in their place, as well as by notifying the Business Office or the Speaker's Table directly.
I remind Members to be concise in asking their questions. This is not an opportunity for debate, and long introductions will not be allowed. I also remind Members that, in accordance with long-established procedure, points of order are not normally taken during a statement or the question period thereafter.
Having laid the ground rules, I now call the Minister of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs.
Mr Poots (The Minister of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs): Thank you, Mr Principal Deputy Speaker, for the opportunity to make a statement to the Assembly about Northern Ireland’s first ever rural policy framework, following the recent public consultation, which closed on 6 September 2021.
For decades, investment in the development of rural areas in Northern Ireland was driven by successive EU programmes. The UK's exit from the EU, however, including its withdrawal from the EU-driven rural development programme (RDP), provides a unique opportunity to develop programmes specifically targeted at addressing the unique challenges faced by people living and working in rural communities throughout Northern Ireland.
The rural policy framework provides a basis for us to make the most of that opportunity. It supports my Department's vision of putting sustainability at the heart of a living, working, active landscape that is valued by everyone. It demonstrates our ongoing commitment to ensuring that rural communities flourish and prosper through our continued support of and investment in initiatives that will make a tangible difference to those living and working in rural areas.
We must not overlook the fact that over one third of people living in Northern Ireland live in a rural area. To move those communities forward, I want to deliver initiatives that address barriers to sustainable growth and that promote equal access to services. That means dealing with issues such as connectivity, economic development, environmental challenges, poverty, loneliness and isolation in rural areas.
I want to use the rural policy framework, alongside other key policy tools such as the Rural Needs Act and the tackling rural poverty and social isolation (TRPSI) programme, to help address the barriers that prevent rural communities from growing sustainably.
My priority is to introduce policies to address those issues, improve urban/rural linkages and provide greater access to jobs, health and well-being, broadband, education and training, social and other opportunities to help sustain and improve the economic and social outputs and sustainability of rural areas.
The rural policy framework is the framework against which those policies will be introduced. It is a living document that will support a fair and inclusive rural society where the people who live and work in rural areas will benefit from improved access to services, improved quality of life and greater opportunities from sustainable growth. The rural policy framework focuses on five thematic pillars supported by 19 priorities for intervention. They will help to create a sustainable rural community where people want to live, work and be active in a sustainable and environmentally responsible way. The thematic pillars were agreed and developed as part of a comprehensive engagement process with rural stakeholders over a two-year period. The five thematic pillars will support initiatives in innovation and entrepreneurship, sustainable tourism, health and well-being, employment and connectivity. The priority areas are supported by work that we are already engaged in. Through that work, we have been able to test our assumptions through a wide range of pilot programmes. Evaluation of the pilot programmes and the lessons learned from their delivery have been used to inform the development of this comprehensive policy framework.
When the consultation closed in the autumn, it came as no surprise that there was overwhelming support for the framework from the vast majority of those who responded. I thank all of those who took the time and effort to respond to the consultation. I was greatly encouraged by the level of engagement from a wide range of stakeholders and the quality of responses received. We received 105 written responses, seven of which were submitted by rural support networks, representing the views of 915 community and voluntary groups. Respondents raised additional key themes that are helping to shape the framework further; in particular, there was recognition of the changing challenges to rural communities presented by climate change. It is clear that stakeholders want environmental and sustainability considerations to play an important role in delivering future rural programmes. As we in Northern Ireland seek to address those challenges through our green growth strategy, we must lay the foundations for a more sustainable society in which our rural communities will play a significant role.
Social housing provision in rural areas was another area of concern highlighted by respondents. Whilst DAERA has no specific policy remit or responsibility for social housing, as rural champion, I will ensure that my Department engages closely with stakeholders and the Department for Communities to ensure that positive action is taken to help address that issue in rural areas. I intend to reinforce that by working with public authorities to ensure that they adhere to their responsibilities as set out in the Rural Needs Act.
Respondents also highlighted the importance and value of partnership working. It is my intention that DAERA will continue to work in partnership with other Departments, councils, community groups and businesses in rural areas to deliver for our rural communities. DAERA already has a strong history of partnership working, and that was evident and effective when it responded to the challenges of the COVID pandemic.
Responses to the consultation have also highlighted the challenges that many rural stakeholders face because of short-term financial settlements, reinforcing the need for longer-term financial clarity. I am taking that into account when I decide where to allocate funding for the next three years as part of the current Budget exercise, and that should help to deliver the aims and objectives of the rural policy framework.
The need to learn lessons from the LEADER programme, in particular the importance of the bottom-up approach in engaging with local communities, was also highlighted by respondents. Throughout the LEADER programme, the immense contribution of local action groups (LAGs) has been invaluable. I want to ensure that the best elements of that approach are retained to support future schemes in an efficient, effective and flexible way. I have decided therefore to establish a rural stakeholder oversight committee to ensure the continued involvement of key stakeholders and rural communities in helping to shape future rural investment. I also want to ensure that the way in which the oversight committee operates is kept under review so that it can remain flexible and responsive to the changing needs of our rural society. It is my intention that the oversight committee will be established in the coming months and will be supported by a range of stakeholder sub-committees that will cover a range of themes and issues, including equality, the environment and the thematic pillars of the rural policy framework.
The rural policy framework has been updated to reflect the issues that were highlighted in the consultation, so I intend to formally launch the new rural policy framework for Northern Ireland next month. After that, my officials will start to develop the new rural business and community investment programme. That will involve designing new schemes and examining delivery structures and methods for the next seven years.
The development of the new programme will be informed by the detailed evaluation of a range of pilot schemes developed by my Department, many of which are well under way. Those pilot schemes were developed to help to test the assumptions of the rural policy framework, and they provided £6·2 million of investment in rural communities in 2021-22. There are nine pilot schemes in total. To date, they include the website development programme, £0·25 million; the rural tourism collaborative experiences programme, £0·46 million; the rural microbusinesses growth scheme, £0·16 million; the rural social economy investment scheme, £0·4 million; the micro food business investment scheme, £0·2 million; the rural halls refurbishment scheme, £1·07 million; the rural pollinator garden scheme, £1·69 million; the rural digital inclusion scheme, £20,000; and the rural community rescue scheme, £1·9 million.
At this stage, it is too early to say how the programme will be delivered. As a result of the work that we have done through LEADER, TRPSI and our pilot schemes, we have experience of successfully delivering for rural communities in a variety of ways. I want to ensure that, for each scheme in the new programme, we use the most efficient and effective delivery mechanism possible. That means that a range of delivery options will be considered as the design of the new schemes progresses.
Whilst my Department will continue to deliver a wide range of initiatives to support rural communities in Northern Ireland, it is important to remember that the challenges facing rural communities are not for DAERA alone to address. Under the Rural Needs Act, public authorities have a duty to have due regard to rural needs that should deliver better outcomes for people living in rural areas to help make rural communities more sustainable. I recognise the importance of continuing to work in partnership with other public bodies, the private sector and rural stakeholders to ensure the best outcomes for our rural communities. We will therefore work closely with partners in government to champion the needs of rural communities across a range of issues, including housing and other public services. As I mentioned, I am considering where to allocate funding for the next three years as part of the budget process, and that will include allocations for the new programme. Alongside that, my Department will also continue to deliver TRPSI, while aiming to secure additional funding for rural communities through PEACE PLUS, green growth, city and growth deals and other funding opportunities that emerge in the future. No stone will be left unturned.
The purpose of the statement is to rightly recognise that our rural communities in Northern Ireland are innovative and resilient. I have no doubt that, with the right support and by collaborating with other public authorities, we will showcase the diverse and innovative ways in which the needs of rural communities can be addressed. I am confident that the rural policy framework will help to deliver the best possible outcomes for our rural communities and address many of the challenges that they face. We must look to a post-COVID-19 future and embrace the opportunities that green growth, globalisation and technological innovation present. Given the challenges presented by climate change, a focus on the environment and sustainability will be key in the delivery of future programmes. As we in Northern Ireland seek to address the challenges through our green growth strategy, we must lay the foundations for a more sustainable society, and our rural communities will play a significant role in that. If we get it right, the benefits to our rural communities will be substantial and will, no doubt, make Northern Ireland a place where people want to live, work and be active.
Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: There are significantly more Members in the Chamber than I have on my list. If Members want to ask a question, they should rise in their places. That is great. Thank you. OK. Yes. [Laughter.]
It is like that whack-a-mole game. Yes, that is fine.
Mr McAleer (The Chairperson of the Committee for Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs): I thank the Minister for his statement. He will be aware that rural communities benefited greatly from the EU's rural development programme, which provided a seven-year ring-fenced budget and included projects that were driven from the bottom up by local communities through LEADER. Obviously, as a consequence of Brexit, we have been removed from the EU rural development programme, and we have seen no progress on the UK's Shared Prosperity Fund, which was supposed to be the pot that the British Government would provide to replace that lost funding. Will the Minister give an indication of what budget, he believes, will be available for funding the new rural policy?
Mr Poots: At this point, it is too early to give an indication about the budget, because the overall Budget has not yet been resolved. We will bid to the Northern Ireland block grant Budget, which has obviously increased as a consequence of Brexit. We will also bid for PEACE PLUS money; EU farm replacement funding, where appropriate; and green growth funding. When we get beyond the term of the current Parliament, we will take stock of what is available. In addition, the LEADER programme carried administrative costs of almost 20%. That meant that just under £12 million of the £73 million that was available was directed to administrative costs rather than being targeted at rural communities. We want to put some focus on how we can deliver the funding more efficiently and ensure that we can take that figure, which is close to 20%, hopefully, down to a much smaller figure — I want to see it in single figures — and, therefore, deliver more money to communities and spend less on administration.
Mr Irwin: I thank the Minister for his statement. Minister, I am sure that you agree that agriculture is the backbone of our rural areas. Therefore, if the productivity and profitability of agriculture is reduced, it will have a knock-on effect on rural businesses and employment. There are real issues for the sector as a result of moving away from the targets set out in the Executive Climate Change (No. 2) Bill. What impact is that likely to have on our rural areas?
Mr Poots: That question is slightly off-topic. I will use not my words but the words of KPMG, which has been recognised for its expertise in those issues. It estimates that, when it comes to family farms — the primary producers — we will lose 13,000 jobs. That is hugely significant for the rural community. In addition to those 13,000 jobs in the primary sector, there would be a knock-on effect on the processing sector, which is largely made up of people from rural areas. If you go to the food factories in Dungannon, Portadown and other places, you will see that the workforce is largely made up of people who live in predominantly rural communities. The impact on jobs in the rural community would run to many tens of thousands. Therefore, it is important that we seek to protect the rural community in many ways. We are doing the policy framework to assist them. It is important that, first, it is a financially viable community, and the decisions that we take in the House need to be taken with that in mind.
Mr McGlone: I thank the Minister for his statement. I will revert to the issue raised by the Chairperson of the Committee around the Shared Prosperity Fund to replace the EU moneys that were clearly lost through Brexit. Has the Minister been in a position to get any indication whatever of the scale of the funding that may or may not come to the North?
Mr Poots: At this stage, I cannot give the Member a definitive answer. It is still being worked through. Hopefully, we will be in a position in March to deliver what the budget will be. It is important that we get a Budget for Northern Ireland first. The Department of Finance brought forward Budget proposals, and those need to be amended. I do not think that they go anywhere near far enough to deliver on commitments around climate change, for example. All of that is important for rural communities, because — let us think about it — many people who live in rural communities do not have access to the gas pipe network, which could be used in the future to deliver hydrogen and biomethane. Many of them have to travel to work, so having carbon-neutral vehicles and a means of ensuring easy access to those vehicles will be critical. In addition to that, connectivity and broadband availability are critical, so everything that we do must ensure that rural communities in Northern Ireland are not left behind and that the opportunities for people in those communities are as good as those for people in our capital.
Mrs Barton: Thank you, Minister, for your statement. You spoke about the issues to be addressed, including education. Area planning is in progress in education at present. That recommends that only schools with 105-plus pupils are sustainable. That will have a knock-on effect and really knock the heart out of rural communities. What talks or collaboration have you had with the Minister of Education to address that issue, which would appear to be a conflict in your policies?
Mr Poots: I thank the Member for the question. In Fermanagh and South Tyrone, there is probably a higher proportion of smaller schools than in any other constituency. I have been engaging with the Education Minister to see how we can help to support schools in rural communities.
The policy of 105 pupils has been around for a long time. I know that the closure of small schools is very difficult for people. I also know, as a consequence of going to small schools, that pupils do not get a lot of the opportunities that they would get in a larger school. That is the conundrum that we are in. When I was raising my children, their school closed and was amalgamated with four others. I have to say that, ultimately, that was a positive thing for the education of the children in that there was much more on offer in preparation for secondary education.
Those are challenging things. The Minister of Education held this portfolio previously and has a heart for rural communities. I expect that she will have a good listening ear when it comes to the issues.
Mr Blair: I thank the Minister for the statement. At a recent meeting with Alliance colleagues and Translink, better connectivity for rural areas was discussed, addressing not only better connectivity to towns from rural areas but connectivity to public transport. Are conversations taking place between Departments and agencies that will address, for example, better access for cyclists to public transport, which might include the storage of cycles at public transport facilities?
Mr Poots: That is where the establishment of the oversight committee and, indeed, its subcommittees is important. They will be responsible for inviting officials from other Departments as and when required to help to inform the committee's work. Other Departments will have to demonstrate the work that they are doing to address the issues for rural communities.
I am the Minister of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs, but every Minister is responsible for rural communities. Being the Minister for Infrastructure, the Minister of Education or the Minister for whatever Department does not obviate the need to ensure that people in rural communities get a fair crack of the whip.
Mr McGuigan: Minister, in your statement, you said that one of the important lessons from the consultation was the lessons learned from the LEADER programme, in particular the importance of a bottom-up approach in engaging local communities. Local action groups were allocated a budget to pursue the strategic objectives that were developed by the communities that they represented, so the LAGs identified local needs and strategies. Minister, how, and will, your Department guarantee that local needs are identified and local strategies developed to address those local needs?
Mr Poots: I have identified the need to learn lessons from engaging local communities through that bottom-up approach. I want to ensure that the best elements of that approach are retained to support rural businesses and the community investment programme in a way that is responsive to the needs of rural businesses and communities.
I believe that the rural stakeholder oversight committee and its subcommittees are central to ensuring that the best elements of that bottom-up approach are retained. The committee structure that I am putting in place will ensure that key stakeholders in rural communities will be central to helping to shape the way in which future investment is targeted. I do not believe that we are moving away from the bottom-up approach; I would argue that we are embracing the best elements of it in a way that meets the need of future programmes.
It is also important to bear in mind that the LAG structure was a requirement of the rural development programme, so, from the point of view of delivering future programmes, we do not want to be restricted to retaining the exact same structures, and we need to ensure that, going forward, our programme is flexible, efficient and responsive, which means making the best use of a range of delivery mechanisms. We also have to be mindful of the need to make best use of the resources that are available to us, which makes it very difficult to justify retaining structures and processes that eat up to one fifth of the available funding that should be going out to communities.
Mr T Buchanan: I thank the Minister for his statement. There is no doubt that, through the initiatives and the framework, our rural communities will thrive. Proper support for rural businesses and having proper infrastructure in place will be the vehicle to help to reduce the brain drain from our rural communities. How does the Minister foresee this being taken forward in future programmes?
Mr Poots: It is always a concern when we lose talent and ability from our rural communities. Our investment in Project Stratum, which came about purely as a consequence of the DUP deal with the Conservative Government back in 2017, has ensured that connectivity in our rural communities is increasing. As a result of that, more people who have talents and skills but would previously have been forced to go to the city for a job — or, indeed, out of the country — can do that job in that rural community and very often in their own home. That is hugely advantageous. The securing of over £200 million of investment for rural communities enables schoolchildren to, for example, more easily do their homework, which is critical. It also allows people to engage in all their research and work. It enables people who do service jobs and people from an accountancy background, an engineering background and so many other backgrounds to carry out their jobs in those rural communities. That is critical going forward, and it is programmes like that that we need to ensure help sustain rural communities.
Ms Sheerin: I thank the Minister for his statement and the answers that he has given. Rural dwellers should have equality of opportunity, and inequality is often intersectional. With that in mind, how will women, young people and people with disabilities benefit from the rural business and community investment programme under the rural policy framework? Additionally, it could be argued that, under the previous RDP, border communities benefited the most, given the cross-border aspect of that. Will there be any cross-border route for this cooperation programme?
Mr Poots: One of the pilots that we ran was on rural halls, which, as you know, are very often the hub of the community. They support parent and toddler groups. They support older people who want to meet, and that helps to tackle loneliness. They support people by providing classes — aerobics, yoga and all sorts of things — which helps people's mental health. Therefore, investing in rural halls, particularly those that previously had not received financial support, has been a significant benefit to rural communities, and the roll-out of that programme will help to ensure that more people who have been deprived of opportunities that they might have in the city have opportunities in those rural communities to meet, mingle and engage in things that are readily available elsewhere.
Mr M Bradley: I thank the Minister for his statement. You touched on this, Minister, but I was heartened recently when a number of rural halls in my area received funding via the rural halls refurbishment scheme. While I welcome that capital support, I believe that it needs to go much further. Many volunteers who are involved in rural halls have felt despondent and that their work has been undervalued. The scheme has helped to encourage, build and utilise infrastructure, including that already in place, but a priority should be placed on rebuilding rural communities, especially in light of their isolation as a result of COVID-19. Does the Minister agree that the scheme should be expanded?
Mr Poots: Yes, I do. One of the important things about the scheme is that it provides a training element, and, in order for people to draw down the grant, they have to avail themselves of that training element. Too often, a lack of capacity has ensured that some communities have not had the same opportunities as others. We need to build that capacity. Therefore, the training element is critical.
Hopefully, we can help those communities, which have had a taste of getting some financial support from government for renovation work to their facilities in order to provide disabled access, safe electricity and heating and so forth, through that programme with micro grants for equipment and other support. The requirements will need to be fed through. It is about assisting people to have a series of programmes in rural halls that help people in the community. Those programmes could have something for them to enjoy or to help with their mental health, loneliness or isolation, as well as with many other areas. We want to tackle those issues head-on in order to help rural communities.
Mrs D Kelly: I declare an interest, Minister, as I belong to a community group that has benefited from the rural community pollinator scheme. We hope to have something for you to look at in a few months' time when the community garden opens.
Minister, on the health and well-being piece, as a volunteer in community organisations, I find that, whilst there is money to deliver programmes, which the health service assists with, there is very little help with staffing costs and the provision of some expertise for the programmes. As we come out of COVID, how do you envisage moving forward on the demand for volunteers, and will there be support for management and supervision?
Mr Poots: One of the areas that we support is farm families health checks. That has been a hugely successful programme, particularly when it comes to identifying high levels of cholesterol, atrial fibrillation, early heart problems and cancer problems. We all know that identifying disease early is the best way of ensuring that it does not spread and that we can do something about it.
Again, I am absolutely open to working with other organisations, including the Department of Health, Translink, the Department for Communities or whoever it happens to be, in order to ensure that we can deliver high-quality services in rural communities. I look forward to seeing the Member's rural pollinator scheme. I hope that there will be no sting when I get there. [Laughter.]
Ms Á Murphy: Minister, Brexit and the withdrawal of EU funding are the context for the development of a new rural policy framework. The Minister of Finance has highlighted that the £11 million that has been set aside for projects here through the Community Renewal Fund pilot scheme, which is part of the Shared Prosperity Fund, is substantially less than the approximately €70 million per annum that we previously received from comparable EU structural funds. Minister, given your party's support for Brexit, what are your contingency plans to ensure that the social and economic needs of people living in rural areas are met if no more funding becomes available from Westminster?
Mr Poots: Certainly, we are very happy to raise all those issues with the Department of Finance and to deal with them in a positive way in order to ensure that rural communities have a continuation of significant funding so that they can deliver across a range of areas. We need the Department of Finance to recognise rural needs. We need it to recognise environmental issues, in particular, and to put further funding into the like of green growth, so that we can have vibrant rural businesses that will drive the economy forward, which, in turn, will drive forward the local shops, local businesses and the local economy. We want to ensure that we can continue to provide the element of support that helps to put in place the structures that support people living in rural communities.
Mr Robinson: I thank the Minister for his statement. I welcome the rural community pollinator garden scheme. It is an excellent, forward-thinking policy that will increase biodiversity and, given the number of successful applications from schools, encourage and educate the next generation to understand and deliver biodiversity into the future. Does the Minister agree that the scheme should be included in the future programme?
Mr Poots: The uptake of the rural pollinator scheme has been very exciting, as has the innovation displayed in the applications. We have sought to facilitate that. This year, the scheme will have a real focus on education, but, at a later point in the year, I hope to do a further piece of work with communities. The Department will work towards that, but, for now, we are focusing on schools and doing something with the Department of Education, because young people have an enthusiasm for things relating to the environment. What better thing to do than increase the pollinators that exist here. That will be good for the environment, biodiversity and our harvests, be they apples, cereals, or whatever else, because pollinators have a key role to play.
Mr Muir: I thank the Minister for his statement. The policy framework links through to different pillars and to the Programme for Government, but its key driver is the Budget. Does the Minister agree that the Budget needs to be linked through to the Programme for Government in order for this policy, and other things, to be achieved?
Mr Poots: I agree that budget is critically important. The course of work in which we are engaged is about ensuring that we have the appropriate budget to match the aspirations that exist in the policy framework. We will continue that course of work over the next number of weeks.
Ms Dillon: I thank the Minister for his statement and responses to questions. Brexit presents a significant threat to the future of agriculture and rural development. The North has lost access to EU funding, with potentially huge consequences for rural development and rural communities, as we have seen in mid Ulster. How will the Minister ensure that the rural policy framework integrates and complements the rural development programmes in the rest of Ireland?
Mr Poots: I note the Member's statement, but, since Brexit, virtually all our prices in all commodities have risen. The farming community is in a considerably better position than it was pre Brexit. For example, in October, I was able to offer farmers 6·29% more for their single farm payment than they received when they were in the European Union. I increased it the previous year as well. I was able to deliver it in October — it is not happening anywhere in the European Union — because I was freed from the conditions that are applied by the European Union, which are not beneficial to releasing the funding involved. The biggest threat to farmers and the agri-food sector is the Climate Change Bill that is proposed by Ms Bailey, and which is being supported by the Member's party. I understand that some of them will be here tomorrow. If the Member is serious, talk to and listen to those people, and do the right thing when voting on the draft climate change legislation that will be coming over the next number of weeks.
Mr O'Toole: I want to go back to the question of lost EU funding. The Minister seemed to be saying that it is not an issue, but, in November 2020, he signed a letter, along with his counterparts in Scotland and Wales. He has said that he has:
"pressed time and time again for clarity ... from the UK Government"
that they will meet their commitment to rural areas. He also said:
"It is simply intolerable to even contemplate a future where the devolved administrations are at a disadvantage."
Given that we know that tens of millions of pounds of funding for rural areas has been lost because of Brexit, can we take it, Minister, that you have not received any such commitments on replacement funding from the UK Government? Do you have anything to say to rural communities as a result of that?
Mr Poots: The Member will know that I will always bat and bat hard for rural communities, irrespective of where I do that. Be it in Belfast, over at Westminster or elsewhere, I will always fight for the rural communities that I represent and be their champion. When it comes to the development of the budget, we will therefore take all the opportunities that exist from the Shared Prosperity Fund, the Levelling Up Fund and green growth and from what the Department of Finance can offer us. I have to say that we are in a circumstance this year in which we will potentially be handing money back to Westminster. If we end up handing money back, the cry that we do not have enough will ring a little hollow, so I will press the Department of Finance to get the money to people who have demonstrated that they can spend it and spend it wisely, well and for real benefit to the wider public. A lot of that has been done in our rural communities, and I trust that the Department of Finance and the Finance Minister, in particular, will continue to provide that support for them.
Ms Bailey: The historical failure of the Department to engage women and young people cannot be denied. Minister, as I listened to your statement, I noted that there was no mention of women or young people in it, which makes me wonder what is new about the framework. I listened to your reply to Ms Sheerin. Outside of meet-and-mingles in rural halls, Minister, what is the plan in the new framework to ensure that the historical failure to engage women and young people as programme beneficiaries does not continue?
Mr Poots: I always wonder whether the Member is blinded to what is taking place. If she is talking about young people, she is talking about an investment of around £2 million in rural pollinator schemes that has been identified for schools. I see the Member shrugging. I am sorry, but those are significant —.
Ms Bailey: I never mentioned pollinator schemes.
Mr Poots: You mentioned young people, and I am of the belief that most of the people who attend school are young people, unless I have been living on another planet.
Seriously, however, we are investing significant amounts of money to support the needs of the rural community per se, of the young people who live in rural communities, of the women who live in rural communities and of the marginalised groups that live in rural communities. Who, do you think, will use the halls, for example, when the disabled access is put in, when the halls are made warmer, when women's groups have a local hall that is fit for purpose and available to them and when we have classes, be they arts and craft classes or physical activity classes, set up by people in the local community? The women and the young people in the rural communities will benefit from all those things, and I really wish that we would stop trying to label one group of people and set it apart by saying that it is not being represented, because, frankly, that is not true.
Mr Allister: I would like to test the fine words in the statement against a real issue in my constituency. The world-famous Dark Hedges are suffering from degradation because of destruction from traffic and a lack of management. We have had years of parcel-passing and broken promises. We urgently need a competent body to manage the Dark Hedges. Will this policy help? North Antrim, like South Down, has many rural tourism assets, so how will the policy help in that specific instance?
Mr Poots: I have been to the Dark Hedges, and I have met the chief executive of the local council, who recognises the need that exists. I was with local MLA Mr Storey, who invited me there to see how we can help deal with that circumstance. It is a cross-departmental issue; as a roads issue, it is not one that the Department of Agriculture leads on, and the Member knows that. However, I recognise that the Dark Hedges are a hugely valuable asset to Northern Ireland — they bring a lot of tourism — and we have indicated clearly that we will work not just in support of but with others to drive things forward. That work continues as we speak.
Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: No other Member has indicated that they wish to ask a question. I ask Members to take their ease for a few moments.
Executive Committee Business
Miss McIlveen (The Minister of Education): I beg to introduce the School Age Bill [NIA 52/17-22], which is a Bill to amend the meaning of "compulsory school age" in the Education Orders.
Bill passed First Stage and ordered to be printed.
Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: I ask Members to take their ease for a moment.
Ms Hargey (The Minister for Communities): I beg to move
That the draft Welfare Supplementary Payment (Extension) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2022 be approved.
Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: The Business Committee has agreed that there should be no time limit on the debate.
Ms Hargey: I seek the Assembly's approval for the Welfare Supplementary Payment (Extension) Regulations (NI) 2022. As Members will be aware, my Department administers welfare mitigation schemes that are designed to alleviate some of the welfare changes that were introduced in the North from 2016. The mitigation schemes provide financial support to people who are affected by various reforms, including the benefit cap and the social sector size criteria, known as the "bedroom tax". Members will also be aware that the existing welfare mitigation schemes came to a statutory end on 31 March 2020, in accordance with the relevant legislation. At that point, my Department introduced contingency arrangements to ensure continuity of mitigation payments for eligible people, pending the making of new legislation to extend the schemes. Under the contingency arrangements, mitigation payments have continued under the sole authority of successive Budget Acts. That approach has been agreed by the Department of Finance and is set to continue until the end of March this year.
Extension of the existing welfare mitigation schemes beyond 31 March 2020 was included in the New Decade, New Approach (NDNA) agreement and was a commitment of the Executive. Achieving that requires primary and subordinate legislation that must be approved by resolution of the Assembly. The Welfare Supplementary Payments (Amendment) Bill was recently introduced in the Assembly and completed Second Stage on 19 January. The Bill will also provide for the extension of the social sector size criterion — the bedroom tax — mitigation until 31 March 2025. Today, I propose approval of the Welfare Supplementary Payment (Extension) Regulations, which provide for the extension of the remaining welfare mitigations until 31 March 2025. The extension will be achieved by removing the current end date of 31 March 2020, which was specified in the welfare mitigations regulations, and replacing it with a new end date of 31 March 2025. The regulations will amend the Welfare Supplementary Payments Regulations (NI) 2016, the Welfare Supplementary Payment (Loss of Carer Payments) Regulations 2016, the Welfare Supplementary Payment (Loss of Disability Living Allowance) Regulations 2016 and the Welfare Supplementary Payment (Loss of Disability-Related Premiums) Regulations 2016. That will restore statutory welfare mitigation payments for people who are affected by the benefit cap, time-limited or contributory employment and support allowance, loss or reduction of disability living allowance on transition to personal independence payment (PIP) and any associated loss or reduction of disability-related premiums and carer payments.
As I recently mentioned, since 31 March 2020, my Department has continued to make welfare mitigation payments under the sole authority of the Budget Act. That has ensured that payments were made to people who otherwise would have been eligible if the statutory schemes had continued to operate. While continuing to make mitigation payments since 31 March 2021 was clearly the right approach, it means that my Department now needs to put measures in place to ensure that duplicate payments are not made.
In order to take account of the mitigation payments already made, the legislation before the House today includes provisions for the treatment of the period from 31 March 2020 to the date that the regulations come into operation. That period is referred to as the "administrative period". The regulations will act to prevent any duplication of payments during the administrative period. They will also ensure that, where an individual is entitled to a welfare supplementary payment, it is payable for a maximum period of one year and that any period during the administrative period for which the person has already received a mitigation payment is counted towards their one-year period of entitlement. The regulations also introduce further amendments to omit references to the administrative period after a period of 13 months from the date when the regulations came into operation. That will ensure that specific provisions will be removed after they cease to have any practical effect without the need for further legislation.
The measures will not have an impact on the entitlement to welfare supplementary payments. I can advise the House that an SL1 setting out the details of the policy covered by the statutory rule (SR) was referred to the Committee for Communities for consideration at its meeting on 16 December 2021. The Committee confirmed that it was content for the rule to be made. The draft rule has also been referred to the Executive for consideration. At the Executive meeting on 20 January, it was agreed that the rule could be laid.
It is important that we now provide assurance to the thousands of families and low-paid workers who are dependent on the mitigation payments. The legislation will provide certainty by continuing the payments for another three years until 31 March 2025. I hope that Members from across the House will join me in protecting the most vulnerable by supporting the legislation today.
Ms P Bradley (The Chairperson of the Committee for Communities): The Committee considered the statutory rule on 27 January and understands that it is to be made under article 137(5) of the Welfare Reform (Northern Ireland) Order 2015. The Committee noted the need for the regulations, which amend a range of welfare supplementary payment regulations made in 2016. Those earlier regulations provided for supplementary payments to people affected by changes to the welfare system that were made by Westminster.
As we know, the 2016 regulations provided for a period of entitlement to supplementary payments, including that no payments were to be made after 31 March 2020. The House knows the recent history of those payments and that, since March 2020, the Northern Ireland Executive have committed to continue to provide financial support for those affected by the welfare changes.
That is being done through the relevant Budget Act, including the allocation of £42·88 million in the 2021-22 Budget to continue paying welfare mitigation schemes, such as the bedroom tax and the benefit cap, until 31 March 2022.
The Committee understands that the purpose of the statutory rule is to remove the expiry date of 31 March 2020 from each of the specified welfare mitigation schemes and to insert a new expiry date of 31 March 2025. That will have the effect of reinstating welfare supplementary payments for people who are affected. The rule will also make provision for the treatment of the period between 31 March 2020 and the date that the regulations come into operation.
The Committee has, on numerous occasions, considered the issues of welfare reform mitigations, since early in 2020 when the first cliff edge faced us. Through numerous evidence sessions, the Committee has heard from charities and organisations supporting those most in need of welfare mitigation payments. A briefing from the Cliff Edge Coalition particularly highlighted the necessity for continued welfare mitigations given the hardship that many families face.
During the Committee's consideration of the Social Security Up-rating Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2022, last Thursday, the Committee again expressed concern that the utmost needs to be done to support those most in need. The dramatic increases in fuel and energy prices, combined with the highest rate of inflation for many years, mean that money is stretched more than ever before.
Members have frequently expressed concerns about the creation of further cliff edges. Whilst the Committee supports this SR, it is not without concern or hesitation by some members. The Committee hopes that this three-year extension will be well used by the Assembly to ensure that we do not approach another cliff edge in three years' time. The Committee agreed to recommend that the Welfare Supplementary Payment (Extension) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2022 be affirmed by the Assembly.
Ms Ferguson: I, too, welcome the opportunity to speak on the Welfare Supplementary Payment (Extension) Regulations. I thank the Minister and the Committee Chair for outlining the detail of the regulations. As we heard, their main purpose is to extend remaining mitigations to March 2025. While it is preferable that no end date be included, the regulations should hopefully provide reassurance and certainty for many people across the North who are in receipt of the payments, in the time ahead and particularly up to 2025.
At a time of rising living costs, securing these welfare protections will help to shield so many people and families from the worst aspects of the cruel cuts by the Tory Government. Minister Deirdre Hargey is committed to protecting people from the bedroom tax and closing the loopholes to ensure that our families, children, workers and the most vulnerable in society are protected. They remain our priority.
The appointment of the independent advisory panel to review all the welfare protections is welcome news for us all. I acknowledge, as did the Chair and the Minister, the excellent and sterling work of the Cliff Edge Coalition and other organisations, which have campaigned for the extension of these welfare protections.
I support the motion.
Mr Durkan: I thank the Minister for bringing the regulations to the House. We welcome them and the extension of mitigation payments to shield people here from some of the more savage aspects, as Ms Ferguson described them, of the Welfare Reform Act, designed by the Tories in Westminster and rubber-stamped by a majority of the MLAs in the House.
We welcome the mitigation package agreed here back then and now extended. It has certainly protected people. However, excuse me, if we do not do cartwheels and do not particularly feel like celebrating. We are really giving people a sticking plaster after leaving them vulnerable to Tory cuts. We also lament the time that it has taken us to get here and the fact that the extension cannot be for longer. However, we support any initiative or measure to protect people here, and we support the motion.
Ms Armstrong: I thank the Minister for tabling the motion today. I will not repeat what has been said before, but the legislation is an extension to the welfare mitigation schemes that are in place to ensure that people do not face a cut-off, having had a year in which, under slightly different regulations, we have been able to cover their costs. It extends those welfare mitigation schemes to 31 March 2025. As the Minister said, they include people affected by the benefit cap, people moving from disability living allowance (DLA) to personal independence payment (PIP) and those affected by the loss of disability-related premiums and carer payments.
The mitigation schemes for those people will, however, still come to an end on 31 March 2025. As the Committee discussed, we have no choice other than to take the regulations forward, because, if we do not, we will let people down sooner than 2025. I am concerned, as the Chair said, about that future cut-off date; we should review that. I will certainly support the regulations now, but we need to consider what we are taking forward for people under the Welfare Supplementary Payments (Amendment) Bill, given that we have invested in the independent panel that is looking at welfare mitigations. Are we saying to the panel, "What is the point in your work, because, on 31 March 2025, this will all come to an end anyway?"?
I thank the Minister, however, because a number of people have, thankfully, been able to have their mitigations continued under the Budget agreement for the past year, and they will be satisfied that they will take those mitigations forward until 2025. I therefore support the regulations, but, as a House, we need to consider the impact that we will create for those people in 2025.
Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: No other Members have indicated to me that they wish to speak, so I ask the Minister to make a winding-up speech on the debate.
Ms Hargey: I thank all the Members who spoke and the Communities Committee for its support of the legislation.
I will make a couple of remarks. From the outset of dealing with the extension of welfare mitigations, I have been clear that I wanted to take them all through — these regulations and others that will come next week — to close the loophole and to address the legislation on the bedroom tax. I did not want an end date to be included; I was clear on that. In fact, I did not include an end date in the regulations or the primary legislation, because, with the ongoing review of welfare mitigations, it is not about stopping the existing protections; it is about adding to them and complementing what we are already doing.
That said, I would not have been able to get the regulations through the Executive without an end date, because other parties did not agree with my position on not having one. I was, therefore, faced with a choice of doing nothing and continuing to have a hiatus, or moving the situation forward. After engaging with those in the advice sector, including the Cliff Edge Coalition and others, I made the choice to move forward, as I am doing now. I hope that those issues are picked up more broadly in the time ahead.
I thank Members for their contributions, and I commend the motion to the Assembly.
Question put and agreed to.Resolved:
Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: I call the Minister for Communities to move the Further Consideration Stage of the Charities Bill.
Moved. — [Ms Hargey (The Minister for Communities).]
Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: No amendments have been tabled. There is, therefore, no opportunity to discuss the Charities Bill today. Members will, of course, be able to have a full debate at Final Stage. Further Consideration Stage of the Charities Bill is, therefore, concluded. The Bill stands referred to the Speaker.
Members should take their ease for a few moments before we move on to the next item of business.
Mr C Murphy (The Minister of Finance): I beg to move
That this Assembly endorses the proposed amendments tabled in relation to the Public Service Pensions and Judicial Offices Bill in the House of Commons on 6 January 2022 to extend to Northern Ireland changes to the employer cost cap for public service pension schemes.
Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: The Business Committee has agreed that there should be no time limit on the debate. I call the Minister of Finance, Mr Conor Murphy, to open the debate on the motion.
Mr C Murphy: The cost-cap mechanism (CCM) for public service pensions was introduced as part of the 2015 pension reforms, both here and in Britain, in line with the recommendations of the Independent Public Service Pensions Commission. Two of the main objectives of the mechanism are to protect the Exchequer from unforeseen costs and to provide stability and certainty for members in relation to benefits and contribution levels.
The cost-cap mechanism determines how costs of public service pension schemes are shared between the schemes' employers and members. It is tested at scheme valuations, which take place every four years, and affects how future employee and employer contribution rates are set. It is a fundamental feature of the cost control measures that were agreed by the Assembly as part of the 2015 public service pension reforms contained in the Public Service Pensions Act (Northern Ireland) 2014. The mechanism assesses changes in costs for each scheme. If costs decrease or increase by more than a certain percentage of pensionable pay — currently set at 2% — compared with the original level, action is taken to bring the costs back to target.
The original intention was that the CCM would be triggered only by unforeseen and unpredictable events. At the 2016 valuations, however, it was observed that projected valuation outcomes indicated breaches at the cost-cap floor and increased costs for employers. That raised concerns that the mechanism was not operating in line with its original objectives, and the Treasury commissioned the Government Actuary to review its operation. The Government Actuary's report recommended a number of changes to the mechanism to address those concerns. Following a consultation that included stakeholders for the devolved schemes, the Treasury laid amendments to the Public Service Pensions and Judicial Offices Bill on 6 January to implement two of those changes. The changes will come into effect for the 2020 valuations, which set the employer and employee contribution rates from April 2024.
I will summarise the two main changes. The first is the reformed scheme-only design. Changing to the reformed scheme-only design would remove the effects of the pre-reform legacy schemes from the cost-cap mechanism. The Government Actuary had identified that the changes to those legacy scheme costs were the main driver for the cost-cap floor breaches indicated by the 2016 valuations. The reformed scheme-only design will ensure consistency between the set of benefits being assessed and the set of benefits potentially being adjusted for the future. That will make the mechanism more stable and reduce intergenerational unfairness, as comparatively younger members' benefit contributions will not change on the basis of the cost of the pre-reform legacy schemes, to which they had little or no access.
Under that approach, the cost risk of legacy schemes will pass to the Exchequer. The legislative consent motion (LCM) will ensure that that approach is also applied to the devolved schemes here.
Secondly, an economic check will introduce a new step in the valuation process to validate any cost cap breach before any resultant scheme changes can be implemented. The introduction of the economic check will mean that the impact of a change in the long-term economic assumptions will be considered in the cost control process and will be able to offset any ceiling or floor breaches that would otherwise occur. The economic check will be based on official long-term forecasts of GDP growth and will take into account changes in the long-term earnings assumptions. That means that there will be a higher bar for member benefit reductions or contribution increases if the long-term economic outlook has improved. However, working symmetrically, that will apply equally to benefit increases or contribution reductions if the long-term economic outlook has worsened. It should also be noted that the effect that the economic check may have on the mechanism is limited in that it cannot cause or contribute to a breach but only prevent or offset one.
The additional cost control amendments to the Public Service Pensions and Judicial Offices Bill technically fall outside the scope of the original LCM agreed by the Assembly on 1 November last year to allow the measures in the Bill to remedy age discrimination in public service schemes to extend to here. The changes can be expected to make the cost control mechanism for public service schemes more stable. A more stable mechanism means that changes to member benefits or contributions become less likely. The proposed reforms thus help to provide greater certainty regarding members' projected retirement incomes and the level of contributions. The LCM will ensure that the devolved schemes implement that economic check in the same way and to the same timescales as the equivalent schemes in Britain and in line with the overarching requirements of Treasury cost control policy for all such similarly constituted public service schemes.
Although they are technical changes, it is important that their impact is understood. The design of the devolved public service schemes here is broadly identical to that of equivalent schemes in Britain. The pensions are paid from annually managed expenditure (AME), and, as a consequence, cost control policy for the devolved schemes is expected to reflect that maintained by Treasury for those equivalent schemes. Adopting the proposals for devolved schemes is, therefore, necessary to maintain that approach. To do differently could lead to divergent valuation outcomes at the 2020 and subsequent valuations. That could have implications for available block grant funding if additional funds were needed to cover shortfalls in circumstances where devolved schemes costs could exceed the comparable cost control profile for the equivalent schemes in Britain. On that basis, it is important that the required technical changes are applied to devolved schemes here to the same timescales, and, in the circumstances, the LCM provides the most pragmatic solution to achieve that.
Dr Aiken (The Chairperson of the Committee for Finance): I thank the Minister for his opening remarks and for the related oral and written briefings that officials have provided to the Committee for Finance on the legislative consent motion and the relevant Westminster legislation. I also thank the public-sector trade unions, which, at short notice, provided the Committee with some useful written submissions. My comments today are made as the Chairperson of the Finance Committee.
As indicated in respect of the previous legislative consent motion for the Bill, public-sector pensions are important. They cost around £1·3 billion per annum in Northern Ireland alone and are a vital component of retirement provision in the jurisdiction. The changes that are being made by the Westminster legislation will affect around 130,000 of our public-sector workers and retirees in Northern Ireland.
The second legislative consent motion refers to further changes that cover the cost cap calculation mechanism. There are two main issues with that. In respect of the first, which is the different treatment for legacy pension schemes, a correspondent to the Committee suggested that the associated risk of underperformance would fall entirely to those schemes. That seems to be at odds with assurances provided by officials, who suggested that Treasury would assume the related risk. Perhaps, Minister, in your winding-up speech, you could clarify that. Other than that, the Committee found that first aspect of the LCM to be uncontroversial.
The second issue refers to a new criterion for cost cap breaches. It appears to mean that the payment of additional benefits or reduction of contributions will occur only if pension scheme performance also meets criteria linked to the long-term performance of our economy. The Committee understands that the detail has not been worked out yet, but the link is expected to be based on long-term GDP. The idea is to limit the situations where cost cap breaches can occur. The unions indicated a lot of concern about that and the potential for an adverse impact for public-sector pensioners. However, the Committee noted that, if the legislation were not passed, Northern Ireland's public-sector pensions might be out of step with those of the rest of the United Kingdom. In turn, that could conceivably generate a liability against the block grant if our public-service pension schemes generated a cost cap breach that is not recognised by HM Treasury. The Committee was unhappy with the limited timescale for consideration of that matter. It was also concerned about the potential for an adverse impact for public-sector pensioners. However, given the possibility of an additional liability against the block grant, the Committee felt that, on balance, it had no option other than to support the legislative consent motion.
On a related matter, the Committee has asked the Department about the impact of the McCloud remedy on retirement levels in the public sector over the next few years. The legislation will allow those who are entitled to it to receive a non-actuarially reduced pension at age 60 rather than at state pension age. Perhaps, again, the Minister could indicate in his winding-up speech why the Department believes that that will not act as an enticement for public-sector workers to retire earlier than might have been expected before the McCloud remedy. Perhaps, he could also confirm why the Department thinks that those unexpected retirements will not generate problems for the delivery of public services.
Mr McHugh: Ar dtús, ba mhaith liom buíochas a ghabháil leis an Aire as ucht a ráitis. At the outset, I thank the Minister for his statement. I welcome the opportunity to speak on the issue.
It is the second LCM that the Assembly has debated in relation to the Public Service Pensions and Judicial Offices Bill, which is progressing through Westminster. The initial intention of the Bill was to provide a remedy to the discrimination that was highlighted in the McCloud judgement. Prior to the first debate, the Treasury was able to provide assurances that the cost of implementing the remedy would not fall on scheme members. That was to be achieved by ensuring that any breaches of the ceiling of the cost cap mechanism would not result in increased members' contributions. That is an important protection, as it would be unacceptable to ask scheme members to pay to remedy a discrimination that affected them but that they did not create. However, since the Assembly voted in favour of the first LCM, the British Treasury has tabled amendments to the Bill that, if passed, will radically alter the cost cap mechanism of public-service pensions.
The cost cap mechanism is designed to bring a fair balance of risk to scheme members and their employers. It ensures that any increases in pension costs are met by both parties at a set rate, rather than solely by the employer, which had been the case. Importantly, if the costs of providing public-service pensions are not as high as expected and are more than 2% below the cost cap, that would result in a floor breach, where scheme members would see increased benefits. Now, however, the British Government are seeking to change how the mechanism works by removing the legacy scheme from the calculations of the cost cap and adding an economic check that links the calculation of cost cap breaches to the UK's long-term GDP. In practice, that means that, when any cost cap breaches are calculated, corrective measures would be taken only if the breach would still have occurred had the long-term economic assumptions been considered.
Public-service trade unions expressed mixed views on reformed-scheme-only design but were broadly against the introduction of an economic check. They accepted in good faith the cost cap as part of the overall reforms after the British Government promised that there would be no change to public-service pensions for at least 25 years. The 2016 valuations initially showed that the costs of providing public-service pensions were well below what had been anticipated and that there were widespread floor breaches, leading to increased benefits for scheme members. The proposed changes are an attempt by the British Government to move the goalposts, because they have discovered that having the cost cap mechanism work as originally intended did not suit their policy objectives, namely that more of the burden of providing public-service pensions should fall on scheme members and not on government.
While the Assembly has the authority to legislate for public-service pensions and could diverge from implementing the policy, we must be mindful of the impact on the block grant that any divergence would have. Given the Executive's current limited financial resources and the acceptance that more generous public-service pensions would divert funding from priority services such as health and education, we have no choice other than to allow the LCM to pass.
Mr K Buchanan: My comments will be brief. The Public Service Pensions and Judicial Offices Bill, which is currently making its passage through Westminster, is aimed at implementing a deferred choice underpin in pension schemes. The Treasury tabled amendments to the Public Service Pensions and Judicial Offices Bill on 6 January 2022. If we support the LCM before us, members of the schemes in Northern Ireland should not be disadvantaged and we mitigate the risk of future litigation should the NI changes be delayed or differ in cost or design.
The legislative consent motion will address the close timescales that are now required to implement the remedy solution by April 2022 and ensure that the changes for devolved schemes are implemented to the same timescales as similarly constituted schemes in Great Britain. I am content to support the LCM.
Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: It is now 1.57 pm. Question Time begins at 2.00 pm, so I suggest that Members take their ease until then. When the debate resumes after Question Time, the first Member called to speak will be Mr Matthew O'Toole.
The debate stood suspended.
(Mr Speaker in the Chair)
Oral Answers to Questions
City of Derry Airport: PSO
1. Mr Durkan asked the Minister of Finance for an update on his negotiations to secure public service obligations (PSO) for City of Derry Airport. (AQO 3021/17-22)
Mr C Murphy (The Minister of Finance): The Department for the Economy is responsible for and has been leading discussions locally on public service obligations for City of Derry Airport. Nevertheless, when I met the British Transport Secretary, Grant Shapps, on wider airport issues last summer, I raised the issue of which London airport the Derry flight might use. More widely, my Department is working with the Department for Infrastructure, which is assessing a business case and funding proposal made by the airport. The current London PSO and any potential PSO for a Dublin service will be important elements of future operations at City of Derry Airport.
Mr Durkan: Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as a fhreagra. Will the Minister agree with me on the importance of City of Derry Airport to the north-west, and the importance of Executive Departments working together with the council to ensure that it not only survives but thrives?
Mr C Murphy: I absolutely agree with the Member. It is a key and integral part of the need to rebalance our economy and ensure that our infrastructure, including airports, roads and rail, allow the north-west to maximise its potential. For too long, the north-west has not been able to do that, so I am fully in agreement about that. I also agree that the work is across a range of Departments. My Department stepped up, as it did on a number of issues during the pandemic, to provide support to airports. However, various aspects of airports relate to the Department for Infrastructure and the Department for the Economy. There is no overarching Department with responsibility for airports. I proposed that the Department for Infrastructure and the Department for the Economy, together with my Department, work together closely to deal with London and Dublin to get all the support that we can to ensure the long-term security of City of Derry Airport.
Ms Ferguson: Minister, the City of Derry Airport provides vital connectivity to the north-west, so we all concur with Mark. Any additional support and public service obligations to the city and the airport will be hugely important. Will the Minister confirm whether the airport will be included in the package of rate reliefs in the upcoming Budget?
Mr C Murphy: The two Belfast airports and City of Derry Airport were included in the rate relief measures, and that was a recognition of their huge economic importance to the regions that they serve. We are looking at further rate relief in the new financial year. Of course, those businesses will have benefited so far from a two-year rate relief. Obviously, thankfully, business is starting to return again, although we are still a long way short of where we want to be. We still have some journey to get out of the pandemic completely. Yes, of course we can look at rate relief packages across a range of businesses. Support will not be at the level that we were able to provide with the additional COVID money during the pandemic, but we will continue to try to support the businesses that continue to struggle as we emerge into, hopefully, full economic recovery.
Mr Nesbitt: I thank the Minister.
"Airports and airlines are a critical part of our economic structure and it is vital they are supported".
Not my words, the Minister's words. Can the Minister update us on the COVID mitigation package for Belfast International Airport and Belfast City Airport? I welcome what he has said about future rate relief.
Mr C Murphy: We are talking to the airports continuously about the challenges that they continue to face. Undoubtedly, they face challenges and will continue to do so. The issue is that we do not have the same additional COVID money as we had. Therefore, the Executive are limited in what they can do. As the Member will understand, there are a wide range of competing demands. In the course of the pandemic, we stepped up. We have no responsibility for airports, but we stepped up to provide support. I am not allocating it to any single Department, but, collectively, as the Executive, there is an understanding that more support is needed. The Departments have to work on that to assess that but also, as I would, to assess what funding we have and match that against the competing priorities. In the time ahead, we are keen to help if we can. We fully understand the importance of the airports.
Budget 2022-25: Timetable
2. Ms Armstrong asked the Minister of Finance to outline the timetable of the key stages for the approval of the draft Budget 2022-25. (AQO 3022/17-22)
Mr C Murphy: As the Member will be aware, the draft Budget is out for a 12-week consultation that ends on 7 March. As soon as possible after that consultation period ends, I will bring a further paper to the Executive outlining the consultation responses and seeking agreement on a final Budget. There is a legislative requirement for a Budget to be in place before the beginning of the next financial year. It is therefore imperative that a draft Budget is agreed by the Executive ahead of the upcoming Assembly elections. Such an agreement will allow Departments to plan and deliver services appropriately, providing public services with the stability that is afforded by a three-year Budget settlement. I am under no illusion that the timetable is challenging. It will be important for the Executive to work collectively in agreeing a Budget.
Ms Armstrong: Thank you, Minister. As you said, the Budget time frame is extremely challenging. Over recent weeks, we have heard that there may be an attempt to collapse the Assembly. If that happens, what protections can you put in place for all of the community and voluntary sector organisations that will be left without budgets?
Mr C Murphy: We have to ensure that that does not happen. First, any threat to collapse the institutions should be removed. As I have said in recent days, the rest of us are getting on with the work that we need to get on with in the time ahead. We cannot allow ourselves to be distracted.
It will be the first three-year Budget in many years that the Assembly and Executive will have dealt with. It gives an opportunity for planning. It does not contain the amount of money that we would have liked in order to support our public services, but, particularly for some of the services that the Member referenced, it is vital to give the certainty and continuity in the time ahead that is offered by the three-year Budget outcome. It would be cynical in the extreme to deny those people the opportunity to get that support. We will, of course, continue to work to ensure that we get Executive agreement, get the Budget through in due course and make sure that we give some certainty to those who most deserve it.
Mr McHugh: Minister, some Departments have already commented on the difficulties that they will face, especially if Health is prioritised. Whilst there are obvious pressures, can you confirm that this is the most difficult Budget that Departments other than Health have faced?
Mr C Murphy: The Budget that I have produced recognises and supports the priority that the Executive, Executive parties and, generally speaking, most of the MLAs in this institution have stated many times over the last number of years: that health is the priority and that we need to assist it in its transformation, bring down waiting lists and deal with issues like cancer treatment and mental health. The Budget that I have proposed reflected that. That created pressures in other Departments, because we have looked for efficiencies to support that. However, Departments will get a year-on-year increase in their budgets. While it is not all that they would have wanted — the outcome of the spending review is certainly not all that any of us would have wanted — nonetheless, there will be a year-on-year increase. It will be up to Departments to prioritise the spending of that Budget over the next three years in areas that are priorities for them and that can be met from the settlements that they receive.
I hope that all parties will recognise the commitment that we all made to support Health in the time ahead and that they will get together and support the Budget proposals. I recognise that we will all face challenges in doing that, but it is a necessary prioritisation.
Dr Aiken: Will the Minister confirm that, if there is no agreed Budget by the end of the financial year, going forward, we will be limited to 45% of the total Budget in-year? That would be a significant challenge to all our public services.
Mr C Murphy: As I said, we should not contemplate that that will be the case. Any threats to bring us into that circumstance should be removed. We are a short distance from the end of the mandate. There is a lot of work to be done in the Chamber and the Executive. We need to conclude that work. We have had only a two-year mandate, essentially, given where we were.
If that were to be the case, the Member is correct: in the worst-case scenario, the permanent secretary can ensure that funding continues, but it would be at that limited level. It would not give anywhere near the certainty that an awful lot of organisations depend on. Given that we have a three-year Budget, there is an opportunity to give certainty and allow for planning for the future.
Mr K Buchanan: Nobody disagrees that Health needs additional money to address the issues. Nobody disagrees with that. As the Finance Minister, are you content that the Department of Health is in a position to manage money effectively? Bearing in mind the amount of money that is spent on locum doctors and agency staff year-on-year and that, by the end of 2025, 52% of our Budget will go to the Department of Health, are you content that that Department is managing money effectively?
Mr C Murphy: There is no doubt that, despite the professed expectation that privatisation would create efficiencies, the attempt to transform the NHS over many years by introducing privatisation has created much greater inefficiencies. You can certainly see how the recruitment of agency staff creates a huge inefficiency, when we should have been recruiting people into the health service. That has not been the solution.
The Executive have had discussions about wanting to see the timetable for how the additional money provided to Health will be spent, the milestones by which we will judge it and the outcomes in each of the big areas: waiting lists, transformation, cancer treatment and mental health. We want to see how that will be spent. Clearly, the Assembly will want to get an understanding of all that. We have been working and will continue to work with the Health Department to get a clear sense of how that money will be spent in the time ahead and to make sure that that investment, which is necessary, will be used efficiently to create that transformation.
Mournes Recovery Plan
3. Ms Kimmins asked the Minister of Finance for an update on the Mournes recovery plan. (AQO 3023/17-22)
Mr C Murphy: The future of the Mournes is one of my priorities. I have, therefore, asked the Innovation Lab team in my Department to lead a project aimed at securing the long-term, sustainable future of the Mournes. Executive colleagues have nominated departmental representatives to participate in the project. As part of the project, the team will engage with local stakeholders to gain an understanding of the key issues. That work has commenced, and it is hoped that an event can be held in the locality of the Mournes in the near future to bring stakeholders together.
A high-level project plan has been developed that sets out key project activities. The plan takes account of the impact of the forthcoming election and the restriction that that imposes on public engagement. The Innovation Lab team is also developing a business case to secure external expertise to conduct the public engagement.
Ms Kimmins: I thank the Minister for his answer. We all know that the Mournes wildfires caused significant ecological damage. It is important that we get the recovery plan in place as quickly as possible not only to support the Mournes as an area of outstanding beauty but to deal with longer-term issues. If Executive agreement on the plan has been reached, when does the Minister expect implementation to begin, given all that he said in his response?
Mr C Murphy: I agree with the Member about the necessity of protecting the Mournes now and in the future. The Executive are on board, and each Department has provided representatives to work with the team. The work of the Innovation Lab will include a review of existing research, as well as the commissioning of additional expert research, should it be needed. There will also be a series of research engagement events with a cross section of the community that will include focused citizen engagement sessions. The purpose of that is to enable the development of a long-term plan that will include the community and stakeholders in the Mournes. I expect that work to be completed later this year.
VAT Relief: Energy Bills
4. Mr Weir asked the Minister of Finance for an update on his discussions with the UK Government on VAT relief on energy bills. (AQO 3024/17-22)
8. Mr Lunn asked the Minister of Finance for an update on his call for the Treasury to suspend VAT on domestic and business energy bills temporarily (AQO 3028/17-22)
13. Mr Dunne asked the Minister of Finance for an update on the work he has undertaken to cut VAT on home energy bills. (AQO 3033/17-22)
Mr C Murphy: With your permission, a Cheann Comhairle, I will answer questions 4, 8 and 13 together.
I wrote to the Chief Secretary to the Treasury on 11 November last year, calling on him to waive VAT on energy bills temporarily to support the many households and businesses that are struggling with the cost of living and spiralling energy prices. I have not yet received a response to my letter, and my officials have followed up on that with their Treasury counterparts. While it is disappointing that the British Government do not appear to be prepared to cut VAT on energy bills, I will continue to call on the Treasury to take urgent action on the cost-of-living crisis.
Mr Weir: I thank the Minister for his response. It is disappointing that there has not been a direct response as yet. Have there been other discussions with the Treasury on any other financial help, such as schemes beyond those that have been announced already, that can be given to hard-pressed families at this time, particularly to assist with rising fuel costs?
Mr C Murphy: Yes. In the past number of weeks, I had a four-way meeting with the Finance Ministers from Scotland and Wales in which we collectively pressed the Treasury on these issues. We are assured that there will be a spring statement towards the end of March — a bit late for inclusion in our current financial process — that will address cost-of-living issues. We do not have the detail on what that might include, but we will continue to press the case for support, as the Member outlined, for hard-pressed families.
Mr Lunn: I thank the Minister for his answer. I was going to ask the same supplementary as Mr Weir. I will look at the issue in reverse. What examination has the Minister made about the prospect of revenue raising locally, which would start to deal with the problem, perhaps from a different direction?
Mr C Murphy: I established a Fiscal Commission to look at the prospect of economic levers that we do not currently have. We are a long way behind Scotland and Wales, which have had a number of iterations looking at that issue. Since 1998, this institution has never taken a detailed look at what might be available to us.
Unfortunately, that takes some time. I hope that the report will be available before the end of this mandate, but it will be for an incoming Executive to look at it. If there were then the political will to move and look at revenue-raising options for us, that would require a negotiation with the Treasury. I do not think that any of those issues will be in time for this three-year Budget cycle but will probably be available towards the end of the next mandate.
It is incumbent on us to look at the situation. When our budgets are so tight and there are unforeseen emergencies that are out of our control, such as the increases in energy costs, we can make only very limited interventions. We should have in our hands all the fiscal levers that we can in order to make sure that we can intervene when necessary as per our own judgement in this part of the world.
Mr Dunne: I appreciate the update on this important matter. The UK Government's plan to end the red diesel rebate is adversely impacting a number of sectors here, including the construction sector and even things like charity tractor runs. Has the Minister made representations on this important matter?
Mr C Murphy: Yes. We have had an ongoing discussion on the issue. The first iteration, I think, was on the effect on pleasure crafts and things like that. Yes, we have had engagement with the Treasury and will continue to do that. The issue is tied up in the attempted reduction in carbon emissions. We recognise the strong cases made by construction in some of the charges. Many Members have been lobbied by people in the construction sector. While we want to make sure that we are getting to more renewable energies, we need to ensure that the impact of that is not so severe that people are not able to cope with the journey that we all need to be on.
Ms Hunter: My question refers to the energy support scheme. We know the difficulties with rising energy costs. Many people experienced difficulties before Christmas. Why did it take until January for the scheme to be unveiled?
Mr C Murphy: It took that length of time to get the Executive to agree it. The Communities Minister raised the issue with me immediately after the October monitoring round. We asked Departments to indicate to us earlier than normal what moneys they may surrender in January monitoring so that we could get a sense of what type of scheme we could put together. We put that together over December and asked for Executive agreement, but it did not get that agreement until January, unfortunately. The Minister for Communities and I would have preferred if the scheme had been in place and able to reach people earlier.
Mr Muir: The three-year Budget from April presents a massive opportunity to tackle fuel poverty and address the climate crisis. What is the Minister doing to ensure that that three-year Budget is climate proofed and able to deal with the issues that have been discussed here today?
Mr C Murphy: That type of policy issue will be a matter for the Executive as a whole, brought forward by those who have responsibility in that area. In terms of energy, it will probably be a combination of Economy and DAERA. Of course, the Executive have their own overarching targets in relation to that, which is faced by the real challenge of rising energy costs, which is outside our control, and the ability to support people in that.
Rather than being a matter for the Department of Finance, which makes propositions about the Budget, the overarching policy will be a matter for the Executive as a whole, led by the Departments that have responsibilities in that area.
Mr Allister: As an advocate for the protocol, surely the Minister knows that article 8 in annex 3 of the protocol retains Northern Ireland within the EU VAT regime. In consequence, that VAT regime says that the minimum level of VAT that is allowable within that regime is 5%. Therefore, if the UK Government in GB were to reduce or remove the 5% on energy, it could not apply to Northern Ireland, courtesy of the protocol. It is his ideology of subservience —
Mr Speaker: Move to a question, Mr Allister.
Mr Allister: — to the EU that is denying energy users —
Mr Speaker: Move to a question.
Mr Allister: — that opportunity.
Mr C Murphy: First, on the protocol itself, my officials liaised with the Department for the Economy when writing to the Treasury, and both energy and VAT are included in the protocol to some degree, although they are complex areas. As such, we cannot give a definitive view on whether notification to the EU will be required for the support to be implemented here in the North. As I have said, however, VAT is an excepted matter, and the Treasury would be responsible for seeking a derogation, should one be required. The protocol provides for the Joint Committee to regularly review the implementation of VAT provisions. I understand that Spain's Government passed emergency measures to reduce the cost of heating and electricity bills by reducing VAT from 21% to 10%, and the Czech Government announced a VAT waiver on electricity and gas supplies in November and December, due to the energy crisis, so, clearly, flexibilities are permissible under the EU rules.
Dr Aiken: The key question has just been asked by my friend from North Antrim. The issue is where we get to VAT and how we get to that point. Is the Minister proposing and making recommendations to the Joint Committee that Northern Ireland should be looked on favourably? As the Minister is aware, Northern Ireland is probably in a worse position with fuel poverty than anywhere else in our nation.
Mr C Murphy: As I said, on energy matters, we liaised through the Department for the Economy, which advises on those issues. It would be up to the Treasury to seek a derogation, should one be required. As I said, there is a provision at the Joint Committee to review the implementation of VAT provisions, so, if such a derogation is required, we expect that to be raised through that mechanism.
Coronavirus Dancing Prohibition: Rate Relief
5. Ms Bradshaw asked the Minister of Finance what discussions he has had with the Minister for the Economy regarding financial support, including through rate relief, for all businesses affected by the prohibition on dancing under coronavirus regulations. (AQO 3025/17-22)
Mr C Murphy: I have encouraged the Minister for the Economy to consider whether there is a need for further financial support for businesses. As I noted in the Assembly on 25 January, I am happy to work with any Minister who wants to bring forward a proposition for sectoral support, and I am happy to make a recommendation to the Executive on that basis. Ministers will, however, have to bring it to me; I cannot reach into other Departments and make their case for them. Nightclubs and similar establishments are covered by the omicron hospitality payment, which I announced on 23 December past. They have also benefited from a 24-month rates holiday since April 2020. Under the plans that I announced in the Budget, they will have no rates to pay in the first three months of the next financial year. Officials from my Department have also been working with representatives of the hospitality industry on proposals for retrospective support for nightclubs to compensate them for the period that they were required to remain closed while other businesses could reopen.
Ms Bradshaw: Thank you, Minister, for your answer. You will appreciate, of course, that I submitted the question before your statement in the House last week. Can you confirm or otherwise whether the Economy Minister has brought forward any proposals? On the point about engagement, you will appreciate that, while the nightclubs and the bars will have some access to grant funding, people like DJs, musicians and band members are outside that. Can you or your officials engage on that?
Mr C Murphy: As the Member says, on the back of advice from the Department for the Economy the weekend before last, we agreed to add hotels to the scheme. She will know that hospitality and support for businesses are not in my area of responsibility, but Land and Property Services has, thankfully, agreed to step up to that task. Some other people in the associated supply chains of entertainment will fall under the ambit of the Department for Communities, and others will fall under the ambit of the Department for the Economy. As yet, I have had no bids in relation to those matters. I think that Communities has been looking at some schemes, but, as I said in my opening answer, it is up to those with policy responsibility to bring forward a proposition that is supported by some evidence of need, and I am very happy to make a recommendation to the Executive on that basis.
Mr Catney: Minister, there is no doubt that you have a huge underspend across the Executive whilst small businesses and suppliers of our night-time economy, which are, I know, the responsibility of the Department for the Economy, have gone without support. Why is that money sitting in your coffers? Could it be used to uplift our hospitality industry?
Mr C Murphy: The Member was here this time last week when I made the January monitoring statement. I supported all the bids that came in. Every bid was met, and a proportion of money is left over. We are challenged next year in our budgets, so my objective and that of the Department is to try to maximise our carry-over in order to try to support public services in the next year and to spend out money where very good cases are now made for the provision of support to some people who continue to be affected by the pandemic, which we are still experiencing.
Again, I am quite happy to look at the cases that are made by other Ministers. It is not the case that money is just languishing in the coffers: that money can be carried over. We are in discussion with the Treasury about the limits that we can carry over. We hope to carry over as much as we possibly can. We know that, even with the three-year Budget, a lot of public services will continue to be challenged. If a case is made for some of the businesses that the Member has outlined, I am happy to look at it.
Mr Beggs: First, the Minister will be able to find out, through his Department, whether some of the hospitality sector has not been given any support to date. It would be helpful if he could let us know if that is the case.
Secondly, will he ensure that hotels that may have been fully let to government agencies, for which they were providing food and accommodation, will not benefit from the scheme? They have no need to benefit from the scheme because they have been operating at full capacity.
Mr C Murphy: The payments have been made, and the case has now been made for hotels to be included in that additional £40 million scheme. That will bring it up to somewhere in the region of £2·5 million. A number of hotels have been identified by the Department for the Economy that it says require support, and we are content to pay out on that basis. We do not have the ability to decide which other sectors in tourism and hospitality should receive support and say, "We think those people should be supported". The case for that level of support has to be made to us. B&Bs, guest houses and other things may not be included in the scheme because they have not been identified to us by the Department for the Economy as requiring support. We operate on the advice that we are given from those who have policy responsibility for that, and we put together a scheme to provide support.
As for those who have had other business, hotels and hospitality were not required to close. Nightclubs were required to close over that period, and there is a recognition that they lost a lot of the Christmas trade that they would have otherwise got. If there is a case to be made that others did not lose that, I am certainly happy to look at it. I do not believe, however, that that case has been made to us.
Finance Returned to the Chancellor of the Exchequer
6. Mr Newton asked the Minister of Finance to outline the total level of finance returned to the Chancellor of the Exchequer over each of the last three financial years. (AQO 3026/17-22)
Mr C Murphy: No non-ring-fenced resource DEL, which funds the ongoing cost of providing services, was returned to the Treasury. While no capital DEL was returned in 2018-19 or 2020-21, unfortunately, £81·1 million was returned in 2019-2020. That was primarily because of delays to projects due to COVID and a delay in signing the contract for a health project, as it required further due diligence.
Ring-fenced resource DEL is provided for non-cash accounting transactions relating to depreciation or impairment, including student loans, and it can be used only for that purpose. As such, £537·3 million of the total available has not been required over that period. Members will be aware of the restrictions on the use of financial transactions capital (FTC) and the difficulties that that has caused. As a result, £270·3 million has not been utilised over that period.
Mr Newton: I thank the Minister for his answer. Minister, you have at your disposal the public spending directorate (PSD), which is there to offer you advice on maximising the resources that are available to Northern Ireland, advising on their allocation and ensuring the effective use of available resources through allocation, monitoring and public expenditure. Given the level of expertise and support that is there, is it not amazing that we are sending money back to the Exchequer?
Mr C Murphy: As I outlined in my earlier answer, none of the resource that is used for our public services was returned over that period. Just over £81 million of capital was returned in 2019-2020. I outlined the reasons for that: the onset of the pandemic stopped construction, and there was a significant hold-up in a health project that was to consume a lot of capital. The other costs relate to money that is available if it is required for a specific purpose. If it is not required for that purpose, it cannot be utilised.
We can improve on how we deal with financial transactions capital. Financial transactions capital can only be engaged in very specific ways over a 25-year period, but I have said that Departments need to step up and look more closely at how they can use that. We can certainly do better in that regard. However, it is not the case that we had money at our disposal to spend and handed it back, apart from the capital DEL in that one year.
Mr Speaker: That ends the period for listed questions. We move on to topical questions. Topical question 10 has been withdrawn.
T1. Mr Stewart asked the Minister of Finance to give an update on the rates process for 2022-23, to outline any rates holidays that businesses and non-commercial premises will receive and to state when businesses and homeowners can expect their bill to land on their doormat. (AQT 1981/17-22)
Mr C Murphy: Bear in mind that an awful lot of businesses have had a rates holiday for two full years. That has been a substantial but necessary support to them over the pandemic. In recent times, I have had the opportunity to be out engaging with businesses, and I have heard at first hand how much they valued that holiday and the business support that was given to them. There is a proposition to look at all businesses for the first month of the new financial year, as a consequence of the COVID rates order that is going through, and then to look at a three-month extension for a range of businesses. That is part of the Budget consultation process. Once that is agreed, we will be able to give certainty to businesses, but we intend to extend it for one month for all businesses and three months for targeted businesses.
Mr Stewart: I thank the Minister for his answer. The rates holiday and business support have been welcomed, particularly by our city, village and town centre businesses. Unfortunately, many are still paying more per square foot than out-of-town centres are. If we are truly serious about town centre regeneration, does the Minister believe that the time has come to rebalance and revaluate town centre and village businesses so that they can compete and flourish to become the town centres that we want to see in our local areas?
Mr C Murphy: I share the Member's desire to make sure that we support and sustain town and village centres as best we can. That is a question for rates policy, and we will be looking at rates policy. We are looking at revaluation, but we are also looking at business rates generally. We have taken significant steps. A lot of people will not have experienced it, due to the two-year holiday, but we effectively reduced business rates by 18% over the period. We will continue to look at that to see where the more targeted support of rates can apply and have the sort of effect that he has mentioned.
Procurement Advisory Note: August 2021
T2. Mr Storey asked the Minister of Finance, who will be aware that, in August 2021, the Central Procurement Directorate (CPD), for which he is responsible, issued a procurement advisory note (PAN) following challenges to some 248 contracts, to give an assurance that those contracts that have been adversely financially impacted on, particularly relating to schools in his constituency of North Antrim, will get the help and financial support that they require to ensure that they are able to proceed. (AQT 1982/17-22)
Mr C Murphy: I am happy to look at that case. As the Member knows, we have revamped the Procurement Board. We have looked at the procurement policy guidance notes. We are bringing those through the Executive to ensure that they have the full authority of the Executive attached to them. Part of that is a tidying-up exercise that is looking at some of the previous policy notes and what they produced. If there is a specific case in relation to those contracts, I will be happy to look at it and come back to the Member.
Mr Storey: I thank the Minister for that commitment. Will the Minister look at the financial transactions capital that has been set in reserve? Is it possible to use that money to help to try to ensure that those contracts that were let and agreed but which there is now a difficulty with will be able to proceed?
Mr C Murphy: As I said in answer to a previous question, we are not making as full use of financial transactions capital as we could. It applies to projects that have a 25-year lifespan, and I am sure that some of the schools estates projects will have that. I therefore encourage the Education Minister to look at where her Department can avail itself of financial transactions capital, because there are sums available under that for us to utilise. There is no doubt that our capital budgets are challenged, particularly when we come to year 3, so anything that can supplement them is of value. It is, however, really for individual Departments to look at a specific project and say that they think that it fits the financial transactions capital model. We will then certainly support it.
PSNI Recruitment: Budget Cuts
T3. Mrs D Kelly asked the Minister of Finance, in the light of the fact that 70% of daily calls to the police are from people who have vulnerabilities, particularly mental health vulnerabilities, and given the Chief Constable’s recent announcement that, because of budget cuts, he will not be able to recruit officers, what consideration did he give in the three-year financial statement and draft Budget to meeting the New Decade, New Approach ambition of recruiting more than 7,000 officers. (AQT 1983/17-22)
Mr C Murphy: The central issues are whether we agree that health is the priority and whether we agree to try to give that Department the transformational funds to work on all the issues that I am sure are dear to the Member's heart and that of many others, such as waiting lists, cancer treatment and mental health issues. There is absolutely no doubt that Health funding puts a squeeze on other Departments, but every Department has an increase in its budget, and there is, I think, ring-fenced money for policing, which probably was not identified in the Fiscal Council's report.
We want to continue to support Departments as best we can, and we say to Ministers that, when they are prioritising their budgets — they have a significant degree of latitude in doing so — they should be looking at commitments that we made collectively, such as NDNA commitments when we came back into the Executive. I therefore look to the Department of Justice to meet its commitments in the time ahead. Although budgets are much tighter than we want them to be, there is the ability to meet such commitments.
Mrs D Kelly: I agree that people's health is a priority for, I am sure, every party here, but how is it defined across all Departments? Health has impacts for housing and education outcomes, in our prisons and in the calls that are made to police. When it is said that the money will be put towards health, how is that defined and what collaboration is there across the Executive?
Mr C Murphy: You are quite right: there is much more to health than the Health Department itself, although it has primary responsibility for it. The big issues of our time are those such as tackling waiting lists, cancer treatment services and mental health issues, as well as reform of the health service itself, which has become a kind of machine that continues to consume public finances. If we do not do something to alter that, that consumption will continue to grow, and, in three years' time, whoever is in the position of trying to set a Budget will have a much more challenging outcome than we currently have, and our outcome at the moment is already challenging. "Health" is defined across a range of other Departments, and we look to them to come forward with propositions and policies on working collaboratively and on promoting the general health and well-being of the community.
Construction Industry: Financial Support
T4. Ms Armstrong asked the Minister of Finance, given that there may or could be unspent capital or revenue funding, whether there is any opportunity for the Department for Communities to tap into that money to assist the construction industry. (AQT 1984/17-22)
Mr C Murphy: If there is unspent money and we are likely to exceed our limits for carrying over resource and capital into the next year, that money will be very much needed to try to supplement the budgets of a number of Departments, including the Department of Justice, which I mentioned in answer to the previous question.
The Minister for Communities has already indicated that, if there is unspent resource, the Housing Executive, through refurbishment work, can absorb some of it and carry it through into the next financial year to make sure that it is spent then. If it is the case that we may exceed our carry-over limits, that will be one of the options at which we will look at the end of the financial year.
Ms Armstrong: Thank you very much, Minister. Construction, as you know, is vital if we are to achieve the aims of the housing strategy and end homelessness across Northern Ireland. Is there any joint departmental working being done with you to support our construction industry, especially given that there is a real lack of people coming into the industry at the moment and, as you say, given how much we work we need the Housing Executive to do?
Mr C Murphy: We work with construction through the Procurement Board, but there is also a construction forum for addressing issues, because we have a range of responsibilities for building regulation matters as well. It is an interest that transcends the Department of Finance. In particular, the Department for the Economy and the Department for Infrastructure have an interest, given the huge contribution that construction makes to the overall economic performance here. It is vital that we work closely with them in the time ahead and that we make it cross-departmental. Where resources can be put in, they contribute not only to employment but, if you are improving the housing stock, to a reduction in heating costs and also to health and well-being.
T5. Ms Á Murphy asked the Minister of Finance how the multi-year Budget will allow us to take a more strategic approach to implementing required health reforms, given that the draft Budget allocates a 10% increase to the Department of Health over three years to support the Executive’s commitment to prioritising health, and it is vital that we use the opportunity to implement the desperately needed structural transformation of the health and social care system. (AQT 1985/17-22)
Mr C Murphy: I said in answer to previous questions that have arisen in the context of the Budget that we have agreed on the prioritisation of the Department of Health. We now have an opportunity to match that with sufficient resource to allow it to get on with tackling some of the big issues in Health and also in that transformation piece. The charge that Health puts on public finances has increased year on year, and if we are ever to get that under control, we need to take the strategic, three-year approach to reduce it. Otherwise, an incoming Executive, or whoever sets the Budget in three years, will have a much bigger challenge than I do. It is important that we finally have a multi-year Budget to put in that resource to effect the change that is needed to support the health of our population and to ensure that health spend from public finances can be brought under some measure of control.
Ms Á Murphy: I thank the Minister for his answer. As he is aware, the COVID-19 pandemic has had huge consequences for our health system, not least our ability to deliver specialist treatments such as cancer care, elective treatment and mental health services. Will the draft Budget provide the resources necessary to get the health system delivering those vital services again?
Mr C Murphy: That is the intention. We gave a significant additional amount of cash to Health over the course of the pandemic to cope with the pressures that it was undoubtedly facing and to support healthcare staff over that period. We will continue to support them into the future, but we want transformation. That is why we need Health to advise us on how the money is being spent, what the outcome is intended to be and how an incoming Executive can measure that over the next three years in order to ensure that the additional money that I hope we agree to put into Health achieves the outcome that the Executive want.
Cladding and High-rise Accommodation: Financial Support
T6. Ms Bunting asked the Minister of Finance what action he will take to financially assist those who will be hit with a hefty bill in relation to cladding and high-rise accommodation. (AQT 1986/17-22)
Mr C Murphy: The Department of Finance agreed to undertake this on behalf of the Executive. No single Department has responsibility. We have already put out a call for evidence on a scheme for buildings above 18 metres that have aluminium combustible materials (ACM) in their cladding. In doing that, we did a search for other buildings of similar height with other cladding material that might not be considered to be suitable. Off the top of my head, that identified, perhaps, another 18 buildings. We will identify the cost of that, and we have been working on it with the Department for Communities and the Housing Executive. We have already agreed on the funding available for ACM, and we are working through the details of that with the one building that it applies to in the North. We are working on the others that may come in under another category, and we are engaging with the Housing Executive on the potential for its taking responsibility for dealing with that issue.
Ms Bunting: The Minister will appreciate that I have some constituents who have received estimates for literally tens of thousands of pounds, which could have significant detrimental impact on them and their properties. I am thinking, in particular, of private owners and landlords. If there is to be such a scheme that people can tap into, how will it be made accessible to them, and what are the time frames?
Mr C Murphy: Those are some of the details that we are working through. We are looking at the model that has been developed in Britain, whereby a single Department, which has been able to engage with financial institutions that are beyond our responsibility here, deals with it. We need to make sure that people are safe in their own homes and that, if things need to be changed and they need support, we provide that.
It is also about ensuring that we protect the public purse. Where private landlords or others have responsibility for certain aspects of fire safety, they should carry the burden that they are supposed to carry.
We have to make sure that what we pay out for is absolutely necessary, and, in that regard, we are looking at how the scheme has been developed in England. They have much more resources to do that, but they also have that level of engagement with financial institutions and others to make sure that the public purse pays where it needs to pay. I hope that we can develop that scheme as quickly as we can and that we continue to work with the Housing Executive. I am sure that the Member's primary interest, as it is for us all, is to make sure that people feel safe in their own homes and that they can afford to continue to live in them. However, we also have to make sure that those who have private responsibilities are obliged to step up to the mark, as we do for our public responsibility.
Mr Speaker: Time is up. I ask Members to take their ease for a moment.
Mr Speaker: Questions 11 and 13 have been withdrawn.
1. Ms Armstrong asked the Minister of Health what progress he has made to identify unpaid carers to assess the impact that a lack of respite and day centres, provided by health and social care trusts, has on carers. (AQO 3035/17-22)
Mr Swann (The Minister of Health): I request a further minute, so that I can provide a full update on this important topic.
Trusts proactively identify unpaid carers by working closely with GPs, pharmacists, the community and voluntary sector and other public agencies. As standard practice, when staff identify carers, they are offered carer assessments or reassessments, and, if that is accepted, arrangements are made for assessments to be carried out. While the impact of the pandemic has yet to be fully quantified and assessed, it is clear that the physical and mental health of our vulnerable adults and carers has been affected as a result of COVID-19 restrictions and the subsequent reduction in adult day care and short breaks. Adult day care and short breaks are subject to nationally agreed health protection guidance to keep service users safe. Dynamic risk assessments of each setting and the implementation of infection control measures ultimately determine the level at which services can be delivered safely. While services have reduced, just as they have in many neighbouring countries, I am, however, mindful of the support that they provide to service users and their families.
Members will be aware that the Public Health Agency (PHA) was tasked with undertaking an in-depth review to identify a safe pathway to the full restoration of services. It was formally submitted to the Department at the end of October 2021, and consideration of the pathway was required to take account of the evolving evidence on the transmission, virulence and vaccine escape of the omicron variant. The risk of COVID-19 transmission must, however, be balanced against the health and well-being of carers, who have received a partial service for nearly two years. That is why I have approved in full the pathway for the remobilisation of adult day care, short breaks and transport.
My officials have written to the health trusts to direct the full implementation of the pathway, and I expect trusts to act without delay. The trusts will be able to use the pathway as an enabler to scale up services in a holistic manner to manage risks. The trusts will be required to update rebuild plans and outline the time frame for the full restoration of respite services. I personally thank the families who have shaped the pathway through the engagement panel facilitated by the Patient and Client Council. The review and the pathway will be placed on my Department’s website.
Ms Armstrong: I thank the Minister: he has taken the wind out of my sails, because I was just going to ask him about the restoration document. This is absolutely welcome news for all the carers who are exhausted and have been waiting for day care and respite care to come back. That is all that I will say. Thank you very much.
Mr Speaker: I call Colm Gildernew.
Ms Armstrong: Sorry. [Laughter.]
Mr Swann: I will take the opportunity to respond, Mr Speaker. With regard to the challenges —
Mr Speaker: You are responding to a non-question, but, anyway, respond.
Mr Swann: — that many carers and family members faced due to the reduction in services of adult day care, short breaks and transport, the Member has raised the issue numerous times in the Chamber. Any time she raised it, I gave her my commitment that we would look at the remobilisation of those services. The pathway has been published. It does not mean that we will go to full delivery straight away, but it sets a pathway to allow our trusts and service providers to get there.
Mr Gildernew: Minister, I also welcome your commitment. Can you outline a timeline for us? Those families are already extremely hard-pressed. Can you give definitive times for when families will have services restored?
Mr Swann: I thank the Committee Chair for that point. As I said, the pathway was agreed today. My officials will now write to all the trusts to direct the full implementation of the pathway. I expect trusts to act without delay. The operational delivery will be with trusts.
Mrs Cameron: I thank the Minister for his welcome announcement in his answer to Kellie Armstrong's question.
Pre pandemic, families had to wait some time before receiving a respite care package. That waiting list for support is undoubtedly growing. What steps is the Minister taking to ensure that, once respite services have been properly restored, they will have the capacity to meet the increased demand?
Mr Swann: I thank the Member for her point, because it is not just because of COVID that we are in this situation; the challenges were there before COVID.
Trusts are at a varying level of adult day-care provision, at between 50% and 60% of pre-pandemic capacity. Trusts have reported significantly reduced access to community short breaks and transport provision. That reflects restrictions on the availability of physical space and the use of independent sector contracts. Trusts are exploring options to further increase the level and range of services that they can provide. Whilst that has resulted in nominal increases to provision, a change in policy is required to restore services to pre-pandemic levels. Furthermore, as I said, trusts have now been instructed to get on with the job of implementing the pathway, and they will be required to set out updated rebuild plans to outline the time frame to fully restore day care, short breaks and transport.
Mrs D Kelly: As a former rehabilitation day-care services manager, I know that the centres provided much more than respite. There was also intervention post illness or for disability. Will there be additional resources for allied health professionals to go in to rehabilitation centres to enable clients to maximise their opportunities?
Mr Swann: I thank the Member for that. As she will be aware, currently, there is a consultation on social care provision for adult services. I encourage the Member to make sure that her views and opinions are fully recorded in that to make sure that the services that are being delivered in every setting meet the needs of those who use them.
Regional Mental Trauma Service
2. Mr Lunn asked the Minister of Health for an update on the establishment of a regional mental trauma service. (AQO 3036/17-22)
Mr Swann: I thank the Member for his question. As Members will be aware, a regional trauma network was included as part of the Stormont House Agreement in recognition of the need for a comprehensive trauma service to better support victims and survivors. Whilst there may have been some debate previously as to what exactly was meant by that, since taking up office, I have been clear with my officials that I wanted to see a scheme developed as initially envisaged. It was a clear political commitment and something that victims and survivors undoubtedly deserve and require.
A range of preparatory work to enable the delivery of this important service has been undertaken. To date, that has involved the commissioning of research into best practice on appropriate therapies, conducting training and establishing key clinical and administrative posts in the Health and Social Care Board (HSCB) and trusts. Whilst there were a small number of outstanding issues to resolve, not least varying legal arguments to consider, I am pleased to advise that my officials have been working diligently and I expect to be presented with a final proposal within days. I hope to have the service operational as quickly as possible thereafter.
Mr Lunn: I thank the Minister for his answer. The question arose from a meeting between the Executive Committee and the Victims and Survivors Forum last week. Members of the forum expressed their utter frustration that, having listened to the announcement of a centre to be established that was made by a previous Minister in a blaze of publicity in September 2005, nothing seems to have happened between that time and when the current Minister took over. I am glad to hear that the Minister is announcing some progress.
Will the Minister give a timescale or detail on any substantial progress that has been made? Will there be provision in the increased budget that he or, perhaps, somebody else will have that might allow the matter to proceed with a bit more speed?
Mr Swann: I will make a fuller announcement in the next few days, as I said in my substantive answer. An important part of establishing the regional trauma network was the co-design of services with stakeholders. It included victims and survivors, the community and voluntary sector and the Health and Social Care Board. I wanted to ensure that the views of stakeholders influenced the nature and direction of the network, because they are integral to the development of an effective and world-leading psychological trauma service. A number of legal questions also needed to be answered before we could make progress.
Ms Flynn: I was going to ask the same question as Mr Lunn on whether the service would be established as a regional, accessible service for victims, as originally envisaged. I thank the Minister for his positive response.
The Minister mentioned the design, training and preparatory work that has been carried out. Will he provide some of that detail in writing after today's Question Time? The news will be positive for the victims.
Mr Swann: I thank the Member for her follow-up question. Mr Lunn asked about funding, a question that Ms Flynn had also intended to ask. Figures from the Health and Social Care Board indicate that the regional trauma network now receives recurrent annual funding of circa £3·3 million, with the full amount of funding received having been allocated. The funding has been used to establish the regional staff team, with a clinical director and operational support functions, and clinical and administrative roles have been funded across the five trusts. To date, funding has been used for research into best practice on appropriate therapies, including a scoping review with recommendations from Queen's University Belfast; training of trust staff in the provision of consultation services; promotion of the Health and Social Care Board's compassionate leadership initiative; and provision of innovative, web-based information management software.
Mr Nesbitt: As the Minister indicated some time ago, there was, to my mind, shocking, unnecessary and unfortunate confusion over what was agreed politically about the regional trauma network. I welcome his commitment, which I reiterate: we will not leave behind the innocent victims and survivors, who know exactly what they were promised during the Stormont House negotiations.
As the Minister has covered co-design, will he give us his assessment of the importance of and focus on mental health in his Department on his watch?
Mr Swann: I thank the Member for that point. The importance of mental health has been well iterated through the mental health strategy and work programme that we published for 2021 through to 2031. As the Member is fully aware, the strategy is a vision for the future and states that we aspire to have mental health services that are compassionate and able to recognise and address the effects of trauma. A specific strategic outcome is the facilitation of a trauma-informed practice through targeted approaches to people with a specific trauma exposure. That has been endemic and embedded in my Department's work since I have taken up this role.
Ms Hunter: I thank the Member who asked this important question.
Minister, will you outline how the Victims and Survivors Service will work with the regional trauma network? I recently attended a meeting in Claudy with victims and survivors, and I note the incredible support that the service provides to victims of trauma.
Mr Swann: I thank the Member for that point. A number of key stakeholders have been instrumental in getting us to where we are today through engagement with my officials and the Health and Social Care Board. As I indicated in an earlier answer, the co-design of the trauma services was an important part of establishing the regional trauma network.
The co-design process involved stakeholders including victims and survivors, the community and voluntary sector and the Health and Social Care Board. It was important that the respective views of all those groups were taken on board in order to influence the nature and the direction of the network as we made sure that it was fit for service. The Health and Social Care Board completed a public consultation on the establishment of the regional trauma network. My Department continues to ensure that work towards establishing the network is consultative and participatory.
NIFRS: First Responder Role
3. Mr Dickson asked the Minister of Health whether he will consider expanding the role of the Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue Service (NIFRS) as first responders in life-threatening situations, to support the Ambulance Service in rural areas. (AQO 3037/17-22)
Mr Swann: First, I take this opportunity to express my heartfelt condolences to the friends and family of little Maggie Black. One can only but imagine the sense of shock and loss that her family and the wider Carnlough community have experienced over these last two months. In their grief, however, they still find the strength to campaign for greater emergency medical cover in rural communities. I am sure that I speak for all in the House when I commend them for their efforts and selfless determination.
In response to the question, I am pleased that there has been much greater collaboration between healthcare providers and the Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue Service over recent times. One of the most recent examples of that was firefighters providing driving assistance to the Ambulance Service in light of sustained workforce pressures. Do I believe that there could be greater collaboration? Yes, I do. Members may be aware that the Fire and Rescue Service was involved in a co-responder pilot in which crews were dispatched to cardiac arrest calls. That pilot proved successful in improving response times, and, last year, I asked that the possibility of its further roll-out be explored. The recent loss has brought the need for that into sharp focus and has brought a renewed sense of determination on my part. Although there is still some final work to be done, I hope to be able to announce details in the very near future.
Mr Dickson: Thank you, Minister. Have you reached out to Maggie Black's family and friends in respect of the meeting that they would like to have with you to explore these issues?
Following on from your answer, I call on you to put that co-responder trial on a secure footing so that we can deliver a co-responder service not only in rural areas but in any area of Northern Ireland where it is relevant for the Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue Service and the Northern Ireland Ambulance Service to do that together. Can we also ensure that there is a great deal of upskilling?
Mr Swann: I thank the Member. I recently received an invitation to meet the family. I am willing to take up that invitation, and, if the Member wants to get in touch with my office, we can coordinate something at that point.
As I said, the Ambulance Service previously engaged with the Fire and Rescue Service in a co-responder pilot in which fire crews were dispatched to cardiac arrest calls in the catchment areas of fire stations. That proved successful in improving responses, but further engagement with the Fire Brigades Union was required before it could be adopted more widely. In November of last year, Northern Ireland Ambulance Service's senior management held a meeting with their counterparts in the Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue Service to explore how that could be rolled out across all of Northern Ireland. Discussions between the Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue Service, Northern Ireland Ambulance Service and representative bodies for collaboration in an emergency medical response are ongoing. I will meet the Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue Service's Chief Fire Officer and chair early next month.
Mr Butler: I would like to add my name to those offering condolences to the family of Maggie Black. They have suffered and put their grief into good work to try to see this through.
I am sure that the Minister agrees with me that, having been an early responder to emergency incidents for many years, the Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue Service has had its hands on victims of many different types of incident. Does the Minister agree that, using the learning from the first-class response that it has provided for Northern Ireland over the last 20 or 30 years, many aspects of collaboration could be explored through this potential arrangement?
Mr Swann: I thank the Member for his question. As he is aware, one of the things that makes Northern Ireland unique is the fact that the Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue Service sits under the Department of Health. When I engage with the chair of the service or the Chief Fire and Rescue Officer, they see a natural fit for their services, and they see what they can do additionally by being part of the first response amongst our community responders. As I said, we have engaged with them.
The Northern Ireland Ambulance Service also dispatches multiple community responder schemes across Northern Ireland. We want to work closely with it in order to make sure that there is synergy in the services and supports that the Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue Service provides to its counterparts and compatriots in the Northern Ireland Ambulance Service.
Mr McGrath: I welcome the answers that the Minister has given so far about what seems to be quite a logical process. In my area, through no fault of the Ambulance Service, you could be waiting for up to 18 or 20 minutes for an ambulance to arrive in a 999 scenario, yet there are part-time fire stations that could have six paramedics rolling out within a matter of minutes.
Does the Minister have any understanding of the work of the Dublin fire and rescue service, where that co-response already exists? I am meeting the Chief Fire Officer in Dublin on Friday. If the Minister felt that it were useful, we could have some follow-up meetings with departmental officials to try to roll the measure out.
Mr Swann: I have had engagement about taking it forward with our new Chief Fire and Rescue Officer, who is a driving force behind the additional services that the Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue Service could provide. He brings experience from previous roles, and he understands the challenges, opportunities and additionality in what the Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue Service can provide. Those conversations are ongoing. As I indicated, I will meet the Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue Service Chief Fire and Rescue Officer and chair next month.
Ms Á Murphy: Minister, rural communities are experiencing a significant deficit of public services, not least in life-saving services. What plans does your Department have to address the lack of fire cover and ambulance provision in rural areas?
Mr Swann: The Member may or may not be aware that the Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue Service has a public consultation out about how it restructures its management sector. It is looking to map that on to our local councils, which was not done when the new councils were set up. There is a consultation out so that the Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue Service can also follow those boundaries. "Coterminosity" was a great word that was used at the time. It seems to have slipped, but the Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue Service is progressing it.
Acute Hospitals: Bengoa Recommendation
4. Mr Storey asked the Minister of Health how he intends to deliver the proposal in Professor Bengoa's report, ‘Systems, Not Structures — Changing Health and Social Care’, to reduce the number of acute hospitals. (AQO 3038/17-22)
Mr Swann: I thank the Member for his question. 'Health and Wellbeing 2026 — Delivering Together' was published in 2016 in response to the Bengoa report and huge strategic challenges, including an ageing population; continued increasing demand; long and growing waiting lists; workforce pressures; the emergence of new and more expensive treatments; and ongoing budget constraints. The Delivering Together strategy presented a new strategic direction to transform health and social care services in delivery and planning. COVID-19 has further reinforced the need for the transformation of our system, as highlighted throughout the Bengoa report, including the consideration of how our hospitals are configured and the number of acute hospitals that we have. Work is under way to consider our urgent and emergency care services, improve our elective care work and consider the provision of general surgery, all of which have a direct impact on the number of acute hospitals.
I do not yet have the overall direction of travel, and it would not be right for me to assume the outcome of the ongoing work. However, it is safe to say that, with the increasing need in the population for health and social care services, I do not envisage the closure of hospitals, as we will need to maintain capacity. The outcome of the ongoing reviews and reforms is likely to mean the reconfiguration of where specific services are delivered, such as what is envisaged in the elective care framework in terms of elective care sites. That will, of course, have an impact on the number of acute hospitals that we have.
Whilst the pandemic has provided challenges to our ways of working, it has, by necessity, slowed down our progress of transformation. The work to reform services is being undertaken in very difficult circumstances. The professionals who are providing the expertise to my officials are the same staff who are standing on the front line across the trusts. Nevertheless, 'Health and Wellbeing 2026 — Delivering Together' remains the overarching strategy for transforming health and social care services. Decisions on the nature of and approach to rebuilding services will be considered in adherence to the principles that are set out in that strategy. As we rebuild health and social care services, the transformation will continue. It remains our priority. It is the only solution to the long-term sustainability of the system.
Mr Storey: Anyone who listened to the Minister's response will have heard that, yet again, it was littered with ambiguity and uncertainty. On one hand, the Minister says that there will be no closures, while, on the other hand, he refers to the impact on acute hospital provision. Can he give a clear assurance in the House that the future of the Causeway Hospital, which has done a huge job during the pandemic, and, without which, there could not have been service provision, will not be questioned in the overarching strategy, which seems to be his focus?
Mr Swann: I do not know where the Member has got that intimation, because I have always been clear in the House that we need every square foot of our hospital provision. The Member has heard me say that many times. I can assure any Member in the House of that.
Recently, I have seen Members on social media and in print media talking about hospital closures and threats to hospitals. There is no such thing. No such thing has happened or has even been intimated under my stewardship of the Ministry, because we need every bit of our hospital estate. We actually need to invest more in our hospital estate. The Member will be well aware of the support that Causeway Hospital has received. As a fellow MLA for North Antrim, he will know well that, in the past, the people who talked about the threat to the Causeway Hospital, and said that it was going to close, were actually the ones who were driving it down the road towards closure, because they made it so much harder for the management and staff, of not just the hospital but the Northern Trust, to recruit. When the narrative around the Causeway Hospital became that it is an integral part of not just the Northern Trust but the entire health estate, it was easier for the management of the Northern Trust to recruit and put that hospital on a firmer basis.
Ms Ní Chuilín: I am delighted to hear the Minister say that. I agree: you need to love your hospital rather than just try to save it, because that sends out the wrong message. Given the issues of staff retention and recruitment that existed before COVID, everybody, including the Minister, will know full well that staff retention and workforce planning are key. Can the Minister confirm whether, as part of overall workforce planning, he plans to take forward additional plans and strategies on staff retention and recruitment?
Mr Swann: I thank the Member. She is right: it is about how you frame your support for your local health service. When people undermine it and talk about hospital closures, that unnerves and unsettles staff.
She will be aware that my Department published the comprehensive 'Health and Social Care Workforce Strategy 2026: Delivering for Our People'. It was originally envisaged that three consecutive action plans would be developed during the lifetime of the strategy. The first action plan was to cover 2018 to 2020. The pandemic response delayed the formal development of the second action plan. However, a number of actions were progressed in 2021. Effective workforce planning is a key theme of the workforce strategy, with the aim of developing, by 2026, and sustainably funding an optimum workforce model for the reconfiguration of health and social care services.
Operational workforce planning is the responsibility of employers, such as the trusts and other parts of the system. Long-term regional workforce planning is led by the Department and aims to secure a workforce and skills supply over the next five- to 10-year horizon. The Member will certainly see our concentration and focus. It used to be that, when we talked about recruitment and retention, it was all under one framework, but, since the middle of last year, we have split them. While we look at recruitment, we look at retention as a separate piece of work. From briefings to the Health Committee, the Member will be aware of work that is being done specifically on the nursing and midwifery workforce.
Ms Bradshaw: The Bengoa report was published in 2016. We were all excited when it came into force. Then, the Department released its response, so to speak.
Off the back of the COVID pandemic, will you produce an updated version of that response on how you integrate the putback with the transformation agenda?
Mr Swann: There is an intention to go down that route and produce an updated report on the direction of travel. The Member will be aware that a lot of the work done on the elective care strategy, the mental health strategy and the cancer strategy involves different work streams on rebuilding. When we have the capacity and the headroom in the Department, we will produce such a report that the Member talks about.
Mr Allister: Will the Minister clarify whether it is still the situation that, if a board announces a temporary closure, that does not require a public consultation to be done, but a permanent closure does? We all had experience of that a decade ago when Belfast City Hospital's emergency department was declared temporarily closed, allegedly. Is that ploy still used? Last week, we had an indication about Daisy Hill Hospital. Is a consultation done on temporary closures or not?
Mr Swann: If the Member has followed the issue, I am sure that he will be aware that the trust has said that it will go out to consultation on Daisy Hill. He will also be aware of the reason that the board made that decision. Out of six substantive posts, only two general surgeons were in place. One of those was due to retire, so the steps taken were safety measures. Those were agreed by the board and recommended to the Health and Social Care Board.
Mr Speaker: That ends the period for listed questions. We will now move on to 15 minutes of topical questions. Topical questions 6 and 8 have been withdrawn.
GP Appointments: Timely Access
T1. Mr Delargy asked the Minister of Health to state the steps that his Department is taking to ensure that all patients have timely access to GP appointments. (AQT 1991/17-22)
Mr Swann: I thank the Member for his question. The Adjournment debate last week was on overall provision and what additional supports and measures are being provided for our GP services, by which I mean additional funding to support them with winter pressures and additional money for telephone services to make sure that GPs can see as many patients as need to be seen and do telephone or online consultations with patients, where that is suitable.
Mr Delargy: I thank the Minister for his answer. One of the most distressing parts of this, particularly for people who need an appointment before they can access surgery or so that chronic illnesses can be diagnosed, is that they are contacting the surgery numerous times but only ever get as far as the reception desk. They do not get past the receptionist, and it is very frustrating. It only adds to the anxiety that patients are experiencing. Will you outline what specific measures you are taking to address the issue, particularly so that patients who need a GP appointment urgently can get one when they get through to their clinic?
Mr Swann: If the Member has a specific clinic that is experiencing challenges, he can raise that with me. The issue that he raises has been talked about in a number of areas, but the Royal College of General Practitioners and the Northern Ireland general practitioners committee have often told me that that is the experience with only a small number of practices. Our GPs are doing over and above their hours and making sure that anybody who contacts their surgery receives a call back and is given the opportunity for an appointment over the phone or is being seen face to face as well. If there is a specific practice about which the Member has concerns, he can let me know and I will raise it.
Emergency Powers: Withdrawal of Motion
T2. Mr Frew asked the Minister of Health to confirm that it was he who twice withdrew a motion to extend his emergency powers and to give the House his reasons for doing that, given that, when asked by a Member of the House on 25 January to confirm that he, as Health Minister, would bring a motion to extend his emergency powers, the Minister said that that would be up to the Business Committee and that he would not want to "pre-empt" the decision that it would take that day — a very strange response when we know that the Business Committee twice placed an extension of powers motion in a provisional Order Paper, once on Tuesday 25 January and again on Monday 31 January, which is today. (AQT 1992/17-22)
Mr Swann: I thank the Member. Quite simply, I withdrew the motion because the steps that the Executive are going to take on 10 February still need to be clarified. It would have been premature to debate a matter that had not passed through the Executive. I note that it was the provisional Order Paper that included the motion. I wrote to the Business Committee asking to withdraw the motion on that Tuesday. The Business Committee had not met, so when I answered Mr Allister, at that point, the Business Committee had not indicated to me that the debate would not proceed. I did not want to pre-empt the decision of the Business Committee.
Mr Speaker: I call Joanne Bunting. Sorry. I call Paul Frew for a supplementary question.
Mr Frew: Thank you, Mr Speaker. I hope you will not deny me a supplementary question.
Thank you, Minister, for confirming that you withdrew the motion twice. The reason that you have given is a bit strange because, no matter what decisions are taken on 10 February, the motion to extend the powers is about the ability to use emergency powers in the future. There is not really a connection between the decisions on 10 February and an extension of your powers. I ask this again: why do you need the extension of powers? When will you bring that to the House for a full debate?
Mr Swann: Again, I thought that I had explained this before to the Member in the House: they are not my powers that I seek to extend but the powers of the Executive. It is the Executive that make the decisions on any extension or motion that is brought to the House on restrictions or regulations. I wanted to make sure that I was in full capacity of what the Executive intend to do on 10 February before bringing a motion to the House about the fullness of the powers to be extended at the request of the Executive.
T3. Ms Bunting asked the Minister of Health, who will be aware of the continuing care package crisis, what action he is taking to ensure that those who are waiting on a care package in order to be discharged from hospital will be afforded access to such a package within a timely manner. (AQT 1993/17-22)
Mr Swann: The Member will be aware that, towards the end of last year, I gave an additional £23 million to our domiciliary and care providers so that they could increase the capacity of provision and the workforce. Although that money was given at the end of November/start of December, it has taken until the last few weeks to see those additional places and recruitment processes come into place to provide the additional packages to support people on their discharge from hospital.
Ms Bunting: I have constituents who are elderly, who are terminally ill and whose families made the difficult decision to bring them out of hospital prior to Christmas. Those people are still waiting for care packages. I ask the Minister whether we need to step that up a gear? What can be done as a matter of urgency to introduce more staff into the sector to address that before it becomes a heightened crisis?
Mr Swann: I thank the Member for her point. She will be aware that, last week, one care provider announced the recruitment of an additional 300 staff across Northern Ireland to support those packages. It is about supporting independent providers and trusts that are still actively recruiting to fill domiciliary care places. At the minute, we should encourage people to come forward because we were able to put in place increased pay rates as a result of the additional money that was provided towards the end of last year.
Period Products: Health Issue
T4. Mr Catney asked the Minister of Health, following a letter to Mr Catney and the Education Committee, to explain why he feels that the provision of free period products is not a Department of Health issue. (AQT 1994/17-22)
Mr Swann: I thank the Member. He will be aware that I also indicated in the letter that period poverty is a very serious issue and the lack of access to period products can have significant consequences. We can all agree that the statistic that 40% of girls report having to use toilet paper because they could not afford period products is shocking and that it is very wrong that mothers have to choose between period products and feeding their children. The lack of period products can also negatively impact on physical and mental health. Tackling period poverty is therefore important and must continue.
I am aware of the Bill to provide free period products. That Bill will provide a scheme for my Department to provide free products to anyone in Northern Ireland. I very much recognise and share the objectives and the broad intent of the Bill. However, period products are not classified as healthcare products, as, in general, menstruation does not require health treatment, nor is it preventable. The undeniable health impacts do not make the underlying lack of period products a healthcare issue. Rather, it is closely related to poverty, social justice and gender equality, all of which are outside my Department's remit. As such, whilst I very much welcome the underlying principle of the Bill, I am unable to support the duty being placed solely on my Department.
Mr Catney: Thank you, Minister. You will know that I do not agree with you on that. As you know, your Department provided free condoms under the c-card scheme, yet you say that period products are not a health issue. Do you not feel that that is unfair? What can you do within your powers to rectify that?
Mr Swann: The Member will know that the Bill is going through its Committee Stage in the Education Committee, and he indicated the response that I gave. I have also written to my Executive colleagues to get agreement on which Department should lead this work. Without such agreement, no Executive amendments can be proposed to the Bill in relation to either the responsible Department or other technical issues that are presented in the Bill. That leaves my Department open to the risk that the duty will be placed on it, even though the issue would normally be outside its remit. While I support the Member and the intent of his private Member's Bill, I cannot accept sole responsibility resting with the Health Department or the financial implications of that. I know that is where the Member is coming from. I will gladly support this being taken forward by Executive Departments, or even the Executive Office, with regard to who should take ownership of the Member's Bill.
Managing Your Medicines Service
T5. Mr Storey asked the Minister of Health, in the light of the huge commitment from our community pharmacists, when he will make the medicines advice service a non-commissioned service and end the current situation whereby new patients cannot be brought into the service, given that, at a recent meeting of the all-party working group on community pharmacy, it was commented that platitudes will fail to deliver for patients who are currently not in receipt of the medicines advice service. (AQT 1995/17-22)
Mr Swann: I thank the Member. My Department has been working with the Health and Social Care Board and Community Pharmacy Northern Ireland (CPNI), which the Member said he had met, on a commissioning plan for community pharmacy services. In 2021-22, the focus was on the provision of core services. That included dispensing, repeat dispensing, adherence and some activities and services that ensured access to medicines and advice for the public, including vulnerable groups and those receiving end-of-life care. That ensured that local pharmacy services were available to meet the needs of the people of Northern Ireland and to support the pressures in our health and social care services.
CPNI and the Health and Social Care Board have agreed a commissioning plan for the next three years that will cover 2022 to 2025. Subject to the agreement of a funding envelope, the three-year plan will aim to consolidate and build on the considerable advances that have been seen in community pharmacy services and the role of local pharmacists and pharmacy teams that the population have benefited from over the past two years. Looking to the future, it is important that we work together to build on the significant successes that community pharmacy has had and continues to have.
Mr Storey: Given that this issue was particularly relevant during the pandemic, COVID moneys were made available. The Minister referred to a "funding envelope". He has received money. When will he use it to deliver that service?
Mr Swann: On the wider scheme, the service that the Member talked about will be part of the 2022-25 funding package that has already been agreed. The funding envelope for that will be part of the overall Department of Health budget as well.
In regard to providing that service, between 1 December and the end of March, an offer of £5 million was made that, unfortunately, was not acceptable to Community Pharmacy at that stage, but my departmental officials, the Health and Social Care Board and Community Pharmacy continue to work together to bring about a resolution to the long-running dispute in regard to that specific service.
Mr Speaker: I call Justin McNulty, who is unlikely to get a supplementary question.
Daisy Hill Hospital
T7. Mr McNulty asked the Minister of Health why Daisy Hill Hospital, which provides a wonderful hospital service in the community, is always the last to get and the first to lose. (AQT 1997/17-22)
Mr Swann: That is not the case with Daisy Hill Hospital. The Member has tried to portray that to be the case in the media. That is unfortunate, and he is undermining the service and the hospital and the work that they are trying to do. I am aware that the Member and some of his party colleagues have taken to social media to make that point.
I acknowledge the responses from Mark Taylor, the Northern Ireland director of the Royal College of Surgeons, and Alan Stout, the chair of the BMA Northern Ireland GP Committee, who asked the Member and his party colleagues to "be careful" what they were petitioning for, because the priority is the safe service at Daisy Hill. It is about high-quality general surgery for all patients in the area. General surgery has changed throughout the UK and needs major support. It does not need the undermining that the Member seems to be building up to in his campaign and in the letter that he wrote to me on 14 January, in which he talked about pursuing:
"alternative avenues to oppose any and all proposals to scale back or downgrade Daisy Hill Hospital".
There are no such proposals.
Mr Speaker: Members, time is up. I ask Members to take their ease for a moment, please.
(Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr Beggs] in the Chair)
Debate resumed on motion:
That this Assembly endorses the proposed amendments tabled in relation to the Public Service Pensions and Judicial Offices Bill in the House of Commons on 6 January 2022 to extend to Northern Ireland changes to the employer cost cap for public service pension schemes. — [Mr C Murphy (The Minister of Finance).]
Mr O'Toole: I will speak briefly about the second legislative consent motion (LCM) that we are being asked to approve in relation to the Public Service Pensions and Judicial Offices Bill. The time that we spent on that legislation in the Finance Committee has been in inverse proportion to our ability to effect any meaningful change to it. As the Minister and others have said, this dates back to public service pension reform that was undertaken in the first half of the last decade by the then Tory or coalition Government, following the Hutton report that was designed to reform the provisions of public service pensions. There was a subsequent court case around unfairness for a particular cohort that led to the McCloud judgement. That led to the legislation that is going through Westminster.
Prior to this, we have debated and passed a legislative consent motion in broader terms about the legislation. We took significant amounts of evidence on it in the Finance Committee. Last month, we were told by the Department of Finance that it will be necessary to seek an updated or second legislative consent motion in order to give legislative consent to additional changes via amendment that the Treasury wants to make at Westminster to adjust the way in which it will approach the cost cap breach. As was said, one of the effects of that is to give less certainty than the Treasury had previously claimed to give that there will not be any material loss to scheme holders.
We are not in an ideal position with the legislative consent motion. It has happened quickly with little notice; indeed, the entire process has been suboptimal. That is not entirely the fault of the Department of Finance. I acknowledge that there is little that can be done about divergent policy or diverging from parity, which would have a significant cost. If we were to avoid parity or do anything that took a different approach to Westminster, there would be a potential cost to us. That said, as with all these things, it would have been preferable with the second legislative consent motion to have had longer to fully understand its consequences.
We do not, as we are debating the issue today, have much choice other than to allow the legislative consent motion to pass. Of course, we know that, in broader terms, the whole approach to legislative consent motions and the way in which we debate them have been shown at times, frankly, to be a sham and a farce because the UK Government simply ask for legislative consent motions and then, when devolved legislatures decide that they will not give legislative consent, they go ahead with it anyway.
In this instance, my party and I will not oppose the legislative consent motion, but that is not by any means the same as giving our full-throated endorsement to the amendments being proposed by the UK Government. I would like, as, I think, the Chair of the Finance Committee asked in his remarks on behalf of the Committee, more clarity from the Minister on his and his Department's view on whether pension holders here are at any material risk or greater material risk than they were before the amendments were proposed by the Treasury.
As I said, the process has not been optimal. We found out about this at the last minute and had limited time to scrutinise it in Committee. We had a briefing from the Department, which was welcome. It is dense, technical stuff, but clearly we are having to do it at pace. We had written evidence from the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, which, understandably and justifiably, is not a fan of the proposed change. It is also true that the trade union movement generally has been sceptical about the fact that, from its perspective, we have had to rush into addressing the McCloud remedy through law.
The truth is that we do not have a huge number of alternatives at this stage in the Assembly. However, it would be helpful to get clarity from the Finance Minister on his view on whether any pension holders will be at risk.
Without any enthusiasm or any alternative, we will not push the motion to a Division or resist it today. However, we certainly will not by any means give our full-throated endorsement to the LCM.
Mr Muir: I speak today as the Alliance Party's finance spokesperson. Party strength at the moment means, however, that the Alliance Party does not have a place on the illustrious Finance Committee. Without a place on the Committee, we are not party to all the correspondence and documentation exchanged with the Committee. We can, however, carry out our own investigations of what goes on at the Committee, and it is my understanding that, despite having passed an LCM for the Bill last year, due to amendments that have been made to the Public Service Pensions and Judicial Offices Bill in Westminster, further legislation is now required in Northern Ireland in the form of an LCM. Reforms to the scheme that are included in the LCM are a cost control mechanism that will adopt a reformed scheme design and the introduction of an economic check that will be linked to expected long-term GDP.
From watching Committee proceedings last week — I watch them most weeks — I understand that a number of trade union bodies are unhappy with the LCM, specifically with the speed of the amendment and the cost-cap mechanism changes that are being considered. If the LCM is not passed today, however, we will be left in a difficult situation in which we risk an adverse and serious impact on the block grant, with the possibility that the Executive may have to meet the cost of cap breaches in Northern Ireland public-sector pensions. As we have seen with the renewable heat incentive (RHI), the Executive cannot be left to fill in a blank cheque, as it is the taxpayer who pays when it is eventually cashed. To that end, I will support the LCM today on the basis that current timescales mean that we are left with no option. However, I echo calls from the Committee for Finance that the Minister seek clarity on whether Treasury will assume the burden of the LCM. I also note the views of trade unions on changes to the cost-cap mechanism, the possibility of adverse impacts for members and the difficult timing of the LCM.
Mr C Murphy: I thank Members for their contributions to the debate. Some important points have been raised, particularly on the handling of cost risks for legacy public service pension schemes following the change to a reformed-scheme-only design that the LCM would deliver, the challenging timescale for the changes and any potential adverse effects for public service pension scheme members.
The Committee Chair and a number of Members raised the issue of the cost risk for the legacy scheme, and I note the concerns that were raised by the Committee. The Public Service Pensions Act (Northern Ireland) 2014 provides for the Department of Finance to make directions to set out that the cost-cap mechanism can assess costs of both legacy and reformed schemes in a scheme valuation. The amendments will make a minor change to that Act to make it explicit that those directions might provide for the costs or changes in costs of legacy schemes to be excluded from the mechanism. That reflects a similar change to the equivalent primary legislation governing schemes in Britain. I can confirm that the Treasury has also given an undertaking that a reformed-scheme-only design will mean that the risk of cost associated with the legacy schemes will be transferred to the Exchequer and that it is now appropriate for the Exchequer to bear that risk in order to reduce intergenerational unfairness. The LCM ensures that that approach is also applied to devolved schemes.
I also acknowledge the points that were made about timing, although it was accepted that the Department had little control over that. The reforms were first proposed in response to the consultation on the matter, and the Department of Finance alerted the Assembly Committee to that on 12 October last year. At that point, the approach to legislating for the required changes had not been determined. The legislative route for the changes was confirmed on the laying of the relevant amendments to the Public Service Pensions and Judicial Offices Bill on Thursday 6 January this year, and I wrote to Executive colleagues about the proposed LCM the following week. The timing of the laying of the amendments has resulted in challenging timescales for a second LCM.
Standing Order 42A(9) provides for an amended process in the circumstances of a second LCM and where the Committee has already considered and reported on the connected LCM proposal. In this case, the first LCM for the Public Service Pensions and Judicial Offices Bill was agreed by the Assembly on 1 November last year, so I am grateful to the Finance Committee for its prompt attention in considering the matter and taking evidence from the Department of Finance and trade union representatives in the limited time available.
As I advised in my opening remarks, the changes are intended to ensure that the cost control mechanism operates in line with its original objectives, one of which is to provide stability and certainty for scheme members on benefit and contribution levels. In that regard, the reformed-scheme-only design will increase stability and intergenerational fairness for members by removing the cost risks associated with the legacy schemes that were previously within the scope of the mechanism but to which members had limited or no access.
The economic check sets out a higher bar for any scheme changes that would otherwise occur in the circumstances of a cost floor breach of the 2020 and subsequent valuations. However, it is a measure of good governance and responsible fiscal management that any potential breach now be validated with reference to the additional economic assumptions that continue to affect the costs of providing the pensions. As recommended by the Government Actuary, the economic check will operate symmetrically and set an equally high bar for any proposed reductions in the scheme benefits that would otherwise be required if the outcome of the 2020 valuations indicate a breach of the cost-cap ceiling.
Other issues were raised. The Committee Chair, who is now absent, raised retirements and earlier than expected retirements. The Department of Finance is not aware of any indications that the number of retirements will increase across public service schemes directly due to the McCloud remedy. Individual Departments would require their workforce planning to assess the situation on the basis of the relevant pension arrangements and scheme demographic. My officials will continue to monitor that.
Maolíosa McHugh raised the 25-year guarantee. The protected elements of the 25-year guarantee are set out in the Public Service Pensions Act (Northern Ireland) 2014. Those are the career average revalued earnings (CARE) scheme design, contribution rates and accrual rates. The amendments do not change the protected elements in the scope of the 25-year guarantee. As the actuary's report made clear, it does not seem possible for the mechanism to protect the taxpayer unless it considers the wider economic outlook in some way. The symmetrical operation of the economic check will also protect members. Furthermore, the reforms will lead to a more stable mechanism with benefit reductions and improvements becoming less likely, which aligns with the spirit of the 25-year guarantee.
The cost control changes that have already been agreed by the Assembly in the first LCM for the Bill will protect public service scheme members from any adverse impacts of the cost of remedying unlawful age discrimination arising in the soon-to-be-finalised 2016 valuations. The additional changes will promote fairness, stability and enhanced protection for scheme members at future valuations by setting a higher test for any potentially adverse scheme changes and removing the risks associated with legacy schemes of which they can no longer be members.
I invite Members to support the motion.
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): I ask Members to take their ease for a few moments before the next item of business.
Private Members' Business
Ms Dolan: I beg to move
That the Second Stage of the Employment (Zero Hours Workers and Banded Weekly Working Hours) Bill [NIA 46/17-22] be agreed.
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): In accordance with convention, the Business Committee has not allocated a time limit for the overall debate. However, it has agreed a limit on individual contributions. The sponsor of the Bill will have up to 20 minutes to move it and a further 10 minutes to make a winding-up speech. The Minister will have up to 20 minutes to contribute, and the Committee Chair will have 15 minutes. All other Members who are called to speak will have 10 minutes.
Ms Dolan: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle, for the opportunity to address the Assembly at the Second Stage of my private Member's Bill to ban zero-hours contracts. I thank Members and the Minister for the Economy for being here, and I look forward to their contributions and comments on the Bill. I also look forward to speaking to and working with everyone to ensure that the Bill is passed.
The Bill has been taken forward in recognition of the fact that, in 2019, around 11,000 zero-hours contract workers were employed in the North. On meeting the Labour Relations Agency (LRA), I learned that it reckons that that figure is a vast underestimation. Zero-hours contracts do not provide workers with guaranteed hours or income. In reality, that means that workers are expected to be readily available to work shifts that may never materialise. The contracts also disrupt access to social security. Due to the unreliable and unpredictable nature of the contracts, it is difficult for workers to maintain consistency in their eligibility and entitlement. That can also impact on passported benefits such as help with health costs and free school meals. It can, in some cases, lead to the benefit cap being applied.
The COVID pandemic laid bare the harsh reality of zero-hours contracts for workers and their families. The difficulties that those workers have faced during the pandemic have justified the need for such contracts to be banned as soon as possible. In its report on COVID clusters in occupational settings, the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) found that workers on precarious contracts were more at risk of presenting themselves for work while experiencing COVID symptoms. The lack of paid leave and uncertainty about their regular income was found to put them more at risk than workers on standard employment contacts if they were required to self-isolate. That was also identified by the former First Minister Arlene Foster, on 14 September 2020:
"We know that some people, such as those who are on zero-hours contracts, will not have an income if they have to stay at home." — [Official Report (Hansard), 14 September 2020, p44, col 2].
On top of that, the contracts have created precarious working arrangements that have led to stress and uncertainty for people. They make it difficult, if not impossible, for workers to manage their household budgets and make long-term financial commitments such as taking out a mortgage. As a result, the contracts worsen in-work poverty, economic inactivity and financial anxiety.
I turn to the details of the Bill. It has 16 clauses that I will briefly take you through. Clause 1 will ensure that the legislation applies to agency workers and employees and mean that both will be entitled to a banded-hour contract.
Clause 2 will protect and compensate workers in cases where an employer calls the worker in and promises them work but, instead, gives them no work or less than one hour of work. If that happens, workers will be entitled to three hours' wages to compensate for it. For example, if a worker is called in for six hours and is sent home after one hour, the worker will be paid the one hour's wages and an additional three hours' wages to compensate for the five hours of work that was promised but not given.
Mr Weir: Will the Member give way?
Ms Dolan: No, sorry. I want to get through this.
Clause 3 will ban the use of exclusivity clauses. They have been used to stop employees on part-time contracts taking on a second job to bump up their earnings. The Bill will ban that and prevent employers from stopping workers getting second jobs.
Clauses 8 and 9 will give workers a legal right to a banded-hour contract if the hours that they have worked over the three months do not reflect the number of hours in their employment contract. For instance, if the contract says that they are to work between three and six hours each week and the majority of their time is spent working more than that, they are entitled to request and be given a banded-hour contract that reflects the hours that they usually work. The legislation will set out eight bands of weekly working hours as follows: three to six, six to 11, 11 to 16, 16 to 21, 21 to 26, 26 to 31, 31 to 36, and 36 and over. That will benefit workers and families, as it will provide them with greater certainty over their household incomes from week to week. It will also be beneficial to employers and the wider economy, as it will reduce the high staff turnovers and regular recruitment costs incurred by employers associated with precarious work.
Clause 10 sets out the procedure for a worker to be placed in a band of weekly working hours. After the worker makes the request, the employer has four weeks to comply. The band is calculated with reference to the average weekly working hours over the previous three months. The worker can make the request at any time and may, if the circumstances have changed, make a request even after a previous request has been refused. The Bill will place a statutory duty on the employer to offer the banded contract after an employee has served a three-month qualification period. It is optional for workers to accept the contract, but, once they accept a banded-hours contract, they must begin to work on that contract within a month of its being agreed.
Clause 11 sets out the exceptions to the worker's entitlement to be placed in a band. Those include circumstances in which there is insufficient evidence to justify being placed in a band or in which the weekly hours have been in flux for some reason.
Clause 5 ensures that workers who exercise their rights under the Bill cannot be penalised. It gives effect to other protections in the Bill. For example, it ensures that workers cannot be penalised or dismissed for requesting to be put on a banded-hours contract.
Clause 6 deals with unfair dismissal. If an employer tries to enforce an exclusivity clause on a worker, the worker has legal protections. If workers are dismissed by an employer for seeking a second job, that would automatically be treated as unfair dismissal, and they would have a right to compensation or other remedies.
Clauses 7 and 16 refer to the role of the Labour Relations Agency in conciliation. The Labour Relations Agency already has a role in promoting conciliation in a list of employment disputes. The clauses mean that workers and employers can take cases relating to zero-hours or banded-hours contracts. Trade unions have said that they want to be proactive about enforcement and will pursue employers to ensure that they comply with the legislation. The Labour Relations Agency will take on the role of conciliation and dispute resolution.
Clauses 12 and 13 give workers the right to bring a claim in an industrial tribunal for the failure of an employer to place them in a band of weekly working hours. The standard three-month time limit for bringing a claim in the industrial tribunal applies. The remedy is that, if the employer has not complied, it will be legally required to place the worker on a banded-hours contract. The employer must keep a record of offering a banded-hours contract to employees whether or not they accept it.
Clause 15 gives the Department the power to make regulations concerning the paperwork that employers must keep on the subject of banded weekly working hours.
As is the norm, I carried out an eight-week consultation on the Bill, to which I received 478 responses. The consultation showed that 93% of respondents agreed that zero-hours contracts should be banned from the labour market, while 90% agreed that the proposal to create banded-hours contracts was a good way in which to achieve that. The feedback on and support for the Bill in the consultation largely confirmed that the Bill would have a positive impact and that it was fit for purpose.
Respondents highlighted the importance of ensuring that the right to a banded-hours contract was inclusive of workers and employees. In employment law, there is a distinction between the definitions of worker and employee. That has often meant that agency workers are not entitled to the same rights as employees. I was keen to avoid that when developing the Bill.
Respondents made suggestions for improving the Bill, and those were largely confined to technical issues. The original proposal had contained a 12-month qualification period. That meant that workers would have to work on a short-hours contract for 12 months before they could request a banded-hours contract. I received feedback that that was too long. Some respondents proposed that the right be available from the first day of work or that the qualification period be at least shortened to three months. Having considered the issue, I decided to revise the original proposal and reduce the qualification period to three months. That allows the employer sufficient time to work out how many weekly hours they need the worker to work. The three-month period also ensures that the worker is not left waiting for a year while working on a precarious contract. The three-month qualification period is beneficial, as it is largely consistent with the 12-week qualification periods that apply to other employment rights pertaining to agency workers, such as the right to sick pay and holiday entitlements.
Another suggestion was to place a legal duty on an employer to offer a banded-hours contract rather than the have the worker request it. The original proposal was confined to giving the worker the right to request a banded-hours contract once the qualification period was served. In the light of the feedback received, I decided to change that and place the duty on the employer to offer the banded-hours contract. That is more beneficial, as workers would generally be apprehensive about making a request of that nature, so placing the duty on the employer makes it more deliverable. Once the employer offers the banded-hours contract, the worker has the choice to accept or decline it.
I briefed the Economy Committee on the principles of the Bill on 8 December, and I am sure that members of that Committee will make their views heard.
The banning of zero-hours contracts was part of the New Decade, New Approach (NDNA) agreement, to which all parties in the Executive signed up.
Despite that political consensus, however, consecutive Economy Ministers have failed to move on the issue.
While Minister Dodds was in post, she confirmed to me that she did not intend to bring forward the banded-hours contract proposal in order to resolve the issue. Similar legislation was passed in the Oireachtas in the form of the Employment (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2018, and a private Member's Bill is in progress at Westminster. In the absence of legislation on the issue here, there is nothing to realistically prevent such contracts being used. As I have said, I feel that change on this matter is even more relevant and necessary due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the precarious economic circumstances that workers and their families find themselves in.
I hope that Members will support the Bill and see that it will benefit workers and their families. It will give people more certainty over their household income at a time when there is so much uncertainty around price rises in energy bills and household goods. I am happy to take feedback from Members, and I look forward to working with them in the time ahead.
Dr Archibald (The Chairperson of the Committee for the Economy): I welcome the opportunity to speak as Chair of the Economy Committee to outline the Committee's consideration of the Bill to date, after which I will speak briefly in my party capacity.
As the Bill sponsor, Jemma Dolan MLA, outlined, the Bill aims to end the use of zero-hours contracts in the labour market and replace them with banded-hours contracts. The Committee received a pre-introductory briefing from the Bill sponsor on 8 December 2021, when she outlined the Bill's detailed policy proposals. I thank the Member for her early engagement on the Bill and for briefing the Committee on its principles.
The Committee acknowledges the New Decade, New Approach commitment to banning zero-hours contracts and that that aim is widely supported. The Committee is aware that a significant number of workers in the North are on zero-hours contracts, which leaves them in a vulnerable position where they have no guaranteed hours or stable income, and that they are often on a lower rate of pay. The Committee recognises the need for legislation to address the issue.
The Committee explored a number of issues with the Bill sponsor, including the response to the consultation, the types of workers who would be covered and the practical enforcement of the provisions. The Committee also sought legal advice following the session with the Bill sponsor on an issue that was raised in Committee around the definition of "a contract" for the purposes of the Bill.
The Committee welcomes the Second Stage of the Bill and recognises that it now requires detailed consultation across a range of stakeholders. The Committee will endeavour to engage as widely as possible in the time available through its own survey and consultation at all levels with those who are impacted by the legislation.
I will now make some remarks in my capacity as Sinn Féin's economy spokesperson. Ms Dolan has already outlined the detail of the Bill, and I have already mentioned that banning zero-hours contracts is something that the parties signed up to as part of the New Decade, New Approach commitments to employment and workers' rights. We all recognise that COVID has had an impact and, in some ways, has limited what could be achieved in this short mandate. However, it is disappointing that there has been no consultation on the New Decade, New Approach commitments in respect of workers' rights.
The impact of the pandemic on workers and some of the gaps that exist in employment protection with regard to sick pay and leave and protections for those who are self-employed, have been highlighted, as has the particular impact on sectors where there remains a prevalence of low-paid workers on precarious contracts. Many of those workers are our key workers, whose roles were deemed essential early in the pandemic. The best thanks that we can give those workers is better terms and conditions and decent pay, and to encourage and facilitate greater trade union representation, including strengthening collective bargaining rights. I certainly urge workers to join a trade union for their sector or, if their workplace does not have a trade union, to seek to unionise. Representation is an important step forward in driving progressive change.
In the absence of the broader changes that are envisaged in New Decade, New Approach, the Bill is an important step in protecting workers, particularly those who are in less secure and lower-paid jobs. Ms Dolan has detailed the specifics of each of the Bill's clauses, so I will not repeat them. The Bill strikes a balance in that it requires employers to offer banded-hours contracts — Jemma has explained her rationale for that approach — and to keep a record of that. A worker does not have to accept that, and there is some flexibility there.
The Bill also prohibits the use of exclusivity clauses and, again, gives workers on those types of contracts greater flexibility. The Bill will apply to workers and employees. It is also worth highlighting that the use of exclusivity clauses is prohibited in Britain, and workers there are protected from dismissal on those grounds.
Members will, of course, be aware that there was a departmental consultation on zero-hours contracts back in 2014, which had over 270 responses. Therefore, the issue has been looked at previously in detail, including to understand the extent of the use of these contracts, but, as Jemma outlined, the figures are likely to be underestimated. Action on zero-hours contracts is an issue that was raised in the Committee consideration of the Employment Bill in 2016 and in the Committee report. There was a desire to see action, including from my party colleagues and from others. The then Department for Employment and Learning Minister was minded to ban exclusivity clauses but ultimately, in a situation familiar to Members, time ran out to see that issue dealt with.
The Bill has been welcomed by trade unions as providing a balanced way forward. Hopefully, given that all parties in the Executive have signed up to New Decade, New Approach, and I expect that most Members of the Assembly will want to see this important Bill progress, it will now go forward for Committee consideration and further scrutiny at that stage. Ultimately, the legislation that we are debating aims to provide better protection for workers, across a number of sectors, who are often on exploitative and restrictive contracts. It is about putting an end to a culture of precarious work and casualisation that does not recognise the value of workers and that contributes to poor outcomes, most importantly for workers themselves but also for our economy.
The Bill to ban zero-hours contracts is about standing up for workers and ensuring that they have decent conditions and greater security in their jobs. It is about delivering real change for workers and their families. I urge Members to support the Bill at Second Stage.
Mr Weir: The subject of zero-hours contracts is very important. From a legislative point of view, it is critical to employees, but also to employers and the wider economy. We are all conscious that, at the moment, in the House of Commons the Prime Minister is answering questions on the Sue Gray report. We delude ourselves if we believe that the attention of the word is focused entirely on us in this Chamber. I suspect that people will have turned off the debate on the Sue Gray report by the time the Minister is on his feet. I am sure that they will want to hear his words on the subject.
It is the first real opportunity to look at this subject since the previous consultation, which was conducted under Dr Farry, who concluded that he wanted to see some reform of exclusivity, but also came to the conclusion that zero-hours contracts should not be banned but perhaps be more regularised. I accept that we had the opportunity in Committee to hear the presentation from and question the sponsor of the Bill. I thank her for that. There is no doubt that the intentions of the sponsor are good.
To start off on a positive note, there are elements that I welcome. For example, it is right that we look closely at the issue of exclusivity. A situation where somebody is effectively tied in with a specific zero-hours contract and cannot work for others is clearly in need of reform. However, looking at the wider aspects of zero-hours contracts in terms of what elements should be included in legislation, there are a number of components that need to be there. We need legislation that is thoughtful, that is well consulted on, that is balanced and of which we know what the implications are if we embrace it. Legislation must provide certainty to workers and employers. It must protect workers and ensure that they are not exploited, as some are by zero-hours contracts. It must bear down on cavalier or unscrupulous employers and take measures against them.
On the flip side of the coin, there are many who benefit from zero-hours contracts, who enjoy the flexibility and whose lifestyle it suits. Their rights have to be protected as well. From the point of view of employers, there is a benefit to having flexibility in patterns of work — indeed, a requirement. We must also consider the balance in the economy as a whole. As it is drafted, the legislation falls down on a number of those components. Giving evidence to the Committee, the sponsor of the Bill highlighted her two-month consultation, and it is clear that there was active representation both from lobby groups who are hostile to zero-hours contracts and from trade unions. When the Bill sponsor was asked specifically about the other side of the coin, by which I mean the situation for employers, it was fairly clear, by her own admission, that there had not been any active engagement with, for example, the CBI, the Institute of Directors or the Federation of Small Businesses. Despite the key relevance of zero-hours contracts to the hospitality sector, there had been no consultation or discussion with bodies such as Hospitality Ulster. The most that the sponsor highlighted was the fact that she had discussed the issue with a hotelier in County Fermanagh. That is no substitute for the level of discussion needed with the important trade bodies in the sector. It is perfectly right that the sponsor consulted the likes of trade unions and other bodies, but there needs to be a balance. Without that, can we be confident that what is in front of us is fit for purpose? Do we know what the repercussive consequences are for employers? No; I do not think that we can draw that conclusion.
The lack of balance is highlighted in some of the Bill's provisions. For example, at clause 4(1), new article 59D(6) requires the Department for the Economy, in making regulations, specifically to consult trade unions and lobby organisations that protect workers' rights. I have no problem with that, because that is the right thing to do, but there is no corresponding indication that consultation should take place also with employer organisations. Moreover, if we are looking at certainty, the other limb of that indicates that there is a requirement on the Department to follow:
"best international practice on employment law".
That seems a worthy enough concept, but it is difficult to translate into certainty in legislation. Nowhere is it indicated how that is to be judged. Where is international best practice? How is that to be established?
I indicated that we need to make provision to ensure that more cavalier employers do not behave in such a way, while protecting the vast majority of employers who are responsible. Yet, when we look at the qualifying period of three months, what is to stop an employer who takes a more cavalier approach from, for example, simply not issuing a contract in the first place and offering only very casual employment, or from using someone for two or two and a half months and then making sure that that person does not work after that period and therefore does not reach the qualifying period?
Mr Catney: Will the Member give way?
Mr Weir: I will give way briefly.
Mr Catney: On the point about casual labour, I am looking at it from the position of the public house sector. Those workers become an integral part of the team. Flexibility can be set around that, and —
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): Will the Member ensure that he uses the microphone?
Mr Catney: I apologise, Mr Deputy Speaker.
Those workers contribute to the worth and profitability of the business. The Bill just gives them a little certainty and ownership of it.
Mr Weir: I heard the Member even without the advantage of the microphone. He makes a very valid point. We should be encouraging a situation in which there is an advantage to employers, rather than almost incentivising them to go the wrong way and deal with somebody on a very casual basis. I have concerns about that.
I understand that, if someone is brought in and then told, "We have no work for you", there is a desire to have compensation for that. I am sure that the sponsor will deal with this in her summation, although I tried to intervene earlier, but it is a little bit unclear where, for example, the three-hourly rate derives from. I am interested to know the genesis of that.
There can be shifting grounds, particularly in COVID times. We have seen that in the hospitality industry, where, because of regulations, the situation can change very dramatically from one month to the next. Flexibility is needed for employers and employees over the hours that they work. In moving to banded provisions that are based purely on the last three months of work, there is a danger that we will create a level of rigidity that is not to anyone's benefit.
I know that there are exceptions within that and that, if we have a temporary situation, an exception is provided to employers to say that that need not apply to them. In theory, that could deal with the fact that a lot of businesses — particularly hospitality businesses — find that the situation is very different in the middle of the summer than it is in the autumn, for example. There does not, however, appear to be any qualification for when that can be applied. Is it simply based on the judgement of the employer? How do we know when this will kick in and when it can be validly used? We need to examine closely what legislation should be put in place for zero-hours contracts.
In conclusion, to refer to a Johnny Nash song that was often used in 'A Question of Sport', I find that 'There Are More Questions Than Answers' arising from the Bill. I do not doubt the intentions of the Member, but I am not sure that this legislation is the best way forward. As I think that the intentions are good, I will not necessarily seek to divide the House, but a range of answers is needed, particularly on repercussive matters. I do not know the answer to that. I do not know whether the Minister is in a better position to address that in his remarks or whether, as a cricket commentator might say, we are in the "corridor of uncertainty" with this legislation.
Mr O'Toole: I am slightly dazed and confused after a couple of interesting references from the Member.
Mr Weir: If the Member is dazed and confused, I have achieved at least one objective.
Mr O'Toole: I did not hear my Assembly colleague's words, but I am sure that they were supportive and constructive.
I support the Employment (Zero Hours Workers and Banded Weekly Working Hours) Bill. My party has supported action on ending zero-hours contracts for some time. It is important to say that a Second Stage debate is about talking about and agreeing, or not agreeing, the general principles of a Bill. In one sense, it is arguable that the general principle of reforming zero-hours contracts has already been agreed, at least by those parties that signed up to New Decade, New Approach. As was said, those parties that entered the Executive on the basis of New Decade, New Approach certainly agreed to abandon zero-hours contracts as well as to a broader suite of policy development work on workers' rights.
That has not happened in the past two years. In the past two years, we have had a pandemic that has illustrated the importance of the work of people in front-line roles that have not been valued as they should have been in the past. Not that the jobs of MLAs or politicians are not important, but people who work in retail — there are still zero-hours contracts in certain parts of retail, but much less so in other parts — and other front-line areas, which are sometimes insultingly and misleadingly called "unskilled" or "lower value", have proven their worth. Those jobs have been at the forefront of supporting our communities through the worst of the pandemic over the past couple of years. It is important to put that on the record from the beginning.
As I said, we are agreeing the general principles of the Bill today. I agree with the general principles, because the Bill sets out an approach to end zero-hours contracts, reforming them and creating a new structure of banded-hours contracts that will be fairer, particularly for those who are on zero-hours contracts now.
It is important to put that in context. A relatively small number of people are employed on zero-hours contracts, but this issue is especially important for young people. As we know, workers on zero-hours contracts are most likely to be aged between 16 and 24. I was effectively in a zero-hours contract for a number of years — as, I am sure, lots of others were —when I worked in pubs. We took initial evidence in Committee and had discussions with the Bill sponsor and others, and my view is that it is certainly achievable — it may not be achievable in this mandate, given the time constraints — to get to a place where it is more than manageable for the smallest of businesses, including family-run hospitality businesses, to manage the banded-hours process in a way that does not add material cost or a burdensome process. That is achievable. It is also the case that workers on zero-hours contracts are significantly more likely to seek extra hours or a second job. According to statistics, 20% said that they were seeking more hours, and 10% said that they were seeking more work. That also relates to the welcome move to end exclusivity provisions in the legislation.
I will not go into huge detail on each clause; suffice it to say that, as I said, the central issue, although not the only one, is replacing zero-hours contracts with entitlement to banded weekly hours. Mr Weir suggested — the Bill's sponsor may want to correct this if it is wrong — that the banded-hours provisions took no account of seasonal issues. Obviously, certain businesses, such as a truck selling food at festivals or whatever, are much more seasonal than others. In clause 8, proposed new article 112J(4) states:
"Nothing in this Part requires an employer to offer hours of work in a week where— the employer’s regular business is not being carried out."
I presume that the purpose of that is to cover exactly what he talked about: seasonal businesses.
Mr O'Toole: I will.
Mr Weir: I appreciate that that is in the Bill. One of the points that I made is that there is an attempt to try to square the circle with that provision. The problem is that there is an inherent contradiction: if exceptions are being allowed, to what extent can the employee, effectively, bank that level of certainty? I think that there are reasonable arguments for why there is that level of flexibility. A paradigm is created, however, by giving certainty about banded hours and then creating exemptions to that. Therefore, there may not necessarily be a reliability that can be banked by the employee.
Mr O'Toole: I am tempted to respond with my own pop culture references. It sounds a little bit like the famous line in 'Annie Hall' about someone complaining about the quality of food and then saying "and such small portions." I take the point that he is making. He seems to suggest that the Bill would ban zero-hours contracts, but not really. He raised the issue of some small businesses — microbusinesses — that have seasonal activities. I am pointing out — it is not my Bill, but we support its broad principles — that a reasonable provision appears to be made for that.
We are now nearly in February. Unfortunately, given some of the statements that are being made by certain actors in this place, we are not even certain to get to the end of our scheduled sitting period at the end of March. Even if we reach that point, it is unlikely, even with the best will in the world, that we will complete Committee Stage and get the Bill back to the House to consider amendments, so we are agreeing the broad principles today. I presume that we will then start the work in the Committee, depending on its schedule. That means that, today, we are agreeing the principles of a Bill that will, hopefully, in some form, come back in the next mandate. I think that that will send an important message about the Assembly's willingness to take action in this area.
Although we support the broad intention of the Bill, certain areas need particular scrutiny. The Bill is certainly very commendable. There are particularly good implications around retroactively changing employment contracts. We would want, as would others, to have detailed stakeholder engagement with, for example, the hospitality trade bodies and the Federation of Small Businesses. They would be important witnesses at Committee Stage and as we go forward. Indeed, should our Committee Stage be curtailed, the fact that the Bill has been at least progressed will socialise the debate, so those trade bodies can start to think about what their particular views might be, should a Bill such as this come back — I hope that it will — in a new mandate.
Although I look forward to scrutinising the Bill in more detail in the Economy Committee, I accept that there are natural limits in the rest of this mandate for us to get it on to the statute book. I see no good reason for us to not agree to it today. It is welcome that we are attempting in this place to take action in that area. The Assembly was down for three years, then we had two years of a pandemic. I certainly support the Bill's intentions and look forward to its proceeding further.
Mr Nesbitt: Is it not great that we are back in the Chamber for the second week in a row to discuss workers' rights and employment legislation? That is to be commended. I will begin by reassuring the Bill sponsor that I remain instinctively supportive of the Bill, as I told her when she came to the Committee. There will be nothing from the Ulster Unionist Party today to block its passage. If we are going to use game show analogies, let me say that you are through to the next round.
Why am I instinctively supportive of the Bill? There are two main reasons. One is that, clearly, zero-hours contracts are open to abuse. We have a duty to do what we can to block off that abuse. The second reason is that, when she was in front of the Committee, the Bill sponsor made it clear that there is a gender issue here. Women's groups have made it clear that women are more likely to have their workers' rights affected due to zero-hours contracts just because of the fact that they have more caring duties and all the rest. As we move into Committee Stage, I would be keen for the Committee to hear from women's groups like the Women's Policy Forum and the Northern Ireland Women's European Platform (NIWEP) so that we can get a good, deep-dive grasp of how the issue affects people on a gender basis.
Mr Weir has made it clear that it appears that the consultation has been weighted to some extent towards trade unions and women's groups, both of which should quite rightly be consulted, but perhaps not so much to employers' associations. When the Bill sponsor was in front of the Committee, I asked about consulting the IOD, CBI and FSB. I think that the answer was no, no, no. I think that the Committee would like to hear directly from those organisations and from Hospitality Ulster, and actually, on reflection, perhaps the Ulster Farmers' Union, because there is seasonal work in farming, particularly around harvest time.
The Bill sponsor talks about fulfilling a commitment in 'New Decade, New Approach'. I just want to talk about that document for a moment. The commitment, which is on page 41, is:
"the Executive should move to ban zero hours contracts",
but the Executive are not moving to do that — this is a private Member's Bill — so perhaps the Minister will address that in his remarks. Maybe he will do that right away.
Mr Lyons (The Minister for the Economy): I appreciate the Member's giving way. The point has been raised time and time again. There are lots of things in NDNA that we would like to do. I hope that the Member will understand that the pandemic has significantly altered our ability to get on with business that we would otherwise get on with. It does not diminish our desire to get those things done. We must, however, recognise the resource that we have here. Diane Dodds made the decision to focus on what she could do in employment law. At that time, she focused on parental bereavement leave and pay. We thought that that would be simple and straightforward. It turned out to be the complete opposite of that because of additional amendments and the extra workload that it created. Therefore, it is not a matter of the Executive or the Department not wanting to take those issues on; we have to take into consideration the pandemic and timing issues. There are other employment law issues that we want to deal with. They will be taken forward in an employment Bill in the next mandate.
Mr Nesbitt: I welcome that clarification from the Minister. I understand that that is the position not just for him but for the Finance Minister and the Health Minister. Other Ministers make the same point, which, I believe, the House will consider to be entirely reasonable, given the unprecedented demands of the pandemic.
With regard to New Decade, New Approach more generally, the Bill sponsor has made the point that a ban was something that was signed up to by the five parties of the Executive. That is actually not the case. The Ulster Unionist Party went back into the Executive not because we had signed up to every line — or, to coin a phrase, every jot and tittle — of New Decade, New Approach but because it was the right thing to do at that time.
I am pretty sure that I recall Colum Eastwood, the leader of Mr O'Toole's party, making the same point back in January 2020: his party was going back in, but that that did not mean that it endorsed every single proposal and commitment in the 'New Decade, New Approach' report. However, the Ulster Unionist Party will support the workers' rights in 'New Decade, New Approach'. On page 44, it states:
"There will be an enhanced focus within the Programme for Government on creating good jobs and protecting workers rights. The parties agree that access to good jobs, where workers have a voice that provides a level of autonomy, a decent income, security of tenure, satisfying work in the right quantities and decent working conditions, should be integral to public policy given how this contributes to better health and wellbeing by tackling inequalities, building self-efficacy and combating poverty."
That just about sums it up for the Ulster Unionist Party.
On a technicality, we have heard the phrase "banning zero-hours contracts" bandied about in the debate, but the Bill does not ban zero-hours contracts. It is still an option for a worker not to ask to have a banded contract. I ask the Bill sponsor to confirm in her closing remarks that that is the case.
We liaised with Hospitality Ulster earlier today, and it was clear that, while it is very supportive of any legislation that will tackle abuse, it has concerns that outlawing zero-hours contracts will remove a lot of flexibility, particularly for small businesses and for those who wish to choose when they work. So, I have this question for the Bill sponsor, which did not occur to me when she was in front of the Committee: if a worker moves from a zero-hours contract to one of the bands, does the employer then have the right to dictate which hours that band is worked; in other words, removing the flexibility from the employer?
Mr Nesbitt: Yes.
Mr Catney: I have employed people at different times. I will speak about students. They had a contract and their set hours, but they were given flexibility. Sometimes, they had to go and do exams, and, sometimes, we had a function on at night. Flexibility can be built into small contracts so that they are open and flexible for all those who are working on them. I hope that the Member agrees with me.
Mr Nesbitt: What I agree about is that the Member is a very decent man, so he was probably a very good employer when he had the pub, but we are talking about making sure that we are not reliant on the personality and attitude of the employer, and that we are putting in the right and appropriate protections and rights for workers.
The question is this: if I were to have a banded contract for a certain number of hours per week, does that mean that those hours are negotiable with the employer, or can the employer simply say, "You will work the hours that I demand you work"? That opens up the possibility that the employer will know exactly when people do not want to work or cannot work. What happens if he or she then tries to impose those hours on the banded worker?
I have another point for the Bill sponsor. I may have totally misunderstood what she intends with the idea of somebody getting three times the hourly wage if they report for work and the work is not there. In the Member's opening remarks, she used the example of somebody who comes in for six hours but works only one hour being paid for an additional three hours because they did not get the rest of the shift. When she talked about that at Committee, I assumed that they would get one hour and then three times the five hours that they missed out on; so, one hour plus 15, not one hour plus three. Perhaps she will clarify that; maybe I misheard.
Finally on the rule of threes, a worker has to work for three months consecutively in order to qualify for a banded-hours contract. What if, as an employer, I decide to employ Ms Dolan for two months, then Mr Lyons for the next two months, back to Ms Dolan for the third two months and then back to Mr Lyons for the fourth two months? Is that not something that, because it is a potential legal abuse of the system, we need to consider? I am sorry to bring up negatives, but we are scrutinising legislation.
I will end where I began, however: with a positive. I am happy to support the Bill at Second Stage. I look forward to its arriving with the Committee in due course.
Mr Dickson: I thank the sponsor for introducing the Bill. At least in part, the Minister has helpfully indicated to us, and solved a little of my curiosity, why he has not introduced such legislation under New Decade, New Approach and why it has been left to a private Member to do so. I will not criticise the situation in which we find ourselves, but it would have been preferable if the Department had introduced it. I welcome the fact that the Minister said that there will be an opportunity, hopefully in the next mandate, to bring forward more comprehensive employment law revision for Northern Ireland. This Bill will hopefully form part of that, should it not complete all the appropriate legislative stages in this mandate.
There is no doubt that the experience of being trapped in a low-paid job with no guaranteed hours, wages or security is a frightening reality for far too many people in Northern Ireland today. Figures have been bandied around, but we are looking at somewhere in the region of 11,000 to 12,000 people. Perhaps there is a hidden figure beyond that number of those who do not know whether they will still have a job or when they will get their next pay packet, if it is indeed a pay packet that they get at all. That brings us on to other regulatory matters that, I hope, a future Minister will deal with.
The situation means that it is very difficult for people to plan, save or work out their future to assist them even to get a rent agreement in place, let alone a mortgage. That is just beyond the ability of many who find themselves in such circumstances. There is therefore no doubt that protection for those workers is long overdue. It is incumbent on us to deliver an economy that works for all our citizens, but it must work in all the ways in which our citizens want the economy to work for them. There are those for whom that type or concept of working is what they want to do and achieve. We need to be able to protect them, however. We need to be able to protect them from unscrupulous employers. Sometimes, we need to protect them from themselves, because people see that type of working as being the only opportunity for them to get some money into their pocket. It is not necessarily the best way, so it is important that we work to deliver good-quality legislation to help people in those circumstances.
As others have indicated, the Committee received a briefing from the Bill sponsor. It was very helpful and much appreciated. The Chair outlined the need for the Bill to move on to Committee Stage so that the Committee can undertake various statutory consultations with others. Although I appreciate that it must be very difficult for a private Member to undertake consultation, it was nevertheless disappointing that it was only the trade union movement and one employer that were consulted. There is a much wider framework of people out there, and I hope that that will be the area of operation for the Committee. I also hope that, as the Committee provides feedback, the sponsor will take on board the comments and concerns that may very well be raised. Hopefully, a great deal of positive comment will come back from a much wider range of consultees.
It is fair to comment on the fact that most European Union countries, including the Republic of Ireland since 2019, have made alterations to their employment law for zero-hours and similar types of contracts. Specific reference has been made to the area in which perhaps the highest burden falls: women in employment. The Women's Regional Consortium recently noted that there is an unequivocal relationship between unstable employment and in-work poverty. Pre-existing structural inequalities result in women being in not just the lowest paid jobs but often the most precarious and uncertain jobs.
It is important that the legislation was tabled, but it is only part of the task. I return to the Minister's comments: it is important that there is a much-wider-ranging reform of employment law in Northern Ireland. If the Bill does not succeed in reaching its end goal, it will certainly inform the debate as we go into the next mandate. In itself, that is important. It is more important that we take stock in the next mandate and, as early as possible in it, look at all the areas of employment that we have, perhaps, fallen behind on in Northern Ireland. We, in Northern Ireland, have a record of doing things differently from the rest of the UK. That is very important, and I know that from my previous career as an employee of the Labour Relations Agency. It has been and remains one of the strengths of Northern Ireland that we can legislate in this area and that we can consult with employers and trade unions. There is much to do on all of that going forward.
Over the last number of years, the coronavirus pandemic showed that many of our essential workers are in the lowest-paid jobs and unstable employment. If anything, the pandemic highlighted the vital role of essential workers and the need to end low pay. Low pay is another area that we need to legislate on. The legislation that is in front of us is certainly a step in the right direction, but a great deal more must be done. Work is needed across Departments to improve working conditions, tackle gender-segregated labour markets, address the lack of affordable childcare and invest in many of our other undervalued sectors.
I look forward to the Bill coming to the Committee and to the Committee doing its work to expand and consult on where we will go. It is important that the questions that have been asked by others in the Chamber and brought to the attention of the Bill sponsor are answered. I encourage her to start to answer those questions today. However, more important than addressing those in the Chamber will be to address them in the feedback to the Committee. That is where the detailed scrutiny of the Bill will take place.
Deputy Speaker, thank you very much for the opportunity to speak. I thank the Bill sponsor for introducing the Bill.
Mr K Buchanan: As legislators, we must always ensure that any regulatory changes have been fully considered and that any impact assessments have taken place. As I stated when we debated the Further Consideration Stage of the Parental Bereavement (Leave and Pay) Bill, if we are to change our employment law framework, we need to take all the concerns on board and learn from all the experiences, not just some of them.
I will give the Bill sponsor some bullet points. They are not negative comments but points that we can discuss. They are open questions that we can no doubt discuss at the Committee if the Bill gets to Committee Stage. We need to consider exactly whom the Bill may or may not protect. Will it have an impact on the labour market? How will it impact on those who need flexibility in their working hours? Will it reduce their opportunities to find employment that suits their needs?
Flexible working and zero-hours contracts suit many employees and employers as they allow flexible start and finish times. When considering the Bill, we must also note that the disadvantages of zero-hours contracts to employees include unpredictable hours and income, that regularly turning down hours can lead to no hours being offered and that there is no guarantee of full-time positions should they become available. There are other issues. That is only some of them. However, many employers — like our colleague over here from Lagan Valley, no doubt — use the practice of zero-hours contracts correctly, do not take advantage of them to provide lower wages and do not use exclusivity clauses.
I am concerned that the consultation did not engage with all the relevant and necessary bodies, especially small businesses, the hospitality sector and microbusinesses. A balance is obviously required between the views of employers and employees. Many industries use zero-hours contracts as the nature of their business is seasonal. The hospitality industry is one of those industries and better consultation is needed with that sector and others. We cannot be selective in who we take evidence from, and we must consult widely before proceeding.
As with most Members in the Chamber, I agree that exclusivity clauses should not continue and that employees should have the opportunity to work for other employers.
There also needs to be more clarity on the difference between an employee and a worker and between contracted services and a contract of employment.
As with all Bills, we should remember that, when making good law, it is imperative to have a full consultation and scrutiny needs to take place. Obviously, the end of the mandate is approaching, and I welcome the introduction of the Bill and its general intention. I would also welcome the Bill's move to Committee with a suitable amount of time — I emphasise the word "suitable" — to discuss all of it and go through it, because it is complex and there are pros and cons. I thank the Bill sponsor for introducing the Bill.
Mr Delargy: One of the reasons why I will support the Bill is that it is sensitive to the needs of employers and employees. In many economic debates, we hear acronyms such as GDP, GNP and GVA, but the Bill cuts straight to the economic reality faced by many people in our society. Like some other Members, I worked on zero-hour contracts throughout my time at university. I have gone between four-hour weeks and forty-hour weeks. I know the pressures that many of those workers face, the uncertainty that it leaves them in and the pressure to drop everything and say yes. We have heard a lot today about businesses needing certainty: I totally agree with that, but families need certainty to put food on their tables, to heat their homes and to live, not merely to survive.
Zero-hour contracts deny workers and families a guaranteed income. As other Members have mentioned, they have a disproportionate impact on women when it comes to accessing full-time and secure employment. Crucially, they make owning your home difficult, if not impossible. That issue particularly impacts on young people, and, in creating a fairer society that offers affordable homes and makes them accessible, we should address one of the root causes of housing pressure, which is uncertainty in working arrangements. One issue that I recently raised with the Education Minister was around the lack of paid leave for substitute teachers. There is a broader problem around that, but, again, that is another issue that hugely impacts on workers on zero-hour contracts.
Last December, the Derry Trades Union Council found that 45% of workers on part-time or zero-hour contracts had faced harassment at work and did not have trade union representation. In response to that, the Department for the Economy stated that it was focused on delivering positive outcomes for all the people of the north-west. The Bill is an opportunity to do that. Supporting the Bill and ending zero-hour contracts would see that delivered. I encourage the Minister and his party to support it.
As I mentioned, I recognise that businesses need security. That was discussed with businesses in the passing of the Employment Act 2016. The majority of businesses do not use zero-hour contracts to maintain or to grow a successful business. The Bill ensures that all workers have the same opportunity to enjoy those rights. Let us take a look at what introducing banded contracts would do for employers. It would offer them the opportunity to lower staff turnover rates and to increase consumer spending and productivity. Again, as the majority of Members have mentioned, it is a commitment in 'New Decade, New Approach'.
There are 11,000 people in the North who are currently on zero-hour contracts. That number is vastly underestimated, because a lot of other people are on contracts that are registered as irregular contracts. We have the opportunity to replace zero-hour contracts with a system that works for employers and employees. I support Jemma Dolan's Bill to remove zero-hour contracts.
Mr Dunne: I welcome the opportunity to speak at the Second Stage of the Bill that has been introduced by Ms Dolan. It is vital that there are fair and equitable employment relations in every workplace across Northern Ireland. Flexibility and certainty are two essential requirements for the employee and the employer. As we continue to emerge from the pandemic, the focus must be on economic recovery, supporting businesses to grow, expand and develop.
We had welcome progress on an important employment issue with the Parental Bereavement (Leave and Pay) Bill in the House just last week, delivered by the Minister. That was a positive development for employment relations. The complexities, time and work involved in getting that employment legislation in place — that Bill was introduced on 1 June last year — demonstrated to me, as a relatively new MLA, the significant time and effort that it takes to get legislation in place that is workable, strengthens and improves existing legislation and, importantly, does not lead to counterproductive unintended consequences.
While the intentions of the Bill have merit, a greater level of detailed consultation is required. When the Bill sponsor briefed the Committee on the Bill in early December, as was mentioned by my colleague, to me, there was simply not enough consultation done and engagement carried out at that time with the wide range of stakeholders, businesses, employees and business bodies that would be directly impacted by the outworkings of the Bill. It seemed more like just a few hand-picked, sympathetic consultees, which is simply not enough for such a significant change in the complex field of employment law.
The explanatory and financial memorandum to the Bill states that neither the Department for the Economy nor the Labour Relations Agency were:
"in a position to provide information to indicate the likely financial implications of the Bill".
Again, it strikes me that more work is needed on such an important matter.
As mentioned, some employees like being on a zero-hours contract as it gives them a degree of flexibility to fit work in with other responsibilities and commitments in their life. They may not get that with the banded-hours contracts that the Member proposes. Zero-hours contracts also, on occasion, provide a level of protection for employers, often in demand-driven sectors. Some of those sectors have gone through the most uncertain of periods over the last number of years through lockdowns and restrictions — the hospitality, entertainment and events sectors, to name but a few.
We are fortunate in Northern Ireland to have a rich blend of many small and medium-sized businesses, which are such an important part of the economy; indeed, the backbone of it. Any change in employment law needs to be measured and effective, taking account of the unique circumstances in our country. We need to properly consider issues like zero-hours contracts, exclusivity clauses and other aspects of technical employment law. I would be much more content to see this coming forward in a much more substantial, wider and complete review than in any rushed, piecemeal approach as we move closer and closer to the end of the mandate.
Ms Flynn: I speak in support of the Bill, which will ban zero-hours contracts and replace them with banded-hours contracts. My remarks are made in the context of the huge mental and physical toll that zero-hours contracts place on many workers in our society.
According to the Office for National Statistics, around 11,000 workers were on zero-hours contracts in 2019. The point was made earlier that that figure could be a lot higher. We just do not have an accurate number. We know that the majority of those on zero-hours contracts are young people and women, who are the most likely to be employed through such contracts. The Bill will help to end the uncertainty and insecurity that zero-hours contracts create for workers and families.
Arguments have been made that banning zero-hours contracts in totality would negatively impact on many more people than it would help, including those who might be in full-time education and need that flexibility to combine working and studying. The Bill is more about providing people with greater choice. Most Members commented on providing flexibility and certainty to workers. Hopefully, the majority are in favour of that concept, and that is what the Bill tries to do.
Research has been emerging that demonstrates how detrimental zero-hours contracts can be to the psychological and mental well-being of workers. Anxiety, stress and depression can be common for workers on those contracts because of the financial and social insecurity that comes along with them. Financial stress or the stress associated with having a zero-hours contract job can increase the risk of poor mental health, which can then increase the number of people moving to out-of-work sickness benefits and lead to an increase in demand for our mental health services. By working together to pass the Bill, the Assembly has the opportunity to promote better jobs with enhanced legal protections, which will hopefully improve rather than damage workers' mental health and well-being. Workers on zero-hours contracts are not paid sick leave and, for fear of losing their job, tend to work even when they are ill. The reality is that the number of people struggling with mental health problems while in work is likely to be much higher, as statistics do not include workers on zero-hours contracts.
For many workers on the contracts, there is a distinct lack of work-life balance, and the Bill could go some way in addressing that. Many workers are faced with the daily uncertainty of not knowing when their work might be or when they should eat, sleep, make childcare arrangements or even simply make plans with their family and friends. Financial insecurity can also mean that workers are unable to refuse work even when it is offered at a time when they should be sleeping. The fear of not getting a subsequent job means that workers feel that they cannot refuse that work, even if they are physically and mentally exhausted, and that, in turn, impacts on their mood and productivity when they are in their place of work. That precarious employment situation clearly affects people's lives. The lack of sufficient sleep, poor eating habits and relationship problems have also been reported as contributing to the mental health toll of being on a zero-hours contract.
We know that, in many cases, the contracts exploit workers, and the only way to tackle that situation is to support the Bill, ban zero-hours contracts and replace them with banded hours. That will enable more people to have access to secure jobs with decent working hours and opportunities for progression. Our efforts to improve the mental health of society must recognise the important relationship between health and work. It must also recognise the thousands of people who are working on zero-hours contracts and recognise that those contracts can be a contributing factor to poor mental health, particularly among our younger workers. The Bill will provide enhanced certainty and security for many of our workers who are currently locked into unpredictable and, in many cases, unfair contracts. Our workers deserve better, and the Bill will give them that.
(Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr McGlone] in the Chair)
Mr O'Dowd: I rise to speak in favour of the Bill at Second Stage. It is worth remembering that we are at Second Stage and therefore at the start of the scrutiny of the Bill in the Assembly. Questions have been asked across the Floor — rightly so — about what should be done at this stage of legislation. We are not at the end of the process. Our job now is to shape the Bill into working legislation that can, to the best of its ability, address the concerns of the various sectors out there, but those concerns have to be genuine and, in my opinion, must meet the principles of the Bill.
It is shocking that, in 2022, we are discussing legislation to improve the rights of workers who remain on zero-hours contracts. It is shocking that we have people in work now who are on zero-hours contracts and do not know whether they will be working tomorrow. They might be working on Wednesday. They might be called into work on Thursday but sent home because the work that was expected is not there, and, by Friday, they may not be sure what money they have to pay the gas bill, feed or clothe the children or pay the mortgage or the rent. That is the situation for many people who work on zero-hours contracts. It is long past time that the Assembly brought forward this legislation, and I commend Jemma for doing so.
Mike pointed out that the Bill does not ban zero-hours contracts. It certainly bans them being imposed on anyone. That is the important principle. The Bill is solution-focused, because it looks at the reality of some people's lives and recognises that flexibility in work suits them.
It also looks at a number of business sectors in which flexibility in employing people is important. Jemma has brought forward the principle of banding, which gives certainty to the employee and allows the employer to plan a work programme in a sustainable way. That is a good thing.
Questions have been raised about how it will work in practical terms: "How will it work in this scenario?" or "How will it work in that scenario?". If the Bill passes Second Stage, the Economy Committee can examine that in greater detail. The Committee will look at the Bill and ask, "How do we improve on that? How will that work in reality?". Of course, the business sector will be vital to those deliberations. Some Members have said that the business sector has not been consulted. My email pings regularly with messages from representatives of the business sector. They could be from the CBI, the Institute of Directors or a small business etc. They have had huge opportunities to respond to the initial consultation on the Bill, and I have no doubt that the Committee will want to hear their views, because their views are crucial. We all want to see a prospering economy and businesses doing well, but workers have to be treated properly to achieve that. While the majority of businesses do not use zero-hours contracts, for a variety of reasons — they might not suit their business model — some businesses do. We want to ensure that the people who work in those businesses feel valued and have certainty. That would benefit any business that works on the banded system that Jemma has set out in her legislation.
This morning, I was dealing with a constituent who is a paramedic. I asked him how work was going. Not surprisingly, he said that it was very, very busy. He is not a paramedic with the Ambulance Service. He works with a private company that subcontracts to the Ambulance Service. As the conversation went on, he revealed to me that he is on a zero-hours contract. This week, he might do 60 hours, but he is not sure what he will do next week or the following week. This is a guy who has been at the coalface of the pandemic for the past three months, and he is on a zero-hours contract. He does not know from one day to the next, or, in fairness, from one week to the next, what hours he will be working. That is totally unacceptable. It does not matter whether someone is a paramedic, a shopworker, a waiter or, as I was back in the day, a chef. They need to know when they are working and what they are earning. As pointed out by Órlaithí, you need to know that for the good of your mental health and well-being, and to be able to plan with your family. Jemma has introduced legislation that answers many of the questions that have been posed about the issue. If the Bill passes Second Stage, the Economy Committee will do its job. It will scrutinise the Bill and collect evidence, and, at the end of the process, we can have legislation that protects workers and businesses and ensures that we as an Assembly and legislature catch up with the people. As I said earlier, it is shocking that, in 2022, we are only now debating this legislation.
Mr Catney: I was not going to speak on this issue. As we near the end of the mandate, however, I wanted to commend the Bill sponsor for introducing it. We have to consult, as all Members have said. There is a lot more consulting to be done on it, but it is a good, honest Bill. As it works its way through, we will mould and shape it. I will go out in a few months' time — some time in May — to face the electorate, so I thought that I would take the chance to say that I am supportive of the Bill, because nobody knows whether they will be coming back. John — a Member from Lurgan, which is in my neighbouring constituency — said that he worked as a chef. When I worked in the industry, the only people whom I could never negotiate with were the chefs, because they are under stress all of the time.
I will speak for a second on these contracts in business. The business owner needs workers and people who will buy into the ethos of their business, be there when they need them and be flexible. I take on board and appreciate what you said earlier, Mike. I went out of my way to try to look after the staff as I best as I possibly could. In fact, I am still in contact or friendly with most of them. The point that I am trying to make is that, in a contract, you can be flexible, and you need to be flexible in your business. I also sat on the Belfast and Ulster Licensed Vintners Association before it became Hospitality Ulster, and I dealt with the unions as we tried to negotiate a settlement. I can speak only for my own business, but if there is a lot of money changing hands and you are not paying the staff their true worth, I know what happens, folks. It is very easy to supplement your wage. I am not saying that anyone would do that, but you need to give staff their true worth, lift them up, listen to where they are, bring them in and make them part of that business in order for you to grow.
Once more, I commend the Bill, and I hope that the SDLP will shape it as well. I would love to be back to help shape it.
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr McGlone): I now call the Minister for the Economy, Gordon Lyons, who will have up to 20 minutes to respond.
Mr Lyons: I welcome the opportunity to debate the important and often misunderstood issue of zero-hours contracts. I note the Member's intention to assist workers who wish to have greater certainty in their employment and to eliminate any unfair practice that emanates from the exclusivity clauses in those contracts that offer no guarantee of work. However, as I have said in the House before, legislation is a serious matter and needs to be carefully considered and explored in order to avoid any unintended consequences or impacts.
Having considered the proposed legislation, I am not certain that it will achieve the Member's stated objectives. I am also concerned that the implications of the proposed legislation have not been properly scoped and that the consultation that was undertaken was not sufficient to ensure that all aspects of the proposed legislation were fully considered. That is not a criticism of the Member or her work on the subject. I am in agreement that zero-hours contracts need proper attention. However, zero-hours contracts and what we can do about their misuse are complex matters. I know that many Members will be all too familiar with the many arguments for and against various types of intervention, and I will return to that point later.
In setting out my observations on zero-hours contracts, it is probably not necessary to remind Members that flexible working and the ability to work flexibly is recognised as being beneficial to employers and workers. Flexible working is something that we advocate in order to help those who cannot or do not wish to work the standard nine-to-five hours. Whilst clearly not suitable for everyone, flexible working can help more people to get and stay in employment and to enjoy all the benefits that employment brings. That includes, for example, those with caring responsibilities and students who need to support themselves whilst studying.
It is also vital for some small businesses. Consider a small catering company that does not know what its order book will look like from week to week. It needs to ramp up and down staffing levels, depending on how much work it has. Therefore, it is also fair to recognise that there are certain businesses, particularly those that are in demand-driven or seasonal sectors, that will need to be able to continue to offer casual forms of employment to those who wish to accept them. The reality is that, when used appropriately and properly, zero-hours contracts can provide an effective form of flexible working that suits the needs of both parties in the employment relationship. Indeed, the most recent ONS labour force survey data suggests that the majority of people who are employed on zero-hours contracts do not want more hours.
Bearing all that in mind, we need to make sure that whatever we do about zero-hours contracts addresses the real problems. We need to tackle and prevent abuse when it happens. Equally, we need to ensure that we do not disadvantage workers who voluntarily choose those types of contracts because they work for them. We also need to make sure that we do not disadvantage the businesses that use the contracts quite properly to keep their operations running and viable. My emphasis on the word "properly" is very deliberate.
I am in agreement with the Member that one clear issue of potential abuse with zero-hours contracts is exclusivity clauses. I cannot see any circumstances in which it would be fair or reasonable not to guarantee someone any work and, at the same time, seek to prevent them from working elsewhere. I agree that legislation is required to address that specific issue. However, there are other aspects of the use of zero-hours contracts that are less clear-cut. As stated, and as I will invariably state again, this is a complex matter. The reality of employment relationships is that there is no one-size-fits-all model for employers, nor is there a one-size-fits-all model for workers. When legislating on any matter, we need to make sure that we understand all the implications — good and bad — for those who will be impacted on. I am not convinced that all the implications of the Bill have been fully explored.
At this point, I remind the Chamber of my comments during the Further Consideration Stage of the Parental Bereavement (Leave and Pay) Bill. As I stated then, the series of amendments that needed to be tabled at the Bill's Further Consideration Stage clearly illustrates the inherent risks of legislating without due consideration of the wider implications. My officials and the Office of the Legislative Counsel worked hard to enable those amendments to be turned around in a matter of weeks. I remind all Members that there is no time left in the mandate to repeat such an exercise and fix any issues arising with the Bill.
I am fully aware of the commitments set out in New Decade, New Approach and the draft Programme for Government on workers' rights, including zero-hours contracts, although I hope that everyone would acknowledge that the unique circumstances of this mandate, with its prolonged suspension followed by the subsequent challenges of the pandemic, mean that it has not been possible, practical or reasonable to give this matter the attention that it needs in order to be addressed effectively. I hope that I outlined that fully to the Chamber in my earlier intervention to Mr Nesbitt.
It has been necessary to focus the work of my officials on the Parental Bereavement (Leave and Pay) Bill. Again, I make no apologies for that: it is such important legislation for those who will, unfortunately, need it. I am pleased that we have worked with the Committee and the Assembly to deliver legislation that will provide important protections for people who find themselves in the most distressing of circumstances.
Zero-hours contracts were a topic of much discussion in the Chamber in the previous mandate. I know that, in recognition of the complexity of the zero-hours issue, the Assembly previously elected to provide my Department with a deliberately wide enabling power so that, with due time and consideration as well as proper consultation, appropriate measures could be put in place to address abuses associated with zero-hours contracts. While the absence of the Executive and the subsequent pandemic have hindered our ability to take forward regulations under those provisions, the regulation-making power is already there. If there are deficiencies in that, we can look at it in the next mandate. As we saw with the Parental Bereavement (Leave and Pay) Bill, employment law is an extremely complex area. No single employment right operates in isolation from others. As such, we need to take care that our legislation does not have any inadvertent or unintended consequences for other rights. One way to do that is to ensure that any proposals on zero-hours contracts are subject to full and proper public consultation and that we complete all the necessary regulatory and other impact assessments.
As the regulations proposed in the Bill would have a direct effect on commencement, I am concerned that there will be no further opportunity to engage with workers, businesses and other stakeholders to address fully the implications of the legislation before it comes into operation. At all times, I caution — I hope that everyone in the Chamber agrees with this — that the wrong intervention can be worse than doing nothing at all. I am conscious that many of the sectors in which the use of such contracts is most prevalent, such as hospitality and healthcare, are already under pressure as a result of the challenges posed by the pandemic, so we need to ensure that any new measures are balanced and take into account the needs of workers and employers. However, the pandemic does not give us the right to ignore abuses: it gives us an impetus to address them. Where there is evidence of abuses by employers, we need to clearly understand what those are and determine how to address them. That is a given.
I urge Members to consider, however, the fact that requiring a flexible workforce to deliver a business is not, in itself, abuse. Dealing with fluctuations in demand, seasonal or otherwise, is not an abuse. Failing to consider flexible working requests from those who need to work flexibly, including workers who need to be able to say no to regular working patterns, could be the wrong thing for an employer to do. I repeat that it is proper, where we see evidence of employment abuses, that we take the necessary steps to prevent those abuses, but it is equally important, where arrangements work for both workers and employers, that we do not intervene and undermine them.
I turn now to the specific matter of the Bill and its associated explanatory and financial memorandum. While I am mindful of the fact that this stage in the Assembly process is about the principles of the Bill, it is important, even at this early stage, to ask whether proper consideration has been given to the cost of the proposed measures. It is essential that we receive the views of businesses, workers and everyone else with an interest in the issue. I note that the explanatory and financial memorandum states:
"the direct costs ... will be borne by employers."
That highlights the need to assess what the additional costs will be, because we cannot implement important legislation and only then think about the costs. The costs and implications of the legislation need to be identified before we take it forward.
I am concerned in particular about how some of the proposals will work in practice and about how they will affect the businesses tasked with implementing them. Has the administrative burden of the proposals for banded hours been quantified? What will the proposed process really mean for all concerned? To how many employers has the Member spoken to determine the impact of the proposals on them? How would our small businesses and microbusinesses, which do not have HR departments, manage the processes?
I am also concerned that there seem to be provisions to give workers who do not have employee status the same entitlements as employees in certain circumstances. Members will know that employee status is a particularly complex area of employment law, but it is one that is crucial to understanding to which rights a worker or employee may be entitled. It is essential that any changes to existing legal definitions be fully assessed and understood to ensure that there are no unintended consequences that could be detrimental to workers or employers.
I am genuinely concerned that the proposed measures may not protect jobs but jeopardise them, as well as deterring employers from permitting flexible working. Has any analysis been undertaken to determine what, if any, job displacement may occur as a result of the proposal? If, for example, some people move to a contract with more hours or if employers are incentivised to use only fixed-hours contracts to avoid admin burdens, will there be fewer contracts to go around? If so, it suggests that there could be winners and losers in all of this. Would the losers be the young workers who need flexibility to work around their studies? Would the losers be carers, who require more flexibility in employment in order to meet their caring responsibilities and who are more likely to be female? I wonder whether there is a risk that, instead of creating stability for workers, the proposed three-month timescale could have the opposite effect. Could it encourage employers to deploy a wider pool of casual workers so that no one in the pool ever gets to work longer than three consecutive months, meaning that the obligation to consider banded working never arises? I do not have answers to those questions, as this is not my Bill. If I were taking forward such a Bill, however, those are the kinds of matters that I would expect to be scoped out fully before progressing the legislation, and those are the kinds of questions that I would expect the Economy Committee to consider if the Bill reaches Committee stage.
In the sphere of employment law more generally, we frequently hear people speak about rights and responsibilities, and we recognise that workers and employers have rights and responsibilities in the employment relationship. As legislators, we also have rights and responsibilities. Of course we have a right to bring forward motions and Bills, but, alongside that, we have a responsibility to scrutinise legislation properly. We cannot allow legislation to pass solely because we like the principle of what a Bill is intended to achieve. We have to look at the text and understand what effect it will have day to day. What will it mean for workers and employers? Can it work in the real world? The consequence of bad employment legislation is bad employment relations that lead to increased employment disputes where everyone who is involved suffers. I cannot stress it enough that, in seeking to protect workers, we need to create an environment where we support and enable employers to be what we all want them to be, which is good employers. Disproportionate and ineffective regulatory burdens do not allow our employers the time to be good employers.
I recognise that there is broad support in the House for the Bill. I do not want to dampen the enthusiasm for it, but it is important that we ask the difficult questions and scrutinise the Bill fully. I understand that that is what the Committee Stage will allow us to do, but more work needs to be done on the Bill so that we do not fall into the trap — the House has been guilty of it quite a bit in recent months — where we like the general principle of something but do not look at the consequences further down the line. It is our duty and our role to make sure that we watch out for that.
Having stated my concerns, I will leave it to the House to decide whether the Bill should proceed to Committee Stage. Although it is my strong preference that we need to address the issue in the right way and at the right time for the real benefit of the workers who are adversely affected by abuses of such arrangements. Rushing through legislation at the end of the mandate will only undermine any commitment to working together to develop good employment legislation that benefits everyone. That was one of the reasons why we were not able to progress the Bill in the Department. Were we to bring it forward, it would have been critical to have the proper consultation in place, that we had answers to all of those questions and that we had developed the Bill before we got to this stage.
I am not sure whether the Member will have time — I do not think that she will — to have that consultation and to tease out all of those issues. However, as this is the Bill's Second Stage and we are addressing its general principles, while I believe that the wider issue of zero-hours contracts needs to be looked at and that legislation needs to be in place, I am content to allow it to proceed to the next stage.
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr McGlone): Glaoim ar Jemma Dolan le críoch a chur leis an díospóireacht. Tá suas le deich mbomaite agat. I call Jemma Dolan to make her winding-up speech on the debate. The Member will have up to 10 minutes.
Ms Dolan: Go raibh maith agaibh to all who have contributed to the debate. They have raised important points, and the contributions were informative and detailed. There were issues raised that I will certainly look into because we want the Bill and, in turn, the Assembly to deliver for workers and their families.
As Members know, the legislative process allows for deeper scrutiny of the clauses and for possible additions. It is proper that Members raise questions and concerns. I will cover some of those concerns, and I apologise if I do not get to them all: I do not want the Deputy Speaker to cut me off. I hope that the Bill can continue to the next stage to allow the Committee to carry out its scrutiny.
Members raised concerns around consultation. As I said at the Committee, the consultation was public and was published on the Assembly's website. It was open to responses from all sectors, including business organisations. We cannot make organisations respond, but we were proactive and carried out as much engagement as possible. As has already been pointed out, a consultation with businesses on the Employment Act 2016 was carried out in the last mandate. As my colleague Pádraig Delargy pointed out, the reality is that the vast majority of businesses do not use the contracts, so the Bill will affect only a minority of businesses. If the Bill is passed, however, it will have a huge impact on the lives of the workers who are on those contracts.
The other issue that Members raised was flexibility. My colleagues Órlaithí Flynn and John O'Dowd touched on it. The Bill's purpose is to provide workers with the option of being on a banded-hours contract or to stay on a zero-hours contract. It is not forcing them. The option is there, and if, after three months, the offer is made and they still do not want it, that is their prerogative.
Matthew O'Toole and John O'Dowd used examples of how, if the Bill passes, it will show our front-line workers how much we value them. John's example of the paramedic was really good and is exactly why we are bringing the Bill forward. We want to show how much we value the workers whom we clapped for on Thursday evenings and those who kept food on shelves in the shops. We value their rights as employees.
I welcome the point of view that Órlaithí Flynn brought to the Bill: the impact on our workers' mental health and the implications of the financial stress, anxiety and worry caused to workers.
I also welcome Pat Catney's point of view, which highlighted the importance of treating workers well. Pat came at the Bill as a former employer. It is important that we treat workers like that and take on board all views.
A number of Members, Peter Weir in particular, pointed out that some employers might abuse this. We acknowledge that there will always be a minority of employers who try to get round legislation and exploit workers. However, there are ways to counteract that through unions, advice agencies and access to tribunals. Employers who treat workers like that will soon find themselves struggling to recruit, especially if other employers use banded hours and treat their workers fairly. The Bill is not perfect, I admit, but it closes loopholes and gives more certainty to workers.
I welcome the views that the Committee has and the fact that it will carry out a more extensive consultation. Stewart said that the Committee would sculpt the Bill, and I am excited to see what the Committee will bring forward. This type of legislation has already proven workable in the Twenty-six Counties, and the Bill will provide parity across the island for workers.
Mr Lyons: I appreciate the Member's giving way. She talks about what has taken place in the Republic of Ireland. She knows that, in the Republic, the period is 12 months. That takes into the account seasonal variations that might exist. Why has the Member chosen a period of three months, rather than 12, as exists in the Republic of Ireland? Does she not see that having to redo this every three months is one way in which the Bill increases the administrative burden on businesses, as well as the fact that it does not take into consideration some of the seasonal variations in the jobs and sectors that we are talking about?
Ms Dolan: I thank the Minister for his question. Originally, we had 12 months in the Bill but, as a result of the consultation, we changed it. The views in the consultation were that 12 months was too long. Respondents to the consultation thought it should be three months.
The Minister raised the issue that people on zero-hours contracts do not want more hours. However, that is not the issue that we are dealing with. We are creating fairness and certainty for workers; it is nothing to do with how many hours they work. The issue is that they have fairness and certainty from week to week, so that they know how many hours they will work.
The Minister also asked about the cost to employers. There should not be a huge increase in costs to employers, because they are paying the employees anyway. In the long run, it may save them money on recruitment through retaining staff.
That is a quick summation of the views expressed on the Bill. I am sorry if I have not included all the points made, but I look forward to working with all Members and, hopefully, the Committee, in the time ahead to see how the Bill can progress and change the lives of workers in our society.
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr McGlone): Safe home.
Adjourned at 5.30 pm.
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