Official Report: Tuesday 08 March 2022

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

Assembly Business

Resignation of Member: Edwin Poots (Lagan Valley), Minister of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs

Mr Speaker: Yesterday, I received a letter from Edwin Poots advising of his resignation as a Member of the Assembly for the Lagan Valley constituency with immediate effect. His appointment as Minister of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs automatically fell as a result of his resignation.

New Assembly Member: Edwin Poots (South Belfast), Minister of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs

Mr Speaker: I was informed by the Chief Electoral Officer that Edwin Poots has been returned as a Member of the Assembly for the South Belfast constituency to fill the vacancy that resulted from the untimely passing of Christopher Stalford. Mr Poots signed the Roll of Membership yesterday afternoon in my presence and that of the Clerk to the Assembly and entered his designation.

The nominating officer of the DUP subsequently renominated Mr Poots to the post of Minister of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs. Mr Poots agreed to take up the post and affirmed the Pledge of Office as set out in schedule 4 to the Northern Ireland Act 1998 in my presence and that of the Clerk to the Assembly.

7 March 2022

Mr Speaker: The first item of business in the Order Paper is the consideration of business not concluded on Monday 7 March. All business was concluded yesterday, so we will move on.

Question Time: Economy

Mr Speaker: I have been advised that the Minister for the Economy is unable to respond to questions for oral answer today. The Business Committee will reschedule the Economy Question Time slot when it meets later today.

Mr Speaker: In order to allow ordinary business to proceed at 2.00 pm, a motion has been added to today's Order Paper to suspend Standing Order 20(1).

Mrs D Kelly: I beg to move

That Standing Order 20(1) be suspended for 8 March 2022.

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

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved (with cross-community support):

That Standing Order 20(1) be suspended for 8 March 2022.

Executive Committee Business

That the draft Energy Performance of Buildings (Certificates and Inspections) (Amendment) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2022 be approved.

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

Mr C Murphy: The draft regulations before the House today are to be made under the powers conferred by the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018. The draft regulations were laid before the Assembly on 18 February 2022 under paragraph 12(3) of schedule 7 to that Act. Equivalent legislation is passing through the Westminster Parliament for data registered for properties in England and Wales. The purpose of the draft regulations is to reduce the statutory fees that are charged when data is registered on the energy performance of buildings register, particularly in relation to energy performance certificates (EPCs), display energy certificates and air conditioning inspection reports for properties.

There are two classes of data registration: one for domestic properties and one for non-domestic properties. The proposed reductions are from £1·64 to £1·50 for domestic properties and from £1·89 to £1·70 for non-domestic properties. Members may recall that those fees were significantly reduced less than a year ago. That was possible because my Department, in partnership with the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, invested in cloud-based digital platforms and moved away from the fixed hardware model that had been in place since 2008. This statutory rule further reduces the fees as further efficiencies from that investment are realised. The modest reduction in fees set out in the draft regulations will ensure that the register is run on as close to a cost-neutral basis as possible. The small differentiation between fees for domestic and non-domestic lodgements reflects technical differences between the classes of data. The gap is now significantly smaller than in previous years.

The energy performance of buildings register is a key tool in promoting energy efficiency. The register now holds nearly 600,000 local records, with 56,000 lodged since the new register went live. Those records hold valuable information about the energy performance of buildings. An energy performance certificate is required when a building is constructed or, for an existing building, before it is marketed for sale or rent. It gives prospective purchasers or renters the ability to determine how efficient a property might be and to make comparisons between properties. A property owner can consider the recommendations included in an EPC to help to inform decisions to improve the property's energy efficiency.

We want homeowners and commercial building owners and occupiers to improve the energy efficiency of their buildings. Ensuring that our buildings are as efficient as possible will help us to achieve net zero by 2050. My Department plans to make a significant contribution to reaching net zero through an ambitious programme of uplifts to the energy efficiency requirements of building regulations for new buildings.

The Finance Committee considered the draft regulations on 26 January and 2 March 2022 and agreed that they could progress to the next legislative stage. The Examiner of Statutory Rules considered the draft regulations and did not raise any issues in her report. The draft regulations serve a specific purpose, which is to reduce the statutory fees that are charged when data is registered for domestic and non-domestic energy performance certificates, display energy certificates and air conditioning inspection reports. The reduction in fees for domestic data represents an 8·5% saving; for non-domestic data, there is a 10% saving. I commend the draft regulations to the Assembly.

Dr Aiken (The Chairperson of the Committee for Finance): On behalf of the Committee for Finance, I thank the Minister for his opening remarks. The Committee considered the draft rule at its meeting on 2 March 2022. As the Minister said, the rule will reduce the statutory fees that are charged when data is registered for domestic and non-domestic energy performance certificates, display energy certificates and air conditioning inspection reports. The Committee welcomed the reduction in cost and was content to recommend to the Assembly that it affirm the rule.

Mr McHugh: Ba mhaith liom buíochas a thabhairt don Aire fosta as a ráiteas. I, too, thank the Minister for his statement. Energy performance certificates provide prospective buyers or renters of property with information on the energy performance of a relevant building. The certificate rates each building from A to G, with A being very efficient and G not so efficient. That is important information, as the energy efficiency of a building will determine the cost of heating it. That is all the more relevant given the rising costs today.

Additionally, the certificate provides advice on how to improve the efficiency of a building by, for example, switching to low-energy light bulbs or improving insulation.

Energy-efficient buildings produce less carbon, and, in the context of tackling climate change, it would be desirable to improve the energy efficiency of our housing stock in general. I understand that the Department is considering changes to building regulations that would set higher energy efficiency standards for new builds, and that is to be welcomed. It is also an important development in the context of the recent rise in — it is more like "the soaring cost of" — energy bills. I just saw in a newspaper that the cost of heating a home is expected to be at least £3,000 per year. The increases in gas and electricity are unprecedented, and, unfortunately, those who live in low-energy-efficient buildings will have to pay most to heat their home. More energy-efficient homes will provide savings in the long run.

The statutory rule makes a slight change to the fee associated with registering a certificate on to the digital database. A similar rule came before the House last year that significantly reduced the fee for non-domestic properties. This year, there is a modest decrease in the fee for both domestic and non-domestic properties. It is my understanding that the fee is reviewed each year to ensure that the scheme remains cost-neutral. I welcome that and the fact that that will continue to be the case for the coming year.

Mr K Buchanan: I am satisfied with the policy objectives and intent. Therefore, I am content to support the regulations.

Mr O'Toole: I will try to be as brief as some of the other Members have been. I support the small, modest change to the price of entering data for EPCs. Clearly, for homebuyers, they are a useful means of finding out the energy efficiency of properties in domestic and non-domestic settings. We have no problem with the proposal.

Mr C Murphy: I thank the Members who contributed for their comments on the statutory rule, which were generally positive. There is no alternative or non-legislative option to reduce the fees other than a statutory rule approved by the Assembly. If it were not approved in its present form, our current higher fee rates would remain in force until a re-made statutory rule was approved and signed into law. Again, I thank the Members who contributed to the debate. The changes will ensure that the energy performance certificate register can continue to operate on a cost-neutral basis. I commend the motion to the House.

Mr Speaker: I thank the Minister and all the contributors.

Question put and agreed to.


That the draft Energy Performance of Buildings (Certificates and Inspections) (Amendment) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2022 be approved.

That the Budget Bill [NIA 55/17-22] do now pass.

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

Mr C Murphy: Today's Final Stage debate concludes the financial legislative process for the 2021-22 year. This has been another year in which financial management has been made more difficult by the pandemic and by the uncertainty over our final funding envelope. Over the year, the Executive allocated almost £700 million in additional resources and over £90 million in capital. We have provided support to the health service, schools, businesses and individuals who have continued to face difficulties as a result of the pandemic and the cost-of-living crisis. That support includes over £250 million of additional in-year funding for the Department of Health to meet pressures on hospital services and elective care as well as funding for mental health. It includes over £100 million to the Department of Education to help schools deal with COVID pressures, such as PPE and staff substitute cover, as well as support for special educational needs (SEN). Over £90 million was allocated to the Department for Communities to support local councils and the Housing Executive as well as to fund the energy payment support scheme to help the most vulnerable with rising fuel costs. I understand that the majority of those payments will be in people's bank accounts later this week.

10.45 am

Almost £100 million has been allocated to the Department for Infrastructure to help mitigate the impact of COVID, subsidise the public transport network, provide support to the bus and coach industry and mitigate the impact of rising energy costs on Northern Ireland Water. The Executive also agreed to provide over £45 million to my Department to fund the omicron hospitality scheme to provide grants to the sectors that were most affected by the disruption to Christmas trade.

As we move towards the recovery phase of the pandemic, we have to rebuild our healthcare system. A first step in that process should be agreement by the Executive on a multi-year Budget to enable the health service to begin tackling the soaring waiting lists and the process of transformation, which we had all agreed were the priorities. Unfortunately, the First Minister's decision to resign has prevented that from happening. While the Bill provides a Vote on Account to allow services to continue beyond 1 April, that does not constitute the setting of a Budget that is needed to allow Departments to plan ahead, and it does not provide the additional resources that are so desperately needed by our health service.

I conclude by, once again, expressing my gratitude to the Finance Committee, which worked with us to grant accelerated passage to the Bill. I also thank all of the Committees for the level of scrutiny that they have brought to the process. This is the final stage of our financial legislative process for 2021-22, and the legislation has already been subject to considerable debate. I look forward to hearing any final thoughts from Members on this important piece of legislation.

Dr Aiken (The Chairperson of the Committee for Finance): The Committee for Finance enjoys a special position in that it has a unique set of responsibilities when it comes to the scrutiny of Budget Bills and the associated founding Supply resolutions. The Committee takes those responsibilities seriously and has sought to work with the Department to prove the understandability of the Estimates and related documentation.

As I indicated at Second Stage, new financial reporting legislation has been passed, Estimates memoranda have been issued and a Fiscal Council has been established in the past 12 months. Those are already proving to be beneficial, and I expect more improvements to follow. That is very positive, and all involved are to be commended in that regard.

COVID still plays an important role in the spending in 2021-22, with, perhaps, an extra £1·5 billion coming from our Government this year. The schemes that the Executive devised, which were backed by that money, have made a real difference to hard-pressed businesses during these difficult times. It is hoped that individuals and households will also benefit from the Executive's cost-of-living measures.

The Bill also provides for a Vote on Account. That is not a Budget: it is a kind of float for the Department for the first few months of 2022-23. Given the current political position, the Committee intends to explore with officials what Departments and, indeed, Ministers will and will not be able to do with the Vote on Account in the absence of an Executive. Perhaps, in his winding-up speech, the Minister will provide some clarity on the £400 million of additional money generated by the increase in all of our national insurance contributions. Will the Department of Health, for which that money has been earmarked for waiting list reductions, be able to access that money without accruing resource in 2022-23 without an Executive in place? Many of us are aware that much of that money has already been accrued, so we need to look at whether there is any possibility of it being accessed.

I do not want to finish on that uncertain note, as the Committee and Minister have made progress in respect of financial scrutiny during the mandate. Let me thank him and my colleagues on the Committee for that. Indeed, let me thank Mr McHugh, who is now wearing a fine suit and a nice tie.

Mr McHugh: It does not suit. [Laughter.]

Dr Aiken: The sartorial elegance that you have shown today and yesterday has been wonderful to see. We rubbed off on you at some stage.

With the prospect of better and more informed scrutiny of financial matters, and on behalf of the Committee for Finance, I commend the Final Stage of the Budget Bill 2022.

Mr Gildernew (The Chairperson of the Committee for Health): I welcome the opportunity to participate in today's debate as Chair of the Health Committee. In the past financial year, COVID has continued to make departmental and trust spending plans challenging, and a number of important priorities have been pushed back as the Department continues to deal with the pandemic. The Department of Health receives the largest proportion of the block grant, yet we are still seeing increasing waiting lists, overcrowded emergency departments and difficulties in providing care packages to free up beds in our hospitals.
While we can acknowledge that the pandemic has caused many difficulties and challenges, especially with workforce planning, our health and care staff have been stretched. The Committee has constantly raised the issue of workforce planning. This year, the Department is spending close to £300 million on agency staffing costs. That is not sustainable. We are hearing many stories of staff who are leaving the trusts and moving to work for agencies.

The Committee has highlighted to the Department the need for it to review its recruitment and retention policies to ensure that terms and conditions allow flexibility in recruitment and working patterns. While we understand that there will always be a need for a level of agency spend, our over-reliance is unsustainable, and the £300 million that we spend on agency costs could go some way to addressing the issues facing the health system. Workforce planning will be key to ensuring that services are provided to patients in a timely manner, and, as part of the transformation agenda, it can lead to a real reduction in waiting lists and the health inequalities that we see in our communities.

Mr K Buchanan: Will the Member give way?

Mr Gildernew: Yes. Go ahead.

Mr K Buchanan: The Member referred to the £300 million being spent on agency staff, and I appreciate his point that a level of agency staff may be required. However, irrespective of how much money goes to the health service, £300 million is a lot of money to be going to agency staff. What discussions has the Committee had and what plans has the Department of Health put forward to reduce that figure to a reasonable one?

Mr Gildernew: We have had ongoing engagement with the Department on its workforce planning. Unfortunately, we do not see that detailed planning. As has been emphasised by many of those who attended and gave evidence to the Committee, longer-term, three-year budgeting is absolutely essential to deal with the workforce. Workforce planning is a longer-term project. That should be reflected upon.

Throughout the past two years, I have taken the opportunity, on several occasions, to highlight the Committee's difficulty in identifying spread across streams. This morning, I took part in a meeting on mental health, where it was very clear that it is difficult to trace how much money is going into mental health and what the outcome is. A complicated budgetary process in the Department of Health challenges scrutiny in following the money and measuring the outcomes. We have struggled to get clarity on total spend. Following briefings, we have had to write to the Department to get further detail. The Department needs, therefore, to undertake further work on its budgetary processes.
Throughout the past two years, we have been advised by the Department that a multi-year Budget is required to provide some surety and allow planning to tackle some of the key issues. The time in this mandate is coming to an end, but I am sure that any incoming Committee will look closely at the Department's budgetary planning to ensure that it delivers the transformation that is needed to ensure better health outcomes for everyone in our community.

I will now make some brief remarks as the Sinn Féin health spokesperson. Members, it is abundantly clear that we face a crisis in our healthcare service. That crisis includes mental health, which was the subject of the meeting that I was in this morning; physical health; the workforce; retention and recruitment of the workforce; and transformation. All that is put at risk without a three-year Budget. While we are trying to create the basis for transformation, the DUP's decision to collapse the Executive is producing nothing but stagnation. There are people on waiting lists who need us to focus on developing the plans to address those waiting lists, but we are getting delay. We have a workforce that has been massively overstretched and whose members deserve the Assembly to be focused on the resources that they need for recruitment and retention of staff in the healthcare services that we will need in the future.

Last night, in the Assembly, we passed an autism Bill to provide additional resource and supports to families, and I was delighted to be part of it. If we do not see a realistic Budget, those supports will come to nothing. They have to be resourced and planned for, and they have to be planned for over a longer time. I, therefore, urge the DUP to reflect carefully on its continuing decision to ensure that there is no Executive at this time. We are still dealing with a health and social care crisis. There is a responsibility on us to take our roles seriously and to get back to work.

Mr K Buchanan: As I have stated previously in the Chamber, we all appreciate that, because of the pandemic, all Departments have faced challenging times.

Budgets were stretched, but billions came from the Treasury to support our economy and the Executive through that difficult time. We are thankful for that. Dozens of additional schemes have been delivered quickly and efficiently, while other Departments have been slower to respond.

The legislation before us today provides legal cover for expenditure in 2021-22 and for some spending, up to 45% of the previous year's Budget, in 2022-23. That means that Departments will be able to continue their day-to-day spending until the end of July in the absence of the formation of an Executive following the election in May. The Committee was advised that, should an Executive not be formed, the Northern Ireland Act 1998 would allow the new Finance permanent secretary to avail themselves of a progressively larger percentage of the Budget for allocation in 2022-23, although that will, apparently, cover only business-as-usual spending.

The pandemic had an impact on our public finances and not least on our economy. The Budget tidies up the 2021-22 year and will give us a degree of stability for the next financial year. I support the Bill.

Mr O'Toole: Today is the Final Stage of the Budget Bill. As I always say when we debate Budget Bills, we often do not really know what we are talking about. I do not mean that mischievously; I mean that people stand up and talk about budget documents, things in their local area and quite discrete things. I made points yesterday about the need to be more strategic and focused on both prioritisation and the technical details of what is in front of us.

The Bill is not a budget document. It is not a single-year Budget, nor is it a multi-year Budget. We do not have that. The DUP has walked out, so we cannot have that — at least, not ahead of an election — and we do not know whether we will debate any Budget after the election.

Today is the Final Stage of a Budget Bill that authorises spending, some of which has already happened in the financial year 2021-22, which comes to an end in a few weeks, and authorises the first 40-odd per cent of spending for the next financial year, 2022-23. It is a relatively technical but essential thing that we are doing today. In many ways, it is the most fundamental thing that legislatures do: they authorise spending.

Let us pause and reflect on doing our jobs, because certain people in the Chamber at the moment do not want us to do our jobs or to have a proper functioning Executive. For three years, we had no institutions. We did not have an Executive or Assembly in which to authorise spending. It would be unconscionable if the debate today were to be the last moment in which we debated any budgeting for months upon months or years, but that is what could happen.

Today is the Final Stage of the Budget Bill, so, when we pass the legislation, we will have authorised the remainder of spending for this financial year and the first chunk of spending for the next financial year, but, as of now, most of us in the Chamber cannot say for definite when we will be back here to debate the next Budget Bill. We should be debating —.

Mr Catney: Will the Member give way?

Mr O'Toole: I will give way to my colleague in a second.

We should be debating a Budget (No. 2) Bill later this year, but, in all probability, if some people in the Chamber or some parties get their way, we will not be doing that.

Mr Catney: I thank the Member for giving way. Does he agree with the Fiscal Council's report that this was "a golden opportunity"? We heard contributor after contributor yesterday, even the Minister, agree that it was a golden opportunity that has been missed, simply through the politics that have been played out in the House.

Mr O'Toole: I agree with my colleague. He is absolutely right: we had a golden opportunity to agree a three-year Budget. I did not agree with everything that was in the Finance Minister's multi-year Budget. I was planning on scrutinising it and trying to get him to agree to change it in certain ways. I did not agree with every prioritisation at all, but the fundamental principle of having a three-year Budget and having us agree on prioritisation, presenting a strategy to the people whom we serve and telling them that that is what they can judge us against is critical. We are not doing that. Today, we are simply legally authorising spending that has already happened and authorising spending so that public services can continue for the first few months of the financial year.

Let us not kid ourselves today that this is some great moment for the Assembly, because, as of now, we do not know and cannot say when we will be back in the Assembly debating a Budget Bill. It is important to say that and to make that clear to the people outside the House, because some people will be led to believe that we are concluding the Budget process for the financial year. We are doing that in one sense — legally — but all we are doing is authorising the "float", if I may use the word that the Chair of the Finance Committee used, so that things can keep going.

11.00 am

In a few weeks' time, we might be telling civil servants, "Guys, can you keep it going? Keep things ticking over. Just keep your hand on the tiller so that nothing goes too awry". How shameful that would be, for some of the reasons that have been mentioned, such as the cost-of-living crisis. Around 70% of households in Northern Ireland use home heating oil, the price of which has gone up by 75% in the past fortnight. We face a huge cost-of-living crisis that will affect not just people on the lowest incomes but people on middle incomes.

We face a huge crisis around regenerating and regrowing our economy after COVID. We do not know how all of that is going to pan out. Frankly, we do not yet have a proper economic recovery strategy. We face an appalling crisis with waiting lists, about which we talk and talk. We had an opportunity through a three-year Budget to do something about that by prioritising the issue. Yes, I would have liked to see more detail in the Health Department's plans, but, fundamentally, we had an opportunity to do something about that crisis. Of course, the climate crisis sits above all and will dictate everything that we all do, probably for the rest of this century, long beyond the period for which most of us will be not just in the Chamber but on the planet.

As legislators, we should be dealing with all those big, critical issues, but we cannot, unless we are back here after the election, doing our job by making Budgets and plans and explaining to the people whom we serve what we are doing for them.

I wanted to make that point. Although it is welcome that spending will continue to be legal after today, that is all that we are doing. We are just ensuring that the spending has a legal basis. Let us not kid ourselves that we are delivering strategic spending that is aimed at people's priorities. We will go to the people and tell them what our plans are for the health service, the cost-of-living crisis, economic recovery and climate change. If we then fail to come back here after the election in May and do our job by producing a three-year Budget with meaningful targets and a Programme for Government with meaningful strategies to deliver on people's priorities, it will be totally shameful. If the next Budget Bill for here is passed late on some Tuesday or Wednesday night at Westminster, the people on whose doorsteps we stood and told them that we were going to deliver for them will rightly ask what the point of us is. I say that directly and bluntly to one party in particular, which is threatening not to establish our institutions after the election. We can talk today about all the plans. I have heard DUP Members — it was Sinn Féin in 2017, but, at the minute, it is the DUP — talk about pressures on spending and about priorities and issues. You cannot talk out of both sides of your mouth. On the one hand, you are talking about budgeting pressures, things that need to be prioritised and money that needs to be spent, but, on the other hand, you are threatening not to come back here and do your job.

This last Budget moment that we have before the election in May is an opportunity for us to say what we, as MLAs, should be doing now and what those of us who hope to be returned after the election in May should be doing then. We should be in the Chamber delivering strategies, policies and law to improve people's lives and delivering Budgets that are matched to those priorities. If we are not willing to do that, we are not serious about serving people.

Mr Muir: It is important that we consider the Bill at its Final Stage today. I hope that the House does not divide. It is completely and utterly crucial that we allow the Bill to pass so that it becomes law. Like the Member who spoke previously, I have sincere worries that this is one of the last actions, if not the last action, that we could be taking on budgetary matters in the Assembly, largely because of the selfish actions of the DUP, which has put its party political fortunes ahead of the people of Northern Ireland.

Although it is described as a Budget Bill, it is not the Budget in the traditional sense. It should be encapsulated in an overarching three-year Budget for Northern Ireland, but that is nowhere within reach, because we do not have an Executive to agree it. We must have an Executive, because Northern Ireland is facing a significant crisis. If there were ever a time that we needed an Executive in Northern Ireland, it is now. We are facing a cost-of-living crisis that is completely and utterly crippling households across Northern Ireland. I have people contacting me who are absolutely aghast at the prices that they are being quoted for home heating oil. People who are in work are struggling to pay bills because of the crippling costs that are coming through to them. Moreover, the health and social care system is under an immense amount of strain. We heard reports yesterday that the Ulster Hospital is yet again under an immense amount of strain. There is a real need to have a functioning Executive to provide leadership and deliver the resources required to our health and social care system. Alongside that, we have the continuing climate crisis that faces Northern Ireland. Hopefully, we will be able to move forward with legislation on that, but that is a continuing thing that requires an Executive to be in place.

Whilst this is the Final Stage debate of this Bill, at previous stages of this Budget Bill and during yesterday's debate on the draft Budget which was previously presented, I have found a real sense of frustration when some parties seem to say that their collapse is better than someone else's collapse. Collapsing the Assembly is bad. It is not forgivable. We need an Assembly and an Executive in place delivering for the people of Northern Ireland. To be honest, any parties that walk away from that need to take responsibility for their actions associated with that.

I am increasingly worried that we are running out of road in relation to the options for the Executive Ministers to take action on this. There seems to be more of an idea that you can run an Executive through exchange of correspondence. We need an Executive that can meet together, and I am very conscious that, for the next financial year, there is £300 million that will sit idle. I would be interested to know the Finance Minister's view on why that sits idle. Is it as a result of the 1998 Act and the legal obligations associated with that? That £300 million could help people in real, dire need at this time and could also tackle waiting lists in our health and social care system. I would like clarity about why that £300 million will sit idle. The legal reasons for that are important.

In conclusion, it is absolutely, completely and utterly vital that we pass this Bill today. Essentially, it is about being able to run payroll and deliver core public services, but it is not the panacea that we need. We need an Executive and a three-year Budget, and that can be resolved very quickly if the DUP decides to go back into the Executive and to put people in Northern Ireland ahead of its own party political interests.

Mr McAleer: I welcome the opportunity to speak at the Final Stage of the Budget Bill. Yesterday, I spoke on the motion on the 2022-25 Budget, and there are a couple of issues that I want to pick up on today.

One of the issues that we as a party are severely concerned about is the fact that the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs has made no allocation to the tackling rural poverty and social isolation framework (TRPSI), an initiative within the Department. Members will know from their experience of rural areas that TRPSI funding is an example of where a little can go a long way. It is used to fund the rural networks and many localised initiatives such as the assisted rural transport scheme. For whatever reason, the Department has opted this year to fund this out of in-year monitoring. That is not acceptable, because there are people who are employed in this sector and the networks are in place. It is absolutely essential to be able to forward plan, and that is not possible when relying on in-year monitoring. That is regrettable, and, of course, again, it is made impossible by the fact that we are not fit to do a three-year Budget as a consequence of the DUP's walking away from the Executive.

The second item that I want to pick up on is the matter of the rural development programme. Members will be aware that, when we were in the EU, we did have the certainty of a six-year multi-annual budget, which gave communities certainty. Again, anyone who represents rural communities will know that, in most villages in the country, where you see a community hall, where a village and rural project has taken place, where there is a localised connectivity project and where there are small businesses, in most cases, since we were part of the EU, those were funded out of the EU rural development programme. Again, as a consequence of Brexit and as a consequence of the DUP forcing the British Government into the hardest possible Brexit, we are now out of the EU rural development programme. In the last funding round between 2014 and 2020, we had a rural development budget of £623 million. We now do not have that, and, as I said yesterday in my speech on the motion, in the third year of this incoming Budget, we are going to experience a 67% drop. That will have a serious impact on our ability to deliver basic services in rural communities.

At the time of Brexit, we were told that the lost EU funding would be replaced through the UK Shared Prosperity Fund. We have not seen that yet. We have not seen the colour of the British Government's money in relation to the UK Shared Prosperity Fund.

As my colleague Caoimhe Archibald said yesterday, if the UK Community Renewal Fund is anything to go by, that will not inspire confidence, because the British Government have gone over the head of the Executive in administering that funding through Westminster. It provides something like £11 million, which is a vast reduction on the usual £65 million a year that we would have had if we had remained in the EU.

The Department has declared a surplus — a reduced capital requirement — of £7·5 million this year. That is regrettable, given the pressures on our rural communities as a consequence of the lost EU funding and on our farmers, who face increased costs for fertiliser and other inputs. There is also a red diesel crisis. That will be made worse by the desperate situation in Ukraine. The Department should be able to forward plan and, rather than handing back that £7·5 million, re-profile it to make sure that it is invested in rural communities.

It is deeply regrettable that we have not been in a position to have a three-year Budget to give some degree of certainty. Again, legislation for that cannot be brought forward because of the DUP shenanigans that have created huge uncertainties for the Department and, indeed, for our rural communities.

Mr K Buchanan: Will the Member give way?

Mr McAleer: I have just finished, but I will give way.

Mr K Buchanan: I listened attentively to the Member as he referred to his concern for rural communities. He represents the West Tyrone rural community, and I represent the Mid Ulster rural community. Does the Member actually listen to the rural communities as in the farmers? The farmers whom I listen to on climate change say that the Bill that is coming forward will decimate or completely annihilate them. Are you really listening to the rural farmers? You are saying a different thing here from what you are saying to the farmer on the ground.

Mr McAleer: I was at the end of my speech, and I welcome the Member's intervention. The Member will be aware that that is a different conversation. Had he been following the debate on climate change, he would be aware that our party tabled 39 amendments to the Climate Change (No. 2) Bill to make it fair and effective for all sectors. They include amendments on methane at Consideration Stage and Further Consideration Stage, which have been very much welcomed by the farming community. That is the debate for tomorrow. OK?

Mrs Cameron: The context and circumstances of the Budget Bill are firmly rooted in the consequences of the pandemic. The real-life impact has been a tragedy for many families across the country who have faced loss. The human cost of that can never be measured, and it will certainly not be forgotten for generations. COVID-19 has also wreaked havoc on our health system and economy.

Unprecedented levels of spending have been poured into Northern Ireland in an attempt to plug the gap. It goes without saying that, without our treasured place in the United Kingdom, we would not have been able to sustain our financial position and recover in the way that we have so far.

As a member of the Health Committee, my focus in the draft Budget has been on health. The Health Committee received a briefing from the Department on the draft Budget in December and discussed it at a number of briefings from stakeholders and officials. Owing to the mounting pressures of legislation, including consideration of seven Bills, numerous COVID regulations and a number of legislative consent motions (LCMs) and statutory instruments, the Committee was not able to spend as much time as it would like in scrutinising and taking evidence on the Department of Health's draft budget.

The Budget process so far has been extremely rushed, to say the least. In particular, as the Budget will cover a three-year period, the time to scrutinise and consider the consequences of Budget allocations or to agree anything has been lacking. For a Budget covering that length of time, there simply must be more time to strategically plan its allocations. For some time, I and other Members have been keen to see a multi-year Budget to allow more strategic long-term planning in the Department of Health.

Only through longer-term strategic investment and effective remodelling of service delivery can we achieve the long-overdue transformation of our health service: one that puts patients and front-line staff first.

Mr O'Toole: On a point of order, Mr Speaker. With respect to the Member, we are talking about the Budget Bill, not the three-year Budget. I am slightly concerned that people watching the debate will think that there is a three-year Budget that will do all those things in health, when it will not —

Mr Speaker: The Member is making a contribution, and that is not a point of order.

11.15 am

Mrs Cameron: Thank you, Mr Speaker. We need a transformation that delivers the best possible service for all patients regardless of where they live in Northern Ireland and one that gives our health and social care workforce the facilities, capacity, support and safe staffing levels to carry out their work.

In those aspects, the draft Budget leaves me and my party far from convinced. It has no plan or strategy. We cannot continue to do the same things and expect a different outcome. There must be a detailed three-year health transformation plan connected to the Budget for the public to see and for an Executive to agree. Without making available the investment and strategy necessary to tackle waiting lists, soaring costs will simply continue, and there will be a knock-on impact for GP services, community pharmacy services, mental health demand and social care across Northern Ireland.

The next Programme for Government must include an ambitious strategy for transformation. It makes better sense that a multi-year Budget, with much more careful consideration, should be agreed among the Executive parties after the election.

The present draft Budget is just that: a draft. Much more scrutiny is required to develop a Budget that delivers for the people of Northern Ireland. We need a Budget that does not harm our schools, cut our Police Service and does not hinder or delay proper transformation in health. It comes as no surprise that there is no agreement within the Executive for the present draft Budget, which fails on many of the promises of the New Decade, New Approach agreement, which was the basis for the return to power-sharing in the first place. Clearly, much more work remains to be done.

Mr Speaker: Before the last two or three Members speak, it was raised in that attempted point of order that we are discussing the current Budget, not the Budget that we are not discussing. [Laughter.]

Everybody who has contributed so far has spoken about a Budget that we are not addressing. Can we stick to the Order Paper?

Mr Catney: I want to address not only this Budget but the lack of a Budget. I understand that we have come out of the pandemic. I sit on the Finance Committee, and good work was done during the pandemic for workers. Payments were made through Land and Property Services (LPS), and a lot of help was given through that outreach. Mistakes were made, but none of us has a crystal ball.

I will take only one moment of your time, but I was elected to try to help. I thought that the greatest contribution that the Finance Committee could make was to have a Budget that would last for three years. I speak on the Budget Bill that we are discussing, but great opportunities were missed. I believe that those will play out in the years to come.

This might be the last time that I speak in the Chamber. I do not know what way the electorate in Lagan Valley will vote or how the election will work out. I am, however, genuinely shocked. I look over to the party to my left, and, I have to say, I am really disappointed that we do not have an Executive so that we can collectively do our best.

When I was first elected, I went for three years without a chance to speak in the House. If we want to make this place better, there is £43 billion to be spent over a three-year Budget, which we are unable to implement. A golden opportunity has been missed. We need to do better, folks. I hope that we do come back and that Members catch hold of their senses and see the opportunities that we can give when we try collectively, all of us together, because that is the only way we will get those opportunities.

I worked for years, and when I wrote out my cheque at the end of the year, it was to Her Majesty's Inspector of Taxes. I want that money to be distributed as fairly and equally as possible.

Mr Allister: At times, we need to remind ourselves what a Budget Bill is. It is primarily the Assembly's essential control mechanism in respect of Departments and arm's-length bodies. It is the mechanism by which we, the elected representatives, give authority to those Departments to spend money. That is our money: public money. A Budget is therefore a critical accountability and control mechanism.

That brings me to my primary point. Astoundingly, we have built into the Budget Bill headroom of £181 million, in respect of which there is no accountability to the Assembly. The way in which a Budget should work is that you say to an individual Department or body that you control, "Here is your allocation. Based on the calculation, this is what you are getting, and this is why you are getting it". In the case of this Budget Bill, however, we are saying, "Here is your allocation, and here is £181 million on top of that. We don't really care how you spend that. We're not going to hold you accountable for it". That is an absurd situation for the Minister to have brought us to. I have never heard of there being headroom of £181 million in a Budget.

I asked the Minister a question for written answer — AQW 30168/17-22 — about the £181 million. In his answer, he said something that I found utterly astounding:

"The Budget Bill is a routine matter, and no separate legal advice was sought or received for this."

In that answer, "this" is the headroom. A Budget Bill is anything but a routine matter. If that is the fiscal attitude to the spending of public money, it is little wonder that we are in the deteriorating situation that we are in. The Budget Bill is the fundamental control mechanism. I need go no further than the explanatory and financial memorandum that comes with the Budget Bill. Let me read paragraph 3:

"Budget Bills are the legislative means by which Assembly approval will be sought for departments and certain other public bodies to incur expenditure and use resources as detailed in the corresponding Estimates volume and summarised in the Schedules to the Bills. Furthermore, Budget Bills will enable the Assembly to hold departments accountable for managing and controlling those resources within the limits authorised."

The key phrase is "within the limits authorised".

Mr O'Toole: Will the Member give way?

Mr Allister: In a moment.

With that runaway headroom of £181 million, we are saying to Departments that we are not interested in holding them to account and that we are not interested in accountability. We are saying that they can spend as they will and that we will not restrict them or place their spending within any limits. That comes from a Minister who says, "What about it?" He tells us that a Budget Bill is only a routine matter. It is not a routine matter; it is the fundamental control mechanism of any Assembly over any Executive spending. I find that careless attitude to public money utterly appalling.

Mr O'Toole: I thank the Member for giving way. He is right to be very concerned about and alert to issues around our scrutinising and using our control and supply powers properly in the Assembly. He is right to be concerned about our not doing that. Does he agree that we would be in a far worse position in relation to scrutiny and control should there be no Executive and Assembly after the election? In that case, these decisions would be made with basically no scrutiny, as happened between 2017 and 2020. Will he therefore encourage the DUP — over which he exerts, I would say, a degree of influence — and people in his party to enter into these institutions after the election?

Mr Allister: Institutions that have been denuded of the power to make fundamental laws affecting our economy and trade by virtue of the fact that they have been subjugated to foreign control are not institutions worthy of that name. Anyone who thinks that they can simply carry on as if the protocol has not robbed this legislative Assembly of powers over key functions is deluded. The Member and the other rigorous implementers who want to hand control to a foreign place need to look at themselves and at where we are proceeding to. There cannot be a functioning Executive or institutions so long as we are subjugated by the ill-gotten sovereignty taken by the EU over Northern Ireland. The answer lies in the EU giving up that ill-gotten sovereignty and restoring the sovereignty where it should lie for those matters. If the Member wishes to get a solution, that is the territory that he needs to look at.

As regards the Budget, I reiterate this point: either it is the proper control mechanism that we post it to be; or it is something that we think is just routine and to be nodded through. Sure it is only £24·5 billion, anyhow. Really? To say, "It does not matter. We do not need to have control over the headroom; we can just hand it away", is truly shocking from a Minister who thinks that a Budget is only a routine matter. It is anything but.

Mr Carroll: When you turn on the news, you cannot get away from the fact that there is a cost-of-living crisis at the moment. People are struggling, and the Executive have failed to stand by them. The Executive are ramming through the Bill, which does not adequately meet what people need or deserve. On average, prices are up by over 5%. The cost of petrol and diesel is up by over 20%. The average home's energy bills are up by around £1,000 from last year, and they are set to rise yet again. People are struggling like never before, and no solutions are being offered to deal with that.

For decades, we were told that there was no money to pay for services to fund proper wage increases. Then, during the pandemic, billions were found and spent. Where is the urgency when it comes to addressing the cost-of-living crisis that is faced by people right across our communities today? Money must be found urgently in order to tackle the wages poverty and to give people a fair deal. Politicians must show the same urgency in dealing with those issues and in mental health as they did during COVID.

The Minister said that the allocation that we are debating and voting on today does not provide adequately for our health service. Indeed it does not. For years upon years, our health service has been hammered by services being cut, privatisation creeping in and being allowed to exist, and, obviously, by the pandemic. Waiting lists have increased to the point that large numbers of people are languishing in pain without any sign of treatment in sight. The only way that many people can get treatment quickly is if they have the money to pay for it privately.

The health workers who carried us through COVID and who were clapped for and applauded are now struggling to live on low wages. Immediate funding is needed to uplift their pay and protect services. It is worth remembering that all the Executive parties have endorsed the below-inflation pay offer to our health service workers. That is unfair and inadequate. I cannot stand by and support it. Of course, that is not to mention the threat to NHS dentistry, which, as we heard yesterday, is going to the wall and does not have sufficient allocation to protect and enhance NHS dentistry work. That will have massive health implications across our communities.

Since the DUP withdrew from the Executive, there has been a real focus on three-year and one-year Budgets. That is a relevant debate. The DUP's actions must be called out, as it is trying to protect itself from electoral annihilation. However, to those who think that the three-year Budget is the magic solution, I will say this: it is not. It does not scratch the surface of what we need to see implemented in order to protect jobs, communities and services more generally.

If the crucial issue of public-sector pay were resolved by being uplifted, for example, that could help to resolve the cost-of-living crisis overnight. Nothing that is in the Budget Bill concretely addresses that, and, once again, workers are faced with another year, if not longer, of pay freezes and cuts. The Budget does not have money for that or the other issues that I mentioned, and for the reasons that I outlined, I cannot give the Bill my support.

Mr C Murphy: I thank the Members who have participated in the debate. I will deal with some of the points that have been raised. There were general themes. Of course, as you quite rightly pointed out, Mr Speaker, we have spent a lot of time debating the Budget that we are not talking about. Nonetheless, I feel obliged to respond to some of the points that were made about the Budget that we are not talking about as well.

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

I hope that the LeasCheann Comhairle will indulge me in that as he takes the Chair.

11.30 am

Steve Aiken, the Chair of the Finance Committee, raised the question of the national health funding. I have taken legal advice on the matter and am considering that. Obviously, I have also been in touch with Treasury to get some certainty on the issue. If the money comes across as a general Barnett consequential, generally speaking, it will come across in an unhypothecated way, which means that an Executive have to decide to allocate it even if they were already so minded that it should make a contribution to Health. So, we need to get some clarity on whether that will come across and join the other £300 million that is sitting in limbo, or whether it can go directly to Health, given that that is where it was intended to go. However, if it requires Executive approval, we will be in difficulty.

Just to finish the point, the absence of a Budget will not give Health the increase that we had wanted to give it. Even if it manages to get the national insurance contribution, it will not get the uplift that will allow us to do the whole transformation piece and tackle the major issues in Health that we want to tackle.

Dr Aiken: I thank the Minister for giving way. The specific question is about the fact that the money has already been accrued in the Budget process, so we could say that it has already been agreed. Is there any method of ensuring that those funds go to our health service to provide the vital changes that we need? By using the word "accruing", there is a mechanism for that money to come to Health.

Mr C Murphy: That is the very point that we are continuing to test. We have offered to give some advice to the Committee if and when we receive clarity on that. As I said, if it comes across in the normal fashion as a Barnett consequential and requires the Executive to approve carrying it on to where it needs to go to, we will be in trouble. That will add further problems to the Health Department, which we cannot give any uplift or strategic support to for the next three years in the absence of an Executive to take those decisions.

Some other issues were raised. Andrew Muir raised the issue of the £300 million, and, similarly, the plan to carry that over to the next financial year was to ease some of the real pressures. A lot of the pressures that people have identified over the last couple of days in debates here could have been dealt with in the next financial year by the allocation of some of those pressures. The reason why we had so much to carry over is because a lot of it came after a very late announcement from the British Government. We got the ability to carry some of that over and to spend some of it. With regard to Mr Allister's point about headroom, over the past two years, we have received a lot of significant allocations, many of them very late in the day. So, we have had to take some more extraordinary measures compared to the normal process.

As I said, on the basis of the in-year allocations that I made just the other day — the £45 million — I had Executive agreement that further adjustments would be made, that there would be more money available and that there would be more spending done. We had no agreement on how the £300 million would be allocated next year. Again, an Executive is required to be in place to make allocations from that funding.

Pam Cameron raised an issue that has been raised on a number of occasions by the DUP. Regardless of how often it has been answered, the DUP response seems to be straight from the Trump and Johnson approach to politics: if you are faced with an inconvenient truth but keep telling a falsehood, maybe some people will believe it. In this case, the falsehood is that the Budget should not have been done in the time frame within which it was done in; legally it had to be done in the time frame within which it was done.

I will take you through the Budget process. The Member talked about there not being enough strategic discussion and planning, but last summer we started to engage with Departments on various scenarios in relation to the Budget and what it might look like. We called an Executive planning session in early autumn to have a conversation with ministerial colleagues about the possibility of a three-year Budget and where we might want to prioritise. At that time, I put forward the proposition about prioritising Health. We also discussed the prioritisation of green growth, skills and assisting vulnerable people, but there was no disagreement that Health would be the priority. The contribution from the Member's ministerial colleagues was minimal at that meeting, considering that they now want to see much more discussion on the Budget. We only learned the Budget amount and got confirmation of the three-year time frame in late autumn. That reduced the time for a consultation on a Budget. The Budget also has to be legislated for before the end of the financial year. The whole time frame was compressed, and that is not in our gift.

The DUP, which has sent various Members out to use that script over the last number of weeks, knows all of that. The DUP knows that that is the time frame that we had. The argument that we should have left the Budget to an incoming Executive does not stack up. Their party colleagues know that, but the DUP keeps send out Members to repeat the falsehood. Those Members are faced with the inconvenient truth that the actions of their party have left us in the position where we cannot agree a Budget, make the £300 million allocations for next year to assist Departments or take forward a strategic Budget for the next three years. To try to deflect from that, the DUP continues to point out some other route or argument about the Budget that has never borne any relationship to the truth.

Mr Carroll talked about the cost-of-living crisis. Of course, the Budget that we are discussing is the Budget that concludes last year's business. We would love to be in that position, and we have already provided a scheme to assist people that will pay out this week. However, there is a range of issues that are beyond our control. We continue to raise those with the Government in London, and I hope that Mr Carroll will join us in the call for assistance to be given to people. As said, if money could be found to assist people during the pandemic, why can it not be found during the cost-of-living crisis? We ask the Treasury that question, and I hope that he will join us in pressing that case.

Mr Carroll seemed to suggest that a pay lift for public-sector workers would end the cost-of-living crisis overnight. Of course, there are many people who are struggling with bills who are not in the public sector. We want significant measures to be taken to assist all families who are struggling with the cost-of-living crisis. Some of that would be under the control of an Executive if it were able to take decisions. A lot of it is under the control of the Government in London, and it should take decisions in order to assist people.

The Bill is a crucial piece of draft legislation that will provide Departments with the power to continue to deliver vital front-line services to all our citizens through the remainder of this financial year and into the beginning of 2022-23. I commend the Budget Bill to the Assembly and ask Members to agree its Final Stage.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): Before we proceed to the Question, I advise Members that, as this is the Budget Bill, the motion requires cross-community support.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved (with cross-community support):

That the Budget Bill [NIA 55/17-22] do now pass.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): I ask Members to take their ease for a few moments.

That the Betting, Gaming, Lotteries and Amusements (Amendment) Bill [NIA 36/17-22] do now pass.

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

Ms Hargey: I do not intend to speak at length, because, through the various stages, we have had extensive debate on the details of the legislation. However, it is an important point in the process that we are now, finally, moving to updating and progressing changes to our gambling regulations for the first time in almost 40 years.

The Bill represents the first step in a two-phased approach to overhaul gambling regulations. In the minds of many, online gambling, in all its forms, represents the most concerning type of gambling in its impact. The structure of the Betting, Gaming, Lotteries and Amusements Order 1985 is such that it was not possible in the time available in this mandate to draft provisions that fully addressed online gambling, in effect, writing a completely new order. That is why I said that the Bill is the first step in a two-phased approach. There is a much larger job to be done, in the next mandate, to create a wholly new, more modern and more agile system of control that will be fit for the modern age and able to offer a more effective regulatory foundation, now and into the future.

Many people gamble. For most, it is something that they enjoy and do occasionally. However, for many others and their families, gambling has devastating impacts and consequences, which we heard about during the debates. I want to make sure that the industry does more to help people who have problems with gambling. That is why I included powers in the Bill to allow me to introduce a mandatory code of practice and a statutory levy to help to pay for research, education and treatment.

Some raised concerns, during the debates, about the lack of treatment available for those impacted by gambling. My Department deals with the regulation of the industry; it is not primarily responsible for the treatment of gambling addiction. However, my officials and I will continue to work with the Department of Health in that area, looking, in particular, at how the levy to support individuals and organisations can be used. I am seeking to balance the risks by issuing a code of practice that operators must comply with. Operators must always recognise the inherent human risks in the products that they offer and take proper responsibility for those risks and, indeed, the adverse consequences for many individuals.

I am seeking to increase fundraising opportunities for local charities, sports clubs and other voluntary and community organisations by increasing the maximum ticket price for societies and lotteries from £1 to £100. That has long been asked for by the charities and community sector. Guidance that my Department will draft will make it clear that tickets at or close to the maximum should be the exception, not the rule. I already have the power to vary the frequency of lotteries and the price limit of tickets.

Before we move to the remainder of the debate and, ultimately, the vote, I acknowledge the contributions of the many stakeholders that worked with the Department and the Committee for Communities in the development of the Bill and, importantly, in looking forward to the next phase. I thank Members, and members of the Committee for Communities, who worked with me over the past six months to improve the Bill and for their proactive engagement throughout. I thank the Chair and Vice-Chair of the Committee for their dedication in supporting the Bill during its progress.

The Bill is about balance, giving greater protections to gamblers while making sure that we regulate the sector. None of that would have been possible without my team in the Department. I thank them for bringing forward changes, and I thank the drafting team and those in the Assembly who made sure that we got the legislation through before the end of the mandate.

11.45 am

It is important to thank the campaigners and families. We engaged directly with them and listened to their stories, their concerns and their views on the legislation's development. I know that the Committee also engaged with the campaigners and families as we developed the Bill. As Minister for Communities, I reiterate my commitment and, indeed, that of all those in the Department to continue to work with those campaigners and families as we progress the important overhaul of legislation in phase 2. The work to make sure that we address the wider issue of online gambling begins now. The whole arena of the internet was not created when the existing legislation was first brought into being. I look forward to that engagement.

I hope that all parties can support the Bill that is before the House. I commend the Bill to the Assembly.

Ms P Bradley (The Chairperson of the Committee for Communities): On behalf of the Committee for Communities, I welcome the Bill's Final Stage. The Committee considered it at 11 meetings in total. We concluded in-depth scrutiny of the Bill, receiving 51 responses to our call for evidence from a diverse range of organisations, businesses, government bodies, researchers and individuals and holding 12 oral evidence sessions. The Committee was also pleased to hold a Zoom event with an invited group of under-18s to discuss the potential impacts of the Bill on young people. The views expressed at that event were very informative, and I take the opportunity to thank those young people again for giving up their time.

During our deliberations, the Committee explored with departmental officials, through oral briefings and written responses, the range of issues raised in the evidence. As a result, the Committee requested amendments to clause 9 to increase the maximum ticket price for societies' lotteries and to clause 14 to ensure consultation with more specific persons and groups on the development of the levy. We again thank the Minister for taking forward those amendments. WE also requested significant amendments to the explanatory and financial memorandum (EFM) on clauses 8 and 11 and the schedule in order to ensure a better explanation of forms of payment and of what does or does not constitute payment to participate in a prize draw or competition. We also requested amendments to the draft code of practice. Again, we are thankful to the Minister and the Department for making those changes.

The Committee knows that the Bill is limited in scope. We know that a much wider overhaul of the regulatory controls on gambling is long overdue, and we would all have liked to see a more ambitious Bill. The Department made us aware, however, that a Bill of well over 300 clauses will be coming the way of the new Committee in the new mandate for that full overhaul. I would like to say that I am looking forward to that, but I am not sure that that would be entirely truthful. It will be massive.

On behalf of the Committee, I record our sincere thanks to all those who provided evidence to it. Thanks must also go to departmental officials, who worked well with us to ensure a flow of timely information to allow the Committee to meet its tight deadline for reporting. Finally, thanks should go to Bill Office staff and the Committee team, who all worked so diligently to assist the Committee and get the Bill to its Final Stage.

I will say a few words as a private Member. To say that we are disappointed that we have extended the opening hours for gambling is an understatement, given the health advice that the Committee received. We know that gambling is now the second-largest addiction in Northern Ireland after pornography. Alcohol and smoking come lower down, which could in some part be due to the work of the Public Health Agency (PHA) and its messaging on alcohol and smoking. I hope that any money that is raised through the levy will be used in the way that it should be, because we know that there are next to no addiction services in Northern Ireland.

Through some of the amendments that were made to the Bill, we have much stronger legislation than the Bill as drafted. I am glad that it is in place. As I say, whoever the next Committee members might be in the next mandate, I wish them well. I also wish the next Minister well, as this will be a massive piece of work for the next Assembly.

Ms Á Murphy: I welcome the Final Stage of this vital legislation. I also thank the Minister for undertaking the reform. As outlined by the Minister on numerous occasions, this is the first phase of a two-phased approach in reforming our outdated and complex gambling legislation. It has been a long but enjoyable process, and it has been clear from all the debates at Committee Stage and from Members' speeches in the Chamber that we are all united in wanting our gambling laws updated and reformed.

As was mentioned briefly, this phase will ensure greater protections for children and young people as a result of the new offence of inviting, causing or permitting a young person under the age of 18 to play a high-stakes gaming machine. The Bill also introduces powers to remove licences in instances of multiple or serious breaches of the code of practice. As well as that, the Bill includes enabling powers to allow for the introduction of a levy on the industry that will be used for educational purposes and treatment in relation to gambling-related harm. There has been a change to the limits on societies' lotteries, and there can now be an increase in potential ticket prices. That will allow organisations such as Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA) and soccer clubs to raise additional funds, increasing the current ticket price limit from £1 up to £100.

We certainly look forward to seeing the Bill pass and to being back here in the new mandate with the second phase of the gambling legislation.

Mr Durkan: We welcome the Final Stage of the Bill and the long, long overdue update of gambling legislation here. It has been 40 years, as the Minister pointed out.

The failure to advance meaningful protections for people suffering from gambling addictions, the consequences of which devastate lives, is unacceptable. In the four decades since gambling legislation here was updated, the industry's landscape has been transformed beyond recognition. That transformation has created a legislative gap — more than one legislative gap, as we discovered in Committee — that fails to protect some of the 40,000 problem gamblers across the North.

While we of course welcome the modest measures within this work, I have said before that it aims for the low-hanging fruit and, in doing so, falls short, in our view, of comprehensively bridging that legislative gap. That is not just our view; that is coming from the officials and the Minister. I have, on numerous occasions, expressed my disappointment at the lack of ambition in the Bill, particularly around a robust regulatory framework and implementing an all-island gambling strategy, and I regret that attempts to secure a meaningful mandatory levy were not fruitful. My comments today are not in any way a criticism of the Minister, as the constraints under which the work was being carried out were reiterated to the Committee regularly. I feel that, today, this is more of a lament at what we could have won.

Given that, as of 2016, the problem gambling rate in Northern Ireland was over four and a half times greater than that in England, it is clear that the severity of the situation here demands immediate action. We cannot afford to wait for regulation that may never come, and we appreciate that the Minister acknowledges the legislation as a first step in bringing forward necessary reforms to the gambling industry. We argue that, after 40 years, people at risk of gambling-related harm deserve and need much more than a first step. If something is worth doing, it is worth doing right. What we have today is a bit of a wishy-washy attempt. Its shortcomings and outright omission of tangible protections cannot be overlooked or ignored as we welcome the passage of the Bill today. The legislation is a missed opportunity to implement real, worthwhile provisions to help the 40,000 people here who are experiencing problem gambling and their families. Questions around regulating online gambling remain, as do many other loose ends that are in need of being tied up. I am under no illusion that tackling the issue is easy. Finding solutions is difficult and implementing them even more so, but just because something is difficult does not mean that we should not, at least, try. It means that we have to try harder and do better. We all have to try harder and do better in the next mandate to make sure that we take that next big step towards addressing the issues that the Bill does not address or was not able to address.

I also pay tribute to all the individuals and organisations, including Gambling with Lives, Christian Action, Research, and Education (CARE), individual families and those who have experienced problem gambling and have the scars to show for it for their contributions and involvement throughout the extensive consultation process. I put on record my party's gratitude to the Committee staff, departmental staff and, of course, our friends in the Bill Office, whom we have seen a lot of over the past wee while.

I hope that proper, robust regulation will be tackled in the next phase in order to fully protect individuals and their families from the life-shattering scourge of gambling addiction. I support the Bill.

Mr Butler: I begin by thanking the Minister for recognising that the Bill, which is important and potentially life-saving, was worth pursuing in this mandate. More specifically, l thank her departmental officials, who have worked incredibly hard and have been faithful in attending the many evidence sessions of the all-party group on reducing harm related to gambling.

The Ulster Unionist Party has demonstrated its commitment to tackling the issues that matter most to people across Northern Ireland. Health and well-being has been at the very core of everything that we have done since the Assembly returned in January 2020. In taking the Health portfolio, we overtly fulfilled our pre-election promise to put people and their health first. Whilst some of the energy of this legislation comes from the fact that the existing legislation is long past its use-by date, the real energy to bring change is the increasingly obvious fact that we need legislation that puts the user at the centre of protections, regulations and, indeed, codes of practice.

I have had the privilege of being the chair of the all-party group on reducing harm related to gambling for around two years. The input of members such as Paula Bradley and Jim Wells and, in particular, the vice chair Philip McGuigan, all of whom attended regularly, has been essential. The expert assistance of the secretariat, Chambré PA and CARE NI helped us to fashion a substantial report that, I am sure, facilitated some of what we see in the Bill today.

Perhaps of greatest importance for me is to put on record my most humble thanks and sincere appreciation to a couple of families who, throughout the all-party group's sessions, faithfully attended and shared their passion to see others protected from the pain that they have experienced by losing someone whom they loved to gambling addiction and untimely death. Pete and Sadie Keogh, along with Charles and Liz Ritchie, have bared their souls in the pursuit of a just change that they want to see and that would help to prevent death or serious harm occurring to those who cannot stop gambling and, perhaps, for other families.

I do not intend, nor is it right at this stage, to rehearse the better aspects or otherwise of the Bill. For some of us, it does not reach the parts that will bring the highest levels of protection. However, the need to ensure that the industry, in particular the online industry, takes better account must not be missed. I am not a gambling abolitionist in any sense. I grew up in a family where many liked a flutter, and my late granny Butler from west Belfast was a regular guest at just about every bingo hall across Northern Ireland. She absolutely loved and lived for her nights out amongst friends. In that regard, it is right and proper to thank the Northern Ireland Amusement Caterers Trades Association (NIACTA) and the Northern Ireland Turf Guardians' Association for their contributions to the all-party group and for their commitment to work collegiately in improving legislation, not only for the purposes of better regulation but for the monitoring of the well-being of their clients and customers.

From what I have learned, land-based operators are well placed to offer visible protections and safeguards. It is important that the Department for Communities works proactively with those operators to fashion workable and sustainable solutions. What causes me great concern, however, is the piece that we have not had time to legislate for, which is the growing danger of online gambling.

There can be little doubt that "in plain sight" gambling will be easier to monitor and mitigate, but we must be incredibly careful that we do not simply drive users online and into the darker spaces where their gambling will go unnoticed and, sadly in some instances, to the point where it is too little, too late. There are many reasons why the people of Northern Ireland need a functioning Executive in May 2022, and I suggest that further protection from gambling-related harm from a growing and more sinister online industry should focus hearts and minds on the fact that the well-being of the people of Northern Ireland must always come first. We support the Bill.

12.00 noon

Ms Armstrong: Today sees the Final Stage of the Betting, Gaming, Lotteries and Amusements (Amendment) Bill, and I thank the Minister and her Department for bringing it this far. As others have said, it provides for the most substantial change to gambling law here in 40 years. We on the Committee for Communities listened to people impacted by gambling addiction, businesses that work in the sector and charities, sports clubs and other voluntary organisations that raise much-needed funds for good causes through gambling and lotteries.

A key element of the Bill is the recognition that gambling can cause harm. The industry levy, therefore, as outlined in clause 15, will require all who operate as a bookmaker, a bookmaker's office or a bingo club or who have gaming machines or an amusement permit to pay an industry levy in order to support projects and activities related to gambling addiction or associated forms of harm and exploitation, including treatment, education and research.

The levy will be consulted on, and the consultation will include persons who have experience or knowledge of issues relating to such addiction, harm or exploitation. That means that those who are affected by gambling addiction and their family and friends will be consulted. That is a very welcome step, and it is one that the Committee encouraged the Department to include. I thank Gambling with Lives for its very insightful evidence and, at times, harrowing accounts of the impact that gambling addiction has on individuals and their family and friends.

The legislation requires the Department to issue codes of practice for the industry. The codes of practice place an expected duty of care on those using facilities to ensure that gambling is conducted in a fair and open way, to protect persons under the age of 18 and other vulnerable persons from being harmed or exploited by gambling and to make assistance available to persons who are or may be affected by problems related to gambling. Those codes do not, in and of themselves, make a person liable for criminal or civil proceedings but are admissible in evidence in criminal or civil proceedings and must be taken into account by a court or tribunal. A licence- or permit-holding operator who ignores or claims lack of knowledge of the codes will have no excuse. The codes are also available for the public to review and use as a basis for lodging a complaint. It is important to note that continuing breaches of a code are grounds for revocation of a licence and/or a permit.

The Bill updates the legislation to permit gambling on Sundays, clarifies the rules about pool betting and who can participate in bingo and places more emphasis on protecting people under 18 from gambling. The legislation limits charges and prizes and provides clarification on the rules for societies' lotteries, cheating and the enforceability of gambling contracts.

As others have said, the Bill does not deal with online gambling or any issues related to the National Lottery. The Minister has outlined her intention for a second piece of work that deals with those issues to be carried forward into the next mandate. Online gambling is a key area that we need to manage, as it is recognised as a key issue in gambling-related harm.

On behalf of the Alliance Party, I support the Bill and look forward to working on the next Bill in order to continue to deliver a safer betting, gaming, lotteries and amusements industry.

Mr McGuigan: As others have mentioned, this is the first change to our gambling laws in over 37 years, so the legislation is overdue and very welcome. The Bill will allow for greater regulation and fairness in our land-based gambling industry in the North. I thank the Minister for bringing forward this much-needed legislation. As she pointed out and explained, it is only the first piece of the jigsaw in modernising gambling laws. The much bigger aspect of online gambling is to be dealt with in the next mandate; however, the Bill is a good beginning. I know that the Minister has been working on the second phase, and I commend her commitment to continued reform of our gambling laws.

Good gambling laws are necessary to inform, protect and regulate the gambling industry and should also be there to protect citizens. In the legislation, which is primarily focused on land-based gambling, I welcome the greater protections for children and young people. I also welcome, in the code of practice for the industry, plans to ban credit cards for gambling use, plans for measures to deal with reverse withdrawals, the regulation of gaming machines and the potential for moves on advertising. I also welcome the enabling powers in the law to allow for the introduction of a levy on the industry so that it will have to pay into a fund that can be used for various things, including research, education and gambling treatment centres.

At all stages of the legislative process, I have noted the huge profits that gambling companies make. While many enjoy gambling as a harmless pastime and bet with money that they can afford to lose, the bulk of the huge profits made by gambling firms come from people who become addicted to gambling and bet money that they cannot afford to lose. Gambling companies know that, and, unfortunately, in many instances, they exploit it. It is estimated that over 100,000 people on this island are affected by gambling harm, with 40,000 of those from the North. I am sure that, if I were quoting those numbers in relation to any other illness, there would be a concerted public health response and approach by our Health Minister, yet, here in the North, we do not have a single NHS service that is specific to tackling gambling harm.

Last week, in a landmark judgement in England, a coroner ruled that gambling contributed to the death of a young schoolteacher, Jack Ritchie. The coroner noted that the warnings and available treatment were "woefully inadequate". Gambling addiction kills, and gambling products can be lethal. Some gambling products are designed in such a way that they are likely to be more addictive, so, without proper legislation, regulation and enforcement, many more vulnerable people will be exploited in the pursuit of huge profits and bonuses. I commend Jack Ritchie's parents, Charles and Liz, for their bravery, determination and integrity. I also commend all of the families and loved ones — people such as Pete and Sadie Keogh — who, out of tragedy, have been and will continue to be a powerful voice for change.

In conclusion, the legislation is a good start, as others have said. It needs to be supported from the Department of Health by way of a health response. I welcome similar reviews and processes to up legislation that are taking place in the South and across the water. I am sure that they will feed into the work that the Minister has indicated will take place on online gambling here in the next mandate. For any changes to regulation on advertising and online gambling to be successful, it is clear that we will need to take a coordinated approach on this island and across these islands. I look forward to playing my part in that process, from this Bench or as an ordinary citizen, in the years ahead.

Mr Allister: Even if it is correct that there was not time to adequately deal with the many issues flowing from online gambling, that does not explain why the primary effect of the Bill is to liberalise the laws in respect of betting shops. We all know of the huge health implications and difficulties of addiction. We have just had quoted to us the figure of 40,000, which is the number of people with serious gambling issues in Northern Ireland, and many more are on that road, yet the primary effect of the Bill is to maximise the availability of gambling by increasing weekly accessibility by 17%. The extra opening hours are feeding the addiction, so I struggle to understand the priorities of the Minister in this case. It seems that, despite all of the platitudes and politically correct words about the scourge of gambling, the net effect of the Bill is to increase accessibility and thereby compound the problem. For that reason, it is not a Bill that I can support.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): I call on the Minister for Communities, Deirdre Hargey, to conclude the Final Stage debate.

Ms Hargey: Thank you. I thank everybody who contributed to the debate today and those who contributed previously.

I came into post in January 2020. It has been a shortened mandate. If you are going to do something, you of course want to do it right, but doing something completely right would take a whole mandate. We could not have done this practically in two and a half years.

Mr Allister: Will the Member give way?

Ms Hargey: Sorry, what was that?

Mr Allister: Will the Member give way?

Ms Hargey: Yes, of course. That was better than muttering.

Mr Allister: The Member says "do something right". Why, then, did she do something wrong by increasing the accessibility of gambling, which is the primary product of the Bill?

Ms Hargey: The Member will know from the last part of the Consideration Stage, that, when you look at the services and operation of gambling in other places that have the opening hours that we are proposing, you see that it is not the fact that they are open that has the direct result of problem gambling but the wider societal issues, which the Bill, in part, starts to address with codes of practice and a levy that can be used to support those who have an addiction to or issues with gambling. There is a wider health issue that we need to address as well, as the Member well knows.

The reality is that when the Order was created in 1985, the internet was not a thing; it was not written into the Order. To completely change the Order, which will be needed and which the Chair talked about in her opening speech, would take nearly an entire mandate to do. I could have chosen to do nothing in a shortened mandate, which would have left no additional protections or reform of the Order, but that would have been disingenuous and would not have been a good thing. I worked with those who are campaigning for change in order to make changes that we could achieve in the shortened mandate. The Bill gives added protections. It also prohibits the use of certain gaming machines for under-18s. It gives enhancements, and those in the community recognise that.

In a shortened mandate, I have led the first change on gambling since the current gambling legislation was brought in, when I was five years of age. I came into a shortened mandate, and I have led the change. Of course, there is more to do. I have always said that it would be a two-phased approach. I want to work with those in the community in order to take forward the much-needed additional changes that we need.

Some have reflected on Pete and Sadie Keogh's work with Gambling with Lives. Many other individuals and organisations have been impacted. In a recent interview, Pete said:

"From tiny acorns, mighty oaks grow."

This is very much the beginning of planting those acorns to create the change in this mandate and to increase the protections that we can give. It is, however, only the start of the radical change that we need to take forward by, in some ways, ripping up the 1985 Order and writing a new Order and set of regulations that meet the needs of people here in 2022 and going forward. My Department and I commit to not waiting another 37 years. The work has already begun to look at phase 2. I will continue to work with Gambling with Lives and all those other organisations, as well as in the Chamber, in order to bring about the changes that are needed.

I commend the Bill to the House.

Question put.

Some Members: Aye.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): I am hearing Ayes from all sides of the House and a No from Mr Allister. His opposition is on the record.


That the Betting, Gaming, Lotteries and Amusements (Amendment) Bill [NIA 36/17-22] do now pass.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): I ask Members to take their ease for a few moments.

12.15 pm

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): I call the Minister of Education, Michelle McIlveen, to move the Further Consideration Stage of the Bill.

Moved. — [Miss McIlveen (The Minister of Education).]

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): No amendments have been tabled. Therefore, there will be no opportunity to discuss the General Teaching Council (Directions) Bill today. Members will, of course, be able to have a full debate at Final Stage. The Further Consideration Stage of the General Teaching Council (Directions) Bill is therefore concluded. The Bill stands referred to the Speaker.

I ask Members to take their ease for a few moments before the next item of business.

Committee Business

That this Assembly endorses the report of the Committee for Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs on the challenges women experience in the local agriculture sector [NIA 180/17-22]; recognises the practical, social and cultural barriers that women face in the industry; acknowledges the crucial and valuable role that women play in running farms and agri-businesses; and calls on the Minister of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs to put in place measures to support women in the sector, as has been done in other jurisdictions.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): The Business Committee has agreed to allow up to 45 minutes for the debate. The proposer of the motion will have five minutes in which to propose and a further five minutes in which to make a winding-up speech. All other Members who wish to speak will have five minutes.

Mr McAleer: I am delighted to speak today on behalf of the Committee for Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs, pending the publication of our report on the challenges facing women in the agriculture sector and our recommendations for future policy in that sphere.

I start by reflecting on the experience of a local woman who took part in our survey. She stated:

"I've been carrying an extra burden throughout my farming life as a woman, needing to push through crowds to be seen by the auctioneer when bidding, adjusting the seats of …machinery…being asked by bank managers why my husband has not come instead of me, only being considered for "soft" or "women's" roles in farming organisations…. I hope that young women will find more equality of opportunity and will, where it is missing… ensure that it is highlighted."

That perfectly encapsulates the cultural, practical and social barriers that women who live and work in our agriculture sector face and the need to shine a light on those issues.

For centuries, farming has predominantly been considered to be a man's job, and many of the practices in the sector have perpetuated that, including the tradition of passing farm ownership to a son or another male relative in order to keep the farm in the family name. However, that is starting to change. Some countries have highlighted the inequalities for women in agriculture and introduced policies to address them. For example, the Scottish Government have adopted a range of measures, following the recommendations of the Women in Agriculture Taskforce, to promote the role of women through specific training packages and subsidy grants. The Irish Government have pledged to increase capital financial support for women as part of its CAP proposals.

It was in that context that the Committee decided to launch its review, to explore the local issues and consider what could be done here to enhance and support women in agriculture. In order to inform the Committee's findings, it made a survey available online for six weeks, which received 178 responses from women who live or work in the agriculture sector. We also facilitated an event with stakeholders to discuss the issues at first hand and analyse data on the composition of the local farming workforce. We sought information from the Department about the policies that it has in place to support women in the sector, benchmarked against approaches in other jurisdictions.

The Committee's report outlines our findings. It is clear that women are significantly under-represented in the sector at all levels, and particularly in farm ownership and participation in training groups and on organisational boards. Just 5% of registered principal farmers are women. Men comprise 96% of the membership of business development groups. Local women experience a range of challenges, many of which are cultural, including social stigma, and practical issues such as a lack of access to land, farm ownership and capital. The overwhelming majority of respondents to our survey feel that more needs to be done to support women in the sector.

The Committee heard about the range of challenges that women experience, including attitudes and behaviour of non-acceptance; a lack of support from friends and family to pursue agriculture as a career path; difficulties in accessing finance; and a reluctance to participate in available training opportunities, as those are overwhelmingly dominated by men. We asked women for their views on how those barriers could be addressed. The responses included messages about giving greater prominence to women leaders in the sector to showcase their success; educating farm families about the need for wider thinking about inheritance, and to consider all siblings as potential successors; developing bespoke training opportunities for women in the sector and facilitating women-only networks; and ensuring that leaders in the industry set an example of expected behaviours in gender equality and acceptance.

The survey and stakeholder event also demonstrated the vital role that women play on family farms, and the extent and diversity of the activities that women carry out every day. Women truly are, in many cases, the backbone of the family farm.

Ninety eight per cent of the respondents to our survey regularly contribute to the farm business, and the vast majority give at least 20 hours of their week to farm work. A significant proportion of local women routinely do hands-on work with livestock and crops, as well as completing paperwork, filing and documentation. In many cases, that is on top of running a household and holding down another job. Forty one per cent of the women who completed our survey who have jobs off the farm have used income from that job to help to meet farm running costs, and 13% do so regularly.

I will conclude and pick up on Members' comments during the wind on the debate.

Mr Irwin: I welcome the opportunity to contribute to the debate. As an elected representative with a lifetime spent on my family farm, this is an area of great interest to me.

My father died at the young age of 54 and my mother was a vital source of help and guidance to me when, at 19, I had to step up and follow in my father's footsteps. Back then, she was a great source of encouragement and advice, and now, at the grand age of 94, she continues to keep close tabs on me. She had a very tough time as a young mother; she, very sadly, lost a daughter at a very young age in an accident on the farm. Although all of those things were heartbreaking, my mother remained very strong and composed. Those were the traits that I looked up to at a young age.

There is no doubt that farming, by its very nature, is a challenging environment for everyone, regardless of gender, who tries to earn a living from the land. Given that they are at the mercy of the weather, and the unpredictability of animals and the global markets, it is certainly a job that has great variety and many challenges.

Further to my experiences, my daughter runs a chicken farm, and I know of many other women in my constituency who operate significant chicken farm businesses every day, and do so very successfully. That proves that there are many women out there in the agri-food sector who are forging ahead, and rightly so.

The Committee undertook this piece of work to ensure that a light would be shone on the role that women play in agriculture and the challenges that they face. On my family farm, my wife, daughters and daughter-in-law have been a huge assistance. I see the immense value and contribution that they make, from helping on the farm to doing the bookwork. The workload is huge, as any farmer will relate, and the level of help required means that all hands are needed to make the operation a success.

In relatively recent times, there has been significant publicity, through the mainstream media, on farming and food production, with a growing number of television programmes dedicated to farming and showing family life on a farm in great detail. Very often, these programmes clearly show the huge positive impact that women are having and the importance of their involvement in the running of farms. Their abilities are very clear for all to see. I welcome the exposure that this brings, showing women as vital contributors to farming in Northern Ireland.

The Committee's report sought to highlight some of the issues faced by women in farming. I welcome the report's publication and its findings. Areas of work recommended by the report include specific programmes and courses designed specifically for women farmers and those wanting to enter the role, women-only training environments and DAERA-led initiatives that promote the importance of the potential contribution of women in agriculture. It is vital that these schemes are brought forward and addressed as per the Committee report's recommendations. Any and every assistance should be offered to encourage more women into the role and to sustain women who are already in farming to address any hurdles and negative experiences highlighted by the report.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): Members, there is considerable interest in this debate, more than the time allocated allows. So, I encourage Members, if they can, to shorten their speeches a little to allow more Members in. That would be appreciated.

Mr McGlone: Hopefully, I will be as brief as I can be in covering a very important topic. We welcome the debate today on the Committee's report on the challenges that women experience in the local agriculture sector. Many of those challenges are cultural and difficult to address, but that is not impossible. After all, since the Executive were established, four women have held the position of Agriculture Minister out of a total of six, including acting Ministers. Among that number was the first Minister of Agriculture in the Executive, my SDLP party colleague Brid Rodgers.

We have around 25,000 registered local farm holdings, and the majority of these are designated as very small. This is 7% lower than in 2006, but the overall workforce figure has remained the same. At just over 5%, we have fewer women registered as principal farm owners compared with the rest of Ireland and with England, where the figures are 12% and 16% respectively. Across the EU, the average figure for women farm owners is 22%. The proportion of women working in agriculture here on a full-time basis in 2019 was only 30%, compared with 62% of the general workforce. It is of particular concern that, since 2006, the number of local women farmers has fallen by around 15%. While there are 40% more women recorded as "other" or "casual workers" on farms, there has also been a sharp decline in the number of women principal farmers in comparison with men over the same period. There has been a 21% drop for women, compared with a 6% decrease for men.

When the Committee looked at the boards of 17 local agri-food organisations and businesses covering agriculture organisations, education and private agri-food production enterprises, the Committee found that, of 111 senior board representatives at these organisations, only 16 were women. That is just 14%. Compared with other jurisdictions on these islands, there is a lack of policy in place that is intended to encourage and support women in the agriculture sector. According to the Department's consultation on future agricultural policy proposals, DAERA is cognisant of the need to encourage females in farming and to eliminate any perceived barriers to accessing the industry as a viable career path.

Recognising that there is a problem is, of course, a start, although many would point out that some of those barriers are real rather than merely perceived. Let us be absolutely clear on this: there is no valid reason why women cannot be successful in the agriculture sector, as farm owners, managers, workers, in education organisations, in agri-food production companies, at board level and even as Ministers, but there is an urgent need for policy initiatives to prevent us from falling further behind other regions on these islands and, indeed, within Europe. We have a responsibility as legislators to ensure equality of opportunity for women in agriculture here. That means removing the barriers, real or perceived, that prevent women from choosing farming as a viable career path. The Committee has made several recommendations towards this objective, and the SDLP wholeheartedly supports all of the recommendations in the report.

12.30 pm

Mrs Barton: Over the past six months, the AERA Committee has researched the challenges experienced by women in agriculture, given that it is widely recognised that women make a very valuable contribution to the agriculture sector in Northern Ireland.

There are approximately 25,000 agricultural holdings in Northern Ireland, with women making up approximately 22% of the agriculture workforce, yet 95% of the farms are owned by men. Increasingly, women are abandoning farming and working in other supporting roles in the agriculture sector. The number of women working primarily in the sector fell by 15% between 2006 and 2019. Those statistics are evidence that women have to navigate complex and difficult issues in order to get the recognition that they deserve from the agriculture industry.

There appears to be a legacy of culture and attitude around encouraging young women, in comparison with young men, into agriculture. The question of succession and parental attitudes to daughters being willed land is a barrier to female ownership. Many still see farming as not being a suitable career for women and girls, and the family farm is passed to the son, thus leaving the daughter without access to succession land. There is also a mindset in which it is preferable for the family farm to remain in the family name, which would not be the case if it were inherited by a daughter who got married.

Comments in the AERA Committee report included that, although many women helped out on the farm in an unpaid capacity, feeding animals or completing paperwork, there was a reluctance from male owners of farms to have the farm jointly owned with their partner.

Another telling comment was:

"Women ... are not seen to be competent enough to run farms ... As a woman in the agricultural sector, I frequently have men walk into the yard and immediately ask if my father or husband is around."

Although the good gender balance on many of the level 2 courses offered by the College of Agriculture Food and Rural Enterprise (CAFRE) is recognised, it further highlights the challenges that women experience, because so few return to the family farm. Many instead make a career in agri-associated businesses or in the agri-food industry.

Another concern raised was that of gender equality around the boardroom tables of the agri-food industry. Is there a 50:50 split, reflecting the population, or is it less equal? You all heard Mr McGlone refer to that a few moments ago. We live in the 21st century, so attitudes must change. Parents must encourage daughters by familiarising them from an early age with all the farm work, thus instilling confidence in all their family and giving them good experiences of becoming involved in the agriculture sector.

If women are to overcome the many challenges in the agriculture sector, whether that means inheriting and owning a farm, having joint names on herds and payments or applying to become a board member in our agri-food industry, DAERA must help. It should consider and address those challenges through a programme of education and mentoring for cultural and attitudinal changes, perhaps similar to the programme in Scotland, which, I understand, has been very successful. No longer should someone, because of gender, feel less empowered to succeed in the local agriculture sector.

Mr Blair: I am pleased to be able to join the debate from a remote location. I support the comments made by the Committee Chair and other Committee colleagues.

The glass ceiling that restricts women in the various strands of the agriculture sector is similar to that witnessed over many generations in other walks of life. Those, of course, include politics and other areas of public life. It is important and right to call this out on International Women's Day, and more important to do all that we can to break those barriers. In agriculture, there have been particular and persistent cultural, as well as practical, barriers for women. Those include perception around those assumed to be interested in playing a leading role. There have been barriers around inheritance and also in succession planning, education, training and access to funding.

Government — DAERA, in particular — and all of us in the Assembly and in public life have a role to play in breaking those barriers. The motion from the Committee is the result of engagement and consultation which not only further identified those barriers but stressed the need to find solutions to them. Hopefully, this will lead to increased engagement by the Committee, the Assembly, the Department and the Minister. The engagement must find ways to support women in the sector and across it in a way that has been done in other jurisdictions.

On behalf of Alliance, I support the motion.

Ms Sheerin: Ar dtús, seo Seachtain na Gaeilge agus Lá Idirnáisiúnta na mBan. Mar sin de, ba mhaith liom cúpla focal a rá i nGaeilge ina dtaobh. Ag tosú leis an teanga Ghaeilge, caithfimidh tacaíocht a thabhairt do mhná na tuaithe san Éirinn nua. First, it is Seachtain na Gaeilge — it is actually Coicís na Gaeilge — and today is also International Women’s Day. Just as we support the Irish language, we have to support our rural women in a new Ireland. Like our Irish language speakers, our farmers and food producers have often succeeded in this country in spite of support from the state, North and South. For women engaged in this industry, the challenges have always been exacerbated. When we think of the traditional family farm, the woman's role was always very clearly defined. It included everything. Many a farmer's wife was a farmer herself. She had to tend to chickens and pet lambs, milk cows, bring in feed, clean out pens and do all the housework, rear children, bake bread, make dinners and everything in between. I think, at this point on International Women's Day, of my two grannies, both of whom would have been described as "housewives" at various points in their lives and both of whom could have been described as "not working", but the whole show would have fallen apart had not been for them.

Whether we like it or not, we still have gender norms in this country. The theme of International Women's Day this year is Break The Bias. We still have a long way to go. Women are more likely to be in insecure work, to work part-time and to have more unpaid responsibilities. The pay gap is estimated to sit at around 9·6% in the North, with women earning 9·6% less than men. In the feminist recovery plan produced by the Women's Policy Group, we are told that one third of women have unpaid caring responsibilities. That affects all women, but it often affects rural women more. Childcare is less accessible, public transport is often unavailable completely and support networks for women in rural areas are dispersed, leaving women isolated.

When we talk about inequalities, we have to consider them intersectionally. All rural communities are disenfranchised by poor infrastructure and a lack of mobile connectivity and broadband, but it is usually women who suffer most. The same survey told us that 66% of women had struggled with poor broadband during COVID-19. It was women doing schoolwork with children and women working from home online, so it was women who suffered the most. Our female farmers have all those challenges and more. I know women who farm in my local area. I also know that, in a recent section 75 assessment, the Department of Agriculture quoted 2015 data that said that only 7% of farms were owned by women and that, therefore, policy was not going to have an impact on women. To me, that should have been a prompt for a change and action to address it.

We need to Break The Bias, encourage more women into our fields or, in many cases, give them credit for the fields that they are already standing in.

Mr T Buchanan: I welcome the opportunity, on International Women's Day, to speak in this important debate highlighting the difficulties faced by women in the agriculture sector. As a representative of West Tyrone — a vast rural constituency, populated with many farms and large businesses that are reliant on the agriculture industry — I say that it is vital that more proactive steps are taken to recognise the support that women give and the role that they play on farms.

Women represent over half of Northern Ireland's population, yet so few of them take up roles in farm management. At just 22%, Northern Ireland has the lowest percentage of women in the agriculture workforce compared with the UK. The issues that face women and that hinder their careers in the farming industry are vast. There is a clear stigma of farming being a male-dominated industry. That stereotype has proven to be a barrier for women in the sector who feel that attitudes towards them will never change. Despite the vital role that they play, many women feel that they are not seen as being as competent as their male colleagues. In the past, the operation of large and heavy machinery and all the manual labour involved in running a farm were seen as being men's jobs. The whole nature of farming is changing, however, with a shift away from masculine labour towards new technology and operating systems.

We cannot undermine the vital work that is undertaken by women in the farming community. Many of them carry out hands-on tasks whilst completing paperwork and looking after the household needs. They often also hold other employment, using their salary to ensure the continued day-to-day running of the farm; yet their contribution often goes unnoticed, and women feel that they will never be recognised as farmers on their own merit.

Agriculture is an accessible career with plenty of opportunities, but it relies on the new ideas, skills and talents of young men and women to provide a sustainable future. Measures have been implemented in other parts of the United Kingdom, such as in Scotland, which has funded three pilot training programmes to encourage women's participation in the agriculture sector. Already, 200 women have enrolled in Scotland's "Be Your Best Self" programme, which supports women in developing their leadership abilities to ensure that agriculture is a more resilient and economically sustainable industry. The Scottish task force also plans to scope out the provision of childcare services in rural areas, looking at how to improve its availability to women who want to work in the agriculture sector.

The online survey carried out by the AERA Committee showed that some of the biggest deterrents to women entering the agriculture industry in a full-time capacity are the unreasonable hours required for farm work and the lack of support such as maternity leave and help towards childcare costs. Similar initiatives need to be rolled out in Northern Ireland to give women time to take part in courses to enhance their leadership skills and to boost their overall morale while working in a male-dominated environment. From the Committee's findings, it is clear that women in this sector believe that their opinion is not as readily accepted as a male's opinion. A woman's perspective can differ from a man's, and new approaches and ideas will help the industry to modernise to meet the challenges that agriculture will face in the near future, such as the new climate change legislation, which will mean that farms will have to take active steps to reduce their emissions.

It is expected that more women will enter the agriculture industry throughout the United Kingdom as the uptake of women in educational courses in agriculture has increased. I welcome the courses that are already offered at CAFRE to encourage young women into the sector; I appreciate that maybe more can be done, but those are ongoing. As a Committee, we have the opportunity to ensure that the agriculture industry is a fairer and more inclusive industry. It should be a priority to promote women who wish to advance their career in the agriculture sector.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): I call Sinéad Ennis.

Ms Ennis: Sorry, Deputy Speaker, I took my name off the speaking list.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): Sorry, there was a misunderstanding. I call Harry Harvey.

Mr Harvey: As Members have said, it is very fitting that this motion is being debated on International Women's Day. It goes without saying that women contribute so much across society, in traditional roles and, more and more, in roles that would have been less popular for them in previous years.

One such area has been engineering. That is evidenced by the rising number of females who are entering that profession. Greater numbers of women across those sectors that are traditionally reserved for men have shown that, no matter what your gender or identity, anyone can achieve their goals in whichever field they wish to pursue them.

12.45 pm

Like so many other job roles, farming has seen a rising number of women taking an active role in that sector, which, for centuries, has been seen as a man's domain. Now more than ever before, women are stepping forward, not only to support the farm business but to run, own and manage it. That needs not only to be celebrated but encouraged. It must be remembered, however, that women have always played an important role in the farming and rural community, which, although it has often been unrecognised, has always been equally vital to the continuity and viability of many farms across the country.

That said, unique challenges face women who decide to play more of a fundamental and managerial role in the sector. We should not only be alive to those issues but seek, where possible, to highlight and tackle them head-on. Whether it be in agriculture or any other sector or profession, there is no place for disadvantage being put on women. While much has been done and achieved over the past two decades to address the gender imbalance and associated issues, there is still work to be done.

Over recent months, the Agriculture Committee has sought to do exactly that with the commissioning of its 'Breaking the Grass Ceiling' report, a critical assessment of women's role in agriculture, which launches today. Yesterday, I had the pleasure of visiting a local farm shop business in my constituency with the Minister. That successful farm diversification business is managed by Emily McGowan, a very successful businesswoman and farmer. Unfortunately, Emily is the exception to the rule. It is our role to ask why that is and whether the barriers that face women in reaching their full potential in the agri-food sector can be challenged. I know that that is very much the thrust of the Committee's efforts and that the Minister has always been willing to support women across the sector and will continue to work alongside the Committee to highlight that issue.

Reports have shown that government initiatives in other jurisdictions have borne fruit, with increasing numbers of women taking on job roles such as farming as a result. Hopefully, the report will better inform and enlighten debate on that topic and help to shape future support and government policy in the new mandate.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): Members, I will apply the discretion that is given to me to extend the debate slightly to ensure that the two remaining Members on the speaking list will have an opportunity to contribute. They will each have five minutes.

Ms Hunter: Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. I really appreciate that. I welcome the opportunity to speak, albeit briefly, on the important issue of women in agriculture and the challenges that they face in what was traditionally seen, and is sometimes still seen, as quite a male-dominated space. It is appropriate that we are discussing the issue on International Women's Day, with this year's theme being "Break the Bias".

Across the North and, indeed, the world, women play a huge role in the agriculture sector. Over the past few decades, the sector has transformed. With those changes comes opportunity. While our traditional view of farming might be that it is male-led, women have been the backbone of farming communities, providing skilled labour and support for generations. Despite that, it is extremely disappointing that the North lags behind the rest of Europe when it comes to the number of female farm managers. For too long, women have been denied opportunities in the sector. The old saying "If you can see it, you can be it" comes to mind. We need to showcase properly the pioneers who are leading the way in agriculture on this island despite historical challenges.

Farming is changing due to advances in technology and in order to tackle the climate crisis that threatens our everyday life. As farming becomes more modern and more reflective of our modern society, so, too, must its workforce. We need to showcase the opportunities that exist here for women in the agriculture sector and ensure that ability is encouraged, supported and developed from a young age. If our agriculture sector is to adapt and thrive, it needs more women in its workforce. Women have unique skills and viewpoints that will help to build a modern and robust farming industry. We have already seen the tremendous impact that women have made on the sector, and we need to do all that we can to encourage that moving forward.

I welcome the Committee's work on reviewing the barriers that remain and highlighting the importance of breaking the glass ceiling for women in agriculture. The North should be very proud of its agriculture sector, and I look forward to ongoing efforts to break the bias and ensure that women are properly represented in it.

Ms Bailey: I am well aware that the timing for the debate is tight. We had been allocated 45 minutes rather than the usual one and a half hours, so thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker, for the extension. I will keep my contribution short.

On International Women's Day, people around the world are challenged to imagine a gender-equal world. In 2022, we are still having to raise awareness of gender bias. That is the theme of this year's International Women's Day, and it is why we are here acknowledging the report. There are no surprises in the report, and I am glad that the AERA Committee carried out that work. I urge every Member to read it and every party to adopt its recommendations.

What you will find in the report is exactly what you will find when we talk about women in any sector and women in any leadership roles around the world. The barriers are the same, and the research has shown us that they are the five Cs: candidacy, cash, caring responsibilities, culture and confidence. In any sector, around the world, the barriers for women are the same as for women in our agriculture sector here.

During the carrying out of the report, we heard stories from women in the agriculture sector here in Northern Ireland about the misogynistic attitudes that they face at farmers' markets, at sales and in the industry as a whole. We have a chance to stop that. There is now a real chance to embed the principles of gender equality throughout the agriculture sector, which would transform not just the sector but our society as a whole.

I hope that the Minister, the Department and everybody here takes notice and does the right thing for women across society.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): I call Michelle McIlveen, who, whilst Minister of Education, will respond on behalf of the Minister of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs, and she has up to seven and a half minutes in which to speak.

Miss McIlveen (The Minister of Education): On this International Women's Day, I welcome the opportunity to participate in today's debate on behalf of Minister Poots, who is unable to attend.

The report highlights the need to support women in the agriculture sector. It is a fact that women remain under-represented in the agriculture industry. There are real and perceived barriers to women undertaking a career in farming. That has been well articulated by the Committee Chair and Members.

It is important that the industry moves forward in a way that supports and encourages women to take on leadership roles in farm businesses and across the wider sector. It is imperative that future agricultural policy helps to promote and inspire the next generation of farmers, female and male.

It is well known that the local agriculture industry is traditionally male-dominated. The most recent EU farm structure survey, which was in 2016 , showed that 76% of farm workers in Northern Ireland were male, and 24% were female, although the proportion of female managers was just 5%. However, DAERA's College of Agriculture, Food and Rural Enterprise (CAFRE) delivers education programmes to around 1,900 students, and it is positive to know that the number of female students is increasing.

CAFRE delivers further and higher education programmes, and, whilst 27% of further education students are female, many of them use their course as a route to progress to higher education. Notably, 54% of CAFRE students studying for foundation or honours degrees in agriculture are female.

CAFRE students are the industry leaders and influencers of the future. That changing picture should mean that we begin to see a shift in the demographics as those young people leave college and begin to follow their chosen careers in the agriculture industry. Without doubt, knowledge transfer is critical to improving future performance, sustainability and resilience in the agri-food industry. CAFRE continues to deliver knowledge transfer innovation and technology transfer programmes to people who are already participating and working in the agriculture industry. Whilst female participation in the current suite of programmes is relatively low, DAERA is looking ahead to future programmes and to how that can be changed.

The Department's public consultation on future agriculture policy proposals for Northern Ireland closed on 15 February, and DAERA officials are considering the responses that were received. The consultation included policy proposals for future knowledge transfer, innovation programmes for the industry and a generational renewal programme to support and encourage generational change in the industry. The development of programmes in those two policy areas provides an opportunity to address the recommendations that were made in the report, to facilitate enhanced training and education for women in the sector and to promote and encourage succession, regardless of sex.

Across the industry as a whole, it is important that individuals and organisations demonstrate the appropriate behaviours of fairness and equality. One recommendation in the report, which was launched today and which is very welcome, is that female representation on boards and committees should be increased. It may be the case that awareness training is appropriate for some organisations. However, I note that DAERA is leading by example with 45% of its staff being female. Also, all DAERA staff undertake mandatory unconscious bias training at their induction, and they are also encouraged to complete the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland's (ECNI) online training on section 75 duties. In addition, DAERA staff at CAFRE deliver diversity and inclusion training each year to students in order to reinforce key messages about equality and respect as they study at college and then leave to work in the agriculture industry.

I fully endorse the recommendation in the report that organisations across the sector should consider how women can be promoted in communications about new initiatives, policies and projects, and that is important across all industry sectors. It is encouraging to note that DAERA also leads by example in that area of work by highlighting the roles and responsibilities that women have in the agriculture sector. In addition, CAFRE ensures that there is strong female representation across all the communication channels that it uses. Students and alumni are featured regularly studying and working in rewarding jobs and leadership roles.

In conclusion, there are many steps already being taken to bring cultural and behavioural change that will positively impact women in agriculture and help them to overcome perceived barriers to their career progression. However, the report shows that there is more that could be done. It is important that DAERA and the industry work together in order to facilitate change through ongoing policy development.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): I call Declan McAleer, the Committee Chair, to conclude and make a winding-up speech on the debate on the motion.

Mr McAleer (The Chairperson of the Committee for Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs): I thank all Members for their contributions on this International Women's Day. We were delighted to be able to table the motion in the Chamber on this particular day. Indeed, we are launching the report at 1.30 pm in the Long Gallery. Everyone is invited to the Long Gallery just before 1.30 pm, and I will elaborate on the report in a bit more detail.

The review has highlighted the central role that women play in our agriculture sector, and it has shone a light on the issues and barriers that they face on a daily basis. Many of those barriers and issues are embedded in tradition and cultural practice, and we heard that from Member after Member today. While it will take years of persistent action to deliver full equality of opportunity, the Committee's recommendations aim to set a train in motion towards greater inclusivity for women in the sector and to address some of the challenges.

In the context of the impending changes from climate change legislation, a new system of farm payments and trade dynamics arising from Brexit, our local agriculture sector cannot afford to keep doing things in the same way.

By embracing, supporting and encouraging women to have greater prominence and leadership in the industry, our agricultural sphere will be better placed to adapt, diversify and modernise in response to strategic challenges.

1.00 pm

I thank everyone, particularly the women, who took the time to complete the survey and participate in our stakeholder event, as well as the organisations that provided their insight and advice to the Committee, including the Ulster Farmers' Union and the NI Rural Women's Network. The Committee recognises that delivering change and equality of opportunity for women in our agriculture sector will take many years, and it hopes that the review will be a positive first step on that journey.

Question put and agreed to.


That this Assembly endorses the report of the Committee for Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs on the challenges women experience in the local agriculture sector [NIA 180/17-22]; recognises the practical, social and cultural barriers that women face in the industry; acknowledges the crucial and valuable role that women play in running farms and agri-businesses; and calls on the Minister of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs to put in place measures to support women in the sector, as has been done in other jurisdictions.

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

Private Members' Business

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): I call Pat Catney to move the Consideration Stage of the Period Products (Free Provision) Bill.

Moved. — [Mr Catney.]

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): Members will have a copy of the Marshalled List of amendments detailing the order for consideration. The amendments have been grouped for debate in the provisional grouping of amendments selected list. There is a single group of amendments — Nos 1 to 18 — that deals with the definitions and duties, and implementation and review.

I remind Members who intend to speak during the debate on the single group of amendments that they should address all the amendments in the group on which they wish to comment. Once the debate is completed, any further amendments in the group will be moved formally as we go through the Bill and the Question on each will be put without further debate. The Question on stand part will be taken at the appropriate points in the Bill. If that is clear, we will proceed.

Clause 1 (Provision of free period products: Department scheme)

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): We now come to the group of amendments for debate. With amendment No 1 it will be convenient to debate amendment Nos 2 to 18. I call Robbie Butler to move amendment No 1 and to address the other amendments in the group.

The following amendments stood on the Marshalled List:

No 1: In page 2, line 12, leave out "Department of Health" and insert "Executive Office". — [Mr Butler.]

No 2: In clause 2, page 2, line 20, leave out paragraph (b). — [Mr Catney.]

No 3: In clause 2, page 2, line 39, after first "a" insert "public service". — [Mr Catney.]

No 4: In clause 2, page 2, line 40, after "the" insert "public service". — [Mr Catney.]

No 5: In clause 2, page 3, line 1, leave out "Bodies" and insert "Public service bodies". — [Mr Catney.]

No 6: In clause 2, page 3, line 4, after "those" insert "public service". — [Mr Catney.]

No 7: In clause 2, page 3, line 12, at end insert—

"(13) Each department must review the regulations specifying public service bodies within its functions under subsections (1) and (2), as applicable, every three years and, if necessary, update that information." — [Mr Catney.]

No 8: In clause 3, page 3, line 18, after "dignity" insert ", privacy and confidentiality". — [Mr Lyttle (The Chairperson of the Committee for Education).]

No 9: In clause 3, page 3, line 19, after "obtainable" insert—

", having regard to articles which are reusable". — [Mr Lyttle (The Chairperson of the Committee for Education).]

No 10: In clause 3, page 3, line 21, after "dignity" insert ", privacy and confidentiality". — [Mr Lyttle (The Chairperson of the Committee for Education).]

No 11: In clause 3, page 3, line 27, after "obtainable" insert "by persons in its premises". — [Mr Catney.]

No 12: After clause 3 insert—

3A.—(1) The Executive must review and make a report on the operation of the provisions of sections (1) and (2) of this Act;

(2) A report under this section is to include—

(a) the number of public service bodies specified by regulation under section (2);

(b) an assessment of the efficiency and effectiveness of the exercise of the functions carried out under sections (1) and (2) of this Act; and

(c) any further information that the Executive considers appropriate.

(3) A report under this section must be—

(a) laid before the Assembly by the Executive; and
(b) published by the Executive before the end of the period of three years beginning with the day on which this Act receives Royal Assent, and at subsequent intervals of no more than three years." — [Mr Catney.]

No 13: In clause 4, page 4, line 4, leave out "another department" and insert "one or more departments". — [Mr Catney.]

No 14: In clause 5, page 4, line 24, at end insert—

"(3A) Consultation under subsection (2) must have regard to—

(a) the dignity, privacy and confidentiality of product users; and
(b) articles which are reusable." — [Mr Lyttle (The Chairperson of the Committee for Education).]

No 15: In clause 7, page 5, line 18, leave out from second "person’s" to "person" on line 19 and insert—

"needs of a woman, girl or other person for period products arising from menstruation by that person". — [Mr Catney.]

No 16: In clause 8, page 5, line 29, at end insert—

"‘Health and Social Care Trusts’ means a body established under Article 10 of the Health and Personal Social Services (Northern Ireland) Order 1991." — [Mr Catney.]

No 17: In clause 8, page 5, line 33, after "enactment;" insert "and". — [Mr Catney.]

No 18: In clause 9, page 6, line 6, leave out from "(1)" to end of line 7 and insert—

"(1) The following provisions of this Act come into operation on the day after Royal Assent—

(a) sections 2(1) and (7) to (12);

(b) section (7);

(c) section (8);

(d) this section; and
(e) section 10." — [Mr Catney.]

Mr Butler: On behalf of the Ulster Unionist Party, I will speak on the amendments that are before us and, hopefully, support the Bill to its further passage. First, I express my thanks for all the work that Members across the House have put into the Bill in the Chamber and particularly in the Education Committee. I also thank the Bill sponsor, my colleague from Lagan Valley Mr Pat Catney, for all his work, his receptive nature in receiving suggestions and comments throughout the Bill's passage, and for the manner in which it is starting to take a little bit of shape.

It is in my name so I beg to move amendment No 1:

In page 2, line 12, leave out "Department of Health" and insert "Executive Office".

The purpose of the amendment is to rationalise where the overall duty of responsibility for the Bill should lie. Rest assured, as I read through the Bill and the provisions contained therein, I had no issue with the provisions in clause 1. I do, though, draw the conclusion that the Department of Health is not the correct place for the Bill to be administered to have a universal impact. The Bill is definitively cross-cutting and will have an impact on public service bodies that sit under the functions of a wide variety of Departments. One only has to look at clause 2 to see that the onus is on each and every Stormont Department to identify public service bodies to which the provisions of the Bill will apply. Furthermore, amendment No 1 dovetails with amendment No 12, which seeks to insert a new clause that will lay a responsibility on the Executive to review and report on the Bill.

I do not take issue with any of the other amendments. The majority are technical in nature and work to enhance the wording of the Bill. I particularly support amendment No 7, which provides for a review of departmental regulation every three years. That will keep the legislation agile and reactive to any identified gaps in free period product provision that become apparent in the first few years of the Bill's implementation. Similarly, amendment No 12, which provides for a three-yearly report and review before the Assembly, will allow us to be responsive and adaptive to the outcomes of the Bill. I support that as well

Amendment Nos 8, 9 and 10, which have been tabled by the Committee, reflect the compassionate concerns and comments that were raised at Committee Stage. The dignity, privacy and confidentiality of those who require the provision of period products is paramount and should absolutely be enshrined in the Bill. I am more than happy to support those amendments.

I wholeheartedly endorse the aims of the Bill, and I am happy to support the amendments that have been tabled.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): For the record, will you clarify whether you moved amendment No 1?

Mr Butler: I did.

Mr Lyttle (The Chairperson of the Committee for Education): For some time, the Committee for Education has worked to urge that measures be put in place to end period poverty and facilitate the free provision of period products. The Department of Education began a period dignity pilot project in schools last year, and laid the groundwork for the roll-out of a more comprehensive approach. Therefore, the Bill is timely and aligns with the Education Committee's aim of delivering equal access to education for all.

The Education Committee worked hard to liaise with relevant voices in government and the public during the Committee Stage of this cross-cutting Bill. We commend the efforts of Pat Catney MLA to progress this important Bill in the Assembly.

Following the introduction of the Bill to the Assembly, the Education Committee wrote to key education stakeholders on 23 November 2021. The Committee also inserted notices in the 'Belfast Telegraph', 'The Irish News' and the 'News Letter' to seek written evidence on the Bill by 18 December 2021. The Committee highlighted its call for evidence via social media and agreed, at its meeting of 6 December 2021, to extend its call for evidence on the Bill to Friday 7 January 2022.

Around 66 organisations and individuals responded to the request for written evidence. During the period covered by the Committee Stage report, the Committee considered the Bill and related issues at 11 meetings. From 1 December 2021 to 26 January 2022, the Committee took oral evidence from the Bill's sponsor, Pat Catney MLA; the Department for Communities; the Department of Education; the Department of Health; and selected stakeholders who had submitted written evidence.

The Committee commenced its informal deliberations on the clauses of the Bill on 26 January 2022 and completed its formal clause-by-clause scrutiny at its meeting of 31 January 2022. The Assembly's Research and Information Service provided the Committee with research papers on the Bill. As is the usual convention, the Committee sought and accepted the advice of the Examiner of Statutory Rules on the secondary legislation-making powers in the Bill and the level of Assembly scrutiny to which those rules would be subject. The Examiner advised that the delegation of legislative power provided for in the Bill is not inappropriate and that the exercise of that legislative power is subject to an appropriate procedure.

The Education Committee's principles and values align, as I said earlier, with the objectives of the Bill. That was brought home to us even more emphatically when we took part in a youth engagement event on the Bill's proposals. Young people shared their experience of period pain and period emergencies at school; their self-consciousness about periods; their worry about not being sure that they would have enough products to manage menstruation and unpredictability, especially during exercise; their fear of being made to feel ashamed about their periods; and the stigma of others. Girls and boys both voiced the opinion that more open discussion of periods would make it less taboo and would enable boys and girls to understand and support people with menstruation. Some pupils expressed the expectation that period products should be provided on the same basis as toilet paper and other essentials and that it is unfair to many people that that is not already the case. They spoke truth to power, as they always do, and I commend our young people for showing us the way.

Overall, the Education Committee identified some key challenges with the Bill. Stakeholder input recommended privacy and confidentiality in accessing period products, and the Education Committee has acted on that by agreeing and tabling amendments to clauses 3 and 5. Notwithstanding the primary need to put provision in place, there is an additional need to minimise paper and plastic waste from period products, which is estimated at 200,000 tons of waste per year in the UK, and the Committee has acted upon that in agreeing and tabling amendments to clauses 3 and 5. There was a relative lack of evidence on which to base costings for the proposals, given that similar schemes in neighbouring jurisdictions have recently commenced, although estimates were provided, for which we are grateful, by the Bill sponsor, Pat Catney MLA.

There was an issue with the pending nature of an indication from the Executive to the Bill sponsor and to the Committee of a lead or coordinating Department for the Bill, and that will also be addressed. There was a lack of clarity around the funding of the proposed measures. However, the Education Committee was in favour of the policy direction led by the Bill sponsor, Pat Catney MLA, and was advised that the Bill was technically sound and afforded time and flexibility for the proposed arrangements to be made before commencement.

Formal clause-by-clause scrutiny of the Bill took place on 31 January 2022. The Education Committee commissioned the text of four amendments, which you see on the Marshalled List today. They address themes and suggestions that arose in written and oral submissions. First, the Committee identified a need to emphasise privacy and confidentiality in arrangements made to deliver provision under the clause 1 universal duty and the more discrete clause 2 duty for specified public service bodies. Secondly, the Committee wished those arrangements to require consideration of sustainable products, described in the Bill as "articles which are reusable".

The first theme in respect of privacy and confidentiality derives from evidence from organisations such as Homeless Period Belfast, which indicated a preference that free period products should be available inside toilet cubicles or beside wash-hand basins. It emphasised the need for privacy and confidentiality, represented by its stakeholders, who were conscious of feeling period stigma. That was echoed by the Period Poverty Action Group and the Department for Communities witnesses. Accordingly, amendment Nos 8, 10 and 14 add the additional elements of "privacy and confidentiality" to the prerequisite in the Bill of dignity in arrangements.

The Education Committee was also conscious of the environmental impact of paper and plastic waste from menstrual products, which was calculated by the Women's Environmental Network at 200,000 tons a year. Accordingly, amendment Nos 9 and 14 reinforce reference to "articles which are reusable" to ensure that sustainable options are considered and consulted on as much as possible in response to the needs of service users.

1.15 pm

The Committee also had before it the text of the Bill sponsor's amendments, which address issues raised by Departments in their correspondence with the Committee, namely correcting minor and technical details of the Bill and seeking to clarify language that had given rise to misunderstandings about the phasing of and timing of specific public-service bodies' regulation-making and commencement provisions. The Committee agreed that it was content with the amendments before it, with certain clauses of the Bill as drafted and with the clauses subject to those amendments. One Committee member reserved judgement on the amendments, certain clauses as drafted and the clauses subject to amendment, owing to unresolved factors external to the Bill that I have already outlined. That is as diplomatic a way as I can put that.

The Committee's recommendation for an accompanying education awareness-raising programme that would address in co-educational settings societal attitudes that give rise to period stigma and help explain and demystify periods and period product provision, including sustainable options was inspired by the evidence of the Council for the Curriculum, Examinations and Assessment (CCEA) outlining the educational programme that it has rolled out in schools to accompany the implementation of the Department of Education's period dignity pilot. I hope to hear discussion and reassurances from the coordinating Minister about how that recommendation might be accepted and actioned.

In agreeing its report on 2 February 2022, the Education Committee also agreed to write to the Executive Office to indicate the uncertainty demonstrated in the Department of Health's oral evidence concerning the universal duty and to ask that, to avert any confusion caused by that, the Executive Office undertake to coordinate the Executive response to the Bill and departmental amendments to it. The Committee received helpful submissions from the Department for the Economy, the Minister of Finance and the Minister for Communities, as well as some clarifying submissions. Owing to the resignation of the DUP First Minister, the Executive Office was no longer available to coordinate, so the Education Committee welcomes the letter received from the Communities Minister, Deirdre Hargey MLA, undertaking that role. We are all appreciative of that outcome to allow the Bill to pass.

Our Committee report and its appendices hopefully make useful reading for many and are a useful contribution, and I commend the report to the Assembly on International Women's Day. I am grateful to all stakeholders who contributed their thoughtful and often heartfelt replies and reflections on their experiences. I thank Education Committee members for their diligence and commitment on the matter. I also thank the Education Committee Clerk and her team, as well as the Clerks and departmental Assembly liaison officers (DALOs) who helped them facilitate liaison on this cross-cutting matter in a short window of opportunity. We are always indebted for the calm objectivity of our Bill Clerk, our researcher and the Assembly's Legal Services, and this time was no exception.

I commend the Committee's amendments to the Assembly, as well as the Bill sponsor's amendments, which we also support, and I look forward to the Minister's response to the Committee's recommendation. We are delighted to see the Bill progress to this stage and look forward to its further progress to Final Stage.

Mr Sheehan: It is appropriate that we are discussing the issue on International Women's Day. My wife chastised me for not wishing her a happy International Women's Day first thing this morning, so I wish female colleagues from all parties a happy International Women's Day.

First, I thank the Bill sponsor, Pat Catney, for bringing it forward. I commend him for having got it to this stage. I have no doubt that it will be enacted. Whatever happens in the election, this will leave a legacy for Pat Catney to look back on with pride. It is another progressive piece of legislation going through the Assembly. If we think of some of the stuff that has gone through over the past few weeks, we know that this is just another piece in the jigsaw. The Bill deals with issues such as period poverty and gender equality, which are important issues in rebalancing the society in which we live and ensuring that it is fair and equal for everyone who lives here.

Most of the amendments are technical in nature or are tidying up. There is nothing really controversial there, and I support them all. One issue that has been a bit trickier for some Members is the fact that Robbie Butler's amendment No 1 assigns lead responsibility to the Executive Office rather than the Health Department, which is named in the legislation. Some Members are slightly confused because the Minister for Communities is here today to respond to the debate. Let me make it clear: the Minister for Communities is here to guide the Bill through its legislative process. That does not necessarily mean that she is taking the lead. If the amendment is made, which I expect it to be, the lead responsibility for delivering on this will rest with the Executive Office. I just mention that to provide some clarity and end any confusion.

There is not much else that I want to say. Sinn Féin supports all the amendments and welcomes this progressive legislation. As the Committee Chair mentioned, everyone expects toilet paper to be free and available in public toilets; likewise, there should be no charge for period products, and they should be made universally available. I will end on that. Once again, I wish the Bill sponsor well. Pat Catney has done a great job in bringing the Bill to this point.

Mrs Dodds: First, like Pat Sheehan, I wish my colleagues happy International Women's Day. Perhaps we should focus our minds on the women in Afghanistan who have been denied opportunities and those in Ukraine who are suffering such terrible violence.

I thank the Bill sponsor for the Bill. I know that there was some Twitter excitement last week about the origins of the Bill and so on. I go back to the old phrase that success has many fathers, but failure is an orphan. I wish the Bill success, because it is important in progressing equality and because — again, on International Women's Day — the issue is so fundamental to women and girls in our society. It may be an accident of timing, but it is appropriate that we are discussing the Bill on International Women's Day.

Throughout the Chamber, there is an acknowledgement that eradicating period poverty is hugely important and that no one should be disadvantaged because of it in either work or education. It builds, of course, on the pilot schemes that I announced as Minister for the Economy and that our Education Minister has announced. Those important schemes are already making a difference.

Before I speak to the amendments, I wish to say that I am interested to hear the Minister's and indeed, the Bill sponsor's comments — he knows that I have raised the issue on many occasions — on the universal clause on the provision of period products. I note that the Bill has no business case and no real estimate of the cost of the universal clause, so I am interested to hear what the Minister has to say about clause 1 and the universality of that at a time when we have tight budgets to control.

The amendments, as many have said, are technical. They tidy up the Bill and eradicate mentions of bodies where there is no need for them and so on. Importantly, they also address something that the Education Committee discussed at length: the issue around privacy, confidentiality and accessibility. It means that no one should be in an awkward or difficult position in accessing products, particularly young girls in school, where there might be some hesitancy around the issue.

We support the Bill. I have spoken to the sponsor on the issue many times. I wish him well and thank him for the legislation.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): The Business Committee has arranged to meet at 1.30 pm today. Therefore, I propose, by leave of the Assembly, to suspend the sitting until 2.00 pm, when the next contributor scheduled to speak is Cara Hunter.

The debate stood suspended.

The sitting was suspended at 1.26 pm.

2.00 pm

On resuming (Mr Speaker in the Chair) —

Debate resumed.

Ms Hunter: I welcome the opportunity to speak on such an important Bill, which aims to improve the lives of so many across our society. If passed, the Bill would provide free period products in schools, colleges and public buildings. It is a fantastic coincidence that today's stage falls on International Women's Day.

I will begin by touching on a few of the many amendments that we will support. Amendment No 8, which is the Committee's amendment to include the requirement for "privacy and confidentiality" to be considered in the development of the schemes, is vital. We will support amendment No 9, which is the Committee's amendment to add a specific reference to the need for reusable products in order to showcase and highlight the concern around that issue. We will support amendment No 10, which is the Committee's amendment to include the requirement for "privacy and confidentiality", as Mrs Dodds mentioned, to be considered in the development of the scheme, and we will support amendment No 14, as it touches on the importance of referring to reusable products in the consultation. Those products will be better for the environment and will be long-lasting and reliable products for women and girls.

Pat Catney has been talking about this important Bill for around 18 months. Since becoming an MLA, I have been extremely fortunate to share an office with Pat. It has been a true privilege. On our best days, we are like an episode of 'The Office' up there. When Pat first talked about the importance of the Bill, he asked me, "Would it be strange of me, a man, to sponsor a Bill on periods? Would it be weird? Would people feel uncomfortable in talking to me?". I am here to say, without reservation: no, Pat. As we come to this stage, it is obvious that everyone inside and outside these walls can see that you have truly gone above and beyond in engaging with sectors and activists and in hearing from women across the North about their perspectives. You have responded with kindness, consideration and, most importantly, an open mind and an inclusive nature.

None of us in the Chamber knows whether we will be in politics for the next five days, five months or five years, but we know that the legislation that is passed in our names or by our parties outlives us all. I try to remind Pat about the magnitude of the Bill, as he often gets flustered and forgets. Because of his efforts in crafting it, and with the correct funding, women, girls and all those who require period products will have free access to them.
Once the Bill is passed, nobody in Northern Ireland will ever again be forced to leave a classroom, school, sports activity or university library as a result of the most natural thing in the world: having a period. Regardless of how we identify politically, we all share the goal of improving the lives of people across the North. The Bill will do just that. No longer will women suffer the indignity, distress and anxiety of having makeshift alternatives; no longer will the panic be there or the "I have to go home" conversations take place.

Many people fed into the Bill to make it what it is. That is why I am so glad that we are here today. I pay tribute to everyone who came forward throughout the progress of the Bill to share their experience of period poverty, including Homeless Period Belfast, student union representatives and the wider women's sector. I appreciate the support from parties and independent MLAs across the House. It is a true reflection of what can take place and how positive it can be when we work together.

As the cost of living continues to soar, this policy is needed, now more than ever. The Bill is an opportunity for the Assembly to demonstrate that there is more that unites than divides us. I hope that all parties will support our Bill today, because it is one of which we can truly be proud. No more shame; no more stigma. Thank you for that, Pat.

Ms Brogan: I am pleased to participate in the debate on the Period Products (Free Provision) Bill. It is timely that we are discussing the Bill today, International Women's Day, because it incorporates a gender equality issue. It may have been just an accident of timing, or maybe somebody, somewhere, planned it very well.

I thank the Bill sponsor, Pat Catney, for all the work that he has done in bringing the Bill to and through the Assembly. Pat engaged extensively with the Committee as we scrutinised the Bill. He worked really well with us the whole way through to make sure that we offered the Bill every opportunity to progress and to make any changes to ensure that we can help all the people who need our help.

I thank all who campaigned for free period product provision and everyone who presented to the Education Committee as we scrutinised the Bill. I particularly thank those who joined us at the youth engagement event that we held so that we could hear their views on the Bill. I also commend the work of The Homeless Period Belfast. When its representatives came to present to the Committee, I was struck by the work that their organisation does and how they shaped the Bill. Go raibh míle maith agaibh go léir.

As I said, the Bill is extremely important legislation, and I am glad to lend my support to it. I am happy to support all the amendments tabled in the single group of amendments. As other Members mentioned, many of those amendments are technical, but I will refer to a number that were tabled by the Committee for Education.

Amendment Nos 9 and 14 refer to having regard to reusable period products. Those amendments are important, and we should try to make environmentally friendly products available to those who wish to use them. However, when we spoke to a range of stakeholders throughout our time scrutinising the Bill, it was clear that a steady supply of regular period products for those who need them should be encouraged and that we should not put an onerous obligation on any public service body or Department to supply reusable period products ahead of less environmentally friendly ones. I agree with that, and I do not want to jeopardise the provision of period products in any way.

I will also support amendment No 1. The scope of the Bill is comprehensive. It incorporates women's health, gender equality, period poverty and social justice, so I agree that it sits best with the Executive Office. I also welcome the decision by the Minister for Communities, Deirdre Hargey, to assist in ensuring that the Bill successfully passes through the Assembly.

As party spokesperson on children and young people, I am particularly concerned about the impact that inadequate period product provision and period poverty have on school attendance. Research found that 49% of girls had missed a day of school because of their period. Attendance is known to be a factor that drives the educational gap between the most and least advantaged children and young people. The lack of period product provision is yet another barrier for girls in their education and for the most vulnerable. I hope that the Bill goes some way to help to break down those barriers.

From all the engagement that the Committee had while going through the Bill, we noticed that there is still a stigma, taboo and shame associated with periods and menstruation. It is brilliant that, today, so many people are openly discussing the topic and shining a light on the issues around period poverty and period product provision. I hope that the Bill goes some way to alleviate and remove the shame and the taboo. I urge all Members to support the Bill and the amendments.

Ms McLaughlin: The Bill is a great example of what the Assembly can achieve when we work collectively to deliver for our constituents. On International Women's Day, I am delighted to commend the Bill to the House, and I thank my colleague Pat Catney for introducing the Bill on period poverty. This is Pat's initiative, and I am very proud of what he and his team have achieved. I am delighted that the Bill has earned all parties' support, but, of course, none of that would have been possible without the hard-working activists and campaigners who paved the way. I thank all of those wonderful contributors.

I will make some brief comments on the amendments. I turn to amendment No 1. Unfortunately, all too often, I see schemes falling victim to the dysfunction of the Executive Office. The Bill is too important to be left in limbo. It is vital that one Department takes ownership and leads on delivering access to menstruation products for all. I thank the Department for Communities and the Minister for stepping up to the plate.

I also support the thoughtful amendments that were tabled by the Committee for Education. The explicit references to protecting the "privacy and confidentiality" of our citizens are to be welcomed.Both of the amendments on that strengthen and future-proof the Bill.

Amendment No 15 ensures that inclusivity is maintained. I am really grateful to Pat for remaining steadfast and resolute in ensuring that period products will be provided for all who need them. The suggested change in wording reflects the reality that it will be predominantly women and girls who will access those products, but it does not exclude trans men or non-binary folks. The language that is used means that access will be open to all those who need period products. It is as simple as that.

I also support my party colleagues' other amendments, which will further enhance the Bill and help to ensure that it successfully achieves its aim. Whether it is because low-income creates barriers to accessing period products or because the impact of social isolation, too many people are prevented from accessing the products that they need to manage their health. We also know that menstrual care can be made difficult by circumstances such as homelessness, abusive relationships and by health conditions like endometriosis.

Access to period products is not a luxury; it is a necessity. It is far beyond time that our society treated it as such. I support the Bill.

Ms Bradshaw: On International Women's Day, I will say just a few words in support of all the amendments and the Bill as a whole, although I think that some minor work may be required at Further Consideration Stage.

My support for the objectives of the Bill is already on the record. The focus of my remarks is exclusively on the amendments. In general, the Bill, as set out by the sponsor, was designed to match policies elsewhere in the UK. I think that we will be closer to that objective once the Bill has been amended. My main issue concerned how locations are being defined, as well as why such focus is being given to specific Departments when the Bill focuses otherwise on public service bodies. Specifically, I queried at Second Stage why the responsible Department under clause 1 is Health. It is on that basis that I support amendment No 1. It clarifies, to some extent, the overarching nature of the Bill by putting the focus on the Executive Office. To some extent, amendment Nos 7 and 13 do likewise.

Amendment Nos 2 to 6 are largely technical. They clarify "public service". I have no issue with supporting them. However, I am not sure that we have clause 2(2) quite right. No public service body, even as defined under an amended clause 8, has a school amongst its premises. I wonder, therefore, whether that still needs to be tidied up in either clause 2 or clause 8. I also support and welcome the clarity that is provided by amendment Nos 8 to 10, which have been tabled by the Committee. The Chair already outlined why those amendments are important.

Despite the note of caution that I raised about definitions in clause 2, I think that we have moved considerably closer to a great, workable Bill that will meet the sponsor's objectives.

Ms Hargey (The Minister for Communities): I thank Members for their contributions. I acknowledge how appropriate it is today, on International Women's Day, as has been said, that we are working collectively to tackle an issue that impacts so many women. I thank Pat for pursuing this important issue. I assure him and all Members of my support for the overall objectives of the Bill.

It is obvious from listening to the Members who spoke that this is an issue that unites all parties. We gave a collective commitment through New Decade, New Approach and on the re-establishment of these institutions to improve well-being for all. I want to see issues on period dignity being a central part of that. I took the decision to lead on the Bill in order to ensure that, when it passes, it is technically sound and provides us with a workable basis on which to move forward with implementing the free provision of period products for those who need it. It is important that we reach agreement on who will lead on the implementation of the Bill.

I hope that some of you heard in the Chamber last Friday the powerful testimonies and lived experiences of the women who took part in the Women's Parliament event, which was hosted by the Speaker.

Indeed, they discussed the barriers that many of them face to participating fully in society, whether that is in education, work, leisure activities or, of course, the key issue of healthcare.

2.15 pm

It is unacceptable that a normal bodily function should continue to stand in the way of things that many of us take for granted. It is important that we are discussing these issues in the Chamber, as has been said. I take periods, I bleed and, as part of that, I get tired. I can often get grumpy and frustrated, depending on what part of the month it is, but I have never had to face a situation where I did not have access to period products. When you listen to the testimonies of the activists on the ground and of those who do have that barrier, you realise that, with the Bill, we can remove that barrier and give them the dignity of being able to access those products. That is not to say that the pain and tiredness will go away, but it will definitely make it easier. The legislation shows that the House, again, is listening to ensure the well-being of those out in the community who are impacted by periods daily. The Bill is definitely an important piece of legislation, and we have to make sure that those who need access to period products have it.

The Department of Education's period dignity pilot scheme in schools and, indeed, other small-scale projects have shown that there is clearly a demand for the provision of period products in schools. I acknowledge the work of the Education Committee to date in scrutinising the Bill and identifying some of the issues that have been flagged up today.

On the issues raised today, I note the position on which Department will be the lead Department regarding the provisions in clause 1. Robbie Butler's proposal is to amend clause 1 so that the Executive Office is the lead Department. The issue that the Bill addresses is cross-cutting in nature, as we can see from the discussions today. Therefore, I agree with him that it naturally sits within the Executive Office for oversight and progression. As other Members noted, I continue to work with the Office of the Legislative Counsel (OLC) in order to table further technical amendments to the Bill at Further Consideration Stage. Those will tidy up the Bill to ensure that we get it through to completion so that it becomes law. I have taken on board the comments of Members on clause 7, which amendment No 15 addresses. I agree that we need to make the legislation inclusive for everyone who is affected by the issue.

To conclude, I thank Pat for bringing the legislation to the Floor of the House. I thank the Education Committee, which has been working on the Bill over the last period. My involvement, as Minister who stepped in, is to ensure that we conclude the process on this important piece of legislation before the end of the mandate in a couple of weeks. Very quickly after that, we will be able to move to a point where the provision of these products is natural and does not need to talked about because it is part of things that happen every day. Again, I give my continued commitment to the process to ensure that the Bill is competent. We will table further technical amendments to make the Bill the best that it can be. I thank the Bill sponsor, the Committee and everyone else for progressing it to this point.

Mr Catney: I begin by thanking the staff in the Bill Office and the Committee staff, who have provided invaluable help and assistance throughout the process. I can say for sure that I would not have got to this stage without their help and guidance. I also thank the Business Office, the Speaker's Office and, indeed, you, Mr Speaker, for progressing the Bill to this stage, particularly when time in the Assembly has become so valuable.

As an ally, I feel privileged to be standing here to speak on International Women's Day. I am an ally. I am the brother of four sisters, the father of three daughters and the grandfather of three little girls, so I hope that whatever little change we make can help to make this world a better place.

A number of excellent and vital contributions were made at Committee Stage. I particularly thank the campaigners who contributed. I have to thank Chris Lyttle MLA, who will be making way. You will be sadly missed — I know that you are not coming back — but it was an absolute privilege to see how you guided and chaired the Committee and worked the Bill through. I thank the campaigners who gave evidence at Committee Stage, particularly the young people who spoke about the impact of the Bill. I thank Chris again for his unwavering dedication to the issue. I thank the Committee members — a lot of them are present — who supported and scrutinised the Bill in order to make sure that it works in the best way possible.

The Bill will improve the lives of so many across Northern Ireland by providing period products to those who really need them. That is why it is heartening to have had the support of all parties. Too often, we focus on what divides us, so it has been nice, grand and great to see us all come together on this important issue.

On the amendments to be considered, I understand why Robbie Butler tabled amendment No 1. I do not deny the cross-cutting nature of the Bill; you only need to look at the fact that although the Committee for Education scrutinised the Bill, the Minister for Communities is leading the response to it. If the Bill was just about period poverty, I would be inclined to say that it leans towards being a poverty issue more than a health issue. However, the Bill goes beyond period poverty. It is about menstruation as a whole and about making products available to all who need them.

As Homeless Period Belfast said — I thank especially young Katrina McDonnell, whom I met on Saturday at the International Women's Day event in Belfast — it is about making products available just like toilet paper. That, for me, is a health issue. Even if you do not agree that it is more about health than poverty, you must agree that not providing products to those who cannot access them certainly leads to outcomes that are health issues.

I do not deny that the issue is linked to poverty in the same way as cancer, obesity, heart disease, smoking and poor mental health are linked to poverty. Are those no longer health issues? I cannot accept that a scheme to provide free period products would overburden a Department that provides free condoms to those who need them, particularly as I have in no way tied the Department's hands on how it should provide the products. I have simply said that it should provide them. I note that the South Eastern Trust website, in linking to the condom card scheme, states:

"Many factors can adversely impact on people's sexual health including poverty, unemployment, poor education, alcohol and substance misuse and social exclusion."

Exactly the same could be said about menstrual health, yet the Department does not want to get involved.

I understand that the Department of Health has concerns about the financial impact of the Bill. In its evidence to the Committee, the Department of Health predicted that the cost would be anywhere between 4p and 49p per product. I argue that that seems an unacceptably wide range to use as the basis of any financial considerations. The Department went on to say that the range is not linked to the type of product but is based entirely on the procurement procedure and the cost savings in buying the products in large amounts. However, consider the Aberdeen pilot. I have to pause here and thank Monica Lennon, who took forward the Bill's equivalent in Scotland. A lot of the inspiration came from Monica, who carried out a lot of the work. The Aberdeen pilot that my costs are based on managed to average 9p per product for just over 1,000 participants. I would be extremely disappointed in our procurement process if we managed to average a significantly higher cost than that for 100 times the number of users.

Specifically regarding placing the universal duty with the Executive Office, I have had numerous discussions with the Chair of the Education Committee about cross-cutting schemes that fall between the cracks of departmental responsibility. I know that Deirdre will do her best and I thank the Minister for it, and we will push in order to get it to work. I have no fears for the Bill in that regard if amendment No 1 is passed. I urge the Executive Office and the Minister to take ownership and responsibility for the delivery of the schemes and outcomes of the Bill for reasons outlined. I support amendment No 1 and look forward to engaging with the Ministers and the Executive Office to see the benefits of the Bill.

I thank the Committee for Education for bringing forward its amendments. They highlight two very important areas of concern for people in this day and age. There is no doubt that the Assembly should grasp every opportunity to protect the privacy and confidentiality of our citizens. My Bill should be no different. The Committee's amendments will complement the protection of dignity already in the Bill. The same can be said for the need for the explicit reference to the use of "reusable" products. We must be conscious of the need to reduce waste in our use of natural resources. Though this is allowed for, under the definition in clause 7(b), it is right to restate it throughout.

I move to my own amendments. Amendment No 2 removes "Health and Social Care Boards" from the requirement in clause 2. That was at the request of the Department of Health, as the boards are not public-facing and are due to finish.

Amendment Nos 3 and 6 are technical amendments to regularise the use of the phrase "public service bodies". Amendment No 7 is a requirement for Departments to review the list of public bodies that fall under the requirement in clause 2(1). That will allow new public service bodies to be added, if required.

Amendment No 11 clarifies that public service bodies must provide products to persons on their premises. The Department of Education asked for that clarification so that schools would not be required to provide products for the general public, as that would cause an obvious safeguarding issue.

Amendment No 12 is a new clause requiring the Executive to report on the operation of the duties in the Bill. The report would include the number of public bodies that have been specified by each Department and would also provide an opportunity for a complete review of the costs and the efficiency and effectiveness of the universal and the public body schemes. It is important to note that this is not about creating overbearing mechanisms, but about front-loading openness and transparency to allow Departments to run the scheme in the most effective ways.

Amendment No 13 is a technical change, asked for by the Department of Education, to allow Departments to issue guidance with one or more Departments.

I listened to the comments made by various Members in the Second Stage debate. I have also taken the time to speak to many of the campaigners and other groups with regard to the language used in the Bill. I have always said that the impact that the Bill will have on women and girls is undeniable. I have been clear that, if a form of words can be found that includes "women" and "girls", and allows products to be provided to all who need them, I would have no issue with including it in the Bill. I believe that amendment No 15 achieves that.

Amendment No 16 is clarification of the definition of the "Health and Social Care Trust", which was asked for by the Department of Health.

Amendment No 17, though not technically required, adds clarity to the definition of a public service body that was required by the Departments.

Amendment No 18 aims to clarify the commencement of the different clauses of the Bill. Clause 2(1) states that Departments must name public service bodies that will fall under the duty in clause 2(3) within one year. That is to give time for consultation for Departments, guidance to be produced for the named bodies and for the named bodies to produce their statement as to how they will comply with the duty in 2(3), before 2(3) commences under clause 9(2) within two years.

I am working with Members and Departments on any other changes that are required to get this proposal across the line. I hope that I have shown a willingness to listen to Members' views in the spirit of working with all parties on this.

This is an example of what happens when Members in this place work together, as we saw last night with Pam Cameron's Autism (Amendment) Bill. I applaud her for the work that was done on that Bill. I am grateful for the support that I have received from across the House. I am hopeful that we can set that tone for the future and put people first.

I started the Second Stage debate by saying that the Bill is about:

"the universal concepts of equality, mutual respect and the right of all citizens to live their lives with dignity." — [Official Report (Hansard), Tuesday 9 November 2021, p45, col 1].

That is what is at stake, and I hope that I can continue to count on your support.

2.30 pm

Mr Speaker: I call Robbie Butler to wind on the amendments.

Mr Butler: Every Member who contributed spoke incredibly well on the really important Bill introduced by the Member for Lagan Valley. Every Member who spoke paid tribute to International Women's Day. It is remarkable that the debate is today, given the subject. I do not know whether you are doing the lottery this week, Pat. Given the way in which things are falling for you, if you do not do it, I suggest that you start.

Mr Catney: Will the Member give way?

Mr Butler: Absolutely.

Mr Speaker: Remember to behave yourself today.

Mr Catney: I will behave myself.

It is not the lottery that I want to do but next week's Queen Mother Champion Chase at Cheltenham. [Laughter.]

Mr Butler: I thank the Member for that. He probably speaks quite accurately. Next week, we will probably find that he was on to something. Maybe he has had a tip.

The Member speaks with passion in just about every debate in which he speaks. We have sparred at times, but there is no sparring to be done in this debate. Everybody in the Chamber has brought their A game to their critique of the Bill. The first Member to speak after I moved amendment No 1 was the outgoing Chair of the Education Committee, soon to be a retired Member of the House, although he looks extremely youthful.

Mr Catney: Hear, hear. [Laughter.]

Mr Butler: To be fair to the Chair of the Education Committee — Pat talked about this — he chaired the meetings really well, particularly those on this Bill. Part of the Committee's job is to scrutinise every Bill. Often, a Bill is not perfect when it first comes to us, especially when its sponsor comes at it with an absolute passion, so it is fair for it to be critiqued. Clarity has been sought, and it has been given for many of the amendments. Some of that clarity came through the Education Committee, so I say to my colleagues on the Committee that that is really good.

One of the best things about being involved in the Bill — this is a shout-out to the men on International Women's Day — is the fact that the men were so comfortable talking about periods and menstruation. That is the nature of the debate. The Minister talked about the fact that, while the Bill is about period poverty, the debate is wider than that; it is about menstruation. There are ongoing debates about perinatal mental health, the perimenopause and the menopause. All those issues affect women and girls. The Bill is a linchpin and a cornerstone of ensuring that we have a level playing field, an awareness of the issues and the products for those who need them.

I will turn to some of the comments made. Something struck me when the Chair spoke. He talked about some of the Committee's engagement with youth, which was absolutely fabulous. Some of the young people spoke incredibly freely, but so did the teachers. The teachers fronted up in the discussion many times to talk about the challenges that a lot of young people face in school. A matter came up at one of the events. I heard one of the young people say that we needed to treat period products like toilet paper. That is absolutely right and fair, but we also need to wind back a couple of years and remember the reports from school principals about parents having to supply toilet roll for schools in some instances when budgets were constrained. One of the criticisms of the Bill has been over money. The Bill sponsor said that not a huge amount of money is required, and he is right. We are, however, talking about single-year Budgets, flatline Budgets, inflation going through the roof and rising fuel costs. All those things will be competing with one another.

I hope that amendment No 1 is agreed so that responsibility goes to TEO, because I believe in the Bill's cross-cutting nature. We have to accept, however, the reality that there is a challenge to find the money, even if that is smaller amounts of money. By spreading the burden, I hope that it is met equally and that each Department, under the leadership of TEO, faces up to the challenge and finds that it can provide the product, not just in the first instance but sustainably.

Another matter that came up in the Education Committee was the need to ensure that there is equal provision of a quality, sustainable product.

Obviously, sometimes, when budgets are constrained, you might dilute the product quality. We do not want that to happen here; we want to ensure that the quality of those products is as good as it can be for those who need them.

Mr Lyttle: I thank the Member for giving way briefly and for his kind words about my not-so-youthful-any-more appearance. Does he agree that we would not dream of not providing other essential items due to limited resources and that we simply have to find the funds to make the provision that the Bill sets out?

Mr Butler: I absolutely agree. I thank the Member for his intervention. The point that I was making was that, in reality, where we had teachers and parents having to provide those items, they had to make that choice. Whether it be toilet rolls, the soap in the dispensers or, in this case, period products, those are the types of things that need to be ring-fenced. The burden does not need to be placed on schools. That is the point that I was making.

Before I move off the Chair's comments, I think that Education Committee members will agree that, in those powerful sessions that we had with the young people, while there was a lot of passion about the provision and accessibility of the products, how it would be done with dignity and that type of stuff, the real value in the conversations was about the education piece, the destigmatisation and the normality of what we talk about and about how we can drive real change. For instance, in one of the sessions, one of the teachers talked about access to sports and sports provision — if Justin McNulty were here, he would be absolutely on this — and how there is an unspoken-about barrier with regard to the products, changing and so on. COVID offered up a facility whereby sometimes, when young people returned to school, there was greater uptake of things like swimming and sports and stuff, especially by young girls. Behind some of the figures that have been bandied about on why girls do not partake in physical activity and sports as much as boys do, maybe this is one of the main reasons why that is the case. Perhaps we are starting to learn the law of good unintended consequences as opposed to poor ones.

The second Member to speak was Pat Sheehan from Sinn Féin. Again, he reiterated the "Happy International Women's Day", because he knows that, when he goes home, he will be asked about it. One of the most important things that Pat shared is the legacy that the Bill will leave. We have an election coming up in early May, and none of us knows whether we will be here after that election. However, to put your name to a Bill, get it to this stage and, hopefully, get it through Further Consideration Stage and Final Stage is a powerful legacy, particularly for a man, in this instance, given the topic. Pat Catney's colleague who shares an office with him, the long-suffering Cara Hunter, pointed out the difficult conversations that they were having at the start when Pat was trying to assess whether it was appropriate that he should do it. Absolutely, Pat: 100%. Well done, Pat. You were given good advice on that. Thanks to Pat Sheehan for his support for my amendment No 1. We discussed it in the Education Committee, and you mentioned it yourself, Pat, to be fair.

Another Education Committee member, Diane Dodds, spoke third. Diane is powerful on the Education Committee, and she brought really interesting angles to the Committee sessions. I always felt that, at every stage, she tried to work for the betterment of the Bill and to pick out not problems but the issues that I have mentioned, in particular around the fiscal piece with regard to where the money comes from and how we can sustain it and give the Departments and institutions that will have to provide it the comfort of knowing that, when it is finally put together, TEO will have that mapped out. It is then up to the Assembly to ensure that that is the case. Diane went on to reiterate the issues that were picked out by the young people with regard to safety and confidentiality, and she said that she would support the Bill.

Cara, I will not rest on you too much, if you do not mind, but I thought that your testimony with regard to Pat and those conversations was revealing but believable. Thank you for the support that you gave him.

Another Committee colleague, Nicola Brogan, mentioned youth engagement and, particularly, Homeless Period Belfast. I thank her for her support for amendment No 1 and for recognising that it is a cross-cutting, cross-departmental issue. That is, perhaps, where it is best served.

Sinead McLaughlin joined us on StarLeaf and paid tribute to the all-party support from around the Chamber, which is always useful to see.

Paula Bradshaw from the Health Committee pointed out that the legislation is designed to mirror that of other jurisdictions, which is a really good point; in fact, it was probably one of the more important points that we talked about in Committee. What we have done since then is look to make sure that we Northern Ireland-ise it. That is a good point.

Paula also recognised that it is a good Bill but some areas required clarity. There might be an item that needs to be tidied up at the next stage, and I know that we will work collegiately on that.

The final Member to speak was the Minister. Minister, forgive me if I did not say this at the start: thank you for coming today, showing your passion and speaking so personally about your circumstances and what it means to you as a woman, not just a Minister. It is really important that people see the person in this and the people in the Chamber who are talking about it.

The Minister said that there should be no barrier to participation and access to the product. I could not agree more with that. That is one of the technical things that we will have to work out to ensure that it happens. The Minister paid tribute to the Department of Education and its period dignity pilot. Some of the feedback from that has been absolutely excellent, particularly with regard to the conversations that need to continue after we get the Bill passed at Final Stage.

Mr Lyttle: I thank the Member for giving way briefly again. I neglected to refer to it in my remarks, but a recommendation was made that an app be created to identify the locations of period product provision. Does the Member agree that that is another useful provision for all the Departments to work together to deliver?

Mr Butler: Absolutely. That was brought up. In this technological age, young people especially rely on those, so that would be really good. The technology is probably not that difficult to create and map out. It would be useful. We need to remember that some people find it difficult to ask for and to access things. If we can remove the need for people to ask someone and, instead, have the answer at the touch of a button, that is something that we should definitely consider doing. I agree with the Chair on that.

I commend all the amendments to the House and seek approval for all of them.

Mr Speaker: I thank all Members for their contributions.

Amendment agreed to.

Clause 1, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 2 (Provision of free period products: public service bodies)

Amendment No 2 made:

In page 2, line 20, leave out paragraph (b). — [Mr Catney.]

Amendment No 3 made:

In page 2, line 39, after first "a" insert "public service". — [Mr Catney.]

Amendment No 4 made:

In page 2, line 40, after "the" insert "public service". — [Mr Catney.]

Amendment No 5 made:

In page 3, line 1, leave out "Bodies" and insert "Public service bodies". — [Mr Catney.]

Amendment No 6 made:

In page 3, line 4, after "those" insert "public service". — [Mr Catney.]

Amendment No 7 made:

In page 3, line 12, at end insert—

"(13) Each department must review the regulations specifying public service bodies within its functions under subsections (1) and (2), as applicable, every three years and, if necessary, update that information." — [Mr Catney.]

Clause 2, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 3 (Arrangements under sections 1 and 2: particular requirements)

Amendment No 8 made:

In page 3, line 18, after "dignity" insert ", privacy and confidentiality". — [Mr Lyttle (The Chairperson of the Committee for Education).]

Amendment No 9 made:

In page 3, line 19, after "obtainable" insert—

", having regard to articles which are reusable". — [Mr Lyttle (The Chairperson of the Committee for Education).]

Amendment No 10 made:

In clause 3, page 3, line 21, after "dignity" insert ", privacy and confidentiality". — [Mr Lyttle (The Chairperson of the Committee for Education).]

Amendment No 11 made:

In page 3, line 27, after "obtainable" insert "by persons in its premises". — [Mr Catney.]

Clause 3, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.

New Clause

Amendment No 12 made:

After clause 3 insert—

3A.—(1) The Executive must review and make a report on the operation of the provisions of sections (1) and (2) of this Act;

(2) A report under this section is to include—

(a) the number of public service bodies specified by regulation under section (2);

(b) an assessment of the efficiency and effectiveness of the exercise of the functions carried out under sections (1) and (2) of this Act; and

(c) any further information that the Executive considers appropriate.

(3) A report under this section must be—

(a) laid before the Assembly by the Executive; and
(b) published by the Executive before the end of the period of three years beginning with the day on which this Act receives Royal Assent, and at subsequent intervals of no more than three years." — [Mr Catney.]

New clause ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 4 (Guidance)

Amendment No 13 made:

In page 4, line 4, leave out "another department" and insert "one or more departments". — [Mr Catney.]

Clause 4, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 5 (Statement on arrangements)

Amendment No 14 made:

In page 4, line 24, at end insert—

"(3A) Consultation under subsection (2) must have regard to—

(a) the dignity, privacy and confidentiality of product users; and
(b) articles which are reusable." — [Mr Lyttle (The Chairperson of the Committee for Education).]

Clause 5, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 6 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 7 (Key definitions)

Amendment No 15 made:

In page 5, line 18, leave out from second "person’s" to "person" on line 19 and insert—

"needs of a woman, girl or other person for period products arising from menstruation by that person". — [Mr Catney.]

Clause 7, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 8 (Interpretation)

Amendment No 16 made:

In page 5, line 29, at end insert—

"‘Health and Social Care Trusts’ means a body established under Article 10 of the Health and Personal Social Services (Northern Ireland) Order 1991." — [Mr Catney.]

Amendment No 17 made:

In page 5, line 33, after "enactment;" insert "and". — [Mr Catney.]

Clause 8, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 9 (Commencement)

Amendment No 18 made:

In page 6, line 6, leave out from "(1)" to end of line 7 and insert—

"(1) The following provisions of this Act come into operation on the day after Royal Assent—

(a) sections 2(1) and (7) to (12);

(b) section (7);

(c) section (8);

(d) this section; and
(e) section 10." — [Mr Catney.]

Clause 9, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 10 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Long title agreed to.

Mr Speaker: That concludes the Consideration Stage of the Period Products (Free Provision) Bill. The Bill stands referred to the Speaker. Thanks to all Members for their contributions.

Adjourned at 2.50 pm.

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