Official Report: Monday 19 February 2024

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

Assembly Business

Mr Speaker: I will make a few remarks before proceedings commence. It is two years since our former Principal Deputy Speaker, Mr Stalford, passed away. He has been heavy on my mind over the past two weeks, but, today in particular, our thoughts are with the Stalford family.

I will make a few brief remarks. Upon my election, I emphasised how important it was to have the Assembly back, given the work that has to be done. In my role, that means upholding the ability of the Assembly to carry out effective scrutiny. Today, therefore, I will record a few points. First, while we understand the context in which the Budget Bill is going through the House this week, I have underlined to the Minister of Finance the fact that, in future, the Assembly will expect to have proper time to consider such legislation.

Secondly, a number of Members have asked when private Members' Bills can be submitted. I intend to ensure that Members can submit proposals for private Members' Bills. However, Members will have noted the scale, level and pace at which private Members' Bills went through the previous Assembly. That did not always create the right conditions for effective scrutiny. Therefore, I will take some time to review the arrangements to ensure that, as much as possible, they encourage robust, well-developed legislation.

Finally, I am pleased that Question Time will begin today, at an earlier point following the appointment of Ministers than is normal. Question Time provides an opportunity for the Assembly to scrutinise the Executive and hold Ministers to account. I will encourage Ministers and departmental officials not to rely on routinely long answers. It is my hope that Question Time will be more interactive and free-flowing, so that more questions can be tabled by Members and more questions can be answered. I will rule on preambles, if they become the course of Ministers' responses, because we do not need long preambles; we need answers to questions. I will monitor that over the next few weeks. There will be a provisional period, but, once that time is completed, I will clamp down on any long-winded answers.

Members' Statements

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

Casement Park

Mr Baker: I welcome the fantastic news that enabling work will begin on Casement Park this week. It is a positive step towards developing a first-class, state-of-the-art sporting facility for Ulster Gaels. Casement Park will be a real economic driver for West Belfast, creating jobs and hosting thousands of people who visit the city to attend games. The news has created a real buzz in my house. My children have played Gaelic football, hurling and camogie with O'Donovan Rossa GAC — the best club in Belfast, I should add — since baby fundamentals. They have never known Casement Park, and, like all young Gaels, they cannot wait not only to watch games but to participate in playing and winning championships for their respective clubs in Casement. To think that a major soccer tournament will be hosted in Casement in just a few years is beyond many people's wildest dreams.

I was lucky to experience a great Irish soccer moment in 2016, when I was in France to witness Ireland beat Italy 1-0 and progress to the next stage. It was a Robbie Brady 85th-minute goal. The atmosphere not just inside but outside the stadium made it special, and we all have that to look forward to. It is important that the Irish and British Governments and the Executive continue to work with football associations and the GAA to get this flagship project over the line quickly and on time.

Car and Home Insurance

Mr McCrossan: The soaring cost of home and car insurance is a critical issue that is having a significant impact on families in West Tyrone and across Northern Ireland. I am sure that many Members have heard from outraged constituents, particularly those who have not made a previous claim but whose insurance is going through the roof. Recent reports have shown a disturbing trend of insurance premiums skyrocketing, placing an immense financial burden on many households. Many families struggle to comprehend the substantial increases that they face in their insurance costs. Some have seen their premiums rise by hundreds of pounds compared with the previous year. The cost-of-living crisis and inflation are already squeezing wallets, and such exorbitant insurance hikes only add to the financial strain experienced by ordinary people in our constituencies. In my role as an advocate for West Tyrone, I have witnessed at first hand the distress and frustration of individuals who are grappling with such unjustifiable cost escalations.

While energy companies and corporations enjoy significant profits, the ordinary citizens whom we represent bear the brunt of the escalating costs of insurance premiums, heating bills and groceries. It is imperative that the Economy Minister, the Finance Minister and the Executive intervene to ensure that insurance customers are not unfairly exploited. I urge those who face difficulties in meeting escalating insurance costs to be informed about their rights and to explore the options to secure the best possible deal. It is crucial to remember that insurance companies are bound by regulations that prevent them from charging existing customers more than new ones. There are also provisions in place to assist those who are struggling to cope with the financial burden of insurance costs.

The stark reality is that the rising costs, particularly of car and home insurance, are outpacing the average inflation rate in the UK. The motor insurance annual inflation rate has soared to 43·1%. That is shocking exploitation. It is evident that urgent action is needed to address the disparity. I will read some figures: AIG paid out its highest dividend since 2007 this year; Allianz's operating profit jumped by 5·7% to €14·2 billion; Aviva made £715 million, up 8% on the previous year; AXA was up 23%; NFU Mutual made £220 million in profit; QBE made $475 million; RSA made £55 million; and Zurich made £1·76 billion on the backs of ordinary people. Those companies are raising our insurance costs and making huge profits, and they cannot explain it. The only response that I have had from them, which is shocking, is that their costs have increased. They cannot explain or justify it. We must ensure that the consumer is protected and that those costs are questioned. We have a responsibility to do so.

World Aquatics Championships: Daniel Wiffen

Mr Butler: I associate myself with the thoughts that you are passing on to the Stalford family, Mr Speaker. Christopher was indeed a fantastic parliamentarian, but I know that as a father — a dad — and a husband he will also be sadly missed.

Today, we have some good news. Many Members will have been made aware of the great success at the weekend of our own Daniel Wiffen from Magheralin. He achieved a quite astounding feat over the past six days by winning two gold medals, in the freestyle swimming 800 metres and 1,500 metres. I am sure that every Member will want to wish him great success in his future endeavours, whether in the Commonwealth Games or the Olympic Games.

I was in the Lisburn LeisurePlex yesterday. I went to a birthday party for a six-year-old. It was a bit crazy — there were a lot of cars — but the crowds that were there yesterday were the families, friends and supporters of the many young people who were there as part of a swimming gala. What struck me was not just the discipline that they have, like Daniel has had to attain world champion status, but the back-room team of mums and dads, carers, trainers, coaches and others who are there to support and champion those young people to unparalleled levels of success. The commitment that Daniel had to put in over the years probably manifested in really early morning starts. Some young people go to our swimming pools at 5 o'clock or 6 o'clock in the morning and perhaps for evening swims and, almost always, five to six times a week. Success does not come without cost. It comes with commitment and support.

I thank those who have helped Daniel succeed. He started off, as a young person, in Lisburn LeisurePlex, probably with the little ducks and swans, as they are called, and moved on to Lurgan. He then came back to Lisburn City Swimming Club in his teens. He had to manage his education journey alongside his commitment to swimming. We can resolutely support and congratulate Daniel Wiffen and the team on the success that they have achieved in Doha and can look forward to future success for Swim Ireland.

Sport: Funding

Mr Honeyford: I also congratulate Daniel Wiffen, the new world champion. Not only did he become the champion at 800 metres last week but, yesterday, he won the 1,500 metres, which is an incredible achievement. Daniel is from Magheralin, which comes into Lagan Valley. He started in Lisburn, and he is now at university in Loughborough.

Daniel is an example of our grassroots sport, and I call on the Minister for Communities to increase the funding that is delivered to grassroots sport across the board and to take the first opportunity that he has to speak with the Irish Government and the Shared Island unit. Most of our sports — nearly all of them, in fact — are constituted on an all-island basis. Daniel is from Magheralin and is representing Team Ireland and Swim Ireland in Doha at the World Aquatics Championships. The funding that we get for our sports clubs at grassroots level is less than that received across this island. We need to balance that up, and I ask the Minister to do that.

I congratulate Daniel, his family and all the coaches and staff around him who have delivered this achievement.

Harold Ennis

Mr Nesbitt: On Friday morning, I received the sad and unwelcome news of the passing of Harold Ennis, who was without doubt one of the brightest and most successful businesspeople that Northern Ireland has ever seen. Harold declared his intentions early, finishing first across the whole island in his final exams for the Institute of Chartered Accountants. He then went on to become a chief executive for the first time before the age of 30 and followed that by masterminding the incredible success story that was Boxmore International.

Harold was headhunted in the mid-1970s to revive the fortunes of what was then the Lurgan Boxmaking Company Ltd, which was heading for receivership. He turned it around in rapid order. By 1983, he had orchestrated a buyout. By the end of the decade, it was a public company, soon to become a darling of the stock exchange and, indeed, the financial media. In 2001, 25 years after Harold began, the company was one of international renown, valued at almost £200 million.

I believe that that is closer to £350 million in today's money.

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Harold gave back to society. He served on the InterTradeIreland board and what was then the Industrial Development Board. He was also a chair of the CBI in Northern Ireland for a couple of years, and many charities — far too many to mention — profited from his input and intellect.

Harold would have been 94 this Thursday. I do not buy into the notion that he had a good innings, because I think that the longer that somebody of that brilliance is around, the harder it can become to move on without them. I offer my condolences to his family, particularly to his children: Mark, Susan, Heather, John and Richard. Harold was always very encouraging to me when I worked in the private sector. He was kind, generous and keen to promote and mentor the next generation. Above all, he was a fantastic critical friend. I last saw him at Christmastime, and he was physically extremely frail, but, mentally, he was still much sharper than I can ever hope to be.

I finish by quoting from the citation from when he was awarded an honorary degree by Queen's University Belfast in 1996:

"Harold has a razor-sharp intellect, which enables him to ask the single most important question on any topic".

That was Dr Harold Alexander Ennis OBE: a great man with a great mind who will be greatly missed.

Sidney McIldoon

Mr Buckley: I join the tributes that have been paid to our late colleague Christopher Stalford on the two-year anniversary of his tragic passing. Christopher was a great character in the House. He meant a lot to many people here, particularly to you, Mr Speaker, during your time of knowing him in politics. I know that a family is still hurting, and our thoughts are primarily with them at this time.

Our thoughts are also with the late Sidney McIldoon, who passed away in my constituency last week. Sidney was well known throughout Northern Ireland, Ireland and, indeed, across the world in his role as a former grand lecturer of the Grand Orange Lodge of Ireland. Tragically, he was killed in a car accident last week. Our thoughts are primarily with his wife, Irene, who remains in a critical condition in hospital at present.

At the funeral yesterday, it was testimony to the character of the man that hundreds turned out from right across Northern Ireland and further afield to pay tribute to a man who gave so much to the loyal orders and to Northern Ireland's society. On behalf of the Democratic Unionist Party, I put on record our deep appreciation for all that Sidney did. Our thoughts and best wishes are with his wife, Irene, as she continues to recover at this tragic time.

Measles: Rise in Cases

Mr Donnelly: I rise to highlight the concerning rise in cases of measles across Europe and in Britain and the Republic. The deputy chief medical officer, Dr Lourda Geoghegan, said that it is now likely that new cases will be seen in Northern Ireland. While there have been no confirmed cases of measles in Northern Ireland since 2017, it is only a matter of time before the illness is reported here. The Department of Health and the Public Health Agency are monitoring the situation closely.

Measles is not merely a minor childhood illness that causes a rash; it is a potentially dangerous condition that can have serious complications, such as pneumonia, meningitis, blindness and seizures. It can even be fatal. Just last Thursday, it was reported that an adult who had contracted measles died in a hospital in the Republic.

Almost 89% of children in Northern Ireland have received their first MMR jab, but fewer return for the second dose, with only 85% of children fully vaccinated by the time that they are five years old. The World Health Organization recommends a 95% vaccination rate to prevent outbreaks, and we are currently below that. Dr Hans Kluge — I hope that my pronunciation is correct — is a regional director of the World Health Organization. In December, he said:

"Vaccination is the only way to protect children from this potentially dangerous disease."

The Public Health Agency vaccination catch-up campaign is under way across Northern Ireland. First and second doses of the MMR vaccine will now be offered to anyone between the ages of 12 months and 25 years old who missed getting the vaccinations the first time round.

The vaccine is proven to be safe and has been used since the early 1980s. The times and locations of the clinics can be found on the trust websites.

Vaccination saves lives, and I hope that all Members across the Chamber will join me in encouraging people across Northern Ireland to make sure that they and their children are fully protected against this dangerous disease.

Irish Passports

Mr McGuigan: More than a million Irish passports — renewals and first-time applications — were issued last year. Interestingly, five of the top seven counties from where first-time adult applications were made in 2023 were in the North. Only Dublin had a higher number of new applications for passports than were made from counties Down and Antrim. Those statistics, in my opinion, make a strong argument for a passport office to be located in the North, and I commend my colleague Niall Ó Donnghaile, who has been campaigning on the issue for years and whose online petition has, by this stage, received close to 30,000 signatures.

Trying to resolve passport queries on behalf of my constituents is one of the most common issues that my office and I deal with, and that is particularly the case between now and the busy summer months. As in past years, I have no doubt that I will, unfortunately, encounter families and individuals who thought that they had applied for their passport in good time but have become worried that their holiday plans will be disrupted as their departure date looms and no passport has arrived.

I should caveat my remarks by saying that, for the vast majority of people, applying for an Irish passport is straightforward and speedy, but there is no reason why that should not be the case for all applicants. On occasions, if issues arise, turnaround times for first-time adult and child passport applications can be slow. The introduction of the hub, which now allows applicants to speak to someone by phone or online, is a welcome improvement, as was extending the dedicated elected representatives' Oireachtas hub to allow MLAs to check the status of applications. Those are welcome improvements to the system, but, on occasions, constituents still have cause, in cases of urgency, to travel to Dublin to seek appointments, to provide additional information, to speak in person to Passport Office staff or to collect passports in advance of their travel. There should be a passport office located in the North to make that process simpler, and I urge the Taoiseach and Tánaiste to look seriously at that issue.

In conclusion, I urge and encourage anyone who is thinking of travelling abroad this year to check the validity of their passport, and I encourage people who are making first-time adult or child passport applications to apply well in advance of their trip.

Deputy Chief Constable Mark Hamilton

Mr Allister: I associate myself with your remarks, Mr Speaker, and those of others on the second anniversary of the passing of Christopher Stalford.

I want to raise the issue of the privileged treatment afforded to Deputy Chief Constable Mark Hamilton, which is in striking contrast to how he treated two junior officers under his disciplinary process. Of course, the High Court has ruled that the disciplinary process that he oversaw was unlawful, and the court delivered that judgement with scathing criticism of the processes. Unsurprisingly, the Police Federation, on behalf or rank-and-file members, passed a vote of no confidence in Mr Hamilton, who then went on the sick. The Policing Board, which failed to take any disciplinary action and failed to hold Mr Hamilton to any accountability, has now approved his secondment — his cosy, enriching secondment — to the Department of Justice. It is a vivid illustration of a two-tier approach: junior officers are relentlessly pursued, even unlawfully, as in this case, and the perpetrator is validated, rewarded and accommodated with a lucrative move to the Department of Justice. What a farce.

There was no follow-up investigation of Mr Hamilton's conduct, and no accountability was required by the Policing Board.

Of course, we have a parallel, to some extent, in the Police Ombudsman's office itself, where the Police Ombudsman continues to preside over cases against PSNI officers while she has a relevant investigation proceeding, which seems to have been quietly forgotten, into events at her home. The question is this: why is there that two-tier approach? Why is there a bye ball and reward for the high and mighty, and, for the lowly officer, there is total pursuit, even when that is unlawful pursuit?

Mr Speaker: No further Members have risen in their places, so we will move on to the next item of business.

Assembly Business


That Ms Claire Sugden be appointed as a member of the Business Committee. — [Mr McGrath.]


That Ms Cara Hunter replace Mr Mark H Durkan as a member of the Business Committee. — [Mr McGrath.]

Executive Committee Business

Budget Bill: First Stage

Dr Archibald (The Minister of Finance): I beg to introduce the Budget Bill [NIA 01/22-27], which is a Bill to authorise the use for the public service of certain resources for the years ending 31 March 2024 and 2025 (including, for the year ending 31 March 2024, income); to authorise the issue out of the Consolidated Fund of certain sums for the service of those years; to authorise the use of those sums for specified purposes; and to authorise the Department of Finance to borrow on the credit of those sums.

Bill passed First Stage and ordered to be printed.

Mr Speaker: The Bill will be available in Members' pigeonholes presently.

Members may take their ease momentarily as we change the top Table before the next item of business.

(Mr Deputy Speaker [Dr Aiken] in the Chair)

Ministerial Statement

Mr Deputy Speaker (Dr Aiken): Good afternoon, everybody. I have received notice from the Minister for the Economy that he wishes to make a statement. I remind the Assembly of the convention that Members who wish to ask a question should be in the Chamber to hear the Minister's statement in its entirety. Before I call the Minister, I also remind Members that they must be concise in asking their questions. This is not an opportunity for debate, and long introductions will not be allowed.

Mr C Murphy (The Minister for the Economy): In setting out my approach to the economy, it is important to be honest about the challenges that we face. The problems of our low employment rate, low productivity, low wages and severe regional imbalances have deep roots, but they can be overcome. Many of the key levers needed to tackle those issues, including the regulation of financial services, trade policy, monetary policy and fiscal policy, are reserved to London. However, devolution provides significant control over business supports, skills, innovation policy and employment law.

As a small region, we are well placed to tailor support to local industries through partnership and co-design. In addition, as a result of the Windsor framework, we alone can export goods to the British and EU markets without the frictions and paperwork that others now endure. The Windsor framework also protects the all-Ireland economy, which has tremendous unrealised potential, so there are opportunities for change. In order to use our limited resources and powers effectively, strategic focus is critical. I am setting four key objectives as part of a new economic mission.

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'New Decade, New Approach' recognised that good jobs, where workers have a voice and that provide a level of autonomy, a decent income, security of tenure, satisfying work in the right quantities and decent working conditions, should be integral to public policy. Accordingly, one objective is to increase the proportion of working-age people in good jobs. It is not acceptable that being in work does not guarantee a reasonable standard of living. That is particularly the case for women and people with disabilities, who disproportionately make up the low-paid. We can increase the number of people working in good jobs by investing in affordable childcare and fair pay for childcare workers; creating more and better paid apprenticeships and skills academies; replacing zero-hour contracts with contracts that provide flexibility and protect workers' rights; strengthening the role of trade unions, particularly in the low-paying sectors; altering our economic structure by supporting industries that provide good jobs; harnessing the unrealised potential of the social economy; and improving careers advice, including in schools, so that people are fully informed about the opportunities available to them.

Another objective is to promote regional balance. Everyone, no matter where they live, should have the same opportunity to earn a living. A number of areas suffer from economic disadvantage. The north-west, in particular, has long had a low level of employment despite its huge potential for growth. We can create a more regionally balanced economy by setting local economic targets and funding local economic strategies that are designed in partnership with councils and local enterprise agencies and are based on local strengths and potential; offering greater financial incentives for inward investors and indigenous companies that are expanding to locate in areas that are underdeveloped; developing industries with a strong subregional presence, such as tourism, hospitality and manufacturing; building the portfolio of land and property for business development in disadvantaged areas; and driving forward the delivery of projects that improve regional balance, such as the expansion of the Magee campus and city and growth deal projects.

A third objective is to raise productivity, because productivity is a fundamental driver of overall living standards. Output per worker here is 11% lower than in Britain and, according to a recent study by the Economic and Social Research Institute, almost 40% lower than in the South. We must close that gap by using dual market access to grow domestic exports and attract highly productive FDI; developing all-Ireland clusters in high-productivity sectors; improving work-relevant skills, including through upskilling workers and increasing the number of students in further and higher education; working with business to adopt productivity-improving technologies, such as AI and robotics; supporting R&D and driving innovation through collaboration across government, academia and the private sector; and improving management practices.

The final critical objective is to reduce carbon emissions. Colleagues are well aware of the legal and moral obligation to reach net zero by 2050 at the latest. Done right, the transition to a greener and more sustainable economy can be a just transition that also generates prosperity for all. We can build a green economy by increasing our energy efficiency; becoming self-sufficient in and even an exporter of affordable renewable energy. We have the resources, including wind, biomethane and geothermal, to do that; breaking the link with the global commodity prices and ensuring that people and businesses pay a fair price for the energy produced locally; collaborating strategically on the opportunities and investments needed to realise our energy aspirations on the island of Ireland within the single electricity market; establishing a net zero accelerator fund to help plug the funding gap for projects that are not fully financed by private sources; developing the circular economy and taking advantage of the opportunities that exist to reduce waste and cost and increase collaboration and competitiveness across the island; and using the investment zone funding to support green technologies and the skills needed for a green economy.

In taking forward this important work, it will be useful to have independent experts to advise on how, at a strategic level, those objectives should be pursued and to help monitor progress.

Four people who combine academic rigour with real-life practical application will act as critical friends: on good jobs, Dr Lisa Wilson from the Nevin Economic Research Institute; on regional balance, Dr Conor Patterson from the Newry and Mourne Co-operative and Enterprise Agency; on productivity, Dr David Jordan from the Productivity Institute; and on net zero, Professor David Rooney from the Centre for Advanced Sustainable Energy.

My Department's economic development agency has a key role to play in delivering this mission, and Invest NI has many highly skilled and highly committed people. As the independent review confirmed, however, the organisation must restructure and refocus its activities if it is to be effective in the time ahead. There are three particularly important aspects of this reform.

First, attaching stronger conditions and incentives to its support for business in line with the mission that I have set. That may involve requiring a company to recruit people who want to come back into the labour market, particularly people from underrepresented groups; to locate in a disadvantaged area; or to decarbonise its operations.

Secondly, Invest needs a new regional structure that is dedicated to home-grown small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) and start-ups. It should provide a similar service to that which was previously provided by the Local Enterprise Development Unit (LEDU) and by Enterprise Ireland in the South. Regional offices must work on an inclusive basis and in partnership with councils, the business community, trade unions and local enterprise agencies.

Thirdly, Invest NI must develop industries as well as individual firms. Fostering collections of interconnected companies, whether that is clusters, networks, sectors or industries, will have a more significant impact and will help us to turn the dial on economic indicators. Businesses that are operating inside clusters have higher levels of innovation, productivity and resilience, and those benefits are particularly high for small firms. To capitalise on those opportunities, we will work in partnership with industry and academia to develop sectors such as advanced manufacturing, life and health sciences, and low carbon.

This new approach to economic strategy involves using the Windsor framework to grow local exports and attract better-quality FDI, taking full advantage of the all-Ireland economy, genuine collaboration with business representatives, trade unions and academia, and setting a clear mission of a highly productive, zero-carbon, regionally balanced economy with good jobs. In order to deliver the strategy, Invest NI will strategically use conditions and incentives as part of its work with business, support SMEs and start-ups in collaboration with councils and other stakeholders, and develop clusters of businesses, rather than just individual companies in isolation. Working with our expert advisers, my Department will move at pace to put this vision into action, and its focus will be on delivery. We have a lot of work to do to turn this economy around, and that work starts now.

Mr O'Toole: First, with all sincerity, I congratulate the Minister on his appointment as Economy Minister. I also commend the fact that, in this statement and in his early actions, he has clearly prioritised the development of the all-island economy, North/South cooperation and dual market access. That is hugely welcome, and he will have our support as he pursues those. However, I will also draw his attention to the contents of the UK Government's Command Paper, 'Safeguarding the Union', which included a specific commitment to the abolition of British Government legal duties around promoting the all-island economy. I assume that he will not support that, but his party president, Mary Lou McDonald, said that she had been in contact with the British Government before that paper was drafted and was satisfied that the Good Friday Agreement was undermined. Did the Economy Minister see that commitment — that the UK Government were seeking to remove obligations around the all-island economy — before it was published, and, in his office, what action is he going to take to ensure that they do not go ahead with that objectionable action?

Mr C Murphy: The fact is that I find it difficult to find a measure of the British Government's legal obligations in that. The all-Ireland economy was growing organically anyway, and the figures show that cross-border trade between 2015 and 2022 has gone from €2·8 billion to €10·2 billion. Regardless of what the British Government were doing or not doing, there is a clear sense of growth there, and that will only accelerate with the new trading arrangements that have managed to come from that. So, like a lot of others, I saw a lot of rhetoric related to the Command Paper, which was clearly designed to give comfort to people, but, in practical terms, had very little effect.

For our purpose, we will continue to promote that, because it makes sense economically for the whole island, just as we will promote east-west trade, because that makes sense economically as well. We will continue to press home the advantages that we have as part of that and create some sense of certainty. I say very clearly that any attempt to create continued uncertainty around our trading arrangements will be damaging to our indigenous companies and their desire to export and will also be damaging to attracting inward investment. The very clear message that I have been getting from business at home and internationally is that business wants to see certainty established, for things to settle down and for people to come to terms with the new arrangements.

Mr Brett (The Chairperson of the Committee for the Economy): Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker, and I congratulate you on your appointment to your role. This is the first time that I have served under your chairmanship. I thank the Minister for advance sight of his statement. The Committee and I look forward to working with him positively.

Minister, one of the key components of the 10X Economy strategy was its partnership approach. You outline that approach in your statement. The 10X strategy received endorsements from across the business community, including from the Institute of Directors (IoD), the Northern Ireland Chamber of Commerce and Industry and the tourism sector. Will the Minister confirm his commitment to the 10X strategy and outline what endorsements he has received from those organisations for his remarks today?

Mr C Murphy: I thank the Member for his question and for his cooperation. I wish him and his Deputy Chairperson well. I look forward to working with them and the rest of the Economy Committee as we move forward. I believe that we have a shared view on trying to make the economy a success and on trying to grow prosperity and create opportunities for all of our people.

The 10X strategy was taken forward in a period where, first, the review of Invest had not taken place. That is the primary delivery mechanism for that. That review was critical of the strategy's lack of strategic focus. Invest has suffered because of a lack of strategic focus, so, very clearly, things needed to change with that. Some elements of 10X are beneficial, but others need to be taken forward, particularly in relation to how Invest does its business and the strategic focus that it requires, and also in relation to the fact that more certainty exists with the post-Brexit trading arrangements and what that means for our proposition to the rest of the world for how business will be done here.

In developing this statement and this vision, we have had shared dialogue with many sectors of the Department, including Invest NI. We have a strong sense of engagement and enthusiasm for moving forward with it. We continue to work with all the sectors across the Department for the Economy to make sure that we are all on the same hymn sheet on this and are all pushing forward together. Some of the criticisms in the review of Invest NI, which I think were merited, are being addressed as we go forward to try to get a more cohesive economic proposition.

Mr Delargy: I thank the Minister for his statement. One of the really important points in the statement is about good careers advice, particularly in schools. What can the Minister do jointly with the Education Minister to further enhance that?

Mr C Murphy: I had a brief off-the-record chat with the Education Minister, on the side of an Executive meeting one day, during which we agreed that careers advice has to be in sync right through from schools to colleges. There is, understandably, a big focus on getting kids through academic education and getting them into universities, but there are so many opportunities now with our colleges, which we are very significantly invested in, and for people to go straight into the work environment and get high-level apprenticeships. We need to make sure that the full picture of what is available to our young people is on offer to them from that early age. Kids are getting advice at 14 years of age, and many of the people who are giving that advice — myself included, if I were in that position — do not know the types of jobs that will exist in 10 years' time for them and the areas that they are moving into, given that technology and job opportunities are changing so rapidly. Therefore, we need to make sure that the education system is in sync with the economy system.

It is not just about growing young people for jobs, because education is a much more holistic thing in the development of young people. It is about making sure that kids have an understanding of what is available, what is out there and what pathways are there, so that they are not just on the same pathway through school, into university, out the other side and then waiting to see what opportunities there are. If we can create clear opportunities and a sense of what is available to people, I think that that will be very important. From my early discussions with the Education Minister, it seems that he is quite interested in that conversation, so I look forward to working with him in the time ahead.

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Mr Honeyford: I welcome the Minister's statement. It is the first time that I have spoken to him as Minister, so I congratulate him on his new role. Having run my own business for many years, I have learnt that it is easy to get caught up in the focus on yourself and your business rather than on selling your product. I associate myself with the comments that we have some highly skilled Invest NI staff, but, following the independent review and the substantial reform that is needed in Invest NI, can the Minister reassure us that Invest NI is able, is capable and has the resources available to focus on selling Northern Ireland and its dual market access around the world?

Mr C Murphy: The Lyons report on Invest NI did not pull any punches about the organisation, where it was at and where it needed to go, and that was a significant wake-up call. Some of the criticisms chimed with some that we have made and that I have heard in the Chamber over the past number of years. There are some very good people in Invest NI who want to move forward, try to grow the economy and develop prosperity for people. As the Member will know, Invest NI has a new chair and a new chief executive. I have met both of them. I have met the chief executive a number of times and have a strong sense of the work that the two of them have been doing in the background to try to turn the organisation around. We want to support them in doing that, because the report on Invest NI clearly indicated that the organisation needs to be reorientated.

In today's statement, we have tried to give Invest NI a strategic focus, and I think that it is one that it welcomes. Yes, we need to ensure that we develop the proposition for here and that we have the certainty in the post-Brexit trading arrangements that I hope that we now have. It should be allowed to bed in and not continuously be picked at over the time ahead so that we can give people some sense of certainty by working on that proposition and taking it abroad. It is also important because 90% of people employed in the private sector here are employed by small to medium-sized enterprises. Local companies that can take advantage of those trading arrangements have more certainty about how they can grow their business and get involved in exports as well. We therefore need that focus in order to attract investment but also to grow our local economy.

Mr Nesbitt: I thank the Minister for his statement and wish him well in his important role. I have studied many economic statements and policies down the years. I think that the first was Peter Viggers's pathfinder process in 1987. All identify productivity as the key, yet it remains stubbornly low. Does the Minister accept that that is the holy grail of economic policy?

Mr C Murphy: As the Member says, productivity has been stubbornly low. It is the lowest in these islands, and it has been for some time. The gap between North and South has been opening up. It is now something like a 40% difference. A number of factors contribute to that, and we cannot continue to ignore them. We credit ourselves with having a world-class education system, yet its outcome is very substandard and not world class at all. It is not the be-all and end-all, but it is an important factor that has not shifted, and we have to find ways in which to get it to shift.

Productivity is a complex measurement. There is a mathematical formula for it, but a lot of complex factors go into it. As part of this, we have invited in expert critical friends, if you like: people who know this work. I am not saying that people in the Department do not know it as well, but, sometimes, we can be so bogged down in the minutiae of it all that we do not see the bigger picture. Not only are we trying to set strategic targets for these things but we are trying to ensure that they have outside monitoring and assistance from people who are experts in the field. All those targets can be measured, and we recognise that we have only three years and a couple of months in which to try to make a significant change. That is the target in the time ahead, and, like the Member, I hope very much that we see a change in that particular stubborn index, which has never shifted substantially over the years.

Mr Kearney: Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as ucht a ráitis.

[Translation: I thank the Minister for his statement.]

Minister, will you commit to introducing legislation to improve workers' rights and, in so doing, liaise directly with the Irish Congress of Trade Unions?

Mr C Murphy: The short answer is yes, I will. We have been engaging and will continue to engage. There is legislation in the pipeline on working conditions. We want to ensure that it takes the opportunity to address things such as conditions that create low pay and insecurity in jobs, including zero-hour contracts and other factors. Far too many young people, women and people with disabilities find themselves in that sector, and that is why we have low productivity and low wages. There are opportunities in the time ahead to introduce legislation, which has been in the pipeline. We want to get that right, and, of necessity, that will involve a dialogue with trade unions and others. I look forward to a very early dialogue and to bringing together a legislative proposition to the Assembly that addresses some of those big challenges.

Mr Middleton: I thank the Minister for his statement, particularly the comments about addressing regional balance. One of the ways to do that, of course, is through the city and growth deals. There is a lot of frustration, particularly in my council area of Foyle, at the delay in getting those projects over the line. What can the Minister do to progress the city and growth deals as fast as possible?

Mr C Murphy: Last week, I had the opportunity to visit Derry and speak to people involved in that at the chamber of commerce and at Magee, which is one of the central projects to the growth deal. I am concerned that some of the momentum has gone out of that. There is a necessity, when public money is involved and projects are put forward, to have due diligence to make sure that they work, but we also need momentum. The longer it takes to get the growth deals done, the more the cost goes up: as we have seen with all capital projects, for every year that they are delayed, the cost goes up.

I want to ensure that due diligence is done but that it is not done in a way that effectively strangles the projects. We need to get them moving. There are big opportunities. I was impressed with the level of enthusiasm and the sense of opportunity that there is in Derry. I want the Department to be an enabler for that, and that means that Invest NI will have a much more proactive role with the council, the chamber, business partners and other community and voluntary sector partners in Derry and the north-west.

It also means working with the Southern Government, because significant investment has come from Dublin, and there are strong linkages, particularly in the education sector, between Magee and Letterkenny. I have spoken to Minister Harris about that, and we intend to jointly visit the area to continue to promote that.

There are opportunities, and we need to make sure that the system of government is not slowing that down when we should be pressing ahead with it.

Ms Eastwood: I thank the Minister for his statement. The statement acknowledges the issue of productivity and skills. I hope that the Minister commits to implementing the skills strategy in full, and I welcome the statement about careers advice in schools; I have previously expressed an interest in doing a private Member's Bill on that.

What are the Minister's plans to reform the apprenticeship levy, whereby circa £80 million is paid by Northern Irish businesses each year? Will he commit to making sure that that money returns to Northern Ireland and is ring-fenced specifically for skills?

Mr C Murphy: I agree with the Member on skills. One of the difficulties over recent years — I know this from my previous experience in office — was that the money that we primarily had for skills was European money that ended and was not replaced by the British Government. That has left a significant hole in the Department for the Economy's budget. We managed to fill that, during COVID, with moneys from Whitehall to keep the support for skills and trying to take people into the workforce. However, that is a real challenge in the time ahead.

The apprenticeship levy has not really worked for us. It was designed in Britain. We have such a high level of public-sector employment that we end up being almost a net contributor to rather than a beneficiary from it. We have to revisit that. The Department of Finance has a role, because it generally speaks to Treasury on that, but I look forward to a discussion with my colleague to find a way to change that, because it has not worked for us in the way that it has worked in Britain. We need to revisit that.

We have to find creative ways, particularly in the current restrained public finance situation, to get money into skills and education, because that will get more people into the economy and that generates more income.

Ms Á Murphy: I thank the Minister for making his statement this afternoon. With funding running out in March of next year, will he work with local enterprise agencies, such as Fermanagh Enterprise in my constituency, to co-design a successor to the Go Succeed programme?

Mr C Murphy: The thrust of what we have said on regional balance is that it has been much too Belfast-centric; the report on Invest NI recognised that. That does not mean that Belfast will not continue to get support. It is an economic hub for the entire region, but that has come at the expense of working with and supporting local areas. If we have more of a co-design process, as the Member mentioned, for Invest NI that means strengthening regional offices, working with councils, business interests and the community and voluntary sector in areas to design what is needed for them, and having the resources to support that.

Each area has a different approach and emphasis. It is about trying to make sure that we provide support for local economic growth. That will be a much more successful formula for trying to ensure that we have proper regional balance in the time ahead.

Mr Buckley: I pay tribute to the many professional staff at Invest NI who, over many years, have created jobs and facilitated investment in the Northern Ireland economy. One of the main criticisms was, evidently, the lack of support for indigenous businesses, which was mentioned in the statement. How does the Minister propose that, in line with the review, we ensure that businesses clearly know what support is available via Invest NI so that they can grow and meet their true potential?

Mr C Murphy: One of the first ways to do that is to provide that level of strategic focus so that businesses know what areas are getting supported. The client-company mechanism was severely criticised in the report. A lot of businesses that received support from Invest NI were content, but an awful lot of businesses were outside that tent and could not get any support. Unfortunately, we do not have the public finances to provide support for everyone — would that we had. That means that we need a strategic focus on the industries and businesses that we want to grow. We need to encourage the use of clusters so that people can feed off each other to grow their business. Small businesses, in particular, that find themselves part of clusters have proved to be much more resilient and productive. We have to do that in a way that continues to grow the economy, recognising, even though I will argue for all the money that I can get for Invest and other sections of the Department for the Economy in the time ahead, the difficult financial situation that we face. It is about giving a clearer focus and businesses understanding what that focus is. One of the criticisms was that Invest NI had a lack of strategic focus. How do you translate that into businesses understanding what the organisation is doing? I hope that, in the time ahead, we will have a much clearer picture of what Invest NI is about and how it does its business so that businesses can engage with it.

Mr McGuigan: Minister, I welcome your statement and economic vision. I also welcome the acknowledgement in your statement that tourism spreads prosperity across the North. Does the Minister agree that the British Government's electronic travel authorisation scheme poses a significant threat to our tourism industry?

Mr C Murphy: Yes, there is a real concern about that among tourism providers. It is one of the issues that have been raised with me, in the north-west in particular, before I came into office and since. When people visit the area for tourism, they visit Derry and Donegal, so Derry could be the centre of something that is much bigger than just the city itself. There is a real concern about the impact of the scheme. A lot of consequences, whether foreseen or unforeseen, of the British Government's Brexit approach are damaging to the island of Ireland. It is an issue that I would like to engage early on with the Home Office in particular and relevant authorities in Whitehall to try to get them to see sense on the damage that that scheme would do to our tourism industry in the time ahead.

Ms Bradshaw: Thank you, Minister, for your statement. I wish you well in your new role. You will be aware that the Executive Office is responsible for the re-establishment of the economic policy unit and the development and delivery of the investment strategy for Northern Ireland. Will you outline how your statement today will align with those pieces of work, please?

Mr C Murphy: The economy here is not the remit solely of the Department for the Economy; many factors feed into it. We talked about the Department of Education being one, but Finance, Infrastructure and Agriculture all have a contribution to make when it comes to the growth of our economy. There is an economic policy function in TEO. I look forward to engaging in that regard. I think that I have a meeting arranged next week with the head of the Civil Service to discuss economic policy and how the operations of the Department that is under her remit and my Department can come together more closely. All Ministers across the Executive have key priorities to bring to the table, such as childcare and economic growth, in the time ahead, and it is incumbent on us all to make sure that we act cohesively rather than contradicting each other in the approaches that we take.

1.00 pm

Mrs Erskine: I thank the Economy Minister for his statement. I notice that he referenced our further education colleges. In my constituency, we can boast excellent facilities in Enniskillen at the South West College campus, which feeds into our Northern Ireland workforce. Will he commit to ensuring that his vision will have regional balance across all sectors of employment in order to tackle the brain drain from our rural areas to elsewhere around the world? What exact plans does he have to strategically promote the north-west and south-west regions around the world as areas of employment in order to ensure the levelling up of our economy?

Mr C Murphy: The Member makes a fair point in that there has been investment in a lot of our college infrastructure, including in the south-west. We have a good product and good infrastructure there. We need to make sure that the opportunities that that can create for local young people and other people who return to education can be availed of. Those colleges are underutilised, in terms of the attendance at them, and I would like to see those figures go up and more people availing themselves of the opportunities that our colleges provide.

On promotion, as I said in the statement, there are things that Invest NI can do. Other development agencies put stronger conditions on people about where they want them to go and whom they want them to employ in terms of their net zero contribution, so we have an opportunity to look at how Invest NI does that. It is not simply about saying, "Come here, and we'll give you whatever support we can". We want to see investment go to areas where it has not been so frequently before. We can use the levers that we have in Invest NI to achieve more regional balance, including for the south-west.

Ms McLaughlin: Minister, I appreciate the prioritisation that you have given in your statement to regional balance. We in the north-west have seen many visions and have been promised prioritisation, but, unfortunately, we never get to the delivery point. Many countries across Europe put the provision of regional balance in legislation. Do you agree that we need to tackle regional, economic and social imbalance through legislation? Will you commit to such legislation?

Mr C Murphy: I am conscious of the time frame that we are working with. I wish that it were a five-year mandate; we are dealing with a three-year mandate now. The choice is that either I get on with reorientating Invest NI — the delivery mechanism for this is Invest NI, which has not had this orientation in its past — try to get more regional work done with the partners in those areas who have told us how they want things to work and get that going now or I go out and start to consult on legislation, which would probably take, in a best-case scenario, a year to 18 months to get in place. I am not averse to legislating, and, if legislation is required in the future, I would be happy to do that. My focus today is on trying to get the policy changed, trying to get the implementation arm orientated to match the new policy and delivering on the ground.

Ms Kimmins: I thank the Minister for his statement. I am pleased to see the focus on affordable childcare and on paying childcare workers. That is good news, especially as the Executive have agreed it as a priority. Given that the 30-hour scheme in Britain has not been successful — we have heard the reasons — what sort of scheme do you envision being delivered locally?

Mr C Murphy: I envision one that the Executive can agree on. There was a discussion about it last week at the Executive, and I was struck by the cohesion across all Ministers about getting the right policy for here. There are other policies out there that may work. It is a bit like the apprenticeship levy that was referred to: it worked in Britain, but it does not necessarily fit the circumstances that we have here. There was a useful conversation and a strong sense that this is a collective Executive priority. It is primarily led by the Minister of Education — everyone understands that — but he was at pains to point out that we want a collective approach to make sure that we are all comfortable with the policy that emerges, that it fits what is needed for this area and that we get that agreed level of support for it across the Executive. The policy that I would like to see is one that matches our needs and one that the Executive as a whole can buy into, and I think that that is the intention.

Mr Kingston: While we all want to see a more regionally balanced economy, does the Minister accept that, ultimately, it is for investors to decide where they will invest? While we can present opportunities and incentives, being overly prescriptive and restrictive could result in potential inward investment going elsewhere and being lost to Northern Ireland.

Mr C Murphy: Many other business development agencies use more levers than Invest NI uses to encourage people to other areas. It is not the case that, if somebody is refusing to go somewhere, you say, "Well, don't come". You can certainly use those levers. I am not certain that that has been deployed to any great extent prior to this. The record of levels of investment clearly show that other areas across the region have been suffering as a consequence of a very Belfast-centric approach. That is not to say that Belfast will not continue to be the economic driver for the entire area, but there are opportunities to create for other places.

The infrastructure is improving. Our roads network is improving. Our Wi-Fi infrastructure is improving. This is not a big place. People come here from other countries. This is almost a little city region compared with what people who come from the United States or other areas are used to. We have levers with which we can try to develop regional balance to the best of our ability, and we will use those. However, we want to see investment. We want to see local companies growing and expanding into areas and make sure that the prosperity that comes from that is shared around the individuals involved but also the geographical areas involved.

Ms Nicholl: I congratulate the Minister on his new role and wish him well.

Some of the most precious work in our economy is done by childcare practitioners. They are paid poverty wages, so it is really welcome to see that and flexibility highlighted in your vision. Given that recruitment and retention are massive problems and the potential cliff edge that the rise in the minimum wage, which is welcome, will cause providers in April, will the Minister outline how he will work with the Education Minister and ensure delivery as a matter of urgency? We have so many childcare providers facing closure, and some sort of emergency support needs to be put in place.

Mr C Murphy: There is general agreement that a childcare strategy does not involve just the provision of support for parents, although I know that that is an important issue for many people who have young kids. It also involves those who work in that sector, the vast majority of whom are women, who have been underpaid and have little job security. We will not get an effective childcare sector if we do not look after the people who work in it as well as the people who need the provision. That will be the challenge.

I am happy to work with the Education Minister and other Executive colleagues. As I said in response to a previous question, I get a strong sense at Executive meetings of a collective ambition in this regard. It is a policy that, before we managed to come back, the parties who were going to make up the Executive set as a priority. It is something that we will be judged on over the course of the mandate, so I want to see the most effective policy delivered.

Mrs Dillon: I wish the Minister well in his role as our new Economy Minister.

I am glad to hear your comments and to see in your statement that notion of reorientation and a focus on other areas. I speak, in particular, of my area of mid-Ulster, where our engineering and manufacturing sector has been successful in spite of Invest NI and central government help, not because of it. Will your emphasis on clusters include local networks like Manufacturing and Engineering Growth and Advancement (MEGA) in mid-Ulster, which has been doing brilliant and transformative work? A focus on that from central government would be much appreciated.

Mr C Murphy: I thank the Member. Yes. I had the opportunity to speak to people there on a couple of occasions over the past six to nine months. I concur with her view that there is an excellence in manufacturing there that plays a leading role on the world stage in terms of some of the products produced.

One of the issues that we refer to is the availability of land. We were told that Invest NI does not have any land left in mid-Ulster. That is not a tenable situation, given the manufacturing sector there, which is internationally recognised and has the potential to grow much bigger.

Some of the levers that have been available to us now need to be put in place and deployed. We need to make sure that land is available where we find growing clusters like that. We need to make sure that everyone is linked in. We need to ensure that the skills are there, particularly for young people, as the local colleges have already been doing, so that a workforce can be provided to meet the ambition in that area.

There are many levers with which we can assist and enable continued growth. My sense from talking to the people involved in manufacturing down there is that they want to go further and to create more jobs and prosperity in the area. They have deep roots in the area that they come from, which is important, and they want to create economic success there. I see our job and that of Invest NI as enabling that to happen.

Ms Ferguson: I thank the Minister for his statement. As we are a small island, connectivity is crucial to our economy. Having supported City of Derry Airport's public service obligation (PSO) route to Heathrow, will the Minister look at the Derry to Dublin route, as was promised under 'New Decade, New Approach'?

Mr C Murphy: I was pleased to be up there with the Infrastructure Minister last week and to provide support to City of Derry Airport. That connector to Heathrow — one of the busiest airports in the world — is critical to the airport. Also critical to it, as I have said many times, is the connection with Dublin and the potential to grow the business of the airport through that connection. I am pleased, now that the Executive and this institution are up and functioning, that the North/South Ministerial Council will also be functioning. I have already been in touch with my counterparts in Dublin, and those are some of the issues that we want to progress in the time ahead.

Mr Durkan: Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as ucht a ráitis, agus déanaim comhghairdeas leis faoina phost nua.

[Translation: I thank the Minister for his statement and congratulate him on his new job.]

We welcome and look forward to the transition to a greener and more sustainable economy, but will that include a legislative ban on fracking and petroleum exploration and extraction?

Mr C Murphy: As the Member will know, Economy is a vast Department. I have been getting to grips with all the issues there. The Department is looking at legislation on that, and I will bring forward propositions in the not-too-distant future.

Mr McCrossan: Among the key criticisms of Invest NI from many businesses and investors that I have spoken to are that it is disconnected, difficult to deal with and unrealistic, that it places more hurdles in the way than it offers solutions and assistance and that the north-west does not feature on its radar at all. With the new changes and reforms of the organisation in place, which are much welcomed, what measurable checks can be put in place to ensure that the north-west finally gets its fair share of the cake?

Mr C Murphy: When we talked to people in the north-west and other areas, we found that they want to have their own input into Invest NI. That is what I envisage. Every area in the north-west has its own particular interests in this regard. We are looking for co-design, with Invest NI having a stronger resourced regional presence, working in conjunction with councils, businesses, the community and voluntary sector, trade unions and other interests, so that we agree a plan. That is the measurable part of it: the plan that an area wants delivered to kick-start and support growth will be unique to that area. That will be the measurement.

I have heard many of the criticisms that the Member has made. I have a sense that Invest NI wants to change the way that it does things. I have had good conversations with senior people in Invest NI. We want to see a quick turnaround and a different approach to this, and we want to measure the outcomes accordingly.

Mr Allister: Following Mr O'Toole's question, I waited in vain for a DUP MLA to burst the Minister's bubble about his reaffirmation of the all-island economy, because this wonderful document suggests that all of that has been torpedoed. It seems that the DUP MLAs do not even believe their own propaganda. Does the Minister believe that the unaltered Windsor framework, with all its dimensions, aids the growth of the all-island economy? Does he further believe that the existence of the Irish Sea border, which did not even merit a mention in his statement, has the same effect by inhibiting trade from GB?

Mr C Murphy: I would say, in the first instance, that I believe that Brexit was a bad idea, even for those of you who supported it, and that any alteration to the trading arrangements between Britain and Europe was going to have an impact. The outcome is that we are not where we were, and we have been trying ever since to make the best of a bad idea by trying to improve those relationships.

1.15 pm

I see the opportunity. It is not about whether I think it makes things easier; the statistics show that trade has grown North-South and South-North. That has happened organically because people have been doing business together. That is good. It is good for people in the Member's constituency in the same way as it is good for people in mine. Making east-west links as frictionless as possible is good for people in his constituency in the same way as it is good for people in mine. We want to see the economic prosperity of the region change. It has been left in the doldrums for far too long, with low productivity, low pay and no real sense of economic opportunity. It is the responsibility of all of us to change the dial on that, and that is what I intend to do through the strategy that I have laid out.

Ms Sugden: I congratulate the Minister on his new post. Minister, your statement referenced energy efficiency. Do you have any plans to introduce energy efficiency grants similar to what we see in GB with the green deal for commercial and residential properties?

Mr C Murphy: There are opportunities. As the Member knows, we have a limited Budget. Departments are not being asked to submit new bids; they are being asked to find out how they can not spend rather than spend money. There are opportunities, however; other funding streams are available. It is incumbent on us to put the renewable heat incentive (RHI) situation to bed finally, and I hope to do so quickly. That will open up opportunities to support green projects. I want us to get to a situation in which we can take advantage of other supports. We will have to work through what that looks like, but we are legally and morally obliged to move to a situation where we produce more green energy. Given the island that we are on, we will have, over the years ahead, a significant opportunity to become not only self-sufficient but perhaps even an exporter of energy, which would be very beneficial to us. We have to harbour those ambitions and then try to work the strategy in order to get there. There is limited resource available in our budgets, but additional resource may be available elsewhere. We need to be in a position to do that, and part of it is to conclude the RHI experiment, which is a sorry tale for all of us.

Mr McNulty: Go raibh maith agat, a Leas-Cheann Comhairle. Ádh mór ort

[Translation: Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. Good luck to you]

in your new role and to my constituency colleague, the new Minister for the Economy.

Minister, like me, you will be aware of the specific challenges faced by businesses in Newry and south Armagh with respect to the availability of full insurance and of government-backed support for businesses unable to obtain insurance. Your commitments to a regionally balanced economy are most welcome. However, do you accept my assessment that any efforts to balance and support our economy at the micro level must be attuned to grassroots needs and, with respect to Newry and south Armagh and elsewhere, will require specific action on insurance costs and coverage?

Mr C Murphy: The Member will know that fiscal matters such as insurance and the control and regulation of them lie in London. That is unfortunate, because there is an inherent unfairness in the way in which insurance companies treat people, particularly in the area that we represent. We saw how inadequate the insurance arrangements for flooding were. It is a big challenge, and the difficulty is that it is regulated in London. As part of my engagement with the Government and Departments in Whitehall, I will be happy to pursue all those issues, just as we pursued the travel restrictions that are proposed.

Yes, we absolutely want to see businesses supported and continuing to grow. That is why a regional strategy will benefit Newry and south Armagh and south Down as much as it will benefit the north-west. Having clarity of arrangements between North and South will grow the all-island economy, which, we know, will be beneficial to the people whom we collectively represent. Insurance is a significant challenge, however, and one for which, unfortunately, we do not have direct responsibility here. We can make representation, and we will do so in the time ahead.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Dr Aiken): Before I call the last person to speak, who will be Gerry Carroll, more observant Members will have noticed that Gerry was not in his seat at the beginning of the Minister's statement. However, in view of the exceptional circumstances of the Finance Committee's meeting, I have decided to use my discretion to call him.

Mr Carroll: Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. I hope that you do more of that as the session goes on.

Minister, I want to know your view on cutting corporation tax as part of your vision for the economy. Essentially, it is a Thatcherite view that, if corporate taxes are slashed, wealth trickles down, but it never trickles down; it always stays in the bank accounts of the wealthy. As he will know, the latest DUP-Tory deal document, 'Safeguarding the Union', mentions devolving corporation tax, presumably to reduce it. Are the Minister and his Executive colleagues rushing, clamouring and demanding to devolve corporation tax to reduce it? What is his opinion?

Mr C Murphy: I could tell the Member that he missed all the best bits of my statement.

I said this when I had the Finance portfolio, and the Economy Minister at the time agreed with me: it is not something that we are rushing into. The difficulty for us is that the Treasury's approach to the devolution of taxation, particularly corporation tax, is that it wants the money up front that, it thinks, it would yield. That money comes directly from our public services. Our public services are so underfunded, and we are so underfunded in relation to our level of need, that it would not be conscionable to denude them of any more finance in order to hope for the benefit that a lower rate of corporation tax might bring. There are no guarantees, so we would have to hope for what it would bring back to us. We have economic levers in our approach to business, with policies that we can set, and we have to use them as best we can in the time ahead to try to grow the economy. I do not see corporation tax playing any part in that any time soon.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Dr Aiken): That concludes questions on the statement. I ask Members to take their ease while there is a change at the top Table.

(Mr Speaker in the Chair)

Executive Committee Business

Mr Speaker: I remind Members that the motion requires cross-community support.

Resolved (with cross-community support):

That Standing Orders 10(2) to 10(4) be suspended for 19 February 2024. — [Dr Archibald (The Minister of Finance).]

That Standing Order 42(5) be suspended in respect of the passage of the Budget Bill.

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

Dr Archibald: There is an urgent need for a Budget Bill to be passed before Departments reach the cash limits set in the previous Northern Ireland Budget (No. 2) Act 2023. The situation has arisen because of several unique circumstances. The previous Budget Act, legislated for by the Secretary of State in Westminster, was based on a budget position that was far below what Departments required to fund their expenditure for the full year 2023-24. The restoration of the Executive at such a late stage in the financial year and the need for the Executive to consider allocations to address the overspends forecast by Departments and the funding of public-sector pay awards meant that work could not commence on the Budget Bill until now.

Standing Order 42(5) requires:

"No Bill shall pass all its required stages in the Assembly in less than ten days."

That ensures that the Assembly has time to consider and debate the issues properly. Given, however, the risk to the delivery of public services should Departments reach their cash limits, I ask the Assembly to agree to the exceptional step of suspending Standing Order 42(5) to allow the Bill to complete its passage in a much shorter time. Members will be aware that, when the Bill completes its passage through the Assembly, there are further steps to be completed before Royal Assent is secured, and they will therefore appreciate the urgency of the matter.

Mr Allister: Voting money is one of the most important things that the Assembly can do, particularly as a scrutinising Chamber. Yet here we are: one of the first acts of the Executive is to ask the Assembly to rush every fence in relation to a money Bill and not just to have a day or two's pause. The First Stage of the Budget Bill was today, and now, just over an hour later, we are invited to proceed to the important Second Stage. That seems to me to be unseemly and wholly disproportionate to the obligations on the House to properly scrutinise legislation, particularly when it comes to something as important as voting money.

The circumstances here are even more egregious, because, up until this time, with past Budget Bills, we have always had a Supply debate, in which the spring Supplementary Estimates (SSEs) were produced. You could, therefore, see a precise breakdown, line by line, of where the money was going in each Department and subdivision in the Departments. This Budget Bill, however, has been brought without a Supply debate and without the publication of any supporting documentation that shows where the money is to be distributed. Members are asked to debate a Bill that has just headline figures while absent from it is that which we normally would have from the Supply debate, which has been abandoned.

The provision of the expenditure lines for each Department — I hear no explanation for this – has also been abandoned. What are they? When x Department gets y tens of millions of pounds, where is that money to be spent? What is it that we are voting on, other than a global figure for each Department? We are entitled to know, as the scrutineers of the Bill, where the Minister is asking us to put the money. We always could answer that question when we had the spring Supplementary Estimates. We cannot answer it today.

We then compound the situation by saying, "Let us rush it through in a day". That seems to me to show the utmost disregard for a primary function in the House, and, indeed, it diminishes and demeans the role of MLAs, who are not even taken under the Minister's notice —

Mr Tennyson: Will the Member give way?

Mr Allister: No, you stick to the videos.

We are not even taken under the Minister's notice in respect of where the money will be spent. It is quite appalling.

I wonder what the Comptroller and Auditor General thinks of the process, if they have been asked. I wonder how the Departments will do their end-of-year accounts, when they do not even have their expenditure lines with which to compare them. None of that seems to matter; just bulldoze it through. For that reason, I will vote against the suspension of Standing Orders, if given the opportunity to do so.

Mr O'Toole: I am afraid that I must agree in part with Jim Allister, which is something that I do not always do, but it is important to acknowledge that we are being placed in a deeply unacceptable position. There is, of course, the irony that some of the people now talking most loudly about us not having scrutiny were the loudest cheerleaders for us not having an Assembly to scrutinise anything for more than two years, but let us stop, pause and reflect on the purpose of what we are doing.

Authorising money to be spent is the most important thing, in many ways, that the legislature can do. We are supposed to have a Budget process that involves the Minister of Finance bringing a Budget statement, which is a strategic spending document, having agreed it with her or his Executive colleagues, to the Assembly before the end of the financial year. At the same time, we are supposed to have spring Supplementary Estimates so that we can vote to regularise the spending for the end of the current financial year. That is part of what we are doing now, but, as has been said correctly, we do not have any spring Supplementary Estimates, so we are not able to properly judge and read across what we are voting on.

Of course, we have not had a Budget, even a one-year Budget, since, I believe, 2021. The process is completely suboptimal. In fairness to the officials involved, there are clearly extenuating circumstances, which were created by a combination of the political chaos that we had here for several years and decisions made by the British Government to not regularise spending authorisations and not pass a Budget Bill at Westminster.

1.30 pm

Arguments have and will be made about what will happen if we do not proceed with suspending Standing Orders, and I will say something about accelerated passage in my role as Chair of the Finance Committee, but it is important to say that we cannot simply go on for ever and a day rushing through spending legislation in this place. We are not just granting accelerated passage, which is pretty commonplace for Budget Bills, but we are suspending Standing Orders. Although we will not push this suspension of Standing Orders to a Division, we do not support it. It is not only suboptimal; it is completely unacceptable. We need a properly transformed way of doing Budget scrutiny in this place, and the Executive and, indeed, the Department need to stop treating this place with a degree of, at best, patronisation and, at worst, mild contempt in how we do scrutiny. We need to do our jobs properly and, critically, from the public's perspective, be seen to do that. Therefore, it is important to lay down a marker with this suspension of Standing Orders. For those of you who are new to the Chamber, this is going much further than we normally go in ramming through a Budget Bill.

Mr Carroll: We are being asked to endorse an unacceptable process, and, for that reason, I will vote against suspending Standing Orders. We have a short time to scrutinise the Bill, which involves large sums of public money, and I primarily blame the Tories for not properly investing in public services generally but especially when this place was down. Obviously, the DUP is culpable for its two-year boycott. We have no time to really look at the detail. It is absurd. At the second meeting of the Finance Committee today, we had a briefing from an official at 12.00 pm, and, if things go according to parties' expected votes, we will have the whole thing done and dusted by tomorrow evening. Where is the time for scrutiny? There is none at all really. It is absurd.

We should not be playing fast and loose with people's lives and public money. We should be allowed the chance to dig into the detail. It is not good enough to rush these things through. What happened to not forgetting about the legacy of the renewable heat incentive? What about all the talk afterwards that we would learn how to properly scrutinise the use of public money? It seems like that lesson has completely gone out the window and that it is back to business as usual here, which is completely unacceptable.

We also have a concern that I want to dig into in more detail later. The Minister of Finance, in a written statement received by members of the Finance Committee, stated:

"It is regrettable that the Executive was not in a position to fund the full c£700 million of estimated pay costs identified by departments."

I do not know whether every MLA has read that statement — probably not — but I suspect that it will be news to a large number of public-sector workers — perhaps all of them — who may not get the full pay that they deserve. It is not just about scrutiny; it is very concerning for politics that the Assembly will rush through the Bill. We have already heard junior doctors express trepidation at the deal that they have been offered. How many other public-sector workers are facing the same situation? My concern is that this will possibly cement an insufficient pay deal for large numbers of public-sector workers, and the Finance Minister and other Ministers will say, "It is too late. It has been rushed through. Nothing you can do". For that reason, as well as the other reasons, I will vote against suspending Standing Orders.

Mr Tennyson: It is important that we are clear about the consequences of failing to suspend Standing Orders and failing to grant accelerated passage for the Bill. Mr Carroll refers to not "playing fast and loose" with the issue, but I would argue that those who oppose the suspension of Standing Orders are the ones guilty of playing fast and loose with the issue. The Minister has been clear that, if the Bill is not given accelerated passage and if Standing Orders are not suspended, Departments could fall into difficulty accessing cash, and the prospect of any pay award for 2023-24 will fall by the wayside. We owe it to our public-sector workers and public servants, who have been waiting this long, to do this at speed.

I agree that this is an unsatisfactory way to bring forward a Budget Bill, but, in fairness to the Minister, that is not of her making. While I do not want to lower myself to the playground antics of Jim Allister, who has had a road to Damascus conversion about the role of MLAs, it is due to the fact that this place has been down over the past two years and MLAs have not been permitted to carry out their role and scrutinise that we are now in the position where that process is necessary. All of us in the Chamber should have been involved since last year, from the Main Estimates right through monitoring rounds and Supplementary Estimates, to get to this point, but, instead, we are in the position where all we have is the Budget Bill. While I accept that there is a desire to see spring Supplementary Estimates, the Executive have been restored for only a matter of weeks, and we got clarity from the Treasury only on Tuesday on what the conditions and quantums of the funding package actually are. It is simply impossible to expect that to be available at this stage. I agree with Members that this process is substandard, but I ask those Members to think carefully about the reckless and irresponsible approach that they are taking.

Ms Ennis: I agree wholeheartedly with the Member who spoke previously. I will keep my remarks short. I am actually a bit flabbergasted that we have people in the Chamber who advocate delaying the Budget for a moment longer than is absolutely necessary. People talk about obligations. The only obligations that we have are to provide certainty to Departments so that they can operate effectively till the end of the financial year and to deliver to the public-sector workers whom we all support — I mean our teachers, our police, our civil servants, our transport workers and our health workers — the pay award that they deserve. Anybody advocating holding that up for a minute longer has those people to answer to.

Dr Archibald: I thank Members for their contributions. I acknowledge that this is a difficult situation and that it is far from ideal. Neither I nor my officials consider it to be setting any sort of precedent. Obviously, we are dealing with the legacy of the damaging Budget that was set by the Secretary of State that put our public services under immense pressure. Work has only commenced on the spring Supplementary Estimates. We will bring them to the Assembly for it to consider as quickly as possible. Obviously, the urgency with which the Bill needs to proceed has been outlined. It is driven by the critical need to secure access to cash for Departments so that they can continue to deliver vital public services for the remaining weeks of this financial year — not passing it would put that in jeopardy — and to get pay awards for public-sector workers delivered. Therefore, I ask Members to agree to the suspension of Standing Order 42(5).

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

Question put.

The Assembly divided:

Question accordingly agreed to.

Resolved (with cross-community support):

That Standing Order 42(5) be suspended for the Budget Bill 2024.

2.00 pm

Assembly Business

Ms Bradshaw: On a point of order, Mr Speaker. During the debate on the motion, Mr Allister made an unparliamentary comment towards my colleague Eóin Tennyson. Under Standing Order 65, I ask you to make a ruling on that.

Mr Speaker: We will look at what was said and decide whether it is unparliamentary or otherwise.

Members may take their ease before we move to Question Time. Any Member who wishes to leave may do so now.

Oral Answers to Questions

The Executive Office

Mrs O'Neill (The First Minister): Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. With your permission, I will answer questions 1 and 10 together.

Priorities from the last mandate remain important to us. We will bring forward the 'Ending Violence against Women & Girls' strategic framework and press ahead with the important programme of work on mother-and-baby institutions, Magdalene laundries and workhouses. Those are crucial issues, but they are set against the backdrop of a very difficult financial position. The Executive's most immediate priority is the stabilisation of public finances, and we are in ongoing communication with Treasury and the Prime Minister and are calling for our public finances to be placed on a sustainable footing.

We are in the process of developing and agreeing an immediate set of priorities for the Executive, and we will, of course, update the Assembly in due course.

Mr Easton: I thank the First Minister for her answer. What is the Executive Office's assessment of the revenue-raising in Northern Ireland that is required to meet those targets? What does it mean for the central good relations fund?

Mrs O'Neill: There is no doubt that, while we work towards our Programme for Government and immediate priorities, of which there are many to deal with, it is important that we get the basics right with the fiscal framework. That is why we have identified that, and I am delighted that we enjoy cross-party support to make the case for a proper financial arrangement here. That is ongoing work, and it will, obviously, have implications for how we fund all the programmes that we have, whether in the Executive Office or across the other Departments.

I have no doubt that, over the course of time, we will have much more to say to the Member about what that actual budget looks like, particularly as we develop next year's Budget.

Mr Kelly: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle, agus gabhaim buíochas leis an Chéad-Aire as ucht a freagraí go dtí seo. Thank you, Mr Speaker, and I thank the First Minister for her answers so far. She talked about laying out the priorities. What is the impact on those priorities of the continuation of Tory austerity?

Mrs O'Neill: Again, there is no escaping the fact that Tory austerity has badly damaged our public services. The Executive have clearly outlined serious concerns with our current financial situation. We are funded below need, but, as I said, I am glad that all Ministers are united and speak with one voice on the fact that we need to be properly funded. The Executive have written to the Government and the Treasury to call for a discussion on a long-term funding stability plan. We need to have an urgent, ongoing discussion with Treasury, because it is critical that we are given the right resources so that we can put our finances on a more stable footing. We have to get that fundamental right.

Ms Bradshaw: First Minister, will you outline the timeline for the recruitment of a permanent secretary to the Executive Office, please?

Mrs O'Neill: I do not have the detail of that process, but it is under way. I am happy to confirm that in writing to the new Chair of the Committee. I wish you well in your role.

Mr Frew: If the First Minister is truly a First Minister for all, will she meet the COVID-19 vaccine injured and bereaved?

Mrs O'Neill: I am happy to meet anybody who writes in and requests a meeting. It is important that, regardless of whether we agree or disagree on things, we are able to have conversations.

Mr Beattie: First Minister, will you outline your proposals for the setting up of a transformation delivery unit?

Mrs O'Neill: That is still in development. We are working our way through the detail of it. It is important — I think that your colleague raised concerns about this — that it is open to all Ministers so that everybody has access to it. It is under policy development, but the House will have a chance to scrutinise what is being proposed.

Mr O'Toole: First Minister, notwithstanding the current debate and discussions around the fiscal package, Executive parties have been in discussions around developing a Programme for Government for, I think, around 18 months now in a parallel process to other talks. Can you give us a date for when the Programme for Government will be published?

Mrs O'Neill: I assure you that it is just in the past two weeks that we have been formally around the table discussing a Programme for Government. We will bring that forward as quickly as possible for scrutiny in the Chamber. Prior to the restoration of the Executive, there were numerous conversations with the head of the Civil Service around priorities and what things potentially would look like, but that is no substitute for an official Programme for Government, which we are working our way through. I hope to be able, in the coming weeks, to talk in the Chamber about that at length.

Mrs O'Neill: As First Minister and deputy First Minister, we have taken the Pledge of Office required of all Ministers. In that pledge, we have agreed to:

"observe the joint nature of the offices of First Minister and deputy First Minister"


"support, and act in accordance with, all decisions of the Executive Committee and Assembly".

We are fully committed to delivering on that pledge in all aspects of our public duties.

Mr Allister: Let me make the follow-up question clear: when the First Minister flies at public expense to, say, the St Patrick's Day celebrations in Washington, will she exploit the fact that she is travelling at public expense and abuse the office that she holds by espousing causes such as the Palestinian cause or the cause of Irish unity? Those are hardly Executive-agreed policies, or are they?

Mrs O'Neill: When arrangements are made for official travel, they are always in the context of the joint nature of our office. Speaking personally, I believe that it is incumbent on all of us to use every voice that we have to raise the plight of the Palestinian people and advocate peace and a settlement. I think that all of us watch on with horror at the slaughter there, day on day. It is important that we express our desire for our example to be a shining example of how you can achieve peace.

Mr Sheehan: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle, agus gabhaim buíochas leis an Chéad Aire as ucht a freagra.

[Translation: Thank you, Mr Speaker, and I thank the First Minister for her answer.]

Does the First Minister agree that building and maximising international relations is critically important for growth and prosperity here?

Mrs O'Neill: The short answer is, obviously, yes. We have enormous opportunities now open to us, including the use of dual market access, that allow us to grow our exports and attract higher-quality foreign direct investment (FDI). We should promote our reputation as a world-class destination: somewhere to live, work, study and invest. We are working with our officials to identify priority areas for international engagement, thematically and geographically. We also plan to work with our partners across the globe to promote our international objectives and bring benefits and prosperity to all of the people who live here.

Mrs O'Neill: With the agreement of the strategic planning group for refugees and asylum seekers or, in the short version, the SPG, the Department allocated £1·54 million of Home Office full dispersal funding to local councils that has been and continues to be used to support the ongoing development of asylum infrastructure and improve services available locally. The Home Office has yet to confirm full dispersal funding instructions for the 2024-25 financial year, and officials continue to press for urgent clarity on that. The funding quantum is likely to be limited. While we are keen to continue to enhance the support available at council level, the SPG will need to consider the full range of needs before the allocations are made. The Department has, however, secured funding from the Home Office for refugee employability and integration projects, and, in the 2024-25 financial year, councils will each receive £50,000 for projects to support refugee integration.

The Society of Local Authority Chief Executives (SOLACE) is a member of the SPG, and the Department also chairs a regular council engagement group. Through both forums, officials will continue to engage with councils and to provide an update when further information on funding is available.

Ms Nicholl: I thank the First Minister for her answer. She will be aware that the Northern Ireland Strategic Migration Partnership has ceased to exist and that TEO has taken the governance into that Department. I have concerns regarding accountability and transparency. As dispersal and integration will be key roles for so many Departments, will the First Minister commit to looking at that again and at how we can ensure that the governance is fully transparent and open?

Mrs O'Neill: Thank you for that. I share that view. It is so important that we are joined up and coordinated and that everybody is working to the same plan. The Strategic Migration Partnership did cease to function, as you said, but we have worked with the Home Office to cover some of those functions. It is important, now that we are up and running again, to take a fresh look at that to see whether there is anything else that we can do to improve how that functions. If it is not the partnership, what does it look like? I am happy to continue to engage with the Member on that.

Ms Ní Chuilín: Gabhaim buíochas leis an Chéad-Aire as ucht a freagra.

[Translation: I thank the First Minister for her answer.]

Thank you, First Minister, for your response to Kate Nicholl's question. Will the First Minister provide an update, as best she can, on the refugee integration strategy and say how that fits into everything now?

Mrs O'Neill: Consultation on the draft strategy ended on 21 February 2022. The analysis showed strong support for the proposed vision and for the outcomes. Work to date has included establishing appropriate structures to support an effective and joined-up approach across government, which Ms Nicholl raised; providing support for Ukrainian arrivals; facilitating the allocation of dispersal funding to enhance local support and services for asylum seekers; implementing regional immigration advice services; and developing an orientation package. Alongside that work, officials have been collaborating with other Departments to develop thematic delivery plans. The next step is for officials to bring the final refugee integration strategy and associated plans to the Executive for agreement in the coming months.

Ms Hunter: On asylum-seeking, I know that we are all appalled by the murder of thousands of innocent children, men and women in Palestine. Does the First Minister agree that we must step up to the mark and urgently create and commit to a Palestinian visa scheme —?

Mr Speaker: We need to stay on topic.

Ms Hunter: It is to do with asylum-seeking.

It would allow for the safe passage of Palestinian people who have family in Northern Ireland.

Mrs O'Neill: As a rule, we as a society should be as open and as welcoming as we can, particularly to anybody who is fleeing persecution or a war-torn zone. Again, we can speak to our officials about that to make sure that we are as welcoming as we can be and that we support people who need our support. That is the decent to do in any good society.

Mrs O'Neill: With your permission, Mr Speaker, junior Minister Reilly will answer that question.

Miss Reilly (Junior Minister, The Executive Office): On 6 August 2020, the Executive formed the cross-departmental high street task force, chaired by the junior Ministers. The Department for Communities provided the secretariat. The task force was appointed for five years. Its membership was drawn from a wide range of sectors, including retail, hospitality, academia, central and local government and the community and voluntary sectors. The task force's aim was to deliver the vision of sustainable city, town and village centres that are thriving places for people to do business, socialise, shop, be creative and use public services, as well as being great places to live. The task force's report 'Delivering a 21st Century High Street' was submitted in March 2022 to TEO, and junior Ministers at that time publicly accepted it.

High streets are at the heart of our society in more ways than one. They not only drive the economy but create shared spaces where society thrives.

The task force report was, as I said, published in March 2022, and the junior Ministers paid tribute to the work done by the task force and welcomed the strategic narrative. The recommendations will be of interest to a number of Departments.

2.15 pm

Ms Brownlee: My constituency encompasses the historical town of Carrickfergus, where a significant part of the high street is within the conservation area. Conservation areas could find it difficult to implement some of the suggestions in the report. Will there be additional support for areas like that to allow them to thrive also?

Miss Reilly: I am happy to come back to the Member on that in writing.

Mr McGuigan: I thank the junior Minister for her response to a specific report on the work of the high street task force. Will the Minister outline progress to date on taking forward all the work of the high street task force?

Miss Reilly: The high street task force, as I said, was established by the last Executive to look at enhancing investment in cities, towns and villages that had changed over recent years. The task force worked with relevant Departments, businesses, organisations, trade unions, chambers of commerce and councils to look at the issues affecting high streets and their changing use.

Other action has been taken in parallel. For example, the ministerial advisory group for architecture and the built environment has developed a fresh approach to place-making called Living High Streets. A Living High Streets craft kit is available on the ministerial advisory group website to help local communities to develop more sustainable high streets. The COVID recovery small settlements regeneration programme built upon the successful COVID-19 recovery revitalisation programme. Together, those programmes delivered £40 million of funding to address challenges faced by village, town and city centres. Consideration of the report is a matter for the Executive, and Ministers will shortly write to Executive colleagues inviting them to consider how they will take forward the findings of the report.

Delivering the recommendations will require resources, of course. That is why we need our public finances to be on a sustainable footing. The First Minister and deputy First Minister, with the Finance Minister, will make that case directly to the Treasury in the coming period.

Mr Stewart: I thank the junior Minister for the update on the high street task force. Town centres and independent retailers are the backbone of our local economy. In my constituency of East Antrim, they face a 10% increase in their rates as a result of the striking of the rate. Will the Executive Office commit to looking at rebalancing how we tax and set rates for independent retailers so that they are not paying the full burden of the rates process?

Miss Reilly: The Member will know that that is a local government matter, but we do acknowledge the vital importance of the hospitality sector in driving people to visit their local high street, particularly as retail habits continue to change. We also recognise the wide range of issues that the hospitality sector has faced, including COVID-19 and the cost-of-living crisis. Hospitality businesses will be a vital part of creating more sustainable high streets, and the recommendations of the report build a strong foundation.

Mrs O'Neill: In August 2023, TEO notified the module 2C inquiry team of a potential loss of data from Civil Service mobile devices supplied to Ministers and spads that may be relevant to the terms of reference of the public inquiry. The group head of NICS internal audit service was commissioned to undertake a fact-finding investigation into how some mobile devices returned by Ministers and spads came to be reset. The report, dated 7 December 2023, was shared with the module 2C inquiry legal team on 8 December. The terms of reference of the NICS mobile device fact-finding investigation stated that, if analysis of the mobile devices by an IT specialist was required to determine the status of each device and retrieve information where possible, that would be undertaken as a separate exercise.

On 20 December 2023, the head of the Civil Service commissioned an independent technical analysis of devices that had been allocated to former Ministers and special advisers in NICS. The analysis of devices is ongoing, and the COVID inquiry will be advised of the outcome of that exercise.

Mr Durkan: Gabhaim buíochas leis an Chéad Aire as an fhreagra sin.

[Translation: I thank the Minister for that answer.]

People across the North and beyond were understandably disturbed that those WhatsApp messages had been wiped. Does the First Minister regret the deletion of those messages, and will she undertake to change guidance for the Civil Service so that something like that cannot happen again?

Mrs O'Neill: The purpose of the whole public inquiry is to learn lessons and make sure that any lessons that need to be learned are taken on board and the mistakes never repeated. I want to be very respectful of the process of the independent investigation, as the inquiry asks us to be, but I can assure the Member that we have fully participated with providing any information that has been requested for the purposes of the inquiry. I am glad to say that oral hearings for module 2C of the inquiry will be begin in Belfast on 29 April and will run for three weeks. It is really important that we respect the process. In the fullness of time, I have no doubt that we will come back to this in the Chamber.

The Member asked about lessons learned. In the first instance, the investigation report has been given to the inquiry. The inquiry will then decide whether and how it wishes to publish that report. When it comes to lessons learned, I can assure you that guidance has been given to all newly appointed Ministers and spads as to what is expected.

Ms Kimmins: Does the First Minister agree that this public inquiry is particularly important for addressing the concerns of those who lost loved ones during the pandemic and that providing answers for those families should be the primary concern of everyone in the Chamber?

Mrs O'Neill: Absolutely. I am sure that, as always, we all offer our condolences to all those families that lost a loved one. Our thoughts are with everybody who continues to mourn the loss of someone that they held very dear, and I absolutely agree with the Member that this is about them having their opportunity, through the inquiry, to examine our response to the pandemic and ensure that the lessons that are learned for the future are learned absolutely. It is essential that the inquiry has the full cooperation of all, and I have no doubt that that is everybody's intention.

Mr Buckley: Did the Minister ever communicate via WhatsApp with regard to the organisation or arrangements relating to the funeral of Bobby Storey?

Mrs O'Neill: I am going to be respectful of the inquiry; I answer to the inquiry. I have appeared before the inquiry and will do so again.

Mrs O'Neill: With your permission, Cheann Comhairle, junior Minister Reilly will answer this question.

Miss Reilly: We are committed to bringing forward the strategic framework to end violence against women and girls as soon as possible. This Executive strategy has been developed through a successful co-design process involving people and organisations from right across government and society, including, crucially, those with lived experience. Our officials are liaising with Departments and members of the co-design group regarding the outcome of the recent public consultation. Preparatory work to enable effective delivery is under way, and the draft two-year implementation plan is being developed for consideration by Ministers. The draft strategic framework is expected to be submitted for Executive consideration and approval in the coming weeks.

We recognise that a lot of work is already being taken forward across Departments and in our communities. The framework is intended to enhance and complement that work in order to bring about the changes that we all want to see. It is essential that we work in a more strategic, joined-up way to tackle violence against women and girls. Governance structures are being designed to avoid duplication and maximise the effectiveness of public resources. Close departmental collaboration is ongoing, and monitoring will have an outcomes-based focus to ensure effective implementation.

Mr Donnelly: Ministers will be aware that many of these frameworks are subject to budgets. Is the Minister satisfied that an adequate budget exists for this work over the period that it is required?

Miss Reilly: The Member knows that we are operating in a very difficult budgetary situation, the impact of which is felt across all Departments and within our communities. We acknowledge the continuing good work that is being carried out by delivery partners in very challenging circumstances. Work is ongoing to develop an implementation plan to support the delivery of the strategic framework. That work includes the preparation of a detailed business case to inform ministerial decisions on associated funding requirements.

Ms Sheerin: Comhghairdeas leis an Aire faoina post nua. I formally congratulate my colleague on her appointment.

The problem of violence against women and girls is so widespread in society and, by its very nature, statistics cannot properly capture just how big a problem it is. Can the junior Minister outline everything that she and her Department are doing to combat it?

Miss Reilly: Gabhaim buíochas leis an Comhalta as ucht a ceiste.

[Translation: I thank the Member for her question.]

Yes. Significant work has already been taken forward by the Departments of Justice and Health through the stopping domestic and sexual violence strategy; by statutory agencies, including through the PSNI's 'Tackling Violence Against Women and Girls Action Plan'; and by the voluntary and community sector. Despite that, ending all forms of violence, abuse and harm against women and girls remains one of the most pressing challenges facing our society today.

As a response, the previous Executive commissioned the development of the strategic framework, and work is under way to establish the foundation for the necessary whole-of-government and whole-of-society approach. Engagement with stakeholders across a range of sectors is ongoing, including working together on prevention across education, in the workplace, when socialising and with our children and young people. This week, junior Minister Cameron and I, along with senior officials, met the UN special rapporteur on violence against women and girls, Reem Alsalem. It was clear from our discussion that, in order to make progress, we need to see that violence against women and girls is everyone's problem and that solving it will require collective action by everyone in society.

Ms Egan: Does the junior Minister agree that ending violence against women and girls will require buy-in from all Departments and that it made no sense for the Executive Office to consult on the strategy at the same time as the Department of Health cut all core grant funding from Women's Aid? Will the Executive Office commit to work with other Departments to implement the strategy?

Miss Reilly: Go raibh maith agat, agus gabhaim buíochas leis an Chomhalta as an cheist sin fosta.

[Translation: Thank you, and I thank the Member for that question too.]

I will be happy to come back to the Member in writing.

Mrs O'Neill: The North West Strategic Growth Partnership continues its work to support the north-west region to achieve its full potential and transition to being a net economic contributor. The partnership hosted its most recent plenary meeting on 30 November 2023. The plenary received updates on various matters, including tertiary education and skills, infrastructure and spatial growth, and the potential for green growth in the region. A refreshed memorandum of understanding between members of the north-west tertiary education cluster was also launched at the meeting. It is an excellent example of how education providers across both jurisdictions can work together to deliver better services for students.

Between September 2022 and May 2023, thematic discussions were facilitated between members of the partnership, which brought together key players, including the local councils, policy officials from both Administrations and other key stakeholders, in order to have focused conversations across topics such as economic development, further and higher education, tourism and health. Planning is under way to facilitate further discussions on priority areas in the near future.

Ms McLaughlin: I thank the First Minister for her answer. Leadership is crucial, and the Executive Office needs to step up and put all support behind the North West Strategic Growth Partnership. Will the First Minister commit to ensure that the Executive take their leadership role, with the required level of funding allocated to this body, to agree a cross-border strategic programme to drive growth in the north-west cross-border city region?

Mrs O'Neill: Some of the work that has happened even up to this point has been excellent. We can see all the other areas where further collaboration can be achieved, and we have to back that up. The fact that we are working across both jurisdictions is equally important in order to maximise the potential that we know is there.

Before Question Time, the Economy Minister took to his feet to set out his economic vision, and he referred to the need for a regionally balanced economy. That is important in order to rebalance and ensure that the north-west is part of the plan for expansion and better prosperity for everybody, so that everybody enjoys it.

Mr Delargy: Will the First Minister outline any other progress in the north-west?

Mrs O'Neill: There are the city and growth deals for Derry City and Strabane District Council and Causeway Coast and Glens Borough Council. I understand that Derry City and Strabane District Council is progressing towards signing its deal in the spring or summer of this year. Likewise, Causeway Coast and Glens Borough Council is progressing towards signing its heads of terms in spring this year. That is, no doubt, good news for the north-west.

The Executive commitment to increase student numbers at Magee remains a priority, and I understand that the Economy Minister will outline his plans for that in the weeks ahead. The graduate-entry medical school opened to its first cohort of students in 2021, and the second and third cohorts started over the past two years. I understand that the university is also developing the business case for a state-of-the-art north-west medical school, incorporating a graduate-entry medical school and personalised medicine.

From the progress that is being made and that will be made in the time ahead, we can see that it is quite an exciting time for investment in the north-west. DFI is going to be key to that, but it is important that the Executive are seen as champions of regional balance and that we make sure that we get it right, now that we have the opportunity again to do so.

2.30 pm

Mrs O'Neill: TEO operates under a corporate governance framework that sets out management responsibilities and the actions that the Department takes to ensure that decisions are open and transparent. The framework covers the principles of good corporate governance and explains the importance placed on policies, plans and review arrangements. It prescribes the Department's systems of internal control and risk management, along with TEO's internal and external audit arrangements. It is supported by the departmental board's operating framework and by the terms of reference of the audit and risk assurance committee and the major business case committee. Divisions and arm's-length bodies provide quarterly assurance statements to confirm that the framework's requirements are being met. The framework is subject to an annual review to ensure that it is up to date and responsive to emerging issues.

As part of its commitment to transparency, TEO publishes departmental board agendas and minutes of board meetings. The Department's annual report and accounts contain a governance statement demonstrating the importance of transparency and openness. The decisions taken by departmental officials under the Executive formation legislation during the Executive's period of suspension have also been published.

Mr Speaker: There is one minute for a question and an answer.

Mr Buckley: The COVID inquiry has rightly raised serious questions surrounding openness and transparency, with former First Minister of Scotland Nicola Sturgeon suggesting that the use of WhatsApp was all too common. With that in mind, will the Minister inform the House whether she supplied the inquiry with any WhatsApp messages on personal or departmental phones?

Mrs O'Neill: As I said in an earlier answer, I am going to speak to the COVID inquiry. That is the forum in which we should address all those things. I can say that an investigation is under way of how WhatsApp data was wiped from devices in the Department. I can also say that the Department produced more than 290 strings of WhatsApp engagements, but I am certain that policy decisions were made not by WhatsApp but through the official channels.

Mr Speaker: That is the end of the time for questions. We will move on to topical questions.

T1. Mr O'Toole asked the First Minister and deputy First Minister whether the First Minister will commit to not resigning her office for the remainder of the mandate, given that, on the day on which she was inaugurated, he asked her to make a commitment to the people of the North that she and the deputy First Minister would not resign and cause the collapse of the institutions, something that he followed up on last Sunday by letter — to which he is yet to receive a response — and bearing in mind that this is not a stunt, given that, today, we have talked about a range of urgent priorities for the people of Northern Ireland for which, in order to deliver, we need to have institutions. (AQT 1/22-27)

Mrs O'Neill: As I said to the Member on each occasion, I am here because I want to be. I am here in the Executive Office, as part of the Executive, because I want to be and because I want to serve all the people. That is the mandate on which we were all elected to serve. We received your letter and will respond to you in writing, but I can say this: it is much bigger than the office of the Executive Office, because what you refer to is fundamental change. The best place for that to happen is in the political space, and the Assembly and Executive Review Committee is probably the best place for that to be taken forward.

Mr O'Toole: I agree with the First Minister that we need fundamentally to reform the institutions on the basis of the rules, but, until we do that, only two people — you and the deputy First Minister — can prevent the institutions collapsing. First Minister, when the DUP collapsed the institutions, you said that it was "utterly contemptible, cruel and self-serving". You said that it was punishing the public and using our people as ransom. You said that it threatened our democracy. I agree with you on all those things, so why do you insist on your party's retaining that veto?

Mrs O'Neill: What I insist on is that I am here to do business. I am here to be in the Executive. We have chosen to go into the Executive, to take the hard decisions and to deal with public services on a day-to-day basis. We have taken the Pledge of Office. We are here to work. The issue on which the Member has written to us is of a much more political nature, and he should bring it to the Assembly and Executive Review Committee. We will not be found wanting in engaging in that conversation, because we should all constantly be looking at the things that allow us to work better and at what makes us work more effectively. I am certainly up for that conversation.

T2. Ms Sugden asked the First Minister and deputy First Minister to outline their plans to introduce stand-alone age discrimination legislation for the accessing of goods, services and facilities. (AQT 2/22-27)

Mrs O'Neill: Consideration of extending age discrimination legislation to the provision of goods, facilities and services was, as the Member knows, the subject of consultation in the previous mandate. At that time, a decision was not made in respect of the scope of the legislation. I have been told that the issue now requires further work to inform the potential scope of the legislation. I have no doubt that, again, like many other things about which we have talked today, we will have to come back for more detailed conversations in the Chamber on those things.

Ms Sugden: I thank the First Minister for her answer. She will appreciate that this is the only region of the United Kingdom that does not have that specific legislation. The issue seems to be around the lower age limit. Does she agree that we need the legislation in place, even if that means going with what has been done similarly in GB and the 18-plus limit?

Mrs O'Neill: You are right: we are the only place on these two islands without any protection against age discrimination, particularly in the provision of goods, facilities and services. We need to look at it urgently and to build on the work that has gone before to bring it forward in this mandate. I look forward to working with the Member, who has shown a keen interest in it, to get to the point that we are all trying to get to.

T3. Mr Buckley asked the First Minister and deputy First Minister to state the importance of International Women’s Day on 8 March. (AQT 3/22-27)

Mrs O'Neill: I am glad to see that the Member is taking an interest in International Women's Day. I hope that, this year, for International Women's Day, the Executive are able to at least advance our plans around ending violence against women and girls. I hope that we can get close to that juncture for International Women's Day, because it would be a great sign for wider society and for women and girls that the Executive take that seriously.

Mr Buckley: On that day, the Operation Kenova team will report on the actions of the high-profile agent, Stakeknife. Given the abuse, sexual and otherwise, that many women faced at the hands of paramilitaries, can the Minister inform the House whether she ever met Freddie Scappaticci?

Mrs O'Neill: God bless us and save us. That has nothing to do with the Executive Office. We will work our way through all our Executive business. The Member may wish to be divisive, and, if that is what he wishes to do, that is his prerogative. I am committed to working in this joint office and to trying to do our best around all the issues in public services. That is what I am focused on. I will even go further than that: that is what the wider public are also focused on.

T4. Ms Egan asked the First Minister and deputy First Minister whether their Department will bring forward recommendations from the flags, identity, culture and tradition (FICT) report in this mandate. (AQT 4/22-27)

Mrs O'Neill: Yes. I congratulate the Member on her new post as Deputy Chair of the Committee. I look forward to working with her. I know that she had flagged that area as one in which she is keenly interested.

We were able to progress some of that work previously. The FICT report was finally presented to the Executive Office in July 2020. It is a comprehensive document. There are 45 recommendations in that report. It does not provide all the solutions, but it certainly offers us a way forward in dealing with the issues at the heart of division. It looks at cultural traditions and identities and how they can be celebrated and commemorated. It looks at that wide area on the basis of equality and mutual respect. We need to have that full report brought back to the Executive. At that time, an implementation plan was identified for May of this year. We now need to get the up-to-date position from our officials, and then we will probably talk to the Committee and bring it to the House no doubt on further occasions.

Ms Egan: I look forward to seeing those plans in Committee. Does the First Minister agree that instances in which flags of proscribed organisations are erected on street furniture, with the relevant Departments or agencies refusing to remove them, are completely unacceptable and that we need legislation to tackle and regulate that issue?

Mrs O'Neill: I agree with you. It makes absolute sense for us to publish the FICT report and then move on to whatever legislative changes we may need to make. There is no doubt that the implementation of the report will be challenging, but that is why we need to have the implementation plan in place.

I want us to get to the point where we adopt a positive approach to managing the issues of identity, culture and tradition, which continue to cause division. Let us all work towards legislating, where appropriate, and ensure that we do all that we can to create an inclusive, welcoming and multicultural society with anti-sectarianism at its core.

T5. Ms Bunting asked the First Minister and deputy First Minister what action the Executive Office will take to address silo working in Departments. (AQT 5/22-27)

Mrs O'Neill: I will write to the Member. Do you mean in relation to how everybody is working in their respective Departments? I will talk to you afterwards, perhaps, to get more clarification of what you are asking.

T6. Mrs Dodds asked the First Minister and deputy First Minister whether, in the interests of reconciliation, the First Minister will condemn the terrorists in the IRA who were responsible for death and destruction, given that 17 February 1978 is marked by one of the worst IRA atrocities in Northern Ireland, when an incendiary device ripped through the La Mon Hotel, killing 12 people, who were burnt alive, and injuring dozens. (AQT 6/22-27)

Mrs O'Neill: I think that the Member and I have discussed areas like this before. It is so, so important. I said two weeks ago, when I accepted the position of First Minister, that I regret every loss of life, without exception. That is everybody out there who has been hurt in our society. It is our job, together, to try to build a better society. It is our job to look towards the future, and it is our job to try to properly deal with the past.

Mrs Dodds: The general public are tired of platitudes, and they want to know, in the interests of reconciliation, that such atrocities can be condemned wholeheartedly.

Let me try another one. Ian Sproule was killed by the IRA. Such was the ferocity with which the bullets hit his body that the IRA later phoned his family and told them to go out into the yard and look at the mess that they had left him in. In the interests of reconciliation, will the First Minister condemn such actions? Actually, will she go further? Given the allegations of collusion with the gardai in relation to the death of Ian Sproule, will the First Minister use her influence to call for an inquiry into such collusion?

Mrs O'Neill: This all speaks to why we need to properly deal with the past, why we have to have a proper reconciliation process and why we have to properly deal with what was agreed by all parties way back in the Stormont House Agreement, because what the British Government are doing about dealing with the legacy of the past does nothing to heal anybody's wounds and nothing to advance our society. I am committed to building a better future, I am committed to trying to reconcile people, and I am committed to doing everything that we can to move our society forward. No matter who out there has been hurt in the past, that is so regrettable across the board. It does not matter what background you come from or who hurt whom; it is regrettable that there has been any loss of life here on our island.

Mr Speaker: Mike Nesbitt is not in his place.

T8. Mr K Buchanan asked the First Minister and deputy First Minister whether the First Minister condemns the attacks on 7 October in Israel, which started a chain of events that we all witness each night on our televisions. (AQT 8/22-27)

Mrs O'Neill: I have done so previously.

Mr K Buchanan: Do you defend Israel's right to defend itself, or is there no alternative?

Mrs O'Neill: This is far too serious for petty games. It is far, far too serious for petty games. What is happening in Palestine and the Middle East requires a ceasefire, requires dialogue and requires all of us to lift our voice to call for an end to it. All sides — everybody in the Middle East — need it to stop. The bombardment every day of the people in Gaza — the Palestinian people — is horrendous and heartbreaking to watch, so we should all be very conscious of using our voice to call for peace and dialogue. To use our own example, we need to continue to have dialogue if we are to get to a peaceful solution, which is what we all want to see for the people in the Middle East.

T9. Miss Brogan asked the First Minister and deputy First Minister whether the First Minister welcomes the recent confirmation from the Taoiseach that he intends to bring a proposal to the Cabinet to recommend an increase in the Irish Government’s contribution to the A5 road upgrade project, which is a hugely important infrastructure project for the people of West Tyrone. (AQT 9/22-27)

Mrs O'Neill: Yes, absolutely. I know that the Member is a huge advocate for the A5 and understands the necessity of it and the benefits that it will bring. I very much welcome the Taoiseach's recent commitment in the Dáil. That is a positive step, and the upgrade of the A5 is vital for the people in the north-west. The upgrade is needed. It will improve road safety and enhance economic development in the area, so I look forward, in the coming days, to more positive announcements about the A5 and the contribution to its funding.

2.45 pm

Miss Brogan: Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire.

[Translation: I thank the Minister.]

The long delay in the project has obviously been hugely frustrating for the many families who have lost loved ones on that dangerous road and for the many users who know the dangers that they incur when using it. Does the First Minister agree that work needs to begin as soon as possible?

Mrs O'Neill: Yes. I hope that the work can start very soon, now that we have our Executive back up and running and a Minister at the helm in the Department. We all have to maximise all the funding that is available to us and get the work started as quickly as possible. I commend everybody who has been working, for example, on the Enough is Enough campaign and all the area's representatives for the work that they have done to get us to this point. I hope that we will see more positive news in the coming days.

Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs

Mr Muir (The Minister of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs): I will start by saying that it is good to be here. Scrutiny of Ministers and accountability to the Assembly are vital.

Immigration is an excepted matter and a policy area that the UK Government (UKG) retain exclusive control over. I am, however, aware of the difficulties that are facing the fishing industry, and I plan to write to the Home Office on those changes and their potential impacts on Northern Ireland's agriculture and fisheries sectors. My officials will also continue to work with representatives from Northern Ireland's fishing industry in order to understand the extent of the impact on our fleet.

Ms Forsythe: I thank the Minister for his answer. Given the urgency of the issue and the fact that it affects the fishing industry on a day-to-day basis, especially in my constituency and particularly in Kilkeel harbour, will the Minister agree to meet representatives of the fishing industry in the short term and give them the opportunity to highlight the matter?

Mr Muir: I thank the Member for her question. I would be delighted to do that. On Wednesday, I will visit Portavogie harbour, and, on Thursday, I am provisionally set to meet representatives from the Northern Ireland Fishermen's Federation. I look forward to the motion that will be brought to the House on, I understand, Tuesday.

Mr Allister: Does the Minister agree that a good start to safeguarding the fishing industry would be to deal with the outrageous situation whereby fishermen from Northern Ireland who make their catches in British waters cannot land them because they are decreed to be foreign catch? Will he address that?

Mr Muir: I am aware of the issue that the Member refers to. At this moment, I outline that, as Minister, my approach to EU exit will be different to what has gone before. I intend to implement the law. To me, respecting the law is important. I believe in upholding the ministerial code in word and deed. I also want to focus on working with others to find solutions. I will focus on that issue in the time ahead. I am not focused on deliberately enlarging problems. I am focused on solutions. My task at hand, and this is what I intend to do, is to make the job of managing EU exit exceedingly boring. We have had far too much drama. What we need is delivery.

Mr Blair: With your permission, Mr Speaker, I want to say at the outset that it is with absolute pleasure that I welcome the Minister to his new office and to his place today. Will he provide an update on the ongoing inquiry into the seasonal worker route by the migration advisory committee (MAC)?

Mr Muir: I am very aware of the issue and its impact on the industry. In March 2023, the migration advisory committee announced that it would undertake a self-commissioned inquiry of the seasonal worker route. My Department's officials submitted a response to the call for evidence, and, by engaging closely with Northern Ireland stakeholders, significant opportunity has been afforded to local businesses that utilise that route to be part of the review process. That included supporting them in organising a stakeholder engagement event with Professor Brian Bell in September 2023 and subsequent individual site visits and interviews with MAC officials in January 2024.

The migration advisory committee has indicated that the findings of that inquiry were due to be published in spring 2024 but that that may be delayed until the summer, given that it is now under time constraints to complete a rapid review of the new immigration shortage list. I will continue to meet and work with representatives from businesses that use that visa route so that I can understand their needs. I await the publication of MAC's recommendations, and I hope that those will subsequently allow the Home Office to provide clarity on the future of that visa route post-2024 and give our stakeholders the certainty that they need.

Mr Muir: The environmental crime that was committed at Mobuoy is simply appalling. Huge quantities of polluting waste materials were unlawfully deposited adjacent to the River Faughan, a special area of conservation, and 2 kilometres upstream of Northern Ireland Water's drinking abstraction point. My Department is committed to pursuing the perpetrators of such crime through ongoing proceedings, including, where possible, ensuring that the polluter pays through confiscation under the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002.

Safeguarding public health, ensuring safe drinking water and reducing the environmental impact of this crime is paramount. To that end, my officials are delivering a comprehensive environmental monitoring programme, which includes detailed monitoring using international quality standards of on-site groundwater and surface water in partnership with Northern Ireland Water and through monitoring of the River Faughan. Quality reports are freely available on the DAERA website. I am advised that, to date, there has been no adverse impact on the safety of the drinking water supplied from the River Faughan.

My Department appointed an integrated consultancy team to develop a draft optimum remediation strategy, in line with best practice. That strategy to deliver long-term remediation of the site is based on the best balance of environmental, social and economic factors. A detailed risk assessment, drawing on intensive site investigations and seven years of monitoring, has provided the foundation for the development of the remediation strategy. I intend to issue the draft strategy for consultation within the next two months.

My officials are in regular contact with local stakeholders, including elected and community representatives and young people, to keep them informed and help develop a future site vision to secure a positive environmental outcome for all at the Mobuoy site.

Mr Beattie: I welcome the Minister to his post.

We find ourselves in a truly abysmal situation. Some £600,000 has been spent on that already this year. Will the Minister outline how much it is likely to cost and for how long? Will that spend protect our wild Atlantic salmon waterways, which are in danger from leakage?

Mr Muir: To date, my Department does not have a cost estimate that has been assessed and approved through the required public finance processes, such as an approved business case. There are several reasons for that. First, my Department continues to pursue the perpetrators of this environmental crime through ongoing criminal proceedings. Secondly, my Department will shortly issue a public consultation on a range of remediation options for the site. The views of stakeholders are hugely important to me, and I want to ensure that those views are taken into account in the remediation options chosen. Hence, it is not possible to confirm stable costing now. Thirdly, a range of approval processes must be carried out to ensure that any remediation proposals are both technically sound and cost-effective, including consultation with Executive colleagues and, most importantly, the Department of Finance in relation to affordability. Those processes can only move forward following the results of a public consultation.

Work has been undertaken by consultants on the potential costs and will inform a draft outline business case. I am aware that one of the options contains remediation costs of £107 million, which, on a point in time estimate, are subject to sig