Official Report: Tuesday 30 April 2024


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

Assembly Business

New Assembly Member: Andrew McMurray

Mr Speaker: Yesterday, I announced that I had been informed by the Chief Electoral Officer that Andrew McMurray had been returned as a Member of the legislative Assembly for the South Down constituency to fill the vacancy there. This morning, Mr McMurray signed the undertaking and the Roll of Membership and entered his designation in my presence and that of the Clerk to the Assembly. Andrew has now taken his seat, and I welcome him to the Assembly and wish him every success.

Members' Statements

Mr Speaker: If Members wish to be called to make a statement, they should indicate by rising in their place. The usual rules apply.

COVID Inquiry

Mr Buckley: Today is a very poignant day for many of our constituents, with the start of the UK COVID inquiry in Northern Ireland. More than 4,000 people tragically lost their life in Northern Ireland during the period. I think of the bereaved families in particular, for whom today will bring back many memories of some very painful times that they went through.

As constituency MLAs, I am sure that each and every one of us has personal memories of a very difficult time. I remember, from my own perspective, losing a dear friend who was in a care home. I remember going to the window of the care home to see him in his final moments before he passed. I remember the pain that the family felt because they could not even get to his bedside because of the fear of COVID spread in the care home.

I think of constituents who impaled themselves on railings trying to get to loved ones' graves as councils closed cemeteries. I think of the many decisions that were taken in this place, some with more thorough scrutiny than others, and how those impacted on people's lives.

More importantly, however, we need to renew the firm call that the families have made, which is that today is a search for the truth and for accountability. It is a search for political accountability, when, sadly, it was lacking in this place at times.

Decisions were taken that were, "Do as I say, not as I do", for some Members. Primarily, today, with victims very much at the front and centre, we can only hope and pray that their families find some form of closure as the inquiry comes to Northern Ireland.

International Workers' Day

Mr Kearney: I want to highlight the significance of International Workers' Day, otherwise "May Day", tomorrow on 1 May. May Day celebrates the struggles and achievements of working people and organised labour. It also reminds us of what still needs to be done to maximise industrial democracy and workers' rights. Securing full union recognition and collective bargaining rights in all workplaces across Ireland remains a critical priority. Notwithstanding the challenging economic and financial realities in the North, our power-sharing institutions need to have the backs of workers and families.

I extend solidarity to the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU) and the international labour movement this May Day. I encourage everyone to participate in May Day meetings and rallies this week, especially on Saturday.

United Nations Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Report

Mr Donnelly: I rise to speak on the latest UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities report, which was published last week following an inquiry into the rights of disabled people in the UK in March. The committee found that there has been no significant progress on delivering its previous recommendations that were outlined in 2017. The UK Government have failed to address any of the systematic violations of the human rights of persons with disabilities and have failed to tackle the root causes of inequality and discrimination for disabled people. Whether it is difficulties in accessing personal independence payment (PIP) or adult disability payment (ADP) or proposed amendments to the Data Protection and Digital Information Bill that would violate the right to privacy for many people, it is clear that the outgoing Conservative Government have no interest in addressing any of the inequalities that continue against people with disabilities. I hope that the next Government provide a more equitable and human rights approach to equality issues.

The report highlights some of the most pressing issues that are specific to Northern Ireland, such as the loss of EU funds and the failure of the UK Shared Prosperity Fund to provide the same level of support. I will quote two paragraphs directly from the report, which is available online. It states that deaf and disabled persons organisations (DDPOs)

"in Northern Ireland reported that disabled people were in a particularly dire situation. Disabled people are 50% more likely to live in poverty. Debt is a significant issue, with many losing a substantial portion of their income to debt repayments. Despite some individuals qualifying for disability benefits, the financial support often fails to cover the extra costs associated with disability, leading to [financial] hardship and material deprivation, and indicating that disability benefits for those who meet the threshold for entitlement, are not sufficient to meet the extra costs associated with disability and ill health.

DDPOs in Northern Ireland also raised concerns about disabled people being targeted for financial exploitation and illegal lending during the recent political and economic crises. This has highlighted a gap in formal responses to protect disabled people from such exploitation."

Significantly, the report highlights the disproportionate impact of political instability in the Assembly on disabled people and their rights. The report displays the urgent need for institutional reform to prevent the Assembly from collapsing for years again.

Equality law in Northern Ireland has fallen behind that in the rest of the UK. One way in which to resolve that gap would be the incorporation of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD) into domestic law, as it is recognised as the gold standard for equality rights. I hope that the Executive bring that to the Assembly before the end of the mandate.

Rugby: Fermanagh and South Tyrone

Mr Elliott: I want to bring to Members' attention the success of two rugby clubs in Fermanagh and South Tyrone, namely Clogher Valley Rugby Football Club and Enniskillen Rugby Football Club, this season. At the weekend, Enniskillen Rugby Football Club's ladies became Women's Junior Cup champions, beating Malone Rugby Football Club by a staggering 27 points to 8 points. It was a great win for that young side.

Clogher Valley has also had success this year, with the women's team winning the Ulster league B and the first men's team winning the all-Ireland league 2C and the Bank of Ireland Senior Shield final. All that comes off the back of great youth programmes in both clubs. They bring forward those young players and teach them respect and competitiveness. There is a healthy competitive relationship between Clogher Valley and Enniskillen, which is always good, and both excel themselves when they play each other. Enniskillen firsts just missed out on being champions in their league as well, coming in second place. I wish both clubs well, I wish the youth programmes well and I love to see those youth programmes thriving.

Mental Health Services: South Down

Mr McGrath: I want to make a Member's statement about the provision of mental health services in South Down, notably those that are offered by three local organisations that I have worked with, Life Change Changes Lives in Downpatrick, Mind Your Mate and Yourself (MYMY) in Newcastle and Castlewellan and The Well in the kingdom of Mourne.

The issues of mental health and well-being and, indeed, suicide will impact all of us at some point, whether directly or indirectly. While we are 26 years since the Good Friday Agreement and are grateful for the peace that we now enjoy, so many families and individuals still live with the trauma and the trans-generational trauma that the Troubles caused. Medical professionals tell us that the legacy of the Troubles has contributed to the greater prevalence of mental health issues in the North compared with England, Scotland or Wales. Therefore, the need to implement a fully resourced and funded mental health strategy and action plan has never been greater.

Often, those who require counselling to help care for their adverse mental health can avail themselves of only six free sessions under the current model that is provided by the statutory health trusts. It seems ridiculous that we have one size that is expected to fit absolutely everybody and is such a short supply of what they need. Mental health does not follow statutory guidelines. After six sessions, people are often left at a cliff edge, wondering whom to turn to. In that void left by the statutory sector, it is often community and voluntary sector organisations such as Life Change Changes Lives, MYMY and The Well that step in to provide a much-needed listening ear, a shoulder to cry on or words to calm a troubled soul. In some circumstances, those organisations literally talk people back from the edge of death. They do it not for profit or headlines; rather, they do it because it is the right thing to do and because they care for the people in our communities.

Yet, here we have an Executive who do not believe that those organisations deserve the funding to do the work that they do. Often, there is no cure for adverse mental health but, rather, the imparting of skills, knowledge and understanding to help those suffering to live with their conditions. Therefore, the need for a multi-year budget to enable the Department to fund those organisations has never been greater. Our Executive should work to provide that funding.

Legacy Act

Mrs Dillon: Tomorrow is 1 May. For some, that is the beginning of summer, but, for many families, tomorrow is a day that they have dreaded for some time because they lost loved ones in the conflict and, as a result of the British Government's Legacy Act, it is the day that numerous inquests will be halted and over 330 Troubles-related cases that are being investigated by the Office of the Police Ombudsman will be axed. Those families aptly named the Legacy Bill "the Bill of shame", because it will end all access to legal pursuit of their cases.

We may not always agree in the Chamber, particularly on sensitive matters such as legacy, but, on this, I believe, we are all agreed. The British Government Legacy Act is wrong and serves nobody. It serves no victims and no families. We believe that the Stormont House Agreement, whilst not perfect, at least offered families some access to truth and justice. The families themselves believe that, as shown by the number of responses to the consultation on the Stormont House Agreement Bill. Many of the 17,500 responses were from families who lost loved ones. Many of those people poured their hearts out in the consultation responses only for those to be scrapped, along with the Stormont House Agreement Bill, by the British Government.

I have spoken to many families from all sections of our community, and all they want is peace.

They want the truth about what happened to the people whom they loved, and they do not want the next generation of their families to have to carry the burden that is the fight for truth and justice. Be in no doubt, however, that while they do not want their families to have to carry that on, they will if they have to.


10.45 am

The irony in some of these cases is that the very Secretary of State who has blocked access to justice through the courts and the Coroners' Court is the same person who will decide whether those families get access to a public inquiry. That is not right. Public inquiries into some of the cases were recommended by the Coroners' Court itself.

I am asking for support from across the Chamber in continuing to fight the British Government on this issue and insist that they repeal the Legacy Act.

Bovine TB: Proposals to Reduce Compensation

Mrs Erskine: Bovine TB is destroying farms across Northern Ireland. I am calling on the AERA Minister to move at pace to bring forward a plan on how he is going to deal with that scourge.

Farmers are under intense pressure, and bovine TB hits their farms through no fault of their own. The AERA Minister must meet the needs of farmers and defend their livelihoods. I know of family farms, especially in my constituency, that are at breaking point. In 2003, my area had some of the highest incidences of bovine TB in Northern Ireland, with a herd incidence rate of 12·6%. That was the second highest rate in Northern Ireland, behind only that in Newtownards. In my constituency, 96 herds were closed up in January and February of this year alone.

For those who are not aware of what that means for farmers, I suggest that you get out and visit some who have been hit. Farmers are left without an income or the ability to sell their animals at a time of rising costs, never mind the toll of seeing your livestock being loaded onto a trailer to be culled. I cannot imagine that feeling.

Bovine TB takes away any form of control on how you can operate your farm. There are those who see the figures paid out in compensation to farmers who lose a herd to TB and think that it is sufficient. Yes, animals are assessed at the market value by DAERA staff, but there is no allowance for the subsequent loss of milk production or progeny. That has a serious impact on farm finances. The Secretary of State pushed for a consultation on proposals to reduce the compensation by up to 25%. I warn of the consequences of introducing such a measure. It may seem alluring to some in the Chamber to save up to £9·3 million for the public purse. However, the contribution to GDP by NI cattle and sheep farmers is cited to be worth £2·8 billion.

Deal with the problem. That is my thinking and the thinking of farmers the length and breadth of Northern Ireland. I want the Minister to bring forward his assessment of the consultation and a plan to tackle bovine TB as soon as possible. We need to stand by our farming community.

Belfast Metropolitan College, Castlereagh Campus: Proposed Closure

Mr McReynolds: I rise to speak on the importance of Belfast Metropolitan College's Castlereagh campus in my East Belfast constituency.

Members will be aware of the sudden announcement of the proposed closure of the campus last year and of engagement on redundancies within the wider Belfast Metropolitan College estate. Since becoming an MLA, I am proud to have worked with parents and staff on that matter and have attended consultation evenings; consistently engaged with management; put forward our concerns on how the process is being handled; and raised what is happening with the Economy Minister in the Chamber and in writing.

The consultation recently closed, and the Minister has consistently told me that it would not be appropriate for him to meet with management of the Castlereagh campus until the significant number of public consultation responses have been reviewed by the college. However, it is precisely because of the large number of responses that it is essential that the Minister engages with the college, although not specifically on the proposed closure. The campus is such an important part of the community in east Belfast and the surrounding local economy. We cannot sleepwalk into closure and not know what could have been.

Moreover, we need to remember that this place sat silent for five out of seven years, while Departments cried out for support and ministerial direction, and groups and organisations cried out for support but were allowed to go to rack and ruin. I am firmly of the view that everyday issues such as potholes, street lights, struggling businesses and proposed campus closures can be linked back to the lack of a consistently functioning Government. That is why a functioning Assembly is so important to Northern Ireland.

Now that Ministers are in post and Departments have some energy behind them again, it is crucial that Ministers hear about problems and potential solutions and that they see the opportunities that lie in front of them, with government support in place.

On behalf of the staff, current students and potential new students of Belfast Metropolitan College's Castlereagh campus, I call on the Economy Minister to urgently accept our request to meet staff and see the potential that the Castlereagh campus has for supporting the next generation of minds in Northern Ireland.

Independent Commission for Reconciliation and Information Recovery

Mr Nesbitt: I was listening carefully to Mr McGrath and Mrs Dillon. Mr McGrath made a point about our shocking rates of poor mental health compared with those in England, Scotland and Wales. A fact that we can all agree on is that that is a legacy issue. If you were to take a map of Troubles hotspots, measured by bombs, shootings and murders, and then take a contemporaneous map of hotspots for poor mental health, measured by attempted and completed suicides, drug abuse and alcohol abuse, you would basically have a match. We need to do more about mental health.

Linda Dillon made the point that, unusually, there was universal condemnation and rejection of the Legacy Act. Yet tomorrow, the Independent Commission for Reconciliation and Information Recovery (ICRIR) will come into being. It will effectively become the only show in town. Rightly or wrongly, that is the position that we are in, and it is up to the ICRIR to prove to us that it is worthy of our support.

The two things overlap: people's poor mental health and well-being may be a direct consequence of failure to secure truth, justice and acknowledgement for their loved ones. As a former victims' commissioner, I can testify that we have not done particularly well by victims and survivors, over the years. They had a reasonable expectation that, the moment that they were injured or lost a loved one, the agencies of the state would form a circle of wagons around them and that they would get whatever they needed, be that a bit of shopping, having the children taken to and collected from school or some cash. Those things did not happen.

For some reason, I am minded of a widow whose husband was murdered. She was left with a farm, a herd of milking cows, a slurry tank and two toddlers — the last two being a potentially fatal mix. She had to milk the cows every day, and there was nobody to help her. How did she keep the children safe and away from the slurry tank? She got two tractor tyres and piled one on top of the other to create a prison cell into which she placed her two toddlers while she milked her cows, because nobody was there to help.

I do not know what the ICRIR will achieve, but there is a lot of pressure on it, because victims and survivors deserve truth, justice and acknowledgement.

Personal Independence Payments: Proposed Reform

Mr Durkan: The personal independence payment (PIP) is a lifeline that provides support for basic needs such as housing, transport, food and heating. As complex and flawed as the PIP process can be and often is, disability benefits in general offer a safety net: assurance from the welfare state that society's most vulnerable will be protected.

Recent proposals from Rishi Sunak fly in the face of that objective. The Tories' proposed reform of the system, including stopping regular cash payments, is an immoral attack on those with disabilities. If, in turn, the reforms are foisted on the North by the Executive parties — as happened with welfare reform — the outcome will be ruinous. As we heard this morning, the legacy of the conflict is that we have a much higher prevalence of long-term illness and disability here than in Britain. We also have some of the worst outcomes for people with disabilities. A series of unprecedented budget cuts in recent years, including the loss of access to the European social fund, has disproportionately impacted disabled people. Overnight, services like Action Mental Health in my constituency disappeared, stripping many disabled people of loving, supportive community networks. Vital organisations were gone in an instant, and the most vulnerable were left high and dry. Cuts to discretionary housing payments (DHPs) were devastating for people who rely on disability benefits, making them unable to meet the shortfall that is caused by ever-increasing rental costs. Executive parties promised to overturn those cuts and many others that were made in their absence. Instead, the Budget has copper-fastened decisions such as those on DHPs, which have been a key contributory factor in rising homelessness.

It is deeply concerning that, on witnessing an increase in the number of claimants with a mental health condition, the first reaction of a Tory Government is not, "How can we improve the life of those who are suffering?" but, "How do we tackle benefit scroungers?". It is really troubling to see such blatant disregard for people laid bare. The British Government do not care about tackling the underlying issues with poor mental health; they care only about cutting costs, even if the cuts cost lives.

The measures are not reforms; they are regressive measures that threaten the well-being of society's most vulnerable. They are dystopian and destructive by design. Those callous proposals must be opposed at all costs.

St Mary's Primary School, Fivemiletown

Mr Gildernew: I will pick up, geographically, from where my colleague Tom Elliott was in his statement — the village of Fivemiletown in south Tyrone — to acknowledge another fantastic achievement in the shape of St Mary's Primary School. The school has been shortlisted for the award for best community campaign at the Sheila McKechnie awards, which will take place in London on 15 May.

A short time ago, St Mary's faced the threat of closure, but under the excellent leadership of Mairaid Kelly of the board of governors and Brian McCloskey, the principal, the entire school community and that of Fivemiletown, including businesses and sports clubs — I acknowledge Deborah Erskine and Tom Elliott's work on this too — rallied around what is an excellent school with excellent educational outcomes. It is a growing, thriving school in a growing, thriving community. People in the community recognised its value and mounted and fought a campaign to save their school.

The Sheila McKechnie awards celebrate the best campaigns and campaigners, with a focus on those who have made change happen in their communities. With patrons including broadcaster Jon Snow, the Sheila McKechnie Foundation was established in 2005 to support and recognise campaigners and to encourage social change through civic action. That makes the school an excellent nominee for the award, given the social change that it has brought about through civic and community action. I acknowledge its work. It was an absolute privilege to be part of the campaign, which was positive and inspiring throughout. I wish the entire school community all the best in London on 15 May, and I hope that it wins the award.

Madison Wright

Ms Brownlee: I congratulate an inspiring young Carrickfergus woman who has been recognised as the Rotary Young Citizen of the Year 2024. At only 16, Madison is the only youth ambassador for the Northern Ireland Children's Hospice, and she has raised more than £100,000 through a series of fundraising events. She has organised coffee mornings, bag packs, walks, non-uniform days and even leg and chest waxing events, with the flagship event, a gala ball at Titanic Belfast, raising over £60,000.

Madison first got involved with fundraising after learning that her childhood friends Noah and Gracie Coates had been diagnosed with a rare form of cancer. That life-changing event is where Madison found her inspiration not only for charitable causes but for raising awareness of cancer. Madison is the well-deserved winner of the Rotary Young Citizen of the Year award, and she was presented with her prestigious award at a ceremony in Birmingham.

That achievement is testament to Madison's character and the time that she has dedicated to supporting the NI Children's Hospice. She is a shining example of how young people have a positive and vital role to play in our society today. Well done, Madison.


11.00 am

Preschool Provision: Kells

Mr Allister: I want to raise a constituency issue: the disparity and gaps in preschool provision in parts of my constituency. I refer in particular to the situation that prevails in and around the village of Kells. Historically, the provision was largely met by the Kells group, which has long existed, and what was colloquially known as the "Country Garage" preschool facility. It, unfortunately, closed, meaning that, this year, there were 65 applicants for the Kells provision, yet only 42 places were provided, even though it could cope with 52. That means that two dozen families or more in and about the village of Kells have no provision. They have been told that there are places in Crumlin or Rasharkin. Sorry, that is not good enough, because the scheme, as articulated by the Department, is to meet the "needs of each area" with the provision of targeted places.

I say to the Education Authority that there needs to be an adjustment and a revisiting of specific areas where the need has not been met. I have been in touch with Mr Pengelly, and I trust that he will take the issue on board. The Education Authority was, I have to say, accommodating when a similar issue arose in Cloughmills, and I look for the same approach in respect of Kells. We cannot have a situation where two dozen families are left out in the cold when another 10 places could be provided if the Kells facility were granted the norm of 52 places. I hope that that will happen, because the stress and dismay that the issue is causing local families need not happen.

Ministerial Statements

Mr Speaker: I have received notice from the First and deputy First Ministers that they wish to make a statement.

Mrs O'Neill (The First Minister): In compliance with section 52C of the Northern Ireland Act 1998, I wish to make the following statement on the 27th plenary meeting of the North/South Ministerial Council (NSMC), which was held at the NSMC joint secretariat offices on 8 April 2024.

The deputy First Minister and I have agreed that I will provide the report. The deputy First Minister and I led the Executive delegation, and the then Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar TD, led the Irish Government delegation. The meeting was chaired by the deputy First Minister and me, and all Executive Ministers attended.

At the start of the meeting, Ministers offered their sincere condolences to the family, friends and former colleagues of Dr Peter Smyth, a former joint secretary to the NSMC from June 2002 until October 2005, who sadly passed away on 11 February 2024.

The Council then discussed environmental challenges, including those facing our watercourses, such as Lough Neagh, and agreed that both jurisdictions would share learning, expertise and research. The Ministers went on to discuss the fiscal outlook for each jurisdiction, and promoting economic growth, skills and job creation is a key priority for both Administrations. Ministers discussed relevant areas relating to trade and business.

The next agenda item was a progress report from the NSMC joint secretaries that provided updates on the NSMC meetings that had taken place since the previous plenary meeting and outlined the work taken forward in each of the NSMC sectors, including the North/South bodies. It was agreed that, building on the learning from the response to the pandemic, officials in both jurisdictions should continue to consider civil contingency planning and resilience arrangements across both jurisdictions and that an update should be provided at a future meeting. Ministers noted the significant challenges faced in both Administrations in addressing climate change and the loss of biodiversity and agreed that all NSMC sectoral meetings will consider those issues so that a report of the discussions can be brought to the next plenary meeting.

The NSMC noted that this year marks the 25th anniversary of the establishment of the North/South Ministerial Council and the North/South bodies and that that will be commemorated during the year.

We then received an update on the various New Decade, New Approach (NDNA) commitments with a cross-border element. The NSMC welcomed the positive developments in the delivery of the commitments and noted that the Irish Government and the Executive will continue to work together, including through the North/South Ministerial Council, to deliver key infrastructure projects that will deliver social, environmental and economic benefits to improve the lives of people across the island.

Ministers welcomed the announcement in February by the Irish Government of funding of €800 million for Shared Island investment priorities, including €600 million for the A5 western transport corridor, as well as funding for the Narrow Water bridge, an hourly rail service between Belfast and Dublin and the completion of the cross-border Carlingford greenway. Ministers received an update on the A5 western transport corridor, including the fact that a public inquiry into the scheme was reconvened in May/June 2023, that, in October 2023, the Department for Infrastructure received the final report from the Planning Appeals Commission (PAC) and that Ministers and officials are carefully considering its findings and recommendations.

The NSMC noted that both Administrations continue to work together to progress the Ulster canal restoration project; that substantial completion of the main infrastructure works of phase 2, Clonfad to Clones, is expected in quarter 2 of this year; and that the estimated completion of all phase 3 elements, Castle Saunderson to Clonfad, subject to funding, is 2028-29. The Council was advised that the main infrastructure work on the subsection between Clones and Clonfad of the Ulster canal greenway is expected to be substantially completed in quarter two of 2024 in parallel with the completion of the Ulster canal blueway and that the subsection between Clonfad and Gortnacarrow is anticipated to be delivered in 2028-29.

A strategic environmental assessment, including a public consultation, is being carried out on the draft report of the all-island strategic rail review in 2023. The final report will be published, with recommendations appropriately incorporated, pending approval in both jurisdictions. The NSMC noted that the Department of Transport and Department for Infrastructure continue preparation for projects to be funded under the PEACE PLUS programme, which includes improvement of the Dublin-Belfast rail link through the replacement and expansion of the Enterprise rail fleet to provide for sustainable rail stock and reduced journey time.

The NSMC noted that a tender process for the main construction works contract for the Narrow Water bridge was conducted in 2023 and that Louth County Council expects to award the contract to the successful bidder in the first half of 2024.

Ministers also noted that the Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science and the Department for the Economy continue to work closely with Atlantic Technological University and Ulster University on the potential for future collaboration, skills provision and research and innovation. There is a particular focus on the key drivers of human capital and innovation in driving strong economic development in the north-west region. The Council received an update on higher education provision in the north-west region and noted that, in June 2023, subject to due diligence, the Irish Government committed up to €44·5 million from the Shared Island Fund to the construction of a new teaching and student services building at Ulster University's campus in Derry and that that implements the Irish Government's commitment under the NDNA agreement for capital investment in the campus to expand higher education provision in the north-west region.

The NSMC noted that, in November 2023, the Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Skills, the Department for Science, Innovation and Technology and the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs announced €70 million in joint funding to create two new research centres on climate and sustainable resilient food systems. The NSMC was advised that the North/South Research Programme, established in 2021, had granted €37·28 million to projects to date. Ministers noted the ongoing engagement of both Administrations with the North West Strategic Growth Partnership. A plenary meeting of the partnership took place on 30 November 2023. An allocation of an additional €1 million from the Irish Government was provided to the north-west development fund, which allows expenditure on the current phase of the fund to extend to March 2025. The NSMC agreed that commitments under NDNA should remain one of the agenda items of relevance to the NSMC sectoral meetings and that further updates would be provided to future NSMC plenary meetings.

The Council then considered a number of CEO appointments for the North/South bodies. The NSMC appointed Gary Kearney to the post of chief executive officer of the Food Safety Promotion Board and approved the appointments of Sharon McMahon as chief executive of the Loughs Agency and Alice Mansergh as chief executive of Tourism Ireland. The NSMC reappointed Gina McIntyre as chief executive officer of the Special EU Programmes Body and approved the reappointment of Seán Ó Coinn as chief executive of Foras na Gaeilge.

The NSMC welcomed into post the newly appointed and reappointed chief executive officers and thanked Niall Gibbons, the former chief executive officer of Tourism Ireland, and Ray Dolan, the former chief executive officer of Safefood, for their significant contribution in providing leadership and direction to the work of those bodies. The NSMC also thanked the interim chief executive officer and designated officers for their leadership and important contribution to the work of the North/South implementation bodies and Tourism Ireland. The NSMC then appointed board members to the Food Safety Promotion Board and Tourism Ireland and agreed that appointments be made to fill the remaining vacancies on those boards and the boards of other North/South implementation bodies at future NSMC meetings.

The NSMC then approved a schedule of future sectoral meetings, a meeting in institutional format and the next plenary meeting in quarter 3 of this year.

Finally, I place on record our thanks to Mr Tim Losty, the previous joint secretary to the North/South Ministerial Council, who retired in May 2022.

Mr Speaker: Before I call Mr O'Toole, I remind Members that they should ask questions of the statement. I will not be tolerant of speeches.

Mr O'Toole: I assume, Mr Speaker, that that was not in any way directed at me.

First Minister, thank you very much for that update. It is welcome that the NSMC is meeting again after three years. That will be the height of my speech. You talked about the all-island strategic rail review. I am pleased to see that it was a subject for conversation. You said that the final report will be published "pending approval in both jurisdictions". Can you confirm whether the all-island strategic rail review and its recommendations are agreed policy by both jurisdictions? If not, will you advance the cause that they should be?

Mrs O'Neill: I concur that it is great to see the North/South bodies and institutions up and running again. It was very much an opportunity to refresh and restart them.

The strategic rail review is hugely important, and that vital work continues. It is important that both jurisdictions come forward with their proposals for how they will take forward the review. There was an absolute recognition at the meeting that improving our rail network has the potential to drive economic growth and promote environmental sustainability. I look forward to the relevant Ministers bringing that forward through their area of work at the next North/South ministerial apparatus meeting. The two Ministers will bring forward proposals from their respective Departments on how they will publish the final review in the coming months and then on how it will be taken forward.

Ms Kimmins: I thank the First Minister for her update. Does she agree that the NSMC provides an important forum for developing shared approaches to the delivery of essential public services, most obviously all-island health interventions but also in other areas, such as agriculture, infrastructure, climate and tourism?

Mrs O'Neill: I absolutely agree with that. It is such an important forum. I am so glad that it is back up and running. There are huge opportunities for us to share initiatives through the various sectoral meetings. I could not think of what those meetings were called when I was answering Matthew's question. A huge volume of work will be taken through those bodies now that they are operational again.

It makes a lot of sense for us to adopt shared practices and strategies on our small island. Many of the challenges that Ministers face across the board are shared challenges. There are also opportunities, however. You referred to health: we can see the many benefits of cooperation, particularly on health facilities. Children's cardiac care is a huge example of how cooperation pays off for citizens here. There are many opportunities when it comes to our tourism offering, protecting our environment and tackling climate change. The mechanisms are now in place across all the sectoral interests to allow us to develop effective solutions to many of the issues.

Ms Bradshaw: Thank you, First Minister, for your statement. It sounds as though a lot of ground was covered and that it was all very positive, but, as has been indicated, there was a period in which the Council did not meet, during which we saw the passing of the Northern Ireland Troubles (Legacy and Reconciliation) Act 2023. Was that discussed? If so, are there any plans to bring forward some all-island good relations or Shared Island projects in that space?

Mrs O'Neill: The Act was not discussed in any kind of detail at the meeting, but I suspect that, as all the sectoral meetings happen, we will have the opportunity to promote and advance some of that work, particularly on good relations. Some of the Shared Island Fund initiatives that have been announced in recent times will help foster and build good relations in communities.

There are the practical pieces and infrastructure investment, but there is also investment in communities and in people who do good work on the ground. I look forward to all that work across the piece being restarted and rebooted through the sectoral engagements.


11.15 am

Mr Buckley: As someone with an interest in the history and beauty of the Ulster canal, I wondered whether the Minister could give an update on the progress on that project from a tourism perspective, with a particular focus on the Northern Ireland section. In the past, there has been interest from Minister Heather Humphreys TD about exploring that, particularly in the counties of Fermanagh, Armagh and Tyrone.

Mrs O'Neill: I concur that the Ulster canal project has huge momentum. It has been a long time in the making and the development. The momentum of the canal restoration project, with both Administrations working together, is a fine example of how to progress such a huge infrastructure project that brings so many benefits for communities. Significant construction work is ongoing in the Clonfad to Clones phase. It will be completed in the next few months.

There is the potential for expansion of the greenway work. Heather Humphreys and others, particularly our representatives in the area from across the parties, are promoting its further expansion. When we see progress on the greenway work, which will be completed this summer, we need to keep building on the potential to extend it even further to help to boost tourism and our local economies and to provide a resource that can promote active travel and recreation. There are huge benefits, and we will continue to see those develop in the years ahead.

Mr Elliott: My question also relates to the Ulster canal. Which agency or Department is responsible for taking forward the on-site work on the projects, including the designs?

Mrs O'Neill: I do not have the detail of the company to hand, but I am happy to provide that information to the Member.

Miss Brogan: Gabhaim buíochas leis an Chéad-Aire.

[Translation: I thank the First Minister.]

I am glad to hear that the A5 road upgrade was discussed at the NSMC meeting. Will the Minister tell us whether the development of the A5 upgrade is a priority for Ministers in the North and South of Ireland? Is seeing the upgrade developed at pace a priority?

Mrs O'Neill: Yes, absolutely. It was an area that we discussed. Updating the road is a priority not only for the Executive but for the Irish Government, who recently committed €600 million towards the project. We all know that the number of tragedies that have occurred on that road is absolutely shocking. While we met that morning, news came in of another person who lost their life on a stretch of the A5. That highlights and underlines why we need to urgently upgrade that dangerous road in order to save lives and ensure that no other family suffers the heartbreak that far too many families have endured.

The Infrastructure Minister, our colleague John O'Dowd, and his officials are considering the findings of the final report by the PAC and are actively considering the next stage in due course. I am sure that Minister O'Dowd will want to take the matter forward at the next NSMC transport meeting, because it is a key infrastructure project that, we know, will transform and save lives. The project will be better for everyone, so it is important to advance it.

Mr T Buchanan: I will follow on from the previous question. The A5 has been a priority for the Executive for well over a decade. Was any indication given at the meeting of when the project will change from being a commitment and a priority to a reality, with action starting and works commencing on-site?

Mrs O'Neill: That level of detail will be discussed over the course of Minister O'Dowd's deliberations on the PAC findings, which are in front of him right now, but also at the next transport sectoral meeting. I absolutely agree that it is time to get the road built and to get spades in the ground and advance the project. It will provide enormous benefits for the people in that part of our community because of the issues I have highlighted about road safety and the number of deaths that have occurred on the road. It is time to get feet on the ground and make sure that the road is built, and I concur with the Member on that.

Ms Egan: First Minister, your statement referred to numerous vacancies in some North/South Ministerial Council implementation bodies. Will you please outline how many vacancies there are and the timeline for them to be filled?

Mrs O'Neill: There are a number of vacancies that have to be progressed over the coming months. I do not have the actual figure. We were able to make some appointments of chief executive officers. At the sectoral meetings in the coming weeks and months, individual Ministers will bring forward appointments to each of the boards. I will provide the actual number to the Member in writing because I do not have the figure in front of me.

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

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

First Minister, will you expand on the specific discussion that took place at the NSMC on the environmental catastrophe in Lough Neagh and reassure the lough shore community and my constituents that the crisis will be taken forward as an all-island environmental priority?

Mrs O'Neill: Yes. That was one of the first areas that we discussed at the NSMC. Given the significance of the issue and the need for shared learning, expertise and research, we discussed, in the margins of the meeting and in the meeting itself, how we want to continue to face the issue together. I anticipate that we will continue to engage closely on it.

We specifically highlighted and discussed the challenges that we jointly face and the strenuous efforts that are in place to overcome the difficulties in Lough Neagh; how it is essential that we continue to work together across all Executive Departments and across the island in addressing the challenges that arise as the result of climate change; and how we need to take action across all sectors to address the troubling trends that we see. I was delighted that there was a commitment from the Irish Government to work with us on that learning, expertise and research. As we know, it is about much more than just Lough Neagh; it is about all the tributaries and everything that contributes to the situation that we find ourselves in. This is a time for learning together and taking on the challenges together. I know that we will continue that conversation and work in the NSMC.

Mr Brett: I thank the First Minister for her update. The First Minister is on record as saying that victims of terrorism deserve truth and justice. Will she outline how the North/South Ministerial Council can be used as a platform to achieve that aim? Will she join the deputy First Minister in calling on the Irish Government to launch a public inquiry into the Omagh atrocity and ensure that those victims of terrorism get the truth and justice they deserve?

Mrs O'Neill: That issue was not discussed at the NSMC, but I am absolutely on record as saying that all families are entitled to truth and justice in whatever form and from whatever quarter that comes.

Dr Aiken: I declare an interest as a member of the steering committee of the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly. In paragraph 11, we referred to the economic activity that was likely to be mentioned at the North/South Ministerial Council. Was the issue of electronic travel authorisation (ETA) raised, bearing in mind the significant impact that it may have on Northern Ireland tourism?

Mrs O'Neill: No. That issue will be taken forward in the sectoral meetings involving the Department for the Economy and the relevant corresponding Department.

Mr McGuigan: I appreciate the update from the meeting. Will the First Minister elaborate on whether there was any discussion at the NSMC about our economy and, in particular, addressing regional imbalances?

Mrs O'Neill: Yes. Again, one of the early conversations that we had was about supporting businesses and growing trade — that is a key priority for all of us in the years ahead — and how we are all committed to addressing regional imbalance. We have shared priorities in promoting economic growth, job creation and improving skills, all of which we discussed in a broad way at the meeting. We have similar barriers to people entering the workforce, including childcare, which was also briefly touched on.

We are keen to support local businesses as they grow, take the next step and venture into other markets, whether that is on the island, in Britain, in the EU or beyond. Obviously, Invest NI will play a key part in that, and I welcome the work that it is doing with InterTradeIreland and Enterprise Ireland to deliver support in innovative ways. Another area in which we have common ground in trying to grapple with is our desire to ensure that our young people want to stay here and build their careers here when they come out of education. We want to stop that trend. Those are areas where we can continue to collaborate.

Mr Kingston: With regard to academic research collaboration, was there any discussion of the impact of the United Kingdom's reassociation with Horizon Europe, including access to funding, which will be beneficial to all partners?

Mrs O'Neill: That was not discussed, because the discussion was at a higher, more strategic level, but it will be discussed at a sectoral meeting. Absolutely, we can all concur that having access to Horizon Europe is where we all wanted to be, so I am glad that we are back in that spot.

Mr Durkan: First Minister, we welcome the commitment of Shared Island funding to the university campus in Derry. Was the NSMC updated on the appointment of the new task force focused on expansion of the university there, and are there plans for future engagement between the two?

Mrs O'Neill: As the Member can see from my statement, we discussed research and innovation and higher education in the north-west, the North/South research programme and the North West Strategic Growth Partnership. The Economy Minister spoke at the meeting, particularly about his plans for a task force, which he subsequently announced. I look forward to that work continuing in order to ensure that we do everything to support the university's expansion. The task force will, in time, produce the road map that will enable us to do that. We had a strong commitment from the Irish Government on their approach to the area and to working with us on building research and innovation and higher education more widely in the north-west.

Ms Ennis: The Narrow Water bridge is much anticipated by the people of South Down. The First Minister will know that that project is about more than just infrastructure; it is key to unlocking the huge tourism and economic potential that we have in South Down and across the Carlingford lough region. Is the Minister in a position to provide more detail on the Narrow Water bridge project?

Mrs O'Neill: It was discussed. It is another important infrastructure project for both Administrations. The Irish Government announced further Shared Island funding for the construction of the bridge back in February. We know that the bridge will facilitate cross-border active travel, including through further development of the network of greenways and of local connectivity. Again, like the A5 project, it is a project that has been in the making for many years, so it is great to see progress being made. No doubt, the communities in Down and Louth who have campaigned tirelessly for progress will be delighted that their hard work is bearing fruit and that we are seeing advances.

Mr McGrath: The discussions about tourism at the NSMC meeting have been mentioned, including the appointment of Alice Mansergh as CEO of Tourism Ireland. Given the opportunity for joined-up working through the NSMC, does the First Minister agree that the development of the Ireland's Ancient East brand must extend beyond the border to my constituency of South Down, bringing economic, cultural and historical opportunities?

Mrs O'Neill: Yes, I agree. There is enormous potential there, and our Minister with responsibility for tourism, Conor Murphy, is determined to advance that project.

Mr Allister: With the Executive short of money, does the Minister know or care what the North/South institutions cost? Will she supply that information? Does she know or care about the fact that none of the North/South bodies have a balanced workforce? They all have an inadequate number of people from a Protestant background? Does that matter?

Mrs O'Neill: I am aware that the Member has submitted questions about the resourcing of the North/South bodies. I remind him that those bodies are jointly funded by the Irish Government and the Executive and that they are an integral part of the jigsaw that makes up the Good Friday Agreement institutions and the relationships across these islands. It is important that, as public bodies, they are properly resourced to do their work. In general terms, the resourcing of individual bodies is a matter for Ministers, and such bodies continue to be developed collaboratively by Executive colleagues and their Irish Government counterparts.

Mr Carroll: A lot of anti-migrant and anti-asylum seeker rhetoric has been whipped up, particularly in the past few weeks. What discussions, if any, took place at the NSMC about the detested Rwanda scheme or any other anti-asylum seeker scheme of the British Government or the Irish Government? Will the First Minister commit to raising at the next meeting her opposition to that rotten scheme and all the anti-asylum seeker rhetoric of the past few weeks?

Mrs O'Neill: I am on the record as having called out the British Government's approach in the Rwanda Act.

It is disgraceful, disgusting and does not meet any human-rights standards by any stretch of the imagination. The issue has arisen only in the past number of days, so it was not discussed at the North/South Ministerial Council. However, suffice it to say, we should all support a system that is fair, efficient, compassionate and can be enforced. There is no doubt in my mind, as I said yesterday during Question Time, that Ireland cannot become a casualty of the horrible Rwanda legislation that the Tories have brought forward in England.


11.30 am

Ms Nicholl: Thank you, First Minister. You briefly touched on the fact that childcare was discussed, which is unsurprising given its relevance to economic growth, skills and job creation. Could you elaborate on what was discussed and what we can hope to see coming forward in the future?

Mrs O'Neill: It was discussed more in a high-level strategic way in the context of building our economy, and that will be one of the component parts if we are serious about building our economy. It was discussed in the vein that it is something that we, as an incoming Executive, want to prioritise and work on. We restated our Executive commitment to doing something on childcare and bringing forward an appropriately funded and accessible childcare package. That was the way in which we discussed the issue. Again, it is one of those areas that will follow through into the sectoral meetings, and there will be much more discussion about that then. It was for us to state our priority, and, likewise, the Irish Government addressed their approach to the issue.

Ms Sheerin: First Minister, it is important that we acknowledge the 25th anniversary of the North/South institutions. Our peace agreement here in the North is the envy of the poor people across the world who are suffering as a result of conflict. What is being done to mark that anniversary?

Mrs O'Neill: Yes, this is the 25th anniversary, as you acknowledged. It is a significant milestone in the profile of the work of the bodies and what has been achieved. There have been some very significant achievements over that period, and it is important that they are profiled and publicised. It is also important that we continue to build on those achievements when we look towards the next 25 years and what can be achieved.

Members may be aware that the bodies have launched an exhibition in the Ulster Museum. It is titled North/South 25, and it will be on permanent display in the lecture theatre at the Ulster Museum throughout 2024. I strongly encourage Members to get a look at the exhibition so that they can see the kind of practical collaborative efforts that have been brought forward and the benefits and advantages that the North/South bodies have brought to our people.

Mr Delargy: I thank the First Minister for her statement. First Minister, can you provide an update on the PEACE PLUS programme?

Mrs O'Neill: Yes. I can confirm that significant work has been undertaken by the Special EU Programmes Body (SEUPB) in the development and implementation of the £1·14 billion Peace programme so far. That aims to build on the work of the previous Peace and INTERREG programmes, and I welcome the huge impact that it will have in promoting economic and social cohesion and supporting peace and prosperity. I am very pleased that the programme opened for funding calls in June last year and that programme implementation is progressing well. A significant number of funding calls have already opened and closed, and I understand that, in the remaining investment areas, calls are scheduled to open throughout the remainder of this year. There is huge potential for projects to be taken forward under the Special EU Programmes Body.

Mr Speaker: That concludes questions on the statement from the First Minister and deputy First Minister.

Mr Buckley: On a point of order, Mr Speaker. The House is due to have a statement on MOT waiting times, and it seems to have suffered the same fate as many MOTs, with it just being supplied now at 11.30 am. Mr Speaker, do you agree that it is highly unacceptable for Members to have just received a statement that they are meant to scrutinise?

Mr Speaker: The Member raises a point of order that I was going to raise with the Minister. Whilst he is coming to take his place, I remind him that statements are due to be in one hour beforehand. I encourage officials to maybe get up a wee bit earlier in the morning and make sure that statements are out in good time for the Assembly.

Members, take your ease whilst Mr O'Dowd takes his place and whilst we change the top Table.

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

Mr Deputy Speaker (Dr Aiken): Order. Further to the Speaker's comments, the Minister has failed to meet the requirement on the delivery of this morning's statement. Therefore, prior to making that statement, in accordance with Standing Order 18A(2), I ask him to state the reason for that.

Mr O'Dowd (The Minister for Infrastructure): My apologies to the House for the statement's not being available on time. I can only assume that the error occurred because we have a shortage of staff in the office this morning. I apologise again to the House.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Dr Aiken): I have received notice from the Minister for Infrastructure that he wishes to make a statement.

Mr O'Dowd: In compliance with section 52 of the NI Act 1998, I wish to make a statement regarding proposals to help reduce the current waiting times for MOT testing. At the Assembly debate on 11 March, I listened carefully to all Members and let them know that I had asked officials to urgently consider a range of policy options to reduce MOT waiting times and that I would make a statement after Easter. I have considered the policy options that have been presented by my officials, and I am now in a position to provide you with an update on the further measures that I am introducing to reduce current MOT waiting times.

Before I do, it is worth noting the context in which the proposals are being brought forward. In each of the past two years, the Driver and Vehicle Agency (DVA) has conducted over 1·1 million vehicle tests, which is the highest number ever recorded. That increase has been achieved through a range of measures, including the recruitment of additional examiners, the use of overtime to provide cover for leave and offering vehicle testing appointments on Sundays and bank holidays. In 2023, there were only seven days on which the DVA did not offer MOT appointments. Despite that, waiting times for MOT tests remained unacceptably long, and that demand is increasing each year.

The DVA is investing in new test centres. The construction of the first new test centre in almost 50 years at Hydebank has been completed, and the DVA is going through the rigorous process of testing the newly installed equipment and software. Hydebank has already opened for driver testing, and I expect it to open to vehicle testing later this year, but I stress that that cannot happen until my officials and I are satisfied that the new equipment is safe to use and meets the requirements that are set out in the contract specification. A second new test centre at Mallusk is expected to open in late 2025.

Once fully operational, each centre will have the capacity to deliver over 100,000 vehicle tests per year. While those are positive developments that will help the DVA meet the future demand for vehicle testing, they will not reduce MOT waiting times in the short term. I recognise that the current demand for vehicle testing means that many customers cannot secure a MOT appointment before their current certificate expires. I appreciate the frustration and anxiety that that causes to our citizens, and I know that all of us are regularly contacted by constituents who raise similar concerns. I am, therefore, announcing my intention to issue temporary exemption certificates (TECs) from 1 June for a specified range of private cars.

Under current legislation, the Department has powers in exceptional circumstances to issue TECs exempting relevant vehicles from testing requirements. They were used previously during the COVID pandemic. I am satisfied that the delay in the construction and opening of Hydebank test centre, the challenges that are associated with the recruitment and retention of vehicle examiners in the past few years and the ongoing increase in demand for vehicle testing meet the definition of exceptional circumstances. Therefore, I have decided to introduce TECs for a limited period in order to relieve the pressure on the system and help reduce the waiting times. Having considered potential demand and future capacity, the DVA plans to introduce exemption certificates for private cars that were first registered within the following date ranges and that have a valid MOT certificate in place: those first registered between 1 June 2019 and 31 May 2020, which will be five-year-old cars; and those first registered between 1 June 2017 and 31 May 2018, which will be seven-year-old cars.

Vehicle licensing information shows that around 115,000 cars may be eligible for a TEC. DVA information also shows that 96% of five-year-old cars and 91% of seven-year-old cars pass their MOT the first time. Those date ranges have been selected carefully, with road safety very much in mind, and I am satisfied that this decision strikes the right balance between managing waiting times and the impact on road safety.

One of the best ways to ensure safety on our roads and fulfil our long-term goal for eliminating death and serious injury by 2050 is by changing road-user behaviour. As road users, we all have a personal responsibility to behave in a way that keeps us and others safe. The sad reality is that, if we do not change our attitudes when using the roads, our death toll will continue to increase. Road-user behaviour extends to maintaining our cars. Vehicle owners, it is worth remembering that it is your legal responsibility to ensure that your car is always kept in a roadworthy condition. That is also the expectation of the police and insurers, and that does not change whether an MOT is in place or not. You should regularly service your vehicle and carry out basic checks, such as ensuring that all lights are working properly, tyres are correctly inflated and tread depths are legal.

When it comes to the implementation of TECs, the DVA will apply those automatically to eligible private cars. The vehicle licensing record will be updated to enable cars issued with a TEC to be taxed. Customers will not need to do anything, as the process will be automatic. For eligible private cars that have an MOT appointment booked, the DVA will cancel the booking, refund the fee and automatically extend the MOT certificate by 12 months from the expiry date of the current MOT. That process will be implemented from late May onwards, and I ask owners to be patient while the DVA implements those arrangements.

The DVA booking system will prevent anyone with a car that is eligible for a TEC from making an MOT appointment, and the system will advise them of the reasons. More detailed information will soon be available on the nidirect website, and social media messaging has been developed to direct customers to the relevant information. MOT reminder letters will continue to be issued as usual to all other customers with other vehicles, and customers should book an MOT appointment in the normal manner. If those customers already have an appointment, they must continue to get their cars MOT'd, as they will not be issued with a TEC.

While some early gains will be seen in waiting times, the position is expected to gradually improve over the TEC period. I am confident that that will provide relief for many of our customers, whether or not they are covered by a TEC. In a few weeks, a number of appointments will be released that are no longer needed for those private cars that will have a TEC instead.

The DVA will closely monitor the demand for vehicle testing during the period in which TECs are applied, and any further information to extend, reduce or remove their use will be brought forward on a timely basis. The DVA has consulted the PSNI and the Association of British Insurers (ABI), both of which understand the need to introduce measures to reduce waiting times. Both organisations have also confirmed that they will continue to apply the mitigations that are currently in place for their customers who cannot secure an MOT appointment before their current certificate expires. The DVA will also work with other partners, including the PSNI, to develop mitigations to protect road safety, such as conducting additional roadside safety checks.

I now move to biennial testing. The Assembly debate in March also raised the option of biennial MOT tests to address the current waiting times. Our existing legislation does not allow that, and any change would therefore require primary legislation, which could not be done quickly. MOT waiting times can be expected to already be reducing by the time biennial testing could be introduced. I can confirm, however, that I am minded to consider that issue further and have therefore asked my officials to provide me with advice on launching a consultation on biennial testing. I will need to consider the resources and time frame that that will require and weigh it against other priorities and the budget and staffing available.

I will provide an update when I have reached conclusions on those matters.


11.45 am

I reiterate my commitment to reducing MOT waiting times. The introduction of TECs is intended to be a short-term measure to reset the balance, enabling all customers to access the service in a more timely manner whilst the new test centres become fully operational and provide the additional infrastructure capacity to meet the increasing demand for the service.

Mrs Erskine (The Chairperson of the Committee for Infrastructure): I thank the Minister for his statement. What percentage of vehicles that require a test over the next 12 months do the 115,000 eligible vehicles represent? Is the Minister confident that capacity will have been increased sufficiently to manage when those vehicles re-enter the testing regime? Can he assure the House that the measures that are being taken will result in a sustainable long-term solution to the problem, so that we are not in the same position at the end of the mandate?

Mr O'Dowd: I thank the Chair for her questions. A bit of quick maths suggests that it is around 10% of vehicles being taken out of the system at this stage to free up appointments, so that will have a significant impact on waiting times and will allow more customers to get a timely MOT.

I do not see temporary exemption certificates as being a long-term solution but as part of a plan to bring us to where the long-term solution is. The long-term solution will be opening the two new test centres and recruiting more examiners. We have been quite successful in that recently. We have brought in around 47 new recruits and are opening up the application process again to recruit more. That will be part of the long-term solution. When I publish the consultation process, we will have to decide collectively whether biennial testing is part of the long-term solution.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Dr Aiken): I call Mark Durkan. I apologise for not calling you before; I was still digesting the 10 pages of ministerial statement. My apologies. Over to you, Mark.

Mr Durkan: Me, too, Mr Deputy Speaker, so I was glad for an extra minute to do so. Normally, we know what the Minister is going to say because we see it on the news that morning.

I welcome the statement and this action from the Minister. He has responded to calls from the Assembly to do something different and dramatic. This will certainly bring relief to the situation in the short term. Like Mrs Erskine, however, I am concerned that it is just a short-term measure. I urge the Minister to proceed with the consultation on biennial testing without undue delay. It seems to me that it has been kicked down the road a wee bit with the introduction of further barriers that the Minister had not mentioned in the Assembly debate in March. Can he outline where in primary legislation he is prevented from moving to biennial testing now?

Mr O'Dowd: First, to the best of my knowledge, it was not on the news this morning — for good or bad reasons — although I may be wrong.

I can supply the Member with the legislation and ask my officials to give him the exact clause from that legislation, but it is my firm understanding, and that of my officials, that we have to change the legislation in order to introduce biennial testing. I am not sure what extra barriers I have put in the way since March. The Member may be referring to the budgetary and staffing constraints. As the Member knows, the Executive have published their Budget. I am working my way through it. I have to match my budget against the business plan moving forward. It is only sensible to do that. I expect that we will see a consultation on this matter in the late summer or early autumn, for a number of reasons, as I have outlined. I also want to engage with the insurance industry and PSNI on the options that are available, so that we present an informed consultation product, not only to MLAs but to the public and others, on what options are available and what their implications might be.

Mr Boylan: I welcome the Minister's statement. What is his assessment of how the introduction of TECs will improve waiting times?

Mr O'Dowd: From 1 June, eligible private car owners of five-year-old and seven-year-old cars will receive temporary exemption certificates. Anyone who is eligible for exemption and goes on to the system to book will automatically be informed that they are not eligible for an MOT and are covered by this system. Once we see the roll-out of the 115,000 new appointment places for people, that will have an immediate impact. It will take the pressure off and lessen the anxiety of customers who, to date, have been finding it quite difficult to get an MOT appointment. As I said earlier, this is but one step on the journey. There are other steps, including the recruitment of examiners and the opening of new MOT centres. We will then move to our consultation and see where that journey takes us.

Mr McReynolds: I thank the Minister for his statement. He has advised that the issuing of temporary exemption certificates will be a short-term measure. Can he give any indication of how short-term a measure it will be? Has issuing reminder letters sooner been explored, given the large number of missed appointments that are contributing to the backlog?

Mr O'Dowd: I hope that we will have TECs in place for around one year, but there are a number of moving elements to the story, with the question of when we can get Hydebank opened being one of them. Another is when we can get the consultation rolled out and get views back from it to inform how we then move to drafting legislation. The matter is being kept under review, and any changes will be notified to MLAs and the public in a timely manner.

Releasing appointments earlier has been discussed previously. It is my understanding that doing that would only increase the backlog. We need to open up space in the system. Hopefully, today's announcement will do that.

Mr Chambers: Minister, in your statement, you said that you have consulted the PSNI and that it has confirmed that it will continue to apply the mitigations that are currently in place for customers who cannot secure an MOT appointment before their current certificate expires. Can you confirm that motorists from Northern Ireland who take their vehicle over to GB without a current MOT certificate and are subject to a documents check by a police force in GB will potentially be subject to prosecution?

Mr O'Dowd: As I have confirmed to the Member before, that may well be the case. The processes that we have in place with the PSNI and the insurance industry apply only to this jurisdiction. If motorists leave this jurisdiction without an MOT, they may be subject to prosecution elsewhere. That is why it is important that we introduce measures such as those that I have announced this morning. We need to free up more capacity in the booking system, and we have done that. The recruitment process has been quite successful. I expect that motorists will not be facing the same difficulties in the weeks and months ahead that they have been facing over the past period.

Mr Buckley: The statement certainly includes some sensible proposals that buy time. Hopefully, with that time, we can see some long-term solutions put in place to address the issue. We know that there are individuals and, indeed, businesses that rely on MOTs for their livelihood. I think particularly of second-hand car dealers, who cannot legally sell unless the car has an MOT certificate. Has the Minister engaged with that industry, and, indeed, do the proposals help address such issues for second-hand car dealers in Northern Ireland?

Mr O'Dowd: I have not personally engaged with the industry, but my officials have. The DVA engages with it regularly. As I said, the proposals will open up spaces in the booking system, which will allow private car owners and private car dealers to access more appointments. The proposals will therefore take the pressure off that industry as well.

Mr Blair: I thank the Minister for his statement, and I want to ask for some definition of one aspect of it. The new MOT centre at Mallusk will now, we are told, be delivered in late 2025. The Minister will be aware that it was originally promised for 2024. Can he assure us today that the timeline will not be extended again and that that long-awaited facility will be delivered in late 2025 as promised?

Mr O'Dowd: Thank you for your question. I have had no indications at this stage of further delays to the Mallusk project. If, however, you have had any experience with building works, contracts and so on, you will know that projects can run into unexpected delays. At this stage, I am not aware of any.

Mr Gildernew: I thank the Minister for his statement and the information that he has provided. I acknowledge that many people will find it a welcome initiative. Minister, can you outline why the temporary exemption certificates cover only private cars and not other vehicles?

Mr O'Dowd: Commercial vehicles are a different matter. It is important that annual MOTs continue for those vehicles because of the number of miles that they do in any given year.

Mr Dunne: I thank the Minister for his welcome statement. I am glad that he listened to my contribution in the debate in early March on our DUP motion calling for MOT action, when I suggested five years. Is the Minister confident that this measure will reduce the unacceptable waiting times, which continue to extend to many months, and that 72 days will not be the new normal? Also, will you clarify the situation for six-year-old cars? Is that due to the TECs that were issued during COVID?

Mr O'Dowd: I always listen to debates on DUP motions. [Laughter.]

I may not always act on them, but I always listen.

We have taken a significant step today towards reducing the backlog. For a six-year-old motor car to continue on the road, it will have to get an MOT. It will be MOT'd when it is four years old, it will not be MOT'd when it is five but will have to be MOT'd when it is six for road safety purposes and to —.

Mr Dunne: Not seven?

Mr O'Dowd: Not seven. What we have done there is to make sure that the vehicle is being regularly checked. Our decisions are based on road safety as well. We have to ensure that vehicles are roadworthy. All of us are drivers. I again emphasise that the responsibility for making sure that a car is roadworthy rests with the driver of that vehicle, whether they have an MOT certificate or not. A temporary exemption certificate does not give you an exemption from making sure that your car is roadworthy.

Mr Butler: My question picks up on that last point, and perhaps it is difficult to answer. The risk is very much transferred to the road user. Whilst the statement is welcome, how robust will the guidance be on maintaining vehicles so that people understand fully what checks they should carry out to mitigate that risk as much as possible?

Mr O'Dowd: There has been no transfer of risk on this occasion. It has always been the case that the responsibility for the roadworthiness of a vehicle rests with the driver. My changing the MOT rules here and offering exemption certificates for five- and seven-year-old vehicles has not changed the responsibility of any driver, so there is no change there.

I am sorry: I missed the last part of your question.

Mr Butler: The second part was how robust and detailed will the information be to ensure that cars are roadworthy?

Mr O'Dowd: The information will be on the nidirect website. The DVA has tasked and spoken to its people who will be on the other end of the phone about that information, so information will be readily available to MLAs, councillors and citizens who are trying to engage on MOTs. There will be a social media programme as well. We will continue to monitor that, and if further information is required, we will make it available.

Mr McAleer: I thank the Minister for his statement. How does the introduction of TECs impact on those who may have to tax their vehicle or use vehicle recovery services?

Mr O'Dowd: Anyone in possession of a TEC will be able to tax their vehicle because it is registered on our system. Roadside recovery operators will be able to work with anyone who has a TEC. A number of recovery companies are working in partnership with the DVA on an understanding of the previous situation and are responding to calls from motorists who may not have an MOT but have an MOT booked and are moving towards that. That situation has improved, but I would hope that introducing this measure will result in fewer people being in that situation.

Mr K Buchanan: Thank you, Minister, for your statement and answers. You indicated in your statement that 1·1 million vehicle tests were carried out in the past two years. Are the current 15 test centres operating at maximum capacity and doing 100%, bearing in mind that you are going to add 20% with Mallusk and Hydebank?


12.00 noon

Mr O'Dowd: They are operating at 100% capacity with the personnel they have to carry out inspections. As I noted, we have carried out a recruitment exercise. We have 47 new recruits, who will become vehicle examiners. That is significant. They will be posted out to centres where vacancies need to be filled. We are starting another recruitment process. Interestingly enough, we also recently recruited 15 new driving examiners. You will find that, on occasion, driving examiners double up as MOT examiners, so that may no longer be necessary. We are beginning to see an improvement in the recruitment of staff due to the recent wage increase as well. That rightly recognises the work that those team members do. The centres are operating at full capacity with the number of staff they have to operate with.

Mr McNulty: I thank the Minister for his statement. I warmly welcome any initiative that will lessen the load on MOT test centres and take pressure off drivers. Over recent months, so many drivers have been pulling their hair out due to red letters about tax having run out at a time when they cannot get an MOT, so the statement is hugely welcome.

Is this biennial testing by another name? Make this 'Sesame Street'-simple for drivers. Is that what it is? With no MOT being necessary from four to six years or six to eight years, is this biennial testing by another name?

Mr O'Dowd: It does represent biennial testing. To put biennial testing on a legislative framework, we will have to change the law, if that is the will of the Assembly, after we carry out our consultation. If we were to get to that point, beyond consultation, that would be a sensible way forward. My main test of that will be around road safety.

Yes, it is biennial, but, to move to a permanent position on that, we would need to change legislation.

Mr Allister: Can a car owner who holds an exemption certificate but regularly drives their vehicle to GB and is concerned about prosecution opt in and seek to have an MOT test?

Mr O'Dowd: Following on from Mr Chambers's comment, I will clarify: if a driver has an exemption certificate, they have an MOT, so they will be able to drive to Britain. There would be no question about that. In fairness, Mr Chambers put it in a different context. Mr Chambers was referring to the current situation locally where a driver may have an MOT booked and, if that driver is stopped by the police and the police are satisfied that the driver is doing everything in their power to achieve an MOT and that the car is roadworthy, they will not take action. The new situation that we will now have is that, if a driver has a temporary exemption certificate, they have an MOT; it will be registered in our system as the vehicle having its MOT. If that driver drives to Britain and is stopped, the system will show that they are legally compliant.

Ms Sugden: One challenge of not having an MOT certificate is with the ability to get road tax, almost to the point of some vehicle users declaring their cars as off-road before their car tax expires and then refreshing that within weeks. That feels like an abuse of the system and not the intention behind it. How will the Minister's announcement affect road tax for cars? I point him to the comment he made about it being frustrating for some people. In many cases, people cannot go to their work, so it is much more than frustrating. I ask that he reflect on that and do more. I am not sure why it needs to be temporary. It is something that the Minister could plan for, moving forward.

Mr O'Dowd: Anyone with a temporary exemption certificate will be able to tax their vehicle. I advise anyone who falls outside the five- and seven-year categories and continues to have difficulty booking a test to go to the nidirect website, where there is a significant amount of information to assist drivers in relation to questions such as those around taxation. I hope that we will release an additional 115,000 appointments this year and that many fewer drivers will find themselves in the situation that many have found themselves in in recent times with regard to taxation and MOT certificates.

The Member asked why we would not move to a permanent situation with this. As I said, to change primary legislation, we have to go through the consultative process and then present legislation, and you know the rest of that story. This is a positive step, but the House will have an opportunity at a later date to decide whether it wants to move to a permanent position.

Mr Baker: I thank the Minister for his statement and actions. How were the eligibility criteria determined?

Mr O'Dowd: The core of it was road safety. When we looked at the stage at which temporary exemption certificates should be set, road safety was the key question. A car will have an MOT test at four years old, an exemption at five years old, an MOT test at six years old — hopefully, I do not have to go through the whole journey. Drivers are acutely aware that, at some stage in that journey, their car will have to have an MOT test. I emphasise again and again that, regardless of whether a person has a temporary exemption certificate or an MOT certificate, they still have a legal duty to look after their car if it is on the road.

Mr T Buchanan: Minister, thank you for your statement. One of the issues that a number of my constituents face and complain about is difficulty in using the booking system. Will the measures that you are bringing in help to alleviate that problem? Have you looked at the entire system of booking an MOT to see whether it can be freed up a little?

Mr O'Dowd: The frustration that members of the public have with the booking system is that they cannot book an appointment on it. The release of more appointments will make it much easier for drivers to book an appointment. Any driver or vehicle owner who goes on to the system and has a vehicle that is either five or seven years old will automatically be informed that they do not require an MOT and will be issued with a temporary exemption certificate. Hopefully, drivers will find much less frustration with the system.

Ms Forsythe: I welcome it that the Minister has brought the subject of MOT testing back to the Chamber. From what I have heard, 115,000 tests are being put back into the pot luck system. Will the Minister take steps to ensure that people can secure tests in their local or reasonably accessible centres?

Mr O'Dowd: I cannot make that guarantee. The booking system works on the basis that it is open to all centres. I hope that extra tests being available will mean that a local, or more local, centre will become available to drivers.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Dr Aiken): As no other Members have indicated that they wish to speak, that concludes questions on the statement. Members, please take your ease while we change the top Table.

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

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Blair): Members, notice has been received from the Minister of Education that he wishes to make a statement.

Mr Givan (The Minister of Education): Today, I will set out my vision for the development of school facilities to support our children with special educational needs (SEN) across Northern Ireland.

The profile of our children is changing. One in five children has a special educational need, and some of those children require specialist places in a special school or in a specialist provision class in mainstream schools, commonly referred to as "SPiMS". In recent years, there has been an unprecedented increase in the number of children with SEN. Since 2019, the total number of children with statements has risen from 19,000 to 27,000, and we have seen a 21% rise in pupils attending a special school. The increase is forecast to continue year-on-year to 2032, with a need to provide over 6,000 specialist special educational needs places across the education system over a 10-year period.

The changing profile has presented us with significant challenges in ensuring appropriate places for all children. It has overtaken all previous planning assumptions and placed an unsustainable pressure on my Department’s capital budget. Consequently, when I took office in February, I made it clear to the Assembly that Education could not continue with the current levels of capital funding. We were at risk of failing in even our most basic responsibilities to keep schools open and children safe and to provide places for our most vulnerable learners.

I also made it clear that transforming the existing special educational needs system must be a priority. Transformation of the scale needed will take time, but ensuring that our children with special educational needs have access to the right placements to meet their needs is the most important first step. I am delighted to have secured over £60 million of additional capital funding for education this year. That allocation is vital to provide those much-needed specialist school places. However, the funding is only the beginning of what is required to meet our children’s needs. Therefore, today, I am announcing the biggest step change to capital planning in education for a generation, with an ambitious and far-reaching programme of investment in special education needs facilities that will transform our education system and the lives of our most vulnerable children and their families. My Department’s new special educational needs capital programme will require sustained and increased capital investment of around £0·5 billion over the next decade. That must be additional investment; it cannot be at the expense of other essential capital investment in our schools.

I am committed to delivering a modern, fit-for-purpose education system that truly meets the needs of our society and our pupils in the 21st century. A wide range of much-needed education investment projects need to be delivered. I hope, in the coming weeks, to bring forward further plans for the wider education estate. Our special school sector, in particular, however, has a legacy of historical underinvestment. It is simply not good enough that many of our most vulnerable children are being educated in ageing facilities, too often without adequate equipment and resources. Our special school staff, who work with our most vulnerable learners, need and deserve facilities that match their skills and expertise.

I have seen for myself the impact that a poor physical environment has on our most vulnerable children. As a society, we can and must do better. Inclusive and well-designed school buildings can enable and empower those with special educational needs and disabilities to participate fully in life at school and in the wider community. The right learning environment can support and inspire those pupils to thrive and achieve not only in school but throughout their lives.

To meet projected need, it is essential that we plan effectively for the delivery of capital investment of unprecedented scope and scale over the next decade. I have, therefore, asked my officials to establish a special educational needs capital investment programme as a discrete, stand-alone capital programme. The programme will be led by a dedicated SEN capital programme team in my Department. They will work closely with the Education Authority (EA), sectoral support bodies, school leadership teams, boards of governors and sectoral bodies to ensure a whole-school system approach to special educational needs investment. The new programme will provide visibility and coherence to SEN capital investment and be an integral part of the Department’s SEN transformation agenda, driven through the end-to-end review of SEN.

The new programme will have four main strands. The first is an annual maintenance and equipment programme for special schools and SPiM classes. That investment is the building block for success.

I have asked my officials to ring-fence £5 million annually to provide a programme of continuous planned maintenance across the special school estate. That will start to redress the longer-term maintenance backlog and ensure that our most vulnerable pupils are educated in fit-for-purpose classrooms. It will address health and safety, adapt facilities to meet children's needs and make much-needed repairs to the buildings, grounds and other facilities. In addition, I have allocated £4 million to provide equipment grants to special schools and schools with specialist provision in order to make sure that they have the right resources to support their pupils.


12.15 pm

The second key work stream in the SEN capital programme is the creation of additional specialist provision classes in mainstream schools across Northern Ireland. Specialist provisions are not new. Smaller, more specialist settings have long been a feature of our education system in providing suitable learning environments for some of our children with special educational needs. We know the benefits of inclusion through SPiMS for pupils and staff. For many schools, having such provision has enriched the entire school community. We now have almost 500 SPiMS classes providing small-group teaching in nursery, primary and post-primary schools across Northern Ireland. We require, in total, around 100 new SPiMS classes for September. We have agreed 48 new SPiMS classes to date, as well as 69 new special school classes.

However, ensuring places for all children is a major challenge for us collectively as an education system. It will take considerable effort and commitment, alongside investment and strategic planning. To help meet that challenge, the permanent secretary of my Department wrote to all schools last week asking them to consider establishing specialist provisions for September. My officials followed up with an expression-of-interest survey. The response has been truly outstanding, with over 200 schools expressing interest in setting up SPiMS classes. It has been an extremely challenging time for school communities, and I am deeply encouraged by the positive response from so many schools and heartened by their commitment to play their part in one of the most important collective endeavours facing our education system.

I am confident that we are making significant progress, and I thank those schools that have come forward so far and encourage others to do the same. This is a critical phase in our SEN planning, and my officials continue to collaborate closely with their colleagues in the Education Authority in order to engage with those schools that have responded positively to our request to establish SPiMS provision and deliver the necessary accommodation.

We know, too, the life-changing impact that a successful special school can have on pupils and their families. We are, rightly, proud to have wonderful special schools across Northern Ireland. They must have the right facilities to support their work. Therefore, alongside the establishment of specialist provision, we will need to expand the available special school places in order to meet the individual needs of our pupils in the right setting.

The third key element of capital investment will, therefore, be the extension of existing special schools in order to provide additional places in high-quality accommodation. There are 10 special schools in my Department's school enhancement programme, which provides extension and refurbishment projects across the school estate. Those special school projects will be prioritised and expedited for delivery. We will also consider the longer-term needs for places at each of those 10 schools and, where required, adapt the project to increase the number of available places.

To facilitate that, I have directed my officials to set aside the funding thresholds for school enhancement projects in order to deliver those projects at the scale that is required. The Education Authority has also been asked to review all special schools across Northern Ireland and to submit applications for large-scale extension projects for any schools where additional places are needed. We will now take forward special school extensions at pace and scale in a planned, visible and expedited manner with a master plan for each school.

The final element in the SEN capital programme is new special schools. I am delighted to announce that planning of new-build schools for Sperrinview and Knockevin will begin immediately, as will the much-needed second campus for Ardnashee School and College. In addition, projections indicate that there may be a need for up to eight entirely new special schools across Northern Ireland over the next decade. Capital planning will also commence for other new special schools over coming months. A new special school in Belfast that will provide 275 additional places for children aged three to 19 has already been agreed, and capital planning work is well under way. A further special school in east Belfast will be taken forward.

Our hopes and ambitions for our children with SEN should be the same as those for any other child. That is why I am setting out a programme of capital investment that is wide-ranging and, necessarily, ambitious. Inclusion is not a strategy to help our children and young people to fit into the systems and structures that exist in our society; it is about transforming those systems and structures to benefit all learners. I will continue to listen to young people and their parents, and to school leaders and governors, so that we get this right. Together, we can achieve so much. Fairness does not mean that everyone gets the same. Fairness means that everyone gets what they need. We need to give every child the opportunity to reach their full potential, regardless of their background or circumstance. My Department's vision is for an inclusive and high-performing education system that enables all children to be happy, learning and succeeding. This capital investment programme will bring that vision closer for our children with special educational needs. I commend the statement to the House.

Ms Hunter: I thank the Minister for his statement. I warmly welcome today's announcement of investment that will support our schools, staff and teachers. Thank you for the meeting this morning about Rossmar School in Limavady.

Minister, you stated that there are 10 special schools in your Department's school enhancement programme and that those projects will be prioritised for delivery. Can I have a little more detail on the 10 schools that have been chosen, the process and how those decisions were made?

Mr Givan: I thank the Member for the question. We had a meeting this morning that my colleague Alan Robinson asked me to facilitate, and Cara attended. The Finance Minister was able to drop in as well, and we discussed the needs of Rossmar at that meeting. The principal spoke passionately about the needs of the young people in her school setting.

Ten schools are currently in the school enhancement programme. They are at various stages of that process. Members will be familiar with how those processes work: after feasibility, a business case and design, you to get to the point at which a project is at a state of readiness so that, when capital becomes available, you move to construction. The 10 schools are Roddensvale School in Larne, Riverside School in Antrim, Clifton School in Bangor, Hill Croft School in Newtownabbey, Longstone School in Dundonald, Sandelford School in Coleraine, Thornfield House School in Newtownabbey, Beechlawn School in Hillsborough, Kilronan School in Magherafelt and Lisanally School in Armagh. I have asked the Education Authority to take forward the prioritisation of those schools by accelerating the various stages so that they get to that state of readiness. There are over 70 school enhancement programmes in my Department across the school estate. Those 10 will be prioritised for delivery. I am also asking the EA to assess the needs of other special schools that are not currently in the school enhancement programme. Where it is identified that they need to move into the school enhancement programme, they will be taken into that process.

This statement will benefit every single special school in Northern Ireland by virtue of our assessment and how we take forward meeting the need that comes out of that assessment process.

Mr Mathison (The Chairperson of the Committee for Education): I thank the Minister for his statement. There is much to welcome in it. I welcome the ongoing commitment to prioritising capital investment in special schools and in specialist provision in mainstream schools. I have received feedback from many principals in mainstream and special-school settings about the fact that the whole system of investment appears to be done on a knee-jerk crisis-response footing as we try to deliver places. How will the Minister ensure that the investment he outlined, specifically relating to the SPiMS provision but also additional class provision in special schools, will be delivered in a planned, strategic and targeted basis, rather than by taking a crisis approach to deal with the shortage of spaces each academic year on a rolling basis?

Mr Givan: I thank the Chairman for his comments and his question. The very reason that I have made this statement is so that we are on the front foot and that we strategically address the issues in special education. I am taking forward this transformational piece of work in the Department so that we are not in a space of crisis management. There is obviously a critical need to address the provision for this September. I outlined in my statement the process that I have taken and how I commissioned my permanent secretary to engage directly with the schools with which we are carrying out the survey so that we can identify the need and provision in order to match it up with the right child or young person. We are responding to the immediate pressure, but I have also outlined the vision for special educational needs and how we will meet those and provide what is required in Northern Ireland.

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

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

I welcome the Minister's statement and the announcement of extra funding for special educational needs and the fact that he is going to make transformation of the entire SEN system a priority. That is all very welcome indeed.

In the shorter term, EA and departmental officials have been at pains to say that, this year, providing placements for children with SEN is not a crisis. Try telling that to parents who are waiting for their child to get a placement before September; it is certainly a crisis for them. It is a worrying and very stressful time. The only way of addressing it is by acknowledging that there is a crisis, and I am not talking about crisis management. I am talking about acknowledging that there is a crisis. The new chief executive of the Education Authority told the Committee recently that, come September, the number of children without a place —

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Blair): Do you have a question?

Mr Sheehan: — could be in the high dozens. Will the Minister acknowledge that it is a crisis and take the appropriate action to resolve it?

Mr Givan: When I came into post a number of months ago, I immediately recognised that there was severe pressure on the provision of placements for September, so we set about a piece of work that resulted in engaging directly with schools. Some 200 schools came forward to say, "We are willing to provide a placement in September". We have already secured additional capacity, so the figure of 1,000 has already been significantly reduced. We have further enhanced the provision through the work that we have taken forward, and those 200 schools will be critical to making sure that, come September, we will not be in the position where a child has not received a placement. I want to get to the point at which I can guarantee that. I am not at that stage yet.

The requirement on me, as Minister, is to make sure that we address the issue. I am doing that in the short term, but the Member rightly raises the challenges that have come about each year over the past few years. That is why I have set out a transformational programme to meet the needs in our special schools and to have specialist provision in mainstream education. The Department is now very much getting on the front foot, dealing with the long and medium term, but also putting in place measures in the short term. That includes enhancing the capacity in the Education Authority. That is why I took the decisions that I had to take with regard to the transformation that is needed there, and long-term work needs to be carried forward. I am also looking at the further support for placement processes that is needed by the Education Authority, and I may be able to articulate more on that in due course.

Ms Bunting: I welcome the Minister's announcement. Hearing it makes today a really important day for Northern Ireland. The Minister mentioned east Belfast in his statement. What additional information can he give us about such a project in east Belfast? I am also delighted to hear that Longstone School has been prioritised. Will the Minister give us some indication of the support that he and the EA will be able to provide to the school, as it seeks to establish and sustain a sixth form, which could teach life skills, bring employment opportunities and enhance the prospects of its pupils?


12.30 pm

Mr Givan: I thank the Member for her comments and also for the invitation, very early in my time in office, to visit Longstone School, where I had the opportunity to meet the pupils, as I have had in a number of different school settings. For any Member who goes into a special school — I am sure that many, if not all, Members have — it is very difficult to come away from that engagement not feeling emotional and touched by the visit and not wanting to do more. That has been my experience in witnessing the excellent teaching provided and how the support staff put in place routines. On one of my school visits, to Knockevin School, to which Diane Forsythe and Colin McGrath had invited me, one of the girls in the class hugged me. One of the classroom assistants had to assist in her letting go. Another child beside me grabbed hold of my ear and pulled me over. It was just one of those moments when I asked myself what more we can do for children who face those really difficult circumstances. What more can we do for parents who struggle every day and who campaign and fight for their children? We should have a system that responds to that need. Not one that is hostile or litigious but one that is agile and supportive. That is what I am going to ensure happens.

Longstone is one of the schools in the school enhancement programme. Its processes will now be accelerated. I want to compress the number of stages that schools have to go through so that we can then allocate funding, when capital becomes available, to start construction. The school enhancement programme looks at a whole-school solution. Where there is a need in a community, we need to identify how the school can meet it. Where it is not a new build, but the school can be enhanced, we need to identify the need. Where adjustments need to be made to the school enhancement programme, we want to know about them so that we can make those adjustments accordingly in order to have an estate that matches up with the need, not just now but in 10 years' time.

Mr Butler: I thank the Minister for his very welcome statement. From briefly reading through it, I have one or two concerns for the Minister to address. The first is to accept and welcome the impetus for SPiMS. Hopefully, there will be an impact in September that will see many of our pupils with special educational needs receive their school place at the same time as children who do not have special educational needs. The Minister made the comment that he has listened to school leaders and parents. Will he therefore outline to the House whether those children will receive their school place at the same time as other pupils? Secondly, in every interview that I have had with principals of special schools, I hear that they are still at odds with the Department and the EA over how they do not have control of their funding. Special schools are treated differently. Is that something at which the Minister is prepared to look?

Mr Givan: It is an issue that has been raised with me when I have been out visiting schools. The approach, with which Members will be familiar, is that other schools receive a delegated budget under the local management of schools (LMS) arrangements. Special schools do not get that, because they are directly funded. The costs are all directly paid. There will be arguments — pros and cons — around that. Rather than the issue being about the process of spending, it is about making sure that there is an available resource. On how that is spent and who takes the decision, I am up for the conversation, but we need to make sure that the appropriate resources are being made available to schools.

On the issue of placements, I absolutely understand, and 99·9% of children in mainstream education have received their placement. In fact, only 16 children remain unplaced in a mainstream setting, and that number has come down. Children therefore know where they are going. For children who have a statement of educational need, and for whom we are trying to find the right placement, some of them still do not know. We need to get to a place in which they have sight much earlier of the school that they will go to. That is an issue to which I am very much alert. It has not happened this year, but I believe that improvements can still be made. It is a slightly different process, because you need to make sure that the needs of the children and young people and the ability of the school's provision to meet those needs are properly assessed and that engagement with parents takes place. More time is required to do that than is the case, perhaps, when it comes to placement of children in mainstream education. I am alert to that.

The other thing that we need to look at is an earlier engagement process with parents when they choose a school in December. Often, a school is asked, with only two weeks' turnaround time, whether it can accommodate a child or young person, many months after the parent has expressed a view on what school the child should go to. We need to get to a place where the primary-school principal and the principal of the parent's preferred post-primary school have the conversation about that. It may be that the post-primary school that the parent wants their child to go to is not the best place. In many cases, it will be the best place, but earlier dialogue is needed to work out the best solution for the child. That is another piece of work around the statementing and placement processes. I am alert to all those things, and we need to see improvement on them all in the months ahead.

Mrs Mason: Minister, thank you for your statement. It is welcome news that priority has been given to special educational needs, specifically with the much-needed investment in Knockevin Special School. Schools across the North are willing to use their current space and facilities to deliver the much-needed specialist provision that we are talking about, but, for some reason, they do not seem to be considered. Some even say that they are being ignored. That does not stack up. I am talking about rural schools in my area; we heard about St Mary's Primary School, Fivemiletown this morning. Will the Minister give an assurance that schools that are willing to step up and provide support for children with special educational needs will be supported and given the tools to do so?

Mr Givan: The Member is right to raise that issue. It has been raised with me when I have visited schools. At Carr Primary School in my constituency, the principal indicated that the school had expressed an interest in provision but the EA did not follow that through; indeed, it was indicated that it may not have been a suitable school because of the wider enrolment issue. I looked at that issue, and, in my view, it is a suitable school. That is one of the reasons why my Department — not the EA — engaged directly with schools and sought expressions of interest; I had my permanent secretary reach out to do that. We are carrying out a survey for the reasons that the Member has just articulated: too many schools said that they wanted to make that provision but that they did not get the support that they needed from the Education Authority.

Mr K Buchanan: I thank the Minister for his statement. I welcome the point, towards the end of the statement, about Sperrinview Special School, which will benefit the kids of mid-Ulster. My question is about finances. At the start of your statement, you referred to a figure of approximately £0·5 billion. Will you give a wee bit more detail on the, presumably, additional funding that is required for that and on the Executive's commitment to it?

Mr Givan: The Member previously raised Sperrinview and the facilities that are needed. Today's announcement of a new build for Sperrinview opens up the mechanism, or gateway, for that process to commence. That will be very much welcomed in the wider mid-Ulster community.

When it comes to the budget, we need additional funding over the next 10 years in a sustained way. I was pleased that the Executive were able to provide additional resource to my Department for capital expenditure. I had raised it with the Finance Minister. I would have liked more, but I am glad that I got over £60 million. I fought hard, based on all my engagement and the evidence that some of our most vulnerable children need that support, and that is why Education received an uplift. I can spend so much more, and I intend to get these projects to the point at which they are ready to go into construction so that, when I next go to the Executive to seek funding, I will do so on the basis of being able to say, "These are schools that can be built when the resource is made available to us".

Over the next 10 years, the scale of that investment will be in the hundreds of millions. It will be developed strategically, through a planned process, and, obviously, it will be critical investment to create the right kind of school estate for special education.

Ms Nicholl: Thank you, Minister, for your statement. Last week, Donna Tyson shared a picture of beautiful twin boys; one had just received a placement in a school while the other one is still awaiting a SEN specialist placement. The inequality is very clear, and your statement outlines a way forward for how we address that.

How does your Department plan to measure the appropriateness and effectiveness of the SPiMS places? This will obviously be a central part of it. How do we ensure that those places are the right ones for the children, and how do we measure that?

Mr Givan: The survey is being carried out based on the physical need of the school. Some schools may have a classroom that can be repurposed, and others may require a classroom unit or a modular unit to be put on. My Department and the EA are assessing the 200 schools that have come forward, and we are doing that because we need to make sure that it is the right placement, not just because we cannot have a child not going to school. We have to make sure that children go to school, but it needs to be the right school. We should not be in a place where we are applying so much pressure to a school and saying, "You must take". It has to be right, and the school has to be supported. What I am doing today, and what we have been doing, is making sure that school principals and leadership teams feel supported, because, instinctively, our school principals and boards of governors want to accommodate all children in their local community, but they need to make sure that they have the right support from government and the Education Authority to have the confidence to do that.

Mr Baker: I welcome the Minister's statement and the fact that he is prioritising funding for special educational needs. Given the stress and anxiety that families and children with special educational needs face again this year due to issues with placements, will the Minister consider an approach that no longer leaves children outside the enrolment but actually places children with special educational needs first?

Mr Givan: I think that the Member is referring to what we regard as supernumerary when it comes to the planning. We have been taking an approach that you cannot plan new builds and school enhancement programmes without including children with statements of special educational need and meeting that need. When carrying out future designs and builds, we need to make sure that we are building new schools on the basis that they will be able to accommodate all children, and the issue of how you build the supernumerary factor into it needs to be addressed. There is no point building new schools that are not able to meet the needs of the local community, particularly children with special educational needs.

Mr Dunne: I thank the Minister for his welcome statement and his commitment to supporting this very important sector. Can the Minister provide an update on some of the challenges facing the education estate, particularly the special education estate, including Clifton School in my constituency of North Down, which opened on its present site in 2004 and now has over 200 students and ever-increasing enrolment demands?

Mr Givan: I thank the Member for the question. He will have me in his constituency, I think, tomorrow for school visits, and Clifton is another school that he has raised with me. I thank him for his advocacy on that. It is one of the schools in the school enhancement programme, and we seek to move that forward at pace.

There is a clear challenge in the wider education estate. There is a 15-year backlog in planned maintenance, and we have a real problem in how we address that. There is outdated technology infrastructure in schools, and investment of around £250 million is required to update that infrastructure, so the challenges are hugely significant. I recognise that there are huge challenges for the Executive, but we still have resources and funding. It is for Ministers to get on with the job and do the best that they can with the funding envelope that they have. I am a Minister who is rolling up my sleeves, getting on with that difficult job and trying to find solutions.

Ms Kimmins: I declare an interest: I have been on the board of governors of Rathore School in Newry for almost nine years. Given that, I am acutely aware of the huge issues that special schools and families are facing, and I thank the Minister for this very welcome statement.

Minister, one of the issues that comes up time and time again is the ability to future-proof our SEN sector.

One of the obstacles to that is the fact that funding is released only when schools are already at capacity or are beyond capacity. Will the Minister advise what work is being done on long-term planning so that schools can obtain funding based on projected numbers? I ask that because we are seeing and we know that numbers are increasing continually. It is important that there is long-term planning rather than the drip-feeding of modular units on sites that are already congested.


12.45 pm

Mr Givan: The Member is right. The programme that I have announced will take that long-term strategic view. As I outlined in my statement, the number of children presenting and requiring a statement of educational need has increased significantly over the past number of years. That is expected to rise up to 2032. What are we doing to make sure that the estate is able to meet that need? That is what the programme is all about: assessing the need and making sure that we have an estate available to meet that need. That way, we will not be dealing with the kinds of crises that have been taking place with putting in classroom units and trying to identify at the last minute where we can put in provision. We need to move away from that. This is the start of that process, where we move to a planned, fit-for-purpose education system for those with special educational needs.

Miss McAllister: I thank the Minister for his statement. It is welcome news. I am sure that many parents will be awaiting the long-term process, because we understand that the capital investments will not happen tomorrow. It is something to look forward to. I especially welcome the comments about Hill Croft School in Newtownabbey. I have a family member who attends the school, and we see all too well the magnificent impact that it has not just on our niece, as a little girl, but the entire family. The Minister will be aware that, when parents choose a special needs school for their kid to attend, they become part of a community and rely on that support. On parental choice, what provision will be available at the school that is chosen, be that a SPiMS unit or a special school? It is crucial that the support that the parents can get for all of their family is maintained at every level, no matter the school.

Mr Givan: The Member is correct that there have been occasions when a special school is what is best but there has been a lack of capacity. When I was in Knockevin Special School, the principal indicated that there were children whom they had wanted to take, because that was the right thing to do, but were unable to take because of the lack of capacity. A SPiMS unit has had to be provided there, with the additional support required for that. Creating a much enhanced school estate will help with wider parental choice, but, ultimately, this is about what is in the best interests of the child and trying to make sure that we get the right place for the right person in the right school. That is what we are trying to achieve. My announcement today puts us on a pathway to creating the school estate that will ensure that that is the case.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Blair): Members, before I call the next Member to speak, I give you a subtle reminder that there is quite a list of names in front of me. We will get through them better if questions are concise.

Mr Brooks: I welcome the Minister's positive statement, including the announcement of the new school that is planned for east Belfast and the prioritisation of Longstone School, where my grandfather was once the caretaker. Some of the other special schools in east Belfast may wonder what it means for their facilities. I am thinking of Mitchell House School and Greenwood House Assessment Centre, which the Minister will shortly visit with me. Does the Minister plan any further calls for capital projects?

Mr Givan: It may be more appropriate for schools for which minor works have been planned to move into the school enhancement programme. The programme that has been set up today allows that flexibility to take place. Rather than having a capital call go out to the entire education estate and have special schools competing alongside every other type of school, we have created a stand-alone and discrete special educational capital programme. That is why I have been able to announce the new schools and why we are looking at how to prioritise the enhancement programme for special schools. It is a new programme that we have created, recognising the critical need to do that. In the Member's constituency and every other constituency, where there is a need in a special school, we want to assess that need and make sure that we put in place the right support to take forward a capital programme that will meet that need.

Mr McGrath: On behalf of the staff and parents but especially on behalf of the children of Knockevin, I thank the Minister for his statement and the announcement that is in it. We have waited many years for this day. I am afraid that I cannot confirm whether the child who pulled your ear was put up to it in advance of the visit or whether it was the tray bakes that you got on the day that swayed it. What will be the next stages in the delivery of the programme?

Mr Givan: I thank the Member for his question. It was one of those visits — being able to be in the school — that very much stand out as a highlight for me. It was a pleasure for me to be there. I know that you have advocated for the school over the years. I assure the House that Diane Forsythe has advocated for the school as well. I know that a cross-party approach has been taken in the constituency to do that. I have been heavily lobbied by my colleague for the school.

The announcement that there will be a new build will allow support to be put in place to set up the design teams to take the school through the various stages. I know that, in the conversation that we had with the principal, a number of options were discussed around potential locations and time frames, and all of that can now be taken forward. We have created a gateway for Knockevin to progress. When we met the principal, I outlined that, at that stage, there was no process for Knockevin to enter into. Had we gone through a conventional process, the school would have been competing against many other schools. In this way, through a new special educational capital programme, we have a new gateway for special schools. That is why I have been able to announce the go-ahead for Knockevin Special School.

Ms Ferguson: I very much welcome the Minister's statement. It is really good that there is prioritisation of special educational needs and capital investment in it. There is just one area that I wanted to focus on, which is specialist provision in mainstream schools. There are 500 such classes across the North: is there a commitment to audit the support that those classes require, in addition to any new places?

I welcome the second campus at Ardnashee School in the city. That indicates to us the importance of future-proofing in relation to long-term planning, so thank you for that.

Mr Givan: The Member highlighted Ardnashee, and I can see from the enrolment figures that the school that has been built has well in excess of 100 children who cannot be accommodated in a new school. That is why we have announced a dual campus at Ardnashee, and work can now commence on the design process.

The Member mentioned support for schools that have specialist provision, and she is right to raise that issue. We need to ensure that schools have confidence in that provision. In my statement, I highlighted funding of £4 million for equipment and provisions for schools. As part of that funding envelope, £20,000 will be given to every school that agrees to take a SPiM class to go towards capital equipment and measures such as that. I am trying to make sure not only that we ask schools to take and facilitate a SPiM class but that we provide some resource so that they are able to use it effectively. Every school that does that will receive £20,000 for their capital equipment.

Ms Brownlee: I thank the Minister for his commitment and delivery. This is a phenomenal challenge for government, and the statement is welcome. For every family concerned, this is not just a statement: it will be life-changing for every child who will now get the education that they deserve and will be treated as a priority.

Minister, Roddensvale School is a fantastic special school in my constituency that is included among the announcements in your statement. Can you provide some further detail on what its inclusion in the special enhancement programme will mean for the school? You also mentioned that the cap on spend in relation to the school enhancement programme will be removed for special schools: will you detail what that will mean for project delivery?

Mr Givan: I thank the Member for highlighting that excellent school in Larne. I know that she has campaigned for the provision there. For it, as one of those 10 schools, this is about driving through the design process to get to the point of being in a state of readiness for funding, and that will be important. Obviously, in the past, when we had school enhancement programmes, there were spending limits. The Education Authority removed a number of those special schools because the finance that was needed would have breached the spending limit in place for school enhancement programmes, which was just over £4 million. I am removing that limitation on special schools for school enhancement programmes, so that limit will not be there for those special schools when it comes to the funding envelope that will be needed.

Mr McNulty: Minister, I warmly welcome the announcement of new prioritisation in support of children with special educational needs. The ripple effect of that will be felt throughout households, and there will be many sighs of relief around kitchen tables from parents and families who feel that, eventually, they have been listened to and heard.

I noticed that, in your speech, you refrained from acronymising children. I implore you, everyone in the House and everyone in education to stop using acronyms to describe children. Children are children and young people first; they are not a category. Each child has individual talent and claims on a positive future.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Blair): Can we have a question?

Mr McNulty: Acronyms, when they are applied to children, carry a lot of power. Avoiding their use does not prevent stereotyping children, but it does —

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Blair): I ask the Member to come to his question.

Mr McNulty: — provide an effective reminder that children cannot be reduced to a set of characteristics. Does the Minister agree that the act of deleting acronyms and replacing them with full text would be symbolic of going beyond the stereotypes and seeing the individual shining through?

Mr Givan: The Member makes an important point. I agree that we should make sure that we use appropriate language in our terminology. He makes an important point about that.

Mr Durkan: I thank the Minister for his statement. I am delighted that the green light has been given to Ardnashee to proceed with planning for phase 2. On Saturday, I was speaking to teachers and pupils. They cannot wait to get into phase 1.

Has the Minister given any consideration to the possible inclusion of social clauses in contracts for works on such schools in the future in order to give opportunities, potentially, to young people with special educational needs?

Mr Givan: Obviously, the Department and the EA follow procurement rules on such matters, ensuring that there will be the type of social clauses that the Member has articulated. It would be an important opportunity to involve the community where builds are taking place. That should be part of the design process.

Mr Allister: If this is the biggest step change in capital planning for a generation, when will the hugely oversubscribed Castle Tower special school in Ballymena receive what it needs in terms of additional purpose-built buildings?

Mr Givan: The Member talked about Castle Tower, which is one of the 10 schools in the school enhancement programme. I am trying to make sure that we get through that process so that, when funding becomes available, we can do new builds. The Member is obviously concerned about that response, so I undertake to write to him in detail to provide an update on Castle Tower. The statement is designed to help every special school in Northern Ireland. I want to ensure that it does that, especially in Ballymena.

Mr Carroll: Recently, I met parents of children with autism and special needs. There is serious concern about their children being forced into mainstream education when it is not suitable. It is unclear from your statement, Minister, whether there will be additional funding for specialist provision in mainstream schools. Can you clarify and expand on that?

Finally, given that there is a long overdue pay and grading review and you are asking education workers to implement your plan, when will those workers get the money that was promised to them?

Mr Givan: The statement outlines what we are trying to do to support the provision of special education in mainstream schools. That is a key part of our work. We are putting in specialist provision, and we will put further provision in. We have already secured commitments to do that, and the funding will be made available to make sure that we have the appropriate accommodation that is necessary to meet needs.

Obviously, the Executive were able to agree a process for trying to resolve the pay and grading review.

I have invited the unions to engage in that process, and I hope that they will, because I believe that we can get a positive resolution. What I do not want is disruption to special schools and children with special educational needs not being able to go to their place of education as a result of any potential strike action. We should never have a scenario where children with special needs cannot be properly supported as a result of that. I believe that we can get a successful outcome and a resolution, and I hope that, in the days and weeks ahead, we will be able to do that without the necessity for any form of strike action.


1.00 pm

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Blair): Members, if the Minister is content, there are three remaining questions that we can try to take quickly now to avoid having to resume after Question Time.

Mr Robinson: Thank you, Minister, for facilitating a meeting this morning with Rossmar School. I thank my constituency colleague Cara Hunter for attending that meeting and supporting me. Your statement is very timely, Minister, and I very much appreciate the fact that you referred to Sandelford School in Coleraine. Can you give assurances that Rossmar School, which requires much-needed additional investment, will be actively considered in future school enhancement programmes?

Mr Givan: The Member raised that issue at this morning's meeting with Rossmar, which he had asked for. During that meeting, as a result of the approach that we are taking to the capital programme, I was able to advise the principal and Mr Robinson that, from what was intended to be a minor works scheme, we will now move into a school enhancement programme. Our assessment will take a whole-school approach to the needs of the school in Rossmar, and, obviously, as I indicated, we will take that forward. I was delighted to be able to convey that information to the Member, the principal and the board of governors this morning.

Mr Dickson: Thank you, Minister, for your statement. May I draw your attention to Thornfield House School in my constituency of East Antrim? It entered the school enhancement programme in 2018. I note that it is on your list of 10 schools today, but surely a school that entered that list in 2018 deserves special attention. It also provided the Department with its business case as far back as 2011. There is urgency for this school. Not a single brick has been laid on the site since 2018. When can Thornfield expect to have its programme delivered for its students and for the staff and parents?

Mr Givan: The Member articulates well the very reason why I have had to take the measures that I have taken today in announcing a discrete, stand-alone capital programme for special education. The school that he referenced, Thornfield, has been sitting alongside all the other schools in the school enhancement programme. I have now asked the Education Authority to prioritise those 10 schools so that we can accelerate the process and get to the point where we can, subject to capital, move into contract and carry out the necessary works.

Mr Kingston: Along with others, I warmly welcome the Minister's statement. It demonstrates how all Departments are seeking to respond to severe and chronic need and how all Departments require an appropriate share of the Budget to respond to that need. I speak as a long-serving governor of Belfast Boys' Model School and of Malvern Primary School, and I know only too well how schools are working hard to respond to the high level of special educational needs. The Minister will be aware that many schools in north Belfast are oversubscribed, including Belfast Boys' Model School, Belfast Model School for Girls, Hazelwood Integrated College and the new Harberton North Special School. Quite frankly, too many post-primary schools were closed in the past, so I welcome his commitment to a new special school —

Mr Kingston: — in Belfast, providing 275 additional places. Will the Minister undertake to ensure that the needs in north and west Belfast, including greater Shankill, are fully taken into account in that process of providing a new school?

Mr Givan: Mr Kingston articulates very well the needs in Belfast, and that area has been identified as one where there is pressure. There is particular pressure in north and west Belfast, so a new Belfast school for 275 children from ages three to 19 is at an advanced stage. Where that school could be sited still needs to be looked at, but I hear what the Member is saying about the provision in north and west Belfast. I also hope to be able to update the Member in due course on some other primary schools in the Shankill area, one of which I visited recently. I hope to be able to come back to the House to provide more information on the provision of new schools in the greater Shankill area.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Blair): I thank the Minister for staying with us and answering those questions. Regrettably, there were a few that we did not reach due to time constraints and Members not being in the Chamber for the duration of the Minister's statement.

The Business Committee has arranged to meet at 1.00 pm. I propose, therefore, by leave of the Assembly, to suspend the sitting until 2.00 pm.

The sitting was suspended at 1.05 pm.

On resuming (Mr Speaker in the Chair) —


2.00 pm

Oral Answers to Questions

Education

Mr Givan (The Minister of Education): Today I announced the biggest step change in capital planning in education for a generation, with an ambitious and far-reaching programme that will require half a billion pounds of investment in facilities for children with special educational needs over the next decade. The programme will transform the education and lives of our most vulnerable children and their families. In South Down, planning for a new-build school for Knockevin Special School will begin immediately. The Education Authority (EA) has been asked to submit proposals for any required extensions to special schools, which will now be taken forward under the school enhancement programme, and it is envisaged that that will include Rathore School. Additional land, which should provide much-needed growing space, has recently been purchased beside that school.

I am conscious that, owing to rising demand for specialist education provision, the situation for September 2024 remains very challenging, with the latest Education Authority planning assumptions indicating that almost 5,800 children with a statement of SEN require a change of placement for September 2024, with an estimated 1,000 additional places being needed across Northern Ireland to meet that demand. Significant progress has been made on agreeing solutions with schools to meet that demand through the creation of additional capacity in special schools and new specialist provision in mainstream schools (SPiMS). Focused work continues on securing solutions for September 2024.

Mr Speaker, I should have asked for an extra minute before I started answering. Hopefully, with your indulgence, I can be granted that.

Mr Speaker: Given the importance of the subject, I will on this occasion.

Mr Givan: Thank you, Mr Speaker.

South Down has been identified by the EA as being an area of particular pressure, with additional places being required in special schools and for SPiMS. The EA continues to engage with all education sectors in the area on building capacity and addressing need. It is in discussions with Rathore School regarding potential options for expansion for September 2024. A number of solutions have also been agreed in the Downpatrick area for providing early years and foundation-stage specialist provision classes for children with severe learning difficulties, as Knockevin School has very limited capacity for new admissions for September 2024. Expansion of provision at Oakwood School's Saintfield site for September 2024 is also actively being considered. Furthermore, five schools in South Down have agreed to establish new SPiMS classes.

I assure the Member that the EA continues to work at pace on a significant programme of work to create additional specialist education places in special schools and for SPiMS for the 2024-25 academic year. Meeting the needs of an increasing number of children with statements of SEN continues to be extremely challenging in the budgetary context. Urgent investment is required in order to create additional capacity across the system.

Ms Ennis: I appreciate the Minister's very detailed answer and the announcement about Knockevin. As he said, South Down is an area of particular pressure. That is the case across the BT34 and BT35 postcode areas. Has the Minister considered adopting a SEN-first approach for school placements for September 2024 and beyond?

Mr Givan: As I alluded to in my ministerial statement, I have been putting SEN first in my Department. That is why we now have a discrete, stand-alone capital programme for special educational needs provision. We are assessing what provision is necessary across Northern Ireland, including in South Down, and I was obviously able to announce a new build for Knockevin in the House earlier. My priority is children with special educational needs. When you and other Members are in those schools, as I have been, you cannot help but be touched by the needs of the children and young people. We need to do everything that we can to give them the best outcomes possible.

Mr Mathison: I will raise an issue that is related to SEN placements and connected to workforce. We have a crisis in the provision of educational psychologists and speech and language therapists, without whom the SEN system cannot function. What level of resource will the Minister commit to tackling those issues in the months ahead?

Mr Givan: Workforce issues are a real challenge. Some of those rest with the Department, such as making sure that we have appropriate recruitment and retention. In other special schools, the allied health professionals who come in are direct employees of the health service and the local trusts. Increasingly, a number of principals are raising their concern with me about a withdrawal of those services. I intend to engage with the Minister of Health to find out why that has been happening and what action is being taken to make sure that we have the appropriate support in our schools, not just to meet educational needs but to address the complex health needs that exist.

Mr Butler: I hope that you will indulge this question, Minister. We have a very special visitor in the Chamber who, hopefully, is listening up above. She is a pupil from St Genevieve's school in Belfast called Aurelia. Will the Minister commit even 10 minutes after Question Time and after he finishes the subsequent debate to meet her to discuss SEN issues? She is a lovely pupil, and I think that the Minister would enjoy meeting her.

Mr Givan: Thank you, Mr Butler. Let me see what I can do. It is an unconventional way in which to try to get a meeting at such short notice. [Laughter.]

Let us see what we can do once Question Time is over.

Mr McNulty: I warmly welcome the Minister's announcement about Rathore school in Carnagat, Newry, and the purchase of the site adjacent to it. When can we expect to see contractors on-site and see that wonderful educational provision expanded and improved?

Mr Givan: The statement this morning outlined the process for any new build, school enhancement programme or minor works schemes. There needs to be an assessment of need, followed by feasibility studies, a business case and design processes before a school project gets to the point of being ready. When the capital becomes available, construction can then be put in place. For all our special schools, I have outlined in detail the approach that the Department will take to identify the need, have the processes in place to expedite those matters as efficiently as possible and then get on with delivering construction.

Mr Givan: With your permission, Mr Speaker, I will answer questions 2 and 3 together.

I will begin with an update on the work of the cross-departmental task and finish group. The group was established to bring a cross-departmental perspective to the development of an early learning and childcare strategy. That is essential, given the range of issues that we want the strategy to address. The three overarching aims are to support child development, to enable parental employment and to improve affordability for families. The aims clearly touch on several economic and social policy interests and are reflected in the group membership, which includes the Department for the Economy, the Department of Health, the Department of Finance, the Department for Communities and the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs. Specialist advice is also provided by economists and statisticians.

The full group has met twice, with additional bilateral engagement on specific issues having taken place between meetings. The group’s initial focus has been on the identification and design of interim measures that could be introduced this year to ease current pressures on parents and providers. It will also play an important role in supporting the development of the longer-term strategy.

With regard to progress on providing financial support for childcare for people in need, I am, of course, aware of the significant financial strain on some families and childcare providers. I have engaged directly with parents and representatives from the early learning and childcare sector to hear at first hand what their issues and priorities are.

It is clear to me that significant transformation of early learning and childcare provision in Northern Ireland is needed to address all the issues that have been raised. Good progress has been made, and I hope to be in a position to bring proposals to the Executive in the coming weeks. Ultimately, the scale of what I can do will depend on the budget that is allocated for that by the Executive, which, for this year, is £25 million.

Ms Nicholl: I thank the Minister for his answer and for always responding to my many queries about childcare. The £25 million dedicated fund is welcome to see in the Budget. How much of that will be spent on support for parents and providers? Will any of the additional funds come from the Minister's Department, or will that £25 million come purely from Executive funds?

Mr Givan: The Executive have retained the £25 million at the centre, so it does not sit in my Department. I need to bring forward an Executive paper to access it. There are, broadly, four areas that we need to look at. One is stabilisation of the sector, and I refer to organisations such as Sure Start, in which the Department of Health is involved. We also need to look at an approach to standardisation of provision in nursery schools, so that we move towards having equity of full-time and part-time places. We need a scheme to try to ensure that, where there is a critical need, support for providers can be put in place. There are issues with affordability and costs associated with that. Those areas are being looked at in the context of the £25 million allocation. Work is ongoing to specify how that will be broken down and the mechanisms for taking this forward.

Ms Kimmins: I thank the Minister for his answer to my question. It is an all-Executive priority, as we know, but can the Minister give an update on the work on childcare specifically with the Department for the Economy and the Department of Health? Families and providers are crying out for help. We want to ensure that the work is moving at pace, but we want it to be done properly.

Mr Givan: It has been very important to have the Department for the Economy, the Department of Finance and the other Departments that I mentioned represented on the task and finish group, because childcare has a much wider societal impact. We need to make sure that we support people who want to stay in the workforce and increase their output. That is part of the thinking behind the proposals that the Executive will take forward. It cuts across quite a number of different areas: employment is one, alongside others.

Mr Kingston: Will the Minister outline the timeline for the introduction of short-term funding support for parents?

Mr Givan: There is a real need for a timeline. I understand that and have heard it from my engagements with providers, parents and carers. However, we need to be clear about the purpose of the schemes and the outcomes that we want to achieve, and the task and finish group has been supporting that work. The three broad areas — child development, parental employability and affordability — are key to making sure that we have an integrated package of measures. I hope to bring a paper to the Executive in the coming weeks, and, obviously, that will then be subject to Executive approval. The sooner I can bring that paper and the Executive engage on it — we are already engaging on the issue — the sooner we can set up the mechanisms to get the support that is needed out into the wider community.

Ms McLaughlin: Some 12 weeks after their taking up office, we have not yet seen anything from the Executive. We need interim measures as soon as possible. Parents were melted before — they are absolutely furious now. When will the Minister announce an immediate intervention to raise the rate of tax-free childcare, lift the £2,000 cap and reconvene the childcare reference group with parental representation —

Mr Speaker: Is there a question?

Ms McLaughlin: — at the very heart of it?

Mr Givan: The Member is entirely wrong in her characterisation of nothing having been done; it is quite the opposite. I immediately brought a paper to the Executive, and we set up a task and finish group. I got the buy-in of all Departments to engage in that process. I engaged with the Finance Minister and the First Minister. We were able to secure £25 million in the Budget, and I am bringing forward further proposals as to how that can be implemented. The Executive are taking action. As a Minister, I am very much driving that action forward, not just in childcare but on special education. The Member can refer to the statement that I made earlier today on special education, which her constituency will benefit from. I am a Minister who is getting on with the job of delivering and I will continue to do so, alongside Executive colleagues.

Mr Givan: Before I deal with the question the Member has asked, let me clarify the respective responsibilities of the Education Authority board and the Minister in the process leading to the appointment of a CEO. The relevant legislation indicates that the chief executive:

"shall be appointed by the Authority.

(5) The Authority shall not appoint a person as chief executive unless the Department approves the appointment."

In view of the scale of the challenges faced by the education system and the concerns raised with me by MLAs, school leaders and the wider education sector, I concluded that trawling internally for a temporary appointment would not be appropriate. I was also concerned about the potential time that it would take to make a permanent appointment, not least in the context that the position had to be advertised several times before an appointment could be made in 2019.

Consequently, I concluded that the Education Authority could not be left with a leadership void in the context of the challenges that the organisation faced.

In considering the options available to me, I was clear that an established and strategic senior leader with credibility in delivering transformational change in complex and multidisciplinary organisations was required, an individual with sufficient resilience and strength of character to face the delivery challenges associated with the organisation, build morale and improve relationships with key stakeholders and service users. It was clear to me that someone of the standing and experience of a permanent secretary would be required and that the most appropriate way of making a suitable appointment in the time available was by means of a secondment. I met the chair of the EA and invited the board to pause the internal temporary promotion process and consider filling the post by secondment. As you know, the board agreed to that request at its meeting on 7 March.


2.15 pm

Mr O'Toole: I am grateful to the Minister for that detailed answer. It is important to say that, in the post-RHI context, it is deeply disappointing that such an important appointment was made without proper internal or external recruitment. Did the Minister, in agreeing the secondment, speak to his ministerial colleagues? I specifically would like to understand whether he spoke to the Justice Minister either formally or informally about the appointment. Did the head of the Civil Service give him any specific advice on whether she felt that it was an appropriate secondment?

Mr Givan: The answer is no. I did not speak to any ministerial colleague on the issue. I engaged the head of the Civil Service because she has to approve the secondment, and I am grateful to her for doing so. Consequently, the Education Authority board endorsed the secondment of Richard Pengelly at a meeting on 21 March, and he assumed his responsibilities on 15 April.

I trust that that will satisfy the Member as to the process, but I point out the need to take action. The Member's colleague Mr McCrossan has spoken in the Chamber on statutory assessments on a number of occasions. On one occasion, he asked me:

"Minister, do you think that the Education Authority is fit for purpose, and, if not, when do you plan to do something about it? In this issue, it is certainly not fit for purpose." — [Official Report (Hansard), 26 February 2024, p33, col 1].

Members from across the parties articulated their concern about the Education Authority. I took action, and I trust that I can work in partnership with the EA to deliver on all the needs that exist in our education sector.

Mr Allister: However Mr Pengelly was appointed, does the Minister agree that he needs to look at the adequate provision of preschool places? There are parents in the village of Kells being told that the nearest available place is 15 miles away. Does he agree that Mr Pengelly should look at why the Kells and Connor Pre-school was restricted to 42 places when it had 65 applicants, which has left dozens of children with nowhere to go.

Mr Speaker: That was a neat sidestep, Mr Allister. It is up to the Minister whether he wishes to respond.

Mr Givan: The chief executive of the Education Authority has a huge responsibility, and I am very much engaged with the Education Authority, not just on the issue that the Member rightly highlights as a concern but across the entire education remit. Mr Pengelly has a big responsibility in his role, and I am very much leading in all of the Department of Education's responsibilities.

Mr Givan: Mr Speaker, with your permission, I will answer questions 5 and 6 together.

A review of the home to school transport policy commenced in 2018. However, it was paused by the then Minister due to the pandemic and further suspended pending the outcome of the independent review of education. The transport policy supports other policies in the Department, such as those on parental preference and special educational needs.

My Department is considering the report published by the independent review of education, and work is progressing on an end-to-end review of SEN. Work is also under way on an action plan arising from the EA landscape review to include detailed consideration of the operational delivery of services such as school transport. It is important that any review of the home to school transport policy complements and can build on the outcomes of those work streams. It is in that context that I will consider the utility and timing of a new separate review of the transport policy. Given the very significant budgetary pressures facing my Department, I will also need to consider the affordability of any changes to the transport policy that would result in the widening of criteria to access transport provision.

Ms Sheerin: In the interim, while we await any new review, will the Minister commit to working with the officials in the transport section of the EA to apply a bit of common sense to some of the decisions about transport for children? I am inundated every summer with requests from parents who live just within the two- or three-mile criterion, parents whose children live three miles from their school but —

Mr Speaker: OK. We get the drift, Ms Sheerin.

Ms Sheerin: — not as the crow flies and thus are refused a bus pass and other people who are just outside the route. I would like to see common sense —

Mr Speaker: Minister.

Ms Sheerin: — being applied to ensure that those children can get to school safely.

Mr Givan: I totally understand the frustration that the Member has articulated. I deal with those issues as well at constituency level. It is a heavily regulated area. There is legislation in respect of the criteria, and they are strictly applied within those parameters. I understand the frustration and have experienced it at constituency level, but it is a heavily regulated area of policy that the EA is responsible for. I refer to the earlier comment about looking at a review of the process in due course, but, given the budget problems that my Department faces, I will be heavily constrained in respect of what I will be able to do about wider issues in the Department, as well as that one.

Mr Honeyford: I thank the Minister for his response. Approximately 35 to 40 pupils who live in the Moira and Magheralin area attend New-Bridge Integrated College. People choose that school because it is integrated and offers A levels and sixth form. EA continues to refuse direct transport links, citing transport policy, but, if those parents were to choose a grammar school, they would have a choice of six or seven schools. What is the Minister's assessment of the transport access for those who live in Moira and travel to New-Bridge Integrated College? What steps will he take to improve the options for those young people?

Mr Givan: The Member referred to parental choice when it comes to the schools that people choose to go to. A range of sectors is available to people. The Department has facilitated that, including through our home to school transport policy. I will look into the specific issue that the Member has raised in more detail, and I will write to him in that regard.

Ms Brownlee: Will the Minister outline the costs in relation to SEN transport and taxi provision?

Mr Givan: It is significant. Assistance is provided to over 90,000 school pupils every day, including more than 10,000 who have additional transport needs detailed in their statement of educational need. Children with a statement of SEN follow a different process for admission to school. In the most recent financial year, 2023-24, taxi provision for special educational needs pupils came to just short of £34 million.

Mr Givan: The challenges regarding SEN capital investment are significant. From around £8 million of capital invested four years ago, the figure rose to over £47 million in the last financial year. That investment includes recent major works at four special schools and the ongoing new build project at Ardnashee special school. Five special schools received investment under the first school enhancement programme call, and 10 special schools are advancing in design under the second call to that programme.

On the minor works programme, the EA, in collaboration with the Department, has worked to create additional capacity right across the school estate, with currently more than 485 specialist provision classes across just under 200 mainstream schools, providing specialist educational placements for over 3,000 pupils. My Department has also, for the first time, provided additional resource funding of £5 million specifically for special school maintenance.

To meet the increasing need, the level of SEN capital investment is set to continue on an upward trajectory. It is estimated that that will be around £250 million of capital in SEN over the next three years, with a further £350 million to £400 million in the first years after 2027-28. That is why my bid to the Executive for enhanced capital funding for this financial year was so significant. The Member will be aware of my statement today, which elaborated on those issues in much more detail.

Mr Robinson: Thank you, Minister. In your statement, you informed the House that there will be a need for up to eight new special schools across the Province over the next decade. Do you have an early indication of where those schools may be located and what the process for delivery will be?

Mr Givan: Yes. We anticipate that we will need, as the Member said, eight new schools: four in Belfast and four in other parts of Northern Ireland. We have asked the EA to carry out work to identify in more detail that provision, which, we believe, is needed. It will carry out that work for us along with work on all the other aspects that I relayed in my statement.

Mrs Dillon: I welcome the Minister's statement, and I apologise that I was not in the Chamber for it. I particularly welcome the announcement on Sperrinview Special School. Will you confirm that you will engage directly with the local council, Mid Ulster District Council? It will want to be helpful to you in what will, I hope, be an ambitious project for Sperrinview Special School.

Mr Givan: As part of taking forward the new builds, I have now had the opportunity to speak with the principals of Sperrinview Special School, Knockevin Special School and Ardnashee School and College, the three schools about which I made an announcement this morning. The principals are absolutely delighted. One of them could hardly speak such was her relief and excitement about starting the process of getting a new school.

In taking forward the design process, an integrated design consultancy team needs to be established. Through that process, we can link with other stakeholders. I encourage local authorities, schools and my Department to link in wherever they can in order to enhance provision, because it makes sense to do so. I will certainly feed back what the Member indicated about the council's willingness to be part of that process. I would expect that, in the development of the new build, not just at Sperrinview but at the other ones that I announced, that will be part of their process in taking forward any considerations of engagement.

Mr Givan: Members will have heard from the Budget announcement last week that the funding available to the Executive did not allow for an allocation to be made in respect of the pay and grading review for support staff. I know that that news will have been extremely disappointing for the dedicated individuals who were relying on the implementation of the review. School support staff undertake a range of roles that are vital to the education of our children and young people, yet they continue to be among the lowest-paid workers in the public sector.

Executive colleagues share my view that those staff deserve to be paid at a fair level for the valuable work that they do. However, the Budget was set in very challenging financial circumstances, and the level of funding required for that just was not available. Given the importance of the issue, the Finance Minister, Dr Archibald, has committed to working collectively with me to find a resolution for our support staff. The Executive have agreed that we will seek approval from the Treasury to re-profile some of the repurposed funds provided in the financial package for the purpose of ensuring that support staff are paid at an appropriate level. I am sure that Members will echo my hope that that proposal can be agreed as quickly as possible.

Mr Gildernew: Thank you, Minister. Do you agree that classroom assistants and other non-education support staff play a vital role in supporting our most disadvantaged and vulnerable children and young people such as those with special educational needs, for example?

Mr Givan: I do. I would share in those comments. I have witnessed in my constituency and as Minister the invaluable work that they carry out. I felt that it was important to find a way through the Executive Budget paper with the Finance Minister so that we can continue to make progress on getting a resolution. We very much want to do that, working together. I advise the House that there will be engagement between the trade unions and my Department this Thursday. I want a resolution. I do not want strike action. I want us to find a way that avoids that and gets the right outcome for the workers involved.

Mr Givan: Development proposal (DP) 717, which proposed that

"St Eugene’s Primary School, Tircur will transform to Controlled Integrated Status with effect from 1 September 2024, or as soon as possible thereafter"

was published by the EA on behalf of the school's board of governors on 14 September last year.

The statutory two-month objection period ended on 21 November 2023, and, on 15 April this year, I made my decision on DP 717 on the basis of all the pertinent information and evidence presented by my officials in a submission for my consideration. I decided that DP 717 should not be approved.


2.30 pm

Mr Speaker: That concludes the period for listed questions. We now move to topical questions.

T1. Ms Hunter asked the Minister of Education to clarify the timeline to resolve the pay and grading review for non-teaching staff who are, understandably, struggling with the cost-of-living crisis, given that she shares others’ frustration and finds it extremely disappointing that the money required for those staff has not been made available, albeit she is aware of the funding challenges in his Department. (AQT 241/22-27)

Mr Givan: Following the Executive meeting, I immediately communicated to the trade unions my willingness to engage in this process. I have appointed a deputy permanent secretary, Ronnie Armour, to lead on this for me. The Education Authority is the employer in this respect, and it therefore has a role. Executive colleagues and I are clear that we want to get a resolution to the pay and grading review, because it is important that we can recruit those important support staff and retain them in our education system.

Ms Hunter: I thank the Minister for his answer. I recognise that our non-teaching staff — classroom assistants — are the backbone of all our schools, but particularly in meeting the medical needs of pupils in our special schools. Does the Minister agree that the lack of implementation of this review could actually worsen the staffing crisis in our special schools? Will he and the Finance Minister commit to keeping the House updated on the issue?

Mr Givan: I am happy to keep the Member and the House updated. I agree that we need to take forward the pay and grading review so that we have the appropriate workforce in place. This is slightly different from the pay disputes that were taking place in the Civil Service and in the teaching profession — they had not had a pay award. Support staff are part of a national joint negotiating position. Last year, on average, there was an 8% pay rise. This year, within my budget, a pay rise for those workers will be delivered, because it is contractually required. The issue is that their starting point is much lower, and, as the private sector has become much more attractive, we are not able to recruit and retain. The pay and grading review is not the same as a dispute over a pay settlement. However, I have put forward the business case because I believe that it needs to be addressed. The Finance Minister and her Department have agreed. We now need to get a resolution.

Obviously, the Treasury is involved because, if we are to repurpose the limited resources that are available to an Executive that will have limited resources in the next financial year, there needs to be a justification for that. Treasury will be part of the process, but the Executive have agreed a willingness to get a resolution. Obviously, there will be engagement with the unions and all the relevant actors.

T2. Mr McReynolds asked the Minister of Education whether he intends to repeal article 4(1)(c) of the Education (Northern Ireland) Order 1998, which enables teachers to use force to stop pupils "engaging in any behaviour prejudicial to the maintenance of good order and discipline". (AQT 242/22-27)

Mr Givan: The Member and others have been raising issues on this. I have asked officials to engage with me on it to ensure that we get it absolutely right. It is not that I necessarily have a position, without going into detail, on it. It is just that I want to ensure that due consideration is given before we reach a final decision.

Mr McReynolds: I thank the Minister for his response, but I remind him that the NSPCC, the Human Rights Commission and the Northern Ireland Commissioner for Children and Young People have all called for an end to the physical punishment of children, as did the previous Minister of Education. Will the Minister today commit to urgently act on the guidance of organisations and previous Ministers who focused their attention on the rightful protection of children and their rights?

Mr Givan: I caution the Member on presenting the information as though, somehow, capital punishment is taking place in our schools. It is not, and it does not. There are issues when it comes to restraint. I am aware of them, as a governor of a school where pupils were engaged in violent activity and teachers had to step in to restrain them. I need to make sure, for those professionals in environments and situations that could become difficult, that we do not take a decision that could become problematic for them in its outworkings. That type of capital punishment does not take place in our schools in the way in which the Member characterised it.

Mr Speaker: I think that the Minister means corporal punishment.

Mr Givan: Sorry. [Laughter.]

Mr Speaker: I would not want there to be any capital punishment in schools. [Laughter.]

Mr Givan: There is definitely no capital punishment.

T3. Mr K Buchanan asked the Minister of Education whether he has had an opportunity to consider the independent review of education recommendation for a specific support function for the controlled sector. (AQT 243/22-27)

Mr Givan: Hopefully, nobody wants to take my head just yet.

The Member raises an important point about the controlled sector. Members are familiar with the Catholic maintained sector, the integrated sector and the Irish-medium sector and with the responsibilities of the various managing authorities that those sectors have. The controlled sector does not have that. The Education Authority is supposed to be the managing authority for the controlled sector; however, the independent review of education made it clear that that was an issue that needed to be addressed, and Members can look at the review report. One of its recommendations stated:

"There is an immediate need to have a specific support function for the Controlled sector. This will involve, in the short term, a dedicated directorate within the EA to manage Controlled schools."

That is an area that requires my attention, and I am giving focus to what we can do to address the deficit and the inequality of treatment that exists for the controlled sector.

Mr K Buchanan: Thank you for your answer, Minister. When will you be in a position to make further announcements or update us on the issue?

Mr Givan: A scoping exercise has already commenced on the issues for the controlled sector that I want to be addressed. The independent review's recommendation that a specific directorate be created in the Education Authority was a short-term measure, with a view to moving towards a proper management authority. I have asked for scoping of the measures that need to be put in to achieve that. I am actively engaged in that area in order to ensure that there is effective representation of the controlled sector in our education system.

Mr Speaker: Mr Stewart is not in his place.

T5. Dr Aiken asked the Minister of Education, after declaring an interest as the vice chair of the board of governors at Kilbride Central Primary School, to outline whether he is aware of schools that are having problems with the school enhancement programme (SEP), in light of the fact that, recently, Kilbride Central PS met the Education Authority about its SEP, which, yet again, is about to be delayed because of bureaucracy. (AQT 245/22-27)

Mr Givan: I will happily look into the individual case and write to the Member. In the Department, design work for a significant number of major capital programmes is being carried out. Over 70 school enhancement programmes are also in place, and working through the resource that is needed to take them forward is challenging. I will certainly look into the school that the Member has highlighted and come back to him on that in more detail.

Dr Aiken: I thank the Minister for his answer. It is the second time that this has happened to the school in four years. As you can imagine, the board of governors, the teachers and the parents have developed a degree of scepticism, so I welcome the Minister's response, and I look forward to an early response from the EA.

Mr Givan: Like all Members, I want a situation where, for schools that have been announced as recipients of funding from major capital and school enhancement programmes, the feasibility, business case and design process is carried out efficiently so that we can get to the point at which more schools are ready to go into construction. That is subject to me, as the Minister, securing the appropriate finance from the wider Executive. We need to make sure that a sufficient pipeline of schools come through that process so that they are ready to receive funding. Where there are delays, I do not know the reasons for them, but I will certainly undertake to look into the issue and get back to the Member.

T6. Mr Carroll asked the Minister of Education, in light of the fact that people with special educational needs face a cliff edge when they finish school, to outline what his Department is doing to support those young people when they leave school or other education settings. (AQT 246/22-27)

Mr Givan: That issue has been raised with me, and I have been asked what support there is for young people when they finish school. Our special schools go from ages three to 19, and other Departments have a responsibility for those young people after they leave the education system. There are organisations that provide support. In my constituency of Lagan Valley, Stepping Stones provides support for young people. We need to engage with the Department for the Economy and other Departments on that issue so that, when those young people leave education, there is wider support available. The responsibility, however, cuts across other Departments as well.

Mr Carroll: Minister, thank you. I urge you to implement the scheme to support those people, and I also urge you to commit to engaging with groups that represent them to make sure that the scheme that is in place is suitable for the people who are facing that cliff edge.

Mr Givan: I am happy to be engaged on that issue.

T7. Mr Honeyford asked the Minister of Education, in light of his earlier, welcome statement on capital projects for special schools, to outline his other capital investment priorities. (AQT 247/22-27)

Mr Givan: Special education has been a priority in the capital programme, and, given what I announced today, it will continue to be so. We then need to look at where schemes are ready to go or where schools can enter into contract. I have asked the Department to look at what schools are available to receive capital provision for the school estate. There are issues with maintenance, and I have highlighted the fact that over £250 million is needed to address the maintenance backlog. I also want to develop a curriculum-led capital programme. For example, some schools cannot deliver PE effectively because they have no sports hall, and there are other aspects of the curriculum that cannot be provided for. We therefore need to deliver on a range of areas. Yes, there is new capital, and, yes, there are enhancement programmes that I would like to take forward, but I also want to consider what further support the school estate needs in a whole range of areas. There is also a point, which Members have rightly raised, about provision for youth services, youth centres and suchlike, so we need to consider what support is available in order to take forward such provision. A wide range of areas therefore needs to be supported.

Mr Honeyford: I thank the Minister for his answer. I want to talk about one project that is ready to go. You have previously expressed your regret that Millennium Integrated Primary School did not have its new build developed after the Fresh Start funding was re-profiled earlier in the year, and that happened despite the project being at the most advanced stage of any of the affected schools. Will you use any of the current capital allocation in this financial year to deliver that project?

Mr Givan: Millennium Integrated is one school that the Treasury should have funded, because of the very reason that has been outlined, namely its advanced stage of readiness. The Department is looking at a number of schools that are at a point at which we could enter into contract, and officials will come to me with their proposals. I would like to take forward that project, but I cannot give the Member an indication today about any particular school, other than to say that I hear what he says about its being ready to go, subject to finance. There are a number of schools in a similar position, and I hope to be able to update the House in due course.

T8. Mr Tennyson asked the Minister of Education, in light of the capital pressures facing his Department and the fact that last week's Budget statement included the Strule Shared Education Campus as an earmarked project, to state whether he is comfortable proceeding with the proposals for that project in their current form, given that they have been criticised by the independent review of education and the Audit Office, albeit we all agree that those schools have waited far too long for capital investment. (AQT 248/22-27)

Mr Givan: It is unusual to have Members rise to campaign against schools. That usually does not happen. There is a process in place for the full business case assessment for Strule, and the Executive have allocated £20 million in this financial year to take forward the project. Strule offers an opportunity for the Executive and the Assembly to send a very clear message, particularly in a community that suffered more than most, with the single biggest loss of life taking place in Omagh.

What a message it would be not just in Northern Ireland but internationally that here is a community where young people are coming together on the one site and sharing in their educational experiences.


2.45 pm

Mr Speaker: That draws to a conclusion questions to the Minister. We move to the next item in the Order Paper, which is a motion on the display of flags, emblems and banners. Members may take their ease while we change the top Table.

(Madam Principal Deputy Speaker [Ms Ní Chuilín] in the Chair)

Private Members' Business

Ms Bradshaw: I beg to move

That this Assembly notes chapter 11 of the report of the Commission on Flags, Identity, Culture and Tradition; endorses the proposed code of practice for the respectful display of flags at paragraph 11.48; recognises lawful authority for the display of flags, emblems and banners from public property does not exist; and calls on the First Minister and deputy First Minister to develop, urgently, a consultation on how such lawful authority may be provided within the bounds of the proposed code of practice.

Madam Principal Deputy Speaker: The Business Committee has agreed to allow up to one hour and 30 minutes for the debate. The proposer of the motion will have 10 minutes to propose the motion and 10 minutes to make a winding-up speech. As an amendment has been selected and is published on the Marshalled List, the Business Committee has agreed that 15 minutes will be added to the time for the debate.

Ms Bradshaw: Although we recognise that the amendment is well intended, we have some concerns that it rather misses the point of the motion, which is about what to do where local accommodation is not reached or where local accommodation is enforced rather than genuinely agreed. There are good examples, but there is no redress for bad examples. That is the key issue.

With regard to the motion, some will start, no doubt, by pointing out that the report of the Commission on Flags, Identity, Culture and Tradition (FICT) did not include agreement on all issues relating to the display of flags and emblems from public property. The essential point here, however, is that there is no agreement for the status quo. Indeed, the commission agreed that the status quo is not an option. It is a favoured strategy for some in the House to say, "There's no consensus, so we cannot change anything". On the contrary, the lack of consensus means that we must change things. The status quo has been decisively rejected by the FICT process, as well as by other surveys and polls.

It is, of course, also a favoured strategy to make false claims about what others are proposing. Let us be clear: FICT and, indeed, my Alliance Party colleagues and I are, today, specifically proposing a means of providing lawful authority for the display of flags, emblems and banners from public property for the purposes of commemoration and celebration. There is currently no lawful authority, and we wish to see it provided for two prime reasons. First, we recognise that "shared space" does not mean "neutral space". Flags and emblems are a legitimate means of demonstrating allegiance and participating in commemoration, and, done right, they can enhance cohesion and mutual understanding. Secondly, such lawful authority is necessary to ensure that protocols already successful in some locations may be meaningfully enforced.

We want to get to a place, therefore, where flags and emblems are displayed for identifiable reasons, with those responsible for their erection and subsequent removal clearly identified. No one who is interested in the legitimate display of flags and emblems for the purposes of cohesion, commemoration or celebration can have any objection to that.

Mr Allister: Will the Member give way?

Ms Bradshaw: No, I have a lot to get through here. Thank you.

The commission agreed that flags should not be flown in a way that could be considered threatening or antagonistic and that they should not be placed near places of worship or where public services are delivered, including schools. There was clear consensus there, and so there should be.

There was one obvious example in my constituency a couple of years ago, when a solitary flag was placed just outside the entrance of Fleming Fulton School, which is a special educational needs school. That flag was clearly designed to intimidate pupils from a particular background. Yet, when I sought its removal through the Department for Infrastructure and the PSNI, I was told that that could be done, frankly, only through negotiation with local so-called community leaders, and, of course, they said no. The public authorities charged with managing law and order and our public property had no powers to act on that occasion or any other. Members in the Chamber have a choice to make today. Whose interests do we value more: those of vulnerable children or those of local thugs?

Notably, the commission also agreed that people who live in areas where flags appear on public property have a right to know why those flags are there and who put them up. Having established where we want to go, that gives us an idea of how to get there. The commission outlined a notification process that would see the purpose for the display of flags established, as well as clear accountability for their erection and removal. That process would provide lawful authority for the display of flags in much the same way as current legislation allows, in certain circumstances, for election posters or council banners. Such a process would be regulated along the lines outlined in sections 11.41 to 11.48 of the FICT report.

There is one particular advantage to providing lawful authority for the display of flags and emblems, which is that it would establish plainly and without doubt where such lawful authority does not exist. The most obvious examples of that are flags and emblems flown in contravention of the Terrorism Act 2000. Plainly, that currently occurs, and I hope and trust that every Member in the House would wish to see it ended.

Were we to provide lawful authority for the display of flags and emblems in public spaces, enhancing the mutual respect to which we are supposed to be committed, we could enforce the very reasonable code of conduct that is published in the FICT report. I would challenge anyone to explain why they would not wish to do that, particularly when one clear prize would be the end of the display of flags promoting and glorifying proscribed organisations.

Inaction is not a strategy. Leaving things as they are and hoping for the best is not good government. Continuing to allow people to head out under cover of darkness or, sometimes, frankly, in broad daylight to deface public property with flags and emblems designed to instil fear and reinforce control of communities, while the police and public bodies turn a blind eye, is not an option.

Let us be clear that it is, first and foremost, the people who live in those communities who pay the penalty. Prosperous communities are, invariably, diverse communities. Communities that recognise that shared space is not necessarily neutral space but see the display of flags and emblems as something to be done respectfully for the purpose of commemoration and celebration are those that thrive and where opportunities are created for all.

Mr Brooks: Will the Member give way?

Ms Bradshaw: I am sorry: I still have a bit to get through. Thank you.

Communities that are open to people from different backgrounds but are positive about their own identity are those that enjoy the highest well-being scores. Fundamentally, therefore, this is about the type of society in which we wish to live. Do we value respect, openness and displays that are focused on commemoration and celebration, rather than intimidation and antagonism? That is where the challenge to the First Minister and the deputy First Minister lies. Being in office is the easy bit; getting things done is the tougher challenge.

The FICT report gives us clear guidance on the direction of travel. Our clear preference is for the First Minister and deputy First Minister to take this forward via a formal consultation process on a legal framework for a notification process. We need to move on from endless inaction. Certainly, I intend to do so. Therefore, should no progress be evident in the coming months, I will seek permission from the Speaker's Office to take forward my own consultation on a private Member's Bill in line with what was agreed in the FICT report.

Mr Beattie: I beg to move the following amendment:

After "11.48;" insert:

"welcomes, as best practice, the positive work done by community and civic groups in creating local codes of practice around the display of flags;"

Madam Principal Deputy Speaker: Thank you, Doug. You have 10 minutes to propose the amendment and five minutes to make a winding-up speech. All other Members who wish to speak will have five minutes.

Mr Beattie: Thank you, Madam Principal Deputy Speaker.

Flags. The Commission on Flags, Identity, Culture and Tradition lasted for over three years, produced a report with 17 chapters and over 180 pages and cost over £800,000, yet this debate is about flags. There is so much more to the issue than flags, and we need to consider all of that. Let us talk about memorialisation, for example. The number of murals and memorials to murderers far outstrips the number of memorials to victims. They are up there 365 days a year. Victims have to walk past them 365 days a year, yet we are not discussing them. Why? Flags.

There is a sense — I hope that I am wrong — that the motion is trying to find fracture points in communities. I hope that it is not. It is the same as the call-in that we had on Ards and North Down Borough Council about flying the Union flag over war memorials. That is really important to our community, yet it was called in and stopped. That creates a fracture in communities. Here we are with the FICT report, with all its chapters, as I have just discussed, and we have pulled out a chapter that singles out flags. Flags: national flags, GAA flags, football flags, commemorative flags, Orange Order flags and Ancient Order of Hibernians flags. Are those flags more intimidating than murals of terrorists wearing balaclavas or holding guns or memorials to terrorists who terrorised? Flags.

Let me be direct: there should be no flags of any kind to paramilitaries — none at all. They are offensive and illegal. They attempt to legitimise those who went out to murder and create mayhem. Even today, they are an insidious and malign influence in our community. Those who found themselves in a terrorist organisation or a paramilitary group during the dark days of the Troubles must look and realise that, if they do not want our children and grandchildren to live through what we went through and make the mistakes that were made during the Troubles, they should not fly those paramilitary flags. They can remember their dead: just do not do it at the expense of victims.

I like the idea in the motion of lawful authority for the flying of flags. That would give lawful authority to those who put them up and to where they are put up, so that they can do it safely. That can be done under the Roads (Northern Ireland) Order 1993 in exactly the way that we all put our posters up on lamp posts, sometimes keeping them up there for up to two months. Why not?

I also support the notion of flags going up on a specific date and that we all know when they will come down again. They should come down at a specified point. I do not support the burning of any flags. I do not support the burning of national flags. I have spent my lif