Official Report: Tuesday 14 May 2024

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

Matter of the Day

Mr Speaker: Jim Allister has been given leave to make a statement on the High Court judgement relating to the Illegal Migration Act 2023 that fulfils the criteria set out in Standing Order 24. If other Members wish to be called, they should rise in their place and continue to do so. All Members who are called will have up to three minutes in which to speak on the subject. I remind Members that interventions are not permitted, and I will not take any points of order on this or any other matter until the item of business has concluded.

Mr Allister: Yesterday, in our High Court, there was a judgement of immense constitutional significance. It was constitutionally significant in that an Act of the sovereign Parliament of the United Kingdom was overruled and set aside because of the supremacy of EU law, which is bestowed by article 2 of the sovereignty-grabbing protocol, subjecting Northern Ireland alone in the United Kingdom to its supremacy, its laws and its rights. The consequence, of course, given the subject, is that Northern Ireland will now become a magnet for illegal migrants, flooding into Northern Ireland to escape the potential consequences that lie within the Rwanda scheme.

The political consequences also extend to the fact that yesterday's judgement saw the wheels come off the DUP's 'Safeguarding the Union' document that brought it back to the House. In that document, which the DUP brought and sold to the people of Northern Ireland, there is a blatant lie in paragraph 46, where it states:

"the Windsor Framework applies only in respect of the trade in goods".

I and others told the DUP that that was not so, and now the High Court equally says that it is not so.

We had DUP figures protesting the providence of 'Safeguarding the Union'. Gavin Robinson told us that it was:

"important ... in maintaining and securing our position"

in the United Kingdom. Mr Brooks of this House, in an article penned under his name in the 'News Letter', told us that it had ended dynamic alignment. Yesterday, however, paragraph 65 of the judgement expressly declared that dynamic alignment with EU law continues. We had Jeffrey Donaldson and the Secretary of State waving the document in Hillsborough Castle.

It was the DUP's document, but the wheels have now come off it. My call to the DUP today is to disavow this Union-dismantling document. It was a contrived fable and a dangerous deceit, and it needs to be disavowed by any unionist.

Mr Brooks: This is the Rwanda issue. The DUP has long warned about how the law will apply in Northern Ireland. It is imperative that immigration policy apply equally across every part of the United Kingdom. We, as unionists, are clear that our national Parliament should have the ability to make decisions on immigration that are applicable nationally.

We repeatedly warned that the Government's efforts on immigration and other issues would not apply in Northern Ireland because of article 2 of the protocol. The Government repeatedly closed their mind to the incompatibility of the Rwanda legislation with the Northern Ireland protocol. Our concerns have now been accepted by the High Court in Belfast.

We presented the Government with an opportunity during the passage of the Safety of Rwanda (Asylum and Immigration) Bill through the House of Commons and the House of Lords to accept an amendment that would have put beyond doubt what they claim to be the case with the scheme's operation. It is telling that the Government chose not to accept it.

The ruling must be a watershed in the Government's approach. For Ministers to ignore what the courts have said would not merely be a case of sleepwalking into the creation of an immigration border in the Irish Sea but rather of embarking on such a path with eyes wide open. If that were the case, it would not only be a constitutional affront but make Northern Ireland a magnet for asylum seekers looking to escape enforcement in the rest of the United Kingdom.

Our critics say that we should not bank but should abandon any of the progress that has been made through 'Safeguarding the Union' in favour of no progress on any issues of import to Northern Ireland's economic and constitutional interests within the United Kingdom. Such an outlook has not furthered and will not further the cause of unionism in this place. The problems did not originate in the 'Safeguarding the Union' Command Paper; they stem from the withdrawal agreement and the protocol that this party voted against in the House of Commons. Some of our detractors and their friends did not.

Ms Ennis: The High Court judgement yesterday proves that the British Government's Illegal Migration Act is unworkable and is not compliant with human rights. We want to see an immigration system that is fair, effective, enforced and, above all, human rights-compliant. The legislation is cruel and inhumane and has been rightly criticised and challenged by human rights bodies, including the Human Rights Commission. The British Government must now listen to those concerns and to the High Court judgement and ensure that there is no diminution of rights, as promised in previous agreements.

Ms Bradshaw: We in the Alliance Party welcome the High Court ruling yesterday and congratulate the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission for taking the case. In recent years, my colleague Stephen Farry has highlighted how UK immigration policy has contradicted human rights protections in Northern Ireland. It is encouraging that the Windsor framework and, behind it, the Good Friday Agreement are protecting Northern Ireland from the UK Government's horrible immigration legislation over the course of this Parliament. The ruling will hopefully have implications for the appalling Safety of Rwanda (Asylum and Immigration) Act 2024.

The UK Government should now repeal both Acts and put in place an alternative humanitarian policy for dealing with migration based on the provision of more safe and legal routes, faster processing of asylum claims and a better focus on integrating refugees into our economy and society. Ultimately, we need to challenge and change the toxic narrative that has grown around immigration and refugees over recent years.

Migration is a global reality, yet relatively few migrants come to the UK and Ireland, in comparison with the rest of the world. We need to move away from the politics of setting people against each other, invest in better public services for all and permit refugees to work and pay taxes.

I am the Chair of the Committee for the Executive Office, and I am joined in the Chamber today by the Deputy Chair, my colleague Connie Egan. This is something that we will keep a close eye on and come back to at a future meeting of the Committee.

Mr Beattie: We all need a bit of honesty and integrity sometimes. The protocol created the Irish Sea border. It was neither serious nor sensible. It certainly did not brilliantly outmanoeuvre the Brussels trap. The Windsor framework did not get rid of the Irish Sea border. Two years of boycott did not get rid of the Irish Sea border. 'Safeguarding the Union' did not get rid of the Irish Sea border. Paragraph 46 of that document is completely incorrect in what it states. That document should never have been signed up to.

We have an issue with immigration throughout the whole of the United Kingdom. Immigration is an issue globally, right across these islands, Europe and the world, and we need to deal with it sensibly. However, we need to be absolutely honest about where we are with our people, who are looking in: 'Safeguarding the Union' achieved absolutely zero, after two years of one-to-one negotiation with the Government.

Mr Carroll: Across this island, we have a crisis, but, contrary to some views that have been expressed in the House, and by the Tories and mainstream, right-wing and illiberal media, we do not have a problem or crisis with migration or asylum seekers. We have a problem with landlord-ism across this country, in which hundreds of thousands of homes lie empty. Rather than blaming greedy landlords or governments, nefarious forces are blaming brothers and sisters who want to and try to come to these shores.

It is quite cruel and ironic that the people who are normally the loudest champions of Britain's foreign policy, which has created hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of refugees across the Middle East and Africa, are content and happy with that policy and are cheerleaders for it. They then have the temerity to stick the boot into people who risk their lives on dinghies to seek shelter and safety here. People go to sea because the land is more dangerous. The real enemy arrives by limousine, not by boat.

Executive Ministers need to make it clear that they will not comply with the Rwanda Act or any other hated anti-human, anti-asylum-seeker legislation that is passed by the current British Government, or any incoming one. Disgracefully, last week, the deputy First Minister repeated the lie that immigration puts pressure on public services. It does not. That is not true; it is a myth. She needs to immediately retract that statement.

People here are terrified of the Home Office and its disgraceful "hostile environment" policies. In recent days, I have been working to support an individual who has been here for more than 10 years. His family has been granted the right to remain, but he is terrified of being deported to Rwanda or somewhere else. People have a right to resist deportation. I support them in resisting deportation. Shame on the Home Office. Shame on the British Government for their detested, racist and reactionary attacks on migrants, asylum seekers and people who are seeking refuge here.

Mr Speaker: I will just pass comment on a comment that was made by Mr Carroll about a Member repeating a lie. That is unacceptable, and there have been previous indiscretions from that source. I warn you, Mr Carroll: be careful with your language. If you continue in that vein, you will not be called for some time.

Members' Statements

Mr Speaker: The usual rules apply to Members' statements.


Mr Sheehan: Amárach beidh Palaistínigh ar fud an domhain ag comóradh an Nakba. Is é Nakba an focal Araibise ar thubaiste. Is é an téarma a úsáideann na Palaistínigh le cur síos ar an ghlanadh eitneach óna dtír féin in 1948, nuair a cuireadh níos mó ná 750,000 Palaistíneach as a dteach féin. Maraíodh níos mó ná 15,000 Palaistíneach ag an am sin.

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Is é nakba an téarma a úsáideann siad fosta le cur síos ar an díláithriú agus ar an ghéarleanúint atá ag dul ar aghaidh i gcónaí. Cé gur éirigh leis na Síónaigh an aisling s’acu tír dhúchais Ghiúdach a bhunú sa Phalaistín in 1948, lean an glanadh eitneach agus an díláithriú ar aghaidh.

Le linn an chogaidh Arabaigh-Iosraelaigh in 1967, ghabh na hIosraelaigh seilbh ar a bhí fágtha de chríocha na bPalaistíneach: Iarúsailéim Thoir, an Bruach Thiar agus Gaza. Tá seilbh acu ar na críocha úd go fóill. Is é sin an fáth a dtugar na "críocha faoi fhorghabháil" orthu. Tá a fhios againn go bhfuil na hIosraelaigh ag leanúint ar aghaigh ag tógáil lonnaíochtaí neamhdhleathacha ar thalamh a ghoid siad ó na Palaistínigh.

Le bliain anuas, tá breis agus 400 Palaistíneach maraithe ag na hIosraelaigh sa Bhuach Thiar. Mar sin de, nuair a chluinim sna meáin nár thosaigh an marú go dtí an 7 Deireadh Fómhair anuraidh, tá a fhios agam nach bhfuil ann ach bréag agus bolscaireacht. Anois tá níos mó ná 35,000 marú in Gaza, an chuid is mó acu páistí agus mná. Ach ina measc chomh maith, tá dochtúirí, iriseoirí agus oibrithe cabhrach. Tá otharlanna, scoileanna, ollscoileanna, eaglaisí agus moscanna scriosta ag na hIosraelaigh chomh maith. Is cuma le Netanyahu faoi bheatha na ndaoine in Gaza, gan trácht ar na hinstitiúidí a choinníonn daoine beo. Ach ní féidir leis na Palaistínigh uile a mharú. Níl sin ag dul a tharlú.

Má tá réiteach ag dul a bheith ann, tá gá le sos cogaidh láithreach. Caithfidh na hIosraelaigh cabhair daoin a ligean isteach go Gaza agus a shaighdiúirí a tharraingt amach go hiomlán. Caithfidh deireadh a theacht ar an fhorghabháil agus, ar deireadh thiar thall, caithfidh stát neamhspleách Palaistíneach a bheith ann.

[Translation: Tomorrow, Palestinians across the world will commemorate the Nakba. Nakba is the Arabic word for catastrophe. It is the term that Palestinians use to describe the ethnic cleansing of their country in 1948 when over 750,000 were driven from their homes. More than 15,000 Palestinians were killed at that time.

Nakba is also the term that they use to describe the ongoing displacement and persecution. Even though the Zionists fulfilled their dream of establishing their own Jewish homeland in Palestine in 1948, the process of ethnic cleansing and displacement carried on.

During the Arab-Israeli war in 1967, the Israelis occupied what was left of the Palestinian territories: East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza. They still occupy those territories. That is why they are called the "occupied territories". We know also that the Israelis are continuing to build illegal settlements on land stolen from the Palestinians.

In the past year, the Israelis have killed more than 400 Palestinians in the West Bank. Therefore, when I hear in the media that the killing only began on 7 October last year, I know that that is just a lie and propaganda. Now there are more than 35,000 dead in Gaza, most of them children and women. However, also among the dead are doctors, journalists and aid workers. Hospitals, schools, universities, churches and mosques have been destroyed. Netanyahu cares nothing about the lives of the people in Gaza, much less the institutions that sustain life. However, he cannot kill every Palestinian. That is not going to happen.

For a resolution to happen there must be an immediate ceasefire. The Israelis must allow humanitarian aid in and completely withdraw all their military. The occupation must end, and, at the end of the day, there must be an independent, Palestinian state.]

Queen Elizabeth II Primary School in West Tyrone

Mr T Buchanan: I bring some good news about Queen Elizabeth II Primary School in west Tyrone. Queen Elizabeth II Primary School at Kilskeery in west Tyrone was built and opened in 1953 during the Queen's coronation year and was one of only two schools to be named after Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. For over 70 years, the school has served the rural community with distinction, providing a high quality of educational excellence. At its most-recent Education and Training Inspectorate (ETI) inspection, the report deemed the school to be outstanding in its quality of educational achievement, having stable enrolment trends, being in a sound financial position, demonstrating strong leadership and management, having strong links with all sections of the community and being a vibrant school within the rural community. Yet, despite the excellent report, the Education Authority (EA) decided that, because it failed to meet the 105 pupil enrolment policy, it should close.

Since 2017, the Education Authority, through its area planning, has done all in its power to close the school, which is the very hub of the rural community. Closure was planned for the summer of this year. However, in April, the closure plans were postponed by the Education Minister. Having reviewed the Education Authority's recommendation for closure, he declined to approve it as of yesterday, resulting in the Queen Elizabeth II Primary School being allowed to remain open. The axe of closure has now been lifted, and the school can remain open.

It is an excellent result and, indeed, the correct result for the school and the rural community. On behalf of the board of governors, the teachers and parents, I pass on their thanks to the Minister for his intervention. However, I issue a challenge to the Education Authority that, rather than pursuing its aims to close smaller rural schools that are in such good standing, ripping the heart from rural communities, it must pursue a different agenda by working in collaboration with the smaller rural schools to help strengthen and sustain them through a number of various other mechanisms.

The parents, board of governors and teaching staff of Queen Elizabeth II Primary School have demonstrated great resilience during the EA's pursuit of closure over the past five years, and I now challenge the EA to work with the school to repair the damage caused to it in those years.

Science On Stage Festival: Banbridge High School

Mr Beattie: I hope to lift the mood a little. This year's Science on Stage Europe Festival will take place in mid-August in Turku, Finland. I will give a shout-out to Mrs Hawthorne, head of science at Banbridge High School, who has been selected to be part of the UK team that will travel to Finland to present its innovative teaching ideas. Mrs Hawthorne is the only teacher from Northern Ireland who has been selected to attend, and she will be one of 450 primary and secondary school teachers from all over Europe who will share their most creative STEM ideas at stands, workshops and highlight sessions.

The theme is "Sustainability in STEM", and Mrs Hawthorne's ideas will form part of a programme of events that will include over 30 countries. Her fellow teachers, her pupils and their parents will all be proud of Mrs Hawthorne's achievements and will wish her well, and I know that the House will also wish her well. They are now in the game of fundraising to make sure that she can get there and has the equipment to be able to present her ideas. If anybody here has the ability to help with that fundraising or knows of a really good Minister who might be able to give some money towards it, that would be very much appreciated.

Ballynafeigh Community Development Association: 50th Anniversary

Ms Bradshaw: I congratulate Ballynafeigh Community Development Association on reaching 50 years of service to the mid-Ormeau Road community last week. I recently visited the centre and was blown away by the breadth and quality of the projects and services that are delivered through that busy resource centre. It is worth noting that Ballynafeigh Community Development Association was established in 1974 by a collective of local residents who were concerned about growing sectarian tension in the area and, unfortunately, a degree of ethnic cleansing. The residents were also concerned about the lack of social housing in the area and how that impacted on the area's ability to maintain its original harmony as a shared neighbourhood. To this day, the association's core purpose remains to build a shared neighbourhood and provide a safe and welcoming place for people from all backgrounds.

The community house's success is based on its blend of core projects, which include its advice centre, summer scheme, talking therapies and health and well-being programme and on its housing of other organisations such as Migrant Help and Belfast City of Sanctuary. The house also provides space to 130 other groups that regularly meet there, including Narcotics Anonymous, Overeaters Anonymous, dance groups, arts projects and so on.

In closing, I highlight the association's vision:

"a vibrant and diverse neighbourhood with a generous spirit supported by a dynamic community association which acts as a catalyst for change and development."

That is a vision that we can all get behind for our entire society.

Narrow Water Bridge

Mr McNulty: I feel enormous pride at the news of the appointment of a contractor for the Narrow Water bridge project, with work scheduled to commence immediately. First and foremost, I think of the late PJ Bradley, who was an SDLP MLA for South Down and whose vision for a bridge at Narrow Water never wavered. Even when some said that it would never happen and others said that it should not happen, PJ Bradley never lost faith in making that vision a reality. Indeed, after PJ's passing, his daughter Sinéad Bradley, who succeeded him as an MLA, fought tooth and nail to ensure that the Narrow Water bridge project was included in the 'New Decade, New Approach' deal in 2020.

The announcement that the Narrow Water bridge project is definitely happening is extraordinary and transformative news for communities on both sides of Carlingford lough and all those who campaigned for many years to see the vision for that iconic cross-border project realised. I pay tribute to the Irish Government for their commitment to the Narrow Water bridge project. It is worth noting that they are the sole funders of the project and that, under the auspices of the then Taoiseach Micheál Martin's Shared Island unit, they had the foresight and wisdom to facilitate the inclusion of a lifting bridge in order to keep the local maritime history alive and preserve access to the historic Albert Basin and Newry ship canal, which is the oldest shipping canal on these islands.

I must confess, however, that some of my delight is tinged with dismay. I am literally scratching my head at the fact that the forward-thinking nature of the project is being undermined by the short-sighted and ill-guided decision in the same month by a Sinn Féin Infrastructure Minister to cement the decision on a fixed bridge a mere few hundred metres upstream in the estuary. My party's vision for the delivery of a truly North/South project at Narrow Water is being countermanded by the baffling fixed bridge decision on the southern relief road. So much for Sinn Féin's all-Ireland vision, or is that just for posters and echo chambers? I have lobbied extensively for the reversal of that decision, and my colleagues on Newry, Mourne and Down District Council have called on the Minister to see sense.

I hope beyond hope that today's announcement and the realisation that Narrow Water bridge is progressing at pace will encourage the Minister to wake up and see the error of his ways. That is my message, and I will not let it go. We have come too far and too many have fought too hard to have that visionary project overshadowed by bureaucratic, small-minded, no-vision nonsense.

Narrow Water Bridge

Ms Ennis: I, too, want to reflect on the announcement yesterday of the awarding of the contract to build Narrow Water bridge. It definitely feels like a watershed moment for the people of South Down and those who live in the Carlingford lough region, because, of course, it is a cross-border project. The people whom I represent have waited decades for that transformative project to finally get off the ground, and it really feels like we are at that point now. We have waited so long and have persevered to have the project realised because we know that it is more than just an infrastructure project. Narrow Water bridge, as I have said before, is key to unlocking the huge tourism and economic potential that we have in South Down and across the Carlingford lough region.

I pay tribute to the community groups and politicians from across the spectrum who have kept faith with the project, particularly my Sinn Féin colleagues on both sides of the lough, who have kept the project firmly on the agenda of both Governments over the decades. However, it is the people across South Down and those of Warrenpoint and of Cooley in County Louth who have really pushed the project and made us strive to get to where we are today: on the cusp of the project actually breaking ground.

We look forward to seeing the Narrow Water bridge progress at pace, but, of course, building the bridge is just the starting point. The work does not end there. Once we have the bridge in place, we need to capitalise on the economic and tourism potential that it will bring. The bridge will open up the entire east border region. I and my Sinn Féin colleagues in County Louth will make sure that we are in place and ready to capitalise on all the positives that will come from the Narrow Water bridge.

Again, I pay tribute to everybody who has put their shoulder to the wheel and got us to where we are today. We look forward to seeing boots on the ground and work finally beginning at Narrow Water.

Dementia Action Week

Mrs Erskine: Yesterday, in Parliament Buildings, we had a powerful event organised by the Alzheimer's Society in Northern Ireland to mark the start of Dementia Action Week. During the event, we saw a new video telling the stories of six people, which was launched to highlight what it is like to care for somebody who is living with dementia. Those stories were beautifully portrayed and shone a light on the realities. It really resonated with someone who has family members living with dementia.

As part of the launch of Dementia Action Week, the Alzheimer's Society unveiled new research. That research puts a light on the financial and emotional toll on families but also emphasises the importance of early and accurate diagnosis, whilst calling on the Northern Ireland Assembly to urgently prioritise dementia diagnosis to help families. The new research revealed that the cost of dementia care in Northern Ireland has hit almost £1 billion per year and could soar to more than £2 billion by 2040. Across the UK, just 1·4% of the money spent on dementia healthcare goes towards diagnosis and treatment. The majority of costs come from social care, which is 40%, and unpaid care, which represents 50%.

More than 24,000 people are living with the condition in Northern Ireland, yet it is estimated that one third of people affected have not received a diagnosis. The charity reports that an ageing population means that dementia in the UK population will increase by 43% by 2040, with the biggest increase in Northern Ireland.

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Dementia is a difficult illness, but timely diagnosis, the right intervention and support can make all the difference. Dementia diagnosis should not be the end of the story. I know what it has been like for my family. The person is still there and deserves to have the right to care, particularly when they cannot use their own voice to articulate what they need. We do not know how many of us in the Chamber may be in the same position one day. It is not just an old person's illness, and it is not just somebody who is doting. We need to act. We need to put this right for people who have dementia and put in place the right support for them in the here and now.

Non-teaching Staff: Strike Action

Mr Mathison: Today, we had confirmation that the unions representing non-teaching staff are planning strike action again next week and in June, totalling five days of action. Non-teaching staff were rightly dismayed when the Finance Minister did not allocate any budget to the long-overdue pay and grading review, instead leaving us reliant on the reprofiling of transformation money from Treasury to fund it. That is not how we should fund vital interventions in our education system, and it remains profoundly disappointing that this was not delivered via the appropriate budget allocation.

Parents will be deeply concerned. It will disproportionately impact on children with special educational needs and special schools. The most vulnerable children and families under the most strain should not pay the price for the failure to deliver the pay and grading review over many years. Neither should we pit workers vital to the education system against parents and children. Therefore, I urge the Finance Minister, in the first instance, to urgently update the Assembly on what work is being undertaken with Treasury and to redouble the efforts to secure the funding that is needed. I hope that, if an update detailing meaningful progress can be provided, perhaps the action can be paused and disruption avoided for schools and families.

I urge all stakeholders in the process to do all that they can to secure the funding from Treasury, and I urge the Education Authority and the Education Minister to engage urgently with the trade unions to resolve the dispute.

Narrow Water Bridge

Mr McGrath: I welcome the news about the €60 million contract that has been awarded for the construction of Narrow Water bridge. The fact that we have multiple representatives speaking about it in the Chamber today shows not only how important it is to the people of south Down but how neglected south Down has been for many years by Executives when it came to prioritising funding for our community. Therefore, we are very excited to hear the news that there will be a huge investment, albeit mostly from Dublin.

The work is due to commence in a few short weeks, and it is hoped that the bridge will be completed by 2027. The delivery has been achieved only through the tenacity and commitment of many people in the south Down community. I think of a number of my party representatives who worked exceptionally hard, going back 30 or more years, to try to deliver it. That gives you a sense of how long the people of south Down have had to wait for investment, and then we do not get it from this Executive.

I particularly want to thank my colleagues the late Eddie McGrady and PJ Bradley, Councillor Declan McAteer, Sinéad Bradley, Margaret Ritchie and Karen McKevitt. Those are all individuals who had elected office over the years and worked their hardest to try to deliver the bridge. I also thank Colum Eastwood, our party leader, who worked tirelessly with successive Taoisigh to help to deliver the Shared Ireland unit, which is where the funding is coming from to deliver the project. I also thank the Louth TD Fergus O'Dowd, who will step down this year. I am sure that he will see the news as the culmination of his work over the years.

The most important people to thank are the tireless community representatives — the Narrow Water Bridge Community Network — who have worked over generations to keep the project on the political agenda and keep it alive to ensure that it will be delivered. Without their efforts and commitment on the ground, the project would not have been delivered. There is massive potential for tourism and hospitality throughout south Down and the Cooley peninsula that can be maximised in the years ahead. That will bring prosperity to our area. It is an exciting day. The people of south Down are exceptionally happy. We welcome the work of everyone to deliver that project.

Omagh Bomb Inquiry

Mr McCrossan: I welcome the announcement that the Omagh bomb inquiry hearings will start in July. As Members know, on 15 August 1998, the worst atrocity of the Troubles occurred in the town of Omagh in my constituency, where 29 innocent people were killed by a Real IRA bomb that was driven into the centre of the town. For 26 years, families have campaigned tirelessly for truth and justice, and have taken multiple cases to various courts seeking out that truth and some recognition of their honest belief that that bomb could have been prevented. That was confirmed by Justice Horner in a recent determination, in which he said that it was plausible that there was a real prospect that the Omagh bomb could been prevented by security forces. That prompted the then Secretary of State to announce the much-anticipated and long-awaited public inquiry into the events of that dreadful, terrible day.

The Omagh families are relieved that there has been some recognition of their pain and of the need for truth as to what happened and whether the bomb could have been prevented, thereby saving the lives of their loved ones and preventing injury to countless others. I hope that the inquiry will shine a very bright light on some of the very real concerns that I and other elected representatives from West Tyrone, as representatives of the people of Omagh, have had, and on the families, who have worked tirelessly to seek out the truth. I think today about Michael Gallagher, who lost his son; Stanley McComb, who lost his wife; Kevin Skelton, who lost his wife; and the countless other Omagh families who have waited for the inquiry to begin. It will be a tough time for the people of Omagh, Tyrone and beyond as we all remember the deep and lasting scars of that terrible, terrible day.

It is hoped that, as recommended by Justice Horner, the Irish Government will also take forward an inquiry to ensure that the full picture is put on the table to unravel what happened on that day and get truth for the families. I was told by the previous Taoiseach that they would consider that when terms of reference were announced for the public inquiry. Unfortunately, that has not yet happened. I call again on the Taoiseach and the Irish Government to announce their public inquiry so that the Omagh families can get to the truth.

PSNI Surveillance: Journalists

Mr Carroll: I want to raise the issue of police spying on journalists in this state. I would like to say that I am shocked to hear that the PSNI put so many journalists under surveillance. It really should come as a shock that the PSNI accessed the phone bills of journalists who have carried out their important democratic function of holding the state to account, but it is hardly a first offence by the PSNI. It is not the first time that that police force has targeted and attempted to criminalise journalists or anyone who challenges the ruling establishment or uncovers the crimes that it has committed. Can you imagine the outcry in this Building if China or Russia were spying on journalists in this state?

We are all familiar with the arrest and attempted prosecution of journalists Trevor Birney and Barry McCaffrey, who were pursued for exposing the truth of the Loughinisland atrocity. Instead of pursuing those who were involved in the murder of six civilians, the PSNI tried to prosecute journalists for exposing RUC collusion. That should tell us a lot about whose interests the PSNI serves and the justice that is afforded to us in this supposed democracy. At every turn, it has used its power to pervert and frustrate the course of justice. The PSNI has been at the vanguard of the state's attempts to deny victims and their bereaved families justice and to cover up the crimes of the RUC and muddy the waters of any investigation of crimes sanctioned by the Government. We all know what the PSNI is about, but the surveillance of so-called troublemaker journalists should be a watershed moment for everybody in this Building.

I express my support for all those journalists who may be affected, reiterate the fact that journalism is not a crime and reaffirm the right of journalists to carry out their duties without any interference from the PSNI. The PSNI should come clean about its actions. It should state which journalists it had under surveillance and why, but we should know not to expect the truth from that discredited police force. The Justice Minister needs to set up an independent public inquiry into the PSNI surveillance of journalists. I am prepared to be corrected on this, but I have not seen nor heard a single word of condemnation from the Justice Minister. There seems to be no amount of controversy, scandal or wrongdoing by the PSNI that the Justice Minister and the Executive are not prepared to wash their hands of.

Mrs Long (The Minister of Justice): Will the Member give way?

Mr Carroll: I cannot.

We are continuously told that these are operational matters for the PSNI. Is it an operational matter for the PSNI when it withholds files of families bereaved in the Troubles, covering up for the devastation wrought by the state and its paramilitary proxies, the firing of lethal plastic bullets at children and teenagers, and arrests and strip-searching of children? The list goes on. The public need to know how deep the rot goes. Is the PSNI spying on political activists, MLAs, human rights workers and any other so-called troublemakers who challenge the state? It needs to come clean and be upfront about that. The Executive and the Policing Board cannot sit idly by while the PSNI —

Mr Speaker: The Member's time is up.

Mr Carroll: — interferes with basic democratic rights. It is time for a public inquiry.

Mrs Long: On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Mr Carroll asked me to clarify my position on this matter. To be clear, this is, first and primarily — as I have said in public statements, contrary to what the Member suggested — a matter for the Policing Board. That does not mean that there would be no involvement in the Department of Justice were the Policing Board not to be able to take it forward, but it does mean that it is first and primarily for the Policing Board. I have indeed spoken publicly on the issue.

Mr Speaker: It is not a point of order, but the Member has clarified something.

Ministerial Statements

Mr Speaker: Before I call the Minister of Justice, I remind Members that there will be opportunities for questions, not long interventions.

Mrs Long (The Minister of Justice): With permission, Mr Speaker, I wish to make a statement regarding a bilateral meeting under the auspices of the intergovernmental agreement (IGA) on cooperation on criminal justice matters, which was held virtually on Wednesday 11 April 2024. I represented the Executive at the bilateral meeting with Minister Helen McEntee, the Minister of Justice in Ireland. I am committed to keeping the Assembly informed of the important work being carried out under the auspices of the IGA. Cross-border cooperation on justice matters is vital to both of our jurisdictions. It is always a welcome opportunity to meet our Irish Government counterparts so that we can discuss the range of cross-border initiatives and share learning on issues affecting both jurisdictions. The IGA contributes greatly to ensuring that we are doing everything that we can to promote good practice in those areas.

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

The meeting on 11 April provided Minister McEntee and I with the opportunity to review progress against and close the IGA’s 2021-23 joint work plan and to agree the new work plan for 2023-25. The development and enhancement of cooperation under the agreement is taken forward by a number of project advisory groups, covering the areas of public protection, forensic science, youth justice, victims’ issues and criminal justice and social diversity issues. I put on record my thanks to all the members of the five project advisory groups, who have continued to deliver on a wide range of extremely important issues. I will provide Members with a summary of some of the key highlights of the work that was completed under the previous work programme and provide a flavour of some of the issues that the IGA project advisory groups will be focusing on during the next reporting period.

The support for victims project advisory group continues to meet biannually to share information on victim strategies, new legislation and the implementation of recommendations flowing from the Gillen and O’Malley reviews. In particular, that project advisory group has a special interest in ongoing work to address domestic abuse, sexual violence and human trafficking. In addition to regular engagement on general victim policy issues, as part of its work in the 2023-25 work plan, the support for victims project advisory group will continue to share experiences and learning from recent awareness-raising work to highlight victims’ rights, and there will also be a specific bilateral event in relation to domestic homicide reviews. The group is also planning to hold a bilateral online seminar, led by the Justice Ministers, to share experience, learning and best practice in relation to pilots and programmes that have been established from the O’Malley and Gillen reviews to support victims in the criminal justice system.

Excellent working relationships are in place between Forensic Science Northern Ireland and Forensic Science Ireland. The forensic science project advisory group provides a mechanism to strengthen these arrangements.

In the 2021-23 reporting period, the group undertook regular meetings to share information and best practice on a range of forensic science issues, including toxicology and fingerprint analysis. Later this year, as part of the 2023-25 work plan, Forensic Science Northern Ireland will host a continuing professional development (CPD) event for all toxicology providers in Northern Ireland and Ireland. That builds on the success of a similar event held in Dublin last year and provides a forum for information exchange on current scientific processes and developments.

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During the 2021-23 reporting period, the criminal justice and social diversity project advisory group attended a cross-border conference in Monaghan. The conference brought together operational and community police officers from the PSNI and an Garda Síochána (AGS) border areas and provided an opportunity to agree a plan of action to increase knowledge and awareness of organised crime and crime prevention as well as a forum in which to discuss challenges and learning on asylum seekers entering both jurisdictions in specific regions and policing districts.

Legislative progress on hate crime is at different stages in each jurisdiction. The project advisory group is therefore currently focusing on sharing good practice in relation to various challenges and the impacts, for example, of far-right influence on incidents and crimes with a hate motivation.

During the 2023-25 reporting period, the criminal justice and social diversity project advisory group has plans in place to attend respective community-focused events, including but not limited to the following communities highlighted in the work plan: minority ethnic communities; the Travelling community; LGBTQ+ communities; persons with disabilities; and refugees and asylum seekers.

During the 2021-23 reporting period, the public protection project advisory group held a number of seminars and meetings on a range of topics, including the police response to domestic violence. The group also held information sessions to develop knowledge and to improve systems for effective public protection arrangements.

The annual seminar is a highlight in the public protection work plan and provides a valuable opportunity for the criminal justice agencies, policymakers and practitioners to come together to enhance cooperation and further develop capability and learning from one another in areas of mutual interest. The fourteenth annual cross-border public protection advisory group seminar was held in Belfast at Ulster University on 1 December 2023. The seminar theme was "Opportunities and challenges for delivering criminal justice in a changing environment". The attendees considered new and innovative practice and explored ways in which to further develop and increase partnership working.

Formal arrangements between the Probation Service and the Probation Board for Northern Ireland (PBNI) for the management of offenders moving between jurisdictions was revised and signed off by both services in March 2022. The 'Irish Probation Journal' has reached a special milestone this year, and, to mark it, the twenty-first edition of the journal will feature a range of articles that have been published over the past 20 years that chart the trends in criminal justice and tell the story of how probation practice has developed as a result of evidence-based research. The collective publications provide a historical record of the development of probation practice on this island. The twenty-first edition of the journal will be launched in November 2024.

The youth justice project advisory group offers the opportunity to share experiences of and lessons learned on strategy and policy. During the 2021-23 reporting period, a number of visits and exchanges took place, including senior staff from Woodlands Juvenile Justice Centre visiting Oberstown and cross-border visits between the Donegal Youth Diversion Project and an Garda Síochána and the Youth Justice Agency of Northern Ireland. The group also supported a successful joint bid to the Shared Island initiative from the University of Limerick and Queen's University Belfast for the creation of a North/South research hub on youth justice called Stable Lives Safer Streets. The youth justice project advisory group will continue to develop areas of policy and practical cooperation through visits and information sharing and, where appropriate, adopt learning from the North/South research hub.

It is encouraging to see tangible outputs in the 2021-23 work plan, the activities planned under the 2023-25 work plan and the positive engagement that continues across all the project advisory groups.

I take the opportunity to update Members on the joint agency task force (JATF), which was instituted under the Fresh Start Agreement. The task force is led by senior officers from the PSNI, an Garda Síochána, the Revenue Commissioners and HM Revenue and Customs. At the meeting, senior officers from the Police Service of Northern Ireland and an Garda Síochána provided an update on the cross-border joint agency task force report, which covers the period from 1 April to 30 September 2023. There continue to be high levels of cooperation and operational activity among the various law enforcement agencies involved in tackling the six priority areas: rural crime; drugs; financial crime; trafficking in human beings, including children; excise fraud; and organised immigration crime.

The rural crime priority area continues to focus resources on tackling mobile organised crime gangs through ongoing collaboration and dedicated days of action. In June 2023, an Garda Síochána and the Police Service of Northern Ireland took part in a highly visible cross-border operation targeting criminal activity in the south Armagh, Newry, Monaghan and Dundalk border areas. The operation consisted of checkpoints and the use of automatic number plate recognition (ANPR) technology, with a view to targeting vehicles and persons associated with criminality, specifically those involved in a number of commercial and domestic burglaries that had taken place around that time. As a result of the operation, a 34-year-old male was arrested on suspicion of a number of offences, including theft and GBH.

The Police Service of Northern Ireland’s organised crime branch and Garda National Drugs and Organised Crime Bureau continue to work closely in tackling exploitation of the common travel area by organised crime gangs involved in the large-scale importation and distribution of class A and B drugs. The consistent collaborative engagement has resulted in increased detection at ports in both jurisdictions, revealing the highly sophisticated concealment methods being used by organised crime gangs to import, in particular, class A drugs. In September 2023, following liaison between an Garda Síochána, the joint agency task force and international partners, a bulk carrier travelling from South America was intercepted. That action culminated in the seizure of 2·2 tons of cocaine. Investigative enquiries conducted by the PSNI organised crime branch assisted with the arrest and prosecution of eight males.

An Garda Síochána and the Police Service of Northern Ireland have carried out various joint days of action in the crime areas of human trafficking, sexual exploitation and organised prostitution. Due to the international aspect of human trafficking, the two police forces are constantly collaborating on emerging trends and adapting to the changing environments that exist. During this reporting period, the Police Service of Northern Ireland’s modern slavery and human trafficking unit and an Garda Síochána's human trafficking investigation and coordination unit have respectively recorded 225 and 18 persons who presented as potential victims of human trafficking.

Detectives from the Police Service of Northern Ireland’s modern slavery and human trafficking unit carried out a significant operation on the activities of an organised crime gang suspected of being involved in the trafficking of young women into Northern Ireland for the purposes of sexual exploitation. The operation resulted in the arrest of two males and one female for sexual exploitation, prostitution and money laundering related to those offences. The investigation is ongoing, but it is believed that the organised crime gang operated by enticing young Romanian women, often from deprived backgrounds, to travel to Northern Ireland with the false promise of employment in a commercial setting. The grim reality awaiting the victims was a world of prostitution and sexual exploitation.

His Majesty’s Revenue and Customs and the Irish Office of the Revenue Commissioners continue to play a key role in targeting the individuals and organised crime gangs responsible for excise fraud in both jurisdictions. Ongoing operations are being pursued on both sides of the border, specifically in relation to tobacco-, oil- and alcohol-related offences, with many successful outcomes recorded during the reporting period. One collaborative investigation resulted in the identification of a suspect consignment at Dublin Port in June 2023. The consignment was seized by Revenue Commissioners at an address in County Monaghan, resulting in the discovery of 10·4 million illicit cigarettes, worth approximately €8·2 million.

Organised immigration crime remains a cause for concern for all law enforcement agencies across the common travel area. That area is not devolved and is led by Home Office immigration enforcement and an Garda Síochána. Multi-agency collaboration continues to play a role in proactive and investigative responses, with strong emphasis being placed on sharing information and intelligence to disrupt organised crime gangs that are focused on exploiting vulnerabilities in that priority crime area. There were a number of operational successes during this reporting period, including the dismantling of organised crime gangs involved in the smuggling of migrants into the UK and Ireland. The joint agency task force is adding value and producing results through that continued collaboration. I am pleased to be able to report such positive results to my Assembly colleagues.

The IGA mechanism continues to deliver effective cooperation between our respective law enforcement agencies. I am committed to maintaining that excellent level of criminal justice cooperation with Ireland, which is in the best interest of our respective communities.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Blair): Thank you, Minister, for that statement. I call Matthew O'Toole to ask the first question.

Mr O'Toole: Minister, thank you very much for that update. I hope that you will not take this the wrong way, but, when we question you in the Chamber, we spend a lot of time being told by you that certain types of policing and other enforcement activities are operational matters and are nothing to do with your Department. However, your statement today consists in large part of operational updates. Since, I presume, we are able to ask you about the contents of the statement, are we to understand that we will be able to ask you about operational policing matters relating to the PSNI and other agencies in the future? They form the vast bulk of the statement.

Ms Ferguson: I thank the Minister for her update on the five project advisory groups. We can see, from the Minister's statement, the positive impact that they are making on cooperation and criminal justice matters. In relation to the youth justice project advisory group, can the Minister provide any insight into or update on the work that is being undertaken by the North/South research hub on youth justice, Stable Lives Safer Streets?

Mrs Long: The idea behind that justice research hub is to provide background information on vulnerabilities that could lead young people into offending behaviour and how best those vulnerabilities can be avoided. That research continues, and, at the end of the project, it will feed into the work that we do, particularly our work on preventing offending amongst young people. It will not, however, be a matter for just the Departments of Justice in the North and South; it will be a matter for other Departments, because many of the interventions that prevent our young people from getting involved with the justice system come from outside the justice sector.

Mr Frew: We know that the public protection arrangements in Northern Ireland (PPANI) and the management of offenders moving between jurisdictions have always been of concern. There have been blind spots with regard to the management of offenders. Given that the Minister mentioned that there are now more formal arrangements between the jurisdictions and that those arrangements have been revised and signed off, can the Minister elaborate on the detail of that and assure the House that those blind spots will be removed?

Mrs Long: The Member will have to be more specific about which blind spots he is referring to, but I am happy to share a copy of the memorandum of understanding (MOU) with him, so that he has it to peruse at his leisure.

Ms Bradshaw: Thank you, Minister, for your statement. Can you please outline how your Department engages with law enforcement colleagues in the South operationally and strategically?

Mrs Long: The main role of the IGA is to provide a strategic framework for operational partners to engage within. For example, I am answerable for the work that is done by Forensic Science Northern Ireland and others. We would be directly involved in trying to set out that strategic cooperation to ensure that, where there is best practice and good learning, we benefit from it on a cross-jurisdictional basis.

At the operational level in Northern Ireland, oversight is provided by the Policing Board, so the operational matters that are referred to in this report for completeness are overseen by the Policing Board through regular reports from the JATF and, indeed, from the other organised crime task force in the PSNI.

Mr Chambers: I thank the Minister for such a detailed report. In responding, I declare my membership of the Northern Ireland Policing Board. I welcome the positive update on the continuing cooperation between law enforcement agencies in both jurisdictions.

We have heard much recently about the murderous ramming of PSNI vehicles by lawbreakers trying to avoid capture. Was any indication given of a similar trend of such attacks on an Garda Síochána vehicles?

Mrs Long: That matter was not discussed as part of the IGA. The specific issues that we deal with through the IGA are circumscribed by the list of headings that I read out. We are aware, however, that that happens across these islands and is not unique to Northern Ireland, far from it, in fact. It is quite common and is, for example, more common in other parts of the UK.

Ms Ennis: My question is in a similar vein to Paul Frew's. Perhaps the Minister is in a position to give us further details on the formal arrangements between the Probation Service and the Probation Board, specifically in relation to the management of sex offenders.

Mrs Long: There is already considerable cross-border operational cooperation around the management of sex offenders. One of the most talked about loopholes is the ability of sex offenders to change their name. We are taking advice on that at the moment, including advice on how to include that in future legislation for the Assembly to consider, which would increase the notice periods and the monitoring periods that need to be given for someone who chooses to change their name and outlines which documents they can or cannot change their name on, for what purposes they can use a changed name and what the declaration and monitoring arrangements are.

All those issues are under active consideration, but they do not form part of the MOU, which is about operational-level cooperation.

11.30 am

Mr Middleton: I thank the Minister for her update and for the ongoing important work. Addressing road deaths is another area where there is a need for cross-border, multi-agency cooperation. Does the Minister see that cooperation being taken forward in the initiative that she is involved in, and does she want to prioritise it within her ministerial remit?

Mrs Long: I would like to prioritise that and to start to reverse the numbers of road deaths within my remit. One of the issues in the sentencing Bill, which I hope to bring forward next year, will be to increase the penalties for some of those most serious road offences, particularly those that cause death and serious injury. That will go through the Committee processes.

There is cooperation on road traffic matters in the work of AGS and the PSNI more generally, particularly in monitoring and coordination. That was not discussed at the IGA meeting, because we were very much focused on the report of business from the previous strategy and on the agreement of the strategy going forward.

Mr Dickson: I thank you, Minister, for your statement and, particularly, for the good working relationship that you have with Minister McEntee. Will you outline how the Northern Ireland Prison Service cooperates and shares its good practice with the Irish Prison Service?

Mrs Long: The Prison Service has a long history of working with the Irish Prison Service. There has been quite a strong collaborative relationship. That was not reported on in this sitting of the IGA, but there has been joint learning on rehabilitation and on what is effective, particularly innovations in that and the work of the Probation Board where it reaches within the prison walls for rehabilitation and challenge. Those are all matters for joint consideration of options for collaboration and improvement.

Ms Á Murphy: I welcome the Minister's update, particularly where rural crime is concerned. Minister, can you provide some further detail on exactly what cooperation will continue on an all-island basis, specifically in tackling rural crime?

Mrs Long: There are a number of threads in rural crime, but the parts that we focused on in particular at this IGA were those that I referred to in the statement that were on a spate of cross-border burglaries that caused particular consternation in border communities. There was a joint operation between the PSNI and AGS, which they reported on to the IGA and which I conveyed to you this morning.

There are other opportunities, however, and I know that both police forces have also done considerable preventative work in rural communities, particularly where agricultural vehicles and buildings are concerned, and to try to enhance cooperation at the border so that simply crossing the border is not a means of escaping the law.

Mr McMurray: I thank the Minister for the information that she provided. What is the structure of the joint agency task force, and how often does it meet?

Mrs Long: The joint agency task force was set up under Fresh Start, so it falls into a number of structures. Basically, the Office of the Revenue Commissioners, HMRC, PSNI, AGS and, where appropriate, the Home Office and Immigration Enforcement are involved in the joint agency task force's different work streams. The task force meets routinely twice a year, but it will often meet more frequently when it is particularly busy at an operational level so that it can ensure that it is able to address whatever challenges it is facing.

Mr McNulty: This Friday is the 50th anniversary of the Dublin/Monaghan car bombings, when four bombs went off indiscriminately and, within 90 minutes, 34 innocents were murdered. My heart goes out to the victims' families, who are still grieving to this day. Can you update us on discussions that you have had with your Southern counterpart about the Dublin/Monaghan bombings and suspected collusion with British security forces?

Mrs Long: First, I associate myself with the Member's remarks about those families who are still grieving, many years after those horrific incidents. Legacy issues do not form part of the IGA, the terms of which are set out clearly in a memorandum of understanding. As a party leader, I have regular conversations with the Irish Government outside that structure, but, today, I am here to report solely on the structures of the IGA.

Mr McReynolds: I thank the Minister for her statement. Will she outline how the Probation Board for Northern Ireland cooperates and shares with the Irish Probation Service?

Mrs Long: The Irish Probation Service and the Probation Board for Northern Ireland can share information in a number of areas. We hope to enhance that work further, particularly on public protection. Areas that are highlighted for priority in 2023-25 include cooperating on knowledge-sharing; collaborative engagement on topical, new and emerging issues in criminal justice; strengthening collaboration in the development of interventions to enhance public protection and address offending in agreed areas across agencies on a cross-border basis; and taking forward collaboration through initiatives with a focus on the border counties. There are a significant number of other recommendations that the Probation Board and, indeed, the wider public protection framework want to take forward in order to ensure that they are able to keep people safe and that the border is no impediment to the rule of law.

Mr Durkan: I thank the Minister for her statement. I particularly welcome the work of the criminal justice and social diversity project advisory group. What stage are we at on hate crime legislation compared with the South? What is the Minister doing to prioritise progress?

Mrs Long: Hate crime legislation in the South was temporarily paused and will, I believe, be restarted at some point. It has been paused for over a year since its introduction.

The Assembly was unable to bring forward hate crime legislation in the previous mandate due to time pressures. We face similar time pressures and finance pressures in this mandate, but it is a priority area for the Department's work. I am looking at two specific options for advancing hate crime legislation, and I want to consider them further. We settled on a model to do with statutory aggravators as the best way in which to deal with hate crime in Northern Ireland. In this mandate, there will be two opportunities when that may be advanced: one will be through the sentencing Bill and the other will be through the victims of crime Bill towards the end of the mandate. We are considering which is the best and most appropriate vehicle. The advantage of the sentencing Bill would be to bring things forward; the advantage of the victims Bill would be to contextualise hate crime in the provision for victims.

Mr Allister: Usually, the Minister hides behind the rubric of operational matters. Today, her refuge is the terms of reference of the MOU. However, she is the Justice Minister: in that capacity, in this forum or any other, has she raised with her counterpart the Dublin Government's attitude to the Omagh bomb inquiry, their refusal to have an inquiry or the inadequacy of their legislation, which was illustrated by the Kingsmills inquest, during which it became clear that evidence was taken in secret and in the absence of victims' legal representatives? Has she ever raised those matters? If not, why not?

Mrs Long: First, I will correct the Member's assertion that I hide. I am standing here in plain sight, answering questions on matters that are my departmental responsibility. I am not here to answer questions on matters that pertain to me as leader of the Alliance Party. If we want to introduce an "Ask the Leaders" debate in the Assembly, I am up for that too, but that is a matter for the Procedures Committee and for the Speaker, not for me.

I am aware that I am the Justice Minister; that is one of the few accurate things that the Member said. On that basis, I am also well aware of my responsibilities. Today, I have set out clearly the issues on which I have engaged as part of the IGA process. The Member asked whether I had raised some of those issues more widely with the Irish Government, and if not, why not. I have raised some of the issues, albeit not necessarily in the terms that the Member raised them in the Chamber, but I have not raised them through the IGA because they do not pertain to my responsibilities in the IGA, which are the purpose of this statement.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Blair): That concludes questions on the Minister's statement. I ask —

Mr McNulty: On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. It is getting hot in here. It is a raging disgrace that the Minister of Justice had to fan herself whilst speaking. What is the craic with the thermostat? [Laughter.]

Can we get some temperature control in here, please?

Mrs Long: Agreed. [Laughter.]

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Blair): I thank the Member for raising the issue. We will investigate that further.

As I said, that concludes questions on the statement.

Mr O'Toole: On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. Will the Speaker's Office provide clarity? When I asked the Minister whether she was answering on operational matters, she said that she was not, but, with all due respect, the content of the statement included a long and significant update on operational matters. It would be helpful if the Speaker's Office could confirm whether it is in order for Ministers, effectively, to decline to answer on the content of statements that they have just given to the Assembly.

Some Members: Hear, hear.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Blair): I am happy — Members, Order — to refer the matter to the Speaker and the Speaker's Office for further advice.

Mrs Long: On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. The conventions for a Minister answering questions on the Justice Department are well established. When policing and justice were devolved — policing was first; justice was second — structures were set up to ensure that there was no inappropriate interference in police operational matters. I updated the House on a meeting that took place. Therefore, in the context of an update on the meeting, I updated Members on the updates that I had received at the meeting. I answered a straight question from the Member, which was: would I answer questions on those issues in the future?

Mr Buckley: That is not a point of order.

Mrs Long: It is not for you to judge. You, with all due respect, are not in the Chair. [Interruption.]

It was previously ruled that the Justice Minister does not routinely answer questions on matters that have other oversight structures in the political sphere. Mr Speaker has made it clear. Clearly, some Members do not want to accept that ruling.

Mr Allister: It is so convenient.

Mr Allister: On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Blair): Mr Allister, can you give me a second, please?

Members, it is not proper business to continue conversations or make jibes when any Member, Minister or otherwise, is on their feet. I ask Members to take note of that. Mr Allister.

Mr Allister: Mr Deputy Speaker, in drawing —.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Blair): Is this a point of order, Mr Allister?

Mr Allister: Yes. When drawing the matter to the attention of the Speaker, will you draw attention to the untenable proposition of the Justice Minister that she can come to the House at her whim and talk about operational matters, but Members are not allowed to ask her about operational matters?

Some Members: Hear, hear.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Blair): Members, Order. All matters raised, including the original point of order, will be referred to the Speaker's Office for advice. Thank you.

Members should take their ease before we move to the next item in the Order Paper.

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

Madam Principal Deputy Speaker: I have received notice from the Minister of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs that he wishes to make a statement.

Mr Muir (The Minister of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs): Thank you, Madam Principal Deputy Speaker, for the opportunity to make a statement to the Assembly on the farm support and development programme.

As the Balmoral show is opening tomorrow, I felt that it was important to update the Assembly on future farm support. At the outset, however, I want to express my thanks and gratitude to countless people in Northern Ireland’s farming community for their warm welcome and the kindness offered to me to date.

I have experienced many great examples of good farming practices in Northern Ireland since taking up my role as Minister, examples that I am determined to profile and showcase. I am determined to grasp the opportunity provided to me as Minister to translate and communicate the great things happening across farming today to the general public in a clear and easily accessible manner, building resilience and looking o a strong and successful future ahead.

I do not come to the job with negativity, doom and gloom but with boundless positivity and a genuine, strong desire to work in partnership with others. As many of you will be aware, the farm support and development programme is a new programme that my Department has co-designed with stakeholder organisations to target farm support to meet the bespoke needs of Northern Ireland.

The overall objective is to transition to a more sustainable farming sector by seeking to implement policies and strategies that benefit our climate and environment while, very importantly, supporting our economically and socially significant agri-food sector. It has been long in gestation, and, for many, the details that I outline today will come as no surprise. I thank officials for all the work done to date, especially when Ministers were not in post, to develop the relevant initiatives, packages and measures in close collaboration with stakeholders.

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As Minister, my vision for the time ahead aligns closely with the farm support and development programme and is to ensure both economic and environmental sustainability. I am keen to see the initiatives, packages and measures delivered at pace and for our ambition to be strong. I want to secure sustainable productivity and assist the development of effective, functioning supply chains, ensuring food security and high standards of disease control and public and animal health. I also want to do more to recognise the importance of the food that we produce to every aspect of our well-being. Working in partnership, I will shortly bring forward a new Northern Ireland food strategy framework that will ensure that the policies that affect our food system are aligned and that we can contribute to achieving health, environmental, economic and societal goals.

As Minister, I am clear that we must also tackle the reality of climate change. We cannot ignore what we see in front of us, with the severe weather patterns experienced this year alone severely impacting some of our towns, villages, communities and businesses. We must act now. The impact of climate change is particularly acute for agriculture, with extreme weather, for example, having a prolonged effect. In early March this year, I attended the sixty-fourth George Scott Robertson lecture at Queen's University. The presentation by Dr Pete Falloon from the Met Office unveiled critical insights into the future trajectory of UK weather patterns: drier, hotter summers alongside milder, wetter winters, characterised by more intense rainfall events. Building long-term resilience and adaptation and achieving a genuinely just transition are absolutely key.

Achieving improved environmental sustainability is paramount. I want to move to address ammonia- and phosphorus-related issues by incentivising and enabling actions that protect and enhance our natural and marine environment so that we can achieve better guardianship of water and air quality, soil health and biodiversity. An environmentally sustainable agri-food industry will also provide a key part of the jigsaw to secure the recovery of Lough Neagh and improve water quality across Northern Ireland.

I acknowledge that significant work has already been undertaken to chart the way forward. I thank officials and stakeholders for their commitment to working in partnership in the co-design of the farm support and development programme. The principles of co-design, partnership working and effective communication will be key as the programme is introduced in a phased manner in the months and years ahead.

By way of background, before I talk in a bit more detail about the future agricultural policy proposals, a consultation exercise on the policy proposals associated with the future agricultural policy framework was undertaken in December 2021, and the responses informed 54 policy decisions that were announced in the House in March 2022. Input from the agricultural policy stakeholder group, which was established in June 2021, has been essential to the development of the programme. The group brings together representatives from across the food, farming and environment sectors and ensures that their views are understood and properly considered during the development of the programme. This co-design approach provides an exemplary model for policy development that could be applied more generally across all Departments.

I especially thank the relevant stakeholders, including members of the Dairy Council for Northern Ireland; the Northern Ireland Agricultural Producers' Association (NIAPA); Northern Ireland Environment Link, which incudes the National Trust, Nature Friendly Farming Network, the RSPB and Ulster Wildlife; the Northern Ireland Food and Drink Association (NIFDA); the Northern Ireland Meat Exporters Association (NIMEA); the Ulster Farmers' Union (UFU); the British Veterinary Association (BVA); and the Northern Ireland Grain Trade Association (NIGTA), for their commitment to work together as part of the stakeholder group, which I met recently. It has provided and continues to provide a key forum for discussion at each stage of the policy development process.

Before I move on to outline the elements of the farm support and development programme, I want to first consider the significance of our agri-food sector. Northern Ireland has a unique farm family structure. Farm families work hard to produce quality food while working hand-in-hand with nature. I very much welcome the event organised by the Ulster Farmers' Union at the end of February celebrating the family farm. Since becoming AERA Minister, I have visited a range of farms, from a dairy farm and a horticulture farm in County Down and an arable farm in County Armagh to a sheep farm in County Derry/Londonderry. I have noted the massive respect that I have heard, on many occasions, for the work of the College of Agriculture, Food and Rural Enterprise (CAFRE) in educating those coming into the sector and those managing our farm businesses. What farmers produce is literally life-giving, as it provides sustenance to millions of people, and life-affirming through the sector's value to communities, businesses, our environment and, indeed, the very social fabric of everyday life in Northern Ireland. I have put on the record, consistently, that we need to call time on the idea that the environment and agriculture are pitted against each other. That is wrong and does a real injustice to the many positive examples of great farming practice across Northern Ireland.

Since becoming Minister, I have had very positive engagement with, amongst others, the Ulster Farmers' Union and Northern Ireland Environment Link. At those meetings, I have stressed my desire that we work in partnership to deliver a more resilient and sustainable agri-food sector as custodians of the countryside. There are many great stories to be told of environmental action in practice, and I intend to continue to showcase them. Our farmers are also key to our future food security. Climate change, conflict and population rise will provide challenges to our food supplies, but I am focused on ensuring longer-term solutions to prevent crises and preserve our food security.

Funding for the programme comes largely from the Treasury's earmarked funding for agriculture, environment and rural support, which is guaranteed to the end of the current Parliament. Some £329 million has been allocated in this financial year. It is imperative that any future settlement reflects our policy objectives and ambitions and is an absolute minimum. I want to see significant growth in the funding awarded. The farm support and development programme is made up of a range of schemes and actions, which I will now outline. Some of them are already being seen as exemplars by my counterparts in the rest of the UK and Ireland. Before I go into detail, I will reference the concerns about the schemes being overly complicated. I recognise those concerns and have asked that the simplification, accessibility and bureaucracy of the scheme be placed as a standing item on the agriculture policy stakeholder group's agenda. I have also asked that each scheme be tested against a set of criteria, which has been agreed following consultation with the group, to ensure that the initiatives, packages and measures are simple and easy to access.

As announced in March 2022, the new farm sustainability payment will provide a balance between providing a safety net that will help a farm business withstand shocks that are beyond its ability to manage effectively and encouraging farm businesses to be sustainable, efficient, competitive and able to manage risk proactively. My current planning assumption is that, from 2025, farm businesses will need to activate five entitlements on five hectares of eligible land to meet the requirements of the farm sustainability transition payment, and, from 2026, to meet the requirements of the payment going forward. With the introduction of the farm sustainability transition payment in 2025, current basic payment scheme entitlements will expire and be replaced with farm sustainability payment entitlements. The full farm sustainability payment is planned to go live in 2026. That will include changes to land eligibility, new farm sustainability standards and a new penalty regime. Those changes will be communicated well in advance. A number of conditionalities are planned, such as compliance with the new farm sustainability standards, participation in the soil nutrient health scheme, development of a nutrient management plan, the provision of specified genetic profiles — or DNA tagging — on-farm performance data of bovine animals and participation in the carbon footprinting project.

As previously announced, the beef sustainability package aims to help ensure the future viability of our beef sector by helping the sector to keep pace with its competitors, improve resilience and, importantly, reduce greenhouse gas and ammonia emissions. It comprises two elements that are aimed at improving farm productivity while at the same time reducing greenhouse gas and ammonia emissions. The beef carbon reduction scheme, which commenced on 1 January 2024, incentivises farm businesses to reduce the age at slaughter of clean beef cattle over a four-year phased implementation period. It is planned that the suckler cow scheme will go live in early 2025. It will incentivise farm businesses to reduce the age at first calving and/or the calving interval of beef bred suckler cows over a four-year phased implementation period. CAFRE is providing training to help farm businesses understand the changes to management practices that are needed.

The environmental challenges that need to be tackled in Northern Ireland are substantial, and I know that. Through the farming with nature package, there is significant potential for farm businesses and land managers across all land types in Northern Ireland to make vital, positive contributions to tackling those environmental impacts head-on and to be properly recognised by society for doing so. The package will initially focus on halting and reversing the trends in nature decline through maintaining, restoring and creating habitats that are important for species diversity and improving connectivity between habitat areas. Work is ongoing to develop the package, including an orderly transition from the environmental farming scheme.

Environmental payments will, as far as possible, seek to recognise and reward the public goods provided. That approach aims to encourage the environment to be seen as another on-farm enterprise that has the potential to become a profit centre within an overall sustainable farming model. It will also assist farm businesses and land managers to make an economic return on the environmental assets that they create and manage appropriately. Although work on the farming with nature package is not as advanced as other schemes that I have mentioned, I have asked my officials to prioritise that area of work over the coming months.

From 2026, the existing cross-compliance requirements will be replaced by new farm sustainability standards that are focused on environmental, animal and human health, and animal welfare issues, where the incidence of non-compliance has either increased or has seen limited improvement in the past five years. The exact make-up of those new standards and the underpinning set of requirements are under development. Applicants to the farm sustainability payment scheme, beef sustainability package and the farming with nature package will need to comply with the new farm sustainability standards. The standards will have an associated penalty regime, which is also under development.

The soil nutrient health scheme is a groundbreaking policy intervention that is assisting farm businesses in planning their farm nutrient management more effectively, with the long-term aim of reducing agricultural impacts on water quality. The scheme represents an investment of up to £45 million in our farming sector. Participating in the scheme provides farm businesses with important information to help manage soil nutrients and farm carbon. Crucially, participation in the soil nutrient health scheme will be a condition of the receipt of the new farm sustainability payment and the farming with nature package. It requires participants to register for the scheme and complete the training offered by CAFRE. The scheme is being rolled out zonally. Following receipt of their soil analysis results, farm businesses will be offered training by CAFRE to help them understand those results and develop a nutrient management plan. That plan will help farm businesses provide additional nutrients, such as nitrogen and phosphorus, to meet crop requirements. In so doing, it will significantly reduce run-off of nitrogen and phosphorus into our waterways. We can all agree that that is something that we want to achieve.

The ruminant genetics programme aims to drive improvements in productivity and environmental performance in the ruminant livestock sectors. The programme will be delivered by my Department in partnership with the agri-food industry. Genetic improvement will contribute significantly to achieving the target reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. The first phase of the programme will provide farm businesses with the data and evidence to make better-informed breeding decisions to advance genetic gain in dairy and feed animals. Training will also be provided by CAFRE to assist the industry to maximise the programme's benefits.

My Department is seeking to ensure that as many of the new policy interventions as possible help drive down the agriculture industry's carbon footprint. The farming for carbon project focuses on actions to reduce carbon emissions and, by association, other emissions from farms and on actions to offset carbon emissions through sequestration. The principle of encouraging farming for carbon as a business enterprise on-farm will also be developed.

My Department has collaborated with DEFRA to include a new Northern Ireland element in the DEFRA dairy demonstrator research project, which opened for applications in November 2023. Furthermore, the carbon footprinting project plans to commence in 2024.

Northern Ireland agriculture relies on an industry structure with an ever-increasing age profile of farmers. Well-educated farmers have been shown to be more open to adopting advanced technology and environmentally friendly practices. A reduction in the average age of farmers, as well as accelerating the transition to those with relevant training and skills, would provide a workforce that is more open to innovation and change.

The farming for generations pilot scheme is planned to commence in autumn 2024 and will support farm businesses in planning for a timely and orderly transition to a new generation.

The pilot scheme will provide the farm family with the knowledge and skills to help with the transfer of the management and leadership responsibility.

12.00 noon

Plans are also progressing to launch new knowledge transfer schemes to replace the business development groups and the farm family key skills scheme, which have recently come to an end. They will build on the success of outgoing schemes, using proven methods to equip farmers to address today's challenges and develop their businesses in a sustainable way. CAFRE plans to introduce the schemes to farmers during 2024. A new, innovative package of training and support is also planned for agri-professionals that will be designed to help them better assist their farming clients through a period of change.

The Northern Ireland production horticulture sector makes an important contribution to the economy, the environment and human health. There is scope to develop the sector further. The horticulture schemes will aim to do that over the coming years. An increase in local horticulture productivity will help to improve overall agri-food sector productivity and sustainability, grow the economy and help to ensure the stability of the food supply chain by increasing local resourcing.

It is currently planned that the horticulture sector will have a bespoke range of schemes. The horticulture sector growth support scheme will aim to commence in autumn 2024, with the establishment of subsector growth groups, along with a growers' academy. An innovation support scheme will aim to commence in autumn 2025.

The capital investment scheme is planned to help farm businesses to improve their environmental performance and business efficiency. In particular, support will be focused on assisting the industry to meet net zero targets and reduce the environmental impact of farm sectors. That will be achieved by the adoption of precision technology and equipment to reduce ammonia emissions, carbon emissions and nutrient loss.

The supply chain schemes aim to assist in improving collaboration between producers and growers in the supply chain, encouraging them to innovate, problem solve and add value beyond what they can achieve in isolation. A range of supply chain schemes will be launched during 2025 for new and existing groups to pursue opportunities for growth; to develop products, processes and systems; and to address longer-term strategic supply chain challenges affecting the agri-food sector.

In January 2023, the sheep industry task force produced its report to identify the needs of the sheep sector in Northern Ireland and a proposed package to encourage its development. I welcome that report. My officials are working to better understand the strategic needs of the sheep sector, and I will consider deploying levers to meet those needs. I intend to discuss that with my officials over the coming weeks.

The farm support and development programme is supported by a full programme of communications to ensure that farm businesses are well informed of and prepared for the challenges ahead.

The purpose of the statement is to provide an overview of the farm support and development programme. Participation in that programme is voluntary, and there is no market or policy penalty for non-participation. It is clear that there are challenges ahead for us all. There is something in the farm support and development programme for every farm business to help to ensure that, together, we transition to a more sustainable farming sector.

Madam Principal Deputy Speaker: Before I call Patsy McGlone, I advise Members that, hopefully, the Chamber will be a bit cooler. The temperature was quite high, so Building Services, along with the top Table here, has tried to get it regulated. Hopefully, you will feel the difference.

Mr McGlone: Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire.

[Translation: I thank the Minister.]

Minister, you are probably setting yourself up for an ambush at the Balmoral show, given that your statement contained so many more questions than answers. I will pick out the issue of the sustainability payment. Will you add some flesh to the bones of the fine principles of managing effectively and encouraging farm businesses to be sustainable, efficient and competitive and to manage risk proactively? How will that be done, and how will it be communicated to the farming and agricultural communities? That is a pretty big deficit at the moment.

Mr Muir: I thank the Member for his question. Climate change is, obviously, an issue in the Chamber as well today.

The detail is important. I am genuinely committed to the process of co-design, which is how this has been successfully developed thus far. There is a need to find a way forward so that we have resilience in the sector. That has been a key concern for a number of farm businesses, given the weather issues over the past number of months. The farm sustainability payment is about building resilience and ensuring that we are able to equip them.

I understand that we need to have a safety net for businesses. I am also conscious that, given the funding that we have, business cases must satisfy in terms of value for money. It is about striking a balance and recognising the need for resilience for food security but also allowing them to move forward successfully.

Let us be clear: I am very hopeful about the sector. I look forward to the Balmoral show this week. There are challenges, but I think that, collectively, we all want to put our shoulder to the wheel and to see whether we can find a way forward to address those challenges. I came in as a Minister focused on solutions, and that is what I will do over the time ahead.

Mr Elliott (The Chairperson of the Committee for Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs): I thank the Minister for his statement. As Mr McGlone said, there are more questions than answers. It covers a huge range and is a big project to look at. I declare an interest as an active farmer who may or may not have an interest in applying for some of the schemes, depending on how complex they are.

I have a couple of issues to raise, with your indulgence. One is around the stakeholder group that is co-designing the projects. I have had significant complaints from some of those stakeholders about feedback.

Madam Principal Deputy Speaker: Come to your question, Mr Elliott.

Mr Elliott: They are questioning whether it is actually co-design or just the Department using them to pay lip service to that. I would like the Minister's comments on that.

Secondly, if you will indulge me —

Madam Principal Deputy Speaker: If you very quickly come to your question.

Mr Elliott: Some of the schemes may suit farmers who are more intensive than extensive.

Mr Muir: I thank the Member for his question. There are a number of aspects to it. I addressed the matter of complexity in my statement. It is important that, when we go forward, we check everything around the complexity and the ability to ensure that it is simple and easy to access. I have asked, as part of today's statement, for that to be considered going forward.

If there are concerns from the stakeholder group, I am happy to talk to the Member outside the Chamber, and we can talk through some of those concerns.

There is a lot of detail in relation to this, and we need to work up how each individual scheme will operate. It is important that we do that. Over the time ahead, there will be much more detail on it. I felt that it was important that I came to the Chamber today to outline the statement and take questions from Members. The easier thing to do would have been to issue a written ministerial statement on Thursday at the Balmoral show, but I felt that it was important to come here, because one of the benefits of devolution is having Ministers in post who are accountable to the Assembly. I am also happy to come to the Committee, if necessary, to go through more on the issue.

Mr McAleer: I thank the Minister for his statement, and I welcome it, particularly his comments that we need to call time on pitting agriculture and the environment against each other. I really welcome that. There are so many questions that I could ask, but I will try to narrow it.

Minister, tomorrow is the deadline for the single farm payment application for farmers — 15 May is cast in stone. Farmers are asking this: when they move to the new scheme, will their current entitlements carry over to the new scheme, and will they be of the same value?

Secondly, last year, when I was Chair of the Committee, I commissioned a report on the under-representation of the role of women in agriculture: 95% of main farm businesses are male-owned, and 96% of businesses in the development groups are male-owned.

Madam Principal Deputy Speaker: Come to your question, please.

Mr McAleer: Will the Minister include looking at the under-representation of women in his new policy?

Mr Muir: Everyone is being creative with their questions. Sometimes, there are three or four in one. The Principal Deputy Speaker is showing amazing patience.

I will start with the role of women in agriculture. The legacy report that the Committee produced in the last mandate was increasingly useful. I followed up on it on my recent visit to Brussels to see what they are doing across Europe on the issue. It is something that I want to look at for this but also with regard to a rural development policy. We need to refresh our rural development policy to reflect the realities of today. I see significant issues with the role of women in rural communities that we need to address, particularly, for example, childcare. We need to work at that.

On the deadline for the single farm payment, the carry-across and details around that, I am happy to have a meeting afterwards with one of my officials. I will get clarification to the Member on that, hopefully, today or tomorrow.

The first element of the question was about pitting agriculture and the environment against each other: it is a false narrative. We cannot have economically sustainable farming that is not environmentally sustainable, and I am clear about that. I do not intend to feed into that narrative, because it is absolutely false and is based on the wrong premise. I have a clear vision for the future of the farming community in Northern Ireland. It is a positive vision. I know that there are challenges, but, if we work together, we can overcome those challenges and deliver a secure future for people. I am conscious that we are talking about people's livelihoods. It is a generational thing: families are invested in their farming enterprise. I want to support those businesses so that, in the time ahead, we can provide them with security and can all have something that we can be proud of in Northern Ireland.

Mr T Buchanan: Minister, your statement indicates an increase from 3 hectares to 5 hectares in the area of land that will be required to be eligible for the farm sustainability transition payment from 2025. That will, no doubt, knock out a number of small farm holdings that will not qualify for the new payment. What assessment has been made of the difficulties that that may present for small farm businesses? What assistance will be available to them, and how many will the new scheme affect?

Mr Muir: I thank the Member for his question. I am conscious of the issues that he has raised about small farm businesses and how we support them. I will write to the Member with the details of the evaluation that was done. We have to be clear about this: we have to have a scheme that is fit for purpose and meets the business case requirements of Treasury and the Department of Finance. That is what I have to do. I also want to see whether there is a way — I have engaged with the Finance Minister on this and will continue to do so — of looking at funding through a different lens. Currently, we look at it just through the lens of pounds, shillings and pence, but we need to look at the benefits that it gives. I am also doing that.

I will write to the Member on the details of the issue that he raised. It is valuable that he raised it.

Ms Egan: I was recently interviewed for a school project by a teenager called Alicia, who is from Millisle in our constituency. The interview was about pollution and environmental sustainability, but she is also a keen member of the Young Farmers' Clubs of Ulster. Young people get that we cannot pit environment and agriculture against each other. Minister, what are you doing to get more young people involved in farming?

Mr Muir: I thank the Member for her question. I want to get lots more young people involved in farming. It is a challenge — it is the challenge, if you will pardon the pun, of our generation — to get younger people involved. It is important that the message that we and I, as the Minister, send from here is a positive one on the future for agriculture and farming in Northern Ireland. If we are to get young people involved, a negative message will not attract them, so we need to set up a positive vision for the future. I am determined to do that day after day.

The young farmers' payment scheme provides an annual top-up of the basic payment scheme for farmers who meet the eligibility requirements. The scheme is open for applications, and the last year to apply for it is 2025. The new farm support and development programme has a farming for the generations programme to encourage longer-term planning for farm businesses. A farming for the generations pilot scheme, which is planned to commence in autumn 2024, will support farm businesses in planning for a timely and orderly transition to a new generation. The future of the current farmers' payment will be considered in the context of the farming for the generations programme.

Let us be clear: the future for farming is positive. Let us, all together, encourage more younger people to participate.

Ms Á Murphy: I thank the Minister for his statement. I note that he will bring forward a new food strategy framework sooner rather than later, hopefully. Minister, will you outline how the draft food strategy will align with future agriculture policy?

Mr Muir: I thank the Member for her question. Yes, the food strategy framework is very much in final draft form, and I hope to bring it to the Executive soon. It will align closely with the programme. There are other issues in it that we need to address, such as food poverty. It is a shame that people in our country experience food poverty, and the food strategy framework will relate to that. I am very much looking forward to launching it. It is a cross-cutting strategy, which is why it needs to go to the Executive. In the time ahead, hopefully, we can show, through the interventions that the Executive and I make, that we are making a positive difference to people's lives in Northern Ireland.

Mr Buckley: I thank the Minister for his statement. Maybe the temptation in the Department to release it at the Balmoral show was high, but I appreciate his coming to the House with it.

The new ammonia thresholds pose a real difficulty for our world-leading poultry and wider farming industry. Replacement buildings are assessed in the same way as a new building; therefore, even if the farmer proposes a new livestock shed, poultry house or slurry store that is more efficient and could reduce emissions, under this policy —

Madam Principal Deputy Speaker: Is there a question?

Mr Buckley: — it could still be refused. Does the Minister agree that that approach is folly and counterproductive, and will he move to address it?

12.15 pm

Mr Muir: I will set out a bit of background on the issue around ammonia. The Office for Environmental Protection, which was discussed yesterday during the debate on environmental governance, took, in the absence of Ministers, what was essentially a judicial review against my Department with regard to ammonia. The permanent secretary at the time responded to that within the powers available to her, and I fully support her response and actions around that. In Northern Ireland, we need to safeguard our environment, and we need to ensure that, going forward, our environment is sustainable. That is why we are in the situation that we are now in.

To deal with ammonia, I want to chart a course forward that protects our environment but allows our farm businesses to operate sustainably. The draft ammonia strategy, which proposes measures to reduce ammonia emissions, underwent public consultation from 4 January to 3 March 2023 and attracted a high level of interest across all stakeholder groups. Responses to the consultation are being used to inform a reworked draft ammonia strategy. Additional scientific modelling, statistical analysis and supply chain consideration is being undertaken to optimise design of the key proposed mandatory measures on the use of low-emission slurry-spreading equipment. A high-level report and a draft summary report on the responses to the consultation on the draft ammonia strategy have been published. A reworked strategy will be developed by autumn this year.

I am keen to see that we get movement on this, but we need to make sure that whatever we do is science-led and evidence-led, and that is what I am guided by in my role as Minister. I get the concerns about the issue, Mr Buckley — [Interruption.]

I am giving you an answer — but I cannot subvert process or ignore the science and evidence around the issues.

Mr McReynolds: Will the Minister detail the practical benefits of the soil nutrient health scheme?

Mr Muir: I thank the Member for his question. I will give you a practical example of that. When I was doing farm visits on Friday in the upper Bann catchment area with the Rivers Trust and the Agri-Food and Biosciences Institute (AFBI), I saw clearly what the benefits are. The farmer had participated in the scheme. He had the information presented on maps that he had available on a computer and had printed off. He was able to identify the areas where there were issues with water gathering and how we manage that but also where to grow crops and how to manage the farm more effectively. That was allowing the business to be more productive while managing water quality in our riverways, and that catchment area leads into Lough Neagh. There is a practical benefit where data, knowledge and evidence are power to allow us to make the change. My colleagues across the rest of the UK and Ireland have been speaking to me about the scheme and saying that they see it as a model that can be rolled out in areas in their jurisdiction. That is one of many examples of stuff that has been going on. Hopefully, we can pull together and profile much more across Northern Ireland.

Mr Irwin: My colleague Mr Buckley raised concerns about planning applications. It is a major issue on the ground. We have had planning applications in for two to three years and there is still no response. Farming needs to be able to compete in the modern world. We produce food. It is our main industry in Northern Ireland. This situation cannot go on, and the Minister needs to address it. I do not think that he answered Mr Buckley's question.

Madam Principal Deputy Speaker: Minister, I did not detect a question, but you are free to respond.

Mr Muir: You are OK.

I am trying to address that issue, but it is important that I am guided by the science and evidence. It is important that the industry is successful, but it is also important that it is sustainable. Producers and consumers look to the product to make sure that it is made in a manner that safeguards our environment, and I am very aware of that. We cannot, on one hand, debate motions time after time in this place about the environment and Lough Neagh but, on the other hand, say, "Cast aside the evidence and science and just rock on". We cannot do that. We have to be guided by the evidence and science and find a sustainable way forward. I am committed to engaging with relevant stakeholders on the issue, but I am also prepared to make sure that I do things correctly, and that is what I have committed to do as Minister. I am not short-circuiting processes or the evidence and science that is presented to me, because, if I do that, the first thing that will happen is that I will end up in court.

Mr Butler: I thank the Minister for his statement. It is a good statement. I do not profess to be an expert in all things agriculture, but I am the mental health spokesperson for the Ulster Unionist Party. Since 2016, in any debate that we have had in the Chamber on mental health and well-being, farmers and their families have been mentioned as being well up the list of those who are suffering. I know that the Minister supports those families and has warmth and affection for them. Will the Minister outline whether there is a template in the programme and policy changes that looks at the impact on the mental health and well-being of farmers and their families? How will they will be assisted when those things are rolled out?

Mr Muir: I thank the Member for his question. Thus far, I have not talked about that, and it is an important opportunity to outline my views. It particularly relates to our future rural development policy and how we support rural communities. It is also mainstreamed to ensure that staff and advisers who engage in the time ahead are properly trained for their engagement with the farming community.

In my time as Minister, I have seen a really committed community. I have seen many examples of good practice, but I also see examples of loneliness. I see examples of tough things happening on farms, and farmers often deal with those on their own or with just their husband or wife, which can be difficult. There are personal stories that I will not outline here today, but their challenges will remain with me for the rest of my life. I do this job because I want to change the situation. I want to give people the assurance that we have their backs, we want to support them, and we want to have a sustainable way forward.

Mental health is a key motivator for doing that. That is why I am conscious of the words that I say and the interventions that I make. We need to be conscious that we support people and are aware of the challenges that they face. It will be a key issue for me over the time ahead, particularly the training for staff but also seeing how we can talk about the current issues in our rural community.

Mental health is one massive issue. Perhaps we have not talked about it as much as we should, particularly among men. We need to break that taboo and have rational conversations around it. It would be good to work in partnership with organisations such as the Ulster Farmers' Union to see how we can chart our course forward.

Mr Dickson: I thank the Minister for his statement and look forward to meeting him later this week at the Balmoral show. I also welcome the statement in advance of the Balmoral show. It is an opportunity for Members to debate the issues here today.

Minister, a lot of your statement was about building resilience. Will you tell the Assembly and the wider farming, agriculture and environmental community how you plan to build that resilience?

Mr Muir: Resilience is at the absolute core of what I have announced here today. We need to be clear that we have a strong, sustainable future ahead. That is not just in respect of government funding and policy. If you have a farm, you have a farm business, so you will potentially look to banks to borrow money, and the first thing that banks will see is whether you have resilience and long-term viability. That is something that I want to do. We need to have a scheme that allows farmers to withstand the shocks that come along. We also need to find ways that we can diversify and change. I have seen many good practices across Northern Ireland where farms that were once doing a different type of practice have changed in order to be resilient. That has allowed them to have security for the way ahead.

Resilience totally underpins everything that I do. There are many examples of good practice around that, but we need to mainstream that good practice and find a way that we can communicate better to make farmers more aware of the practices that are required to give that resilience and long-term sustainability.

Mr McGrath: I thank the Minister for his statement. It is 93 paragraphs of a superabundance of areas of operational responsibility. You never duck any questions that are asked on statements or at Question Time, which is welcome. In paragraph 20, you reference improving water quality across Northern Ireland. Will you enable your officials in the Northern Ireland Environment Agency (NIEA) to work with me and the Loughinisland anglers to divert a Northern Ireland Water outflow pipe from a sewage plant? It runs into the lake and is potentially impacting on the fish stock. Can the NIEA help us with that?

Mr Muir: I thank the Member for his question. I answer questions because they are within my operational responsibility, but there are other areas that are not, and you would not expect me to answer those. I am aware of the issue that you outlined and have received press cuttings about it. Primarily, it is a Northern Ireland Water matter. If the Member writes to me, I will see what role the Environment Agency has in it.

Mr Blair: I thank the Minister for his statement. I particularly welcome the greater focus on good environmental farm practice. In that context, how does today's announcement relate to actions required around making improvements to Lough Neagh?

Mr Muir: As regards the situation at Lough Neagh, which we debated yesterday, we are aware that a significant proportion, though not all, of the issues — approximately 60% — are due to agricultural run-off. We need to find a way forward to ensure that there is better water quality. Let us be clear: the issues of water quality are not confined to Lough Neagh. What I have outlined today is a way forward through education, engagement and conditionality with regard to support and cross-compliance penalties to ensure that we encourage farm businesses to move towards more sustainable practices that ensure that our waterways are more sustainable. That is absolutely key. I know that many farmers already do that, but we need to bring others on the journey.

Mr McNulty: Talking of silos, as somebody from a farming background, it has been a few years since I stood on top of the silage pit, rolled back the polythene, threw the tyres back and graped silage down behind the feeding barrier into the link box.

With regard to your silo approach, you mentioned the importance of the food that we produce every day —

Madam Principal Deputy Speaker: The Member must come to a question.

Mr McNulty: — for every aspect of our well-being. How have you worked with other Departments to ensure that that is inculcated through Education, Health, Economy and, obviously, through your Department while avoiding a silo approach?

Mr Muir: I am avoiding a silo approach. As I have outlined to the Member previously, the food strategy framework is a key aspect of that. It is an overarching, cross-cutting strategy. It is in its final form, and I will bring it to the Executive for approval in the short time ahead. It is key that we do that and understand the benefits around it. I am engaged with ministerial colleagues on those issues because the agriculture, farming, food and fisheries industries that I am talking about and that we have discussed in the Chamber are a key part of the economy. We also need to understand the benefit of that and work together on the issues. I know the challenges that are there, particularly with regard to migration. We also know the issues that have been raised with me time and time again around that. That is why I want to work in partnership, not just with my Executive colleagues but with the UK Government on the actions that they need to take.

Mr Allister: In paragraph 45, we see platitudes about seeking simplification, but are the rest of those paragraphs not a chronicle of bureaucracy? I read about a number of conditionalities, new sustainability standards, compliance with multiple schemes and plans, farming for carbon and other qualifying hurdles. Are you not, in all of those schemes, still in the business of trussing up farming in more red tape? Is there no desire to cut, rather than increase, red tape?

Mr Muir: I outlined my desire to address those concerns. What I see daily are farm businesses that are already engaging with an awful lot of the stuff that I have outlined. They are engaging in those schemes and do not see an issue, because they understand the importance of productivity and of long-term sustainability for their businesses. What I am talking about is occurring across the rest of the UK and the rest of Europe. It is not surprisingly new; it is stuff that is already going on. I am committed to keeping an eye on the situation and making sure that we have simple and accessible schemes. That is important.

Ms Sugden: I thank the Minister for his statement. There are great farms in my constituency of East Londonderry, many of which are trying to diversify their farming businesses. However, one of the biggest challenges to that is planning, as mentioned by other Members. For example, Chestnutt Farm in Portrush — take the opportunity to visit it if you have not — has a milk vending machine and other farm shop type arrangements, but it is coming up against challenges with planning. How are you working with your planning colleagues in councils and the Communities Minister to address those issues?

Mr Muir: Planning in Northern Ireland is a key issue. It sits primarily with the Minister for Infrastructure. Last week, we talked about planning with regard to climate action and the need to ensure that we can progress planning applications for renewables. I am keen to explore that with the Minister because, ultimately, the responsibility for that lies with him. We also need to ensure that planning is sustainable. That is one of the issues that we need to address with regard to Lough Neagh, because we need to ensure that planning policy protects water quality in Northern Ireland.

Madam Principal Deputy Speaker: That concludes questions on the statement from the Agriculture Minister. Members may take their ease while we change the Top Table.

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

12.30 pm

Ms Armstrong: On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. Can the House be given a further 15 minutes to examine the statement from the Minister for Communities, given that it arrived into our inboxes at 12.19 pm?

Mr Lyons (The Minister for Communities): On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. I take this opportunity to apologise to the House for the delay in getting the statement to Members. Members will be aware that we are running about two or three hours ahead of schedule, with lunch and Question Time. I was not expecting to come to the House this soon, and I got the statement out as soon as I could. From my point of view, I have no issue if Members want to take extra time, but that is for the Chair to decide.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Blair): I ask Members to take their ease for a moment or two. We are seeking some advice on this, and we will come back to you as soon as possible.

The House took its ease from 12.32 pm to 12.33 pm.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Blair): Members, noting the request for a suspension, I am minded to move ahead with the statement on the basis that the Minister has apologised and has given the very rational explanation that this business has moved forward on our schedule, which is not unusual or unique in any way. Therefore, I am minded to allow the Minister to proceed with the statement. Minister.

Mr Lyons: Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. At the most recent election, my colleagues and I on these Benches stood on a platform to help working families. One of the most pressing issues facing those families right across Northern Ireland right now is the affordability and availability of quality housing. This is not an issue that will be solved quickly or by any one Department or by any one intervention, but it will require consistent and collaborative action on multiple fronts. Make no mistake about it: if we do not use all the levers available to us, we risk doing what we have always done and will end up getting the same results. Without change, we will continue to struggle to match the high levels of housing need with proper supply. I am therefore determined to do more with what is available. Otherwise, thousands of households will continue to struggle to find a safe, secure and affordable home.

To that end, I have come to the Assembly today to announce my intention to launch a competition to make available a substantial sum of money that will support the delivery of a new supply of affordable intermediate-rent homes via financial transactions capital (FTC). It is a new form of affordable housing product, and it is being introduced in Northern Ireland for the first time. It is a first step for Northern Ireland's housing sector in moving beyond the established tenures of social rental, private rental and homeownership.

Intermediate rent sits between social rentals and private rentals in cost. It offers high-quality homes, with better security and access to support services. Tenants will receive a discount of at least 20% on their rent compared with local open-market rents, and they can remain in their intermediate-rent home for longer than is the norm in the private sector. They will also receive more proactive support from their landlord when they need it, and their home must meet a high-quality standard.

Typically, those who can benefit most from an intermediate-rent home are those lower-income households that are spending more than 30% of their income on housing costs. Research has indicated that, with over 28,000 households here spending more than 30% of their income on rental costs, there is certainly space in the market for a product that can offer a more affordable solution for lower-income households.

The Northern Ireland intermediate-rent policy and the dwelling design standards documents were published just over a year ago. My officials have been working since then to develop a funding scheme that can help breathe life into the policy. I therefore announce that, from tomorrow, 15 May 2024, a competition for funding will launch that will see a significant award of FTC loan funding to an intermediate-rent operator. The operator will initially develop 300 homes where they are needed and manage the process of renting them to eligible lower- to moderate-income people and families. That will help increase the supply of housing generally and the supply of affordable housing for rent specifically.

People need housing solutions that they know that they can rely on over time, so we are asking the intermediate-rent operator to offer the homes for at least 25 years. That long-term commitment will help intermediate-rent tenants to establish themselves in communities where they work or learn and where their children attend school. Schemes such as intermediate rent allow us to deliver even more affordable housing by leveraging private finance and using novel government funding sources. Intermediate rent will complement existing affordable housing options, including social housing.

We all recognise what we need to do now. Housing demand has, for too long, outpaced housing supply. We need to focus our capital spending on delivering those much-needed social homes right across Northern Ireland, but we also need to do something for those hard-pressed people and families who cannot get or do not want a social home, and we are doing that by offering them safe, secure and affordable alternatives. The approach also serves to protect my Department's capital budget, avoiding competition with the social housing development programme. That ensures that we can deliver the social homes that we need while offering alternative affordable housing options.

Homeownership is an aspiration that is shared by many people here, but rising house prices and mortgage costs, as well as, given the high rents in the private sector, the difficulty of saving for a deposit, mean that, for a growing number, it is becoming more and more difficult. I am committed to helping those who need a bit of extra support in order to afford their own home to do so.

Intermediate rent could be a real game changer for hard-working families whose needs are simply not met by what is currently on offer. My officials will continue to look for new ways in which novel funding sources, like FTC, can be used to expand housing delivery meaningfully.

The competition to award funding to the operator will launch tomorrow and close to applications on 23 August 2024. I expect that, once the intermediate-rent operator is in place, we could see the first intermediate-rent homes being available to rent as early as 2026. I look forward to announcing the outcome of the competition for funding before the end of the year.

The issue of housing will not fix itself, and, in light of an extremely tight budget environment, we must be prepared to do things differently and be radical in our approach. The pilot has the potential to pave the way for a new and sustainable supply of quality housing that is so desperately required for our citizens in Northern Ireland. I commend the statement to the House.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Blair): Minister, thank you for the statement. For the first question, I call Daniel McCrossan.

Mr McCrossan: I thank the Minister for the statement, although we were given very short notice to consider it. The statement is positive, but the question is whether it goes far enough. Minister, the housing crisis in the North is worsening by the year. You have acknowledged that in statements and at Committee recently. What can you do to ensure that the initiative goes much further than developing homes for 300 families by 2026, because the issue is worsening each and every day?

Mr Lyons: I fully accept that it is a very difficult and complex issue for people. As I said in my statement, intermediate rent homes are one tool that we can use, but we have to address the issue on multiple fronts. This is a pilot programme. It is right and responsible that we test the initiative and see how it goes so that we make sure it works for people in Northern Ireland. It is, however, novel to here. I want to try it, and I believe that it will be successful, which will allow us to go further. It not only addresses the lack of affordable homes for people in Northern Ireland but takes the pressure off the system more widely for social housing and the private rented sector. It will help us utilise FTC, which we often hear is underutilised. All in all, this is a good announcement.

Mr Gildernew (The Chairperson of the Committee for Communities): I thank the Minister for his statement. I look forward to going through it in further detail. Minister, given that the intermediate-rent homes do not provide lifelong tenancies and have a minimum period of 10 years' occupancy, can you confirm whether people will be entitled to remain for longer periods?

Mr Lyons: I said that, in Northern Ireland, we are looking at not 10 years but 25 years. That is much longer than the Member thought. The initiative is to help solve a problem for some people, particularly those who may be trying to get on the housing ladder but are unable to save for a deposit because of rent. In some cases, the reduction in rent, compared with that in private rented market, will hopefully give them the opportunity — those who want to — to get a deposit and purchase their own home.

Mr Brett: I thank the Minister for his statement and his clear focus on trying to meet the housing demand since being appointed. Does he agree that he could go further by looking at allowing the Housing Executive to be able to borrow once again, so that it can return to building its own homes, given that it is best placed to do so? Does the Minister further agree that the demolition of current Housing Executive stock, in which people want to remain, only adds to the current housing crisis?

Mr Lyons: I am always happy to agree with Mr Brett. It is absolutely right for us to seek to ensure the best use of the properties that we currently have. Part of that will be addressed in the housing supply strategy that I intend to bring forward. The Member is also right to highlight the importance of the Housing Executive being in a position to build homes again. We need more social housing in Northern Ireland and for housing associations to continue the work that they are doing. We also need the Housing Executive to be in a position in which it can borrow against its assets and build more homes and, importantly, refurbish its existing stock. I do not want to see more Housing Executive homes getting to such a state of disrepair that people cannot live in them. That is why it is important that the rules are changed. Work is going on with Executive colleagues and the Treasury to get us to that point.

Ms Armstrong: Minister, thank you for your statement. I am sad to say that I saw it only a minute before you got to your feet.

On page 3, it says:

"The Operator will initially develop 300 new homes where they are needed",

and that those will be for:

"eligible lower to moderate income people and families."

With over 10,000 people being homeless at the moment, how does that fit in with housing allocation points? Will this intermediate rent just ignore that allocation?

12.45 pm

Mr Lyons: This is different from allocation of social homes and fills a different gap in the market. It will help, however, by taking additional pressure off people who might otherwise be trying to get homes. Social homes will be taken away from that list, so it will relieve pressure, and, of course, there will be different criteria. That will be put in place so that it can go to those who need it most. The operator will look at the areas of highest rent, the areas where the need is greatest and the areas with the people who can benefit most. Over 28,000 households are paying out over 30% of their income for rent. Those are the families that we are trying to help.

Ms Ferguson: I thank the Minister. The intermediate-rent model and the 300 new homes are welcome. The Minister mentioned need. Can he outline the potential locations of the additional homes, given the fact that the likes of Foyle — my constituency — and Belfast have the highest level of housing need? How will they be prioritised? Secondly, will these homes include the option to purchase the property under the right-to-buy scheme?

Mr Lyons: To the Member's last question, no, this will not be subject to the right-to-buy scheme, because a private operator will be coming in and using FTC. Once the 25-year period is over, it will be up to the operator to decide what it is doing with its properties, but that will not be in the time period within which the arrangement has been made.

Intermediate-rent homes can be delivered in any location across Northern Ireland, but I believe that they will be particularly effective in areas of high rental cost and high demand. The operator will agree the delivery locations with my officials. They will be based on identified need, prevailing market conditions and viability. The competition will also mandate provision in at least two local government districts, in the first phase.

Mr Brooks: I commend the Minister on his statement, which addresses an ever-growing need within our communities. Can he give any further detail about who is eligible and what the exact criteria are?

Mr Lyons: The households that can benefit from an intermediate-rent tenancy include those that are not yet ready for or are struggling to save towards home ownership; those who are living in the private rented sector but are struggling to pay their rent; and those with lower points who are waiting to rent a social home and who may benefit from a more affordable alternative to private renting while they wait for an allocation. As I said, those who spend more than 30% of their income on housing costs will be prioritised. Those are the parameters within which we intend to operate, but they will be subject to discussions as we move forward.

Mr Tennyson: I thank the Minister for his statement. What assurances can he give around the quality of the homes that will be brought forward for intermediate rent? For example, can he give us assurances that the homes will not require an expensive retrofit at a future date?

Mr Lyons: One of the key points about the intermediate-rent model is that the homes are not just at but above minimum standards. It is important that that is the case. We know what a difference a good home can make to people as they start out in life. For children and young people, having a good quality home — not just the fact that they have a home, but that they have a good quality home — makes all the difference to their education and health outcomes. It will be a requirement that the homes meet the minimum standards, but we want them to go beyond those standards.

Ms Forsythe: I thank the Minister for his statement. It is excellent to see him continuing to deliver on his commitment to help working families in Northern Ireland. Has this model of housing been tested before? Do the Minister know how it will work here?

Mr Lyons: Yes, this model has been tested elsewhere. It has been utilised in GB for over a decade. It has worked and has been successful, and that is why we are bringing it in here. I believe that we will have similar success, but it will still be prudent to take the pilot approach in order to make sure that it works in our market and for our needs and demands here. I look forward to its being as successful as it has been elsewhere so that we can expand and grow and, hopefully, contribute to dealing with the housing crisis that we find ourselves in. I emphasise again to Members that this is one tool, and we have to fight this battle on all fronts.

Mr Dickson: Following the last comment, Minister, in which you said that this is just one tool in the toolbox for delivery, what plans do you have to look at other things like self-build, co-ownership and, as you mentioned, the key role that the Northern Ireland Housing Executive has and should have in delivering homes for people in Northern Ireland?

Mr Lyons: Absolutely. Those are all important tools for dealing with the housing crisis that we find ourselves in. FTC will be used here, and it is used in the co-ownership model, and I am pleased that I have been able to increase the co-ownership limit since I came into office. It is absolutely the case that we will need to fight this battle on all fronts and not just in one Department. It will require a genuinely cross-departmental, collaborative approach.

I need to work with colleagues in the Department of Finance to make sure that I have the funding for the social development housing programme. I need to work with the Department for Infrastructure, and it needs to deliver to make sure that we have the waste water capacity and the right planning laws in place so that we can build homes in Northern Ireland more easily than we have done in the past. We need to make sure that planning law matches up to where it needs to be. We need to have collaboration with councils on development plans and to make sure that we have enough land. We need to make sure that we can build more social housing, more for the private rented sector and more for homeowners to buy. This is another tool in our toolbox, and I am delighted to bring it forward today.

Mr Kingston: I thank the Minister for his statement. Just last week, those of us who are members of the Communities Committee were discussing the need to explore new models that will deliver much-needed homes. I welcome the Minister's announcement for a new supply of affordable, intermediate-rent homes via financial transactions capital. Does he think that there will be scope to go beyond the initial 300 homes, given the housing pressures?

Mr Lyons: The Member is right to raise the importance of the issue. It is absolutely the case that I want to be in a position to be able to go further forward than the 300 intermediate-rent homes that I outlined today. It will be prudent to test the concept beforehand, but we will have an evaluation of the scheme, which will determine whether it can go forward in future — I believe that it can — and, importantly, the best way for it to go forward, with learning from what has taken place before.

Mrs Erskine: I thank the Minister for this really positive statement and for putting working families at the heart of his decision-making. He will know that I am very keen to see the housing estate and options improved in rural areas, such as in my constituency of Fermanagh and West Tyrone. Can he indicate how the initiative will help in rural areas in particular?

Mr Lyons: I am grateful to the Member for her question. She frequently raises with me the need to deal with social housing in rural areas. In fact, only yesterday, she was speaking to me about it. As we all know, Fermanagh and South Tyrone is a very rural constituency and is the most westerly constituency, I believe, in the United Kingdom, as the Member likes to tell me. That means that it should not be left out. Rural areas are facing housing need. All too often, the perception can wrongly be that housing is an urban problem. It is not, and there are huge demands in rural areas as well. I am committed to maintaining the viability of those rural areas through the social housing programme.

We have set up a rural housing steering group, which has been established to explore the barriers to rural housing development and to develop a plan to address those barriers. Research has been commissioned, which is expected to report in the coming months, and I will be happy to share that with the Member in due course.

Ms Hunter: I thank the Minister for his statement. This is a step in the right direction, but, in the past five years, over 2,040 Housing Executive homes have been sold off via the right-to-buy scheme. I welcome the fact that there will be 300 new homes in the initial development that was announced today, but what is the Minister's assessment of the right-to-buy scheme, its impact on homelessness and the lack of available housing for people who struggle to afford rent in Northern Ireland?

Mr Lyons: The Member is right to highlight the lack of social homes in Northern Ireland. I support people's right to buy their own home. Those homes are not wasted; they go to people who need somewhere to live. Getting rid of the right-to-buy scheme will not deal with the issue. We need to make sure that we build more social homes in Northern Ireland. We need to continue with the social housing development programme. I will continue to lobby for more funds for that, but I will also look at innovative ways for us to increase the supply of social homes and other tenures in Northern Ireland.

Ms Brownlee: I thank the Minister for his statement, which is welcome. As the Minister knows, housing is a critical issue in our East Antrim constituency, so I am pleased that he has brought it to the House. Will the Minister detail what action his Department will take to increase social housing provision, and accessible properties in particular, in Northern Ireland?

Mr Lyons: I am grateful to the Member for raising that question. It is important that people not only have homes but have the homes that are right and appropriate for them. We know that that is a struggle. I look forward to announcing some changes on making sure that people have appropriate homes, but I want the House to be clear: progressing this policy does not mean that I am stepping back whatsoever from my desire to make sure that we have more social homes in Northern Ireland. The intermediate-rent programme is one tool that will help us to deal with the crisis that we face, but we have built too few social homes over the past number of years. We need to continue to build more of them in order to give people more security. The Member will be aware of the length of time that some families in our constituency have to wait to get into a home. That is not good enough. We want to do better, and I will do all that I can to make sure that the programme moves forward in collaboration with the Housing Executive and housing associations. The real game changer for us will be the Housing Executive's ability to borrow against its assets so that we can refurbish and renovate homes and, most importantly, build new homes. I am committed to getting that done.

Mr McHugh: Go raibh maith agat, a Aire, as ucht do ráitis.

[Translation: Thank you, Minister, for your statement.]

I note that the setting of the intermediate-rent properties will be based on the Housing Executive's analysis and annual reports. Will you set out what other sources of information your Department will use to inform the issue of affordability across constituencies where affordability may vary, which is reflected in the housing market in my constituency of West Tyrone?

Mr Lyons: As I said in my answer to Mrs Erskine, housing stress and housing affordability issues are not unique to urban areas. We find them in rural constituencies as well. The process that will be set out will not be limited to particular areas based on the need there. We will look at Northern Ireland as a whole. The programme will be spread out around at least two local government districts. I have set out those parameters today, but more detail on it will need to be worked out in consultation with others.

Mr Allen: The Minister, rightly, alluded to the fact that we need to leverage a broad array of options in order to tackle the housing crisis facing Northern Ireland. He also highlighted the fact that we previously underutilised FTC. Will he expand on the amount of FTC that this initiative will draw down and whether his Department is exploring other models?

Mr Lyons: As I have always said, we need to explore a number of models, especially with FTC, which has so often been underutilised in the past. Co-ownership is another way in which we can use FTC to achieve that. I am sure that the Member will not mind if I do not go into the detail of how much FTC we intend to spend, because the programme will open to competition tomorrow, and it would not be wise for me to go into exact numbers. I can, however, confirm that the amount is substantial. I look forward to the competition opening and closing and to our moving forward on the issue.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Blair): That concludes questions on the statement.

1.00 pm

Ms Armstrong: On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. I am not rising to challenge the earlier decision; I accept it. I ask the Speaker's Office to write to all Ministers to remind them of Standing Order 18A(2), which states that statements should be made available to Members at least 30 minutes before their delivery to the Assembly.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Blair): Thank you. As before, I will send the point of order to the Speaker's Office for advice.

The Business Committee has arranged to meet at 1.00 pm today. I propose, therefore, by leave of the Assembly, to suspend the sitting until 2.00 pm, when the next item of business will be questions to the Minister for Infrastructure.

The sitting was suspended at 1.00 pm.

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

2.00 pm

Oral Answers to Questions


Madam Principal Deputy Speaker: Question 11 has been withdrawn.

Mr O'Dowd (The Minister for Infrastructure): Park-and-ride schemes are a key enabler for improving connections, increasing public transport use, promoting sustainability and encouraging a modal shift to active travel. My Department has identified a list of priority bus- and rail-based park-and-ride sites. Further potential sites will be considered in the new transport strategy and transport plans that are being developed.

I am supportive of expanding our park-and-ride schemes, where needed. However, as the capital budget for my Department is less than that required, I am considering investment plans for 2024-25. As the Member will be aware, public services such as infrastructure are under severe pressure as a result of over a decade of Tory cuts and austerity. Infrastructure is key to connecting our communities, and it is the bedrock upon which we should build our ambitions for the delivery of radical changes to improve lives. Doing that properly will require investment.

Mr Honeyford: Thank you to the Minister for his answer and for his prioritisation of the issue. I recently met his Department and Translink: they lobbied for an extension to the park-and-ride at Moira and told me that it was a priority and that they wanted to deliver it quickly. The extension has since received full planning permission, only for DFI to give notice that it may want to review its own application and decision. Will the Minister give a ministerial direction to stop the internal nonsense and allow Translink to get on with providing a much-needed extension to the park-and-ride at Moira as soon as possible?

Mr O'Dowd: I thank the Member for his question. I will certainly look into that in more detail, David, and decide whether or not it is "nonsense". There may be a number of issues at play in ensuring that, moving forward, any investment fits in with the transport plans that are being developed and that we have the budget to deliver that investment.

It is quite clear, as I said in my original answer, that park-and-rides are fantastic facilities: they take private cars off the road and allow people easy access to public transport. However, for me to continue to roll out the programme of park-and-rides, I will require capital budget. In the next number of weeks, I will announce my budget. Unfortunately, I am in the same position as all the Ministers around the Executive table: we simply do not have enough budget to deliver all the plans that we wish to deliver. I will certainly look into the matter in greater detail for the Member.

Mr Boylan: Minister, when do we expect to see the regional transport strategy and the transport plans?

Mr O'Dowd: The transport plans are being developed to support the councils as they develop their local development plans. The timing of the various transport plans across council areas reflects that. For instance, the Fermanagh and Omagh transport plan, the north-west transport plan and the eastern transport plan have all been commenced, with evidence-gathering preparatory work under way for all remaining transport areas.

Ms Hunter: I thank the Minister for his answers so far. Minister, my question pertains to the City of Derry Airport. Has park-and-ride provision been considered for there? Are there any further updates on rail connectivity to Derry airport?

Mr O'Dowd: I have no information in front of me about a park-and-ride for the City of Derry Airport. As for connectivity through the rail network, that will form part of the all-island rail review. I hope to be able to publish that review in June. I have to do that in conjunction with my ministerial colleague in the South. We are both working our way through the processes. I have to present it to the Executive, and Minister Ryan has to present it to the Cabinet. I hope to be able to do that in June.

Mr Stewart: I thank the Minister for his update on this important infrastructural asset. Minister, I have been contacted by a number of people who have asked whether there is an opportunity to see electric vehicle charging points put in at our park-and-ride facilities. Will you look at that to see whether it can be done by Translink? If it is not willing to do so, can the space be opened up to private firms to put in charging points at park-and-ride facilities?

Mr O'Dowd: I understand that that proposal was looked at before. A study was done on whether park-and-rides are the best places for charging points, and it suggested that they were not, because of the nature of those areas and the length of time that vehicles stay there. Only a minimal number of vehicles would be able to be charged, and, during that time, the charger should be available for other vehicles. However, I am always happy to look at aspects or proposals for how we can increase the use of electric vehicles and make them more accessible to the public.

Mr O'Dowd: The A24 Ballynahinch scheme will provide a 3·1 kilometre dual carriageway bypass around the town of Ballynahinch, improving journey times and reliability, enhancing road safety and creating place-making opportunities in the town. Due to other investment in major road schemes and the constrained budget position, the scheme was considered as part of the prioritisation of major schemes, and further work on the scheme was paused as part of the outworkings of that review. Any decision to proceed with the A24 Ballynahinch bypass can only be made when I am confident that there is budget certainty for the scheme and that its delivery will be in line with the Department's emerging transport plans.

Mrs Mason: I thank the Minister for his answer. Does the Minister agree that the completion of the project would allow us to completely rethink Ballynahinch and include more active travel routes in the area?

Mr O'Dowd: The simple answer is yes. Ballynahinch, like many significant market towns and regional towns, is suffering from traffic congestion from traffic that may not necessarily be doing business in the town but travelling through it. I hope to be in a position to see a number of projects move forward, be that in this financial year or the next financial year, to ensure that we allow such towns to develop alternatives within the town. You will have seen what we have announced, recently, for Enniskillen, for example. Ballynahinch would definitely benefit from the bypass, not only to take traffic out of the town, but to allow for further active travel options and place-making within the town centre, which, in itself, also brings business into the town centres.

Mr O'Toole: As someone who originally comes from nearby the area that we are talking about, I strongly agree that Ballynahinch needs a bypass. Part of the congestion stretches into Carryduff, in my constituency. Does the Minister agree that part of reducing all those emissions and congestion down the Saintfield Road — from Carryduff onwards — is extending the Glider to Carryduff so that commuters from the like of Ballynahinch, Downpatrick and Newcastle can get the Glider from Carryduff into Belfast to their jobs? Will he commit to delivering that soon? I know that he is looking at it.

Mr O'Dowd: The Member has answered his own question, in a sense. We are looking at an extension of the Glider, for the very reasons that he has outlined. It can, and does, reduce traffic congestion, and, again, meets our climate target challenges by taking more and more private vehicles off the road and encouraging people to use public transport.

Mr McMurray: May I add Castlewellan to the list of towns that Matthew O'Toole mentioned from which commuters travel? Will the Minister confirm that the bypass will be reprioritised, given the obvious safety and air quality issues in the town?

Mr O'Dowd: I can assure the Member that the Ballynahinch bypass is being looked at within the 2024-25 capital budget. I hope to be in a position to announce my budget in the next number of weeks. However, I will not be able to do all the planned works that I would have hoped to do in 2024-25. I know that there have been delays to the Ballynahinch bypass, but you also have to plan a number of years ahead, particularly in capital projects. If we cannot move ahead in 2024-25, I will be looking at 2025-26 to get this project up and going.

Mr McNulty: In relation to bypasses, will the Minister provide an update on the progress of the Armagh east and west link roads and when they will be expected to commence on site?

Mr O'Dowd: I have no information on that.

Madam Principal Deputy Speaker: It is not related to the question.

Mr O'Dowd: It does not relate to the original question. I am more than happy to write to the Member.

Madam Principal Deputy Speaker: Yes, can you write to the Member? Thank you.

Mr O'Dowd: The new, modern, fully accessible York Street station is a major public transport facility in north Belfast and will act as a gateway for the locality. The station has seen a significant increase in footfall over the years, with levels projected to increase to 70,000 by 2028-29. The new station has been designed to be fully inclusive for all and has the potential to be a catalyst for further investment in the area. It will provide access to Ulster University, Sailortown, the Cathedral Quarter, City Quays, Cityside and other nearby communities. I am keen that we maximise the potential of rail to support social and economic development and the environmental sustainability of our transport system.

Investment in the railway drives jobs and growth, stimulates development and regeneration, and unlocks housing supply by creating better transport links. Those links can boost access to services, jobs and education. Rail also has an important part to play in tackling the climate emergency. It has a lower environmental impact than other modes of transport, as it emits less carbon and consumes less energy. Improved rail facilities will also deliver environmental benefits by encouraging modal shift, which reduces congestion and emissions and improves safety.

Mr Kelly: Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as a fhreagra.

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

The Minister has probably answered my supplementary question, which is about the facilities at the station. If he has anything to add, that is OK. If he has not, he may have already answered my question.

Mr O'Dowd: I can provide the Member with a few more details, if he so wishes. The station provides for public facilities such as retail space; safe and secure cycle storage, with about 70 spaces, and connections to existing cycle infrastructure; a Belfast Bikes station delivered as part of phase 2; a new passenger footbridge between platforms; a bus turning circle at the front to facilitate connectivity, especially for local schools that will use the station daily; and increased passenger platform width to reduce congestion at peak times. As the Member can see, not only is it a facility built for the use of railway passengers but there is connectivity with other forms of transport, be they other forms of public transport or active travel.

Miss McAllister: Has the Minister given any consideration to funding? I understand that it is within the remit of the Department for Communities' public realm works. Given the impact that the station will have on connectivity to Sailortown, is regeneration of the tunnel link for pedestrians under consideration? It is important that both Departments work hand in hand when the projects are completed.

Mr O'Dowd: I have no details in front of me, but I am always happy to work with other Departments to try to use our joint resources to improve the environment and facilities for local communities. The York Street junction area will also come into play at some stage. We have done significant work on place-making, ensuring that we are not simply imposing infrastructure on communities but working with them to ensure that their rights and entitlements are taken into consideration. We can improve the environment around them, even though we are placing quite significant pieces of infrastructure in and on those communities.

Mr O'Dowd: The heads of terms of the Causeway Coast and Glens growth deal was signed on 24 April. As the lead Department, we recently approved the council's strategic outline business case for the Portrush to Bushmills greenway. I am pleased to see that the project has been included in the growth deal. The council will now begin work on the outline business case, and my officials look forward to engaging with it on this exciting project.

Mr McGuigan: Given its location along the north coast and the fact that it is linking two tourist towns, Bushmills and Portrush, this is a great tourism project. Does the Minister agree with me that, beyond tourism, the greenway will provide many benefits to the local community, including an improvement in the quality of life?

Mr O'Dowd: That is without doubt. We know that providing opportunities for people to be outside and physically active brings many benefits, especially for people's physical and mental health. Walking, wheeling and cycling are easy ways in which for people to build activity into their everyday life. When we are able to provide them with first-class facilities, that encourages more people to do activity. I have no doubt that it will be a great tourist attraction, but equally important is its benefit to the local community.

Mr Frew: Given that the greenway is an important project and a linear route from Portrush to Bushmills, can the Minister encourage Translink to ensure that, when the greenway is up and running and operational, buses will be fitted in such a way that cyclists and walkers can place their bikes and backpacks on them?

Mr O'Dowd: That is a very good point. We will have to have connectivity among all forms of transport if we are to encourage more people to leave the comfort and convenience of their private cars. We are having discussions with Translink about its facilities and making sure that those are not only up to date but fit for purpose. We will certainly continue those discussions.

Mr Allister: This is a joint venture with Causeway Coast and Glens Borough Council. What is the ratio of the cost breakdown? Indeed, what is the anticipated cost?

Mr O'Dowd: The usual breakdown of cost is around 50% each.

I do not have the final costs in front of me, Mr Allister, but it usually works on the basis that my Department funds 50% and the local council funds 50%. My Department also provides expertise through its ability to deliver large-scale projects. I am more than happy to supply the Member with whatever costs we have at this stage.

2.15 pm

Ms Hunter: I welcome the update today. Hopefully, we will get a bit of summer sun once the project is complete so that we can use the greenway. Are there any additional plans to invest in greenways in the wider north-west?

Mr O'Dowd: We are working with all of the councils on the promotion of greenways. When I was in this post in 2022, my Department took on a greater engagement and support role with councils in how we deliver greenways. In fairness to councils, delivering major infrastructure projects is not usually within their remit. My Department has the skills and expertise to deliver them, so I want my Department to work in close conjunction with them. We will continue to do that through our active travel unit.

Greenways can present the same challenges as with building traditional infrastructure such as roads, because you go through the property of a significant number of landowners. Some will facilitate; others will have concerns; and others may object. There is always a chance of a challenge with all such matters, but, again, my Department has the expertise in that regard, which we can share with councils and engage with them on.

Mr O'Dowd: As Minister responsible for promoting and improving road safety, I want to work actively with partners to reduce death and serious injuries on our roads. I believe that the targeted provision of infrastructure at and near schools can go a long way to making our roads and communities safer. My Department utilises a range of measures outside schools to help to make the roads safer such as traffic signs, which can come with flashing amber lights; road markings; coloured surfacing; "School: Keep Clear" markings; parking restrictions and speed limits. In recent years, my Department has installed part-time 20 mph zones at 215 schools, an investment of around £4 million. Work is going on to review the effectiveness of those to determine whether further part-time 20 mph zones can be installed at other schools.

My Department is also developing an active travel delivery plan that will include active travel design guidance specific to here. The new guidance is in the process of being finalised and is expected to be introduced later this year. It will include measures aimed at encouraging more people to walk, wheel and cycle to school. I need to say, however, that the delivery of all of that is subject to funding and the availability of staff.

Mr McGrath: Obviously, all of those measures are welcome and help to allay the fears of parents and children as they go to and from school. Has the Minister given any consideration to the introduction of School Streets schemes, which could help with some of the most intense problems, such as the one at Edward Street in Downpatrick, where parents bring children to Our Lady and St Patrick Primary School?

Mr O'Dowd: The Member has raised that matter with me on a number of occasions. I assure him that my Department is actively investigating that as part of its active development planning. We are specifically looking at Edward Street to see whether a School Street is a solution. I assure the Member that that work is ongoing. I would be interested in getting a number of the pilot schemes going to see whether they deliver the benefits that they certainly have the potential to deliver and whether we can do them in other areas.

Of course, all road users but particularly, around school time, drivers of vehicles have a responsibility to act responsibly around our schools. I have said in the Chamber before that, if a driver does not understand that they need to slow down around a school, I am not sure what sort of signage will encourage them to do so. I encourage drivers to respect other road users, particularly at school times.

Mr Dunne: Will the Minister provide more information on the further roll-out of the 20 mph school speed limit programme, given that the most recent one was in November 2022? Recently, at Grange Park Primary School in my constituency, a young child was, sadly, knocked down and injured as they left the school. Will he commit to rolling that out, given that the clock has been ticking since it was last done?

Mr O'Dowd: I thank the Member for his question. A review of the 20 mph speed limit zones around schools has been completed. My officials hope to have it with me in a number of weeks, and I will consider it in due course.

Every Minister comes to the Chamber and says this, but that is because it is fact: when you are dealing with a limited budget, you do not have the resources in your Department to bring forward all of the proposals and policies that you and officials might once have done or would like to do. That slows the whole system up. It is not just when you witness a closure or a cut to a service; the whole system slows up. Unfortunately, there are projects in my Department that I would like to see move on and that, I have no doubt , my officials would like to see move on, but, given the resources needed to do things — in this case, people — we do not have the resources at hand. I assure the Member that I will move through these as quickly as possible.

Ms Egan: Minister, earlier this year, there was a horrendous incident in North Down, when a child who was leaving school was hit by a car on the Bryansburn Road. What will the Minister do to put urgent safety measures in place on the Bryansburn Road in Bangor to make sure that children walking to and from Grange Park Primary School and St Comgall's Primary School can do so safely?

Mr O'Dowd: In every incident where there is an accident, a collision or, as in this instance, a serious injury, the lead investigation is with the PSNI. The PSNI, working along with my Department, will look at the entirety of the incident. A report will be prepared, and then, if engineering solutions are required in an area, they will be brought forward for completion at a certain time. Again, they have to be prioritised. It sounds awful to talk about prioritisation when you have just reminded me that a young child was knocked down. However, they will be prioritised and delivered in due course.

It is worth noting that, in 95% of all accidents, the cause is human error. It is not about an engineering solution; it is not a matter with the road, the footpath or the cycleway. It is due to human error, which is usually the distraction of the driver in some way.

Mr O'Dowd: A study of the Glenville Road/Shore Road junction was undertaken by my Department's consultancy partner. The junction was modelled, and several options were considered, including signalisation of the junction. Signalisation of the junction, however, has significant downsides, increasing congestion on the A2 Shore Road for a relatively small number of vehicle movements. It is also a very costly option and will be competing against other equally important schemes for my Department's limited funding. In the interim, it is proposed to renew and extend the existing yellow-box markings to provide increased visibility. My Department will also take forward a proposal to prohibit right-turn movement on the Glenville Road and U-turn movement on the signalised junction at Shore Road/Glenavna Road. A full design and detailed estimate for the signalisation of the junction will be progressed as resources permit.

Mr Dickson: I thank the Minister for his answer; indeed, I got a similar answer from the divisional roads manager today. However, Minister, your answer and the divisional roads manager's answer are localised to that particular area and the number of vehicles. There was a further accident there yesterday. There has practically been one every day in the last couple of weeks. Every time an accident happens at the junction of Glenville Road and Shore Road, traffic is backed up the whole way to the Westlink.

Madam Principal Deputy Speaker: Come to your question, Stewart.

Mr Dickson: There is a wider context than just the 47 vehicle turns at the junction.

Mr O'Dowd: I am aware of the increased accident history at the junction. I was engaged with officials in preparing for Question Time today, and we were talking through the issues. They made me aware of the increased number of accidents at that junction, and I have asked them to look into the matter further. I accept that, when you make a change at a junction or do not make a change, it impacts further down the road, perhaps, sometimes, for several miles. My Department is also aware of that, and officials will look at that as well before we make a final decision on how we move this. The interim measure will be the increase in the yellow box at the area. Again, I urge all drivers to take extreme care when using our roads.

Mr O'Dowd: Following the Adjournment debate on 12 March, I asked my officials to take forward a review of the A20 Portaferry Road from Newtownards to Teal Rocks to establish what engineering measures could be taken forward that may help with road safety. My officials are making good progress on that review. Regarding the speed limit, a traffic speed assessment is under way to assess the potential of extending the 40 mph speed limit from Newtownards to just beyond Teal Rocks. A plan is also in place to take forward nearly 1 kilometre of resurfacing from Newtownards to just beyond Teal Rocks. That will include a new bus lay-by, subject to the availability of funding. That resurfacing will be part of a 10-year plan for resurfacing along the A20 Portaferry Road. As part of the resurfacing work, consideration will be given to the installation of road-edge white lining, verge hazard marker posts and road studs that will help driver visibility.

Mr Mathison: I thank the Minister for his answer. Much of that seems to be positive. The speed limit is an issue that constituents regularly raise with reps across the constituency. When will the review of the speed limit on the stretch of road in question be completed? Will he engage directly with elected reps for the area, as he undertook to do in the Adjournment debate, to explain the rationale for any decisions that are taken?

Mr O'Dowd: I am more than happy for my officials to engage with elected representatives on the rationale for decisions; that would be helpful for both sides. As for when the speed limit will, potentially, be reduced, officials are working their way through the process, collecting information and confirming the viability of a speed change. If such a change is deemed suitable, legislation will be needed. That will require a consultation process and could take up to nine months to complete. Nine months is a significant period to make a speed limit change.

The process that has to be followed is set out in legislation, and that is one of the matters that I will examine further with my officials. I do not think, in fairness, that that will help in this case, but we have to look at whether there is a more effective and efficient way of responding to such matters.

Miss McIlveen: The Minister will be aware that the route is subject to coastal erosion. I am keen to know what discussions he has had with his counterpart at Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs in relation to the coastal forum and any work specifically on coastal erosion that may be carried out along that route.

Mr O'Dowd: My officials sit on the coastal forum, and Minister Muir and I have agreed to meet on the matter of coastal erosion. I hastily add that DAERA has lead responsibility, but, again, I am more than happy to work with other Ministers and Departments to ensure that we make the most effective use of our limited resources.

Mr O'Dowd: Major road schemes are an important part of the work that is delivered by my Department, as we seek to reduce journey times, increase reliability and improve road safety. In October 2022, I published a placemaker and active travel review report on the scheme and asked my officials to carry out further work on three scenarios recommended in it. That work is nearing completion. Due to underinvestment in major road schemes and the constrained budget position, the scheme was considered as part of the prioritisation of major schemes, and further work on it was paused as part of the outworkings of that review.

A decision to proceed with the York Street interchange project can be made only when I am confident that there is budget certainty for the scheme and that its delivery is in line with my Department's emerging transport plans.

Mr Chambers: I am disappointed to hear about the ongoing delay, Minister. This has, as you said, been on the agenda and an Executive priority since 2002. Given that the York Street interchange stalemate has cost the Northern Ireland economy about £1 billion a year, what assurance can the Minister give that he will prioritise that project?

Mr O'Dowd: The York Street interchange is one of many priorities for my Department and, indeed, the Executive. We will have to look at how we can deliver some of the major projects. As I said to other Members, I am going through my capital budget and hope to make an announcement on that in the next number of weeks. That will outline whether there will be continued movement on the York Street interchange.

Significant priority work has been done, some of which was absolutely necessary. I have talked about the placemaking that we have done in that area. We are placing a significant piece of infrastructure on top of communities and businesses, and it is right and proper that they have their say on how we move forward with the project. I will be able to announce in the next number of weeks whether the project will move forward significantly in the next financial year.

Madam Principal Deputy Speaker: That ends the period for listed questions. We now move to 15 minutes of topical questions.

2.30 pm

T1. Mr Durkan asked the Minister for Infrastructure to tell the House, following the Finance Minister’s provision of an earmarked capital allocation of £85·6 million to his Department for the A6 and the Belfast transport hub, how much of that will be spent on the A6 and how exactly it will be spent. (AQT 281/22-27)

Mr O'Dowd: Negotiations are continuing between my officials and the contractor. As you will know, the A6 completion works opened this time last year. There are ongoing discussions between my officials and the contractor about signing off on that contract — the final payment. That is obviously a significant, commercially sensitive engagement that I cannot go into in any further detail. We are also looking at how we move forward with the next phase of the A6, and the Member will be aware of the Mobuoy dump site. We are engaging with the Environment Agency and others to ensure that whatever successful conclusion comes from that takes into account the needs of my Department in moving the project forward.

Mr Durkan: I thank the Minister for his answer. The same statement from the Finance Minister contained the very welcome £88 million from the Dublin Government for the A5. Will the Minister confirm whether there are any strings attached to that funding, such as when the money must be spent by, and does he intend to allocate any of DFI's capital budget to the A5 this year?

Mr O'Dowd: Whether I am able to allocate funding to the A5 this year depends on my position when I make my announcement in the summer in relation to the A5 and respond to the recommendations of the Planning Appeals Commission's report.

The Member asked whether there are strings attached to the contribution from the Dublin Government. I would not say that there are strings attached, but, obviously, they will want to be assured that their money is being used effectively and efficiently and for the purpose for which it has been designated to my Department. I can assure you and others that that will be the case if and when I make my announcement in the summer.

T2. Mr Allen asked the Minister for Infrastructure for an update on his Department’s plans to tackle obstructive pavement parking. (AQT 282/22-27)

Mr O'Dowd: The Member will be aware that, in 2023, my Department updated the legislation on inconsiderate and illegal pavement parking. Those measures are in place and include bus stops, cycleways, crossing areas, school patrol areas, school crossings etc. It is now a matter for the PSNI to enforce them. There is also the report on inconsiderate parking, which I will take further time to consider to see whether there is any requirement for new legislation or enhanced measures.

Mr Allen: I thank the Minister for his update. Minister, I have recently been contacted by a number of individuals who use wheelchairs to get around on a daily basis, and pavement parking is obviously an issue that they are majorly impacted by. Another issue that they have raised with me is their ability to use power-assist devices, which enables them to add an adaptation to their manual wheelchair to get around. However, current legislation is causing a barrier, and I know that one individual has engaged with your Department. Are you willing to meet me and them to discuss that matter?

Mr O'Dowd: I do not usually accept meetings while on the Floor of the House, but, given the circumstances, I am more than happy to do so, Andy.

T3. Mr Dunne asked the Minister for Infrastructure whether, having had "No mow April" and "No mow May" from his Department, we will now have "No mow June". (AQT 283/22-27)

Mr O'Dowd: The Member needs to understand why we have "No mow April" and "No mow May" and why we might have to have "No mow June" as well. It is not for budgetary reasons. We are facing a biodiversity crisis as well as a climate crisis. My Department is a significant landowner, and the grass verges along our roadways and road networks are ideal settings for biodiversity to thrive. We have to manage those road verges from a road safety perspective as well. When I was in this post a couple of years ago, I introduced a new policy on when, how and how often we should cut our grass verges. That has now been brought into line. We are attempting to ensure that sight lines are kept, but, again, we face budgetary pressures around that.

When the general public understand why we are doing these things, they are very acceptive and supportive. I recently visited Causeway Coast and Glens Borough Council, which has an excellent scheme in place. It also faced some criticism at the start around the measures, but when residents understood why they were happening, they were very supportive of them.

Mr Dunne: I thank the Minister for his answer. Does he recognise the real road safety concerns that exist and the need for a proper balanced approach between road safety and our environment, particularly when sight lines are restricted, as is the case today, not just in North Down but across Northern Ireland, including along the A2 dual carriageway, the Bangor ring road and the Bangor to Ards dual carriageway? It makes manoeuvres across those busy carriageways and junctions very dangerous for all road users. We cannot emphasise enough the importance of road safety, particularly when we see the very frightening and startling road deaths across the country.

Mr O'Dowd: Despite my support for the biodiversity along our road network, road safety comes first. Sight lines will be maintained. If the Member has any areas of concern, he should report them to his local section office to follow them up. Resource issues mean that there will be challenges for my Department in responding as quickly as it once did. The policy pertains to areas where we can do this safely, but road safety will always take priority.

T4. Mr Frew asked the Minister for Infrastructure whether he has had sight of the Bushmills regeneration scheme and the work on the traffic and parking infrastructure for the town. (AQT 284/22-27)

Mr O'Dowd: No, I have not had sight of that. It has not come across my desk.

Mr Frew: I thank the Minister for his answer. Then, can I put it on record, please, Minister, that you will look at it? Will you ensure that it is a priority for your Department and that the population of Bushmills will have a great buy-in to the future plans, especially around the traffic management of the town, which should have a positive effect, but, in some cases, has a negative effect?

Mr O'Dowd: I am more than happy to ask my officials for a report on the matter. The Member is absolutely correct. With any scheme, there should be full consultation with residents and local businesses.

T5. Miss McIlveen asked the Minister for Infrastructure what policies are in place to replace the urban trees that have been lost through disease, storm damage, vandalism or accidental damage. (AQT 285/22-27)

Mr O'Dowd: The Department seeks, wherever possible, to replace during the next planting season trees lost through disease, storm damage, vandalism or for other reasons. Generally, that happens over the winter months. Where replacement at the same location is not possible, an alternative site will be sought. The maintenance of trees seeks to prevent obstructions to sight lines and signs, ensuring that they do not become a hazard to road users and allow for the safe passage of road users, as well as maintaining the effectiveness of road lighting.

Miss McIlveen: I thank the Minister for his response. Further to that, what discussion has his Department had with councils and other bodies about operating in partnership to develop programmes to replace urban trees, such as the trees for streets scheme that operates on the mainland?

Mr O'Dowd: The scheme to which the Member refers is a non-profit enterprise that runs a national tree sponsorship scheme to assist local councils with the cost of street tree planting. The Department works closely with a number of councils across a wide range of biodiversity issues, including the provision and maintenance of tree stocks. In Belfast, which has the largest number of street trees, my Department has a formal partnership with Belfast City Council to look after those valuable assets that enhance the amenity of urban areas, as well as contributing to and improving air quality.

My Department is willing to consider any schemes or partnerships that will allow the planting of additional trees. I will follow up on the Member's suggestion about the scheme that is running in England, Scotland and Wales.

T6. Mr Kelly asked the Minister for Infrastructure, after declaring an interest as a member of the Policing Board, whether, following the Minister’s recent meeting with the PSNI on road safety, which he welcomed, especially after some terrible recent losses, he will update the House on that engagement. (AQT 286/22-27)

Mr O'Dowd: As the Member said, last week, I had a constructive and informative meeting with the police. We discussed how we can work collectively to improve road safety not just on the A5 but across our road network. The Department is looking at further engineering measures that we can implement on the existing A5 to improve road safety, and the police are looking at enforcement measures. However, I have to say that, as I said to Members during Question Time, we can all play our part. It is an issue for society.

In the six days since I met the police, two more people have died on our roads, bringing the death toll this year to 24. I send my heartfelt condolences to the families and friends of all who have lost their lives on our roads. In the North, the death rate on our roads is, on average, one per week. Think about that: those are people, not simply statistics. They are young and old and all are beloved family members and friends. Every single week, we lose someone on our roads, and I appeal to all road users to ensure that the actions that we take on our roads ensure that we arrive home safely and that the people we share our roads with also arrive home safely.

Mr Kelly: Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire

[Translation: I thank the Minister.]

I add my voice, as I am sure everyone else does, to the condolences that he has sent out to those who have lost loved ones. On the basis of that, when can we expect the road safety strategy?

Mr O'Dowd: I hope to bring the road safety strategy 2030 to the Executive in the coming weeks for their clearance and support. Thereafter, and once the outworkings of our budgets for the Department and our road safety partners are known, work will commence on a detailed action plan to assist in the targeted delivery of the objectives in that strategy. The strategy recognises that collisions are inevitable but does not accept that they should ever result in death or serious injury. By 2030, we aim to reduce death and serious injury by at least 50%, with our long-term aim being to achieve zero road deaths by 2050. We aim to achieve that by taking a holistic approach to road safety through the enforcement of safe roads, safe vehicles and safe people, and we will do that through a programme of education, engineering and enforcement.

T7. Mrs Dodds asked the Minister for Infrastructure when, having rightly pointed out the tragedy of deaths on our roads and knowing that the A1 has been a source of death and accidents for a long time, he will announce the promised upgrades to the A1 dual carriageway, now that he has received his budget. (AQT 287/22-27)

Mr O'Dowd: As I said to colleagues, I am working my way through my capital budget, and I hope to be able to make an announcement in the next number of weeks. I am acutely conscious of the death toll on the A1, and I have met Monica Heaney and you and your party colleagues on that matter. I am doing everything in my power to ensure that that project moves on as quickly as possible.

Mrs Dodds: Thank you. That is encouraging. We have spoken about this at length, and it is a really important project. In light of that, will the Minister share with the House what other projects he is considering in the Upper Bann constituency in the short to medium term?

Mr O'Dowd: I am tempted to say "all of them". Everything in Upper Bann is under consideration. [Laughter.]

I am perhaps putting myself into difficulty. The major road infrastructure project that is required in Upper Bann at this stage is the A1 project.

T8. Ms Á Murphy asked the Minister for Infrastructure to outline some of the benefits of social value in the procurement process for the Enniskillen bypass. (AQT 288/22-27)

Mr O'Dowd: The term "social value" can be hard to understand for the general public. We have noted that, when my colleagues in the Department are out consulting, it is difficult to get a response from the general public. I am of the view that, if you were to go to somebody and ask what they think of social valuing, you would perhaps spend longer talking about what social valuing is than you would finding out what people would add to it.

Social value seeks to create positive benefits for residents, businesses and stakeholder through four themes: delivering zero carbon; promoting well-being; increasing secure employment and skills; and building ethical and resilient supply chains. A social value engagement has been carried out to capture the views of the community in the Enniskillen area on what additional benefits can be brought to the town through the delivery of the scheme. That input will help the Department to tailor meaningful social value outcomes as part of a scheme for delivery by the appointed contractor.

Ms Á Murphy: I thank the Minister for his answer. Minister, most importantly, wh