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Official Report: Monday 11 March 2024


The Assembly met at 12:00 pm (Madam Principal Deputy Speaker [Ms Ní Chuilín] in the Chair).
Members observed two minutes' silence.

Matter of the Day

Madam Principal Deputy Speaker: Ms Joanne Bunting has been given leave to make a statement on Operation Kenova, which 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 will have up to three minutes 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 finished. This is a matter of obvious public interest, but I ask Members to confine themselves to debating the findings of the Kenova report and not any current legal proceedings.

Ms Bunting: Eight years, £40 million, 50,000 pages of evidence on 101 murders and abductions by the Provisional IRA (PIRA), 35 files to the Public Prosecution Service (PPS) and zero prosecutions: that is the state of play in the Operation Kenova interim report. It makes recommendations in respect of a range of criminal justice agencies, including the PPS and the Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland (PONI), which will have implications for public confidence. Above all, it outlines the role of agents, the legitimate need for them, the importance of their work, the requirement for a degree of secrecy and, importantly, the extreme context in which they were operating at that time.

To quote the report:

"From a relatively peaceful country at the end of the 1960s, violence escalated rapidly to 472 people being killed in 1972. No police force in the world could have dealt with this level of murder."

"In 1983, Interpol data showed that Northern Ireland was the most dangerous place in the world to be a police officer".

Mr Boutcher is frank, and there are some uncomfortable words for our state. However, the report lays bare the workings of PIRA, highlights the hypocrisy of its leaders and makes clear that some of the behaviours continue into the present day. I will let the report speak for itself.

Members of PIRA's internal security unit (ISU):

"were responsible for torture, inhumane and degrading treatment and murder, including of children, vulnerable adults, those with learning difficulties and many who were entirely innocent of the claims made against them. A core part of the activities of the ISU included physical beatings with iron bars and hammers and the shooting of victims in their legs, elbows, knees or feet".

"We also have evidence that PIRA took violent and punitive action against women and children in their family homes while detaining and torturing loved ones suspected of being agents."

"The ISU made some false promises that, should they confess to assisting the security forces, it would stop mistreating them."

Typically, PIRA did not usually live up to its undertakings and executed many of those who, in a vain attempt to stay alive, made admissions.

The interim report states:

"Some of the PIRA senior leadership who commissioned the ISU would later be active in seeking fairness and human rights protections. There is a stark contrast between their public position and the wanton use of torture and murder against people from their community who were often innocent of the accusations made against them."

We must keep a sense of perspective. Republican terrorists were responsible for 60% of the overall Troubles killings, loyalists for 30% and the security forces for 10%, not that the inquiries would convey that.

The interim report is unequivocal:

"PIRA's actions were the most shameful and evil I have encountered."

It is clear:

"The republican leadership should acknowledge and accept these crimes were wrong and apologise to the victims and the families of those tortured and murdered."

My final paragraph —.

Madam Principal Deputy Speaker: Sorry, but your time is up.

Ms Bunting: Thank you.

Mrs Dillon: After the publication of the interim report on the Kenova investigation, my thoughts are, first and foremost, with all the families whose loved ones were killed, without exception, and whose loss and hurt continues to this day.

Our painful history of conflict has left a deep legacy of suffering and trauma in our society. That trauma and suffering has affected every section of our community. We have an urgent responsibility to recognise and acknowledge the hurt that the families feel and to help all those affected to heal. Let me be very clear in saying that we as a party are wholeheartedly committed to healing the wounds of the past and to playing our part in whatever way we can.

Thankfully, we have been able to build a successful peace process in Ireland, and it has become a model for other areas of conflict across the globe. Although I acknowledge that that does not remove the pain for any family that continue to grieve for the person whom they love, when we look at the horrors unfolding in other parts of world, we are fortunate that we can now say with confidence that the conflict here is part of our history, is not part of our present and can never be part of our future.

Miss McAllister: Friday saw the publication of the interim report from Operation Kenova. First and foremost, I pay tribute to the bereaved families and surviving victims. It has been a long and difficult journey for them towards seeking the truth about what happened to their loved ones. I hope that this is another step towards that truth.

The interim report is a harrowing reminder of the abhorrent actions of the IRA against those whom it killed and the families that they left behind and a damning indictment of the state's handling of agents, with the report stating that Stakeknife, whom we all know and believe to be Freddie Scappaticci, cost more lives than he saved. It is a damning indictment of how the security services ran agents during the Troubles. Saving lives should have been paramount.

The interim report underlines the folly of the UK Government's approach to legacy. Operation Kenova shows that legacy investigations can be conducted successfully, with new information and evidence uncovered and comfort and clarity given to families and surviving victims. Rather than ride roughshod over victims and their families, we need to return to the victim-centred approach laid out in the Stormont House Agreement. Although we know that there will be no prosecutions in this case, the interim report proves that it is possible to enable article 2-compliant investigations, which allow families the opportunity to pursue prosecutions where possible. To remove the possibility of getting truth and justice from families is beyond contempt.

I pay tribute to Jon Boutcher and his team for how they have carried out their investigation thus far. It is an example of how to ensure that a process is carried out with the interests of victims at its heart. I hope that the final report will bring closure to some of the families, because what they want may differ. We hope that the UK Government and the republican leadership will consider the interim report's recommendations in full.

Mr Nesbitt: I declare an interest as a member of the Policing Board, which has an ongoing interest in Operation Kenova and which will, in due course, once it has had time to properly analyse the 200-page report, seek to discuss the findings of that report with Mr Boutcher and others. That it is such a detailed report brings into focus the fact that many victims and families will never see such detailed investigation into their cases. I say that without any disrespect to those who are the subject of the investigation of Operation Kenova.

It seems that, when we deal with legacy, we focus almost exclusively on lost lives and the impact of those lost lives. We should equally think about the lost opportunities for the living victims and survivors of the conflict; they have lost opportunities in education, employment, family life, social inclusion — the whole nine yards of adult social interaction.

It is our contention in the Ulster Unionist Party that nobody needed to die to get to where we are today, yet over 3,500 people lost their lives. It is important to put into context the loss of 3,500 lives. Like others in the House, I will be in Washington DC later this week to mark St Patrick's Day. In America, 3,000 lives were lost in a single day: the day that they call 9/11. If you were to scale up the violence here on a pro rata basis, per capita, the loss of life in America would have been 700,000. That is 12 times the number of Americans who died in Vietnam in America's worst conflict since the Second World War.

It should be noted that the police and security forces woke up every day with the intention of putting themselves in harm's way to protect society, while the Provisional IRA woke up with the intention of doing harm. It caused incredible harm, through some of the worst cases of human rights abuses imaginable: sexual crimes; child abuse; abductions; torturing and killing people and hiding their bodies — the so-called disappeared — and no-warning car bombs in our villages, towns and cities. The list goes on and on.

I note that the interim report calls for apologies. An apology does not cut it. As party leader, at the Haass/O'Sullivan and Stormont House talks, I called for acknowledgement statements from all parties. We should all acknowledge that nobody's hands are clean; that is the only proper start to dealing with our legacy.

Mr O'Toole: The Kenova report is shocking. It is also specific. It is specific in its deconstruction of the grotesque web of deceit, torture and murder that was facilitated by both the British state and the Provisional IRA. My words will fall short of the horrifying details contained in the Kenova report, which was authored by Jon Boutcher. Before I list some of what is said in the report, I pay tribute to the families, many of whom have not yet been able to speak publicly, because they still live with the shame and stigma that they feel from their loved ones having been branded touts — informers — and the deaths of their loved ones being treated as something shameful to be held in secrecy. My thoughts are with those families, and I hope that the report brings them some measure of closure.

I will be clear about what the Kenova report says. It has been claimed repeatedly, by those in the state and elsewhere who defended what they did, just as they defended collusion with loyalist paramilitaries, that Stakeknife "saved 'countless' ... lives". To quote the report: "He did not." That is a grotesque indictment of the state's dirty war on this island and of its handling of agents.

The UK Government's response of simply glossing over that and not even engaging with the detail of the interim report, let alone offering the apology that Jon Boutcher asked for, is utterly unacceptable; it is offensive to the families involved and to the rest of us in this society and it is a pathetic indictment of the current UK Government and their shabby approach to legacy.


12.15 pm

It is not just the state. It is the Provisional IRA and its campaign of, in many cases, profound and disgusting human rights violations. The Kenova report says that the senior members of the republican movement who allowed these events were themselves as likely to have assisted the security forces. It says that the senior IRA persons whom they interviewed remained dismissive, defiant and unrepentant. It is important, when we discuss these things, that we do not simply say that we regret all the deaths of the past and all the horror of what happened, but that we are specific. Whether it is the state or paramilitary actors, no apology can be taken seriously unless it is both sincere and specific, and that is no less than the victims of our Troubles deserve.

I do not want to spend all of our time, in the Chamber or anywhere else, talking about the past, but we cannot pretend that we can move on to a better future without being serious about the past — what happened, the specific details, what went wrong and how we can prevent it from happening in the future. I look forward to the final report from the Kenova inquiry.

Mr Allister: The vast plethora of words in the Kenova report must not blur the fundamental reality that it was an IRA bullet in the back of the head of every victim mentioned in this report. It was the IRA that decided that those people would be put to death — executed, in its terms. There is no escaping, nor should there be any obfuscation of that reality or any attempt to spread the blame by some sort of phoney equivalence. It was the IRA, through Scappaticci, whom they took in. He may then have taken them in, but it was his bullets and his henchmen's bullets that delivered multiple dead bodies.

It comes nowhere close enough to say, as the First Minister has said, that she is sorry for all deaths. That is not the question. The question is: was it wrong? Was it wrong for the IRA to murder, not just these people but all those whom they murdered? Weasel words that evade that question are quite appalling, and that is what we have had. We have had it here again today. We had the Sinn Féin Member saying that they want to heal wounds but never answering the question of whether it was right to cause those wounds. That is the question for which there must be an apology — the causing of the wounds, the execution of the murders. Were those wrong? That is the question that I have yet to hear an answer to from Sinn Féin. Until we get an answer to that, this is all just so much hypocrisy, failure and attempts to divert attention from the core issue. Terrorists chose to be terrorists. When they chose to act as terrorists, in murdering their own or anyone else, there can be no justification for that. Why is it that Sinn Féin, to this very day, will not face up to that and tell us whether the murders that their IRA committed were wrong?

Mr Carroll: At the outset, I pay tribute to all the victims, the campaigners and all those who relentlessly never gave up the fight to get justice and truth for their families and loved ones. The families of the victims of state violence, who never gave up the fight to expose the British state's crimes in its dirty war, also deserve mention today. That is what Stakeknife was about. That is who he was — an agent who was invaluable to the British establishment, and it was more concerned about infiltration than protecting lives. Collusion with paramilitary death squads and state-sponsored murderers, like Stakeknife, was never about saving lives. It was always about defending the political, economic and military aims of the British establishment.

The Kenova report is welcome in some parts but falls far short of what should really happen to those who were up to their necks in committing state terrorism. Importantly, it dispels the myth that Stakeknife protected more lives than he took, which is the cornerstone myth that is put out by those who lavishly and unapologetically repeat the lies of the British establishment. However, the report disgracefully maintains that state agents saved lives in the North. They did not, and that narrative needs to be challenged and done away with. The British state must own up to the fact that it sanctioned murder for its own nefarious ends. It was not just agents; it was those who paid them and those who gave them political cover.

The state's rotten apple theory is a deliberate lie, intended to justify state murder. It is deeply unfortunate that the Kenova report repeats that lie. The people of the North who suffered the brutal impact of those policies have always been viewed as collateral damage. As the years go on and investigations take place, the hidden hand of the state has been increasingly exposed in countless atrocities here. The absurdity of British democracy is this: you can be prosecuted or jailed for organising or attending a peaceful protest, but if you are an agent up to your neck in sanctioning and committing murder, you will be protected and supported, and you will get off scot-free. What a shame; what a disgrace.

The refusal to prosecute Stakeknife and other state proxies shows that the British Government are determined to cover up their crimes here in Ireland. Not only do they owe Stakeknife's victims an apology but they owe them the truth and justice for the loss of their loved ones. Families must be afforded proper investigations without interference from the British Government and the shadowy forces in the PSNI and MI5. The heads of the British state, including those at the top of its military and intelligence services who sanctioned and covered up state murder, should be in the dock.

Members' Statements

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

Hate Displays

Miss Hargey: I will make a statement on displays of hate that we have seen in our communities in the past few weeks. I reiterate that hate crime should have no place in our communities or society. Recent displays in which hate has been on show are concerning. We have seen it in recent sectarian and racist displays in Newtownabbey on a social housing site that is there to provide 111 new homes for those who are in need and, indeed, in racist displays in south Belfast. All those acts must be challenged, first by us — representatives who have been elected by our local communities to represent them and their interests — but they must also be robustly challenged by the agencies that are there to uphold the law.

People should be able to live free from harassment, intimidation and hate expression. There must be more robust action from the PSNI on that matter. The fact that the vast majority of cases end in no prosecution or with only a warning feeds into the fear of those impacted on by such displays. Therefore, a proactive and visible approach is needed to challenge that behaviour and, importantly, to hold to account those who are responsible for it. We also need to see more robust hate crime legislation, with enhanced protections against, and, importantly, statutory definitions of, hate, be it of a racist or sectarian nature or based on disability or sexual orientation. We must all work together to enhance the legislation and challenge the scourge of hate wherever it raises its head.

Cordners Shoe Shop, Newtownards

Mr Harvey: I will speak about the dreadful fire at Conway Square, Newtownards on Friday morning, when, sadly, Cordners shoe shop was totally destroyed. Cordners has been in Newtownards for many years and employs many local people. The staff have worked there for many years and, as a result, know a lot of their regular customers personally. I offer my support to all those who are affected. Adjoining businesses have also been affected and have to remain closed until the damage is assessed. I know that they will open as soon as is safe and possible. I also offer my support to them. The community spirit in Newtownards has been very much evident and appreciated, and local people and business owners have rallied round those affected. I encourage, where possible, that we continue to support those local businesses in these difficult days.

I also thank the emergency services for the outstanding and efficient manner in which they dealt with the potentially disastrous situation. The first fire crews arrived eight minutes after the initial call at around 6.30 am on Friday. Due to the tireless efforts of the firefighters, the fire was brought under control, which prevented its spreading to other adjoining properties. I also thank the PSNI for its role in the operation in Newtownards on Friday.

Lisburn Rugby Club

Mr Honeyford: I want to congratulate Lisburn Rugby Club on winning the qualifying league on Saturday with a bonus-point win over Strabane. The club won the league with a match to go, which is a brilliant achievement. I would probably not be standing in the Chamber were it not for starting out in Lisburn Rugby Club back when my son was in the mini section, and my journey into politics came from working in the community in Lagan Valley and bringing communities together there.

The rugby club in Lisburn is going really strong, and there is a really successful ladies' team as well that continues to thrive. I have been working with that team to help with funding for the development of facilities to create a new gym and changing rooms. It is an absolute pleasure to be able to work with that team, but, today, I simply want to congratulate the club as a whole, including the coaching staff and the volunteers. Everybody will know the amount of time and effort that volunteers put in to help to run sporting clubs. Today, I especially want to congratulate the players on the achievement of winning that league, and I wish them all the best in the seasons ahead.

Police Officers: Injury-on-duty Pensions

Mr Beattie: We often talk about helping those who suffer from mental health injuries and say that those injuries should be treated no differently from physical injuries. We also often say that we must support those who have protected us through the years, but the reality is that it is a difficult issue, and we seem to turn our backs on it.

Therefore, I want to raise an issue that was first raised by my colleague Mike Nesbitt last week. A group of former RUC/PSNI officers who were injured on duty are fighting to have their injury-on-duty pension award dated from the day on which they left service on retirement. These are men — at the minute, it is men, but the issue could clearly affect women — who were unable, through injury, to complete their service. Their injury happened while they were in service, but their diagnosis, because it was a mental health injury, happened a number of years later. That is what happens with psychological injuries: they do not manifest themselves at the time. Their effects are not immediate. However, it was an injury as a result of their service.

At present, a qualified doctor — a specialist medical practitioner — diagnoses the injury on duty, but they then go on to give an award and a start date. That should never be the case. The qualified medical person should simply make a determination that the person was injured on duty. From that moment — this is the important part — the regulation should kick in, and the regulation clearly states that the award should be from the day on which an officer left service on retirement. A judge has already agreed that point, yet the Policing Board has ignored that judgement. This is now moving towards the courts yet again, and that did not need to happen. All we need is to address the issue through the regulations that govern police officers who are injured on duty.

The suffering of these police officers has been compounded by the failure of the Policing Board, and the Justice Minister must act to rectify that. It cannot continue, and a review of the workings of the Policing Board, as called for by my colleague Mike Nesbitt, needs to put this right.

Jimmy's 10K, Downpatrick

Mr McGrath: I rise to support the many tireless and committed volunteers who work across our communities to deliver sporting and athletic events, and I pay special tribute to the volunteers at and, indeed, the participants in Jimmy's 10K yesterday in Downpatrick. The race was won in a truly remarkable time by young Robbie Hagen, who was a member of a youth centre that I formerly worked in. He managed to get round the 10K in about 30 minutes.

It certainly makes my 32-minute 5K look not very special at all. There were also Catherine O'Connor of East Down Athletics Club, Ollie Hanna and Cormac Leheny, who won the relay race, and runners from Newcastle Athletics Club and Ballydrain Harriers, who won the male and female team prizes.


12.30 pm

I have a particular affinity with the event. It is named after my godfather, who passed away a number of years ago but helped to deliver many athletic programmes in that club. Now, the event is held annually and attracts up to 1,500 people to Downpatrick as part of the St Patrick's Day celebrations, St Patrick's Day, of course, being celebrated this weekend, on Sunday, and Downpatrick being the centre for all those activities. Such events showcase how we can bring together the volunteers in our society and communities. They put in the hard work, for which they are often unrecognised, and deliver such slick and professional events.

Of course, in my constituency of South Down, the Irish Open is approaching. It is at the other end of the scale and has lots of funding and work put into it by clubs and members, but it is volunteers who work in athletics clubs across the North who deliver Jimmy's 10K in my area. There is so much goodwill from the people there. Given the large numbers that it attracts into towns such as Downpatrick, it is important that we recognise the contribution that volunteers make. I pay tribute to everyone at East Down Athletics Club and those who participated in and supported Jimmy's 10K yesterday. Most of all, I want to highlight those tireless volunteers, without whom such events would not take place.

A5 Road Upgrade

Mrs Dillon: I speak again on an issue that has been raised in the Chamber far too many times: another life lost on the A5 road. As many of you will be aware, Caolan Devlin from the Bogside, Aughamullan, Coalisland was killed on Tuesday evening on that road. Caolan has left behind his mummy, Margaret, his father, Gerard, and his only brother, Niall. They have been left devastated by the loss of their son and brother. I pay tribute to the community of Coalisland and the wider community, particularly the GAA community, who have given great support to Caolan's family at this time. They told me in their home how much that meant to them, how much they appreciated it and that it showed them how much Caolan was loved.

We all know that the upgrade to the A5 should have happened many years ago, but no one knows it so acutely as the families of the more than 50 men, women and children who have lost their lives on that road since 2006. Those families will never get over their loss. Caolan will never come home again. He will never again lift a hurl for his beloved Naomh Colum Cille Hurling Club. Our community has been robbed — in the words of his club — of:

"a humble gentleman with a beautiful personality."

The A5 is a vital infrastructure project and flagship project for the Executive. The long-anticipated upgrade would put in place 85 kilometres of dual carriageway from the south of Derry, at Newbuildings, to Aughnacloy in County Tyrone. The A5 upgrade would save lives. It will be no good to families like the Devlins — nothing can bring back their beautiful boy — but let us move on with the project and make sure that no more families are left with a gap in their hearts that can never be filled.

I know that the Minister raised concerns again last week that there may be further legal challenges that could cause further delays to the road upgrade. I use this statement to appeal to those who have caused countless delays through their judicial reviews: please stop. Let us see the work carried out so that Caolan and so many like him will leave the legacy of a safer road to travel. I think in particular of Caolan's brother, Niall, who plays for Tyrone and will have to travel that road almost daily to train for his county.

I finish by saying that I am sure that all our thoughts and prayers are with Gerard, Margaret, Niall, the wider family circle and all the friends who hold Caolan dearly in their hearts.

Listening Ear: Rathcoole

Mr Brett: I congratulate an organisation that is based in my constituency for securing a funding award recently. Formed in 2018 by Brian and Karen Kerr, the Listening Ear project, based in Rathcoole, has helped hundreds if not thousands of families. Just last week, the National Lottery Community Fund awarded that organisation an additional £199,000 to enable it to continue to carry out its vital work. That work is focused on improving mental health, tackling addiction, developing our community infrastructure and empowering the next generation of community leaders.

I take the opportunity to congratulate the organisation on securing that vital funding and for the work it has done in recent years. I thank Karen, Samantha, Jacqueline, Catherine, William, all the volunteers and anyone involved with the organisation. Listening Ear has been a fantastic asset to the North Belfast community. I look forward to working with it over the next three years to successfully deliver even more for the people of North Belfast.

EU Protection of Geographical Indications Regulation

Dr Aiken: Two weeks ago, I raised the issue of EU regulation 2023/2411 — it sounds exciting, but it is not — the geographical indication protection for craft and industrial products. I remind Members that it is the view of the European Commission that that regulation should be added to the Windsor framework. Therefore, an applicability motion has to be voted for by the Assembly on a cross-community consent vote. The explanatory memorandum states that while, in practice, the United Kingdom Government expects that the implications on GB-NI may be limited, in principle, these could have implications for the movement of goods from GB to NI.

It is obvious that a degree of scrutiny on the legislation should be taking place. I am sure that Members would agree, in the light of the recommendations of the renewable heat incentive (RHI) inquiry amongst others, that being incurious about legislative change does not make sure that we have good legislation; in fact, it means the exact opposite. Putting barriers, even seemingly limited ones, to our internal UK trade should be a matter of concern to us all. We have had no opportunity to scrutinise the potential legislative change.

Of further concern is the fact that the First Minister and deputy First Minister, acting jointly, were supposed to table an applicability motion for the new EU Act within a period of two weeks beginning from the day of notification, which was 21 February 2024. That date has passed. We now rely on another Member to bring the motion forward, which must be done by 19 March. Yet, still no scrutiny has been done. That is far from an ideal start on the Windsor framework legislation.

Madam Principal Deputy Speaker: I call Paul Frew. Sorry, I call Aisling Reilly. Paul, you will be after that.

Cillian Murphy: Oscar

Miss Reilly: I want to say a few words on the fantastic news that Cillian Murphy claimed one of the most iconic awards on the world stage last night, when he was awarded the prestigious Oscar for best actor. That achievement not only honours his remarkable talent but signifies a triumph for the arts here in Ireland. He is the first person born in Ireland to win the award. Cillian's journey to that pinnacle of success serves as an inspiration to countless young people across the country. His dedication, perseverance and unwavering commitment to his craft reminds us all that, with hard work and determination, anything is possible and nothing is out of reach, even an Oscar.

Cillian Murphy's Oscar win also highlights the vital role that the arts play in our economy and society. Beyond mere entertainment, the arts industry contributes significantly to economic growth, job creation and cultural enrichment. It serves as a powerful medium for expressing our collective experiences, fostering empathy and sparking important conversations about the world that we live in. It also allows us all to tell our stories. Cillian's success reminds us of the immense value of investing in the arts not only for economic impact but for the ability to inspire, challenge and unite us as a society.

What truly sets Cillian apart is his humility and down-to-earth nature. Despite reaching the highest echelons of fame and acclaim, he remains grounded in his roots, embodying the spirit of the Irish people. We could not be prouder of him not just for his extraordinary talent but for the genuine and humble man that he is. It was also lovely to hear cúpla focal as Gaeilge

[Translation: a few words in Irish]

in Hollywood. Here's to Cillian Murphy: an inspiration to us all and a shining beacon of talent, humility and Irish pride. Maith an fear.

[Translation: Good man.]

School Absences

Madam Principal Deputy Speaker: I definitely call Paul Frew now.

Mr Frew: Thank you, Madam Principal Deputy Speaker. You have left the best to last, I just know it.

It has been great to see so many young people and schoolchildren in the Public Gallery of late. Some have just left. I want to talk about chronic school absence. From September 2017 to June 2018, 1,731 pupils had an absence level of 50% or greater. Of those, 523 pupils missed over 80% of school. That was from September 2017 to June 2018, but look at what happens with lockdown philosophy. Figures on absence levels for pupils from September 2021 to June 2022 show that 4,145 pupils had an absence level of 50% or greater. That is 4,145 compared with 1,731. Of those 4,145 pupils, 1,280 missed over 80% of school.

It is vital to put those numbers on the record, but they do not show the full picture. Look at the absence level for pupils who missed a lesser degree of school. In 2018-19, 23·6% of pupils had at-risk levels of attendance, which means being absent from school for 5% of the year or more. In 2022-23, that figure rose from 23% to 29%. For pupils suffering from chronic levels of attendance, which means 10% or more, it was 11·8% in 2018-19, but that percentage rose to 19·3% in 2022-23. The proportion of pupils suffering severe chronic levels of attendance, which means being absent for 20% or more — still a significant amount of missed school — was 4% in 2017-18 and 2018-19. In 2022-23, the percentage was 8·7%. Each of those measures has at least doubled.

We sacrificed our children's education and development for a "Stay at home" message. That is utterly shameful.

Newpoint Players

Mr McNulty: I offer hearty comhghairdeas

[Translation: congratulations]

to a proud Irishman, Cillian Murphy, who has become the first Irish-born winner of the best actor award for his role as Oppenheimer. It was incredibly positive that Cillian dedicated his Oscar to peacemakers everywhere.

Closer to home, I received an email last night from Declan McConaghy about the Newpoint Players from Newry and their production of 'The Shadow of the Glen: Reimagined', John Millington Synge's play as reimagined by Seán Treanor. The Newpoint Players have become the first group to qualify for the final of RTÉ All Ireland Drama Festival 2024. After Saturday night's results, the Newpoint Players have won three festivals: Tubbercurry; Ballymoney and Castleblayney. It took home all the following awards: three for best set and decor were won by Tom Carvill; best lighting, Declan McConaghy; two for best supporting actress, Frances Morgan; best supporting actor, Mickey Brannigan; best supporting actor, Lowry Hodgett; two for best actor, Mickey Brannigan; two for best actress, Pauline Lynch; three for most imaginative/ambitious production; best Irish-dialect award; a special award for costumes and masks, Alison Rodgers and Bernie McParland; and two for best director, Seán Joseph Treanor.

The late Sean Hollywood would be proud. He was a director of the Newpoint Players. He was also a founding member of our SDLP and a proud Down and Ulster Gael, having played hurling for Down and Ulster.

His niece, Doire Finn, proudly follows in Sean's pathway, as a member of the Newpoint Players and as an elected representative for the SDLP on Newry, Mourne and Down District Council.

If anyone want to see the play, 'The Shadow of the Glen', it is being presented on 21 March as part of the 70th anniversary of the Newry Drama Festival. The festival commences on 18 March and runs until 23 March. I encourage everyone to attend.


12.45 pm

Stem Cell Donation

Ms Eastwood: I want to take a moment today to highlight the issue of stem cell donation. Yet another family has been impacted by blood cancer and is calling on the public for help. Tracy McKenna is a mum of two from Omagh who has acute myeloid leukaemia. Whilst a lot of research has been done into certain types of lymphomas and leukaemias, far too many of them remain hard to treat and have few treatment options. Faced with a relapse, Tracy needs a stem cell transplant to have a second chance at life.

Registration drives to join the stem cell donation register are being held on 15 and 16 March in Belfast, at City Hall and Royal Avenue. If you cannot attend, you can sign up to DKMS or Anthony Nolan online.

Three people a day are diagnosed with blood cancer in the North, and it remains the UK's third-biggest killer. That, however, leaves me with the question about awareness, not only of blood cancer but the issue of highlighting the need for stem cell donation. I think of families like that of Bobby Browne from Camlough, Daniel Greer from Newry and countless others — far too many for me to name. I also think of Sean Smyth, the father of Eimear Smyth, who said to me, "I think back now, and I think of the amount of time we spent out tramping the streets, organising swab drives and stem cell donation events, trying to get donations for Eimear. I think back and I think to myself, 'That was time we should have had with her': it was precious time that we lost with her". He was absolutely right.

This is about highlighting awareness of stem cell donation, but it is also about asking for more, asking for more to be done to ensure that there are better public information campaigns about blood cancer and stem cell donation to support families and those who want to donate. It also leads me to think that, although certain types of blood cancer are rare subtypes, blood cancer itself is most certainly not rare.

We need to do much more to support patients, their families and those who care for them. We must see that reflected in our public health campaigns. Today, I call on the Health Minister to make the awareness of blood cancer and stem cell donation a priority.

St Patrick's Day: Washington DC

Mr Carroll: In a few days' time, people will celebrate St Paddy's day with craic and ceol,

[Translation: craic and music]

but, this year, there is a really sinister edge that needs to be challenged and called out. The man with the biggest arsenal of weapons in human history behind him is trying to use his lineage and family history to give himself a by-ball for the carnage and slaughter that he has supported for the last six months. That man's name is Joe Biden. It is crystal clear that, without the cheques, the tanks and the fighter jets sent by the US, 30,000 Palestinians would still be alive today. I make a final call to all party leaders here but especially to Mary Lou McDonald and Michelle O'Neill: do not help to facilitate and rehabilitate "Genocide Joe". Give him the cold shoulder that he deserves this Paddy's day. That man does not deserve a bowl of shamrock; he deserves to be in The Hague and on trial for his support for war crimes and genocide on the Palestinian people.

Across the island, people have spoken against Joe Biden and his actions. At least 20,000 people have signed a petition demanding that parties refuse to go to Washington to shake his hand and get a selfie, and I repeat that call today. Tens of thousands have marched across the island to call out "Genocide Joe" and the States' actions. Thousands are likely to be out in Belfast again this weekend.

It is worth repeating that the violence did not start on 7 October 2023. Violence has been ongoing since 1948 and even the 1920s under the British mandate. There has been theft of land, ethnic cleansing and daily slaughter. There have been many 7 Octobers every year for the Palestinian people. This Paddy's day, people should refuse to go to the White House and should refuse to shake the hand of Joe Biden; instead, they should say, "Free Palestine" this Paddy's day.

Commonwealth Day

Mr Middleton: This afternoon I take some time to recognise today, Commonwealth Day, on its 75th anniversary. The Commonwealth is an association of 56 member states, with a combined population of 2·5 billion citizens, almost a third of the world's people. That unique association of 56 independent and equal member countries has evolved into a diverse and vibrant community of nations united by shared values and a common purpose. Over the past 75 years, the Commonwealth has played a pivotal role in promoting global cooperation and development, it has fostered dialogue and understanding; it has bridged divides; and it has provided a platform for communities to work together on issues of mutual concern. In a world characterised by increasing interconnectedness and interdependence, the Commonwealth remains a vital force for unity and collaboration. It provides a space for countries to engage in constructive dialogue, build consensus and address global challenges collectively. The Commonwealth's members are bound by a shared commitment to democracy, human rights and the rule of law. Those values have served as a beacon of hope and inspiration for countless people around the world.

His Majesty the King, as head of the Commonwealth, has pledged to continue to serve to the best of his ability; indeed, this afternoon, there will be a special service at Westminster Abbey to mark this special occasion. Of course, we continue to pray for His Majesty the King and the Princess of Wales as they continue to recover from their illnesses. The Commonwealth, going forward, will no doubt play a leading role in shaping a more just, equitable and prosperous future for all. On this 75th anniversary, let us reaffirm our commitment to the Commonwealth and its noble ideals. Let us work together to build a brighter future for our citizens where a future of peace, prosperity and dignity prevails. Long live the Commonwealth.

Madam Principal Deputy Speaker: The time for Members' statements is now up.

Assembly Business

Madam Principal Deputy Speaker: Stephen Dunne has sought leave to present a public petition in accordance with Standing Order 22. He will have up to three minutes in which to speak.

Mr Dunne: I rise today as an MLA for North Down to present a petition of 2,689 signatures from across the local community that demonstrates the affection and support for keeping the doors open at the Ballycopeland windmill and cafe, which is such a landmark in Millisle and the surrounding area. The Ballycopeland windmill was built in fields outside Millisle between 1790 and 1813, well over 200 years ago, when that part of County Down was known as "Little Holland" because of the number of windmills in the area. The windmill is a very important part of our local history and heritage, and it is one of the few remaining windmills across the whole island of Ireland with its original working mechanism still in place; indeed, it milled produce for animals and people to eat up until 1915. After much lobbying for restoration from across the local community, the Ballycopeland windmill reopened in June 2022, following an investment of £1·7 million from the Department for Communities, the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs and Ards and North Down Borough Council, which all worked constructively together to deliver this transformation and revitalisation project of the windmill, as well as the kiln room and the miller's cottage, complete with an interactive visitor experience that is enjoyed by many visitors from across Northern Ireland and beyond. It has brought a real boost to the village and the surrounding area.

The windmill and cafe have welcomed many visitors since opening, and the Ability Cafe has provided real employment opportunities for many local young people with disabilities. Earlier this year, unfortunately, those staff were advised that their employment will cease at the end of March 2024. Understandably, that has sparked concern around the future of the cafe and the site. The petition, which has been signed by 2,689 people, demonstrates the strength of feeling across the area and beyond to retain a cafe facility at this famous windmill. I thank those who have organised the petition, including Jacqueline Adeoye, Jo Scott from the Millisle and District Community Association and Kay Boyle from the health and well-being group. I thank local councillors Robert Adair, David Kerr and Nigel Edmund for their work, as well as former councillor Eddie Thompson, who has campaigned in support of the windmill for many years. Millisle needs further investment, and I trust that today's well-supported petition will play a part in securing the future of the Ballycopeland windmill and cafe, which is a wonderful tourist attraction and amenity that is filled with rich history and heritage and has so much potential for further growth.

Mr Dunne moved forward and laid the petition on the Table.

Madam Principal Deputy Speaker: I will forward the petition to the Minister for Communities and send a copy to the Committee for Communities.

I ask Members to take their ease while we change the top Table.

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

Resolved:

That the following Members are appointed as trustees of the Assembly Members' pension scheme, in accordance with the scheme rules: Mrs Ciara Ferguson; Mr Trevor Clarke; Mr Stewart Dickson; Dr Steve Aiken; and Mr Mark Durkan. — [Mr Butler.]

Committee Membership

Resolved:

That Ms Kate Nicholl replace Ms Sian Mulholland as a member of the Assembly and Executive Review Committee. — [Miss McAllister.]

Executive Committee Business

That the Coronavirus Act 2020 (Extension of Provisions Relating to Live Links for Courts and Tribunals) (No. 2) Order (Northern Ireland) 2023 be approved.

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

Mrs Long: I seek the Assembly's approval for the Coronavirus Act 2020 (Extension of Provisions Relating to Live Links for Courts and Tribunals) (No. 2) Order (Northern Ireland) 2023, which is SR 2023/138. The motion is that the order will be approved.

Two years ago, I moved a similar motion for approval on 1 March 2022. On that day, I did not anticipate that we would have no opportunity in the intervening period to bring forward alternative legislation in a Bill. It remains my intention and, indeed, my strong preference to make new primary provision for the use of live links for this jurisdiction through the Assembly, and I plan to do so using the first Bill that my Department plans to introduce to the Assembly.

The modernisation of justice Bill will be introduced in the coming months, and, with the support of the Assembly, we anticipate that alternative live-link provisions will be in force by 2026. In the interim, we are compelled to rely on these provisions as a temporary measure.

Article 2 of the order extends the provisions that allow courts and statutory tribunals in Northern Ireland to receive evidence wholly or in part using audio or videoconferencing systems, but primarily video. Those systems are commonly referred to as live links. They facilitate the wider provision of remote evidence, as well as disposing of mentions or hearings that can include matters such as first appearances and bail applications. The extension, which covers the period from September 2023 to March 2024, was to allow us to maintain access to provisions that have proved to be an essential element of the toolkit for addressing the backlog of cases that accrued during the pandemic.


1.00 pm

I fully understand why some Members are concerned about continuing to rely on the Coronavirus Act, and I agree that that is far from ideal. However, I have to balance that against the needs of court users, including victims of crime. The current model of live-link provisions has a particular importance for the criminal courts. The most recent update on criminal court recovery in January 2024, which is based on management information on the number of defendants actively in the court system, shows that, despite considerable efforts, there are approximately 64% more defendants in the Crown Court and approximately 43% more defendants in the Magistrates' Court, adult and youth, than there were on 1 March 2020. In the absence of these provisions, we would have to default to the pre-existing legislation, which is much more restrictive in the category of witness and the range of hearings to which it can be applied. More to the point, other than witnesses who meet the existing test to avail themselves of special measures, the pre-existing provisions in the criminal courts mainly concern the facility for a witness other than the defendant to appear remotely, or for the defendant himself or herself to appear remotely. The latter requires the defendant to consent. For witnesses other than the defendant, the available test is less generous to the victim and witnesses. It focuses on the efficient administration of justice and allows the defendant to challenge the use of live links, including on grounds such as their availability, the importance of their evidence and that the defendant considers that the live link would inhibit the defence from effectively testing that evidence. That would be a backward step in meeting the needs of victims and witnesses.

During the previous mandate, all members of the Executive expressed support for not only a six-month extension in March 2022 but the proposed additional extensions that were identified as being required to allow time for a public consultation to take place and new provisions to be developed for inclusion in an Assembly Bill. The Justice Committee also signalled its support.

To give a bit of the history of the provisions: since as far back as the 2015 Programme for Government, the plan has been to redesign and optimise public service delivery models. Events in 2020 simply required us to accelerate the digital modernisation programme that was under way in the Northern Ireland Courts and Tribunals Service and invest in technology needed to maintain the throughput of cases. It would be wasteful, therefore, not to optimise the investment that has already been made in the technology, especially where it can help to avoid unnecessary delay in disposing of matters before the court that the judiciary consider suitable for a live link.

At the height of the pandemic, when footfall was restricted, the number of connections averaged over 70,000 per month. Today, there are, on average, approximately 30,000 connections per month. However, that is still substantially more than was the case before 2020, when there were fewer than 100 connections per month. I am therefore extremely reluctant to lose the availability of that enhanced digital court environment, which supports the needs of court users and is based on the judiciary determining what is in the best interests of justice, rather than being dependent on the defendant's consent.

We have conducted a series of engagement exercises since November 2021. The responses on each occasion demonstrated overwhelming support for extending those provisions while the justice system is still recovering. On each occasion that we have considered making an extension, a review has been conducted of the equality, data and rural impact, and our assessment has been updated where appropriate. There has also been strong support for new primary provision to be made locally for the use of live links in the future. The benefits that are to be gained from the wider use of live links in the justice system are recognised across these islands. Greater use of live videoconferencing or TV links can reduce distress for some participants. Remote attendance can allow professional witnesses, such as police officers, social workers or medical experts, to continue working while they wait to be called to give their evidence. It can also provide a saving in legal aid costs, substantially reduce our carbon footprint and assist in speeding up our justice system.

I hope that, like me, the Assembly will see the order not only as a critical component of justice recovery but as a modernisation of the justice system. Little has changed to undermine the rationale for the approach that was agreed previously with the Executive and the Justice Committee, save that we are, regrettably, two years later than I intended in progressing the Bill. I commend the approval —

Mr Allister: Will the Minister give way?

Mrs Long: I will indeed.

Mr Allister: The Minister brings an order that expires in 10 or 11 days. She indicates that she anticipates that there will be primary legislation in the long term. Does that mean that, under the Coronavirus Act, we will be subject to another extension in a few weeks?

Mrs Long: Yes, it does, and I mentioned at the beginning of my speech that this is the first of a series of extensions that we will need in order to maintain efficacy in the system while we bring forward legislation. On that note, I commend the order to the Assembly.

Ms Bunting (The Chairperson of the Committee for Justice): I rise initially in my capacity as the Chairperson of the Committee for Justice and declare that I have an immediate family member who works in the legal profession.

As the Minister outlined, the statutory rule will extend the provisions of the Coronavirus Act 2020 that allow courts and statutory tribunals to receive evidence through audio or video links beyond this month, which is when they are set to expire. The Committee initially considered the rule at its second meeting, which was on 22 February. Members noted that the rule was the latest in a sequence of statutory rules extending those provisions. The Committee further noted that, while the Examiner of Statutory Rules raised no concerns regarding the technical aspect of the rule, her first report had drawn attention to a number of statutory rules that are subject to the confirmatory resolution procedure, including this rule and those that preceded it. The Examiner stated:

"The confirmatory resolution procedure is used for more significant exercises of delegated powers. Positive action by the Assembly is required for the subject statutory rule to continue in force."

She also stated that the use of successive statutory rules has:

"had the effect of ensuring that, where an individual rule ceased to have effect, its provision nevertheless prevails in the statutory rule"

that followed it.

Members also noted that, towards the end of the previous mandate, the predecessor Committee considered the proposal for one of the earlier rules to extend similar provisions. At that time, the Committee was advised that the extension was part of a two-stage legislative approach, whereby the provisions would initially be extended by subordinate legislation and a Bill would be developed in order to make a permanent provision for the use of audio and video links.

The current Committee agreed to ask the Department for its views on whether the continued use of the powers in the Coronavirus Act 2020 is appropriate and proportionate in the post-COVID environment. The Committee also requested an update on the Department's plans to make permanent provision for the use of audio and video links. The Department's response was considered at the meeting of 29 February, when the Committee was advised that the Minister was satisfied that there remains a clear role for the continued use of the provisions in order to tackle the backlog of cases that have accrued during and since the pandemic and that may take until 2028 to clear without extra resources. The Department also advised that it is the Minister's intention to include provisions for the wider use of live links in the first Bill that it plans to introduce, which is anticipated before the summer recess. The Committee was assured that reliance on the powers that are in the Coronavirus Act 2020 is, therefore, an interim arrangement.

Having considered the response from the Department, the Committee agreed that it was content to recommend that the Assembly approve the statutory rule. Before I conclude, I will say that, at its last meeting, the Committee discussed with departmental officials another proposal to further extend the provisions. The officials reiterated that they expect the permanent provision for live links to be in the first departmental Bill. However, it is unlikely that the necessary provisions will be drafted in time for inclusion in the Bill as introduced but will instead be tabled as amendments at Consideration Stage. I recognise that most Committee members are broadly supportive of the principle of the use of live links and agree that they should be a feature of our court system. While I thank the Department for its candour, bringing forward provisions at Consideration Stage is, nonetheless, far from ideal, as it means that those provisions cannot be included in the Committee's call for evidence and the Committee will not have the opportunity to undertake proper scrutiny at Committee Stage.

Mrs Long: I thank the Member for giving way. I am aware that that concern was raised at the Committee. I want to reassure the Committee and, indeed, the Chair and Deputy Chair about that point. It is the Department's intention to share an early draft of the regulation that we intend to bring through the legislative amendment. That will, I hope, allow the Committee to take evidence on that matter as well. It is simply to do with the finalising of drafting and the resource available, which mean that it will be delayed beyond the point at which the Committee starts its consideration. However, we hope to be able to share an early draft so that you can consult on that too.

Ms Bunting: I am grateful to the Minister for her clarification and assurances, because the issue caused the Committee some consternation. No doubt, we will return to that discussion at a later stage. As you will appreciate, Minister, I will make some remarks on it as I continue. In the interim, on behalf of the Justice Committee, I support the motion.

I now turn to my remarks in my capacity as an individual MLA. First, I extend my best wishes for a speedy recovery to Mr Long. We served together on Castlereagh Borough Council and worked well there for many years. I was very sorry to hear of his recent ill health. I trust that the Minister will pass on my good wishes to her husband.

While, on a personal level, I support the principle and the requirement for live links and audio links, my issues are more around process. I remain concerned about the continued extension of emergency powers long after the pandemic, particularly since, by their nature, they were not rigorously scrutinised. Having been assured that provision would be made in the first Bill, some of us were somewhat taken aback to discover that the intention was only to bring forward such provision at Consideration Stage by way of an amendment. Again, I am grateful to the Minister for her clarification on that. There are some issues around live links that should be properly scrutinised to better inform guidance and practice, improve consistency of application and use, and consider equality of arms issues.

In addition, when one calculates the time frame involved to scrutinise and progress what, I anticipate, will be a sizeable first departmental Bill, one sees that it is inevitable that yet further extensions of the emergency coronavirus provisions will be required. It begs the question as to why a smaller, stand-alone Bill is not being brought forward and why, as a result of their inclusion in another sizeable Bill, in a most unusual step, the provisions will not be included in the Bill as printed and so will not be included in any calls for evidence. However, the Minister has clarified that.

It is important that we move away from reliance on emergency legislation deriving from the pandemic. Where legitimate and beneficial changes have been found that can be built upon and legislated for properly, we should do that at the earliest opportunity. I have made my point about my preferences. Nevertheless, I understand the need and the requirement for live links to continue. In that circumstance, I support the extension.

Miss Hargey: I start by echoing earlier remarks. My thoughts are with Michael, Naomi. It was good to see that he was out on Friday. I hope that he makes a full recovery.

As was touched on, we discussed this at the Justice Committee last Thursday, and concerns were raised about the Coronavirus Act being used. We asked the Department to ensure that a permanent mechanism is brought forward. That was raised with the Department at the past few Justice Committee meetings. It responded positively to say that legislation would come forward in the next few months. I welcome the Minister's interjection to say that we will see that in draft form, because it is important to ensure that the provisions are as robust and effective as possible and that we have an opportunity to scrutinise them as early as possible.

Like others, I believe that, in the short term, there is no option but to extend the current provisions to allow live links, because they are critical and must be maintained, albeit they need to be enhanced. They allow our courts and tribunals to receive audio and video evidence, wholly or in part, via the live-link mechanism. Therefore, extending the provisions is essential, especially for victims of crime. That was echoed by the for Victims of Crime Commissioner Designate at the Justice Committee last Thursday, in subsequent reports on the issue and in the consultation that has taken place.

We need the provisions because they reduce the impact on people, especially the most vulnerable. That is an area that we will want to look at as more permanent legislation comes forward. They also, importantly, allow children to give evidence in a child-friendly and neutral environment. Again, ensuring access to justice and that it is child friendly is a critical part of the overall system, so we need to make sure that the interim measures continue in that vein.

It is important to meet the Victim Charter obligation. We had an in-depth discussion on the role of the charter, and providing victims with waiting areas separate from those for defendants is critical. Live links can play a role in that.


1.15 pm

In the short term, it is essential that the provision continue, but we need more robust primary provision. I welcome the Minister's words on that today. We need to make sure that the permanent provisions have enhanced participatory rights, particularly for victims; that there is greater planning and coordination around them; that they are rights-based; and that we embed a culture of rights in the justice system more widely. It is important that we use the opportunity over the coming months, as we start to scrutinise legislation, to look at effective learning and best practice from across these islands and beyond.

I welcome the fact that we are moving on the issue to give certainty to the service and, importantly, to those who utilise live links. I would like to think that we will get early sight of the drafting so that we can scrutinise it. We all want to ensure that we have more effective measures that enhance the role of live links for victims, defendants and others and that we speed up the justice system overall.

Thank you very much, Minister, for tabling the order.

Mr Dickson: I thank the Minister for the work that she has done on the order and for the clear explanation that she gave to the House to assist us in its delivery.

I have no intention of going over issues that were raised in support of this by the Chair and vice chair of the Committee, but it bears consideration that, when we had the Commissioner Designate for Victims of Crime before the Committee last week, she spoke passionately and gave great examples of the work that live links can deliver, particularly for victims of crime.

It is important that we allow the legislation to go forward, imperfect though it is. The vehicle is not one that, I think, anyone in the House is comfortable with, so I welcome the Minister's statement that she intends to introduce permanent legislation in a Bill that will cover concerns, particularly the area of concern that was raised at the Justice Committee last week. The Minister has made a clear statement to the House today that an early draft will be provided to the Committee. That should allay any concerns that the Committee has and allow us to consult on the legislation. The Minister also touched on the vital point of judicial oversight of the use of live links.

With those few words said, I am pleased that we are in a position today to support the order. We welcome the fact that a pathway has been set out clearly for the delivery of live links to take us into the future, and we welcome all the comments that have been made in the Chamber.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Blair): All Members who were listed to speak have done so. I call the Minister of Justice to conclude and make a winding-up speech on the debate.

Mrs Long: Thank you to the Members who participated in the debate for their contributions. The near-universal consensus of the Assembly is that we would have preferred to do this by primary legislation but recognise that it is important that we are able to maintain the provisions while that legislation is being developed.

I will touch on a number of issues. The question was asked, particularly by the Chair, about why this could not be done more quickly through having a stand-alone live links Bill. Unfortunately, unlike the Department for Communities, which has now ceased using Coronavirus Act (CVA) provisions to facilitate hybrid council meetings and is doing that through regulation, we have no other primary legislation in the justice field that would allow us to introduce similar secondary legislation. It has to be done by primary legislation and therefore will take considerable time.

We also need to accommodate it alongside other legislative requirements that the Department faces. I would prefer it if new primary provision for live links were in place sooner rather than later, but the reality is that we have another shortened mandate in which to push through legislation, plus a backlog of legislative changes from the previous mandate that still need to be progressed. I have therefore approved a legislative programme for my Department that will allow us to progress those outstanding legislative changes through a mixed-content justice Bill, as well as delivering on my legislative priorities of a sentencing Bill and a hate crime Bill. I would much prefer to have a series of smaller thematic Bills, but the reality is that we do not have time to do that in this mandate; I wish it were otherwise, but that is where we are.

I also want to make sure that the legislation that we introduce is robust, future-proofed and takes account of learning from the past few years. It is not simply a question of replicating what was in the Coronavirus Act and turning it into primary legislation; it is a more complex piece of work. For example, we have consulted publicly and had .significant engagement with stakeholders, and, as the Deputy Chair mentioned, we have kept abreast of developments in other jurisdictions. We aim to share the draft clauses with the Justice Committee in time for them to be considered during the Committee Stage of the justice Bill. I will write to the Committee well in advance of that to set out the policy approach that we will adopt.

I reiterate that we want there to be proper scrutiny of the legislation. We want the opportunity to engage with the sector, and we want what we produce to be robust. In the interim, however, it is important that we get this extension and future extensions that will guide us through to the point at which the new legislation is in place. To lose live links would not only set back the recovery of the justice system and slow down the delivery of justice; it would represent an impediment to many of the more vulnerable victims and witnesses who participate in the justice system. In certain categories of domestic abuse cases, for example, it would place back in the defendant's hands power over whether remote access to the court is allowed. That would be a regressive step, given how far we have proceeded on that over recent years.

I hope that I have answered any questions that Members have and satisfied them of the importance of the order being approved today. As Members, we often hear victims and witnesses comment that the criminal justice system does not focus on them or work well for them. I want to reassure Members that this motion is particularly targeted at making the journey of those victims and witnesses through the justice system as stress-free as can be, to make a positive difference to them, to help us to address the challenges presented to the justice system over recent years, to contribute to the modernisation of our courts and to ensure the smart use of the resources that are available to us. I thank Members for their support.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved:

That the Coronavirus Act 2020 (Extension of Provisions Relating to Live Links for Courts and Tribunals) (No. 2) Order (Northern Ireland) 2023 be approved.

The following motion stood in the Order Paper:

That the Coronavirus Act 2020 (Extension of Powers to Act for the Protection of Public Health) (No. 2) Order (Northern Ireland) 2022 be approved. — [Mr Swann (The Minister of Health).]

Mr Swann (The Minister of Health): Mr Deputy Speaker, I will explain more in a moment, but, at this stage, I confirm that I will not move the first two statutory rules — SR 2022/224 and SR 2023/050 — but will move SR 2023/139.

Motion not moved.

The following motion stood in the Order Paper:

That the Coronavirus Act 2020 (Extension of Powers to Act for the Protection of Public Health) Order (Northern Ireland) 2023 be approved. — [Mr Swann (The Minister of Health).]

Motion not moved.

That the Coronavirus Act 2020 (Extension of Powers to Act for the Protection of Public Health) (No. 2) Order (Northern Ireland) 2023 be approved.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Blair): The Business Committee has agreed that there should be no time limit on the debate. I call the Minister to open the debate.

Mr Swann: Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker, for your indulgence. First, by way of clarification, Members will note that there were three statutory rules on the Order Paper. After they were first submitted a number of weeks ago, it was confirmed to my Department late last Friday evening, as I understand it, by Assembly authorities that there was no legislative or legal need or, indeed, basis to move the first two, not least due to the time frames involved. Whilst, in the circumstances, I would have preferred to have moved them to allow for further debate, I understand that it is not an option available to me. Nevertheless, in relation to the third statutory rule, I will begin by briefly setting out the background to the debate.

As Members will be well aware, the current primary public health legislation in Northern Ireland, the Public Health Act (Northern Ireland) 1967, does not enable us to protect our citizens in the same way as other parts of the UK. Faced with the impact of the pandemic, the Coronavirus Act 2020 (CVA) inserted temporary powers into the Public Health Act to enable my Department to bring health protection regulations to the Executive and the Assembly for consideration. The purpose was to protect our citizens from infection or contamination relating to coronavirus in Northern Ireland.

Members will also recall that, whilst restrictions were ordinarily based on professional medical and scientific advice, ultimately the decision to proceed or not was a matter for the Executive and the parties that were represented in it. Whilst the making of the regulations was something that we never envisaged having to do, they were crucial in the response to the pandemic. The virus changed rapidly over time, and the regulation-making powers enabled us to react quickly within days, sometimes even hours. Members will recall that schedule 18 to the Coronavirus Act inserted powers into the Public Health Act that enabled the Northern Ireland Department of Health to make health protection regulations for the purpose of preventing, protecting against, controlling or providing a public health response to the incidence of the spread of infection or contamination in Northern Ireland.

The CVA powers were due to expire on 24 March 2022. However, Members will recall that, by way of contingency preparedness and so that the powers provided by the CVA did not lapse, the powers have since been extended on a number of occasions, for a time frame of six months each time. Today's debate, therefore, is about ratifying one of those decisions, one of the three extensions that were decided on in the absence of a functioning Assembly and Executive. In particular, the third listed statutory rule is amending the expiry date of section 48 of and schedule 18 to the CVA from 24 September 2023 to 24 March 2024. Ideally, I would not be standing here asking for retrospective approval, but the reality is that Northern Ireland is uniquely legislatively disadvantaged compared with England, Scotland and Wales. They have legislative options open to them that are not available to us in Northern Ireland. With so much disruption and the stop-start nature of the operation of the Assembly and Executive, we regrettably remain at a major legislative disadvantage.

Throughout the pandemic, the Chief Medical Officer (CMO) and the Chief Scientific Adviser (CSA) provided robust expert advice to support the people of Northern Ireland and to help us navigate the unprecedented challenges that the pandemic presented to us all. Both have advised that today's extension until later this month is necessary. However, I need to be honest with Members and say that they are also clear that, until a permanent legislative change is made, putting Northern Ireland on a similar footing to the rest of the United Kingdom, further temporary provisions are likely to be required. Not having the full range of public health interventions immediately available in the event of a significant variant of COVID-19 emerging would pose a significant gap in policy- and decision-makers' ability to respond.

I have absolutely no plans and certainly no desire to introduce regulations, and, even if the highly unlikely were to happen and restrictions were considered necessary, it would be a decision for the Executive to take collectively.

That should not detract from our responsibility to be prepared to respond to the disease. It is fair to say that the level of risk from COVID-19 has significantly reduced, but the virus continues to evolve, so it is only right and sensible that we maintain the ability to respond to it.


1.30 pm

Locally, our Public Health Agency continues to monitor the situation. The UK Health Security Agency also monitors data relating to variants in the UK and internationally. Our genomic sequencing continues to be a key process in identifying new variants, but it takes time, with potentially weeks' worth of information needed before a variant can be determined as being common. Other, more immediate indicators may require us to act swiftly to protect our citizens, but, without the extended powers under the Coronavirus Act, there is a significant risk that we would not be able to respond at the required pace.

I remind Members that, during the pandemic, the regulation-making powers enabled us to react quickly, within days or even hours, to protect our citizens. Let me be clear: if the House does not extend the powers, they will fall on 24 March 2024, and, at that point, Northern Ireland will be at a disadvantage to other parts of the UK in our readiness to respond to any significant variant of concern. Responding from that position would require new primary legislation to enable regulations to be brought forward to the Executive and the Assembly. Although that could be achieved, it is impossible to say with absolute certainty how long the process could take. Certainly, any decisions in Northern Ireland could not be taken in tandem with the other parts of the UK or of these islands.

Extending the powers under the Coronavirus Act 2020 until a permanent solution is in place will simply provide us with the ability to quickly bring health protection regulations to the Northern Ireland Executive for their consideration, where the information available to us and public health advice indicates that we need to rapidly respond to a new variant. As I said, any health protection regulations would require Executive approval followed by presentation to the Assembly. My Department is moving at pace to bring forward a permanent solution through a new public health protection Bill, and I intend to seek agreement from Executive colleagues in the coming weeks to launch a public consultation on those policy proposals before the summer, with a view to the Bill being introduced in the autumn of this year.

I am fully committed to delivering a permanent solution, but it will take time. With no functioning Assembly for almost two years, we were robbed of the opportunity to make progress up to now, but I am determined that we will move as quickly as we can. Therefore, after due deliberation and taking into consideration the advice of the Chief Medical Officer and Chief Scientific Adviser, I advised the Health Committee and my Executive colleagues that, subject to today's motion being passed, there will be a need for further provisions while we continue to progress the delayed permanent solution that I have set out.

Finally, the extension of the powers is about being able to protect our citizens should the worst happen. It is merely our insurance policy to ensure that we can, if we absolutely have to, respond to protect our citizens. I therefore commend the order to the Assembly.

Ms Kimmins (The Chairperson of the Committee for Health): I welcome the opportunity to outline the Committee for Health's consideration of the rules before I speak as a Sinn Féin MLA.

As the Minister outlined, section 48 of and schedule 18 to the Coronavirus Act 2020 inserted powers into the Public Health Act 1967 to enable the Department of Health to make public protection regulations:

"for the purpose of preventing, protecting against, controlling or providing a public health response to the incidence or spread of infection or contamination"

in the North.

In the previous mandate, that allowed the Department to bring forward rules relating to domestic restrictions, travel restrictions and the use of face coverings. At the end of the previous mandate, the Minister brought forward a rule to provide that section 48 and schedule 18 should not expire but be extended by six months to 24 September 2022. The result of that has been three further extensions to prevent those sections from expiring. The first six-month extension was to 24 March 2023, the second was to 24 September 2023, and SR 2023/139 extends that period to 24 March 2024.

The Committee, at its meeting on 22 February this year, agreed to note the first and second extensions, as the time frame that they covered had past. The Committee was then briefed on the third, and current, extension rule by departmental officials. At the briefing, members asked officials whether it was the Minister's intention to bring forward a further regulation to extend the date beyond the 24 March deadline. Officials advised that the Minister had not decided at that stage whether to request a further extension and that any decision would be based on up-to-date public health advice.

Members then asked officials for information on the current trends in COVID; whether we are seeing any increase in hospital admissions or outbreaks in care homes; and how COVID is monitored and new variants picked up. Officials advised that the situation is constantly monitored and that there are no significant new variants or any significant increases in cases. Members also asked about the alternative if this rule is not approved by the Assembly. Officials advised that legislation could be introduced at pace but that it would take a number of weeks to do so.

Following the briefing from officials, the Committee agreed to defer consideration of the rule and write to the Minister to seek further information on whether it was his intention to bring forward a new rule to further extend provisions. The response from the Minister was considered at the Committee meeting on 29 February, and that response indicated that he was minded to seek a further extension until a permanent solution is brought forward in a new public health Bill.

At the Committee meeting on 29 February, a number of members indicated that they felt uncomfortable supporting the extension and that they did not have enough information to make a recommendation to the Assembly. Therefore, the Committee wrote again to the Minister to seek further clarification on the time that it would take to bring forward legislation; whether new primary legislation would be required; the timescale for the public health Bill to be introduced; and the current level of risk from new variants of COVID.

The Committee considered the Minister's response at its meeting on 7 March, and members felt that they still did not have enough information. The Committee agreed that, as the debate was taking place today and Thursday was the last Committee meeting before the debate, it would note SR 2023/139, as there was not enough time to get further clarification on some issues. I am sure that Committee members will raise those matters during the debate, and, should the legislation not be approved, I would be grateful if the Minister could outline what advice he received on bringing forward legislation and what discussions took place with the Office of the Legislative Counsel to identify possible options.

I will now speak briefly as Sinn Féin health spokesperson. The COVID-19 pandemic was one of the most serious global health emergencies that we have faced. The virus wreaked havoc across the world and caused thousands of deaths across Ireland, North and South, alone. The restrictions introduced to control the spread of COVID-19 were needed, and, at the time, they were necessary to protect the most vulnerable. However, as we have been advised, thankfully, COVID-19, while still present, has largely been contained through the roll-out of vaccinations and the hard work of our Health and Social Care staff.

As stated in the Department's briefing to the Committee, there are no significant new variants and no significant increases in COVID-19-related hospital admissions. I understand that the public health Bill that the Minister is working on will have significant public health provisions to allow him or subsequent Ministers to act in public health emergencies, should they need to. That would potentially negate the need for these extensions. However, we also take on board that the public health Bill will take some time, and it is also important to note that, if we were to face a similar public health emergency again, it would be crucial that the Assembly and Executive could respond in a timely and effective manner to protect the lives of our public.

I have one last question for the Minister. Whilst I appreciate that he is taking into account what is happening across the water, do we have any information on the preparedness across this island, as an all-island approach will be important in any future pandemic or similar incident? I look forward to hearing the rest of the contributions, and I thank the Minister for his contribution so far.

Mr McGrath: This is a difficult motion to support. Time and time again, all of us, from all parties, stood in the Chamber when these regulations were brought forward, and we all said that they were anti-democratic and against the normal process. However, we accepted that we were in a worldwide pandemic and that the regulations were therefore necessary. We got that then. We understood what we were facing at that stage. It was quite clear. However, now, we are where we are today. It is March 2024. In around two weeks' time, it will be four years since that night when a whole raft of regulations was enacted that had a serious impact on people's freedom, their freedom of movement and their ability to gather. It seriously impacted on people's lives. Our constituents were on the phone with us and sending us emails, telling us that they did not like what was happening. The majority accepted that there was a reason for it, yet we are now in this state.

In 2023, the World Health Organization downgraded the global pandemic; it is no longer a pandemic that we face. It said that it no longer qualifies as a global emergency. The question has to be this: if we are not facing a global emergency, why are we looking to extend emergency powers? Think about those powers. They mean that a decision that impacts on everybody could be taken in a room and enacted, probably that very same day, and it would be weeks before we got an opportunity to discuss it or debate it in the Chamber. It just does not feel like the right way in which to do things that, several weeks after the decision has been made and implemented and people's daily lives have been impacted on, we then get the opportunity to come to the Chamber and have that discussion.

During COVID-19, Departments spent almost £5 billion on various initiatives, with almost £1·6 billion being spent by the Department of Health. If those powers were not in place and we were spending that level of money, I suspect that we would have many deliberations in the Chamber and much discussion in Committees on how that level of money would be spent. We were in a different place then, and those decisions were taken quickly as a result of having those powers. Between March 2020 and October 2022, 51 ministerial directions were issued; more than in the previous 10 years put together. We were absolutely in a different place during that time. We are not in that place now.

In the Committee, we asked — the Committee Chair referred to it — why a piece of emergency legislation could not be brought to the House if it were required. We passed a Budget — spending of £28 billion — in two days. Two days is what it took. When we reflect on the period of COVID-19, we know that it took weeks to build up to the stage of needing some form of legislative cover to be able to take decisions: the World Health Organization will have referred to it as a global emergency; it will have upgraded it to a pandemic, and time will have been taken to go through that process. If that process began, I am quite sure that, here, we could get through a 24- or 48-hour process to be able to give the Executive the ability to take the decisions that they need to take.

We all remember that, towards the end of the pandemic, countless people contacted us to tell us that they were not happy with how we carried out the process of short, sharp and immediate decision-making. I will finish by stating the fact that it was needed then. We do not need it now. We will get a number of weeks' lead-in time to the potential need for it again. We will have an opportunity, because the Assembly can take decisions quickly if it needs to. With that lack of information, my party finds it difficult to support the motion.

Mrs Dodds: Before I address the SR, I want to say that the Minister did an incredible amount of work during the COVID pandemic.

Those were very difficult days for the Minister and the wider Assembly and Executive, but most of all for our constituents, the people of Northern Ireland. We are debating whether we should continue COVID powers: that is a really significant step forward for us and shows that we have, in many ways, left some of this behind. However, we are all mindful of those families who still grieve and those who lost their lives during an extraordinary and terrible time for our community in Northern Ireland.

The SR that the Minister has moved asks us to extend the regulations until 24 March. However, the Minister made it clear, in the Chamber today and in his notes to the Committee, that he intends to continue to extend those until, I presume, there is a more fulsome public health solution to the issue. That is where a lot of our problems and difficulties lie. Certainly, on these Benches, we are uncomfortable about extending that precedent, which was meant for extraordinary times, when we are now talking about the lesser threat of COVID. As the Member who spoke previously said, the World Health Organization has, thankfully, downgraded that pandemic. For those on these Benches, that is extremely uncomfortable.

When the laws were introduced, we were told that they were time-limited and would not be extended for one moment longer than they were needed. It is important that we all hold on to that. Members across the House — the Member who spoke previously mentioned it, and many on these Benches have indicated it as well — have said that our constituents find these restrictions undemocratic and, in many ways, draconian in respect of our freedoms and liberties. While they were necessary at the time, I wonder why we would want to retain legislation like that on our statute book.

During the Committee meeting, officials from the Department briefed us on the issue. They were asked specifically about COVID, and, as the Hansard report shows, they said:

"There have not been any significant increases",

and that flu in our communities is more pressing for the health service at the moment. The officials also said:

"There are no significant new variants at this point."

Therefore, we are certainly in a much better position than we would ever have been.

To sum up, I confirm that, on these Benches, we are extremely uncomfortable with the legislation. We find it incredibly difficult to support. We would like a more permanent solution. The Minister needs to address the issue, make the solution permanent and come at it as quickly as he can. In the meantime, in common with other Members who have spoken, we do not support the motion.

Miss McAllister: Like Members who have spoken previously, I will talk about the uncomfortable position that we all found ourselves in when the pandemic first came around, back in 2020. We recognise that the decisions were taken on very difficult terms but that they were necessary to deal with the situation which we found ourselves in. All the parties in the Executive felt that we were in uncharted territories but that we had to manage it as best we could. Like the three previous contributors, I highlight the point that we now live in what is almost a post-pandemic era, so to speak. Although some Departments make everyday use of the Coronavirus Act, we are in a different situation with the order that the Minister moved. I have one question, an answer to which I seek from the Minister in his winding-up speech. It relates to whether these orders —. Sorry, I must remember that only one order has been moved. It relates to the effect from the order falling. What consequences will that have on lives in Northern Ireland and, importantly, on the Department of Health?

I focus on that issue because a lot of Departments rely on the regulations that were made in the past few years. Their content has become part and parcel of everyday life in Departments. We have just debated the use of live links in the Department of Justice, but there are also issues around hybrid meetings in the Department for Communities, and other issues can be added to that list. It is more about living in a post-pandemic era, in which there has been cost-effectiveness and positive effects from the regulations that were put in place. There have been things that have benefited not only society but how the Executive can manage matters.

I recognise that we had two years of a suspension, and I respect the fact that any Bill that must be introduced is not ready to be introduced, but, like the other contributors, I hope that the Minister can understand the discomfort and unease over the situation in which we find ourselves, whereby we are essentially approving powers that enable a decision to be taken that would enter us into some sort of pandemic response again.

When officials came to the Committee, we asked direct questions about the effect of COVID and the variants that are currently in Northern Ireland. We were told that there are no variants that are causing immediate concern. I therefore ask the Minister to outline the difference that introducing enabling legislation would make, or the impact that it would have, if he did not have the order in place. If it did not exist, what difference would it make to dealing with any future pandemic that might arise? We have moved on from where we were in 2020, and, especially for us as a liberal party, decisions to impose any regulations on society cannot be taken lightly. The order's full impact must be considered, and we therefore want to see primary legislation introduced. I understand, however, the position in which the Minister has been put as a result of our not having an Assembly. I look forward to hearing his response to my questions.

I also reiterate, alongside Health Committee members, that this is an uncomfortable order. It does not sit lightly, given its impact on freedom of movement and its restrictions on everyday life, especially for a party that values the role that everyone plays in society. I look forward to hearing the Minister's winding-up speech.

Mr Chambers: As many Members who served in the previous Assembly can confirm, there is often a sense of déjà vu when such extension orders are discussed. Although it seems rather odd to discuss extension orders not long before they expire, that is the rigid legal and legislative cycle in which we find ourselves. As the Minister set out, we in Northern Ireland have a legislative deficit when it comes to the adaptability of our current public health legislation. Other nations can respond at pace if need be, but it is a simple matter of fact that, without these extension orders, Northern Ireland could not do so.

Although, thankfully, the risks most associated with the previous pandemic remain low, equally, we have a responsibility to maintain a level of preparedness and resilience in order to protect our citizens should a significant variant emerge.

Indeed, the public inquiry is rightly examining the overall UK response to the pandemic, and I can only imagine that it would take a dim view were we to deliberately leave ourselves legislatively exposed at this point.

The Health Committee has received verbal and written briefings over recent weeks. It is clear that it is the view of the Chief Medical Officer and the Chief Scientific Adviser that the extension orders are necessary and prudent. Whilst MLAs are right to push and probe, many of us took a united position throughout the pandemic that we would respect the integrity of that expert advice.

Mrs Dodds quoted from Hansard the briefing that we received from Department of Health officials. The officer who was reported in Hansard as saying that there was no variant of the virus on the horizon was giving an honest answer to a fair question, but he is not the Chief Medical Officer, nor is he the Chief Scientific Adviser. Those are the people from whom I would tend to take advice.

I sincerely hope that none of these Department of Health extension orders ever needs to be utilised, but if they are, we need to be clear about the process that will be undertaken. Despite what a small cohort of Members in the House may believe or, at least, try to make others believe, absolutely no restrictions could be introduced without them first being discussed and agreed in the full Executive. The extension orders are merely enabling powers that could permit decisions to be taken at future meetings. Whilst we are right to be sensible and have the ability to respond to all eventualities, what is not helpful are high tales and misinformation as to what decisions, such as those being taken today, do or do not mean.

Whilst I know that some people like to portray themselves in a certain fashion or speak into an echo chamber, ultimately, as legislators, we need to be mature in our deliberations and reasonable in our public commentary. Sweeping statements and exaggerated claims may generate some Facebook likes and social media retweets, but they do little to contribute to what should be a serious topic. I appreciate that some will argue that legislation can be introduced quickly if ever needed, but surely due diligence would dictate that it is better to have it in place, ready to be utilised if and when required.

Others will argue that there is no sign of a new COVID variant on the horizon. The Building that we stand in today has fire extinguishers dotted throughout its corridors and rooms. Why are they in place? The answer is simple: they are there to help fight and contain the, hopefully unlikely, outbreak of a small fire that might grow into something more serious. Equally, we have defibrillators dotted around the Building: why are they there? They are there to provide urgent medical intervention in the event of someone suffering a cardiac arrest. It is all about being prepared for events that, we all hope, are unlikely to occur, but, if they do, we have the means to hand to respond.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Blair): Order. I am afraid that I have to interrupt the Member. As Question Time begins at 2:00 pm, I suggest that the Assembly takes its ease until then. The debate will continue after Question Time, when the next Member to speak will be Alan Chambers to continue his remarks.

The debate stood suspended.

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


2.00 pm

Oral Answers to Questions

Justice

Madam Principal Deputy Speaker: Question 12 has been withdrawn.

Mrs Long (The Minister of Justice): I am pleased to advise that the stalking protection order provisions contained in the Protection from Stalking Act (Northern Ireland) 2022 came into operation on 19 October 2023. Consideration of the circumstances in which applications may be made to the courts for an SPO are an operational matter for the police. Although I cannot comment on operational matters, I understand that each incident of stalking that is reported to the police is assessed to determine whether an SPO application should be progressed. I also understand that, while an order has not yet been made or imposed by the courts, there are currently eight cases that are under active consideration for an SPO at this time. In line with the reporting requirements in the 2022 Act, my officials will be working with operational partners to coordinate a detailed report on the operation of the new offence of stalking, the new offence of threatening and abusive behaviour and the operation of the stalking protection order provisions of the Act for publication later this year.

Ms Ennis: I thank the Minister for her response. Having sat on the Committee in the previous mandate, we know the serious psychological effects that stalking can have on victims. Can the Minister outline what wrap-around services, protections and supports are in place for people who apply for a stalking protection order or who have been the victim of a stalker?

Mrs Long: Wrap-around services are not directly the responsibility of the Department of Justice. However, as you are aware, there are other advice, guidance and support institutions for victims of crime, some of which give priority to victims of domestic abuse and stalking. As part of the domestic and sexual abuse (DSA) strategy that I hope to introduce shortly with the Minister of Health, there is the possibility, obviously, for us to look into that space. Hopefully, the Executive Office's Ending Violence Against Women and Girls strategy will also be able to feed into that conversation, but it will normally be a matter for other Departments to take forward the support services rather than the Department of Justice itself.

Ms Egan: Last week, I was speaking with a PSNI officer who was telling me how effective the new legislation on stalking has been. Minister, you mentioned the domestic and sexual abuse strategy: could I have an update on that, please?

Mrs Long: As Members are aware, the domestic and sexual abuse strategy was in development just prior to the collapse of the Executive. It is now well advanced. The intention is that we will bring forward a cross-departmental strategic response to domestic and sexual abuse led by my Department and the Department of Health with input from the Department of Education, the Department for Communities and TEO. We hope to publish jointly in the next financial year, so later on in this calendar year. It will take forward a range of work to protect and support victims and to address abusive behaviours that will benefit all victims of domestic and sexual abuse. The actions under that strategy will be funded by a cross-cutting DSA ring-fenced budget set aside by the Executive and will cross over with the Ending Violence Against Women and Girls strategy to make sure that there is not duplication and that it is streamlined.

Ms Hunter: Has the Minister had any conversations regarding laws and legislation with the Minister for Data and Digital Infrastructure on the role of social media stalking and unwanted messages and the impact that that can have on victims in Northern Ireland?

Mrs Long: I have not had such conversations since I returned to office, but I had extensive discussion with my colleagues in Westminster prior to the collapse of the Assembly. Obviously, the online harms Bill was one of the mechanisms identified to deal with online activity. I did not think that it went far enough and encouraged them to strengthen it further, but unfortunately that did not happen. By and large, social media and communications is a reserved matter, and, therefore, it is really only around the notifiable offences that can be undertaken either online or in real life that we will have that crossover.

Mr Beattie: Minister, you will know that I have raised the issue of victims' and witnesses' experiences of the Northern Ireland criminal justice system. Will you engage with the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency (NISRA) to make sure that cases of domestic abuse and sexual crimes, including stalking, are contained in its reports?

Mrs Long: I would be more than happy to do so.

Mrs Long: I am committed to supporting the Chief Constable in delivering high-quality policing across Northern Ireland. A key component of that is a properly resourced and fairly remunerated workforce. In that context, I was pleased to secure an additional allocation from the Executive in February to allow the relevant pay settlements to be taken forward. I can confirm that I have considered and approved the recommendations for the pay award made by the Police Remuneration Review Body (PRRB), and my officials have invited the PSNI and Northern Ireland Policing Board to bring forward pay remits for their respective cohorts. However, while that additional funding was very welcome, it does not address the recurrent pressure that will arise in future years as a consequence of an award this year. Going forward, I will continue to work with the Chief Constable to develop and present a case to the Executive for additional investment in both policing and the wider justice sector. This is not just about policing but about an essential foundation of the just and fair society that we all aspire to.

Mr Clarke: I am sure that the Chief Constable will welcome your support on that. However, the officers who have waited a long time for their pay rise are now hearing that the budget is not recurrent. What continuing conversations will you have with the Chief Constable and the Policing Board to give them the assurance that the budget will continue in the future? Will you say more about the nature of the pay rise for the civilian staff, many of whom do different jobs, which have different risks, compared with the wider Civil Service.

Mrs Long: I am aware of the challenges, but I cannot give reassurance on recurrence because it is simply not in my gift to do so. What may be possible will depend on the ongoing negotiations between the Minister of Finance and the Treasury. While I would be keen to see that money added to my budget next year so we can give that reassurance, I am not in a position to do that this year. However, in the interests of stabilising the workforce, which is critical, I believed that it was important that we moved on the pay even though it creates an unmet need in our finances next year, because, as I said at the beginning, we cannot have a decent police service unless we pay the staff and our police officers a reasonable salary. However, that will raise challenges for us next year due to the pressures on the DOJ budget. I look forward to members of the Policing Board and others in the Chamber giving us their full support on that.

Mr Nesbitt: If the Minister will allow me a bit of a stretch from Mr Clarke's original question, what is her attitude to the proposed review of the Policing Board?

Mrs Long: That is, indeed, a stretch. However, I am looking at the terms of reference of the review. I spoke to the chair and vice chair of the Policing Board recently and agreed that, with the return of devolution, it is for the Department of Justice to take forward that review. We are finalising the options around that.

Mr Allister: Is there any relief on the holiday pay issue that has arisen from court cases that said that holiday pay had to be based on year-round overtime? Some officers have been waiting for those holiday pay payments for many years.

Mrs Long: The process to arrive at a final resolution of that matter is still ongoing. Obviously, it is in all of our interests to resolve that as swiftly as possible. There will, undoubtedly, be financial pressures as a result of that.

Mr Dickson: Minister, do you agree that the Department of Justice has been chronically underfunded relative to other Departments? Indeed, that has been publicly commented on. Therefore, Minister, do you also agree that it is incumbent on all parties in the Chamber that are part of the Government to ensure that the Department of Justice has adequate funding?

Mrs Long: That is absolutely essential. My Department has seen a 3% uplift since devolution in comparison with a 68% uplift in the same year for the Department of Health and, I think, a 43% uplift for the Department of Education. We are talking about significant differentials, and, unfortunately, while we have been effective at doing more and more with less and less, there comes a point when that is no longer possible. Where we make savings in the Department of Justice now, they are not savings; they simply push up costs for others parts of the justice system. We have gone beyond the stage of being able to simply discuss efficiencies, which I am always keen to do. We are now in a situation where we are discussing whether we want to have a justice system that is capable of delivering for people in terms of public safety, the preservation of life and the delivery of justice or whether we are willing to continue to asset-strip it and not allow it to continue.

Mrs Long: The Northern Ireland Troubles (Legacy and Reconciliation) Act 2023 will end investigations by the PSNI or the Police Ombudsman as well as inquests that are not yet at the final determination stage in respect of Troubles-related incidents. The Act also prevents new civil claims from being brought forward from 17 May 2023. Instead, the Independent Commission for Reconciliation and Information Recovery (ICRIR) will review deaths and/or other harmful conduct during the Troubles period.

There continues to be considerable legal uncertainty around the new arrangements following the judgement handed down by the High Court on 28 February, which is being appealed by the UK Government. The judgement included declarations that a number of the Act's provisions, including those relating to immunity from prosecution, are incompatible with the European Convention on Human Rights and should be disapplied. It also concluded that the ICRIR is capable of carrying out investigations that are compliant with articles 2 and 3 convention rights. The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland has said that he remains committed to implementing the new commission. However, there remains a lack of clarity on what the operating model for the new commission will be; how it will interface with justice organisations; what the costs associated with that work will be; and how those costs will be funded. Therefore, I have written to the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland seeking confirmation, as a matter of urgency, of the costs that may arise, especially for the 2024-25 financial year and the funding arrangements for them. I have also made him aware that, while the Act will shut down a number of investigations and future civil claims, there will be a continuing resource burden on justice organisations in relation to remaining legacy cases not caught by the Act's provisions, including inquests and other investigations that fall outside of the time frame of the Act, as well as several hundred civil cases that predate the legislation. There are therefore likely to be additional costs for justice originations for as long as they are expected to service the commission and continue to deal with outstanding legacy cases.

It remains a matter of real regret to me —

Mrs Long: — that the legislation passed in Westminster. It has caused huge problems for the justice system.

Mr Mathison: I thank the Minister for her answer. Given the extensive financial and resource pressures on your Department, which you have outlined, do you have any clarity on the precise cost implications of the legacy Act for the criminal justice system?

Mrs Long: Currently, there is limited information available on how the ICRIR will deliver its role, so it is difficult to know what the costs associated with DOJ matters will be. There may be additional costs for justice organisations in servicing the ICRIR and dealing with matters that are not caught by the Act's provisions, but there is also the wider issue of being able to handle the data and other sensitive issues that would need to be passed across to the ICRIR so that it can take forward its investigations.

The legacy Act was not supported by Executive parties. It remains a UK Government policy change, so the costs associated with the outworking of that policy should, I believe, fall to other than the Executive.

Mr McGlone: Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire.

[Translation: I thank the Minister.]

In regard to the recent use or, I should say, abuse of public interest immunity (PII) certificates to frustrate the inquest process, particularly the inquest into the murder of Sean Brown, will the Minister endorse the comments by Mr Justice Kinney on the establishment of a public inquiry into his murder?

Mrs Long: The issue of PII certificates is not a matter for the Department of Justice; they lie within the reserved domain of security. However, I believe that there will be many families, as a result of the legacy Act or other issues that have arisen in recent weeks, who will not be able to get the inquest that they wished and expected. Those families deserve to be treated with more respect and dignity than is currently the case. They should be able to access truth and justice in their cases.

Mr Beattie: I thank the Minister. Minister, in dealing with wider legacy issues, have you written to your counterpart in the Irish Government expressing your disappointment that they will not hold an independent inquiry into the Omagh bombing?

Mrs Long: I have not written to my Irish counterpart on that matter. I was due to meet her a number of weeks ago, but, unfortunately, that meeting could not take place. I hope to be able to raise it with her when I next meet her.

Mrs Long: X-ray body scanner technology was introduced in prisons in Northern Ireland in March and April 2023. Females, staff and visitors are not scanned, in line with the use of the technology in England and Wales. Since their introduction, there has been a marked reduction in the trafficking of drugs and other illicit substances into prisons, which means that those who work and live in prisons are safer. A positive indication from a scan is likely to result in restriction of association under prison rule 32. That allows prison staff to monitor the prisoner and for rescans to be completed until the risk of secreted items to the individual and the prison population at large can be mitigated.

The Northern Ireland Prison Service also notifies the healthcare in prisons teams from the South Eastern Health and Social Care Trust when a prisoner gives a positive indication from a scan in case there are any health concerns that need to be monitored and addressed.


2.15 pm

Ms Ferguson: There are concerns about the period of time that those who have been scanned and on whom something has been found are kept in isolation. Can you provide any further detail on that, Minister?

Mrs Long: As I said, people are kept in the care and supervision unit until such time as they have passed the item that has been secreted inside them or have otherwise disposed of it. The Prison Service has no authority to remove items from inside a person, so it is a matter of the person being monitored until the scans are clear. The alternative would be to put that person back into the prison population and potentially allow them to take contraband into the prison system, which would cause more disruption and harm to other prisoners.

Ms Bunting: A significant problem remains with prescription drugs in our prison system, specifically those that prisoners look after and about which those in the Prison Service are not entitled to know because of patient confidentiality. What conversations has the Minister had with the Minister of Health to address that serious issue?

Mrs Long: This is an ongoing problem that we have had for some years, but we have no role in administering medication in the prisons. That role was handed over to the Department of Health and the South Eastern Trust a number of years ago. We are trying to refine the protocols so that conversations can take place between people in the Prison Service and the health service. That is important not just where prescription medication is concerned but when people have complex needs, which is increasingly a feature of the prison population. That has to be managed very carefully where an individual prisoner's data protection and privacy are concerned, which can create real complexities in how we are able to respond to those issues.

Mr Chambers: What plans does the Minister have to deal with any concerns that she may have about prison numbers outstripping the capacity of the prison estate?

Mrs Long: I believe that the Member tabled that as a substantive question to be asked later. However, there are real challenges with the size of the prison population. In March 2021, the total prison population was 1,401; on 1 March this year, it had risen to 1,879, which is an increase of 34%. Within that, about 36% of the population are unsentenced, so those prisoners are on remand. It is a real challenge, but we have already reopened two of the square houses that we closed when Davis House was built, and a third is being prepared for reuse. The frank reality is that, when we get to the end of that process, we will have no space left. We are working with others on a prisoner population oversight group to look at what we can do to better manage that population, but, ultimately, those who are remanded to our custody need to be housed.

Mrs Long: With your permission, Madam Principal Deputy Speaker, I will answer questions 5 and 11 together. I recognise that antisocial behaviour (ASB) in not only rural communities but any community can be a source of great anxiety and suffering to those who are affected. It is rare for community safety issues such as antisocial behaviour to be resolved by the criminal justice system alone. ASB requires partnership working across all the relevant agencies together with local and central government, which has the levers to put in place joined-up, long-term solutions to prevent incidents arising and to tackle their impact. With that in mind, my Department is undertaking a number of different strands of work on a collaborative basis.

We led a multi-agency, cross-departmental review of antisocial behaviour legislation that considered nine areas of potential change. The policy responsibility for those areas fell across the Department of Justice, the Department for Communities and the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs. On foot of that review and having identified four areas where legislative change may prove to be beneficial, my Department, together with the Department for Communities, launched a joint public consultation on proposals to amend legislation with a view to ensuring that the relevant authorities have effective and proportionate powers to tackle ASB and its effects on our community. We are analysing the responses, and policy options will be developed for consideration.

Mrs Erskine: I thank the Minister, and I congratulate her on taking up her post. I have not had the opportunity to formally do that.

Antisocial behaviour is a scourge on communities, and that has not been not helped by either the reduction in the numbers of neighbourhood policing teams or the pressures on policing. Can the Minister detail what she is doing to ensure that neighbourhood teams are retained in areas? I welcome the fact that she is working cross-departmentally on that. Can she detail any specific work being done with the likes of the Housing Executive or, indeed, any community and voluntary agencies to deal with antisocial behaviour?

Mrs Long: On the first of your two supplementary questions, frankly, it is not my job to direct where the Chief Constable deploys resources. That is a matter for him and him alone. With regard to neighbourhood teams, you will have to ask him where he is going to put his resources. However, I will work with him to ensure that the police are properly resourced, and I have made that case strongly today.

The work that we do in rural and urban areas is cross-cutting. It involves people from the Department for Communities, the Housing Executive and others. In the case of rural crime, it also involves the Ulster Farmers' Union, National Farmers' Union Mutual, young farmers' clubs and lots of other organisations that have a contribution to make in that space. It is something that we collectively, rather than simply the Department of Justice, need to work together on. We have very few operational levers. It is generally down to policing and justice agencies that are beyond our control.

Ms Forsythe: Specifically on antisocial behaviour in rural areas, it is my experience that people in those areas tend not to bother the police with what they see as less severe crimes. The underreporting of such crimes leads to the local police not knowing about the issues when someone like me raises them. Will the Minister consider an awareness-raising campaign for reporting disturbances, antisocial behaviour and minor road traffic collisions to assist rural police planning?

Mrs Long: There are a number of things that I will say to that. The first is that we are a member of the rural crime partnership. I mentioned some of the other members of that and what we are able to deliver in a rural setting. There is also a role for the PCSPs, which are funded by my Department, to do local awareness raising and provide schemes to encourage members of the public to report what they see and incidents that, they feel, do not need an immediate response. You do not have to dial 999 when you see an incident; you can use the non-emergency line in order to let the police know what is happening in the area and, hopefully, allow them to factor that in when it comes to doing the rest of their work.

It is important to say that the PSNI and other partners in the national rural crime unit have been working together to look at things such as recent thefts and how they can be more innovative around protection and the prevention and reporting of crime.

Mr Brown: Does the Minister agree that antisocial behaviour is an incredibly complex area that cannot be tackled through legislation alone and that we need to focus on trying to deal with the root causes of the behaviour?

Mrs Long: My colleague raises a very valid point. Really complex issues underlie most offending behaviour, none more so than antisocial behaviour. On foot of a review that we have undertaken and the consultation, we are looking to bring forward some proposals for consideration.

Policing and community safety partnerships are also well placed to bring forward some of the operational response to community safety and antisocial behaviour across communities in Northern Ireland. It is important that we recognise the important work done by other agencies and the voluntary and community sector in that space. They play a huge role in not only developing appropriate actions to reduce the impact of ASB but engaging, long term, with some young people at risk of offending in order to deflect them from that.

Mr McGrath: We are moving perilously close to going back into the territory of the Minister saying that she is not the Minister for police. If the Chief Constable is looking for additional resources, will you work with him to gather resources to address antisocial behaviour, or does he simply ask for resources and you do not know what he needs to use them for?

Mrs Long: I am rather shocked that someone from the SDLP wants the Minister of Justice directing the police on operational matters, because, when it came to the Patten review, you were some of the most outspoken on the point that no future Minister of Justice should ever direct the police or interfere in operational matters. It is a very bizarre take. I am not the Minister for policing; my title is "The Minister of Justice". We do not have a Minister for policing in Northern Ireland; that is what the Policing Board does.

My conversations with the Chief Constable are constructive and helpful. He is working on proposals for what he needs. I am working with Executive colleagues to try to ensure that we can get as much resource as possible for the Department. I will not, however, be stepping in and directing the Chief Constable, nor would anybody want me to.

Mrs Long: My Department has no current plans to introduce legislation or to amend existing legalisation to remove injury-on-duty and pensions from the Policing Board's responsibilities.

Mrs Dillon: I wish the Minister well in her new, old post. Minister, I am glad to hear that your husband's health is improving.

This has come up repeatedly at the Policing Board, and I am sure that you are well aware of the issues involved. It is not appropriate for the matter to sit with the Policing Board. That is not the place for it to be. It should be with either DOJ or the PSNI. Will the Minister consider looking at the issues, because they are causing great consternation for officers and ex-officers and their families?

Mrs Long: I am very conscious of the issue. I have not received any such request from the Northern Ireland Policing Board. Were such a request made, I would have to consider its implications, set against my Department's current business priorities, but I would be happy to do so.

Miss McAllister: The Minister will recognise that, alongside the Policing Board, the Department has a backlog of cases concerning independent medical referees. How will she address the backlog of independent medical referee appointments?

Mrs Long: That is a really important issue. I am pleased to inform the Assembly that the independent referee assessment process recommenced on 4 March 2024. Moreover, the Department is in the final stages of procurement with a supplier for further resource to carry out that function so that we can resolve the backlog. We are hopeful that we will be able to get started on that soon.

Mr Clarke: In response to Mr McGrath, you said that you are not the Minister for policing, which you are not, but it is, of course, a tripartite arrangement. On Linda Dillon's question about injury-on-duty, we have come across that many times — sorry, I should have declared an interest as a member of the Policing Board — whereby we are being asked to make decisions on medical grounds, when none of us has medical training. We are told that the matter has been discussed with the Department and that it is Department that should be introducing legislation. As far as we on the Policing Board are aware, the Department is aware of that. Is that true?

Mrs Long: If the issue is about reform of the injury-on-duty scheme, that is a separate issue. I was asked a specific question on whether my Department intended to relieve the Policing Board of its duties under the current injury-on-duty scheme, which is the running of the initial scheme. The Department runs the independent appeals process. I said that we had not discussed that issue. I have in front of me, Trevor, your correspondence from the Policing Board.

Mrs Long: Many people come into our prisons with long-established addictions from years of drug use in the community. That results in the Prison Service, along with its partners in the South Eastern Health and Social Care Trust, investing heavily in supporting, and, indeed, in challenging, those people to address their addictions, which, all too often, are central to their offending behaviour.

As part of that approach, Magilligan operates two units in the prison whose entry criteria require an individual to be drug-free or to be engaging in programmes that support recovery from addiction. Those supportive environments help reduce demand while promoting the individual's self-esteem, family contact, release planning and throughcare with key partners in the community. The individual units provide 88 beds, and, against a backdrop of a significantly increasing prison population, there are no plans to expand provision in Magilligan at this time.

Madam Principal Deputy Speaker: Claire, you have time for a quick supplementary question.

Ms Sugden: Thank you for your answer, Minister. I appreciate that there are people who enter prison with a drug problem, but an awful lot come out with a drug problem. Is enough being done to address the use of illicit drugs in prison?

Mrs Long: It is clear, if you look at the interim review report, that, although a lot of progress has been made — indeed, a new drugs response strategy has been implemented and embedded in Magilligan — there is still much work to do.

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

T1. Mr O'Toole asked the Minister of Justice whether she has confidence in the Public Prosecution Service (PPS), given the Kenova report, which is a shocking indictment of the brutality of the British state and the republican movement, and, in the words of the lawyer for the families, "the state and the IRA were co-conspirators" in the abduction, torture and murder of, in many cases, people who were entirely innocent, albeit would Jon Boutcher and Ian Livingstone express surprise that, despite the new evidence uncovered by Kenova, not one prosecution of a British soldier or a member of the IRA has resulted. (AQT 91/22-27)


2.30 pm

Mrs Long: I remind Mr O'Toole that the PPS is a non-ministerial department that is entirely separate from the Department of Justice. I do not answer for the PPS, I do not provide its funding and I do not deal with its issues. The Member asked me specifically whether I have confidence in the PPS: I do.

Mr O'Toole: This is an extremely important subject. By my count — the Minister can correct me, if this is wrong — at least three of the 10 recommendations resulting from Operation Kenova would, if enacted, relate to her Department. Will the Minister commit to legislating to provide procedural time limits in relation to judicial case management, to reviewing the PPS and to ensuring that it pays due regard to victims and their families in legacy cases?

Mrs Long: I have already made it clear that I have no powers to review the PPS, and I have no powers to direct the PPS. The PPS is entirely independent. It is funded by the Department of Finance — that comes directly from the Finance Minister — and is not part of the landscape of the Department of Justice. I recognise the seriousness of the issues that have been raised by Operation Kenova and welcome the publication of the interim report; I hope that it provides the families with some measure of comfort and value. What will not provide them with comfort or value is Members asking me to do that which I have no power to do.

T2. Mr T Buchanan asked the Minister of Justice for her assessment of the long- and short-term sickness levels in prison grade staff. (AQT 92/22-27)

Mrs Long: Did the Member say "prison grade staff"?

Mrs Long: Thank you. That issue is of ongoing concern, as the Member will understand. As prisons become more crowded, they become a higher-stress environment. I pay tribute to the work that our prison officers do daily in looking after some of the most complex and often difficult individuals in society but also providing those individuals with a rehabilitative environment. That is incredibly challenging, and, as a result, people will often either be injured at work or suffer significant stress. We have put measures in place, including providing access to the Police Rehabilitation and Retraining Trust and Prisons Well, which is concerned with looking after the mental health and well-being of officers, to try to address challenges with attendance. It is a challenging area.

Mr T Buchanan: I thank the Minister for her response. Has the situation been brought about as a result of a shortage of prison grade staff in our prisons?

Mrs Long: We continue to recruit actively to the Prison Service. Indeed, we have passing out parades in the Long Gallery almost biweekly, should any of you wish to go there to celebrate those who have committed themselves to working in the Prison Service. It is not simply an issue of lack of staffing. The challenge is that the number of people in prison has increased. I said earlier that there has been around a 34% increase in the prison population. That leads to people having to double up in cells. During COVID, nobody was doubled up, other than whose who had requested it. By contrast, a significant proportion of the prison population is now doubled up. All of that provides a challenge to those who look after people in our prisons. As I mentioned, we have also had to reopen the square houses, which we had hoped would be demolished by now, in order to provide additional accommodation. They are more resource-intensive. The issue is not a lack of officers, however, because we continue to recruit and train.

T3. Mr Chambers asked the Minister of Justice for her assessment of current police numbers. (AQT 93/22-27)

Mrs Long: Again, it is not my job to assess current police numbers. I will not demur from the current Chief Constable's assessment. He has said that he believes that police numbers are too low, and I think that most of us would agree with that on the basis of our experience.

Mr Chambers: Is the Minister aware of or has she received expressions of concern from business and community leaders who are calling for higher numbers of police officers on the ground? Does she share those concerns, and will she support all efforts to increase police numbers?

Mrs Long: The recruitment of police officers is an operational matter for the Chief Constable, who is accountable to the Northern Ireland Policing Board. I am committed to respecting their operational independence in this matter. I will continue to work with the Chief Constable to ensure that the Police Service is properly resourced for all aspects of the challenges that it faces. I have not had particular representation from the business community, but I am aware that, on other issues, the business community have made representation about, for example, the increase in assaults on shopworkers. There are some measures that the Department will be able to bring forward as part of a sentencing Bill to address some of those concerns.

T4. Ms Sugden asked the Minister of Justice, while appreciating that she has no operational responsibility for policing, to state her view of the prevalence of PTSD in the police and officers’ inability to access occupational health services and mental health services within their communities, given that those issues will affect numbers, which will affect public safety. (AQT 94/22-27)

Mrs Long: Again, the provision of support services for the PSNI is a matter for the Chief Constable and the Policing Board. It is not a matter for the Department of Justice.

Ms Sugden: I will reiterate the second part of my question. Given that sickness absence levels will affect policing numbers, which will then affect the ability to keep our communities safe, does the Minister have a view on the level of sickness absences in the police in relation to work-related stress — PTSD?

Mrs Long: It is not a matter for me to have a view. The issue is whether I have any responsibility or levers to control those matters, and I do not, because, as Minister of Justice, it would not be appropriate. I am sure that colleagues in the Chamber who are members of the Policing Board would be more than happy to follow up. We have been able to ensure that things like the Police Rehabilitation and Retraining Trust and other initiatives to support officers are in place. That is not something that I can do. It is, however, something that the Policing Board and the Chief Constable are acutely aware of.

T5. Mr Donnelly asked the Minister of Justice to outline her plans for hate crime legislation, given that she will be aware that hate incidents and crimes are all too common in Northern Ireland, which has led to calls for a hate crime Bill. (AQT 95/22-27)

Mrs Long: One of my key priorities as Minister of Justice has been to improve support and legislative protection for victims of hate crime. Somebody being targeted because of who they are, where they are from or what they believe is unacceptable to us all. Obviously, the Department has been working to implement Judge Marrinan's report on his review of hate crime legislation and plans to modernise and strengthen a robust response to this through the introduction of a hate crime Bill.

With regard to the legislative programme and the available time that is left to us, it will be difficult to achieve as much as I would have hoped to have achieved, had we had a full mandate of five years. However, I believe that we can bring forward a foundational hate crime Bill and, hopefully, introduce that to the Assembly in 2026. We are also looking at the scope of some additional victim provisions that may be able to be included in that Bill.

Mr Donnelly: Can the Minister clarify what the Bill will seek to do?

Mrs Long: The main aim of the Bill will be to ensure that legislation represents the most effective approach for the justice system to deal with criminal conduct motivated by hostility and to assist victims to seek redress through the criminal justice system. It will introduce a new statutory aggravation model that will see specific hate crime offending recognised in law and recorded on criminal records and ensure recognition of the hate crime element of any offence from the start of the process. It will also provide necessary powers to ensure that action can be taken against offenders. Current protected groups, such as race, religion, sexual orientation and disability, will be retained in legislation, and the Bill will allow intersectionality to be recognised and other protected groups to be added to that at a later date, should the evidence emerge. We are already exploring potential additions that may come forward as part of that Bill.

T6. Ms Brownlee asked the Minister of Justice, in light of the shocking statistics on attacks on the PSNI, to state what her Department can do to address the issue. (AQT 96/22-27)

Mrs Long: There are a number of things that the Department can do. First, I intend, as part of the sentencing Bill that I have planned as the second Bill in the mandate, to bring forward new provisions for emergency and front-line workers to ensure that the maximum sentence is increased for offences where someone has attacked a police officer, a member of the Ambulance Service or a member of the Fire and Rescue Service. It is not right that anyone going about their daily job and trying to protect people's lives should be subject to abuse. We need to give the courts the space to apply higher sentences in those cases.

Ms Brownlee: I thank the Minister for her response. Does she have a time frame for that or any idea when the legislation will be enacted?

Mrs Long: With the cooperation of your colleague who chairs the Justice Committee, we will, hopefully, get that Bill to the Committee next spring. Then, it will then be a matter of working through the consultation on that. Towards the end of next year, I hope that we will be in a position to put it on the statute book.

T7. Ms Ferguson asked the Minister of Justice, after welcoming her commitment to longer sentences through stronger legislation, to commit also to stronger sentencing for knife and drug-related crime. (AQT 97/22-27)

Mrs Long: There are a number of complex parts to that. First, sentencing lies with the Lady Chief Justice and the judiciary, who are independent of my office. We can certainly, through a sentencing Bill, set the maximum sentences for an offence, but it is up to the judiciary, on the basis of what they hear and what they learn from the specialist reports that are put in front of them, to bring that to a conclusion in the sentences that are given. I hope, though, that the judiciary will take account of the Assembly's indicating with stiffer maximum sentences the severity that it attaches to those crimes.

I believe that the best way to deal with issues around drugs is through a harm reduction model and a health-based approach, not necessarily through stiffer sentences. Often, the people who come before the judiciary have relatively small amounts of drugs, but their drug taking and drug dependency have fuelled acquisitive and other petty crime. They need to be drug-free and to be supported through rehabilitation and harm reduction rather than to be further criminalised by the system.

Ms Ferguson: Thank you for that update. How effective is the harm reduction and rehabilitation model?

Mrs Long: There is space for additional cross-departmental working between the Department of Justice and the Department of Health. Many of the people who come into the purview of the Department of Justice do so as a result of the fact that they have fallen through the education system net and the health service net. They come to us with increasingly complex mental health and drug complications, often with learning difficulties or speech and communication difficulties. As an Executive, we need to look at how we will tackle drugs and drug dependency in a different way that allows us to maintain the legal position that the drugs are class A, class B and class C, which is not in our gift to change because it is UK-wide policy, and to do the most effective thing. Basically, the approach cannot be effective if drug crime is increasing. The last thing that many of the people who end up coming into contact with the justice system need is to be in prison. They need to be in a medical facility, where they can detox and get the support and guidance that they need.

T8. Mr McHugh asked the Minister of Justice, having previously met the family, whether she will issue a decision on the request for a full, independent inquiry into the botched police investigation into the murder of Arlene Arkinson, who was murdered by the notorious child killer Robert Howard. (AQT 98/22-27)

Mrs Long: I will write to the Member, because that is a sensitive issue. I met the family and had a detailed discussion with them and their legal representatives. Complex issues are at play in that the way in which the original case was handled has contributed to the family's distress. I will write to the Member with my thoughts on that issue.

Mr McHugh: Minister, do you agree that a full investigation could lead to the discovery of Arlene's remains?

Mrs Long: One thing that I have done as a result of meeting Arlene's family and the families of Charlotte Murray and Lisa Dorrian is look at how we can incentivise through the criminal justice system the early return of the remains of individuals who have been murdered. It is a challenging space, but, in this mandate, we intend to bring forward a bespoke form of Charlotte's law that will allow us at each stage of the criminal justice system to apply more pressure to offenders. The difficulty, of course, is that, in my recollection of Arlene's case, the individual who was ultimately thought to be responsible has passed away.


2.45 pm

Madam Principal Deputy Speaker: We must move on to questions to the Minister of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs.

Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs

Madam Principal Deputy Speaker: I will talk away here to let Andrew get into his seat. As question 1 has been withdrawn, when Andrew is in his seat, I will call Gary Middleton.

Mr Muir (The Minister of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs): I thank the Member for his question. My Department has a contract with six rural support networks to deliver the rural community development support service across all rural areas of Northern Ireland. Since 2020-21, my Department has provided additional financial assistance to rural support networks through those contracts to work with community and voluntary groups in marginalised rural border communities where capacity is weak. That financial assistance has enabled the rural support networks to provide tailored support to build the capacity of the community and voluntary groups in rural border areas to play a full and active role in helping their communities to grow and flourish.

My Department has also piloted a marginalised minority border communities digital access pilot scheme, which completed in March 2023. The main aim of the pilot was to support community groups to enhance digital access for those living in a rural border area. All those initiatives are ongoing through policy evaluation. I will give careful consideration to the needs of marginalised minority communities as I inform my thinking and take decisions on future policies.

The House will be aware that the Department for Communities has statutory responsibility for all communities, and it is my intention to engage with Executive colleagues to help to inform future policy direction and to ensure a better outcome for rural dwellers.

Mr Middleton: I thank the Minister for his comments, and I welcome the fact that the policy position will be reviewed. Will the Minister agree that, when it comes to funding, many rural communities feel disadvantaged in comparison with urban communities, particularly funding for community development? Will the Minister commit to working with those communities to ensure that they get their fair share of funding and support?

Mr Muir: I thank the Member for his question. I agree with him. I met officials last week to discuss our overall rural development programmes and the policies around this. As Minister, I intend to bring a fresh approach to this to see what more we can do to ensure that rural needs are fully reflected by all Departments, because I am very conscious that this issue does not rest just with me.

The ending of the rural development programme, which ran from 2014 to 2020, is of concern to Members and to rural communities. I want to reassure the Member, and the rest of the House, that, despite the cessation of the rural development programme, the Department continues to invest in and support rural communities through a range of initiatives. Other Departments have a responsibility to step forward, but I want to take the lead on this, see what we can do on rural development and refresh our policy on that.

Ms Hunter: Minister, coming from a rural constituency, I welcome discussion about the fund. How is the effectiveness of the fund being measured to ensure that your Department is best supporting marginalised people in isolated rural communities?

Mr Muir: I thank the Member for her question. It is important that we evaluate a lot of these funds and see how effective they are. Some of them were cast in a previous era when we were a member of the EU, so we need to make sure that we are meeting the needs of rural communities. In rural communities, I am seeing a sense of isolation, and, at least week's Committee meeting, Patsy McGlone — rightly so — raised the issue of health service transformation and how we can ensure that we reflect the needs of rural communities as part of that. We need to do this evaluation, and we need to ensure that whatever we do is fit for purpose going forward.

Mr Blair: What plans, if any, does the Minister have to review the Rural Needs Act 2016? If such a review were to take place, what might it look like?

Mr Muir: I thank the Member for his question. I am very conscious that, under the Rural Needs Act, there is a duty on public authorities to have due regard to the social and economic needs of people in rural areas when exercising their functions. My Department continues to provide support to public authorities to help to ensure that the Act is implemented effectively and delivers better outcomes for rural dwellers. The Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs is not the only Department that is responsible for addressing issues in our rural communities. I intend to work with Executive colleagues. I am conscious of the Act, but I am keen to review it to see whether there is anything more that we can do in legislation within what is left of the mandate to ensure that the needs of rural communities are better reflected and whether the Rural Needs Act is actually fit for purpose.

Mr Muir: I thank the Member for his question. The High Hedges Act (Northern Ireland) 2011 is intended to provide a mechanism by which a complainant can resolve a problem that is caused by a high evergreen hedge through their local council if they have approached their neighbour and asked them to reduce its height but have been unable to resolve the issue through discussion. I recognise the problems that hedges can cause if they are neglected or allowed to grow unchecked, which can have a significant impact on householders.

Information that has been gathered on the initial functioning of the Act between 2012 and 2016 shows that only a small proportion of initial enquiries that were received by councils progressed to formal complaints. Further information for the period of 2016 to 2020 indicates that the number of formal complaints remains low. In addition, the number of queries that have been received by the Department annually is also small, with no significant issues regarding its operation having been raised. I have been presented with no evidence to suggest that a review of the high hedges legislation is needed at this time. I will, however, meet council chief executives in due course through their representative body, the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives and Senior Managers (SOLACE). I will be happy to discuss any issues that they have with the application of the Act.

Mr Dunne: I thank the Minister for his answer. Given that it can be quite a complex, long and drawn-out process for residents, does he agree that it could be made more effective and streamlined, as well as being widened to deal with single problem trees that are over two metres, which it currently does not do?

Mr Muir: I thank the Member for his question. The legislation, as it is drafted, is meant to be a last resort in resolving those issues. Statistics that have been presented to me show that a very small percentage of people actually go towards using the legislation. I am happy to meet the Member if he has any particular concerns about expanding the legislation, but, currently, I see that the legislation is working. Perhaps, discussion needs to be had with councils on their operation of it. As someone who represents the North Down constituency, I know of some particular instances that the Member might want dealt with.

Mr Durkan: The Minister's interpretation of what constitutes a high hedge might be a wee different from mine. Has any analysis been done of the complaints and the reason why so many do not make the cut, for want of a better phrase, due to the non-inclusion of problem trees in the definition of a high hedge?

Mr Muir: I thank the Member for his question. The legislation states that the complaint progresses only if:

"the council considers—

(a) that the complainant has not taken all reasonable steps to resolve the matters complained of without proceeding by way of such a complaint to the council".

That is the bar that is set before it can go. Often, in life, if you try to discuss things before going towards a complaint, they can be resolved. That is why a number of complaints have not progressed.

Ms Egan: Does the Minister agree that overgrown hedges can cause real obstruction and accessibility issues when they block a footpath or road? Who is responsible for addressing that?

Mr Muir: I thank the Member for her question. Perhaps, that is one of the biggest issues in the correspondence that we receive as elected Members. The default go-to is the Department for Infrastructure. We need to find a way in which to ensure that those issues are moved along much quicker, because there are public safety concerns when that occurs.

Mr Muir: As Members will be aware, in September 2023, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland directed my Department to consult on a proposal to reduce the compensation rate for cattle that are removed under the bovine TB programme. My party's position on the Secretary of State's stance on that and his intervention on revenue raising is completely on the record. The consultation closed last Friday, 8 March. My officials have now begun to analyse the responses. When that work is complete, they will provide a detailed summary for my consideration.

I am acutely aware of the devastating impact that a TB breakdown can have and the financial challenges that it causes for farmers and farming families. I, therefore, appreciate that any proposal that suggests reducing TB compensation will be extremely difficult for the farming community. The budget settlement for the next financial year will have a significant bearing on what my Department can do in that area and many others.

Mr Irwin: I thank the Minister for his response. Does he accept that if the Department goes ahead and cuts compensation to 75% of the value of the stock, it will create financial hardship for many families?

Mr Muir: I agree with the Member. It is not my proposal. The Secretary of State proposed to consult about reducing the compensation rate to 90% and then 75%. That was a consequence of this place not sitting and us being unable to make our own policy decisions. I am determined to bring a fresh approach to the issue and see how we can have a sustainable future for our farming community — and for my Department, but the focus is on the farming community.

As Members are aware, we have appointed a new Chief Veterinary Officer (CVO), Brian Dooher, whom I congratulate on his appointment. I have been engaging with my Department's permanent secretary. One of the first tasks that we have asked Brian to do is to take a fresh look at the whole issue of bovine TB and how we can provide a new way forward for Northern Ireland. He will get to work on that in the weeks ahead.

Mr McGlone: I concur with the Minister's congratulations to the new Chief Veterinary Officer, Brian Dooher. I have met him on a number of occasions, and I am sure that he will prove to be a capable and effective public servant.

We are talking about compensation. Can you tell us what advice you have taken on addressing the spread of TB, which is the real problem? What information have you sought to establish how TB has been addressed in other jurisdictions? What conclusions has the Department come up with as to the best and most effective way of eradicating the disease?

Mr Muir: I thank the Member for his question. I have engaged with my counterparts in Ireland and Scotland. I met Charlie McConalogue recently and my Scottish counterpart last week. We discussed the whole issue of bovine TB, which is multifaceted and complex. I am conscious that, whilst our herd infection rate is about 10%, it is 5% in Ireland and well below 1% in Scotland. Therefore, lessons are to be learnt from across the UK and Ireland. I have asked Brian to look at it and see how we can find a way forward.

I get Members' concern given the devastating impact that TB can have on a farm. When TB arrives, the impact on mental health, not just of those within that farm but of those in the wider community, is significant. We need to find a way to turn that around.

Mr Allister: It may not be the Minister's proposal, but he is the one who will make the decision. In that context, can he can think of any justification for paying less than the market value?

Mr Muir: I thank the Member for his question. I am conscious that whilst we have a 100% compensation rate, it does not cover the full consequential losses to the farm business. The fact that it is referred to as "compensation" implies that we do not fully understand the impact that TB has on the farming community.

The budget I receive for next year will determine an awful lot of what I can and cannot do. I do not wish to change the compensation rate, but if the budget is slashed to the extent that I cannot undertake my statutory duties, I will be left with no other place to go.

Mr Butler: The Minister showed last week that he is keen to act and bring forward policies and legislation on matters that he takes a position on. The problem of bovine TB has been around for many years. Will the Minister outline his ambition and what his policy changes will look like?

Mr Muir: My overall ambition is to eliminate bovine TB in Northern Ireland because of the impact that it has on the farming community and our budget. I must be science- and evidence-led, but I also need to bring stakeholders with me. That is why I did not come here today and announce initial decisions. I will engage with the new Chief Veterinary Officer on what options are available. I will bring options back to the stakeholders and make it clear that we need to find a way forward.

TB has been a real problem but it has now become really critical, particularly in Fermanagh, for example. We need to find a way forward but make sure that whatever we do is right and that we are not subject to successful legal challenge, as we were, for example, in relation to the wildlife strategy.

Mr Muir: Progress has been made on key requirements of the Climate Change Act (Northern Ireland) 2022, but the absence of a sitting Government for two years has had a real impact on what I can do and what Government can do to implement the obligations set out in the Act. An extensive consultation exercise on public body reporting regulations, which took place last year, proposed 2030 and 2040 emission reduction targets and also carbon budgets.

I plan to bring proposals on public body reporting regulations and carbon budgets to the Executive and to Assembly colleagues for their agreement very soon.


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In addition, DAERA is leading the development of Northern Ireland's first climate action plan in collaboration with all other Departments. The plan will set out our collective approach to delivering the emissions reductions required to achieve our first carbon budget. The draft climate action plan will be consulted on for 16 weeks. The first climate action plan on which we will consult is dated 2023-27. The fact that we are in 2024 but consulting on a climate action plan that started in 2023 perhaps gives Members a sense of the impact of the collapse of the institutions.

Work is also progressing on the establishment of a just transition commission. I hope to issue proposals for that consultation later in 2024. I want to ensure that climate change and green growth considerations are central to all policy and budgetary decisions taken by all Departments across Northern Ireland. It is essential that an assessment of climate, environmental and just transition impacts be embedded in decision-making processes. I have already spoken to the Finance Minister about that. Delivering the transformational change that the Act requires will be extremely challenging, but it also presents significant opportunities for our economy, society and environment.

Mr Donnelly: What role should climate change have in a future Programme for Government? Is the Minister happy to accept an invite to a future meeting of the all-party group (APG) on climate action?

Mr Muir: I thank the Member for his question. The issue of climate change must be central to the next Programme for Government. It is my top priority as Minister, but it should be the top priority across the Government, because there are opportunities arising out of it. If we do not make the associated investment, we will not realise them. I would be delighted to go to one of the next meetings of the APG. It is an important APG. I know that you chair the group, and I will be glad to attend it.

Mr O'Toole: Minister, I welcome the fact that you have a commitment to the issue and that you have said clearly that it should be a collective climate action plan, that all Departments have a responsibility and that you will encourage them to take on that responsibility. To that end, in a written answer to me, the Minister for Infrastructure did not confirm whether his Department would meet its obligation under the Act to deliver on spending 10% of its budget on active travel in the next financial year. Further to your previous answer, will you commit to writing to the Infrastructure Minister to encourage him to ensure that that 10% is spent on active travel?

Mr Muir: I thank the Member for his question. It is important that all Departments live up to their legal obligations arising from the Act. I will engage with the Minister for Infrastructure alongside the Minister for the Economy and the Minister for Communities, all of whom have significant input on the climate action plan, and with my other Executive colleagues once we are able to bring the plan to the Executive. That engagement will be ongoing. I know what my responsibilities are, but there are responsibilities across government and society. It is important that we all live up to them.

Mr Allister: The Minister knows what his responsibilities are, but has he costed them for meeting the 2030 targets? If so, what are those costings?

Mr Muir: Work is ongoing to scope out and refine the cost associated with delivering the commitments that will be set out in Northern Ireland's first climate action plan. Some of them will fall to DAERA, but other Departments will bear costs. The Department of Finance commissioned a Budget 2024-25 exercise for Departments on 18 February. My Department is firming up its projected costs and bids for next year as part of that exercise. They will be considered by the Executive along with bids from all Departments in due course. Projected costs for 2025-26 and beyond will be worked up as part of the Budget exercises covering those years. It is important that the costs and opportunities of addressing climate change be embedded in economic appraisal processes. It is also important to emphasise that those are upfront costs and that they represent investments in an improved society for future generations. The cost of delaying action would ultimately be much greater.

I add that the UK Government's financial settlement to Northern Ireland, which should allow us to live up to our climate change obligations and to take advantage of those opportunities, falls well short. It is about time that the UK Government realised that Northern Ireland is funded below its objective need and that we ought to be allowed to invest in our public services for the good of all the people in Northern Ireland.

Mr Muir: With your permission, Madam Principal Deputy Speaker, I will answer questions 6 and 12 together. Both questions ask for updates on the opening of the rural micro capital grant scheme.

My officials have completed an evaluation of the 2022 rural micro capital grant scheme. The findings, lessons learned and recommendations from the 2022 evaluation and the independent evaluation of the schemes delivered between 2016 and 2021 have been considered, and the business case proposing to launch the scheme in 2024-25 is at an advanced stage. Subject to my consideration and, importantly, budget availability, I anticipate being in a position to make an announcement regarding the scheme early in the new financial year.

Mr K Buchanan: I thank the Minister for his response. That is positive news that the scheme will be launched this year, and I assume that it will be. The scheme was to be launched last October, and I met your officials on several occasions to forward it. I want to emphasise that we do not want to miss any more time to get it launched and out into the community. The scheme does amazing work for a small amount of money in a lot of areas. I want the Minister to stand up to his commitment and release the money as soon as possible.

Mr Muir: I thank the Member for his question and for his engagement with me in previous weeks with regard to this. I met officials last week, and we talked about the scheme. It is my desire not to delay it and get it off the ground as soon as possible.

Mr Gildernew: I thank the Minister for his answers. This is a key scheme for some small groups, because it is the only one that they get. No groups received support last year. Will he, along with the timeline, look at putting in a second scheme in this financial year to support some of those hard-pressed groups?

Mr Muir: I will do whatever I can to ensure that financial support gets out to rural communities. The budget for next year will determine what I can do with regard to this. I also want to take a fresh approach. The scheme needs to go ahead, and we need to get the money out. It is about how we do grant schemes for rural communities. I want to make sure that we reduce the bureaucracy associated with such schemes. I know that an awful lot of work has to be done for relatively small amounts of money. Let me add, however, that those small amounts of money have a great impact on communities, and it is important that we get that money out to those areas, because it has a real, transformative impact on villages and towns across Northern Ireland.

Mr Brown: I thank the Minister for his positive response regarding the rural micro capital grant scheme. Will he outline how the scheme will help rural community and voluntary organisations?

Mr Muir: I thank the Member for his question. The rural micro capital grant scheme will make small capital grants available to rural community and voluntary groups to purchase capital items that enhance and/or provide new services that can help to alleviate poverty, reduce isolation and improve health and well-being in their local community. This is a bottom-up approach that allows the applicant organisations to determine what they require to enhance provision of activities in their local area.

Mr Muir: I thank the Member for her question. I am aware that water quality is not what it should be — that is a bit of an understatement, frankly. Work to improve the water quality of rivers will require collective action across government, the public and private sectors and wider society. I intend to bring the draft environmental improvement plan to the Executive for consideration later this month.

The plan, the first for Northern Ireland, lays out my commitment to improving water quality. As well as the environmental improvement plan, my Department has other related statutory obligations, including the requirement to publish and update a river basin management plan. This takes an integrated approach to the protection, improvement and sustainable use of the water environment. Before bringing the third-cycle river basin management plan to the Executive, I will need time to consider the outworkings of other relevant reports, for example, from the Office for Environmental Protection (OEP), that are due to be published in the near future, as well as the water quality review on Lough Neagh.

Additionally, I am keen to hear the views of key stakeholders, while being mindful of our budgetary position, to determine the most appropriate course of action for the river basin management plan. My vision is to have an environment where our water bodies are at "Good" status or better and support biodiversity and contribute to the health and well-being of everyone.

Ms Kimmins: I thank the Minister for his answer. In addition to finding that none of the North's rivers had an overall "Good" quality rating, the 'State of Our Rivers' report found that they achieved only a "Moderate" chemical status due to the presence of toxic chemicals in the water. Does the Minister have any other plans to address the presence of those chemicals such as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAs) by, for example, following the European Commission's strategy to phase out non-essential chemicals or, at least, bringing us into line with the EU drinking water directive?

Mr Muir: I thank the Member for her question. When I met Charlie McConalogue, the Minister in the South, two weeks ago, we talked about that, because there are learnings that we can take from European Union policy on how we can ensure that our environmental standards are good in Northern Ireland. The 'State of Our Rivers' report was concerning but, sadly, not surprising reading on Northern Ireland. The Northern Ireland Environment Agency (NIEA) published the 'Water Framework Directive Statistics Report' in December 2021, which included the information that no river water bodies in Northern Ireland achieved overall "Good" status. At the time, my officials explained that that was due to the inclusion of so-called forever chemicals in the assessment. Due to the bioaccumulative and persistent nature of those forever chemicals, they are present in waterways across the world. They were detected at all monitored stations and resulted in the failures of all those stations. Those failures were extrapolated to all water bodies, and, hence, no surface water body achieved "Good" chemical status. It is an area of priority for me, and, if I get the chance at Question Time today, I have a few more things that I would like to say about Lough Neagh.

Mrs Erskine: Recently, Northern Ireland Water came to the Infrastructure Committee, and, during that evidence session, the chief executive said that we are overspilling into our waterways at a significant amount; in fact, she could not detail how many overspills there are in the NI Water system. That is hugely concerning. What is the Minister's Department doing to speak with the Department for Infrastructure, and what is NIEA doing to tackle and deal with that issue urgently?

Mr Muir: I thank the Member for her question. I have concerns about the levels of overspills and the fact that we do not have reliable data on when that is occurring, and I will seek a meeting with Northern Ireland Water to discuss that. The issue of waste water infrastructure in Northern Ireland is concerning. It is not fit for purpose, and we are polluting our environment day after day on many occasions because the system is not up to scratch. We are also inhibiting housebuilding and economic development in Northern Ireland, and, as an Executive, we need to face up to that and ensure that we make the capital investment to ensure that we are not polluting our waterways.

Dr Aiken: Minister, you referred to Lough Neagh, and one of the major concerns about Lough Neagh is with the zebra mussel population. Is there anything specifically in how you will deal with water quality to deal with that particular challenge?

Mr Muir: I thank the Member for his question. Zebra mussels are part of a mix of problems that affect Lough Neagh, and, as I said, this month, I hope to launch an environmental improvement plan for Northern Ireland. That reflects the fact that it is not just the soil and bed of Lough Neagh that are affected; it is the catchment area that is going into Lough Neagh that is causing those issues. We need to launch the strategy, and hopefully the Executive will support me at the next meeting so that I can get that progressed. I hope to launch an action plan in April associated with Lough Neagh. Currently, there are about 100 areas of recommendations. We are distilling those down, and hopefully we will be able to progress those next month.

It is not that we are moving slowly on this. We are moving as fast as we can. We all know the issues affecting Lough Neagh. There is a significant issue with agricultural run-off; there is the issue of waste water infrastructure, which we have just talked about; there is the issue of ageing septic tanks; zebra mussels are contributing to the issue; and we have climate change. It will require extremely difficult decisions to turn this situation around. I am up for playing my role on this, but it will also require a cross-governmental approach, working in conjunction with non-governmental organisations, to see a way forward. The scenes from last year at Lough Neagh are very likely to occur again this year. We have already had two reports of blue-green algae at Lough Neagh. The situation is as it has presented itself to me, but I am prepared to provide the leadership to steer a course out of this.

Madam Principal Deputy Speaker: Minister, a quick answer.

Mr Muir: The test and vaccinate or remove — TVR — research project was carried out over five years between 2014 and 2018. The project sought to capture badgers, test them for TB and then vaccinate those with negative results or remove those infected with the disease. It encompassed an area of approximately 100 square kilometres near Banbridge in County Down. During the project, 824 unique badgers were captured, some of which were captured and tested more than once.

In total, 1,520 badger captures were made, and 146 of those tested positive for bovine TB from the sett-side, dual-path platform blood test, which equates to 10·3% of total tests. Over the course of the project, 781 unique badgers were vaccinated at least once, while 108 infected badgers were euthanised in years 2 to 5.


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The data indicated that the intervention had little effect on the badger population size. That, combined with GPS recordings and badger genotyping, consistently showed no increased movement of badgers, which indicated that trap-side testing was a viable intervention. It is very important to note that although valuable field data and deployment experience was gained through the project results, it was not intended to evidence the effectiveness of TVR as a means of reducing TB in cattle.

Madam Principal Deputy Speaker: Sorry, Alex, there is no time for a supplementary question. The Minister has run over time for listed questions. We now move to 15 minutes of topical questions. Question 4 has been withdrawn.

Lough Neagh: Blue-green Algae

T1. Mr McGlone asked the Minister of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Development for more detail on the proposal outlined during evidence to the AERA Committee last Thursday, when members heard that his Department would avail itself of the small business research initiative to look at methods to deal with blue-green algae on Lough Neagh. (AQT 101/22-27)

Mr Muir: There are two aspects to that. The Agri-Food and Biosciences Institute (AFBI) has done a research study to give statistical evidence on what is contributing to the situation. We have rough percentages about what is contributing to the issues in Lough Neagh. The initiative that you referred to will be a two-year study to find scientific interventions that could happen on Lough Neagh. That feeds into the idea that there are no quick wins on this issue, but we are using everything that we can to find a way forward.

Mr McGlone: Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as ucht a fhreagra.

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

Will you give us some idea of what the process will then be? Will the research be done, and, if potential good resolutions are identified in that, will there be invitations to companies that might fit the bill for those resolutions?

Mr Muir: I do not want to prejudge what it will say, and the action plan that we hope to launch next month will give a bit more information on that, but the interventions will require funding. Many people have been in correspondence with my Department to bring forward technical solutions or suggestions, which we are evaluating as well. However, there are key fundamentals, such as agricultural run-off, waste-water infrastructure and septic tanks, that we will need to take action on. I am very keen that we do that through a process where we bring people with us, through education and incentives, but, ultimately, enforcement will be required because those who are polluting our waterways need to stop.

Derelict Buildings: Council Action

T2. Mr Robinson asked the Minister of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Development whether he agrees that it is bitterly frustrating for those residents and businesses that have to live and trade beside unsightly derelict buildings, especially when local councils have very weak powers to deal with such buildings. (AQT 102/22-27)

Mr Muir: I understand the Member's question and the concerns that local residents will have on that issue. District councils are often the bodies with responsibility for enforcement in that area. If there are particular concerns, I ask the Member to write to me, and we can correspond and see what we can do about them.

Mr Robinson: Thanks, Minister. I was going to ask you whether, if I write to you, you will consider visiting East Londonderry? I would be very happy to accompany you in meeting with some of the businesses that have to trade beside such buildings.

Mr Muir: I am happy to consider the Member's invite. Obviously, if there is an ongoing investigation and enforcement action, we need to tread carefully. I am happy to speak to the Member outside the Chamber today on any particular issues that he may have.

Tree Planting

T3. Ms Egan asked the Minister of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Development to outline his plans to ensure that more trees are planted across Northern Ireland. (AQT 103/22-27)

Mr Muir: I thank the Member for her question. Tree planting is quite important to me and to tackling climate change. Increasing the area of forest and woodland is a key challenge and focus for my Department. We need to significantly accelerate the annual planting rates so that forest and woodland reach 12% of land area by 2050: it is currently at 8·6%. I intend to take that forward as a critical element of DAERA's contribution to climate change mitigation and the legislative obligations for a balanced pathway to net zero carbon emissions by 2050.

In line with the Climate Change Committee's (CCC) recommendation, the Department launched its 10-year Forests for Our Future programme for 2020 to 2030, which aims to plant 9,000 hectares of new woodland over that period.

Ms Egan: Thank you, Minister. That is very encouraging. In our constituency of North Down, volunteers have recently replanted a community orchard in Hunts Park, Donaghadee. Will you join me to meet those volunteers and see the brilliant work that they have carried out?

Mr Muir: I thank the Member for her supplementary. I would be delighted to do so. Many examples of community intervention are taking place here. With a small amount of grant funding, they are able to achieve quite a lot, not just on forestry cover but in bringing benefits to the local community. I would be delighted to get along to Hunts Park, an area that is being revitalised as a result of that work. I am very keen to take up that offer.

Madam Principal Deputy Speaker: Question 4 has been withdrawn.

T5. Ms Armstrong asked the Minister of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Development to outline his role in combating food poverty, given that, later this week, a report will be published on the impact of poverty, with one of the keys issues being the cost of food. (AQT 105/22-27)

Mr Muir: Primary responsibility for addressing poverty rests with the Department for Communities. It is, however, anticipated that the forthcoming anti-poverty strategy will make specific reference to food poverty and insecurity. Food poverty is a multifaceted issue. It is recognised that no single Department has all the policy tools required to address it and that it is not simply a financial issue. A cross-departmental approach will be required when agreeing actions to address the issue, and it will seek to link to all relevant strategies, including the food strategy framework.

My Department provides assistance in areas such as the redistribution of surplus food through organisations such as FareShare, as well as providing a subsidised school milk scheme to contribute to efforts to alleviate food poverty. My Department is also leading on the Northern Ireland food strategy framework, which proposes a new whole-of-government approach to food in Northern Ireland. That new collaborative approach is about government working together to deliver better outcomes for the people of Northern Ireland. I look forward to receiving a briefing from my officials on the food strategy framework and how my Department can work with other Departments to address the fundamental issue of food poverty.

Ms Armstrong: Thank you, Minister, for your answers so far. Minister, you mentioned that the Department for Communities is responsible for the anti-poverty strategy. We have not yet seen a draft of that strategy. Will you write to the Minister for Communities to ensure that the work that you are doing on food poverty will be included in it?

Mr Muir: I thank the Member for her question. I was alongside her at an event with Community Advice Ards and North Down. It was concerning to see that the pace that should be associated with an anti-poverty strategy is not occurring. I will write to the Minister about the need to urgently progress that. It is a matter of shame on government in Northern Ireland that people are forced into poverty. We need to find a way forward. We need the anti-poverty strategy to progress without any delay whatsoever.

T6. Ms Forsythe asked the Minister of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Development whether he has structures in place or plans for solution-based, joined-up working with other Departments and public bodies to deal with crossover issues of importance. (AQT 106/22-27)

Mr Muir: I thank the Member for her question. It is important that where there are issues that need a collaborative approach, we take one. Lough Neagh will, hopefully, be the example of how we do that. The way in which government in Northern Ireland is structured, with each Department being legally separate, can be a barrier in that regard. Financing can also become an issue: each Department holds its own budget. However, I will not hold back on wanting to work with other Departments on myriad issues, whether it is Lough Neagh, coastal erosion, climate change or so many others. Together, we can achieve a lot more.

Ms Forsythe: Does the Minister agree that where issues are considered dangerous, urgent or in the interests of public safety, such as the rapidly collapsing cliffs in Kilkeel, which I have liaised with the Minister on and thank him for his engagement on, the focus should be on recognising the issue and putting an action plan in place? Other bodies are passing around responsibility. We do not want to end up in a position where, ultimately, there is a crisis. You mentioned coastal erosion when you talked about collaborative working. I hope that some sort of action plan can be put in place.

Mr Muir: I am aware of those issues. There has been correspondence, including questions for written answer, about the matter. If the Member is free this afternoon, I am happy to meet her about that and see what more we can do. Public safety must be the priority of every Minister.

T7. Miss McIlveen asked the Minister of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Development when he will enforce the compulsory removal of animals infected with bovine viral diarrhoea, given that he will be aware that the condition remains prevalent and its existence could disadvantage Northern Ireland’s ability to trade. (AQT 107/22-27)

Mr Muir: I thank the Member for her question. I talked with the Ulster Farmers' Union about this at a recent meeting, and I have been engaging with veterinary colleagues on it. I want to be able to move on that matter without any delay.

Miss McIlveen: The Minister referred to the appointment of the new CVO, but I understand that there is a challenge in his Department to recruit vets. The salary is less competitive, and there are issues with people being recruited to other regions and the private sector. Given the importance of recruitment to his Department, will the Minister commit to a salary review for those positions?

Mr Muir: I am very conscious of the issue as our headcount for vets is significantly below what we need in Northern Ireland. I discussed it last week with my permanent secretary. I will have to engage with the Department of Finance on that because we will need to be able to attract and retain the best talent that we can. We have fantastic people working with us, but we need more people to come on board. I spoke to my counterpart in the South, Charlie McConalogue, about how people are leaving Northern Ireland to go to the South because of the better pay and terms and conditions that are there. That is not unique to my Department; it is also an issue for the Department of Health and the Department of Education.

This is fundamental, but we need the UK Government to understand the unique circumstances of Northern Ireland and to ensure that our funding settlement reflects them. Let us be clear about this: for every £1 that is spent in England, Scotland gets about £1·45, while we get about £1·21. There is a problem there, and, as a result, we are not able to pay people the correct salary.

Fallow Deer: Clandeboye Estate

T8. Mr Mathison asked the Minister of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Development to outline the protections that are in place for fallow deer in and around the Clandeboye estate. (AQT 108/22-27)

Mr Muir: I know that the Member raised the issue with me previously and that it is a matter of concern. The Department has some powers over it, but it goes back to councils. Fallow deer are protected across Northern Ireland under the Wildlife (Northern Ireland) Order 1985, which makes it an offence to kill, injure or take the species during a specified closed season or at night. It also prohibits the use of certain firearms and ammunition to shoot deer. Additionally, it is an offence to take or remove any live deer or to mark or attach tags to them. The Police Service of Northern Ireland enforces the Wildlife (Northern Ireland) Order 1985.

My officials in the Northern Ireland Environment Agency, working closely with the PSNI, jointly chair the partnership for action against wildlife crime in Northern Ireland. That brings together statutory and non-statutory agencies and interested parties with the common goal of combating wildlife crime through education and publicity. Whilst the Clandeboye estate is a private estate, my officials are not aware of any reports of listed offences that would require additional protections for the estate's fallow deer herd. Any concerns should be reported immediately to the police.

Mr Mathison: I thank the Minister for his engagement on the issue. Will he provide an update on the plans to redevelop the Whitespots country park, which is in the area in question?

Mr Muir: That falls under the complementary fund and sits in my Department. It is progressing well, and I am happy to meet the Member about it to see what more we can do. It is an area that has real potential not just for Bangor but for Newtownards.

Bovine TB: Testing

T9. Mr Harvey asked the Minister of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Development, further to his earlier response to a North Down colleague in relation to bovine TB testing, to state whether he will continue with the Department's previous plans to enhance testing. (AQT 109/22-27)

Mr Muir: It is my desire to do that, but, as a result of the punishment Budget that the Secretary of State inflicted on Northern Ireland, during this financial year, my permanent secretary had to get us to live within the required budget limits. As a result, the testing regime was reduced, which had a real consequence. A fundamental thing that we need to be able to do is go back to where the testing was previously. Hopefully, if I get the correct settlement, the budget for next year will enable us to do that.

Mr Harvey: Minister, could you provide me with an update on the challenges that have been presented by the outbreak of bluetongue on the mainland?

Madam Principal Deputy Speaker: Could you give a quick response, please, Minister?

Mr Muir: I am aware of the challenges that are associated with that, and I have had lots of correspondence about it. I get a variety of correspondence on the matter, and a significant number of people are concerned to ensure that bluetongue does not get into Northern Ireland. I know that restrictions on movement have associated financial hardships, but, as Minister, I need to ensure that we keep bluetongue out of Northern Ireland.


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Mrs Long: On a point of order, Madam Principal Deputy Speaker. I want to correct the record from earlier. I was asked specifically when, we felt, the provision to have live links as part of the primary legislation would become operable, and I said, I think, summer 2026. I can report that it will actually be summer 2025. When I said 2026, it seemed like a long way away, so I went back and checked, and it is summer 2025. Members who were concerned about the extension of the Coronavirus Act's cover for that may be relieved to hear that it will be sooner than I had anticipated.

Madam Principal Deputy Speaker: I thank the Minister for raising that point of order. I am sure that the record will be corrected. Will Members take their ease, please?

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

Executive Committee Business

Debate resumed on motion:

That the Coronavirus Act 2020 (Extension of Powers to Act for the Protection of Public Health) (No. 2) Order (Northern Ireland) 2023 be approved. — [Mr Swann (The Minister of Health).]

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Blair): I call Alan Chambers to continue the remarks he was making before the debate was suspended.

Mr Chambers: Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. This is chapter 2.

The pandemic changed lots of things. It changed the way in which many people worked and how businesses traded. It is almost four years since we were told to stay at home to save lives. As a society, we were asked to do things that, only weeks before, would have been considered totally unimaginable. I never again want to experience a period such as that. Thanks to the brilliant work of our scientists and medical experts, the pandemic has been well and truly in retreat for some time. However, we must maintain a level of preparedness and resilience to protect our citizens should circumstances change.

That brings me back to an earlier point. In Northern Ireland, we find ourselves at a legislative disadvantage. Whilst England, Scotland and Wales could all move at pace, if needs be, if today's extension order is not granted, we could not. Indeed, in recent months, the main talking point has been the sea border that makes the movement of goods between Great Britain and Northern Ireland more difficult. The argument has been that it makes us different from the rest of the United Kingdom. If the extension is not granted, we will have created a health sea border in that our preparedness for a potential COVID outbreak will be different from that in the rest of the UK. I wonder if some see the irony in that position.

From the briefings to the Committee, it has been clear that some of our public health legislation is in major need of updating and amending. Thankfully, a public consultation on the changes is about to launch. Ideally, the new public health Bill would have already been introduced and scrutinised long before now, but, unfortunately, that has not been possible following the latest two-year collapse of the Assembly. To those who speak most loudly against today's extension order, I simply ask them what their alternative is. Do they want to see people in Northern Ireland potentially left behind their peers across the rest of the UK, or, if they believe that other solutions should have been found, do some not see the contradiction in supporting the collapse of the very political institutions that would have been able to deliver them?

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Blair): Thank you, Mr Chambers, not only for your contribution but for your patience.

I call on the Health Minister, Robin Swann, to conclude and make a winding-up speech on the debate.

Mr Swann (The Minister of Health): I will refer to some of the points that Members made. The Chair of the Health Committee raised a number of general points. I thank the Committee for its collaborative working on these statutory rules, for the questions that its members asked and for the engagement that the Committee has had with my officials about due diligence, which I welcome.

A number of Members specifically asked what happens if the motion does not pass and whether emergency legislation could be introduced if needed. That point was raised by the Health Committee member from the Opposition. He misses the point, however, about the difference between introducing regulations, which could take two to three days, and having the ability to introduce regulations. The motion is about having the ability to introduce regulations, not about the regulations themselves. The Member is slightly mistaken in comparing the order to the Budget Bill, which was introduced in two weeks.

After 24 March, the provisions would fall, and Northern Ireland would then be at a disadvantage compared with other parts of the UK in its readiness to respond to any significant COVID variant or any emerging variant of concern. Responding from that position would require primary legislation to be passed before I could bring regulations to the Executive and, indeed, to the Assembly. I remind the House that, during the pandemic, the regulation-making powers enabled us to react quickly when needed.

Mrs Dodds, I think, asked when a public health Bill would be ready. I intend to seek agreement from Executive colleagues in the coming weeks to launch a public consultation in April or May on the policy proposals underpinning a draft Bill. I then hope to introduce a Bill in the Assembly in the autumn. We will see how quickly the Opposition can get that legislation through all its stages in the House.

The reason that I am not launching a consultation this month and am instead having to delay it for a short period is that there are important issues that I want to take on board. There is a four-nations review of the list of notifiable diseases and causative agents specified in our public health legislation, and I want to make sure that we align with the rest of the UK. A four-nations border health legislation subgroup has been established to review border health provisions across the United Kingdom as they relate to public health legislation. That is being done with a view to four-nations alignment.

Ms Kimmins (The Chairperson of the Committee for Health): I thank the Minister for giving way. Thank you for providing clarity on the difference between introducing regulations and introducing primary legislation. Can you indicate how quickly that could be done? A lot of Committee members have had difficulty establishing how quickly it could be done if needed.

Mr Swann: I thank the Committee Chair. We did engage on that point earlier today. As I said, I hope to launch the public consultation in April and May of this year. Once the consultation takes place, that will allow for the legislation to be introduced for debate in the autumn of this year. That will still not give me the power to introduce regulations, however. It is about starting the legislative process.

Mr McGrath: I appreciate that you are talking about this legislation. I am not talking about that; I am saying that, if it were required and the order were to fall, what timescale would be required for you to come here with another piece of legislation to enable you to take the decisions that you need to take? I do not mean the legislation that is going out for public consultation and will take until the autumn to go through its stages. If an emergency were to be declared, you could come to the House and lay legislation if it were prepped now and sitting ready to go, and it could be passed within days. Is that not correct?

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Blair): Before the Minister responds, I remind Members to address their remarks through the Chair at all times.

Mr Swann: Thank you very much for that reminder, Mr Deputy Speaker.

Bringing primary legislation through the House is not as simple as that. The Member knows well that it is not so simple to move at speed with what is needed. The motion is about giving us the power that will enable us to bring forward the regulations. The overarching framework for the legislation that will give us the ability to do that is already there. I do not see the cause for concern about having the ability to move at pace on that, if necessary, although, as I said in my opening comments, I hope that it is never needed again.

With regard to the question of whether that Bill could be expedited, my officials are working with officials from other Departments, given that the Bill will be cross-cutting in nature, and with key stakeholders prior to bringing draft proposals to Executive colleagues for consideration. That work requires there to be careful consideration of the issues and of how we manage future health security issues and threats. The dedicated Bill team in my Department is working to bring forward the draft public health Bill to update the Public Health Act (Northern Ireland) 1967, which needs dramatic alteration so that we can make those changes.

Mr Donnelly: I thank the Minister for giving way. For clarity — we discussed this at length in the Committee — is it fair to say that you could bring legislation to the Chamber very quickly, should an emergency situation arise?

Mr Swann: Yes, it is fair to say that we could introduce legislation, but it would take weeks to do so, rather than days, which is what this enabling regulation would allow for. This would allow us to bring forward the regulations rather than bring forward legislation to enable us to make regulations. In the case that the Member is talking about, we would need to have the overarching primary legislation that would give us the power to make regulations, and we would then have to bring forward regulations. Extending this power will allow us to take the shorter step of going straight to the regulations.

The Chair of the Health Committee asked what else was being done across all of this island specifically. My officials have ongoing engagement with their counterparts in the Republic of Ireland in relation to a proposed health protective legislation framework. While the Bill that is coming forward cannot make provision for border issues, as they are reserved matters, that ongoing engagement is important to us and always has been.

There were a number of other points. I have already covered, in response to Mr McGrath, the question of why the Bill has been delayed. In response to Mrs Dodds's point, I appreciate the Member's position. I spent considerable time with her on taking these issues through when she was in the Executive. As Minister for the Economy, she was diligent and passionate about raising the concerns that her stakeholders raised with her. I will always say that I appreciate the respectful nature with which we were able to disagree during that time. I know where she and her party are coming from as regards today's issue, and it is more with sorrow than with anger that I appreciate their position on this.

With regard to Miss McAllister's point about where we are with introducing the other legislation, we have to look to what our ultimate aim is for public health legislation, as the Justice Minister was saying. That is why I am hopeful that our public consultation, which we will launch in April or May of this year, will allow us to address all those peculiarities and align us with the rest of our UK counterparts in having that primary legislation.

In closing, I thank Mr Chambers for his support and his comments recognising that we are doing this because we need to make sure that there is alignment across all four nations and that we can act in tandem, should an emergency present itself.

Mr Chambers: Will the Minister give way?

Mr Swann: I will.

Mr Chambers: If an emergency were to occur and the legislation that we are looking at were not in place, how big a distraction would the need to prepare legislation during such an emergency be for your Department and your officials?

Mr Swann: It would be a significant piece of work. It would involve taking everybody who is currently involved in drafting our public health Bill and diverting them, for a number of weeks, to produce emergency legislation to cover what might be a very short time needed to respond to a specific issue. Allowing these regulations to go forward, which would allow enabling regulations to be brought, is a far better use of time and resources.


3.45 pm

In closing, I ask Members to be conscious that the decision of the House is whether it wants to maintain a level of preparedness and resilience to protect our citizens, should a significant variant of concern emerge. It is my firm view that we must retain these regulation-making powers and that we cannot risk being in a position where, taking account of the public health advice, we cannot immediately respond to protect the public health of the citizens whom we all represent. I hope that Members agree that this is the responsible approach, and I ask that you approve the order tabled for debate today.

I commend the order to the Assembly.

Question put.

The Assembly divided:

Question accordingly negatived.

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

Assembly Business

Mr Butler: On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. Will the Speaker's Office rule on the Standing Order on ministerial statements? It is my understanding that if the Assembly is sitting in plenary format, ministerial statements are heard in the House.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Dr Aiken): Thank you, Mr Butler. I will make sure that that is passed to the Speaker's Office. To reiterate it, your point is that ministerial statements should be made in the House first. That is understood. Thank you.

Private Members' Business

Ms Hunter: I beg to move

That this Assembly recognises that International Women’s Day is a global celebration of the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women; believes that this day both serves as a powerful reminder of the progress made towards gender equality and highlights the work that still needs to be done; and supports action to break down barriers, challenge stereotypes and create environments where all women are valued and respected.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Dr Aiken): The Business Committee has agreed to allow up to one hour and 30 minutes for this debate. The proposer of the motion will have 10 minutes to propose and 10 minutes to make a winding-up speech. All other Members who called to speak will have five minutes.

Ms Hunter: The motion is about International Women's Day 2024. It is imperative that we not only reflect on the progress that we have made in advancing women's rights but acknowledge the challenges that persist at home and across the globe. Today, we not only reflect on and celebrate International Women's Day but honour the strength, resilience and achievements of women everywhere. This day holds immense significance, as it not only acknowledges the progress that we have made so far but underscores the journey ahead towards true gender equality in Northern Ireland.

In the North, as in many other parts of the world, women have played pivotal roles in shaping our society, culture and history. From leaders in politics to pioneers in the arts, from activists on the front lines to caregivers in our homes, women have continually broken barriers and defied expectations so often placed on them by society. That is why I welcome having the time to hold this debate and contributing to it. I welcome contributions that will be made by women across the House from diverse backgrounds, with different beliefs and lived experiences. Diversity makes us whom we are. It strengthens our places and our policies, and we must have women at the tables at which decisions are being made.

For generations, women in our society have carried so much on their shoulders. Trans-generational trauma has been carried on the backs of women for generations here. I particularly note that, during the years of the conflict, women kept on going as mothers, grandmothers, community leaders, entrepreneurs and politicians, in what was an extremely difficult time. In every documentary about the Troubles that I have watched, there has always been a woman in the house, quietly keeping things going. Women were out on the streets fighting for peace as well, despite the horror and violence on our streets during what was an unbelievably difficult and tragic time in our history.

As we reflect on the strides that have been made, we cannot ignore the challenges that continue today. Inequalities still exist, barriers still stand and injustices still prevail. Women continue to face discrimination, harassment and violence, simply because of their gender. Misogynistic attitudes sadly continue to over-sexualise and objectify women, and those realities remind us of the urgent need to continue our collective efforts to achieve gender equality and to have early intervention in our education system — our schools — to tackle those mindsets and to ensure that women are respected and celebrated in the classroom, the home and wider society.

International Women's Day serves as a reminder of the work that remains for us to do here. It is a call to action for Governments, institutions and individuals alike to commit to tangible change. We must strive for equal representation in decision-making positions and processes, equal opportunities in education and employment, and equal access to healthcare and resources.

Members must continue to use our platform as women to tackle the grave issue of violence against women and girls in Northern Ireland. I welcome the fact that, in the weeks since this place has been back up and running, we have used that opportunity to talk about tackling violence against women and girls and to touch on the lives of those bright, talented, loved women whose lives were so tragically taken. That is really important. Their lives were taken from their family and loved ones. Today, when we reflect on celebrating women and on what it is to be a women, I want us to remember them too, because I know that Members across the House certainly will not forget them and their stories.

Given its proximity to the motion, I mention the fact that, last week, funding was briefly cut for Nexus NI. Out of the victims supported by Nexus NI who have survived sexual assault, sexual harassment or sexual violence, 80% are female. I am mindful that, when we talk about celebrating women, we want to ensure that we do all that we can to support women and girls who are victims and survivors of sexual violence. It is important that we all use our platform to ensure that that counselling for victims and survivors continues without lapse and that it is available to all without delay or denial. I am so happy, as are, I am sure, other Members, that the funding has been resumed and that victims of all genders who have survived such traumas will continue to be seen.

Women face many challenges in life, but period poverty is often a silent crisis that affects millions of women and girls across the world, including in the North. Sadly, even though the Assembly has come back, we have seen a cut of up to 40% to the resource behind the Period Products (Free Provision) Act (NI) 2022. No woman or young girl should suffer the indignity of being unable to access those products. I urge Members collectively to continue to raise that issue in order to ensure that we have the adequate funding that is necessary to change lives and maintain dignity.

Women and girls are forced to choose between buying menstrual products and meeting other basic needs, such as food or heating. That should not be the reality in the 21st century. Menstruation is a natural biological process, and no woman or girl should be either ashamed or disadvantaged as a result of it. We must work together to dismantle the stigma around menstruation and ensure that hygiene products are available, accessible and affordable to all women and girls, regardless of socio-economic background.


4.15 pm

As policymakers, we must prioritise health as a fundamental human right and take concrete steps to address period poverty once and for all. I welcome that, over the past few weeks, we have talked at length about women's health. That is a huge pillar: when we talk about the quality of life and celebrating women and what it is to be a woman, health is such a huge aspect of that. We continue to see and hear in our constituency offices and in the Assembly stories of women going weeks, if not months, struggling to get a diagnosis for things like endometriosis, PCOS and even issues around infertility and wider issues to do with reproductive health. We really must make the effort in the House, not just the women but the men, to push that to the forefront of Ministers' minds and make sure that it is well funded by the Executive.

I really appreciate the stories that have been told in the House of difficulties with those challenges, on things like miscarriages and baby loss. Members have been so brave in opening up and talking about those issues. It is educating me and other Members, and it opens up discussions that were once quite sensitive in society, from which people would hide and were quite stigmatised. Now, however, we see that wonderful, open discussion, which will greatly help women and girls who are listening to us to feel comfortable in sharing their stories and, on the wider issues of women's health, know what signs and symptoms to look for. I really wanted to include that.

Lastly, as we celebrate International Women's Day, let us recommit ourselves to the fight for gender equality and for justice. Let us work tirelessly to eradicate violence against women and girls in the North in all its forms, to ensure that every woman and girl living here can live with dignity, freedom and a sense of equality that they so rightfully deserve.

Ms Sheerin: I am delighted to support this cross-party motion celebrating International Women's Day, the theme of which this year was to inspire inclusion. When you think of what "inspiring inclusion" means, it is to involve everyone and include everybody to ensure that we can all access prosperity and that nobody is excluded from that — no woman or girl left behind, regardless of background. That means including our rural women, our women of colour, our LGBT women and our disabled women. The glass ceiling is not really broken if it is just cracked for some.

This weekend was an opportunity not just to celebrate ourselves and our mothers, sisters and friends but to acknowledge the work of those who came before us and those who worked so hard to achieve gender equality, from Mary Ann McCracken and Winifred Carney to Rosa Parks and Angela Davis and women across the world united in that struggle. The Assembly reflects the change that we see across wider society. In Sinn Féin, we have more female representatives than we have ever had. We are led by two brilliant women in Michelle O'Neill and Mary Lou McDonald, and a majority of our MLA team are women. It is the same across society: we see women taking top jobs across all sectors in the North, and that brings a perspective to the table that previously was not there. All of that is to be welcomed, but we still have problems, and there is still work to be done.

We still have a pay gap. We still see women held to a higher standard than men, and we still see misogyny and sexism normalised every day. Across the world, we have a presidential hopeful with multiple allegations of sexual misconduct against him, and yet he is still deemed a worthy candidate for the presidency, and women are supporting him. In the North, I am delighted that we are going in a different direction: we are going in the right direction. Some of the first commitments in this new mandate go to the very heart of what you would consider to be women's issues.

Domestic violence is endemic in the North. It is the second most dangerous place in Europe to be a woman, so I am glad that all parties have committed, as a priority, to delivering and fully implementing the violence against women and girls strategy. That is a particular priority for my party. We are all united in delivering the childcare strategy: we know that childcare disproportionately impacts on women. With the crisis in domiciliary care and respite services, again, it is the women in most homes who pick up the burden of that care. If we work together to prioritise gender equality, fixing those problems will come about naturally. Therefore, I welcome the motion and urge you all to support it.

Mrs Little-Pengelly (The deputy First Minister): I want to add some short words to the debate. International Women's Day is an opportunity to take some time to celebrate women, to mark the achievements of women and to call out the continued harms and challenges that many women face. I am deeply proud of being a woman, and, as I said last week, I am proud of being a strong woman, I am proud of being a feisty woman, and I am proud of being a fierce woman at times. Of course, we know that women come in many shapes and sizes, with many different views and perspectives. I also hope that I am a kind woman and a compassionate woman. We all know so many different people, and, of course, we do not all have to be the same.

As we celebrated last week, I highlighted the fact that it is called "International Women's Day" but it felt like "international women's week", and that is a great thing. Hopefully, that will continue to grow, perhaps even into "international women's month" as we continue to have events. It is a great opportunity to highlight so many different aspects. It was fantastic to see so many of our community organisations, groups and communities have all of those fantastic events.

I come from a long line of strong women who have shaped families, our communities, politics and the very fabric of this place that we call "home". I often say that conservative women or women of faith may not always feel the most welcome with some of the women's movements. Sometimes, we may feel that we are the wrong type of women for some of the movements. I have always stepped forward and said that there should never be a wrong type of woman. I know women who are conservative or deeply conservative or of deep faith, women of all types of faith or perhaps none at all. All women should be welcome as part and parcel of the campaign as we drive forward for a greater understanding and recognition of the incredible work that women do.

When I look back to my history, I note that the Ulster women's unionist movement was the biggest movement of women on the island of Ireland of its time and was one of the biggest movements across the world. By 1913, the Ulster Women's Unionist Council had an estimated membership of between 115,000 and 200,000 women. Those were women who led the way on a pre-partition island of Ireland, north and south, pushing for votes for women. They were women who were often well connected and used their position, their education and their opportunity to push for votes for women. It was the Ulster Women's Unionist Council that secured significant wins in Ireland, north and south, for votes for women. Of course, they did not just stop there. The unionist women of that movement, the biggest female political movement across these isles, went on to the Ulster covenant. A lot of people do not realise this, but the men signed the Ulster covenant and women had their own Ulster covenant declaration. An incredible 234,046 women came out to sign that declaration across this island. Again, that was an incredible role that those women played, shaping the politics of today and stepping forward at a time when many women were probably told to sit back and be quiet. I am incredibly proud of that history and heritage. I want more of our young people to understand and realise that about this place.

Mr Butler: I thank the Member for giving way, and I am sorry for interjecting in such a good speech. On Saturday, I met the deputy First Minister at a breakfast where I had two of my young children with me. Will she agree that one of the ways of breaking barriers and killing stereotypes is with young people? The introduction that I made to the two kids was that she is one part of the two most powerful women in this country at this moment.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Dr Aiken): The Member has an extra minute.

Mrs Little-Pengelly: Absolutely. It is fantastic to see so many women elected across different political parties. While I am incredibly proud of the heritage and history that I have and the incredibly strong women who played that role in shaping Northern Ireland, standing up for their politics and stepping forward, it is also about that message that we can be absolutely proud of who we are. I am not just proud of being a unionist; I am proud of being a woman. That means, of course, that we should have the confidence to embrace the stories, the heritage and the traditions of others. I love to hear the stories about our history and heritage — we have touched on some of them, and I have no doubt that we will hear many more — but, of course, this is about moving forward.

In closing, I want to champion all our mummies, grannies, sisters and friends, the people who are there for other women and who do incredible work. They are the bedrock of our schools, community groups, families and churches. This week has been a recognition of that, and I pay tribute to them. As we move forward together, I hope that we give that confidence to the new generation and that we see plenty of little female politicians coming up through the ranks in all parties.

Ms Armstrong: International Women's Day is a global celebration of the remarkable achievements of women across the world. I thank the Speaker for an inspiring event on Thursday evening, when we heard from civic female leaders about their roles in the judiciary, universities, the arts and sport. It was a very inspiring event. International Women's Day serves as a poignant reminder of the progress that we have made towards gender equality, but it also sheds light on the significant work that remains ahead of us.

The people elected us to the Assembly, and it is our duty to advocate policies and initiatives that break down barriers, challenge stereotypes and foster environments where all women are valued and respected. Emma Sheerin MLA has highlighted the debates that we have had in the Assembly since it finally started up again, and it has been wonderful to see women's health, violence against women and girls and childcare being discussed.

The Alliance manifesto outlined concrete commitments to address the systemic challenges facing women in Northern Ireland, and one crucial aspect is the childcare piece that others have brought up. Accessible and affordable childcare is not just a woman's issue; it is an economic imperative and a fundamental pillar of gender equality. The importance of investing in high-quality childcare services is that it ensures that every child has access to the care and education that they deserve and empowers women to fully participate in the workforce. However, let us not forget carers. Sixty per cent of carers are older women like me. I am a carer. All carers should be respected. [Interruption.]

Mr Deputy Speaker (Dr Aiken): Sorry, Kellie, will you pause there? There is a lot of noise, and I can hardly hear you. That is disrespectful to you, so I will get that sorted out before I ask you to speak again. I will not take any time off, obviously.

The doors are now shut. My apologies. Continue, Kellie.

Ms Armstrong: Thank you, Deputy Speaker.

As I was saying, let us not forget carers, 60% of whom are older women like me. All carers should be respected and recognition should be given to them, like it is for mothers and fathers, to provide them with help and support. The Carers NI report entitled 'Careers or Care' confirmed that one in three women with an unpaid caring responsibility has had to give up work. How is that equality?

Furthermore, we cannot ignore the stark reality of the poverty that affects women in Northern Ireland. Statistics due to be released by the Northern Ireland Audit Office (NIAO) are expected to confirm that a significant number of women are living in poverty and are struggling to make ends meet and provide for their families. That is unacceptable in a society that prides itself on fairness and equality. We must take decisive action to address the root cause of poverty, including inadequate wages, a lack of affordable housing and limited access to essential services. Why is the anti-poverty strategy not being prioritised? The draft is awaiting publication. Adopting an anti-poverty strategy as something that underpins the next Programme for Government will help to lift so many women out of poverty.

International Women's Day serves as a call to action for all of us to redouble our efforts to advance gender equality and empower women from all walks of life. By supporting initiatives like childcare and addressing the pressing issue of poverty that affects women in our communities, we can create a more just and inclusive society for future generations. We all should remember that, in the House, not all women are treated equally. Because of the way our system is built, the votes of some, like me, are not counted in the same way as the votes of others. If we are to be true to the spirit of International Women's Day, let us bring forward reform so that everyone is treated equally in the House.

Let us seize the opportunity to reaffirm our commitment to building a world where every woman is valued, respected and given the opportunity to thrive. Together, let us break down the barriers, challenge stereotypes and pave the way for brighter and more equitable future for all.


4.30 pm

Mr Deputy Speaker (Dr Aiken): Again, I apologise for the disturbance behind the Chair. It was disrespectful, and we will make sure that it does not happen again.

Mr Butler: First, I need to put on record an apology: I gatecrashed the women's caucus last week. I was midway through a handful of sandwiches, thinking that I was in an all-party group meeting. I was treated very kindly but told to leave the room, which I did.

It is my pleasure to speak today on this motion, which recognises International Women's Day 2024, and give it the full support of the Ulster Unionist Party. International Women's Day is a global celebration of the social, economic, cultural and political achievement of women. Although I know that here in Northern Ireland, right across the United Kingdom and here on the island of Ireland, much has been achieved in that battle to see gender equality and fair treatment, there is still much more to be done and more that we should do. The motion recognises the fact that the journey is still not complete. It identifies three areas for priority: breaking down barriers, challenging stereotypes and creating environments where all women are valued and respected. In fully recognising the journey and steps that still need to be taken to ensure that our young women, in particular, face no barrier to accessing their full life's potential, it would be remiss not to recognise the path that has been forged and the considerable walls that have already been demolished.

I have had the privilege to work with many amazing women in many guises over the years, from the women who put on the uniform of the Northern Ireland Prison Service and faced the same risks as I did to the women who put on their fire kits in the Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue Service and risked their life to save others, in the same manner as I did. I will probably get into trouble for this, but I will read three names into the record: governor Amanda Allenby was fantastic and the best governor under whom I worked, and Kirstie Niblock — she got married recently to Thomas Niblock — and Linda McKane in Portadown were two of the best firefighters with whom I ever had the pleasure of working. I have also had the pleasure in this Chamber of, over eight years, working with some absolutely fantastic women. During those eight years, the Executive Office has had at least one woman and, more often, two, leading this place. That is to be celebrated. It is important to note that although 38% of our Members are now women, that is not enough. That should be seen as a floor, not a ceiling.

It would be remiss not to take this opportunity to remind ourselves of a trailblazer and pioneer — I would go as far as to say a revolutionary — who was fearless in her day. The descriptor, "From linen to the Lords" is one that some have given to the late Baroness May Blood. Baroness Blood was a woman who led an extraordinary life and is a leading example for all girls, including young girls, and women across Northern Ireland. She was the first female peer from Northern Ireland, and she used her title to help those from disadvantaged communities. I do not think that it was a title that she sought. Baroness Blood left school at 14 years of age and began working in her local linen mill. She then joined the Transport and General Workers' Union, which was fundamental in fashioning her trajectory. From a young age, Baroness Blood epitomised the struggle and fight as an advocate for women's and workers' rights and had a proven commitment to improving lives, which set her on her remarkable path. In 1996, Baroness Blood helped to set up the Northern Ireland Women's Coalition, giving women a voice in politics. It played a pivotal in the peace talks that led to the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. In 1989, Blood became a community worker on a project for long-term unemployed men. She also worked with the greater Shankill early years project as an information officer from 1994 to 1998. There, she helped to establish three community centres in the greater Shankill area. As chair of early years in Belfast from 2000 to 2009, she contributed to the well-being of many families and children.

Similar to me, Baroness Blood was passionate about early years intervention for children. She knew the importance of giving children the best possible start to life. Baroness Blood made significant contributions to the political landscape here in Northern Ireland. Her tireless efforts in community work and political activism laid the groundwork for initiatives such as Sure Start. Baroness Blood was not simply a forerunner for workers and young people; she was a women's activist who challenged the status quo and male-dominated environments and managed to inspire future generations to show up and speak up.

I support the motion, and, in Baroness Blood's words and by way of encouragement to all women in Northern Ireland, I suggest a line worth learning: "Watch my lips, I'm speaking".

Ms Ennis: "Happy International Women's Day", or women's week, to everybody. I hope that everybody had a positive and enjoyable time over the weekend not only celebrating our achievements but advocating for greater equality. I want to use my time to highlight the inequalities that still exist for women in sport, but I also want to acknowledge and pay tribute to the organisations here in Ireland and across the globe that are working to end those inequalities.

I grew up playing competitive soccer and football at a time when there was little or no infrastructure and few facilities for women and girls to encourage us into the sports that we loved. That is why I am forever thankful to my parents, who encouraged and supported my talents. While things have, thankfully, moved on and improved since I was a kid, we need to make sure that being encouraged into sport becomes a matter not of luck but reality for all girls.

In recent years, we have seen the positive impact of national campaigns such as the national 20x20 initiative for women in sport. That seeks to highlight the impact of seeing and being role models and the essential part that they play in encouraging women and girls into sport. We know that that representation matters. It matters in sport, in politics and in all aspects of public life. I am a firm believer in the adage that says:

"If she can't see it, she can't be it."

I clearly remember being in my late teens or early 20s before seeing women's competitive sport on TV. Even now, no matter what sport it is or what team is playing, even though I am an ardent Manchester United fan, if I see women's sport on TV, I am transfixed and have to watch it, because that was just not the norm.

The importance of visibility in the future of sport in Ireland and across the globe cannot be overstated. If women and girls do not see themselves reflected in sport, they may not realise their potential or recognise their talent, which is partly the reason why a large number of girls drop out of sport when they are in their early teens. We need to address why that is the case. There is a fundamental lack of understanding of women's bodies, such as the effect that menstruation has on athletic performance. The confidence that something as simple as having the right kit can give a young girl cannot be overstated.

I wish that I had more time to go into my personal experience and to give some examples of how, historically, the teams in the sports that I played were somehow less important than our male counterparts. We had hand-me-down kits, no access to proper training pitches and the added burden of having to raise funds for basic essentials such as jerseys and transport to games. The list goes on and on.

I think that the biggest indignity —

Miss McAllister: Will the Member give way?

Ms Ennis: I will. Go ahead.

Miss McAllister: I am sure that the Member is aware of this too, but does she agree that the policy decision in some local government areas to remove pitches for women's sport to facilitate the men's sport should absolutely be done away with? We know that that is happening in not only local government but private sporting areas.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Dr Aiken): The Member has an extra minute.

Ms Ennis: Thank you. I am not entirely aware of the specific area that the Member is talking about. When government money in particular is being used, it is important that it is built into the contract that facilities are not the preserve of men and that they should be for everybody.

As I said, probably one of the biggest indignities was being denied access to our prestigious county grounds for championship or national league games. While I am glad to see that more women's matches are being played on our county grounds, it was not that long ago that we had to rely on the generosity of individual clubs to provide their facilities so that we could fulfil championship fixtures. That is both embarrassing and unacceptable. I fully support the efforts that are being made to amalgamate the men's and women's codes in the GAA, and I hope that we will finally see the fairer distribution of finances and resources. Equally, I am delighted that women's soccer teams North and South are finally and rightfully playing their games in the Aviva Stadium and Windsor Park and, hopefully very soon, in Casement Park. That should be the norm, not the exception.

We need to take every avenue that is open to all of us to promote the importance of representation for women in sport in all areas where decisions are being made. While we are using International Women's Day to speak about issues that matter to us as women, we need to make every day be about recognising integrity, authenticity and excellence in whatever form it takes. Maybe we could start by changing our language around how we speak about women in sport. For example, why does it matter what women wear? Maybe we could question why women gymnasts wear skimpy leotards while men wear trousers. Maybe we could all make an effort to attend one female-specific sporting event every month. We could maybe read more by female journalists, or maybe we could ask our clubs, no matter what sports we are involved with, how many training sessions and how much equipment, support and access the women get in comparison with their male counterparts. Maybe it is time for all of us to recognise our own sheroes, because, after all, if you cannot see it, you cannot really be it.

Mrs Cameron: I wholeheartedly support the motion. I speak as a DUP woman, a unionist woman and an MLA for South Antrim since 2011, as you will be aware, Mr Deputy Speaker. I am still the only female to be elected to the House for the constituency of South Antrim. At 39 years old, I became the youngest and only ever female to serve as mayor of Antrim in 2010-11. Those facts clearly tell us that there is much more work to be done to ensure that women are properly represented in political life in Northern Ireland.

It is vital that we take part in the global celebration of the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women. Sadly, there is still much misogyny around. Even on International Women's Day posts, we will all have seen too many examples of how some still simply cannot cope with the very idea that women are out of the kitchen and in the workplace, let alone in Government.

We need to support one other, push ourselves forward and ensure that our voices are heard loud and clear. I am glad that the Assembly has committed to urgent priorities, such as dealing with pay parity and pay gaps in our public services, affordable childcare, the need for a women's healthcare strategy and the all-important issue of violence against women and girls.

Mrs Dodds: I thank the Member for giving way. We all sit here in relative comfort — some of us will feel that more than others — but many women across the world suffer violence for their faith. Last week, in northern Nigeria, 200 women were kidnapped by Boko Haram terrorists. Those women will suffer violence, rape and forced marriage. Does the Member agree with me that we also need to look outside Northern Ireland at the issues that women face in many countries today where they are persecuted for their faith?

Mr Deputy Speaker (Dr Aiken): The Member has an extra minute.

Mrs Cameron: Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker.

I thank the Member for her valuable contribution. Of course, this is a global movement: International Women's Day, week and, possibly, month. Maybe we will just take the whole year in future. It is vital that the Member's points are taken on board. Absolutely, it is a global movement. We can complain about issues here in Northern Ireland, but they seem quite pathetic when you hear of the sufferings that happen across the world. We absolutely have to support all those women across the world in their plight.

In closing, I want to give a shout out to my mother for setting an example to me of what a hard-working, strong, fierce and caring mother should be; to my three sisters for the unwavering support that we all give to one other; and to my daughters, including my daughters-in-law, all of whom make me proud each and every day. To all of them, happy International Women's Day and week.

Ms Egan: I am glad to speak on the motion, and I welcome the fact that it has been signed by Members from across parties. I spent last Friday, International Women's Day, at an event organised by a local organisation, Kilcooley Women's Centre, which is in my constituency. The atmosphere at and spirit of the event captured everything that International Women's Day should be about. Local organisations and women from all backgrounds came together not just to celebrate how far we have come but to discuss what more we need to do and the challenges facing women today.

We heard from a senior PSNI officer who overcame an historically male-dominated working environment, juggled the demands of training with a young family and prevailed over gender stereotypes to excel in her career. She now uses her role to help women and children who have been victims of sexual assault and rape. I was heartened to hear how legislation surrounding coercive control, stalking and cyber-flashing introduced by the Justice Minister, Naomi Long, in the last mandate were being effectively used by the PSNI to apprehend offenders.

We also heard from a woman who ran a successful local family business. She overcame adversity in the form of coercive control and now uses her experience to help others in our local community.

We are so lucky in Northern Ireland to have a strong community and voluntary sector that does the legwork when it comes to supporting and lifting up women. Whether it is through having an affordable social enterprise model of childcare, providing therapeutic support to those who have been subject to domestic abuse or having education and employment courses, we owe them the recognition that they deserve for their transformative work in communities.

There can be no doubt that we have made progress over the past century. Women now have more legislative protections than ever. We have the most representative Assembly in our history, and we enjoy freedoms for which those of previous generations had to fight. But there is so much more to do.


4.45 pm

Ms Hunter: I thank the Member for giving way. Would she agree that we are so lucky that we have, now more than ever, more female representatives and that, in order to ensure that we keep that momentum and increase the number further, we must address issues such as the public safety of Members and the lack of an efficient maternity leave for Members across the House, both of which play a negative role, as they put women off getting into politics?

Mr Deputy Speaker (Dr Aiken): The Member has an extra minute.

Ms Egan: Absolutely, and I thank the Member for her intervention. Advice that was given to me before I became an MLA was, "You cannot be what you cannot see". If we really want to have a representative society, whether in local government, in this Chamber or in Parliament, we need to make sure that this place is accessible for women. That includes security and maternity provisions. I know that there are women in the Chamber today who did not avail themselves of those, and it has been a massive challenge for them.

As I was saying, there is a lot more work to do. One illustration of that is research published by the Royal College of Psychiatrists on International Women's Day. That research showed that the leading cause of mental ill health among women in the UK is violence and abuse, closely followed by relationship issues such as coercive control. With more women than ever before having been elected to the Assembly, I hope that we can come together and use the rest of the mandate to make progress.

We have many outstanding issues. The strategic framework to end violence against women and girls has still not been published. We are the only part of these islands not to have a strategy to end gender-based violence. Last month, we passed a motion supporting a women's health strategy, something that is desperately needed for women in our society who face health inequalities such as delays to cervical screening tests, inadequate diagnosis and care for endometriosis and treatment pathways for menopause. That is certainly not an exhaustive list of women's health issues that need to be actioned urgently by the Assembly and the Executive.

One of the biggest barriers to women accessing employment opportunities is accessible and affordable childcare. I was heartened to hear recent commitments from Ministers on that issue, but many families need intervention and support now.

I also want to speak about the women who have faced unimaginable abuse: the victims and survivors of the mother-and-baby institutions and the Magdalene laundries. Those women in Northern Ireland have been left behind. While the Republic of Ireland has made some progress on addressing that shameful part of our past, we still have neither introduced a redress scheme for those who were subjected to the trauma of those institutions nor installed a memorial to the victims and survivors. I sincerely hope that we can come together and deliver for those women as a matter of urgency in order to recognise and address the horrors that were inflicted on them.

I could talk about so much more, but I am constrained by time. I hope that the women in the Chamber work together with common goals to address historical injustices faced by women and the current challenges in our society but also to celebrate how far we have come and to uplift one another.

Mr Kearney: Last Friday, International Women's Day was marked at Belfast City Hall with the unveiling of monuments to Mary Ann McCracken and Winifred Carney, two iconic Belfast women whose lives were dedicated completely to opposing slavery, exploitation, injustice and oppression. Both were champions of gender equality, anti-sectarianism and social and national emancipation. The struggle for women's rights is hundreds of years old. Many brave women through the ages have challenged patriarchy, class and inequality. Those achievements and that sacrifice deserve to be celebrated in appropriate and significant ways.

International Women's Day also points us towards what more needs to be done. In today's world, women continue to be denied economic, social and national freedoms. Nowhere is that more starkly apparent than in Palestine, particularly in Gaza. This year, there will have been no celebration of International Women's Day or of Mother's Day, particularly in the Gaza Strip. By 8 March — last Friday — Israel's war had killed 9,000 Palestinian women, with over 54,000 injured; 5,200 Palestinian women have lost their babies; 50,000 Palestinian women who are pregnant cannot give birth in a safe place because there are no hospitals, medical centres or safe places in which to give birth; 65,000 breastfeeding Palestinian mothers cannot feed their children properly or look after them safely; and, in the north of Gaza, 350,000 women and girls are starving. Half a million Palestinian women are homeless. The women of Palestine need to hear, see and feel our solidarity.

Chun críochnú, déanfaidh mé aithris anois ar an rann seo atá tiomnaithe do mhisneach mhná na Palaistíne. Cuisle na mban; aoibhneas na mban; cineáltas, cruthaitheacht agus samhlaíocht na mban; daoirse, streachailt agus fulaingt na mban; diongbháilteacht agus tiomantas do chearta na mban; macalla na mban; ré úr do mhná gan leatrom ná cos ar bolg; dóchas agus fís na mban lenár linn; Ní saoirse mhná na cruinne go saoirse mhná na Palaistíne.

[Translation: To finish, I will now recite this reflection dedicated to the courage of the women of Palestine. The heartbeat of women; the happiness of women; the kindness, creativity and imagination of women; the slavery, suffering and struggle of women; dedication and determination for the rights of women; the echo of women; a new era for women without discrimination or oppression; the hope and vision of women in our time; the women of the world will not be free until the women of Palestine are free.]

Mr Nesbitt: I am happy to say a few words on the motion. I begin by thanking the deputy First Minister for mentioning the Ulster Women's Unionist Council, which produced some fine parliamentarians, not least Dame Dehra Parker, who became the longest-serving female in the Northern Ireland Parliament and who, like Robin Swann, spent time as Minister of Health.

At the end of last week, as International Women's Day was coming up, I got nostalgic thinking about my first job and my first boss. The job was as a sports reporter with BBC Northern Ireland, and the boss was the formidable Joy Williams. A woman becoming head of a sports department in the 1970s always seemed a remarkable feat, but, given what we now know about some of the attitudes and behaviours in the BBC at that time — I think about people like Stuart Hall, Jimmy Savile and Rolf Harris — her achievement, as a woman, of reaching that position in such a testosterone-filled environment was all the more remarkable. She liked nothing more than encouraging and mentoring young talent: you might think of George Hamilton, who had a stellar career with the BBC in London and then with RTÉ in Dublin; of Alan Green, who, for a long time, was one of BBC radio's top two football commentators; of Mark Robson, who no doubt commentated on the semi-tragic events at Twickenham over the weekend; and of Jim Neilly, who has been going on for ever. Members will have noted that those were four men. Once again, it was a women — an outlier — who brought them on.

I would like to talk about a concept that, I think, will eventually come to apply to how we do government in this place. That concept is gender budgeting. It is a way of promoting equality through fiscal policy by analysing and disaggregating data so that we understand the impact of our spend separately on men and women and can therefore take corrective action against imbalance. There will be an update on this on the 21st of the month from the Northern Ireland Women's Budget Group, but, just to illustrate, I have some figures that are maybe four or five years old. For example, If the UK Government invested 2%