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Covid-19

Ministerial Statements – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 10:30 am on 5th May 2020.

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Photo of Christopher Stalford Christopher Stalford DUP 10:30 am, 5th May 2020

I have received notice from the Minister for Infrastructure, Ms Nichola Mallon, that she wishes to make a statement. Before I call the Minister, I remind Members that in the light of social distancing being observed by parties, I have relaxed the Speaker's ruling that Members must be in the Chamber to hear a statement if they want to ask a question. Members still have to make sure that their name is on the speaking list if they wish to be called but they can do that by rising in their place, as well as notifying the Business Office or the Speaker's Table directly. I remind Members again to be concise in asking their questions. As this is a plenary session, we do not have the flexibility afforded by the Ad Hoc Committee. If Members monopolise time, those who are further down the speaking list will not be called. I ask Members not to make speeches and to keep their questions short and focused.

Photo of Nichola Mallon Nichola Mallon Social Democratic and Labour Party

Thank you, Mr Principal Deputy Speaker, for the opportunity to update Members on the ways in which my Department is contributing to the fight against COVID-19. At the outset, I want to recognise that while this is a challenging time for all of us, my thoughts are with those families who have, sadly, lost loved ones and those individuals who are fighting against COVID-19 on the front line.

We are in week 7 of the lockdown. Families, businesses and communities across Northern Ireland have been incredible in playing their part to save lives and protect each and every one of us from the virus. The task has not been easy. Friends and families have been torn apart, unable to share a cup of tea, a hug or even just chat on the same sofa. That is not the life that we all know and it is not easy on any of us. This will be a lonely time for many people — a challenging time — and it is important that, in this place, we say to people at home that it is OK not to be OK. We need to come together to help and support each other as we make our way through.

Lockdown is not easy. It goes against everything that we know and who we are and our need for social interaction, not least with those whom we love. As Members will be aware, the Executive will be reviewing the regulations this week. Guided by the Chief Medical Officer and the Chief Scientific Adviser, we will look closely at what opportunity there is to safely ease some of the restrictions. A robust testing, tracing and tracking system across the island must be a critical component of that.

We all need to work together in the fightback against COVID-19, and, today, I take the opportunity to provide you with an update on the further action that my Department has taken since my statement to the Ad Hoc Committee on 16 April, as we remain focused on, first and foremost, protecting people and keeping them safe and, in doing so, minimising, as much as possible, disruption to our services.

I am conscious that one of the areas of significant disruption for people is the provision of MOTs by the Driver and Vehicle Agency (DVA). My Department has worked hard to find a range of solutions for all types of vehicles, and there are now a significant number of exemptions and extensions in place until MOT services can be safely resumed. In addition, the new lifts are being installed on a phased basis and will be fully in place by the start of July, unless the MOT centres are needed for COVID-19 testing, which I have said consistently will be the priority for as long as they are needed.

The provision of temporary exemption certificates (TECs) has been effective in keeping people on the road and ensuring that vehicles can be taxed. However, some of the TECs are starting to come to an end and will need to be reviewed. In considering that issue, I have had to take into account the volume of vehicles currently impacted and the fact that COVID-19 restrictions are likely to result in a suspension of most, if not all, MOT services for some time to come. It is a simple yet challenging fact that, when MOT centres reopen, there will not be the capacity to test all the cars that have missed out along with those that need to be tested normally at that time. I believe that it is really important to minimise the disruption as far as possible. I am, therefore, announcing today that I have decided that DVA will continue to issue TECs to vehicles that have already been issued one, whether they be private cars, goods vehicles, trailers or motorcycles, until their normal annual MOT date. That means that a vehicle will get an exemption for one year, which will bring it back into the system when there is capacity to test it. When vehicle testing services are properly restored, vehicles that are due their annual MOT at that time will be tested as normal and, therefore, will not be disrupted.

The TECs will be extended to the maximum time frames set out in legislation, but, importantly, when each is rolled forward, they will provide full cover for one year from the normal MOT expiry date in 2020 until the date on which the vehicle is due for test in 2021. The PSNI, DVA roadside enforcement and the Association of British Insurers are aware of this position. It is important to remember that these are temporary arrangements, and I remind drivers that they are responsible under the law for the roadworthiness of their vehicle at all times and should maintain it to the appropriate standard.

In addition, I recognise that the current process has been difficult and confusing for customers, with many queries raised about whether a TEC is in place and the time frame for refunds. Therefore, I am also announcing today that an automatic process for the issuing of TECs will apply from 11 May. That will significantly reduce administration for customers and staff. From 11 May, customers will no longer have to book a test that they know that they will never attend and to pay over money only for it to be returned to them in a refund some weeks later. Instead, vehicles that require a new TEC or require one for the first time will automatically be updated on the DVA system and on the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency (DVLA) system in Swansea so that the vehicle can be taxed. The DVA will not issue a hard copy of the certificate to customers. Instead, the nidirect website will signpost customers to the DVLA website, where they can check whether their vehicle has a current TEC. We will, of course, continue to issue TECs and to provide refunds for bookings that have already been made. Unfortunately, for vehicles registered in Great Britain that have been brought and transported to Northern Ireland, it is not possible to issue an automatic TEC. Those customers will need to contact the DVA for that to be done manually, and, again, details for how to do that will be on nidirect.

Taxis and buses are subject to separate legislation, and a different approach has been adopted. Through a change in legislation for taxis and a determination by the Department for buses, I have ensured that those vehicle licences that expire during the current emergency will be automatically renewed without the need for prior testing. I recognise that clear communication with customers is important and that it needs to improve. I have asked DVA to ensure that comprehensive advice and clear guidance is made available to customers on the nidirect website. I hope that this provides some reassurance to Members and their constituents during this difficult time.

I was pleased to announce last week that the Department is working in partnership with the British Medical Association and our incredible GPs to prioritise the processing of medical forms for those key workers who need them to renew their licences. Medicals are essential to ensure road safety for both the driver and other road users. However, I appreciate that, for some, further specialist assessments may be needed before licences can be renewed. With the strain on the medical profession during this crisis, getting access to this specialist assessment is proving difficult for many drivers, and my Department continues to work hard to find ways of addressing that. I appreciate the patience of Members and the public during this crisis, and we continue to work hard to find a solution, including exploring legal options on the way forward. I hope to be in a position to update Members and affected drivers very soon.

The lack of testing, and indeed the suspension of other DVA services, has meant a considerable loss of income for DVA whilst it continues to incur the costs of staff and other bills. If the COVID-19 suspension lasts three months, DVA will lose income of £8·6 million. Indeed, I have already advised that DVA has identified estimated additional COVID-19-related pressures of up to £181 million in total. These cost estimates are based on the information available and the current assumptions on the impact and duration of the crisis.

The reality is that, across every Department, the current public health emergency requires a level of response that cannot be contained within conventional budgets or, indeed, conventional processes. All of these pressures arise as a result of lost income from various business areas, including Northern Ireland Water, Translink and DVA, and from sources of income such as planning fees and fares on the Strangford ferry.

At this point, I highlight the particular challenges that Translink faces. The need to stay at home to save lives has clearly had very significant implications for our publicly-owned public transport provider. While my Department remains the only Department, outside of the Executive Office, not to have received an allocation yet from the Department of Finance's COVID-19 budget, I welcome Executive colleagues' commitment to supporting and funding our public transport network.

We are seeing across the world that Governments are recognising the crucial need to invest in infrastructure as we recover from this crisis and build our new society from it. We should be no different if we want to deliver the radical change that our communities and our environment desperately need.

On Friday, I was pleased to announce the provision of a financial support package of £5·7 million, with the costs being shared by the Executive and the British Government, to support our airlines and airports. This assistance will provide financial aid to City of Derry Airport and Belfast City Airport to help with their operating costs as so much of their business has been affected. Finance is also being made available to keep the remaining flights operating out of both airports.

While my powers in respect of airports are limited to regulation, I have been able, working with Executive colleagues and the Department for Transport, I have been able to secure this unique package of support for our airports at this difficult time. It is this type of collaborative working that will get us through this crisis and ensure our recovery from it.

Members will also be aware that, again through collaborative work across these islands, I was able to secure our supply chains with funding of up to £17 million, financed in partnership by the Executive and the British Government, to support our three ferry operators along our five critical routes — a package that will ensure that food, goods, medicines and personal protective equipment (PPE) will continue to come across to the North. I am, however, acutely aware that the haulage sector is also crucial to the effective functioning of supply chains. Although responsibility for that sits with the Department for the Economy, I will continue to work closely with colleagues to do all that I can to help the industry in its crucial role of securing critical supply chains during this difficult time.

The performance of the planning system will also have a critical role to play in supporting our future economic and societal recovery, so we need to keep plans and projects safely moving through the system. I will bring you up to date with some of the measures that I have brought forward.

Last week, I made regulations to suspend temporarily the requirement to hold a public event as part of the pre-application community consultation process for major applications. I assure Members that that is not, in any way, to remove the need for public consultation, which is a critical part of the planning process; rather, it is about doing it in a different way during the crisis, in line with clear public health advice. I have therefore published practice guidance on appropriate measures to replace face-to-face public events. It covers online engagement and other methods, including the safe distribution of leaflets and newsletters, and, where people do not have access to the Internet, telephone consultations. My chief planner has written again to councils with further advice covering a wide range of issues, including the operation of planning committees and planning decision-making; the role of statutory consultees; the duration of planning permissions; and support for pragmatic measures to keep delivering local planning services.

While we continue to do all that we can to protect our communities from COVID-19, we must also seize the chance for change. In responding to the difficulties, we have learnt lessons. We know that having fewer cars on the roads reduces emissions. More walking and cycling means healthier bodies and healthier minds, time to talk and time to be together. We have to use what we have learnt to imagine and plan for a better, greener, healthier, happier future. To that end, I have met representatives of the business sector and green sector to start an early discussion on how my Department can help shape a recovery and what we can learn from our response to the pandemic. We all share the belief that infrastructure spending will be crucial to restarting the economy. Investing in our transport system and our water and sewerage network would kick-start the construction sector and its supply chain.

We also need to think about how we enable and support social distancing as we bring people back into the heart of our towns and cities and about how we give them the confidence to make the decision to return for leisure, as well as for work, when the time is right. At the same time, I am very aware that this health emergency has forever changed the ways in which we live and work, and it is difficult to ascertain the impact that it will have on how we use those spaces in future. However, in the darkness of the pandemic, we are being presented with an opportunity to reimagine those places, and it is one that we should seize.

In order to give a real focus to a green recovery, where we will embed more active ways of travelling in the very heart of our overall transport policy, I am delighted to announce today that I am creating a walking and cycling champion in my Department. Our champion will ensure that we deliver on our commitment to increase the percentage of journeys made by walking and cycling, thereby inspiring our communities, restructuring our spaces, changing forever the way in which we live and changing it for the better. I want to increase the space available for people who want to walk and cycle by extending pavements, pedestrianising streets and introducing pop-up cycle lanes. I have already identified some areas in Belfast city centre and in Derry city that can be quickly transformed, and I intend to work with councils right across the North to identify more as a matter of urgency. Doing that will transform communities right across Northern Ireland and inspire a new way of living in our new world of this new normal.

I am clear also on the need for the work to be done collaboratively, so I will also be asking the walking and cycling champion to establish immediately an action-focused group of stakeholders, both in and outside government, to provide quick advice, to challenge my Department and to ensure that we consider opportunities and build on the positive changes that we are seeing when it comes to higher levels of walking and cycling during the current emergency. I also want us to work in collaboration with communities, including, for example, to identify and create quiet streets where pedestrians, cyclists and play have priority, and motor vehicles are guests.

I am determined that we take action, particularly to address traffic issues in inner-city neighbourhoods. I want to make sure that we do things with, not to, communities. We have a wealth of organisations with skills in working to help residents to develop a new vision for their areas. I want to harness those skills to improve neighbourhoods and improve the quality of life of all of our citizens.

This is not just an environmental imperative. We need to do this because it is a public health imperative. I shall keep a close eye on progress. I want to see ideas not just being talked about but being turned into results that improve everyone's well-being. I am also looking for opportunities to weave blue infrastructure together with new cycle paths and footpaths, recognising that the better management of water in and through urban environments can reduce flood risk while creating more attractive and environmentally friendly spaces.

This may be ambitious, but the one lesson that COVID-19 has taught us is that this is our world, and we must protect it by building a better future that delivers more for our citizens socially and economically, and delivering cleaner, greener and healthier communities.

Photo of Christopher Stalford Christopher Stalford DUP 10:45 am, 5th May 2020

Before we proceed to questions to the Minister, I have a few housekeeping notifications. First, it was spotted last week that there was a bit of backsliding on social distancing, so some microphones have been removed from the Chamber. Members, you must be directly in front of the microphone to be heard.

Secondly, as I said at the start, because this is not an Ad Hoc Committee meeting but a plenary sitting of the Assembly, questions need to be focused and sharp to ensure that everyone gets called to ask their question. Just as questions need to be sharp, answers need to be sharp. I am sure that they will be.

Photo of Michelle McIlveen Michelle McIlveen DUP

I thank the Minister for her statement. I welcome the clarity given today on MOTs and the commitment by the Executive in the last number of days to supporting airports as well as city deals and their associated infrastructure projects.

The statement does not mention the outstanding matter of financial support for hauliers and taxi drivers. It is also disappointing that the problem accessing medical assessments has still not been resolved. In addition, DVA has introduced a fully online system for driving licence renewal. This is proving problematic for those who do not have access to the online system, with hard copy applications being returned. Can the Minister give a clear timeline for when these matters will be fully addressed?

Photo of Nichola Mallon Nichola Mallon Social Democratic and Labour Party

I thank the Member for her question. We have been working very hard across the Executive on the issue of hauliers. I have been working with the Minister for the Economy and the Minister of Agriculture. We engage very regularly with the Department for Transport and the UK Treasury. We are clear that we need to get support to our haulage industry because it has a critical role to play in securing our supply chains, and we will keep up the pressure on that.

On the taxis issue, the Member will be aware that, as Minister for Infrastructure, I have responsibility for regulation. I have put a number of solutions in place. The one that is outstanding is the specialised medical assessment. I am exploring two potential legal options. I hope to be in a position to give confirmation to Members and affected drivers as soon as possible. The challenge is getting a solution that is legally robust while being mindful of the need to ensure road safety for drivers and other road users.

On the issue of financial support for taxis, I am sure that the Member will also be aware that the Department for the Economy is responsible for financial support to those whose livelihoods have been very badly affected by this crisis. I have made representations to the Minister for the Economy, the Minister of Finance and the Minister for Communities on the potential of repurposing of taxi drivers, because I recognise that they are one of the groups that have been really badly hit.

There have been issues with people being able to access and contact the DVA. We launched a single point of contact, the set email address. I am mindful that there are people who are unable to access services online.

I also have a duty to the safety of DVA staff, so we are working hard to see whether we can bring back workers on a safe basis to be able to process those applications and provide services to those who do not have any access to online.

Photo of Cathal Boylan Cathal Boylan Sinn Féin 11:00 am, 5th May 2020

I thank the Minister for her statement. I welcome the announcement on walking and cycle lanes, an issue that I have mentioned a number of times. Minister, can you elaborate on how we will realise the expansion of those cycling and walking lanes and on the issue of resources? Will that include physical structures like bollards? I see that Dublin City Council is engaging more with the public as part of this whole process, and I welcome the announcement that there will be a champion for all of this. Is there any intention to expand that consultation process?

Photo of Nichola Mallon Nichola Mallon Social Democratic and Labour Party

I thank the Member for his question. I agree with the Member that this does present an opportunity to encourage and facilitate that modal shift that we have all been so passionate about. One example of a practical project can be found in Belfast. The bolder Belfast vision, which was produced in conjunction with Belfast City Council, the Department for Infrastructure and the Department for Communities, has a number of exciting projects around pedestrianisation and having more people-centred places. I think that my Department, working with the Department for Communities and the council, could look at lifting that.

At this moment, I am very focused on the need to identify and deliver on the ground quick and early wins. As you said, we have seen developments on Nassau Street in Dublin such as pop-up cycle lanes. We have seen in New York the pedestrianisation of streets. In Hackney in London, for example, we have seen the extension of pavements. I am very clear that the approach for the champion is to identify with the stakeholders early, quick wins that we can then build on.

I was very clear in my statement that I am a believer that things should not be done to communities but should be done with them. I have been engaging with Belfast Healthy Cities, for example, and with others. I am very clear that this has to be collaborative. We have to work with councils, and we have to work with communities. One of the ideas that I am particularly attracted to is quieter streets. Again, that would be very much led by residents. I am very committed to this.

On the issue of resource, it is absolutely going to be challenging. As this is a ministerial priority, I have asked my officials to identify what flexibility we have, but I am also very clear that I want to work with other government Departments. This is not just an issue for the Department for Infrastructure but is an issue for all of us. If we work collaboratively, we get the right outcomes and we also get more financial traction for each Department's budget.

Photo of Dolores Kelly Dolores Kelly Social Democratic and Labour Party

I thank the Minister for her statement, in which she often referred to the importance that infrastructure has in enabling the economy to return to normal and to drive forward. Minister, you will be aware of the work, particularly in New Zealand, to get infrastructure projects shovel-ready for when the construction industry returns to normal. Have you given any consideration to the approach taken and whether there is an opportunity to green infrastructure?

Photo of Nichola Mallon Nichola Mallon Social Democratic and Labour Party

I thank the Member for her question. She asks a very important question. We have to invest in our infrastructure — that is key as an economic multiplier for our construction industry, but it also provides a real opportunity. I have been watching very closely what is happening in New Zealand, where there is a commitment to progress shovel-ready projects as part of the recovery from COVID. I am also aware that there is a movement in New Zealand to make sure that those construction projects also have a very clear environmental element to them. I have already asked officials to try to explore that. As an Executive, we recognise the importance of investing in infrastructure, and, as it is being recognised as a key enabler right across the globe, I hope that we recognise that here and, more importantly, that we act on it and invest in our infrastructure to create that economic effect and to get us to a better place in tackling the climate emergency.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

I too thank the Minister for her statement and the decision to further extend the temporary exemption certificates for MOTs. That has been essential, and that will be automated shortly. Is the Minister reviewing a wide range of regulatory provision and licensing in her Department? Other areas also require to be addressed. I am hearing responses from those who require bus operator licences at some point. That mechanism needs to be followed up. I am also hearing from those who have been driving with a one-year international driving licence in Northern Ireland and who are unable to carry out the practical driving test.

Photo of Nichola Mallon Nichola Mallon Social Democratic and Labour Party

I recognise that this crisis has thrown up a number of difficulties and I think that that is inevitable when you are running a service that is interacting with thousands and thousands of people weekly, which DVA does across its range of services.

In terms of licensing issues, if we take the example of taxi drivers, there was an issue around PSV extensions. We have addressed that through a free-of-charge six-month extension. There was an issue for taxi drivers of access to online training. As a result of this crisis, we have increased the number of online courses. There is an issue around GP medical forms, which are required by some drivers for their licences, and we are working with the BMA to address that. The one particular issue that we have not completely resolved yet is about those drivers who require a further specialised medical assessment. That situation has arisen because all of our medics are focused on COVID-19, but I hope to be in a position very soon to present a solution to Members and those drivers.

The situation has brought home to me that we should have been in a much more advanced stage in DVA in terms of automated services. I hope that the Member recognises that we are trying to address one aspect of that from 11 May, but I am very mindful that we need to extend that across other services where it is not applicable at the moment.

Photo of Andrew Muir Andrew Muir Alliance

I thank the Minister for her statement, particularly in relation to MOTs. That brings a lot of clarity to people. At the outset, I declare that I was previously an employee of Translink.

The decisions that will be made in Northern Ireland in the next weeks are going to affect generations to come, in terms of how we travel. The information that came forward recently that traffic in Northern Ireland has not dropped to the same level as other parts of the UK or Ireland is of real concern. To what extent, and how radical is the Minister prepared to be in her decisions going forward?

For example, you inherited a capital investment plan, with the York Street interchange and widening of the Sydenham bypass. Are you prepared to go ahead with the York Street interchange in its current form or are you prepared to look at that and also the Sydenham bypass?

In relation to active travel, the purchase of bicycles is a challenge for some people. Is the Department prepared to consider a voucher scheme to allow people to buy bicycles on a discounted basis?

Photo of Nichola Mallon Nichola Mallon Social Democratic and Labour Party

Members are being very creative at getting multiple questions into one question. I admire them.

In recent days, we have seen an increase in the volume of traffic on our roads. That is a concern to me. The Northern Ireland Civil Service is carrying out a detailed analysis to understand why people are taking those journeys, and I think that it is critical that we understand and are informed by it. I repeat the message: only engage in travel if it is absolutely essential.

The York Street interchange is a commitment in 'New Decade, New Approach'. It is a critical scheme. Given that we are going through this crisis, I think that as a general principle we should not be afraid of looking at things creatively and looking at things again. That applies to any of the schemes. I am willing to look at them creatively, but I recognise that the York Street interchange is a critical strategic project.

The Member asked about bicycles. Other countries have given a voucher towards the repair or purchase of a bicycle. That is something that I could feed through to the champion and the steering group to look at. My challenge is trying to have the ambition and also being able to finance that ambition. Realistically and honestly, we are not going to be able to do everything that we want to do, but we need to do the things that will have the maximum effect.

Photo of Christopher Stalford Christopher Stalford DUP

I remind Members that if they ask multiple questions the Minister is only obliged to answer one of them.

Photo of Keith Buchanan Keith Buchanan DUP

I thank the Minister for her statement. My question relates to furloughing in Translink because of the difficulties that they are under. I understand that Transport for London have furloughed 7,000 workers. The furlough scheme opened on 23 March. Has the Minister spoken about or looked at furloughing Translink workers, and what would that save in the budget here if it were possible?

Photo of Nichola Mallon Nichola Mallon Social Democratic and Labour Party

The Finance Minister wrote to me and he suggested exploring the furloughing of Translink staff. On the back of that suggestion, the feasibility of that is being explored by Translink. My view is very clear and I have made it known to Executive colleagues. Taking the decision to furlough public-sector staff is a significant issue, it is cross-cutting, and we should approach it as an Executive.

There are a number of practical difficulties with furloughing Translink staff. The furloughing scheme ends at the end of June. We are just a number of weeks out from that. I also have to grapple with the challenge of making sure that we have an essential public transport service for our key workers and that when we provide that we can ensure that social distancing can be maintained, so we require additional fleet to carry a much-limited number of passengers. I also need to make sure that there is a deep clean, so a number of staff are required to ensure that we can keep that transport network going and that we can do so safely. All that has to be taken in the round with the fact that, when we are encouraging people to come back to work and to do so safely, we should encourage them to have the confidence to be on our public transport network, and that will require that we have our public transport network in a good place and our employees ready to do all that work. I want to consider all these things in the round.

Photo of Martina Anderson Martina Anderson Sinn Féin

I thank the Minister for her statement. Minister, you mentioned the disruption to services, and you have been asked a question already about the haulage sector. I have been contacted by a number of people in the haulage sector who are deeply concerned about the supply chain not just now but in a few months' time. They want some indication from you of what kind of preparation is under way in your Department to ensure that the haulage sector is going to be ready for the full implementation of the Brexit protocol in eight months' time.

Photo of Nichola Mallon Nichola Mallon Social Democratic and Labour Party

I thank the Member for her question. As she will be aware, the lead Department on that issue is the Department for the Economy, but I recognise the critical importance of it, which is why I am trying to do what I can to support her and to support us as an Executive. At the moment, I think that there is a recognition, certainly in the Department for Transport, of the critical role of our hauliers given our unique set of circumstances as an island. The focus at present is on providing the detailed evidence that the Treasury requires in order to provide that financial support. We are working with the sector very closely to try to get that detail across to evidence their case.

I think the Member made a very important point about Brexit. We are all, rightly, focused on COVID-19, but we cannot lose sight of the fact that 31 December is hurtling towards us, and that will present huge challenges. When you put Brexit and COVID-19 side by side, you will find that we are going to face huge and unprecedented challenges as an Assembly, an economy and a society. We should not lose sight of that in the midst of this, and preparations should continue.

Photo of Thomas Buchanan Thomas Buchanan DUP

Thank you, Minister, for your statement to the House. I have one focused question for you. Car driving tests have been suspended for a number of weeks, and rightly so, but has any consideration been given to those who want to do their motorcycle test? They are prepared and ready to do it, and the motorcycle is a one-man/one-woman vehicle. The gear that people wear for the motorcycle indicates that it is safe enough and safe from a virus point of view, and there is social distancing. Has any consideration been given to looking at opening up that aspect of the testing so that somebody who is ready to do their motorcycle test can get it done?

Photo of Nichola Mallon Nichola Mallon Social Democratic and Labour Party

Thank you for your question. In relation to the driving test, you are right: there is a distinction with those who are taking a car test, where there is close proximity to the examiner. We are looking to see whether there is anything that we can do with that. At present, we have not been able to find a solution; actually, nowhere across these islands has been able to find a solution to that.

The Member made a very interesting point about motorcycle testing, so I will commit to go back and ask officials to look specifically at that to see whether that is an aspect of the phased return that we could bring forward earlier. If he is agreeable, I can provide that update to him in writing.

Photo of Thomas Buchanan Thomas Buchanan DUP

Thank you for that.

Photo of Liz Kimmins Liz Kimmins Sinn Féin

I thank the Minister for her statement. Whilst I welcome the efforts that have been made in planning, it is very important that I highlight again the issue that is facing many people with planning permission that is due to expire during this pandemic. I have raised this with the Minister on a number of occasions. Does the Minister have any idea how many are due to expire or are at risk of falling?

How quickly could primary legislation be progressed to grant an extension to those with planning permission that is due to expire, because I know that it is a huge concern out there and I have been contacted by quite a number of agents and people with applications?

Photo of Nichola Mallon Nichola Mallon Social Democratic and Labour Party 11:15 am, 5th May 2020

I thank the Member for her question. She did ask about the total number of planning applications that are about to expire and I committed that officials would write to her. I do not know whether she has received that piece of correspondence but I can chase it when I go back upstairs.

Yes, planning permission has presented an ongoing difficulty and the Member is right that it requires primary legislation in Northern Ireland. As a Department, we thought that the Northern Ireland Executive might bring forward a COVID-19 Bill, as has happened in other cases, and we were keen to insert that piece of legislation in that. It does not seem as though that is going to happen, so I have asked officials to explore bringing forward primary legislation. The Member will understand that that takes time and it will not help those who are facing the imminent expiry of their planning permission. I have also said that I recognise that that is not ideal, but for those people the practical option facing them in the immediacy of their situation is either to renew, and that will cost a fee of one-quarter of the original fee, or to commence works. I urge that if people are going to commence works, they remain mindful of the case law so that any works that they can take are considered to be valid.

Photo of Pat Catney Pat Catney Social Democratic and Labour Party

Minister, I note your points about taxi drivers, and it is clear that you are doing all that you can to ensure that licensing and regulations are done as quickly as possible by your Department during these challenging times. However, there are still drivers out there who are struggling without any income. While that is not directly your responsibility, will you advise what your Executive colleagues are doing about it?

Photo of Nichola Mallon Nichola Mallon Social Democratic and Labour Party

All of us are aware of the hardship that is being felt by the taxi industry and taxi drivers. We know them because of the role that they play in our communities, and I am sure that many Members' family members and friends work in the industry. I have made representations to the Minister for the Economy and I know that she is trying to bring forward a range of financial support schemes for those have who have been affected. A number of schemes have been implemented, and I know that she is working on others. I am hopeful that the Executive are in a position to be to provide financial support to those taxi drivers who have had their livelihoods decimated as a result of this.

I have said all along that I feel that there is a huge opportunity for the repurposing of taxi drivers in delivering medicines from pharmacies and in delivering groceries, because we know the difficulties that people are having in ordering their food online and having it delivered. I have made representations to the Minister for Communities on that and I know that she has been working hard to explore that. As I said, I have made representations to the Minister for the Economy on financial hardship, so I am doing what I can to play my part on the regulatory aspect. I know that Executive colleagues are trying to do the same, given their responsibilities on that matter, too.

Photo of Christopher Stalford Christopher Stalford DUP

When one of the lines in your question is, "While that is not directly your responsibility", it may be an indication that you are perhaps on the wrong track. If we could keep the questions directly related to the Minister's statement.

Photo of Gordon Dunne Gordon Dunne DUP

I thank the Minister for her statement and the update and I think that the provision of test centres for the COVID-19 test has been very positive. We appreciate the efforts that are being made there.

Does the Minister recognise the need for continued investment in our roads? If we look at the main roads into Belfast — if you take the A2 from Bangor — we have a backlog of traffic in the mornings to Holywood. I understand and have seen that if you take the M1, there is a backlog to Lisburn. If you take the M2, there is a backlog to Mallusk and beyond, and I am sure that many Members will concur with what I have said. Does the Minister recognise that, moving forward, it is important that we get the balance right? There is a push here for green and for the use of bicycles, which is fine for a few weeks and months of the year locally, but, for real transport, we need to get our roads moving, get the throughput moving and get vehicles flowing rather than being restricted through to city centres. We need to see an improved flow of our vehicles.

Photo of Nichola Mallon Nichola Mallon Social Democratic and Labour Party

I thank the Member for his question. He is right: maintenance of the road network is important. The Member will be aware that there were successive years of underinvestment as a result of cuts that were imposed on the Department. In fact, the recent Barton report said that we need to ensure recurring funding of £143 million per annum in order to prevent further deterioration of our roads. I have not been given an allocation that is anywhere near that amount.

I know that the Member is very passionate on doing — not in a derogatory sense — the basic things right, such as street lighting and roads, and the importance of that for communities. I share that passion. The challenge is that we need to maintain existing services, and, where we can, do things in an improved and better way. I do not want the Member to think that I am completely dismissive of the need to maintain the road network. I recognise its importance. However, I also believe that we should have ambition and try to change the way in which we do things. That is why I am also very passionate about the whole active and sustainable travel agenda.

Photo of Catherine Kelly Catherine Kelly Sinn Féin

Can the Minister assure the House that front-line workers, such as those in roads maintenance, public transport and NI Water, for example, are content with conditions in their workplace?

Photo of Nichola Mallon Nichola Mallon Social Democratic and Labour Party

I will take Translink first. I have been very clear that, right across the Department, the safety of the public and staff is paramount. Translink has brought forward a number of initiatives. There are cough screens on every single bus. Bus and train drivers have been provided with gloves and hand sanitiser. A no-cash-back policy has been introduced in order to avoid transmission. There is increased cleaning of all vehicles. I want to put on record my appreciation to all Translink staff because they go to work to ensure that the rest of those who are engaged in essential work can get to and from work.

I have stressed the importance of ensuring that Northern Ireland Water workers are safe. I actually have regular conference calls with the chief executive to get assurances on that. In Roads Service, I have been very clear that, where people can work from home, they should, and, where work is essential and they cannot work from home — for example, to keep roads safe or prevent flooding — they can go to work, and we absolutely must ensure that they are kept safe through social distancing and the use of PPE.

As a Department, we engage regularly with trade unions and workers. I request very regular updates on any concerns that trade unions or workers have. I have also told Members that if they are aware of individual cases where someone feels that, as an employee, they are not being kept safe, I absolutely want to know about it.

Photo of Chris Lyttle Chris Lyttle Alliance

As chairperson of the Assembly's all-party group (APG) on cycling, I particularly welcome the Minister's commitment to active travel. It is a healthy, socially distanced and fun way for people to move. I welcome the walking and cycling champion and the ministerial advisory group. Hopefully, the Minister's early engagement with the all-party group on cycling was a helpful link to the ideas and people who are needed to realise the potential of active travel. However, she will be aware that it has taken over a year to fix obvious problems with one of the few dedicated cycle lanes in Belfast, at Alfred Street, and that consultation on the Belfast cycle network plan finished in 2017. What specific action will she take to progress those particular matters?

Photo of Nichola Mallon Nichola Mallon Social Democratic and Labour Party

I thank the Member for his question. I recognise his passion for the issue. Yes: it was very informative to go to the APG. I look forward to taking up its recent invitation to discuss some of that, and would be keen for the walking and cycling champion to accompany me.

What I have tasked the champion to do is to pull out what exists already. The Member referenced the Belfast cycle network plan and existing cycle routes that need to be improved. To improve an entire network requires investment. That has to be the approach. That will certainly be the focus of the ministerial advisory group and the champion. I am adamant that I will come back very quickly to Members in order to give them practical updates on what we are actually doing to deliver on the project. It is easy to talk about those matters. You judge a person on what they actually do. I am very committed to delivering on that.

Photo of John O'Dowd John O'Dowd Sinn Féin

I thank the Minister for her answers so far. I am slightly surprised, if not disappointed, to learn that, although the furlough scheme was introduced on 20 March, there have not been further and definitive investigations in your Department, particularly for Translink workers.

Minister, what preparations or investigations has your Department undertaken to re-profile its budgets? Clearly, there are pressures on your budgets, and other Executive budgets, but there will be business areas that will have stopped, eased or spent less money than was predicted. Have you started to re-profile your budget?

Photo of Nichola Mallon Nichola Mallon Social Democratic and Labour Party

I thank the Member for his question. The Minister of Finance only raised the issue of furloughing with me towards the end of last week. It is clear that we need to take significant decisions, right across the Executive.

On the issue of re-profiling, this is not a normal budgetary process or a normal budgetary period. Where I can find easements and re-profiling, I absolutely will. The difficulty for my Department is that we have seen a dramatic reduction in revenue through Translink, the DVA and Northern Ireland Water because we have brought in measures to try to support businesses. That dramatic reduction in income sits alongside very high levels of static cost. I assure the Member that, where we can be creative in the budget, we will continue to do so. The challenge is that, in the COVID-19 budget, nothing has come across to the Department for Infrastructure as yet. If I could get some certainty around that, to ease the financial pressures, it would help me to identify where we have any flexibilities.

Photo of Justin McNulty Justin McNulty Social Democratic and Labour Party

I thank the Minister, her Department and the front-line workers for the exceptional work that they have been doing to ensure that the wheels keep on turning to allow our society to keep functioning. I was astonished to learn, Minister, that despite everything that your Department is doing, you received zero funding in the COVID-19 budget allocation. Why did the Finance Minister and, indeed, the entire Executive, award COVID-19 funding to all Departments except yours? Particularly, given your Department's pressures to maintain key services, such as public transport, safe roads and clean drinking water, which are fundamental, not just to the COVID-19 response but to our recovery on this island. What happened to all in this together?

Photo of Nichola Mallon Nichola Mallon Social Democratic and Labour Party

I thank the Member for his question. To date, there has not been an allocation for the Department for Infrastructure. However, £95 million has been kept in the centre for a possible transport package and the support for ferries and airports has come from that. Members will be aware of the issues facing Translink alone, so the remainder of that pot of money is not sufficient to meet those financial pressures so that is a serious concern. I welcome, however, the Executive's commitment to fund Translink. They recognise that we need to have a publicly owned public transport network, not just for the economic and social benefits but for tackling the climate emergency. Yes, it was disappointing, but I continue to engage with the Finance Minister and I hope that, very soon, I will see an allocation to my Department so that I can properly plan and prepare.

Photo of Rosemary Barton Rosemary Barton UUP

I thank the Minister for her answers so far. I am glad to see that you are looking at pathways and ways of improving exercise for people. In rural areas, we have many villages that have footpaths along the outskirts and main routes etc. Over the years, these have become totally neglected because of budgetary pressures and they tend to be the last thing that is looked at. Many have grass growing through them and although some of them have what used to be lights along them, they have been switched off and are not used anymore. Can you give an assurance that, with your new thoughts and new look at these pathways for walking and exercise, perhaps, there will be a reassessment, with some of these footpaths made better again for people to walk on?

Photo of Nichola Mallon Nichola Mallon Social Democratic and Labour Party

I thank the Member for her question. The reality is that social distancing will be with us for a long time and we need to create space for people to socially distance and keep safe.

I want, as I said about the work of the champion, to link with a lot of the work that has already taken place, so I am keen to have a discussion with Minister Hargey, for example, on public realm works that her Department is carrying out to see whether we can make the widening of footpaths a key element. That has to be the approach.

The Member is right that we have had to curtail severely a number of services that the Department provides. Grass cutting, for example, has been severely curtailed, as have a number of other services, because of budgetary pressures. We recognise the importance of these issues, and we try to do what we can. However, as always, we have to operate within financial restraints, and that is as frustrating for me as it is, I am sure, for the Member.

Photo of Rachel Woods Rachel Woods Green 11:30 am, 5th May 2020

I thank the Minister for her statement. I am happy to learn of the focus on a green recovery and, in particular, the reallocation of road space, which I and other Greens called on her last time to support. I thank the Minister for her correspondence on that issue.

Given the focus on walking and cycling, will the Minister commit to not progressing any further the experimental traffic control scheme permitting taxis in bus lanes, instead of focusing on other measures to enhance the provision of public transport, cycle infrastructure and pedestrian priority?

Photo of Nichola Mallon Nichola Mallon Social Democratic and Labour Party

We need to go up in a helicopter to take a holistic and comprehensive view of our public transport network. We need to look at the hierarchy and put walkers at the top and then have cyclists, riders and drivers. However, we must also recognise that, if we have a really good public transport system, it requires our buses, our trains and our taxi drivers, as I recognise that they too are an important part of it. The challenge, I suppose, is how we use the road space that we have to recognise that it is an integrated transport system, while being mindful of environmental improvements and benefits. It is an issue that I am aware of. I am very much focused on COVID-19 at present, but I know that it is an issue. I had started to engage on it just before the crisis hit, and it is certainly an issue that I will engage on further.

Photo of Jim Allister Jim Allister Traditional Unionist Voice

Can I take the Minister back to the haulage sector? If the Executive are considering a support package for that sector, will the Minister deal with a rumour that circulated in that sector over the weekend that the Executive are minded to limit such a package to haulage companies with 90 lorries or fewer? That, of course, would be devastating for a major employer such as McBurney Transport in my constituency. Can the Minister assure me that any package will be open to all, will be fair and will be proportionate?

Photo of Nichola Mallon Nichola Mallon Social Democratic and Labour Party

That is always the outcome that we seek to achieve. The challenge here is that any forthcoming financial package funded by the British Government to some extent requires sign-off by Treasury. I assure the Member that the Executive have not had discussions about limiting financial support or the granular detail that he has spoken about, so I was surprised to read that online over the weekend.

I am clear that the haulage industry has a critical role to play. The make-up of our haulage industry means that many of those engaged in the service do not have huge reserves to dip in and out of, so they are at breaking point. What we are doing and will continue to do is make representations. As I say, I feel that we have successfully made the case to the Department for Transport. The matter now sits with the UK Treasury, and we will continue to press the case. We will continue to work with the haulage industry to provide the evidence that Treasury seeks. I am hopeful that we can see financial support going to our hauliers.

Photo of Gerry Carroll Gerry Carroll People Before Profit Alliance

The Minister said that she would like to hear about issues concerning PPE and social distancing, and I welcome her statement and her comments to that effect. Workers in the Roads Service in Belfast have been in contact with my office with serious concerns about non-essential work that Roads Service staff in other regions are not being made to do during the crisis. They have raised concerns that they are unable to distance socially from the public while doing that work, putting themselves and, obviously, the public at risk. Worse, the protection that they are given does not prevent the spread of COVID-19. When they do emergency work, they are not being given proper PPE at all. I have written to the Minister's office about those issues, and the workers themselves have raised them, but, seemingly, nothing has been done. Can the Minister give a guarantee today that those workers will no longer be asked to carry out non-essential work and will be provided with adequate PPE when they have to do emergency work?

Photo of Nichola Mallon Nichola Mallon Social Democratic and Labour Party

I have not seen the Member's correspondence. I do not know whether he has just sent it in, but it has not come up to me, so I am not aware of the detail of the case. It is clear that it needs to be essential work; as Minister, I have been clear on that. I know that there is a challenge. Constituents have told me that they have seen some of our staff out cleaning gullies and cannot understand why that is deemed to be essential works. It is essential works because we run the risk of flooding if we do not clear gullies. It is about the protection of homes.

I will ask officials to provide me with the Member's correspondence, and I will get in touch directly with him on it.

Photo of Christopher Stalford Christopher Stalford DUP

That concludes questions on the Minister's statement. I thank her for coming to speak to the House.