The Harbours (Grants and Loans Limit) Bill: Accelerated Passage

Executive Committee Business – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 11:30 am on 1st December 2020.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Nichola Mallon Nichola Mallon Social Democratic and Labour Party 11:30 am, 1st December 2020

I beg to move

That the Harbours (Grants and Loans Limit) Bill [NIA Bill 12/17-22] proceed under the accelerated passage procedure.

Photo of Christopher Stalford Christopher Stalford DUP

The Business Committee has agreed that there should be no time limit on this debate. I call the Minister for Infrastructure to open the debate on the motion.

Photo of Nichola Mallon Nichola Mallon Social Democratic and Labour Party

I welcome the opportunity to address the Assembly on the motion. This is a key time for our maritime sector as it aspires to thrive and strengthen. Unfortunately, the sector, like others, has faced financial challenges as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Members will agree how important it is, at this time, that our key gateway seaports have sufficient capacity to facilitate future economic growth, adapt how they do business to respond to current challenges, and are connected to key destinations and markets. Accelerated passage is not to be sought routinely; nor is it something that I do lightly. My preference, when taking forward legislation, is to have a full Committee procedure, enabling clause-by-clause scrutiny and the resolution of any issues, there and then, to the satisfaction of the Committee.

I will now explain to the Assembly, as required under Standing Order 42(4), why I am seeking accelerated passage, the consequences of its not being granted, and how I will minimise the future use of that mechanism.

I believe that there are compelling grounds for the use of the accelerated passage procedure in the case of this proposed legislation, which is a short and concise Bill to increase the total amount of grants and loans that my Department can provide to ports. The existing total limit of £35 million was set in 1989, and, working with colleagues in the Department of Finance, a new grants and loans limit of £90 million has been agreed. That will enable my Department to react appropriately to the current and future challenges faced by the ports. The total amount of loans and grants made by my Department to the ports over the years counts against the total limit indefinitely. It does not decrease in line with depreciation nor with loan repayments, and the total currently stands at £34·3 million. If all the potential future loans, identified by the ports to date, were to materialise over the next five years, it will require a further £27 million, making the total £61·3 million. <BR/>These figures do not take into account any additional grants or loans that may need to be provided to the ports because of the additional financial pressures being placed on them as a result of COVID-19 or to facilitate future developments in a post-Brexit world.

I turn now to the consequences of accelerated passage not being granted. As the North's ports continue to develop their port operations and to diversify their business, they will continue to make loan applications to my Department over the next few years. If accelerated passage is not granted, my proposed legislation will not be in place in time to be able to continue to provide financial assistance to the ports, particularly in the short term. That could have dire consequences for the ports and for the local economy. It would be a poor reflection on the functioning of the Executive and the Assembly if we did not move quickly to address a potential risk to our crucial gateways for trade. The North's main commercial ports have all agreed that there is a need for the increased loan and grant limit.

With regard to minimising the use of the accelerated passage procedure in the future, I have already mentioned my full commitment to clause-by-clause scrutiny at Committee Stage under normal circumstances, but we are not in normal times. I will continue to take any necessary steps to ensure that the accelerated passage procedure is not unnecessarily sought by my Department. In accordance with Standing Order 42(3) of the Northern Ireland Assembly, I appeared before the Committee for Infrastructure on 23 September to explain the need for accelerated passage for the Bill and to outline the consequences of its not being granted. I thank the Chair and members of the Committee for their recognition of the need to expedite the Bill and for their support in seeking Assembly approval for accelerated passage.

Members will have an opportunity to raise issues on the detail of the Bill during its Second Stage debate. In the interim, I seek the support of the House for use of the accelerated passage procedure and look forward to hearing Members' comments.

Photo of Michelle McIlveen Michelle McIlveen DUP

The proposal for accelerated passage of the Bill does not sit well with the Committee for Infrastructure. Like most Members, the Committee believes wholeheartedly that legislation should be afforded the full scrutiny of the Assembly processes, which includes Committee scrutiny. I welcome the Minister's acknowledgment of that today.

The Committee was notified at the start of September about the proposal for this Bill and discussed it during its strategic planning meeting on 9 September. The Committee asked the Minister to brief it on the Bill, and during that briefing on 23 September the Committee sought clarity on three aspects: what the Bill is expected to do; whether it does it; and why the Minister is seeking accelerated passage.

During the briefing, the Minister and her officials explained that Northern Ireland's ports are governed by the Harbours Act (Northern Ireland) 1970, and that this includes funding. Under the 1970 Act, ports are expected to fund their own capital investment, while the Department is able to make loans and grants to assist with major developments. However, this assistance from the Department is limited under the 1970 Act and shall not exceed £35 million. The Minister explained that, given future uncertainties, the need to build additional infrastructure and the added issue of the financial difficulties resulting from the reduction in freight and shipping volumes through ports as a result of the pandemic, there is a need to raise this existing total limit of £35 million. Therefore, the Committee accepts the what and the how behind the Bill.

However, the Committee has been less willing to accept the need for accelerated passage. In the course of the briefing it was established that the 1970 Act, which governs the funding, was last amended to raise the amount that the Department could provide to the ports by way of grants or loans in 1989, some 31 years ago. Therefore, this is legislation being rushed through by accelerated passage — an emergency measure — when there have been 31 years to plan for an increase in the funding limit. On questioning, even the Minister said:

"It seemed strange to me that we had not looked at the issue and that it had not come up before."

The Committee recognises that the increase is required in the circumstances to ensure the smoothest possible working of our ports in these difficult times. However, surely there must have been someone in the Department with the foresight to see this coming and raise this matter earlier. That would have avoided the need for accelerated passage and given this House its place in properly scrutinising the legislation it signs into law.

The Committee reluctantly accepts that, at this moment, accelerated passage is required. The Committee for Infrastructure therefore agrees to there being accelerated passage of the Harbours Bill. However, it would like to be very clear that, in this case, accelerated passage has only become necessary because of the inaction of the Department; it is not because of events. The Committee for Infrastructure therefore supports the motion that the Bill proceed under the accelerated passage procedure.

Photo of Dolores Kelly Dolores Kelly Social Democratic and Labour Party 11:45 am, 1st December 2020

I welcome the Minister's presentation of the legislation today, even though it is by accelerated passage. The Minister made it very clear that that is not, and never will be, her favoured route, but necessity has enforced this action. I think that the majority of parties in the House have held that departmental portfolio and have therefore had responsibility for the ports. This is fairly straightforward legislation that will enable the ports to meet the challenges of not only COVID but Brexit. I therefore support the Minister's legislation before the House.

Photo of Martina Anderson Martina Anderson Sinn Féin

I thank the Minister for being here and for introducing the legislation. As the Chair said, we, as a Committee, have scrutinised the legislation and the need for accelerated passage. This is not how any of us want to do business. Like other Ministers, the Minister has said that she is dissatisfied with taking forward legislation in that way. I do not think that there is one Minister who likes the accelerated passage process.

Given that we are on an island, it goes without saying that ports are a vital part of our economy. Foyle port in Derry, for example, is a key marine entry point into the north-west. Foyle port handles 2 million tons of cargo per year and supports 1,000 jobs. A data centre is also located there, and that has resulted in more inward investment coming in to boost the local economy. It is therefore a vital gateway for the north-west economy and has allowed capacity to grow as we move forward. COVID has brought additional challenges to a sector that was already dealing with the looming uncertainty of Brexit, and that is mentioned in the clause.

I understand that the loans and grants issued by the Department were, in the past, used for developments such as the renewable energy project at Foyle port, as well as purchasing new tugboats and cranes. While we have been told that the loans and grants are not expected to be used for sanitary and phytosanitary (SPS) checks, they may be used for other measures relating to Brexit preparation — again, that is mentioned in the clause — and to help ports to grow their business in the post-Brexit environment. As the Minister and the Committee Chair said, the limit has not been increased since 1989, and the increase to £90 million is based on inflation, therefore I believe that it is a reasonable move to assist the ports in moving forward, particularly given that the Department stated that, if all the future loans identified by the ports were to materialise over the next five years, it would require a further £22·5 million.

I would like to take a moment to comment on the current position that the ports find themselves in — this is in relation to what the clause mentions at the end — with regard to Brexit. The British Government and Minister Poots have been somewhat lethargic, to say the least, in their efforts to prepare our ports for 1 January. We have talked about that extensively in Committee. Given that DAERA officials have been working very hard around the clock, and we need to acknowledge that, to make sure that the readiness plan is feasible, it is a pity that their efforts have been somewhat hamstrung.

Photo of Jim Allister Jim Allister Traditional Unionist Voice

On a point of order, Mr Principal Deputy Speaker. Are we discussing accelerated passage, or are we discussing the merits of the Bill? From listening to the current speaker, I think that she has jumped the gun and moved to Second Stage.

Photo of Christopher Stalford Christopher Stalford DUP

The Member is correct. The Member for Foyle will have the opportunity at Second Stage to raise all the issues to which she is presently talking, but Mr Allister is correct: this section of business is about the use of accelerated passage. I am loath to interrupt you, but, if you wish to wind, there will be an opportunity at Second Stage.

Photo of Martina Anderson Martina Anderson Sinn Féin

I will wind on that point. It is related; we know about the relationship between accelerated passage, COVID and Brexit. The ports are dealing with those things. We recognise that giving accelerated passage to the Bill will have implications for COVID and Brexit, what is happening and what we are facing. That is why the Committee, after taking that into consideration, agreed to accelerated passage somewhat reluctantly, as did the Minister. I will make the rest of my comments at the next stage.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

Accelerated passage should be sought only in exceptional circumstances. Exceptional circumstances are coming in about a month's time; we are coming to the end of the EU transition period, and, as of yet, there is no clarity about the implications of that. There may be complications with marshalling, inspecting and other emergency activity that needs to occur, so it is important that we create a little bit of headroom space by proceeding with accelerated passage. There is also COVID. Our ports are vital to trade and our businesses. They have been operating at a reduced schedule, and yet perishable goods move in both directions, so it is essential that there are still good ongoing connections. It is important to support our ports for that reason. However, both those issues could have been predicted at the start of the year. Why was permission to increase not sought much earlier, in which case the Bill could have proceeded via normal passage? Nevertheless, I recognise that we are where we are and that there is a need to create that headroom and an ability to assist if necessary. For that reason, the Ulster Unionist Party and I support accelerated passage.

Photo of Andrew Muir Andrew Muir Alliance

The Alliance Party regrets that the Bill is coming through accelerated passage. As an MLA, I have quickly become all too well aware of the shortcomings of the procedure. We appreciate the fact that the lack of devolved government for three years and Brexit preparations have meant that the need for this legislation has become urgent. However, we struggle to understand why the legislation was not brought forward some years ago.

In evidence to the Committee, departmental officials stated that the original plan was for the limit to be raised as part of a more holistic governance review. We assume that that review will still take place at some point; perhaps there will be an opportunity for the Committee to consider how the limit is managed on a long-term basis. I would like to hear more about the prospects of that review from the Minister in her closing remarks. That said, I am satisfied that the need for this legislation is urgent, as Mr Beggs outlined, and that the Bill seems relatively straightforward. Based on the briefings to date, it seems that no additional serious complications need to be considered, and, on that basis, we are prepared to support accelerated passage.

Photo of Jim Allister Jim Allister Traditional Unionist Voice

Accelerated passage should be utterly alien to the House. Sadly, it is becoming far too familiar to the House. It should be alien because it is the role of a legislative Assembly to sift, test and interrogate legislation. Accelerated passage strips out all that; it removes the critical Committee Stage, during which matters can be sifted, tested and interrogated, and it takes the shortcut of simply legislating on the back of Second Stage and further debates. That should be alien to a legislative Assembly. It should be particularly alien to a legislative Assembly in which you have an all-party Executive because, without an Opposition, there is no other opportunity to interrogate the issues.

Therefore, the drift, step by step, whereby the Assembly is always finding excuses to dispense with normal procedures when matters such as this are raised, is alarming. There is not much point in Members saying that they are uncomfortable with this and offering various platitudes such as, "We do not like doing it" or "It is not the way that we would do business but we are going to do it". It is either right or wrong. Further to this, the point has been made that we had 31 years to do it, but no one bothered. Since January, there has been an opportunity to do it, but it was not done.

Over two months ago, on 23 September, the Minister went to the Infrastructure Committee about this issue, and, over two months later, we are here. Two months, which could have been spent on scrutiny in the Committee had the Bill been brought to the House then, were wasted. Who was running down the clock to get to December and say, "Oh, poor us. We must have accelerated passage"?

We could have had the Bill much earlier in the year, and I protest, most vigorously, at the erosion of the powers of the House and at the easy option of accelerated passage being taken. It is not good enough. It should not be the easy passage that it is. I, for one, want to record my dissent from the slippage into repeated accelerated passage.

Photo of Christopher Stalford Christopher Stalford DUP

No other Members have indicated that they wish to speak. I therefore call the Minister for Infrastructure, Ms Nicola Mallon to conclude and wind on the debate.

Photo of Nichola Mallon Nichola Mallon Social Democratic and Labour Party

Again, I thank the Committee for its support on this matter. I recognise and share the concerns expressed by Members about the use of accelerated passage. That is why my speaking notes were very specific on the matter and why, when I appeared before the Committee, I clearly said that this was not the way to do business.

Given that a number of Members asked why it took so long, it may be helpful to outline the timeline. The loan and grant threshold was last raised in 1989 — 31 years ago. I cannot speak for other Ministers, but I wrote to the Executive on 6 July to raise the issue of the Bill. On 5 November, the Executive agreed to its introduction.

The Department for Infrastructure writes to the ports twice yearly to ask them to identify their loan requirements for the next five-year period. No one could have predicted the impact of COVID or the financial and resilience challenges that it would present to our ports. There are clear indications that my Department will receive a new request for assistance before the end of the year. Those are the circumstances under which the Bill is being brought forward in this way to the House.

Does the Member wish to comment?

Photo of Jim Allister Jim Allister Traditional Unionist Voice

Yes, please. So that we are clear on this, I will say that part of the cause of the total disrespect of the processes of the House is the indolence of the Executive in addressing this issue. It took from July to November to approve what is, effectively, a two-page Bill. Really? Is that the standard of misgovernment that we have reached in the House? Then, of course, there is the ready reliance on accelerated passage. It is a situation of the Government's own making.

Photo of Nichola Mallon Nichola Mallon Social Democratic and Labour Party

All I can do is set out the factual timeline.

I thank all of the other Members for their comments. I thank Mrs Kelly for supporting the intention of the Bill. However, like other Members, she is concerned about the use of accelerated passage.

Ms Anderson raised a number of important points, and I will be happy to address those at Second Stage.

Mr Beggs raised the issue of the strategic importance of ports for trade. I agree with that absolutely. That is why they need to be supported during this difficult time, particularly in the face of COVID. Mr Muir asked about the governance review. Yes, that review is planned, and I am happy to engage with the Committee on it.

I thank all who contributed to the debate, and I ask for the Assembly's support for the position that the motion be adopted.

Photo of Christopher Stalford Christopher Stalford DUP 12:00 pm, 1st December 2020

Thank you, Minister. Before we proceed to the Question, I remind Members that the motion requires cross-community support.

Question put and agreed to. Resolved (with cross-community support):

That the Harbours (Grants and Loans Limit) Bill [NIA Bill 12/17-22] proceed under the accelerated passage procedure.