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.