Executive Committee Business – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 5:00 pm on 20th September 2021.
The Business Committee has agreed that there should be no time limit for the debate. Please open the debate on the motion. I call — Glaoim ar Declan McAleer, Cathaoirleach an Choiste Timpeallachta. I beg your pardon, Minister. I was not being deferential enough. I am sure you will excuse me on this occasion, Minister. Thank you
No deference required for me. I am just the same as I have always been, and I do not intend to change, but thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker.
I am grateful for the opportunity to bring forward the motion and to speak about amendments to the Environment Bill in two specific areas. The Environment Bill is a significant and wide-ranging UK Government Bill containing a number of clauses relating to Northern Ireland devolved matters. On 30 June 2020, the Assembly debated and agreed the merits of a motion to grant legislative consent on the provisions relating to devolved matters. I am grateful to the Members and, indeed, to the AERA Committee, for their positive engagement at that time.
A number of amendments to the Bill were agreed as it made its ways through successive parliamentary stages. The amendments relevant to Northern Ireland's devolved matters are set out in annex A. That is a legislative consent memorandum, which, with the agreement of my Executive colleagues, was laid in the Assembly on 9 September. The amendments mostly fall within the scope of the motion that was passed on 30 June last year. However, amendments introducing powers for DAERA to issue guidance to the Office for Environmental Protection (OEP) and provisions relating to the use of forest risk commodities in commercial activity are new. I am, therefore, seeking further legislative consent for those specific matters.
The first matter for which I am seeking the consent of the Assembly for the UK Parliament to legislate is a new power for DAERA to issue guidance to the Office for Environmental Protection in respect of its enforcement policy. When the OEP provisions are commenced in Northern Ireland, new clause 25A in the most recent printed version of the Bill will be inserted via an amendment to schedule 3 to the Bill. The amendment inserts a power to enable DAERA to issue guidance to the OEP on specific matters relating to its enforcement policy and functions as set out in the Bill. The OEP is required to have regard to that guidance. That provision was introduced at the Commons Report Stage and mirrors a power for the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to issue similar guidance for England and for reserved matters.
The OEP will, subject to Assembly approval on commencement, assume an independent environmental oversight role in Northern Ireland, holding public authorities to account for the proper implementation of environmental law. The OEP's independent monitoring, reporting and other functions are not affected by the amendment, which allows DAERA to issue guidance only on the OEP's enforcement functions and then only on certain enforcement matters that are set out in the Bill.
The guidance is on the meaning of "serious" when the OEP assesses compliance with environment law and damage to the natural environment or human health; how it intends to exercise its enforcement functions to avoid overlap with other statutory regimes, including the Northern Ireland Public Services Ombudsman (NIPSO); and how the OEP decides on the prioritisation of cases. Even with that limited scope, the ability to issue guidance is a safeguard if there are concerns about the OEP's approach or, indeed, if it requests guidance. It is not intended to be used proactively, and it cannot be used to direct the OEP to take a particular course of action in specific cases.
I am aware that some concerns have been expressed that the provision somehow erodes the independence of the OEP. While I believe those concerns to be exaggerated, the UK Government and I agreed to table further amendments at the Lords Report Stage, when they were due to be considered on 8 September. Those further amendments will afford the UK Parliament and the Northern Ireland Assembly the opportunity to scrutinise any draft guidance that is produced by the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and DAERA respectively and to make recommendations before the final guidance is prepared and laid before the relevant legislature. That additional level of scrutiny was also suggested in a number of stakeholder responses to the DAERA discussion document on the plans, principles and governance provisions of the Environment Bill.
As some Members are aware, events took a different turn during the Lords Report Stage, with an amendment being accepted that removed the power for DAERA to issue guidance. In turn, that preluded the moving of the amendment that provided for Assembly scrutiny. While I believe that the Lords took that decision with the best of intentions, I do not believe that it was the right decision. The UK Government have made it clear that they intend to reinstate the powers of the DEFRA Secretary of State to issue guidance to the OEP when the Bill returns to the Commons, along with the provisions for parliamentary and Assembly scrutiny. I have agreed that course of action in respect of NI, subject, of course, to the Assembly's consent.
I will move on to the new provisions on the use of forest risk commodities in commercial activities. The UK consumes significant amounts of commodities known as forest risk commodities, and the rapid expansion in their use can be associated with global deforestation. That is often in contravention of laws in countries of origin. The risks include soya, cocoa, palm oil, rubber, beef and leather and are found in many UK retail foods, cleaning products and cosmetics. I am seeking the consent of the Assembly for the UK Parliament to introduce legislation that is intended to prohibit larger companies from using agricultural commodities that have not been produced in line with laws in the countries of origin.
The proposed legislation will require those companies, in scope, to undertake due diligence regarding risks of illegal deforestation in their supply chains and require them to publish information about their due diligence checks. It will introduce measures and send a signal that there is no place in the UK market for products associated with illegal deforestation. The UK Government wish to support the efforts of Governments in producer countries to tackle the problem. Many larger companies trading in forest risk commodities operate at a UK level and supply products to the NI market. To achieve that aim, it is therefore important that the legislation introducing due diligence applies in Northern Ireland as it does elsewhere in the UK.
Responses to the DEFRA-led UK consultation exercise, which included companies that trade in Northern Ireland, were overwhelmingly in favour of introducing legislation. The implementation of forest risk commodities provisions in the Environment Bill will require the introduction of secondary legislation from the UK, which is to be taken forward by DEFRA. That does not affect NI's remit to establish its own domestic forest policy.
The most important aspects for Northern Ireland will be the turnover threshold for the forest risk commodities and any monitoring and enforcement that falls to Northern Ireland Departments. DEFRA officials have stated that they will engage with relevant NI Departments in taking forward the secondary legislation and in conducting a second UK public consultation during the autumn of this year. Apart from their individual merits, the provisions ensure that a consistent legislative approach is taken across the jurisdictions in which the Office for Environmental Protection will operate and that a regime designed to protect forest risk commodities globally can be implemented on a UK-wide basis. Accordingly, I commend the motion to the House.
I welcome the opportunity to speak today on behalf of the Committee and to outline its views on the supplementary legislative consent that is being sought for the Environment Bill.
The Committee considered the details of the Bill last year and provided its assessment to the Assembly during a debate on 30 June 2020, when initial legislative consent was sought and approved. Since then, the Bill has progressed through its scrutiny at Westminster, and it is unfortunate that COVID-19 has contributed to the lengthy time frame for the legislation to be brought forward.
Protecting our natural environment is a concern for us all. In recent weeks, we have seen the devastating impact of environmental damage, with large fish kills in the Glendurragh river in County Fermanagh and the Three Mile Water in County Antrim due to pollution. A recent report from the Department also highlights the worrying trend of an increased number of waste crimes being reported in 2020 compared with 2018 and 2019. Therefore, it is essential that we have a comprehensive, robust and effective legal framework in place to support environmental governance and to keep our local environment healthy.
As Members are aware, the Bill aims to address the legislative gap in environmental policy following Brexit and to provide powers to jurisdictions in respect of a number of areas, including waste and resource efficiency, biodiversity and air and water quality management.
The Committee articulated its concerns about the lack of local public consultation and the limited time that had been afforded to undertake scrutiny of the legislative consent motion (LCM) during the debate in June last year. Similarly, due to the legislative timetabling at Westminster, the Committee was given very limited opportunity to scrutinise the additional measures that are being considered. It is in that context that the Committee's view on the supplementary measures is presented.
In February, the Committee received a briefing from officials on two of the proposed supplementary amendments that were introduced after the Committee and Report Stages in the House of Commons and deemed to be outside of the scope of the original legislative consent motion that will have effect here. Those include an amendment to schedule 3, which will provide for the Department to issue guidance to the Office for Environmental Protection on certain matters relating to the OEP's enforcement function locally. Whilst it is unfortunate that any such guidance that is issued by the Department will not be binding on the OEP, it is, nevertheless, welcome that local advice will be heard when decisions are taken in that regard and will be reflected in the powers available to the Minister for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.
Clause 109 and schedule 16 will amend the Bill to make it illegal for businesses to use forest risk commodities that have not been produced in compliance with the applicable laws in the countries in which they are grown. The Committee welcomes that amendment as a means of prohibiting the potential use of products that are grown irresponsibly and of compelling businesses to demonstrate compliance with appropriate legislation.
The Committee was concerned about how future policy and legislation will be harmonised across the island of Ireland on the use of forest risk commodities, as DEFRA will have the authority to pass UK-wide secondary legislation. The Department informed the Committee that DEFRA will undertake a public consultation on the development of future subordinate legislation, which will be open to respondents outside of the jurisdiction. The Committee welcomes the fact that DEFRA has specifically requested the assistance of local government officials to engage with key stakeholders across Ireland when facilitating those consultations.
The Department wrote to the Committee on 29 June to advise of the amendments. It further advised that consent for those supplementary measures would be required before mid-September to align with the anticipated timetabling of the Bill at Westminster. On 27 August, the Department informed the Committee of a further supplementary amendment to schedule 3 that had been introduced following the House of Lords Report Stage. That amendment will compel the Department to submit draft guidance on enforcement matters to the Assembly for scrutiny and recommendation before being issued to the OEP. The Committee welcomes that amendment, as it will ensure local oversight and accountability of enforcement advice that is issued in respect of environmental transgressions.
In summary, the Committee's views and concerns regarding substantive components of the Environment Bill remain unchanged from its consideration of those matters last year. The Committee broadly welcomes the specific supplementary legislative consent measures that are being considered today, as they will facilitate improved local oversight and function of environmental governance. However, I reiterate the exceptionally limited time frame that the Committee had to consider the provisions due to the need to provide feedback in advance of today's debate and the Westminster legislative deadline. The Committee hopes that the Environment Bill, as amended, will help to bridge the legislative gap in environmental governance that has been caused by Brexit, but it considers that additional local policy provision will be required in the months and years ahead in order to provide appropriate safeguards to protect the health of our environment and our ecosystems.
I welcome the opportunity to contribute to the motion that is before the House. As I said in previous debates on the issue, it is important that the environment is given the protection that it requires, and, of course, the hard-working farming community is a key player, given farmers' role as custodians of the countryside. Farming in Northern Ireland plays a significant role in the protection, enhancement and productivity of the natural environment. As a farmer, I know, at first hand, the responsibility that goes with that role. Due care and consideration must be given to the environment, and that goes for all individuals, sectors and industries that have an impact on the environment. The ability of our Departments and agencies to respond to protect the environment is important. It is also important that powers are adequate to effectively deal with threats to the environment.
Following Brexit, there is a requirement for legislation that is specific to the United Kingdom and the devolved regions; hence, the need for this legislative consent motion to ensure some UK-wide continuity of those important matters. That being the case, and because the motion states that the Assembly endorses the principle of the Bill, it is important that, in principle, it is enabled to be operational in Northern Ireland. We cannot have a situation where Northern Ireland would be without legislative cover in that regard.
The Committee considered the issue, and, given the time constraints and the arguments pertaining to our own Bill versus the Bill that is before us today, there are no simple or immediate solutions. I am quite sure that, in the days ahead, as various aspects of the Environment Bill are worked through, the Minister and the AERA Committee will have more opportunities to contribute to the scrutiny of the legislation. With that in mind, I support the motion.
The SDLP supports the establishment of an independent environment agency for the North. We note that Scotland has laid its own course, and it is disappointing that that has not been the case in NI. Our Minister and the SDLP in Westminster have documented our concerns, as the Minister is aware. However, in recognising the need to work collectively to address our environment crisis, we believe as a matter of principle that any legislation that can be made in Northern Ireland in the Assembly should be made here.
We recognise that these provisions will go some way towards protecting our environment. However, we seek clarity from the Minister today that devolved matters will be dealt with here and that he will keep a watchful eye as legislation progresses. We remain concerned by the continued uncertainty and lack of information around the structure, operation and cost of the Office for Environmental Protection in general and around how it will operate here. The part of the legislative consent motion that relates to the OEP, which is clause 24A, needs to be considered carefully within the wider context of the unresolved issues around the OEP's application here, the lack of alternative operations considered and the continuing lack of clarity on the operation of the OEP.
We are concerned that clause 24A makes provision for a broad power, and we are unclear as to what impact it will have on cross-cutting policy and Executive responsibilities here. It will be important to have assurances from the Minister today on that matter. In particular, it is crucial that we understand fully the impact that clause 24A will have on the OEP's independence and the lack of specific consultation here on the power for DAERA to issue guidance to the OEP in respect of its enforcement policy.
I am aware that the similar power that is provided to the Secretary of State in the British Government's Environment Bill has been controversial with stakeholders in terms of its potentially negative impact on the independence of the OEP. I understand that similar concerns have been expressed by some stakeholders here, via responses to the Department's 'Environmental Plans, Principles and Governance for Northern Ireland Public Discussion Document' on the equivalent power being provided to DAERA. Those are matters that the SDLP Minister has documented and raised previously. We welcome any assurance and detail from the Minister in his response on those issues.
Overall, the Environment Bill is very complex and is in two parts — the first is the legal framework for the new environmental governance and accountability, and the second part concentrates on the improvement of the overall quality of our environment and the need for biodiversity conservation in order to keep our natural ecosystems functioning properly.
The Environment Bill now has a number of UK Government amendments, some of which have been extended to Northern Ireland but are not within the provisions of the previous LCM; that is why they are being brought forward today. The two specific devolved matters are, first, the power given to DAERA to issue guidance to the Office for Environmental Protection and, secondly, forest risk commodities that are used in commercial activity.
The guidance from DAERA to the Office for Environmental Protection would include how the OEP intends to determine the seriousness of failures to comply with environmental law and how the OEP will determine whether damage to the natural environment or to human health is serious in relation to urgent cases. That guidance, however, must also avoid overlap between the exercise of its functions regarding complaints and that of the Public Services Ombudsman. Overall, the aim of this amendment is to permit DAERA to have enabling legislation, to give support and to be responsive to concerns that may arise in relation to specific elements of the Office for Environmental Protection. However, DAERA still has to respect the independence of that office.
Regarding the second specific devolved matter, it is recognised that the UK consumes significant amounts of forest risk commodities, which have been particularly associated with global deforestation and with being against the laws of that country. Many of those commodities, such as beef, leather and palm oil, are used in the UK retail trade, which is dependent on them. The purpose of the legislation is to make it illegal for businesses to use products that have not been produced in compliance with the law of their country of origin, thus allowing a consistent regulatory approach across the United Kingdom and ensuring similarities for all trading businesses. That should also encourage global environmental protection against issues such as deforestation, and ecosystem conversion.
It is essential that the environment is given the protection that is so important and that the legislation is fit for purpose. Thank you.
I will start by saying that I share with many others the frustration at the incredible delay in progressing this Bill, the cause of which, it has to be said, is outside this House. The Bill, which is needed to redraw vital regulations following the UK's departure from the EU, was introduced in December 2018, long before other pieces of legislation, including some consequential Bills on Brexit that were accelerated through the UK Parliament. Meanwhile, we are facing a climate and ecological crisis. Northern Ireland's unique natural environment is under significant threat. Northern Ireland is the only jurisdiction in the UK and Ireland without an independent environmental protection agency, a climate change Act or a specific net zero emissions target. Northern Ireland is urgently in need of policies that will restore its damaged ecosystem.
I will focus my comments on the legal framework for environmental governance in the Environment Bill. Our exit from the European Union will have substantial implications for the environment in Northern Ireland. The proposed Environment Bill goes some way towards addressing the environmental governance gaps that Brexit has exposed. In its current state, however, it does not offer the same level of protection and accountability as the European Courts did. As a result, there is a greater ongoing requirement for Northern Ireland to remain aligned to the previous EU regulations. To those who say, "We can do better", I say, "I hope you do. I hope you do soon. I am waiting and ready to support you in doing that".
Governance needs to be considered separately from policy. It should go without saying that independence and the ability to prosecute effectively are critical to the Office for Environmental Protection, but that is not the case. A new provision in the Bill grants the Secretary of State in England and the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs here in Northern Ireland the power to issue guidance to the Office for Environmental Protection on certain matters that must, it seems, be included in the OEP's enforcement policy. The UK Government claim that the new power does not grant the Secretary of State or DAERA any ability to intervene in decision-making about civic or individual cases and:
"the OEP does not have to act strictly in accordance with the guidance where it has clear reasons not to do so."
Whilst that is technically correct, it is clear that the new power will have the effect of allocating DEFRA and DAERA Ministers a central role in shaping the basic principles of the oversight body. I suggest that it will, therefore, constrain the role of the OEP and its ability to act independently. I also want to stress that the Office for Environmental Protection cannot be the absolute for environmental governance in Northern Ireland. As mentioned, Northern Ireland is the only member of these islands without an independent environmental protection agency, which is an outstanding commitment from New Decade, New Approach. With their differing roles and scope, the establishment of an OEP should not be used as an excuse for not proceeding with an independent environmental protection agency and honouring agreements that were reached.
Finally, I will speak briefly in support of the new progressive clauses in the Environment Bill. The pandemic has laid bare the need for a new outlook on our economy and on wider society.
We need to look, therefore, at a new, more holistic and inclusive economic model, including more sophisticated economic objectives and indicators such as environmental regeneration, renewable energy and our impact overseas, alongside equality, inclusion, health, income, housing and the well-being of future generations. On behalf of Alliance, I am content to support the legislative consent motion, but I stress the pressing need for bespoke environmental legislation for Northern Ireland and the establishment of an independent environmental protection agency.
You will probably be aware, Deputy Speaker, that hundreds of environmental activists from across the North descended here yesterday to raise awareness of the need for climate action. Among them were very young people, including an 11-year-old who spoke about the need to protect her future and that of other young people. That aim should be foremost in our minds when writing or passing any kind of environmental legislation. Unfortunately, the action we have seen from Westminster and locally falls far short in that regard. At a time when we need ambitious action and a crackdown on the biggest polluters, the actions of Governments in these islands can be described only as reckless. The Tories call the Bill "world-leading", but they did not write a single target into it, nor any duty on Ministers to ensure that the decarbonisation of these islands is achieved. While, as Members have said, it fills a gap left by Brexit in terms of regulations, it is a missed opportunity to deliver the environmental targets that are needed, and it is only somewhat improved by amendments that the Tories are unlikely to be happy about.
One of the amendments before us today is around the guidance DAERA can give to the Office for Environmental Protection. It could not be clearer, given what I and others have said today, that Stormont needs a truly independent body with proper teeth to hold it to account on environmental issues. The amendment from the Tories to allow DAERA and the relevant Departments across the water to interfere with the process of holding Governments to account was a shameless attempt to shirk responsibility and maintain business as usual during the crisis.
We support all the amendments that strengthen the hand of the Office for Environmental Protection, declare a climate emergency and strengthen provisions to deal with the crisis and insert the necessary targets to prevent the crisis from worsening. Ultimately, however, the Bill will not be enough. We need local legislation that takes on the worst polluters, commits to the most radical targets and protects those who are most threatened by the climate crisis, as well as those whose livelihoods may be impacted by the move towards environmental progress. That means implementing a just transition away from the kind of production, polluting and environmental wrecking that has become the norm here for too long, while committing to proper investment and reskilling for those who need it. Crucially, that must be done in tandem with communities, workers and trade unions in a way that empowers them to deliver a new green economy that works for ordinary people, not just the wealthiest. That will not be delivered by the Tories or, frankly, the parties here, especially those responsible for dredging Lough Neagh, abandoning Mobuoy, green-lighting destructive mining in the Sperrins or the failure to deliver sustainable public transport, to name a few of the issues. I will continue to join activists such as those who gathered outside these walls yesterday and whose radical but necessary demands put world leaders in stuffy COP26 boardrooms to shame.
I welcome the opportunity to speak in favour of the legislative consent motion and call on DAERA to work with peers to strengthen the provisions in the Bill. I hope that the Minister has got the message that his belief that concerns have been exaggerated is not a view that is shared by many of the Members who have spoken thus far in the debate.
Some Members have rightly remarked that we need the environment to be a priority. I think that we are all agreed about that. That is certainly the mood of the public, if it is not too late already in terms of climate change and the protection of the environment. That is one of the reasons why, as a private Member, I have tabled a motion on nature restoration and the Environment Bill that seeks to complement and build on the Environment Bill's framework. The Office for Environmental Protection that will be established by the Environment Bill will be distinct but complementary to any future independent environment protection agency. It is our belief that Northern Ireland needs both bodies. I think that Mr Blair said that it needs an awful lot more than is currently before us. Mrs Barton rightly acknowledged the need not only to protect nature and the environment here but to protect other countries from which we import many of the commodities for business use here.
We have to think of better ways of doing things differently.
The Minister knows well, in his capacity as a farmer and someone very much in touch with nature, that the research shows that our nature situation is not good and that our current standards for its protection are not high. He will be very aware, as many of us are, of the nurturing impact that the environment has had on the health and well-being of us all, particularly during the COVID crisis.
Recent research by the Natural History Museum and the RSPB shows that Northern Ireland ranks twelfth worst, out of 240 countries, based on the amount of nature that we have left. That is not a position of which any of us will be proud. Some 11% of the species found in Northern Ireland are currently at risk of extinction. Curlew populations in Northern Ireland have declined by 82% since 1987. Some 97% of our wildflower meadows are gone, and just one out of 21 lakes is in good quality.
Some farmers are changing some of their practices to set aside some land for wildflower meadows, but there is much work to be done. It is my hope that the Assembly does not collapse, that this legislative consent motion passes and that other Bills get the time and space over the next few months of the mandate to continue their passage through the legislative process.
I thank all the Members who have taken the time to comment on the issue. I appreciate their giving their thoughts on the matter. I welcome the fact that a significant majority of Members are in support of what is proposed for the Bill, and I will deal with those who have spoken against it.
The SDLP suggests that we should deal with such matters as devolved issues at a local level. Coming from the SDLP, that strikes me as being a little rich, given that such matters were previously dealt with by the European Commission, a body of unelected politicians, which is appointed to do the job with extensive and, indeed, growing powers and always takes on more power for itself without accountability. It therefore strikes me as somewhat rich for the SDLP to be looking for greater accountability when we are in fact establishing independent environmental protection oversight here. The SDLP was perfectly happy to have the European Commission, which is not an independent body at all, oversee that particular role. That is the work that we are taking on and that is whom we are taking it off, so this is a significant step forward for independence, for the environment and for democracy.
I note that the SDLP has a bit of a track record here, because it was an SDLP Minister who produced the body called Shared Environmental Services, about which Mrs Barton, for example, raises issues with me regularly. That particular body, which has no accountability and total independence, ended up in the mouth of the courts because of a policy that it had created. It pulled out of that court hearing and agreed to do certain things. Essentially, however, that body caused a crippling effect for people who want to do some development on their farms, including farmers who will reduce ammonia emissions in areas such as East Londonderry and Upper Bann. I remind the SDLP of that.
Mr Blair referred to the issue of the guidance that we seek to have the ability to offer. I should say that the guidance is exceptionally narrow. It is not a power grab, and it is fairly evident that that is the case. Concerns about the guidance centre on the Department undermining the independence of the OEP. The ground that the guidance covers is so narrow, covering the definition of "seriousness", overlap with other bodies and the prioritisation of work areas.
Indeed, the independent Public Services Ombudsman is one such body. You can hardly claim to be stripping away someone's independence by assisting the oversight body to go in one direction or another. There is no threat to the OEP's independence.
In addition, the OEP is not strictly bound by the guidance, which, in any case, must comply with the statutory duty on the Department to protect the OEP's independence. Furthermore, it is entirely possible that circumstances may arise in the future in which the OEP may seek guidance from the Department, and we need to be in a place to be able to offer it that.
I also reiterate that, to give further assurance, I asked the UK Government to table amendments to the guidance provisions that require DAERA to lay a draft of any proposed Northern Ireland guidance in the Assembly, which will have 21 days to consider whether it wishes to pass a resolution on that guidance. DAERA must then respond to the resolution and lay that response with the final guidance in the Assembly. Therefore, what I propose is a democratic process as opposed to the EU's undemocratic process, which Members who are complaining actually seem to love very much.
Mr Carroll addressed a series of issues that was totally unrelated to the issues in front of us today. There is nothing entirely unusual about that. I remind him that the Bill does not deal with carbon, because it is not a climate change Bill. I have laid one of those before the House, and I trust that he will support it.
Mr Carroll also referred to the dredging of Lough Neagh, which was dealt with by previous Ministers. Lough Neagh is not being dredged. Sand is being extracted from it, and that sand is needed to build homes for people. If we do not take sand from Lough Neagh, will we import it from somewhere else, such as the Severn? Is it more environmentally friendly to do that? Does he not think that people should live in homes? Perhaps he has some better place for the population to live, rather than building homes for them. I heard him complaining about the housing crises in north and west Belfast and other places, but he does not want the sand needed to build the houses that he wants people to live in.
There is a lot of legislation on pollution, and more will come forward, but, again, independent courts are often responsible for its implementation. If there is an issue, the courts are where the problem lies, because many of the fines are large.
Mrs Kelly raised the issue of the curlew population. We are working extensively with the RSPB in a number of areas to improve species such as our ground-nesting birds. People who suggest that wilding, for example, would be a better way forward are people who get it entirely wrong. Through work that is being done with the RSPB and local farmers in places such as Glenwhirry in north Antrim and County Fermanagh, we are seeing real progress with some of those species, including curlew, and we are committed to that course of work. We fund and support it, and we believe that it is important to build up those species and promote biodiversity here in Northern Ireland.
The same Member talked about the loss of wildflower meadows and other habitat. A lot of the habitat lost in Northern Ireland was down to the EU's policy, in that all land that farmers included in their single farm payment application had to be useable for the growing of grass or crops. Therefore, it was the EU that almost enforced a lot of the biodiversity loss through its policy. So, again, we will make our own policy, which will better reflect the needs of the environment and biodiversity, and we will have more independent scrutiny of that than ever before.
This is a good news story today. I welcome the fact that the majority of the Assembly appear to be in favour of it, and I encourage the SDLP, Alliance and People Before Profit to come on board with the rest of us.
Question put and agreed to. Resolved:
Adjourned at 5.45 pm.