Executive: Emergency Powers

Oral Answers to Questions — The Executive Office – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 2:00 pm on 27th September 2021.

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Photo of Paul Frew Paul Frew DUP 2:00 pm, 27th September 2021

3. Mr Frew asked the First Minister and deputy First Minister, in order that future legislation will be considered by the Assembly under normal procedures, when will all emergency powers currently being used by the Executive come to an end. (AQO 2454/17-22)

Photo of Michelle O'Neill Michelle O'Neill Sinn Féin

The coronavirus regulations fall under the responsibility of the Department of Health, which is best placed to provide an update on their continued requirement. At present and in line with the pathway out of restrictions, the regulations will remain in place for as long as is necessary to protect the health and well-being of our people and to reduce the pressures on the health service, particularly coming into the autumn/winter period, which is predicted to be difficult.

Photo of Paul Frew Paul Frew DUP

I thank the deputy First Minister for her answer. I have asked the same question of the Health Minister. Given the draconian nature of the emergency powers, the undemocratic harm that they do and the brutal impact of lockdown measures on mental health, suicide, self-harm and isolation of our people, what work have the Executive undertaken to establish the true cost of their undemocratic decisions?

Photo of Michelle O'Neill Michelle O'Neill Sinn Féin

There is a bit of irony in that question. The Executive have taken democratic decisions throughout the pandemic. The Executive have sought to work together to protect lives and livelihoods. Every Minister sitting around the Executive table is there to do right by the public whom we serve. It is important that we continue to do that because we are not out of the woods yet; we still have a way to go.

It is important to note that we are making some progress, and I am glad to see that, even at this stage, we are starting to see a decrease in hospitalisations. I hope that that is the trajectory that we are now on, and I hope that it continues. We have set out our pathway to recovery, and we have set out clearly how we will continue to make progress. It must be steady and sustainable progress because none of us wants to go backwards. I certainly do not want us to be in a position ever again where we have to consider circuit breakers or lockdowns. The preventative approach today is crucial to avoid reaching that point. It is crucial that we make sure that we have a health service that can serve the population whom we serve when they need it and make sure that people have access to a GP and hospital services if that is required. We need to work to make sure that our business community can open safely, that staff are safe and that the public who use those facilities are safe.

I am confident that the Executive have been on a democratic journey to take us from dark and difficult days to, hopefully, a brighter future. We have set out a recovery plan that is clear for us all to see. We will have an Executive meeting later today and a further meeting on 7 October that will set out the winter plan for what we do about the pressures that we will see in the health service over the coming months. A large body of work is under way. We need to continue with that work in the period ahead and keep making steady progress. I am mindful of the fact that the health service is in dire straits and that we are dealing with healthcare workers —

Photo of Michelle O'Neill Michelle O'Neill Sinn Féin

— who are exhausted.

Photo of Colin McGrath Colin McGrath Social Democratic and Labour Party

I welcome the deputy First Minister back after her recent illness. It is good to see her back.

May I ask for details of the legislative timetable going forward? The Business Committee and the Executive Office are keen to see the work that will happen between now and the end of the mandate. May we get a full list of all the legislation that will be tabled in the coming period?

Photo of Michelle O'Neill Michelle O'Neill Sinn Féin

I thank the Member for his good wishes.

The question was about coronavirus regulations. We have, perhaps, a short legislative window in front of us. I am happy to provide that information in writing.

Photo of Ciara Ferguson Ciara Ferguson Sinn Féin

I thank the Minister for the update on the future of the COVID emergency measures. What is the Minister's assessment of the impact of the British Government's cuts on the COVID financial measures, including the furlough scheme and the universal credit uplift?

Photo of Michelle O'Neill Michelle O'Neill Sinn Féin

I thank the Member, and she is welcome to the Assembly. This is the first time that I can officially say that to you in the Chamber. Good luck in your new role as an MLA for Foyle. I do not doubt that you will be a fantastic representative for the people of Foyle and will champion their needs in the Assembly.

There is no doubt that, with energy and food prices rising, the universal credit uplift ending and furlough ending, this is a time of real economic hardship and uncertainty for many families, particularly those who rely on benefits to put food on their tables and to heat their homes. That is why Conor Murphy wrote to the British Chancellor last week to seek an extension to the furlough scheme. That is very important. Also, for the British Government to end the current £20 weekly uplift is beyond crass; it is absolutely offensive for the Tories to consider doing that at this time. I have no other way to describe that action.

Let us be in no doubt that those ideological decisions by the Tories will drive more people further into poverty and through the doors of food banks. Again, if evidence were ever needed, the reality is that Tory Governments do not care about the everyday reality for the people who live here, and that is clear for all to see. We need to see immediate progress on the things that are within our gift such as ending the bedroom tax, as brought forward by the Minister for Communities, Deirdre Hargey. That proposal commands the support of the Cliff Edge Coalition and the wider sector. There can be no more delays and prevarication; we need action to protect the most vulnerable.

As joint head of government in the North, I will continue to challenge Tory austerity at every turn, stand up for families, workers and those who are most disadvantaged in our society and fight for a more equal, fair and just society.

Photo of Christopher Stalford Christopher Stalford DUP

In a response to a question for oral answer that I tabled to the Minister for the Economy, I was told that the cost of COVID to the local economy thus far has been more than £6 billion. This week, we have launched a £145 million high street scheme. Does the deputy First Minister agree that, if we enter a situation where there is another lockdown around October time, whether it is called a "lockdown" or a "circuit breaker", the net result will be that the high street scheme will have been money spent in vain?

Photo of Michelle O'Neill Michelle O'Neill Sinn Féin

There clearly is an economic cost. We have always said that COVID is devastating on a personal basis for families who have had sickness or lost someone whom they loved, and there is certainly an economic cost. We have all engaged with businesses such as those in the hospitality sector that have felt the worst brunt of that. All sectors across the board have faced real challenges at different stages of the pandemic.

That is why we must do everything that we can to prevent having to go backwards. That is why we need to keep making steady progress, moving forward and making sure that that is sustainable. It will never be reversed if we can absolutely avoid it. That should be where all our efforts are focused.

Recent medical evidence and scientific advice says that the earlier that we can go in with lower-impact mitigations, the better that will serve us and will, hopefully, lead to a point where we never have to go back to the lockdown or circuit-breaker approach. I want to take that approach. I hope that all others round the Executive table will also want to take that approach. In the meeting on 7 October, when we talk about our winter plan, those are the very issues that we will discuss.