I welcome the opportunity to address the Assembly on this motion. I appreciate that the use of accelerated passage is not something to be sought routinely, and I do not usually do so. When taking forward draft primary legislation, my preference is to subject it to the full Committee procedure to ensure detailed clause-by-clause scrutiny. My decision to seek accelerated passage in this case is not one that I have taken lightly. I am, however, convinced that there are compelling grounds to depart from the normal procedure in this instance. Therefore, I will explain, as required under Standing Order 32(4), why I seek accelerated passage and the consequences if it is not granted.
I have appeared before the Committee for Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs to outline my rationale, as required under Standing Order 32(3). 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 the Assembly's approval for accelerated passage. I also appreciate the support of Executive colleagues, who have agreed that the Bill can be progressed in this way.
My reasons for seeking accelerated passage are as follows. The Bill addresses a legislative anomaly that arose when the Assembly was not sitting. That has resulted in Northern Ireland being the only part of the United Kingdom where service animals do not have specific welfare protections. The anomaly was one of the first matters brought to my attention as Minister when the Assembly reconvened. Since then, I have received repeated requests from stakeholders to remedy the situation.
The Bill is short and uncontroversial. Its two clauses propose simple amendments to the Welfare of Animals Act (Northern Ireland) 2011. The amendments mirror the changes that are in place in other parts of the United Kingdom. I am content, therefore, that nothing in the Bill could be regarded as contentious, novel or repercussive.
In February 2020, when a motion advocating enhanced protections for service animals was debated at length in the Assembly, it received unanimous support from all five parties. Moreover, 98% of respondents to the public consultation on the Bill's proposals wished to see the legislation enacted, and it is clear that the Bill has overwhelming public and political support. As Members will be aware, there is limited time left in this Assembly mandate. In the light of the groundswell of support for the Bill, it is only right that I seek to use all the tools at my disposal to see that it be passed in the current mandate.
Expedited passage not being granted would pose significant risk to the passage of the Bill. Without accelerated passage, I am concerned that the Bill, owing to time constraints, will not complete its legislative stages in this mandate. That would mean that service animals here would continue to be denied the protection that they deserve, in contravention of the wishes of the public and in marked contrast to the treatment that those animals receive in other parts of the United Kingdom. That position is untenable, given the invaluable work that they carry out on our behalf.
Regarding minimising the use of the accelerated passage procedure, I have already stated my commitment to detailed Committee scrutiny of legislation that my Department takes forward, and I will continue to take any necessary steps to make sure that the accelerated passage procedure is not unnecessarily sought by it. Members will have the opportunity to raise issues on the detail of the Bill at Second Stage, which is to follow immediately after the debate on this motion.
At this juncture, I seek the support of the Assembly for the use of the accelerated passage procedure. I look forward to hearing Members' comments.
I welcome the opportunity to articulate the views of the Committee for Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs on the motion to facilitate accelerated passage for the Animal Welfare (Service Animals) Bill.
The Minister wrote to the Committee on 29 September 2021 seeking its support in principle to introduce the Bill and for a motion for accelerated passage. The Committee invited the Minister to brief it on 14 October about his request. He explained the rationale for seeking accelerated passage, given the legislation's aims and the context of the workload anticipated to be brought through the Assembly before the end of the mandate.
Although the Committee understands the need for effective scrutiny and believes that accelerated passage should be used only in exceptional circumstances, it is minded not to oppose the motion, in view of the fact that it welcomes the overarching principles of the Bill to increase legal safeguards for service animals. It will establish safeguards similar to those in other jurisdictions. There is clear, strong support for the legislation right across the board: from stakeholders, members of the public and, indeed, Members across the House.
The Bill is not controversial, and it proposes simple amendments to existing legislation. The Department carried out an extensive consultation exercise on the legislative process. The Committee will therefore not oppose the motion for accelerated passage.
This is welcome legislation that will, no doubt, unite the House in its favour. With that in mind, I do not intend to dwell on the matter before the House under the accelerated passage process. It is a welcome development. Hopefully, the Bill will be concluded in a timely fashion.
The role played by service animals is well known and acknowledged. The fact that they have been injured with little or no consequences for the perpetrator is the reason for the proposed change in the law. I welcome the fact that the Minister took the issue forward through a consultation, which returned a fairly unanimous response in favour of the change. He now brings a necessary motion before the Assembly.
Service dogs, by reason of their duty, often find themselves in dangerous circumstances, along with their handler, and they can often be at severe risk. The legislation seeks to address that and to ensure that anyone who carries out any form of attack on a service animal is dealt with appropriately through the justice system. Until legislation is put in place, those types of incidents can be argued from a self-defence perspective and treated as criminal damage. That is highly unsatisfactory. The recent accumulation of concern on the matter gave rise to what is known as Finn's law.
I support the need for the law to be changed, and I would welcome accelerated passage for the Bill. In the absence of such a change, Northern Ireland will remain the only part of the UK without such protection in place. That would not be a welcome development. The House is in favour of addressing the anomaly, however. I support the proposed legislative change and trust that it can be implemented without further delay.
First of all, we are debating whether to grant accelerated passage to the Animal Welfare (Service Animals) Bill, and, once we have concluded this debate, we will move to the Second Stage. My immediate comments will focus on whether we should grant accelerated passage.
The Animal Welfare (Service Animals) Bill, also known as Finn's law, which made it an offence to cause unnecessary suffering to a service animal in England and Wales, was introduced to the House of Commons on 13 June 2018. The Bill received Royal Assent on 8 April 2019, having completed all its parliamentary stages, and the Act came into force in June 2019, during the three-year hiatus of the Northern Ireland Assembly. Scotland also adopted Finn's law, with the new rules there being part of the Animals and Wildlife (Penalties, Protections and Powers) (Scotland) Act 2020, which passed on 30 November 2020. That means that service animals in Northern Ireland are deprived of the protection that is available to their counterparts in the rest of the UK.
I commend the Minister and his officials for progressing the legislation at pace to bring similar protection to service animals in Northern Ireland, and I hope that that can be done during the current mandate. Therefore, I am content with accelerated passage.
I take no issue whatsoever with the Bill. It is meritorious and desirous in all its forms, but I do fundamentally take issue with the second attempt in a week to abuse the process of accelerated passage in the House.
Accelerated passage is, in protection of the interrogative, scrutiny and full legislative function of the House, prescribed to be used only in exceptional circumstances. Last week, we had an attempt by the Finance Minister to railroad rates legislation through the House. The House rightfully called him out on that and refused. Today, we have another attempt to have recourse to accelerated passage without one word of explanation to the House on why the delay has been so overwhelming in this case.
The Minister said that the need for this legislation was one of the first things drawn to his attention when he took office in January 2020. Here we are, almost two years later, and the legislation has now been produced. It took 18 months — until June 2021 — to even issue a consultation, and we are asked to come here today to reward the tardiness of the Department and to bypass the processes of the House. That is not good enough, and the presumption that they do not even need to explain the delay to the House is a commentary in itself on the willingness of the House to be taken for granted on this issue. In February 2020, the House, by motion, agreed the need for such legislation. Here we are, on the last day of November 2021, and we are getting round to it. Why? Because of that tardiness, there is a shrug of the shoulders and people say, "Ah well, we will just do it by accelerated passage".
It is not that there are not issues with the Bill that might benefit from a Committee Stage. There are issues. There are issues such as whether guide dogs should be included in the legislation and whether search and rescue dogs belonging to private companies that participate should be included. Those are matters that I would have thought should have been ventilated and explored during a Committee Stage, and they could have been explored if the Department had got on with the job of bringing the legislation in a timely manner.
Therefore, I say to the House that I see nothing in the antecedents of this that justify this attempt to use accelerated passage. Where do we stop with this matter of accelerated passage? Next week, we have a justifiable case to improve benefit access for people who are terminally ill; of course there is an exceptional time issue with that. However, there was no exceptional time issue that saw the feet-dragging from January 2020 to November 2021 on this issue. Therefore, on that basis, I will not support accelerated passage, though I support the Bill.
I appreciate the commentary from around the Chamber on this issue, and the widespread support for moving the Bill to its next stage. It allows us to engage in the process that will see it to its conclusion.
I heard what the one Member who spoke negatively had to say, and I indicate to him that we had a crisis last year, in case he was not aware. That crisis led to staff not being in the office or being utilised for other services. Consequently, the ability to deliver things as speedily as would otherwise have been the case was constricted. Most people acknowledge that, even if that particular Member does not.
I thank Members once again for their contributions, and I trust that we can move forward by passing this motion.
Clear the Lobbies. The Question will be put again in three minutes. I remind Members that we should continue to uphold social distancing and that Members who have proxy voting arrangements in place should not come into the Chamber.
Before I put the Question, I remind Members present that it would be preferable if we could avoid a Division.
Question put a second time.
Before the Assembly divides, I remind Members that, as per Standing Order 112, the Assembly has proxy voting arrangements in place. Members who have authorised another Member to vote on their behalf are not entitled to vote in person and should not enter the Lobbies. I remind all Members of the requirements for social distancing while the Division takes place. I ask you to ensure that you maintain at least a 2-metre gap between yourselves and others when moving around the Chamber, the Rotunda and especially the Lobbies. Please be patient at all times, observe the signage and follow the instructions of the Lobby Clerks.
The Assembly divided:
Dr Archibald, Mr Boylan, Ms Brogan, Mr Catney, Mr Delargy, Ms Dillon, Ms Dolan, Mr Durkan, Ms Ennis, Ms Ferguson, Ms Flynn, Mr Gildernew, Ms Hargey, Ms Hunter, Mr Kearney, Mrs D Kelly, Mr G Kelly, Ms Kimmins, Mr McAleer, Mr McCrossan, Mr McGlone, Mr McGrath, Mr McGuigan, Mr McHugh, Ms McLaughlin, Ms A Murphy, Mr C Murphy, Ms Ní Chuilín, Mr O'Dowd, Mrs O'Neill, Mr O'Toole, Miss Reilly, Ms Rogan, Mr Sheehan, Ms Sheerin
Dr Aiken, Mr Allen, Mrs Barton, Mr Beattie, Mr M Bradley, Ms P Bradley, Mr K Buchanan, Mr T Buchanan, Mr Buckley, Ms Bunting, Mr Butler, Mrs Cameron, Mr Chambers, Mr Clarke, Mrs Dodds, Mr Dunne, Mr Easton, Mrs Erskine, Mr Frew, Mr Givan, Mr Harvey, Mr Hilditch, Mr Humphrey, Mr Irwin, Mr Lyons, Miss McIlveen, Mr Middleton, Mr Nesbitt, Mr Newton, Mr Poots, Mr Robinson, Mr Stalford, Mr Storey, Mr Swann, Mr Weir, Mr Wells
Ms Armstrong, Mr Blair, Ms Bradshaw, Mr Dickson, Mrs Long, Mr Lyttle, Mr Muir
Tellers for the Ayes: Mr Irwin, Mr Weir
Ms Bailey, Mr Carroll, Miss Woods
Tellers for the Noes: Mr Allister, Ms Bailey
|Nationalist Votes||35||Nationalist Ayes||35||[100.0%]|
|Unionist Votes||37||Unionist Ayes||36||[97.3%]|
|Other Votes||10||Other Ayes||7||[70.0%]|
Question accordingly agreed to. Resolved (with cross-community support):
That the Animal Welfare (Service Animals) Bill proceed under the accelerated passage procedure.