Northern Ireland Assembly
William Hay (DUP)
Before we begin business, I advise the House that I have received a letter from Mr Willie Clarke giving me notice that he intends to resign as a Member of the Assembly with effect from 12 April 2012. We wish him well. I have notified the Chief Electoral Officer in accordance with section 35 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998.
William Hay (DUP)
The first item on the Order Paper is a motion on Committee membership. As with other similar motions, this will be treated as a business motion, and therefore there will be no debate.
That Mr Alastair Ross replace Mr Sammy Douglas as a member of the Committee for Social Development. — [Mr Weir.]
David Ford (Alliance)
With permission, I wish to make a statement on the prison reform programme.
In my statement to the House in October last year to welcome the publication of the final report of the prison review team, I stated that the next six months would be critical to this programme of reform. I am clear that full implementation of the prison review team’s recommendations will take years, rather than months, and will require change across the system of government as well as within the Prison Service. However, I believe that the progress made in the past six months proves that the change we are embarked upon is transformational in scale and nature, is being tackled with pace and vigour and is irrevocable in its outcome.
The significance of this work and the benefits that it stands to bring to the whole of society in Northern Ireland cannot be overstated. It will bring benefits not only in creating a transformed, more efficient and effective Prison Service but, more fundamentally, in helping to shape and inform the approach that our society should take to those who offend against its rules by encouraging and supporting their rehabilitation. The reform programme, properly resourced and managed, has the potential to significantly improve public safety by reducing offending and the risk of reoffending, thus easing the burden in financial and human terms that crime places on our society.
The start we have made can genuinely give confidence that my Department’s response to the recommendations is positive and that the progress being made is real. I will today set out the steps that give rise to that judgement. As Members will know, I have also established an oversight group, which I chair, that will provide robust and impartial scrutiny of the performance of the reform programme as it moves forward.
The scale of change facing the Prison Service is unprecedented in its complexity as we seek to deliver transformational change against a backdrop of diminishing resources. Key to reform are the ongoing negotiations between Prison Service management and the Prison Officers’ Association (POA). I pay tribute to both sides for the constructive and businesslike way that they have conducted their discussions. At the outset, I made it clear that change was not something I wanted to do to our staff but that, rather, our objective was to bring about reform working with them directly as employees and working alongside their elected union representatives. It is, therefore, encouraging to announce today that, after several months of detailed and painstaking negotiations, the Prison Service and the POA have agreed in principle a way forward. It includes repeal of the current and long-standing framework agreement, to be replaced by a new staff deployment agreement.
On 1 April, NIPS will launch its new operating model, which will be rolled out in line with the introduction of new shift patterns over the next six months. Custody officer and offender supervisor posts will be introduced. Staff currently serving in support grades will have the opportunity to amalgamate into the custody officer role, and 200 new staff will be recruited as part of the ongoing external recruitment campaign. Staff will be appointed to those grades on new pay scales and with new terms and conditions of employment.
The current seven-tier management structure will be simplified to four tiers. That will greatly improve accountability, expand decision-taking responsibility and improve the work undertaken in the new grades. Staff throughout the service will have a clear line of progression with regard to advancement, and all staff will have the opportunity to obtain professionally recognised qualifications. Obtaining a certificate of competence and, subsequently, a licence to practise will be a requirement in order to secure continued employment, pay progression and promotion.
A new dispute resolution procedure and industrial relations procedural agreement will be implemented, supported by a new code of ethics. An updated and refreshed disciplinary procedure will also be developed and introduced by the summer of this year. As we proceed to implement change, we are committed to working towards releasing the remainder of the staff who applied for the voluntary early retirement scheme. That will, of course, take time, but I am confident that we will be able to do so.
The negotiations with unions have set the backdrop to much of the progress made in NIPS over the past six months. As is clear from the package of measures that has been agreed, much of this first phase has focused on laying the foundations for structural reform. It is equally encouraging to see the tangible benefits that this work is already bringing in transforming and modernising the way in which we manage our business. For example, the introduction of a centralised detail office has brought a greater degree of management control over the deployment of staff resources and is already improving regime delivery across all three prison sites.
Under the voluntary early retirement scheme, the first tranche of 151 staff will leave the service at the end of this month. The recruitment campaign for the new custody officer grade was launched last month, with nearly 5,000 applications received. Following a stringent and demanding selection process, the first recruits are expected to be operational by the end of this year.
Arrangements are also in place for the transfer of prison healthcare staff to the South Eastern Health and Social Care Trust from next week, which will ensure, for the first time, that there is appropriate governance and accountability for the delivery of healthcare services in the custodial environment. Work is also well advanced to bring forward other major and fundamental structural change. NIPS is taking forward a number of important reviews, including reviews of catering, corporate services and corporate governance, which are helping to shape and inform both core and non-core operational delivery. That will lead to a more efficient and cost-effective service. An infrastructure manager has been appointed, whose remit includes the development of a prison estate strategy, which I plan to publish next month, and consideration of the future of the Prison Service’s data system, PRISM.
NIPS has conducted a further review of full-body imaging scanners, in line with a recommendation in the prison review team’s report. On the basis of that review, I intend to initiate a pilot of full-body imaging scanners as soon as the necessary authorisation for use of that technology in prisons is obtained.
NIPS has also been addressing concerns about equality and diversity reporting and has strengthened the role of equality and diversity committees in prisons.
The review team’s report was clear about the need to invest in the development of staff remaining in the Prison Service: a staying-on package, as Dame Anne Owers called it. Considerable progress is being made on developing our staff and preparing them for the challenges of working in a prison service with a changed focus, which will also underpin the much needed cultural reform called for by the review team.
Plans are well advanced for a new comprehensive training programme, leading to the award of a certificate of competence, that will upskill and develop custody officers to enable them to carry out their role competently and effectively. Similarly, a learning and development programme for offender supervisors is under development, which will lead to the award of a professional licence to practice. That will be accredited externally.
The Prison Service is also putting in place a new disciplinary system for uniformed staff that will include a new code of conduct and discipline, a new code of ethics and a new professional standards unit, which will set in place new arrangements to enable the Prison Service to better manage disciplinary cases and monitor the application of appropriate conduct standards for prison staff.
The prison review team recommended a holistic solution to reforming the entire prison system in Northern Ireland, not just the Prison Service. Work has been continuing across my Department to address the review team’s recommendations, most notably those relating to juvenile offenders and sentencing policy.
There has been good progress as a result of focused work between the Prison Service and the Youth Justice Agency to ensure that under-18s are only accommodated at Hydebank Wood when absolutely necessary. That has resulted in a significant reduction in the number of juvenile inmates. As at 20 March, only three inmates at Hydebank Wood were aged under 18, although legislative changes will be needed to fully end the practice.
I launched a supervised activity order pilot scheme earlier this year in Newry. It will run for six months before being evaluated, and steps are being taken to identify and establish a further location.
My Department is in discussion with the Justice Committee on the way forward following last year’s review of community sentences. I hope to announce proposals in the near future.
As the prison review team made clear, implementation of the necessary reforms cannot be delivered by my Department alone. Some of its recommendations involve a strategic realignment of the framework for tackling offending and reoffending and will require a cross-departmental response. With that in mind, I am engaged in a series of meetings with other Ministers. My Department has hosted strategic workshops to create a shared understanding of how the recommendations fit within the wider agenda of improving public safety and reducing the risk of offending and reoffending. That work is still at a fairly early stage but has led to agreement around three key themes. First, identifying and providing interventions to change the behaviours that have led to offending. Secondly, creating a prison system that is focused on enabling individuals to change as well on providing a safe, secure and humane system. Thirdly, delivering more effective outcomes through better joined-up partnership arrangements across government.
I am clear that there is still a considerable distance to be travelled, and I acknowledge the inevitability of encountering further challenges and obstacles that will need to be overcome as we move forward. However, I am confident that the journey of reform has begun, real progress is being made, and momentum is building. Although challenges remain, with the support of the Assembly, the reform process is, I believe, unstoppable.
Paul Givan (DUP)
I declare an interest: I have a family member employed in the Prison Service. First, I commend the director of human resources in the Prison Service, Ronnie Armour, and Finlay Spratt, chairman of the Prison Officers’ Association, for reaching an agreement in principle. Obviously, there is more detail to be implemented, which will require more work. It would be foolhardy not to welcome the agreement that has been reached in principle.
That said, I am sure that the Minister will agree that communication with staff is fundamental to any change programme. There is concern that morale is low and communication is not being properly filtered through to rank-and-file officers. Will he assure the House that there will be proper communication, particularly to those involved in the exit scheme? The Minister said that he is confident that he will be able to allow all those who wish to leave to do so. Finally, will the Minister also assure the House on an issue that has been touched on previously and that concerns the bumpy road that we are travelling on? Will he assure the House that the uniforms that will be issued to new officers and offender supervisors will be of the same standard as those that are currently issued to staff and that any change that may be talked about will first require discussion and approval at the Executive?
David Ford (Alliance)
I thank the Committee Chair for his welcome. I have no problem at all in joining him in commending Ronnie Armour and Finlay Spratt for the positive and constructive way in which management and the POA have engaged in recent months.
The Member makes a valid point about getting communications through to rank-and-file officers. Unfortunately, when detailed negotiations are under way, it is difficult to communicate the full detail to everyone. However, I certainly trust that the agreement, which is agreed in principle and close to absolute finalisation, will need to be communicated as speedily and effectively as possible. Prison Service management will do that.
On the Member’s final point, I cannot give him any assurances on precisely what new uniforms for new officers will look like. That matter is under discussion. However, he correctly makes the point that the emblems and uniforms, as has been established in the Chamber in the past, will be controversial and will require agreement around the Executive table.
Jennifer McCann (Sinn Féin)
Go raibh maith agat, Mr Speaker. I also welcome the Minister’s statement. I refer the Minister to the section about healthcare services. The Minister will be aware of the serious medical and mental health problems of Marian Price, who is being held at Hydebank women’s prison. Will he authorise Mrs Price’s immediate release to an outside hospital so that she can be treated for those problems?
William Hay (DUP)
Order. Let us have questions to the statement. The Member is almost straying onto a different subject. If the Member can demonstrate that she is linking her question to the statement, I will be very happy to listen to her. It is really up to the Minister whether he wants to answer the question.
David Ford (Alliance)
I thank Ms McCann for her welcome for the statement. I can confirm that the healthcare needs of every one of our prisoners are now being managed by the South Eastern Trust, to which full responsibility will pass on 1 April. The Prison Service will take seriously any recommendations from the trust regarding the welfare and health of any prisoners.
Basil McCrea (UUP)
Thank you, Mr Speaker.
I welcome the statement and acknowledge that considerable work has been done. However, I want to tease out something from the Minister. You mentioned that, as of 20 March, only three inmates at Hydebank Wood were aged under 18 and that legislative changes would be needed if you wanted to change or end the practice. What legislation would be required? Do you intend to bring forward that legislation? Do you not accept that, while the general principle of not putting people aged 18 or younger in with older inmates is a good thing, some 18-year-olds may need special circumstances?
David Ford (Alliance)
I thank Mr McCrea for his welcome for the statement. Today is a good news day for the Prison Service, and we should recognise that as we go into detailed questions. I thank him for recognising the work that has been done.
Not long after I became Minister, there were 20 or 21 under-18s at Hydebank Wood on different nights. I have the complete table if any Member wishes to ask me for it afterwards. That is now down to a very small number. I fully recognise that that small number includes those who require facilities other than those that can be provided in Woodlands Juvenile Justice Centre.
The key issue for the Assembly will be whether it wishes to legislate in the future to remove the option for Hydebank Wood. Clearly, that can only be done if the facilities are available in Woodlands and if the Assembly wishes to legislate that way. However, I am fully conscious of points made by other Members about the necessity to remove, as far as possible, under-18s from Hydebank Wood. The historically low numbers that are there now is a sign of the good work being done by the Prison Service, alongside the Youth Justice Agency, to manage those young people better.
I thank the Minister for the statement. He referred to creating a prison system that is safe, secure and humane. Clearly, the forced strip-searching that is ongoing in Roe House is not safe, and it is certainly not humane. The Minister also referred to the further review of full-body imaging scanners. He will be aware of how emotive that subject is, not just inside the prison but outside it. Will he outline to the House a definitive time frame and target for the introduction of that mechanism? Who does he need authorisation from?
David Ford (Alliance)
I thank Mr Ramsey for that. He referred to the issue of full-body searching being emotive, and it certainly is. As far as I am concerned, the Prison Service in Northern Ireland, as in the other two jurisdictions in the UK, uses full-body searching, where necessary, in order to ensure the safety and security of prisoners and prison officers. It is clearly something that we wish to move away from when we can provide that security without full-body searching.
At this stage, I can give no timescale for the introduction of the technology that I wish to see piloted. However, I can give a commitment that, as soon as licensing is agreed on an application being taken forward for Holme House Prison in Yorkshire, it is my intention that Northern Ireland Prison Service will be able to make use of that technology to carry out our own pilot and to see how quickly it is possible to introduce alternatives to full-body searching. However, the necessity is to ensure the safety, security and welfare of prisoners and staff.
Stewart Dickson (Alliance)
I thank the Minister for the excellent progress that has been made and for bringing us this six-month report. The Minister said in his report that it is clear that there is still a considerable distance to be travelled. What are the key milestones for the next six months?
David Ford (Alliance)
I tempted to look at you, Mr Speaker, and say that is not what was in the statement.
I thank my colleague for his welcome. I highlighted a number of points that will come through in the next six months, such as further issues relating to structural reforms. I have already highlighted the fact that the implementation of the healthcare changes will happen next month. I suppose that qualifies. Reviews that are under way should report back on issues such as corporate governance and learning-and-skills training. The estates review is due back in the next few weeks and will be reported on to the House as fast as possible. There are other ongoing issues relating, in particular, to the new staff coming in. None of them is likely to be operational within six months, but I believe that we will see the first new recruits in training within six months, to be operational by the end of the year. There is a lot of work going on around developing the skills of existing staff, seeing that we manage prisoners better, introducing the new staff and allowing the exit scheme to progress, which is likely to be among the key focuses of the next six months.
Peter Weir (DUP)
Certainty is key to the implementation of the programme in terms of its working well and in respect of staff morale. The Minister said that he was working towards the release of the remainder of staff who had applied for the voluntary early retirement scheme. What is the timescale for the second tranche of the voluntary early retirement scheme? If the Minister cannot answer that today, can he indicate when he will be in a position to produce a full timetable that outlines for the remainder of staff the timings for the full roll-out of the voluntary early retirement scheme?
David Ford (Alliance)
I thank Mr Weir for a perfectly reasonable question. Unfortunately, it is not possible to answer it, on two basic grounds: first, the timing of exits will have to be commensurate with the timing of recruitments, to ensure that we maintain adequate staffing; secondly, part of the compensation package for officers who leave is compensation in lieu of notice. If we were to give individual officers notice, they would not be entitled to that compensation in lieu of notice. Therefore, while it is clearly unsatisfactory for some officers who would like a more specific date, it is not possible to give them specific dates. All that I can say is that we are working to ensure that we enable those who wish to leave to do so in an orderly fashion, commensurate with the needs of the service, as I highlighted.
Leadership will, undoubtedly, be critical in delivering the change programme outlined in the Minister’s statement. Does the Minister expect any other changes in the senior management of the Prison Service? When can we expect to have a new director for the Prison Service appointed?
David Ford (Alliance)
Mr McDevitt makes a reasonable point. It is certainly not my expectation, at this stage, that we will see any further significant leadership changes. The new change manager is familiarising himself and will be in post within a month or so to lead that aspect of the work. I am working with the permanent secretary of the Department to see how we can ensure replacement for the director general when Colin McConnell leaves at the end of May. I understand that the employment process for the permanent replacement, which is being led by the Civil Service Commissioners, is being fully considered this week and will result in an advert immediately after Easter. Obviously, however, there will then be questions, including things like vetting processes, about how quickly an applicant can be put in post.
Raymond McCartney (Sinn Féin)
Go raibh maith agat a Cheann Comhairle agus buíochas don Aire as an ráiteas seo. I thank the Minister and welcome his statement. I am sure that he appreciates that such a long statement will require more than one question. I welcome the fact that the director general will be in front of the Committee on Thursday, when we will be able to tease out some of the issues.
In his concluding paragraph, the Minister said that reform should be unstoppable. I think that that is the benchmark on which all of this will be tested. It is a bit disappointing that there was no direct reference to the change management team in the statement. Can the Minister outline what role it will play in ensuring that reform is unstoppable?
David Ford (Alliance)
I thank Mr McCartney for his question. It is sometimes easy to overpersonalise things. Although I have certainly paid tribute to Colin McConnell and his work and will continue to do so, we will have the replacement change manager in post soon, as I have just said to Mr McDevitt. We are working on the replacement for Colin McConnell, and, as has been highlighted over the issue of negotiations with the POA, for example, Ronnie Armour has played a very significant role in that, as the appropriate director in the Prison Service.
We need to recognise the work that is being done by the team as a whole and not simply personalise it to one individual or another. It is my hope that we will soon have in place the full team that will continue the good work that has been done over the past six months. I said that the momentum was building and was unstoppable, and I believe that that is because of the good work I see being done by the Prison Service management — not by just one person, but the whole team.
Lord Morrow (DUP)
I, too, thank the Minister for his statement. We speak here of offenders, rather than criminals; we must never forget the type of people for whom we are reforming. As he takes the reform package forward, does the Minister accept that keeping the outside population, never mind the prison population, on board is of vital importance? Does he accept that there is a lot of dissatisfaction, for instance, in the Prison Service itself, and that it appears to some that there is a lot of contradiction in the manner in which this is being taken forward? Some prison staff who have worked there for over 30 or 40 years are being told that they will not qualify or will not be able to pick up on the new regime and will have to wait longer. Does he accept that those people need to be shown respect and that those who want to leave the service can do so with dignity?
David Ford (Alliance)
I thank Lord Morrow for his comments on that. However, I thought that that was the entire intention of the package; that those who wish to leave are being allowed to leave with dignity. Clearly not everyone can leave on 31 March, but the documentation that individuals were supplied with made it clear that release will be on the basis of the needs of the service. I accept that some individuals who had hoped to leave early are disappointed that they cannot leave in the first tranche. However, if they had read the paperwork, they would have known that that was never going to be possible. As I have said, I believe it is important that we provide the best possible information to all members of staff and ensure that the work is done as speedily and efficiently as possible. However, that cannot simply mean that everybody goes on the exact date of their choosing.
Danny Kinahan (UUP)
I, too, welcome today’s statement. On page 5, paragraph 2, we hear about a new disciplinary procedure. The Minister is probably aware that I have been asking questions of all Departments on the number of disciplinary matters, to which his Department declined to answer. Yet I am told that there are possibly many more there than in any other Department. I am told that there is, therefore, quite a lot of disquiet. Will the Minister ensure that rank and file members of the Prison Service are able to be consulted about the new code of conduct and discipline without any pressure from above or the outside?
David Ford (Alliance)
I have to emphasise that management have a responsibility to manage. The new disciplinary procedures have been part of the ongoing discussions between the POA and Prison Service management. I think that that is recognition of the valid role that employees have, while recognising also that difficulties have arisen in the past in the Prison Service because management have not been able to manage properly. I am determined to see that, working with our employees, we get a better system for the future.
Sean Lynch (Sinn Féin)
Go raibh maith agat a Cheann Comhairle agus gabhaim buíochas leat as an ráiteas sin a Aire. Did the Minister receive legal advice on the conditions that can be attached to enhance severance packages for prison officers? Did he read the advice or did he rely on submissions from officials?
David Ford (Alliance)
I did not personally read legal advice on issues of the severance package. I think it entirely reasonable that, at times, Ministers read the submissions that they receive from officials. If the point Mr Lynch is making is about the potential re-engagement of prison officers, I can give him the news that of the 4,900 applications received by the Department for the new custody officer posts, one came from a serving prison officer.
Kieran McCarthy (Alliance)
I also welcome the statement from the Minister. I refer to the last paragraph, in which he said: “the journey ... has begun.” I pay tribute to the efforts of the Minister and his Department for where we have come to along that journey. Will he tell the Assembly when he reckons that that journey will finish and we will have a Prison Service for Northern Ireland that is second to none?
David Ford (Alliance)
I thank Mr McCarthy for his point. The general line is that we are talking about a reform process of something like four years. However, I made it clear when I announced the outcome of the prison review team report that the first six months would be vital. That is why I am making this statement, at a little over five months, because six months comes during the Easter holidays, to emphasise that the journey is well begun. However, there will be a lot more work to do on the way.
I probably should tell the House that, a few weeks ago, I met my predecessor with responsibility for prisons, Paul Goggins, in Westminster. He told me that prison reform was one of the issues that direct rule left to devolution because it was thought to be too difficult. It is a tribute to those doing the work in the Prison Service, and to the collective way in which this House and the Department have worked alongside the Committee and others, that they have been able to tackle an issue that was too difficult for direct rule. That is an indication of the good progress being made.
Jim Allister (Traditional Unionist Voice)
Will the Minister give some clarification on the issue of uniform? If a new uniform is thought necessary, why is that? Can he give an assurance, in light of past controversy, that there is no proposal within the Prison Service to remove HMP or the crown from the uniform? If there is no agreement in the Executive on the uniform, does that mean that the existing uniform will prevail for all staff?
David Ford (Alliance)
Mr Speaker, I thought that I had made it clear in my first answer to Mr Given, the Committee Chair, that the uniforms for new staff may be something different from those currently there, but we have clearly established in the Chamber in the past that the precise detail of uniform and emblems might be regarded as sufficiently controversial and, indeed, is regarded as sufficiently controversial as to require Executive approval.
I thank the Minister for his previous answers. I note that the patient Mr Armour and the redoubtable Mr Spratt have eventually reached agreement in principle. You said in your statement that it is an agreement in principle. Does that mean that further details need to be agreed, because you also said that, on 1 April, the Prison Service will launch the new operating model, which will be rolled out in line with the introduction of new shift patterns over the next six months? Is there final agreement on the detail and the substance?
David Ford (Alliance)
I thank Mr Maginness for his positive comments. I am not quite sure whether it is purely the patient Mr Armour and the redoubtable Mr Spratt, though, perhaps, that may not be an inaccurate description of either of them. As I understand the measure of agreement that has been reached, by saying that it was “in principle”, I meant it was probably not covering the full detail of the agreement. As I understand it, there are a few minor bits of fine-tuning to be worked out. However, in essence, we have an agreement between Prison Service management and the Prison Officers Association on very significant and fundamental reforms that the Prison Service will operate in the future, negotiated willingly by those two gentlemen and others over a period of months in a way that will, I believe, provide the transformational change that we all wish to see.
Sydney Anderson (DUP)
I thank the Minister for his statement. I understand that six officers who did not meet the criteria have been allowed to leave the service in the first tranche. That, in itself, further demoralises the remaining staff when they see such discrepancies coming to light. I also understand that another 68 staff may be moving from a criteria 3 to a criteria 2 situation, which I would welcome. The remaining staff were told at a meeting in Maghaberry that they would be allowed to leave by the end of March, and the delay has totally demoralised quite a number of staff who had made arrangements to leave on 31 March. I know that the Minister has been pressed for an answer on this, but can I press him again to tell me and the House when he thinks that the staff who want to leave will be allowed to leave?
David Ford (Alliance)
I thank Mr Anderson for his question. I have heard from a number of quarters that staff were told that they could all go by 31 March. I can simply tell the House that that is not what has been reported to me and that that is not what is conveyed in the paperwork that was supplied to all members of staff. Realistically, when 500 staff applied for the exit scheme, I do not think that we expected that they would all be able to leave on a single day.
Mr Anderson referred to the six officers who are being allowed to go and who did not meet the criteria. I regret that that is the position. That fault arose contrary to what was said in Saturday’s ‘Belfast Telegraph’: it arose when pension calculations were being done in DFP central pensions branch. When the Prison Service became aware of the error, arrangements were made to ensure that six other staff would be able to leave, and they were the next six who would have legitimately left. In a sense, six staff members have been advantaged but none has been disadvantaged. I have asked for all those pension calculations to be revisited to ensure that we are 100% accurate. It is deeply unfortunate that that error was made. However, it was not made by the Prison Service, and the Prison Service is seeking to remedy it as fast as can be. As I said earlier to Mr Weir, it is not possible to give a date when all staff will be able to leave, but I am committed to ensuring that those who applied for the exit scheme will be able to leave as early as possible, commensurate with ensuring an adequate staffing regime for the Prison Service.
Michelle O'Neill (Sinn Féin)
Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. With your permission, I wish to make a statement in compliance with section 52 of the 1998 Act, regarding the recent meeting of the North/South Ministerial Council (NSMC) in aquaculture and marine sectoral format.
The meeting was held in the NSMC joint secretariat offices in Armagh on Thursday 1 March 2012. The Executive were represented by Nelson McCausland and me, and the Dublin Government were represented by the Minister of State for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, Fergus O’Dowd TD. This statement has been agreed with Minister McCausland and I make it on behalf of us both.
We welcomed the recently appointed Foyle, Carlingford and Irish Lights Commission chairperson, Winston Patterson, and vice chairperson, Alan McCulla, to their first NSMC meeting and received a progress report on the work of the Loughs Agency from the chairperson and chief executive, Derick Anderson. Both Minister O’Dowd and I have made visits to the Loughs Agency and have had the opportunity to meet front line staff who have experienced attacks and abuse when carrying out their enforcement duties. It was, therefore, satisfying to hear of the positive effect on the agency’s field staff morale as a result of these meetings.
We were also pleased to learn that following my meeting with the Chief Constable of the PSNI and correspondence issued to an Garda Síochána Commissioner in relation to attacks on the Loughs Agency’s enforcement staff and volunteer river watchers, new and more formalised lines of communication between agency officials, the PSNI and an Garda Síochána are being developed.
We welcomed the success of the agency’s enforcement actions under the oyster fishing regulations, with a series of cases having a successful outcome in the courts. In 2011, agency staff dealt with 54 rod-related offences and 44 seizures. Agency protection staff also seized 161 illegal nets, 12 boats, 36 bags of oysters and two cars as well as various other items, including knives, balaclava masks and batons. Staff have dealt with 134 pollution incidents and taken 11 sets of statutory samples. Regarding environmental protection, the agency successfully convicted every individual or company that had caused a fish kill by pollution in the Foyle area in 2011.
The improvement in the oyster population of Lough Foyle was noted, and we encouraged the agency to continue to develop management strategies to consolidate and refine these improvements. We also noted the disappointing drop in sea survival of Atlantic salmon since the 1990s and welcomed the Loughs Agency’s action, following extensive consultation, in issuing a declaration suspending commercial fishing in Lough Foyle and the tidal Foyle and the restriction on angling carcass tags to help to improve the survival of Atlantic salmon.
We noted that the Loughs Agency, which took a lead role alongside partners from the University of Glasgow and Queen’s University Belfast, was successful in securing funding through INTERREG IVa for the integrated aquatic resource management project between the island of Ireland and Scotland, known as IBIS. The overarching aim of this project is the development of a common approach to the delivery of high-priority training, research and knowledge-sharing, supporting freshwater and marine resource management and policy, and the biodiversity that these ecosystems support. The total value of the programme, which runs from August 2011 to June 2015, is approximately £8 million.
We welcomed the presentation by the Loughs Agency on the Lough Foyle oyster fishery and oyster spawning assessment. The findings and recommendations from these annual reports allow the agency to use the evidence gathered to inform its decision-making in relation to regulation, policy development and enhancement works for the fishery. We were pleased to note during the subsequent discussion that the Loughs Agency was considering the introduction of revised regulations concerning both the minimum weight and size of oysters permitted for landing in order to help ensure a sustainable oyster fishery. The oyster sector had recently raised that issue with me.
We were also pleased to learn that active consideration is being given to promoting local oysters through an oyster festival to coincide with the planned Clipper Round the World Yacht Race in the Foyle in July. We also noted the development of a bird survey protocol for Lough Foyle and Carlingford Lough that will be used to inform and update the Loughs Agency’s appropriate assessments as required by the EU habitats directive, which defines how Natura 2000 sites are managed and protected. The data collected will allow for informed assessments of how waterbird populations may affect or be affected by aquaculture activity in the loughs.
We heard at the meeting that the process of recruiting the third stakeholder advisory forum is progressing, and that the agency expects that advertisements inviting applications will be sent out in the near future. The advisory forum has been an important tool for engagement with the stakeholders of both the Foyle and Carlingford catchments. The recruitment of the third forum will ensure that all interested parties will be provided with the opportunity to put forward their views on areas of interest or concern.
We considered two recommendations concerning the Loughs Agency that arise from the St Andrews Agreement review. We agreed to refer the following recommendations for endorsement to the NSMC plenary meeting in June 2012. The first recommendation was for the Loughs Agency to establish and provide services to producer organisations for the development of marine products. The Council supported that recommendation and agreed that any legislative obstacles identified by the agency would be addressed by the two sponsor Departments. The second recommendation was for an amendment to be sought to the Magistrates’ Courts rules to enable costs that are awarded to better reflect the cost of bringing prosecutions. Although any change to legislation in the North of Ireland to provide for a fixed-penalty regime is a matter for the Executive, it was agreed that the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (DARD) will keep under review the opportunity to amend the Foyle Fisheries Act 1952 to allow for a fixed-penalty regime.
We welcomed the progress on delivery of the Loughs Agency’s legislation implementation plan; approved the Foyle Area (Greenbraes Fishery Angling Permits) Regulations 2012, which prescribe the fees payable to the Foyle, Carlingford and Irish Lights Commission for the issue of Greenbraes fishery angling permits; and noted that further regulations will require NSMC approval later in 2012.
Finally, we agreed to meet again in aquaculture and marine sectoral format in June or July 2012. Go raibh míle maith agat.
Paul Frew (DUP)
I thank the Minister for her statement this afternoon. She referred to the attacks and abuse experienced by front line staff in the Loughs Agency. She mentioned that lines of communication between the Loughs Agency and the PSNI have improved. Can the Minister elaborate on what else is being done to protect staff?
With the amount of legal activity that is taking place — the seizure of 161 illegal nets, 12 boats, 36 bags of oysters, two cars and various items that include knives, balaclavas and batons — are we tackling the issue or scratching the surface?
Michelle O'Neill (Sinn Féin)
Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I thank the Member for the question. The reason I went to meet staff is that I am genuinely concerned that they have to carry out their jobs in difficult circumstances. I am pleased to say that the level of attacks on staff has greatly decreased, but that could be due to the season that we are in. Obviously, that would have to be monitored over a longer period to see whether some headway has actually been made. As Mr Frew said, significant work has been done to seize illegal items. Now that there is improved communication between the gardaí and the PSNI, that will, obviously, help things. The fact that we have also had a number of successful prosecutions acts as a deterrent. So, collectively, all those things add up and make a difference. Staff are delighted that levels are lower than they were at this time last year. However, as I said, we will have to keep that under review.
Willie Clarke (Sinn Féin)
Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I thank the Minister for her statement. Can she give us a flavour of the work that the Loughs Agency is doing on the marine tourism development strategy?
Michelle O'Neill (Sinn Féin)
Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I thank the Member for his question. The agency reported at the meeting that an application for INTERREG funding has been submitted for a project that involves the development of a 200-berth marina in Warrenpoint and the first stage of a similar development in Stranraer, including a new breakwater slipway and pontoon berths. The lead partner is Newry and Mourne District Council. The agency, Warrenpoint port, Louth County Council and Dumfries and Galloway Council are the other partners.
Those facilities will form the basis for a number of interactive projects between Carlingford lough and Loch Ryan and extend the necklace of marinas from the south and south-east of the island to the extremely attractive sailing opportunities between the north and west of Scotland, its islands and coast, and the north coast of Ireland. The aim is to provide day-sailing opportunities between the marinas and encourage visiting yachts and cruisers to explore Carlingford on their way north and, hopefully, west to the Foyle and beyond.
I hope that that gives the Member a flavour of the type of work that is being done under the marine tourism development strategy. I look forward to bringing forward many new, inventive ideas because they are constantly coming to the fore when I am out meeting groups.
Joanne Dobson (UUP)
I also thank the Minister for her statement. The success of the Loughs Agency, with improvements reported in the oyster population in Lough Foyle, stands in stark contrast to the failure of DARD and the Department of the Environment (DOE) to protect the horse mussel in Strangford lough. Can the Minister tell the House why, in one area, her Department seems to be improving, while, in another area, it is getting it so wrong?
Michelle O'Neill (Sinn Féin)
The issue of the horse mussel in Strangford lough is not one that is discussed at NSMC aquaculture meetings. However, I can bring the Member up to date on that issue. DOE and DARD put a position paper to Brussels, but that was rejected. Europe wants more, and we are actively working up positions on that. I am also meeting fishermen very shortly, as people’s livelihoods in that area depend on pot fishing. We have to have a balanced approach and make sure that any move we make protects the interests of those fishermen and helps to restore the horse mussel. It is about having that balanced approach, and the DOE and I are actively working on that. We have a short time frame in which to convince Europe of our position.
I welcome the Minister’s statement to the House. The number of incidents and threats against staff, particularly the staff of the Loughs Agency and volunteers, is very worrying. The SDLP condemns those threats. Will the Minister outline how many incidents have occurred in recent times? She mentioned that there have been some arrests. Will she detail how many arrests have been made and what help we, as Members, can give? This cannot continue to happen, and it is not reasonable to expect any staff member to work under those circumstances.
Michelle O'Neill (Sinn Féin)
I totally agree with the Member: it is totally unreasonable for staff to go out to do their jobs every day and be under constant attack, with stones, batons and everything else thrown at them. As I said, we have made some improvements, and the fact that the level of those incidents is pretty low is encouraging. However, we have to keep the situation under control.
On the measures that we have taken, I have met the Chief Constable of the PSNI and the Minister of Justice to discuss sentencing. Sentencing is also an issue and we want it to act as a proper deterrent. A combination of those measures will help to improve the situation. As I said, those incidents are at a low level. There have been three recent prosecutions and a number of others are actively being pursued. All those things will collectively make a difference.
Kieran McCarthy (Alliance)
“the agency successfully convicted every individual or company that had caused a fish kill”.
Were any of those convictions made against Northern Ireland Departments? The Minister also commented on the Loughs Agency’s action in:
“issuing a declaration suspending commercial fishing in Lough Foyle”.
There is a similarity between that action in Lough Foyle and what has happened in Strangford lough. Has there been any loss of employment as a result of that suspension?
Michelle O'Neill (Sinn Féin)
The agency has advised that seven cases involving pollution incidents have been brought to court. I will write to the Member to clarify whether any of those prosecutions involved Departments. I can also give him details of the seven cases that were brought to court as they have been dealt with. The agency has also advised that there have been no pollution incidents that have led to any fish kills this year. That is positive.
I think that your other question was about compensation. Some compensation was awarded back in 2008 in the form of a hardship package to assist people getting out of salmon fishing. That was back in 2008 and before my time as Minister. However, that is the situation as I understand it.
Trevor Clarke (DUP)
I also welcome the Minister’s statement. Paragraph 18 of the statement refers to a recommendation to seek an amendment on the costs that are awarded. We should welcome that, and hopefully it will come forward.
I think that there may be a typing mistake in the statement as it refers to “north of Ireland legislation” rather than Northern Ireland legislation. This is the Northern Ireland Assembly. Will the Minister push forward an increase in fixed penalties to make them much harsher?
Michelle O'Neill (Sinn Féin)
I think that it is important that penalties reflect what you are trying to do and act as a deterrent. If penalties need to be increased to do that, we will have to keep that under review. I met the Minister of Justice on the issue of fines and costs that have been awarded, and we continue to pursue that issue.
One of the recommendations that arose from the review of the St Andrews Agreement was that there should be joined-up thinking in relation to the recovery of costs and what it costs us to take cases to court. It is important that we continue to do that.
Michelle O'Neill (Sinn Féin)
A wide range of topics will be included, but I will highlight four of them: first, the development of science-based management strategies for the environmental and commercial sustainability of native oysters in the context of local commercial production; secondly, the investigation of blue mussel production under different management practices, and helping producers to develop points of stock audits to better manage mussel crop and increase returns; thirdly, the monitoring of salmon migration in the Foyle to aid in achieving the objectives of the water framework directive and the habitats directive by providing information for effective management; and fourthly, with eel populations in decline, the early life history of eels is poorly understood, and the study will aim to address that issue. Those are the specific topics that the IBIS project will be involved in.
Thomas Buchanan (DUP)
I thank the Minister for her statement. How many successful convictions have there been as a result of people being taken to court for their involvement in vicious attacks on Loughs Agency staff?
Michelle O'Neill (Sinn Féin)
There have been at least three prosecutions, and a number of cases are under appeal. We have to await the outcome of those cases. There have also been a number of seizures, as I outlined in my statement and which Paul Frew picked up on. A number of avenues are being pursued.
Danny Kinahan (UUP)
I thank the Minister for her statement. I welcome the fact that the Loughs Agency’s enforcement actions are working, and the comment that it convicted every individual. However, I still find it amazing that a meeting that calls itself an aquaculture and marine meeting does not seem to have any representation from the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure (DCAL), DOE or even from tourism. Will the Minister try to invite people from those Departments so that the whole of the marine and aquaculture sector can be included?
Michelle O'Neill (Sinn Féin)
The stakeholder advisory forum is a group that involves all stakeholders, whether they are on the fishing side, the angling side or are involved in tourism. It is made up of a wide range of people and it looks at all the issues around Carlingford lough and Lough Foyle. It is important that we exploit the tourism potential that exists in those areas. Some of the ideas that were discussed included having an oyster festival similar to the one that takes place in Carlingford and whether that could happen in Derry, perhaps tied in with the Clipper yacht race. A number of initiatives are being taken forward, and many stakeholders are represented on the forum.
Michaela Boyle (Sinn Féin)
Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I thank the Minister for her statement. I welcome the development of a bird survey protocol for Lough Foyle and Carlingford lough. Will the Minister give us some more details of the development of the protocol?
Michelle O'Neill (Sinn Féin)
As you said, the agency has developed a bird survey protocol, and it has started surveying in Carlingford lough. The next stage is to roll that out in Lough Foyle. That will be done, in the first instance, by a masters student through the IBIS project. The information generated by those surveys will be used to update the agency’s appropriate assessments for the two sea loughs.
An appropriate assessment must be carried out before an aquaculture licence can be granted or renewed and it is required under article 6 of the EU habitats directive. The existing avian data is insufficient for use as an indicator for the interactions between water birds and aquacultural activity, so supporting data is needed to bring the aquaculture sector into compliance with the habitats directive. Additional information is needed on the distribution of water birds, with particular attention to protected species and the abundance and assemblage of water birds and their interactions with aquaculture. There is a lot of information to be gathered, but the IBIS project will be key to making sure that it is delivered.
Lord Morrow (DUP)
The closer you look at this statement, Mr Speaker, the more alarming the whole thing becomes. The Minister said that lines of communication are being developed between the PSNI and the Garda Síochána.
It is disappointing to discover that we are only at the development stage. We have not developed them yet, but we are trying to develop them. She then went on to tell us that 161 illegal nets were seized. How many prosecutions were there as a result of the seizure of those 161 nets? When you ask how many is every, you either get a figure of seven or a figure of three. That is very disappointing, and I am sure that the Minister will agree that she has about a million miles to go on the programme yet before we get to any degree of satisfaction. What new steps are being taken to bring those cases before the courts? She tells us that 161 illegal nets were seized. How many prosecutions have there been?
Michelle O'Neill (Sinn Féin)
Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. As I said, I have made it a priority, and it is a priority of Loughs Agency, to protect the staff as they are out doing their job. Absolutely everyone condemns the attacks. Previously, I have outlined the initiatives that have been put in place. Of course, there already was communication between the gardaí and the PSNI, but, with specific reference to this issue, there needed to be improved lines of communication, so I welcome the fact that some sort of more formal protocol for engaging around the specific issues of poaching in this area and protecting staff is going to happen.
As you rightly said, 161 illegal nets and 12 boats were seized. There have been 44 seizures and 54 rod-related offences. There is a list as long as your arm of seizures and prosecutions. I am quite happy to write to the Member and give him the detail of prosecutions that have been made as a result of those 161 seizures, but, as I said, there have been three successful prosecutions and a number of prosecutions are under appeal, which we will have to continue to pursue. It is important to me that the staff are protected and that we do all that we can to ensure that they are protected as they do their job.
Jim Allister (Traditional Unionist Voice)
I will press the Minister a little further on paragraph 8, where we read of 161 illegal nets, 12 boats and two cars being seized. Was that in 2011? Are we now to understand that, in all of that, no prosecutions have been made relating to those items or that there have been three prosecutions? It has been quite confusing. The Minister has come to the House and said that she will have to write to Members, but could she not have foreseen that one of the prime questions that would be asked would be about the number of prosecutions that have been made so that we can get a handle on whether or not there has been any success in dealing with those issues?
Michelle O'Neill (Sinn Féin)
I said that there have been three prosecutions and a number are under appeal, so that may lead to a different number. The prosecutions were for oyster fishery breaches, and we have to continue to pursue those very successfully. We have to continue to ensure that we drive out the illegal activity that is happening there, but that will take a combined effort between the PSNI, the gardaí and the Loughs Agency. The Member who spoke previously asked how many prosecutions resulted from the seizure of 161 nets. That is what I said I would write to him on, and I will do so.
Lord Morrow (DUP)
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. There has been confusion right around the House about what exactly the Minister’s statement is really saying. Is it in order for a Member to request at the end that the Minister place all of the information that she has alluded to in the Library so that Members have access to it?
William Hay (DUP)
I have listened to what Lord Morrow has said. It is a matter for individual Ministers how they might answer Members’ questions on any statement and what they might do after making a statement to the House.
Jim Allister (Traditional Unionist Voice)
Further to that point of order, do you agree that we are in a very unsatisfactory position? The statement and the questions on it have finished, and we have been told about three prosecutions. We were then belatedly told that they, in fact, relate to oyster fishing, and we are left in the dark about whether or not the 161 illegal net seizures resulted in any prosecutions. Is it not a most unsatisfactory situation that we have questions on the statement and still do not know those basic answers?
William Hay (DUP)
I thank the Member for his point of order. I am sure that the learned Member will know the avenues that he should travel to try to exercise his right further to get information from the Minister. The Business Office is always there to advise Members on a way forward on any issue.
I ask the House to take its ease as we move on to the Second Stage of the Superannuation Bill.
Sammy Wilson (DUP)
I beg to move
That the Second Stage of the Superannuation Bill [NIA 6/11-15] be agreed.
The object of the Bill is to amend the Superannuation (Northern Ireland) Order 1972 to remove the need for trade union consent to introduce detrimental changes to the current terms of the Civil Service compensation scheme for Northern Ireland and to introduce new requirements for the Department of Finance and Personnel (DFP) to report on the consultation it engages in with unions with an aim to reaching agreement on such changes. The Department of Finance and Personnel has authority to make and maintain pension and compensation schemes for Northern Ireland civil servants under article 3 of the Superannuation (Northern Ireland) Order 1972.
The main schemes for civil servants made under the Superannuation (Northern Ireland) Order 1972 are the principal Civil Service pension scheme for Northern Ireland and the Civil Service compensation scheme for Northern Ireland. The Superannuation (Northern Ireland) Order 1972 requires that the Department shall engage in consultation with trade unions representing civil servants on any proposed changes to the schemes. Under article 4 of the 1972 Order, the Department is also required to secure the consent of the trade unions representing civil servants for any detrimental change that would have the effect of reducing the level of benefits payable under the schemes.
The Civil Service compensation scheme for Northern Ireland determines the levels of compensation paid to members who are made voluntarily or compulsorily redundant. It should be noted that, in addition to Northern Ireland Civil Service (NICS) staff, a number of other public bodies are also members of the scheme.
The Northern Ireland Civil Service pension and compensation schemes operate on the basis of parity with the equivalent schemes in the home Civil Service, which are made and maintained by the Cabinet Office under the provisions of the Superannuation Act 1972, which, in Great Britain, is the equivalent of the Superannuation (Northern Ireland) Order 1972. Although public service pension policy is a transferred matter, it has been a matter of practice for many decades that the schemes for civil servants in Northern Ireland have been virtually identical to their equivalents in Great Britain.
The Bill introduces amendments that have already been made to the Superannuation Act 1972 in Great Britain. Failure to maintain parity in this instance would result in civil servants in Northern Ireland who are made voluntarily or compulsorily redundant continuing to receive higher compensation payments than civil servants in Great Britain who leave in similar circumstances, which, of course, exerts additional pressures on public expenditure in Northern Ireland.
Payments in the Civil Service compensation scheme for Northern Ireland are currently determined with reference to length of service and to the age of an individual. Under the provisions, payments are generally limited to a maximum of three years’ pay. A new compensation scheme for the Home Civil Service was introduced on 22 December 2010, and the maximum payable is limited to 21 months’ pay for voluntary redundancy and 12 months’ pay for compulsory redundancy. Those terms are considerably less generous than those currently available to Northern Ireland civil servants.
The Minister for the Cabinet Office, Francis Maude, introduced a Superannuation Bill in the House of Commons on 15 July 2010 to amend the provisions of the Superannuation Act 1972. That Bill received Royal Assent on 16 December 2010.
The Public and Commercial Services Union and the Prison Officers’ Association lost a legal challenge in August 2011 against the imposition of the new Civil Service compensation scheme in the High Court.
This Bill will enable the Department of Finance and Personnel to take forward secondary legislation to realign the rules of the Civil Service compensation scheme Northern Ireland with those of the Home Civil Service scheme.
On 7 July 2011, the Executive agreed the drafting of the Superannuation Bill, and its introduction to the Assembly was agreed on 23 February 2012. My officials briefed the Finance and Personnel Committee on the Bill, and I look forward to maintaining the constructive working relationship over the coming months.
I will now turn to the Bill itself. Clause 1 removes the requirement in article 4 of the Superannuation (Northern Ireland) Order 1972 that the Department of Finance and Personnel must obtain consent of the Civil Service trade unions before introducing a change to the Civil Service compensation scheme Northern Ireland that would have the effect of reducing a compensation benefit that may be provided under the scheme. That is accomplished by subsection (3) of clause 1, which inserts provision that the requirements for trade union consent will not apply in the case of a compensation benefit attributable to a voluntary or compulsory redundancy, except where the case is prior to the coming into operation of the amendment.
Clause 2 inserts a requirement that, where consultation is undertaken by the Department of Finance and Personnel on the provision that would have the effect of reducing the amount of compensation payment, that consultation must be conducted with a view to reaching agreement with the trade unions consulted. Subsection (3) of clause 2 specifies that the Department of Finance and Personnel must document the consultation that has taken place and the steps taken with a view to reaching agreement on a provision that would have the effect of reducing compensation benefit made under the Civil Service compensation scheme Northern Ireland. The Department will be required to lay a report before the Assembly that provides that information and states whether such agreement has been reached before a provision comes into operation.
Clause 3 states that, in the Bill, the “1972 Order” means the Superannuation (Northern Ireland) Order 1972. Clause 4 sets out the title of the Bill and the provisions for commencement. Subsection (2) provides that clause 2, entitled “Consultation in relation to civil service compensation scheme modifications”, will come into operation one month after the Bill receives Royal Assent. The provisions in clause 1 will take effect on Royal Assent.
The Bill provides for fair superannuation arrangements for civil servants in Northern Ireland, aligning with arrangements in Great Britain, addresses age discrimination and promotes prudent public expenditure. I look forward to the support of the Assembly in taking forward the proposals.
Conor Murphy (Sinn Féin)
Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I thank the Minister for outlining the general principles of the Superannuation Bill and welcome the opportunity to contribute to the debate on behalf of the Committee for Finance and Personnel. As outlined by the Minister, the main provisions of the Bill are to amend the Superannuation Order 1972 by removing the requirement whereby the Department must secure the consent of trade unions to introduce detrimental changes to the current terms of the Civil Service compensation scheme and to introduce new requirements for the Department to engage with trade unions with the aim of reaching agreement on detrimental changes.
The Committee first heard from the Department on the proposed Bill in June 2011, following the becoming law of the Superannuation Act 2010 at Westminster. Although the policy on NICS pension and compensation arrangements is devolved, the Department has traditionally operated on the basis of parity with the Whitehall Civil Service schemes. The initial briefing on the proposed Superannuation Bill in June 2011 was provided in the context of ongoing legal proceedings that had been taken by the trade unions against the imposition of the new compensation scheme. That meant that, at that stage, the Department was in a position only to outline options for what action was required here. The legal challenges were subsequently unsuccessful, and the Executive proceeded to agree draft legislation in February 2012.
The Committee received a pre-introductory stage briefing from the Department on 7 March this year. As has already been outlined, the Superannuation Bill will provide for changes to trade union engagement and allow the Department to move to amend the Civil Service compensation scheme to align the amount of compensation that is payable to NICS staff and other members of the scheme with what is payable across the water. In other words, it caps the amount of compensation that is payable to civil servants to 12 months’ pensionable pay on compulsory redundancy and 15 months’ for voluntary redundancy. It should be noted that, under the current Superannuation Order 1972, such amendments to the compensation scheme can be made by DFP using subordinate legislation not subject to Assembly control.
The Committee has given initial consideration to the Bill based on the two briefings to date and has identified a number of themes and issues to be explored at Committee Stage. Members will wish to consider the Bill’s general impact, including the comparative benefits that are provided under the current scheme compared with the new scheme. The Committee will hear from a panel of trade union representatives at its meeting tomorrow, which will be the first opportunity to hear the views of the main stakeholders affected by the Bill. The Department has informed the Committee that the trade unions have been consulted and informed of the proposed changes, but they have not yet formally responded. It is important, therefore, that the Committee engage fully with the trade unions on the Bill.
The Committee will also wish to consider the overall consequences of the detrimental changes that the Bill will introduce to the compensation scheme. It will be important to consider, for example, the relative pay in the public and private sectors as a factor in introducing any detrimental changes. The Committee hopes to hear from a number of stakeholders in that regard.
In addition, the Committee wishes to explore further the assumption that parity must be maintained. The Minister outlined the reasons for maintaining parity in response to a recent question for oral answer, and the Department has also briefed the Committee on the perceived benefits of parity. The arguments for maintaining parity are largely based around the costs involved in providing more favourable benefits under the scheme locally and the associated administration costs of departing from the Whitehall Civil Service, such as the argument for establishing our own IT systems. The Committee has sought further information from the Department on the costs of departing from parity to inform its consideration of the issue.
As I already mentioned, amendments to the scheme can be made by DFP outside of the normal Assembly procedures for subordinate legislation. There is therefore a question over whether appropriate protections are in place for scheme amendments, given that the Bill removes the need for trade union consent. The Committee has queried with the Department whether the 1972 Order could be amended to require amendments to the scheme to be subject to Assembly control. The Department has confirmed that it would be possible to provide for that in the Superannuation Bill. I expect, therefore, that the Committee will want to give further consideration to the need for more Assembly control of future subordinate legislation as part of its scrutiny of the Bill.
Members have also recognised the need to consider any possible human rights and equality implications of the Superannuation Bill, particularly to do with the special statutory requirements that exist locally. The Committee will invite evidence from the Human Rights Commission and the Equality Commission, and it will need to give the matter very careful scrutiny.
The Committee will take forward those issues and invite written and oral evidence from all stakeholders as the Committee Stage progresses. Given the sensitive nature of the Bill and the need for detailed consideration of its provisions, I expect that the Committee will wish to consider in due course whether it needs to request an extension of the normal time allocated to Committee Stage.
I take this opportunity to thank the Minister and his officials for facilitating the Committee’s exploration of the issues to date. Members will continue that engagement during Committee Stage. Go raibh míle maith agat.
Paul Girvan (DUP)
I speak in favour of the Superannuation Bill. The fact that we must keep parity has already been mentioned. A number of Members are aware that, last week, the Minister talked about ensuring that Northern Ireland remained on the same Civil Service pay as areas of Great Britain.
I feel that that is the case and, as such, we should look along a similar line in relation to the costs that could ultimately be reflected on Northern Ireland and the Assembly if we break that rule at this point. I appreciate that this is one of the issues that will be brought up tomorrow, when the Committee, as was said, meets the trade unions, which may well have concerns about some aspects of how this will impact on members who are being made voluntarily or compulsorily redundant and the time factor involved in the amount of pay that they will receive. I appreciate that the Bill provides for 21 months’ payment for voluntary redundancy and 12 months for the compulsory. The Chair mentioned 15 months; maybe there will be some clarification on that point, but I understand it to be 21 months for voluntary and 12 months for compulsory redundancy.
As far as the 1972 Order is concerned, I appreciate the need to look at how we use the funds that we have more proactively and ensure that we do not spend more than we have been allocated towards these types of arrangements. The Committee has already met departmental officials, and a number of our queries were addressed at that session. As it stands, I support the Second Stage of the Superannuation Bill. I appreciate that it will impact greatly on the final payment that will be received by those people who, due to the economic climate, will lose their jobs in the Civil Service. We must consider that, and, even though we say that we support the Bill, we do not want to see people losing money from redundancy payments. Unfortunately, you cannot have your cake and eat it, but we have to make these judgements, and as an Assembly we must support that.
Leslie Cree (UUP)
I welcome the opportunity to speak on important legislation that has ramifications for a significant number of people in Northern Ireland. The Finance Committee has received briefings on a number of occasions on the Superannuation Bill. In effect, the Committee has been in limbo, as the corresponding legislation that was introduced in Westminster had been subject to legal proceedings, to which our Chairman has referred. I thank the officials for keeping us apprised of the situation up to this point.
I first want to deal with the legal challenge in GB. It was brought by the Public and Commercial Services Union and the Prison Officers’ Association against the changes to the Home Civil Service compensation scheme introduced as a result of the Superannuation Act 2010 at Westminster. However, the legal challenge was unsuccessful, and that has left the way open to move forward with the Superannuation Bill that is before us today, and subsequently to amend the Civil Service compensation scheme in Northern Ireland. The effect will be to bring Northern Ireland into line with what has happened in the rest of GB.
As I said at the outset, the legislation will have ramifications for a number of people in Northern Ireland. Statistics from the Department show that the Civil Service scheme, at 31 March 2011, had just over 34,000 active members and that last year, the scheme paid out more than £232 million in pensions and lump sums. Therefore, due to the sheer volume of people that the Bill affects, we approach it with sensitivity and a good deal of sympathy.
To deal with the issue in its broadest sense, the compensation scheme determines the amount of compensation and early pension benefits to be paid to staff who face voluntary or compulsory redundancy.
The key changes to the scheme include that staff leaving on voluntary redundancy will — I will say this for Mr Girvan’s information — receive a maximum of 21 months’ salary and those leaving through compulsory redundancy will receive a maximum of 12 months’ salary. I believe that, under the current system, members are entitled to a maximum of three years’ pay.
Moving on, I will look specifically at the Bill’s proposals. It is a short Bill, and, as the Minister said, it contains two main clauses. Clause 1 will remove the requirement to obtain consent from the Civil Service trade unions for reductions in benefits. However, that needs to be looked at alongside clause 2, which will augment the requirement on DFP to carry out consultation with a view to reaching agreement on any reduction of a compensation benefit. Clause 2 will also introduce a requirement for DFP to produce a report on such consultations. That report must be laid before the Assembly.
Overall, I believe that clause 2 means that trade unions’ views will be adequately taken into account, despite their consent not being needed. It is also clear that the Assembly can perform an important scrutiny role of any changes through consideration of the DFP report. At this stage, I am satisfied with the Bill’s general principles.
The issue that lies at the heart of the debate has been rehearsed in the House many times, and that is the issue of parity. The Minister and his officials from the Department of Finance and Personnel have made the decision that now is the time to introduce legislation to ensure that parity is maintained in that area. The Ulster Unionist Party supports that decision. There is little point in going over the detrimental effects that a divergence from parity with the rest of the United Kingdom would have on Northern Ireland. During the debate on welfare reform, we heard, and will continue to hear, of the financial consequences of doing that. Suffice it to say, however, it is an important avenue that we should not, and will not, go down. The Ulster Unionist position is clear on that.
It must be noted that the Executive agreed a paper on 7 July 2011 that outlined that the Superannuation (Northern Ireland) Order 1972 needed to be amended. The paper also agreed to remove the need for union consent and to introduce detrimental changes to the current terms of the Civil Service compensation scheme (Northern Ireland). It also agreed to introduce requirements for DFP to report on its consultation with unions with the aim of reaching agreement on any such changes. Therefore, it is important to remember that, as it moves through the legislative process, the Bill has received the Executive’s backing.
Go raibh maith agat a LeasCheann Comhairle agus tá áthas orm páirt a ghlacadh sa díospóireacht seo ar an ábhar tábhachtach seo. Thank you, Mr speaker is in charge of proceedings of the House of Commons in..." class="glossary">Deputy Speaker, and I am pleased to participate in this Second Stage debate. At Second Stage, we are charged with addressing the Bill’s general principles. In my view, one of its general principles revolves around how we deal with changes in transferred matters, which, in this case, means those financial issues that affect us as a result of legislation that has been introduced in Westminster.
As several Members said, parity is at the heart of the Bill. That goes alongside the breach of the social contract between unions and government, which has been part of compensation issues for a number of years now. Traditionally, there has been a tendency to follow parity. You could say that parity is the default position here, especially when there appears to be a cost to the Executive. However, in some cases, as in this one, we are not always given the exact figures and costings that are associated with breaking parity. In the case of this Bill, we are told that departure from parity will cost us more, but we are not told how much more. We are expected to make up our minds in a vacuum, without the necessary information being available. I wonder whether that is a good way in which to proceed. I think not, especially as this is such an important issue, which, as the Member who spoke previously said, has the potential to affect the lives of so many people and their families.
Apparently, the options were presented to the Minister and his view was that there would be a cost if we did not follow parity. We were told that there would be a cost to departmental expenditure limits and in the benefits payable to people, as well as a cost for different legislation and administration and, as the Chair of the Committee has said, for adjustments to the IT system. The question is this: how much, and could we afford the cost? Should we afford it? Without the figures, we do not know; we are in the dark. That begs the question: on what was the Minister’s view based? Did he have a breakdown of the options and the costs? Did he make a decision on that basis? Or did he simply come to the conclusion, without any figures being available, that there would be a cost? Yes, there may be a cost, but let us know what it is so that we can make up our minds on the basis of fact rather than on the basis of what we think the cost might be. On some occasions, the cost might be worth paying.
Neither was the Finance and Personnel Committee presented with figures to indicate costs. There is a telling line in the evidence given to the Committee during the departmental briefing on the Bill on 7 March. An official laid out the Department’s stall in relation to following or not following parity. Two issues were mentioned: the costs, for which, as I said, no figures were given, and mobility transfer across all public sector schemes. The official concluded:
“that is a link that we and the Northern Ireland Executive have chosen to maintain.”
As I said, it is a telling remark. According to that evidence, it is not the Executive alone who have made the choice to maintain the link with parity, which, of course, is their democratic right.
Sammy Wilson (DUP)
Since the Member seems to be making such a meal of the whole issue of parity, maybe he will outline to the Assembly, just for the sake of clarity and consistency, what line the SDLP Social Development Ministers, Mr Attwood and Ms Ritchie, took when it came to welfare changes that were devised in Great Britain but had to be applied by them as Ministers. Did they not let the word “parity” slip over their lips on quite a number of occasions in the Assembly as well? Or has the SDLP had a sudden aversion to the whole concept of parity?
I thank the Minister for his question. It is a very good one, and I am eager to answer it. If the Minister casts his mind back to the Executive decisions on this particular issue, he will recall that the SDLP Minister voted against it. [Interruption.] On previous occasions and in other instances, he may have supported parity, but the point that I am making —
Thank you very much, Mr speaker is in charge of proceedings of the House of Commons in..." class="glossary">Deputy Speaker. The point that I am making is that it may be advantageous to follow parity on some or many occasions, or it may not be. However, if we are to make those decisions, we must have the information, the costings and the figures that help us make up our mind. The point I am making, and I am sure that the Minister and Chair will take note of it, is that on this particular issue, we did not have such figures and costings. I hope that that clarifies for the Minister the point that I make.
In the evidence given to the Committee, it very much appeared that this was a joint decision taken by the Executive and officials in the Department of Finance and Personnel. We have to ask who really is in control. Politicians need to show clearly that it is they who are in control.
As was mentioned, the main provisions of the Bill are to amend the Superannuation (Northern Ireland) Order 1972 to remove the need for union consent to introduce detrimental changes to the current terms of the Civil Service compensation scheme here and to introduce requirements for DFP to report to the Assembly on its consultations with unions with the aim of reaching agreement on any such changes.
Under the proposed changes, the maximum compensation payable under the new compensation scheme will be 21 months’ salary for staff leaving on voluntary redundancy and 12 months’ salary for those leaving under compulsory redundancy. There are two significant points to be noted there. The first is that there is now no requirement for agreement to be reached, just that consultation be carried out with the aim of reaching agreement. The second is that the Department and the Minister are required to report on their consultations and to lay that report before the Assembly. It is far from clear whether that gives the Assembly the opportunity to debate and vote on that report. I ask the Minister for clarity on that. Is it that a report will be laid in the Library and the Assembly will be presented with a fait accompli, with no power to reject the report or even to question the Minister on it, or will the report come before the Assembly in the Chamber so that Members will have the opportunity to question the Minister on it and, indeed, to vote on it? That is a very important matter and relates to the powers of the Assembly to scrutinise the work of Ministers and Departments.
If that is not the case, then this Bill presents the danger of undermining the scrutiny role of the Assembly, and we should be very unwilling to accept that. Under those circumstances, the Department and the Minister would have a free hand to change the compensation schemes at will without any accountability to the Assembly. I am interested to hear what the Minister has to say in response to that. I draw my remarks to a close and await the Minister’s response.
Stewart Dickson (Alliance)
I welcome the opportunity to speak on the Bill. Following the Superannuation Act 2010, which removed the requirement of the Superannuation Act 1972 for trade union consent to critical changes in the Home Civil Service compensation scheme in Great Britain, this Bill was crafted to complement and reflect those predetermined provisions and, significantly, to place Northern Ireland on a level playing field with regard to parity alongside our counterparts.
Taking into consideration the unpredictable and ongoing nature of the economic uncertainty facing our society, there is an evident and pressing need for us continually to revise and refine how we govern. That is equally applicable to the process that we employ in maintaining pension and compensation schemes for our public sector.
As touched on by other Members, the Bill primarily provides for amendments to the Superannuation (Northern Ireland) Order 1972, with the fundamental change relating to the need for trade union engagement when making changes to the Civil Service compensation scheme. Current legislation dictates that the Department must obtain the consent of the trade unions before it can make any adverse changes to the existing scheme. Under the new proposals, the historical requirement for trade union consent will be removed, meaning that the Department will be free to proceed with changes without requiring external approval.
Our trade unions play a vital part in the representation of public sector workers, and constructive engagement should be both pursued and encouraged. Although I have concern over the removal of the trade union consent as a requirement, additional measures in the Bill seek to redress the balance and ensure that due process and credence is given to the trade union voice.
As I have said, constructive engagement with trade unions should be both pursued and encouraged. In order to appropriately and comprehensively give trade union representatives their rightful place, new requirements in the Bill call upon the Department to report on the success and nature of the consultation it engages in with the trade unions, with a view to reaching agreement suitable to all sides.
In line with the amendments, the Department is required to bring a formal report before the Assembly. I look forward with interest to the Minister’s comments on how that report, which is on any proposed changes to reducing compensation levels payable to civil servants on redundancy, will be done. The introduction of such a requirement places responsibility on the Department and the Minister to be transparent and accountable in how they present information and engage in consultation.
Although the opportunity for greater consideration and scrutiny will arise when the Bill is brought before the Finance and Personnel Committee, I hope that all Members will take advantage of the time afforded to them before the Bill reaches its next stage in this Chamber and that both the Department and the Minister will give careful consideration to any concerns raised as and when they become apparent, bearing in mind that any changes to the provisions we afford our public services will impact on the processes by which we govern. We must give due consideration to the economic climate in which we operate, and, above all, we need to be able to justify and stand by our decisions.
The proposed changes not only seek to maintain parity and ensure our public servants have equal status with their GB counterparts, but in principle seek to take account of the prevailing economic winds. It is on those grounds that the Alliance Party offers its support to the Bill at this stage.
David Hilditch (DUP)
I will be brief. I support the Bill and look forward to its Committee Stage in the days ahead and the work that that will entail on what is an important piece of legislation.
Clearly, employment cultures change. More often than not, it is not just an annual salary that is taken into consideration when people set out on their careers. The overall package can be crucial, and elements within that are taken into consideration when someone sets out on a career path. Those elements are high on people’s list of priorities when they are applying for work and looking at where they will be in future years. Particularly in today’s economic climate, most people will look at the finer detail before taking their first step on the career ladder. Universities and colleges are training graduates and are playing an advisory role in identifying career-linked benefits.
With the parity issue in mind, I want to seek a number of assurances on some of the elements associated with the Bill as it prepares to advance to its Committee Stage, which, as the Chairperson highlighted, begins tomorrow. Will the Minister give us some detail on how any proposed new scheme would be able to protect the lower paid and limit payments to higher earners? As I stated before, the situation of the lower paid is important, so hopefully there is some protection in the scheme for them and people in that group will see that.
Given the issues that have, unfortunately, grabbed the headlines in recent times in other places, can we look at situations in any scheme where there is an opportunity for someone who has retired to regain their position in the Civil Service at a later date after a change of mind? What would happen to compensation payments when rejoining? Further to that, are there any issues there for the folk who fall into the partial retirement category? How would that impact on their situations?
With those points of clarification, I support the Second Stage of the Bill and look forward to the scrutiny at Committee level.
Mitchel McLaughlin (Sinn Féin)
Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I find this a particularly difficult discussion for this Assembly, but I see it as a challenge. I very much look forward to hearing what the unions have to say tomorrow. However, I note that none of them, including NIPSA, has yet made a formal submission to the consultation. As we know, they have joined the legal challenge in London, and that reflects their general approach to negotiations. They prefer to align themselves with the direct negotiations with Treasury on pay rounds and are strongly of the view that that should be reflected in the parity application of any outcome of those negotiations. The unions may give some steer to the Committee tomorrow, and we will certainly question them on that. However, my understanding is that, notwithstanding failure to get a positive outcome from the legal challenge, the unions have not reconsidered their traditional approach — if I might use that term — of shadowing the pay negotiations at Westminster, which, generally, are then applied directly across.
Clearly, the issue for the Assembly and the Executive is how we find an approach that uses the powers that we have already and that reflects the position of the unions and the situation that applies elsewhere, in a way that the public can understand.
The public sector is the mainstay of our local economy in many ways, and any detrimental effect on its spending power is a factor to be considered. My sense of the debate thus far is that we have not been provided with sufficient empirical evidence of comparisons of pay grades in the public and the private sector. People may also argue that, under the arrangements that have pertained so far, in which we cabinet is the name given to the group of senior members from..." class="glossary">shadow the Westminster pay negotiations, there is a widening gap between the public sector and the private sector here and that those arrangements contribute to the imbalance in our economy. The Committee should take a long-term perspective on that issue, with a view to achieving what has been a very consistent priority for the Assembly and its Executive since the re-establishment of the Assembly at Stormont.
We have also discovered other issues. Westminster Departments tend to operate with an even greater silo mentality than Departments here. At least here there is access to the gene pool of experience and talent and an ability to transfer between Departments to take best advantage of it. I do not speak with any authority on the extent to which that is maximised, but at least it can happen. As I understand it, one Department at Westminster could be making civil servants redundant at the same time as another is recruiting. That seems to be a very expensive and wasteful practice, both in itself and of experience gained. Our Civil Service is at least ahead on that particular curve.
There is also an issue that arises from the arrangements and packages that have been negotiated. One report that I have heard about indicates that there are up to 1,700 civil servants who are simply too expensive to make redundant. They have such packages in place that the Civil Service cannot afford to make them redundant. I ask the Minister whether that situation applies here. I am constantly bemused by the fact that we have over 200 senior civil servants in what is quite a small region. While we are having this discussion, the question pops up of why we have so many and why we do not seem to be able to do anything about the excessive numbers. That should be one of the issues that we consider when approaching the question.
At the end of the day, decisions have to be made, and the Assembly should be allowed to have buy-in. I have serious concerns that simply laying an order will affect not only the immediate implementation of the new policy but any future amendments to it. The Assembly should make its views known in respect of that very clearly to the Minister.
I understand that there is a possibility that this will be addressed, and I strongly affirm my support for that. The Assembly should be consulted. There should be a process, and it is well within our gift of positive or negative resolution that each measure in respect of the introductory phase and any subsequent amendment to the scheme is brought back to the Assembly for consultation. That is in the interests of the Executive and the particular Minister concerned.
It is also in the interests of the Assembly to take a corporate view in addressing anomalies and inconsistencies that have developed over time or in terms of transfer from one type of government to another. This is an opportunity to put our fingerprint on it. I want to have robust engagement with the unions about the approach that they have taken up to now. There are anomalies that are not necessarily working in the broadest interests of the economy. However, their perspectives and their buy-in, if we can achieve it, are absolutely vital. Therefore, the measures of consultation in respect of the new scheme will be a crucial test, and I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say about those points.
Adrian McQuillan (DUP)
I support the Second Stage of the Bill. The Bill will ensure parity with the rest of the United Kingdom after the passing of the Superannuation Act 2010, which removed the requirement of the Superannuation Act 1972 for trade union consent on detrimental changes to the compensation scheme for the Home Civil Service in Great Britain.
The Department of Finance and Personnel has authority under the provisions of the Superannuation (Northern Ireland) Order 1972 to make, maintain and amend pensions and compensation schemes for the Northern Ireland civil servants and other employments listed at schedule 1 to the Superannuation (Northern Ireland) Order 1972.
The Bill removes the requirement that exists under the Superannuation Order 1972, whereby the Department of Finance and Personnel must secure the consent of trade unions to introduce detrimental changes to the Civil Service compensation scheme. Those provisions are contained in clause 1 of the Bill.
The Bill also introduces new requirements, contained in clause 2, for the Department of Finance and Personnel to report on the consultation it has engaged in with the trade unions, with the aim of reaching agreement on detrimental changes. Under the new requirement, the Department must lay a report before the Assembly describing the consultation process it has undertaken on the proposed changes that would have the effect of reducing the level of compensation payable to civil servants on redundancy. That is something that I feel is fair and more transparent, as the Department, in its consultations, will be held to account by the Assembly directly.
Recently, in the Chancellor’s Budget, the idea of regional pay rates for employees of the Northern Ireland Civil Service was floated. The Finance Minister is on record as opposing such a scheme, which would not only harm employees of the Northern Ireland Civil Service and its associated agencies but would result in unequal pay scales being introduced across the United Kingdom. In my opinion, that is not in line with the principles of fairness and equality.
For that reason and for ensuring equality, I support the Bill, which would see employees here treated no differently from employees anywhere else in the United Kingdom. If the Assembly retained the Superannuation Order 1972, we would only see additional superannuation costs having to be met by this House, meaning that the Executive would have to take money from somewhere else in order to pay for it. That is something that I cannot support. Members are, therefore, duty bound to ensure parity with the rest of the United Kingdom, as the Northern Ireland Civil Service is essentially Northern Ireland’s biggest employer, and, by doing so, to protect Departments from being hit with the large compensation payouts that would result from the retention of the current consultation exercise. Therefore, I support the Second Stage of the Bill.
Jim Allister (Traditional Unionist Voice)
The compulsion of parity means that this is largely an academic exercise, but it fills some time in the Assembly, although, judging by the interest in this debate, not a lot of time.
I am left wondering a little bit about the Minister’s belief in the Bill, because I note that his colleagues voted against its parent Bill, the 2010 Bill, when it was going through Westminster. The Minister does not appear to have voted; I do not know whether that was by accident or by design. No doubt he will tell us whether he was foreseeing this day, when someone like me might get up and rebuke him for wanting to lead us in a direction he had voted against. Certainly, his party and his colleagues in Westminster voted against the Superannuation Bill of 2010, but, today, they have been professing their support and belief in this Bill, which, to all intents and purposes, is identical. I am sure that there is a very compelling explanation for that, and I am sure that, at this moment, the inventive Minister is thinking about what that is, and we will hear it in due course. It is a point that is worth noting upon, particularly since he talked to us about clarity and transparency being so important. No doubt, we will have some clarity on that issue before the debate is out.
The pretence that clause 2 will afford consultation with the unions is quite farcical, because clause 1 makes it abundantly clear that you can consult with the unions as long as you like, but they have no veto; their consent is not required. Although the Department will, doubtless, go through the motion of consultation with the unions, in parallel with what has happened in another place, the reality is that, at the end of that process, the unions will be told, “We hear what you say, but this is how it is.” Clause 2 is much window dressing. As it was in the 2010 Act, so it is in the local Bill. We know much in the House about mutual vetoes and how one side can, sometimes, be forced to make a concession it does not wish to make, because if it wants progress on something else, it has to concede on that particular issue. In this case, however, there is no veto. The veto is with the Department and, therefore, the Department will simply go through the motions, hold the line and say, “There it is.”
The one area that concerns me the most relates to low-paid civil servants. We are making a distinct detrimental change in reducing the level of compensation from three years to 12 months in a compulsory redundancy. I am not particularly concerned about whether our overpaid senior civil servants and their compatriots, the overpaid special breed who are called Spads, are reduced to 12 months’ pay on exit, which, in the case of some Spads, might be a mere £90,000. I am not particularly concerned about them, but I am concerned about the low-paid civil servant who is earning maybe £17,000, £18,000, £20,000 or £21,000 and who, hitherto, after many years of service, could at least have had the cushion of a significant sum of money accumulated over the three year compensation. Now, in a climate in which employment is so difficult to attain, they find that all they will have is 12 months’ compensation. I suspect the Minister may well sympathise with aspects of that, but his Bill will drive that situation, if compulsory redundancies arise amongst the lower ranks of the Civil Service.
We all recognise — at least, most of us recognise — that the primary issue here pertains to parity. It is the compulsion of parity that will propel the Bill through, drives the content of the Bill and will enforce the Bill. However, in the context of recent speculation about parity pertaining to public pay and regional diversity, the House needs to be careful about how it plays fast and loose with parity. This House, in part, and this Executive have set the scenery for interference with parity, such as could come in respect of public pay disparity, by playing fast and loose with parity. When it comes to taxation, we have no allegiance to parity. We pander, and we demand change on corporation tax. We say that parity is not for us on taxation. Do not, therefore, be surprised if, in consequence, the Treasury says that, if we are not signed up to parity on income and taxation, we should not expect it to sign up to parity on expenditure. That is a concern: this House, sowing what it sows, could yet reap, in a far more ravaging sense, the demolition of aspects of parity in respect of public pay. For me, that is a considerable concern and one that makes the price that may be paid in respect of corporation tax an even greater one than looks to be possible at this moment.
There are issues. I look at the Bill and, knowing that it will be propelled by parity through the House, wonder why we simply did not do it by a legislative consent motion. I think we all know in this House that the Bill is going through. This Bill will be signed up to because of the compulsion of parity. However, we will, no doubt, go through the motions of debating it here, debating it in Committee and, at the end of the day, doing what could have been done by a legislative consent motion.
Sammy Wilson (DUP)
I thank all the Members who have taken part in the debate. Despite the comments made by the last Member, I think that, although there have not been a huge number of Members in attendance, we have had an interesting debate with some very important points raised. I will seek to address all those points; I will not dodge any of them, including the point made by the Member for North Antrim.
I thank the Committee for the work it has done to date on this. I look forward to the work it will do at Committee Stage and the report that will come at the end of that for final debate in the Assembly.
I will deal with the general points that were made, referring to specific Members as I go. The point of clarity has already been made: for the voluntary redundancy scheme it will be 21 months, and for compulsory redundancy it will be 12 months. Indeed, the Member for North Down was trying to make me redundant — I do not know whether it was compulsory or voluntary — by answering the question that Mr Girvan raised on the issue.
A number of issues were raised about the Bill. The first was on the need for the legislation. Of course, there is the issue of parity and the fact that there will be costs associated with the Assembly, both in the cost of the compensation payable and the cost of administration. Mr Bradley made the point that, if we are going to talk about compensation and say that there are compensation costs, the Assembly should at least have some idea of what those costs are likely to be. As I pointed out in the intervention, that doctrine was not followed by the SDLP Ministers when they were in the same position. Mr Bradley pointed out that parity might be beneficial at times. Parity was very beneficial; it was a very beneficial argument for Mr Attwood and Ms Ritchie when they wanted to dodge any questions about why the SDLP was following the benefit and welfare reform line for the rest of the United Kingdom even though it was probably against their Social Democratic and Labour Party principles. They did it on the basis of parity. I do not remember costs ever being given at that stage. Nevertheless, I will outline the calculations that we have done for the cost of not maintaining parity. Apart from the administrative changes — I have outlined the IT system, communication etc — there will be the direct costs of the differences in the compensation.
Sammy Wilson (DUP)
Let me just give the figure. According to the calculations that have been done so far, under the old scheme — the scheme as it exists at present up to the three years — the cost would be £12 million if you were to make 100 staff redundant. Under the new scheme, it would cost £7 million. That is a difference of £5 million for every 100 redundancies. That is a rough calculation, and it contains a number of assumptions. However, it is a conservative value that we have attached to the parity costs.
I thank the Minister for giving way. He alleges inconsistency in the SDLP’s approach to parity. How does he explain his party’s inconsistency on the Bill, voting against it at Westminster and promoting it here today?
Sammy Wilson (DUP)
I would have been a bit embarrassed to raise that point. If the Member is going to make a point, he should not steal it from the Member for North Antrim. I will address that point anyway, but the Member should be original in his thinking, for goodness’ sake. If he is going to think of criticisms that he wants to address —
Sammy Wilson (DUP)
I am going to answer it, but I need a bit of a lead-in. Just give me the time to answer it. If the Member wants to make points, he should at least be original. He should not go around stealing points from other Members in the Assembly, for goodness’ sake.
Let me address the question just in case I forget it and then find myself accused of trying to dodge the point. I thought that this point might come up, although I did not expect that so much research would have been done. However, knowing the thoroughness of the Member for North Antrim, I suppose I should have expected it. I did not vote on the issue in the House of Commons. The issue was live at that time, and it was coming to Northern Ireland, although, on other occasions it has not. As a party, we felt that there were issues that we would prefer not to see changed. There were some things in the Welfare Reform Bill that we voted against, and there have been some issues in the Budget in past years that we have voted against. Where we feel that the change can be made, we seek to make the difference by being there and voting on the issue. However, once the issue has been decided in the House of Commons and it comes to Northern Ireland, there are times when a view has to be made on balancing whether we continue to have a different regime that is costly or, having made the arguments and lost them, we simply implement the changes here.
The view that we have taken on this one is this: yes, had there been the ability to change the view of the Government at Westminster, of course we would have done that. However, having not succeeded in that, why should we then impose unnecessary costs on ourselves? Secondly — this is important — why should we continue with a regime that leaves Northern Ireland open to legal challenges, as some Members pointed out? One reason that changes were required was that the current system relates not only to the length of service but to the age of people who are made redundant. I do not think that it would have been long before we got a challenge on the grounds of age discrimination.
There is a three-year element to the system at present, as Mr McLaughlin said. The Member for North Antrim asked how the change will impact on the lower paid: the three-year rule also made it difficult — or too expensive — to make some people in the system redundant because of the level of compensation that would be required. There are good reasons why some of the changes need to be made, including practical benefits and to avoid legal challenges.
Members spoke about how the situation had changed from unions having a veto, where there had to be agreement, to a process of consultation. I take issue with the point raised by the Member for North Antrim, who said that he felt it right for that veto to be maintained — I see that he shakes his head — and that we were doing damage by removing it.
Jim Allister (Traditional Unionist Voice)
My point was that the Bill is disingenuous by pretending that there is a consultation process that could have an effect, when in reality it is window dressing, given that the veto rests with the Department and no veto rests with the unions.
Sammy Wilson (DUP)
Perhaps the Member has clarified his position; I thought that he was opposing that aspect of the Bill. People have asked whether the consultation is purely window dressing. They have asked what the Assembly’s input will be when the consultation has taken place. Clause 2(3) of the Bill states:
“Before the scheme comes into operation, the Department must have laid before the Assembly a report”.
First, that report must show that consultation has taken place. Secondly, it must show the steps that we are taking with a view to reaching agreement. That is the purpose of the consultation: it must be genuinely undertaken in order to reach agreement. It is not a bit of window dressing. To ascertain whether that has happened, the report must include a clear statement of the steps taken to reach agreement with the trade unions and whether such agreement has been reached. I do not accept the point that this is simply window dressing.
Another point, first raised by Mr Bradley and then reiterated by other Members, concerns the role of the Assembly. So what if the report is laid before the Assembly? What role does the Assembly then have? The report will be for information after the consultation has taken place. It is not part of the consultation, but I do not need to preach to the Member what mechanisms are then available. Many reports are laid before the Assembly, and the Assembly has ways of dealing with them, either through Members’ questions or debates in the House or by referring them to Committees. I am sure that Members will be ingenious in finding ways of ensuring that such reports, when laid before the Assembly, have an opportunity for public airing.
I thank the Minister for giving way. Considering that the changes are important and will have a serious impact on people’s lives, does he not agree that the Assembly needs much more accountability on the issue? Does he not agree that, given the protection that civil servants had previously, in so far as their unions had a veto, it would be appropriate that the report comes before the Assembly in the Chamber, is open to question and, indeed, is voted on? That would afford civil servants further assurance that their rights would be protected fully.
Sammy Wilson (DUP)
I am not sure what the Member is actually asking for. Is he now saying that the Assembly should be the body that negotiates directly with trade unions about levels of compensation? If that requires Assembly support before it can go through, he would actually be putting the Assembly directly in the line of negotiation. For example, if a report comes to the House and it shows that all reasonable steps were taken to reach agreement and it was not possible to do so, is the Member saying that, despite not having been involved in any of those negotiations, Assembly Members should have the opportunity to say that they do not believe that adequate steps were taken or that they do not like the outcome and, therefore, want a different outcome? The purpose of the Bill is to ensure that there has been fair negotiation and that it has not been a case of walking in and saying, “There is the compensation scheme. Take it or leave it. Bye, bye”, and walking out again. The report must show that all reasonable steps were taken. Of course, the Assembly would have concern if it were shown that reasonable steps to reach agreement were not taken. That is the Assembly’s role. It is not its role to negotiate compensation levels.
I thank the Minister for giving way. That is the exact point that I am making. If proper steps have not been taken to reach agreement, the Assembly has no power over it. The Assembly merely has a report laid before it. It has no power to reject that report.
Sammy Wilson (DUP)
I would have thought that we were actually giving the Assembly more input now. The Member well knows that, given the scrutiny that there would be of such a report laid before the Assembly, if it were seen that reasonable steps had not been taken, he and other Members would have lots of different opportunities, through Committees, debates on the Floor, questions to Ministers et cetera, to ensure that that point was made and highlighted. That is much more input than the Assembly has at present.
The third issue that Members raised was the protection of lower-paid staff. Mr Hilditch and Mr Allister raised that issue in their contributions. Mr Allister pointed out that, under current arrangements, those who are in the lower-paid group at least receive a maximum of 36 months’ pay if they are made redundant. I noted that he took the lower, compulsory redundancy figure of 12 months, rather than the voluntary redundancy figure, and said that, under the new scheme, the cushion is removed substantially.
I suppose that, first of all, there are two provisions. The first issue is that most redundancies that have taken place have been voluntary. I stand to be corrected, but I do not think that there have been any compulsory redundancies for a reasonable period. We are more likely, therefore, to be talking about the 21-month limit than the 12-month limit. Secondly, under the new scheme, there will be a minimum pay level for which people will be considered, which is £23,000 per year or the part-time equivalent. So, to take Mr Allister’s example, someone on £17,000 a year would be treated as if they were on £23,000 a year, and, if they went for voluntary redundancy, they would get compensation of 21 months’ payment. Although there is a reduction in the number of months of compensation they would receive, the uplift in pay that they would receive would mean that the compensation payable would be more or less the same under the new scheme. They would receive an uplift in pay of over 33%, and the reduction from 36 months to 21 months is just over 33%. Therefore, the compensation should not be that different, and that will protect the lower-paid. At the upper end — I think that this addresses Mr McLaughlin’s point — compensation would be limited to a maximum of £149,820. Even if someone earns £160,000 a year, their compensation would be limited to that maximum. Therefore, there will be a pulling-back at the upper end of the scheme, and protection has been built in for the lower-paid. Part-time workers, who perhaps only work half a week, will receive a full-time equivalence-and their compensation will be worked out on a pro rata basis.
Mr Murphy and one other Member raised the issue of human rights. That was the subject of a court challenge in England, and the court rejected the human rights argument. It did not take the view that human rights extended to a veto over any provisions or that provisions had to be continued for those who had made payments in the past.
Mr McLaughlin and Mr Murphy raised the gap between wages in the private sector and those in the public sector. Mr McLaughlin pointed out that there was a widening pay gap and asked what implications that would have for the compensation scheme. I do not want to get into a debate about the gap between private sector and public sector pay in Northern Ireland. The whole point of Arlene Foster’s and the First Minister and deputy First Minister’s strategy to attract investment to Northern Ireland is to get private sector wages up. It is not about bringing public sector wages down. We do not want to become a low-wage economy in Northern Ireland, and I do not want to go down the route of debating the differences between private sector and public sector pay and how that should be reflected in compensation levels.
Mr Allister and other Members raised the issue of parity. I indicated that the costs require parity, and I do not think that we have been inconsistent on that issue. There have been occasions — for example, with air passenger duty — when we said that we wanted to have control over certain tax levels to manipulate certain variables in our economy. That is not a general attack on parity itself. I have made myself unpopular with Members by saying that we have to be careful when it comes to asking for separate arrangements for Northern Ireland. However, there are occasions when that is justified and we can show a specific, economic benefit from doing so. I do not believe that we have laid ourselves open to a charge of hypocrisy on the issue of parity.
I know that we are drawing close to Question Time. I thank the Members who took part in the debate and welcome the support that the Bill has received to date. I understand that Members have raised very genuine issues, some of which, I am sure, I have not convinced them about at this stage. However, there will be other opportunities to do that. The Bill will now proceed to Committee Stage.
The Bill is short and targeted. It is vital because it seeks to ensure that there are fair and affordable superannuation payments for members of the scheme in Northern Ireland. I commend the Bill’s Second Stage to the Assembly.
William Hay (DUP)
As the Minister has pointed out, Question Time begins at 2.30 pm. There have been indications that there may be a Division. I suggest that the House take its ease until then. The Question on the Second Stage of the Bill will be put directly after Question Time.
The debate stood suspended.
(Mr speaker is in charge of proceedings of the House of Commons in..." class="glossary">Deputy Speaker [Mr Beggs] in the Chair) —