(1) In respect of an Order in Council under section 1(1) or any order or regulations under section 1(2) the Secretary of State will, within twelve months, publish a report of its operation which must include—
(a) comparative data and information on numbers of claimants and, where relevant, dependants and the relative value of benefits, allowances, payments or credits so as to reflect any difference in provision before and after the operation of the order or regulation;
(b) assessment of any impact in respect of section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998; and
(c) reflection of observations from independent welfare advice service providers.
(2) In publishing any report under subsection (1), the Secretary of State must—
(a) lay the report before the House of Commons;
(b) send the report to the Speaker of the Northern Ireland Assembly; and
(c) be available to appear before a committee of the Northern Ireland Assembly to address, or answer on, the report.”.—(Mark Durkan.)
This amendment confers a responsibility on the Secretary of State to report on the first twelve months of operations and impacts on any orders made under this Act. It would ensure the Secretary of State had to lay the report before the House of Commons, send the report to the Speaker of the Northern Ireland Assembly and appear before a Northern Ireland Assembly committee.
Brought up, and read the First time.
Question put, That the clause be read a Second time.
The Committee divided:
Ayes 5, Noes 171.
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.
I thank all right hon. and hon. Members who have taken part in the debates this evening, and all the Members of the Legislative Assembly and others who have settled the question of welfare reform in Northern Ireland.
This Bill fulfils an important commitment made following the recent political talks, which culminated in the fresh start agreement. The enabling power contained in the Bill paves the way for the introduction of a modern, reformed welfare system for Northern Ireland. The Government’s welfare reforms have at their heart the principles that it should always pay to work and that the vulnerable will always be protected. The benefits cap will ensure that no one household can claim more in benefits than the average family can bring home by going out to work. This is welfare support when people need it, not welfare support as a way of life.
The legislation will help us deliver our long-term economic plan. It will replace a system that was not working, a system that was not fair to the people trapped in dependency and poverty, and not fair to the hard-working taxpayers who paid for it. An unreformed welfare system was not sustainable in Great Britain and it is not sustainable in Northern Ireland. I believe that the reforms that this Bill will allow us to implement will help more people in Northern Ireland to get on because it will enable them to get into work, with the dignity of a job, the pride of a pay packet and the peace of mind that comes from being able to support their family. As in Great Britain, the reformed system will help people to make the journey from dependence to independence, providing more opportunity and greater security.
Before I conclude, I want to be clear that this Bill and the Order in Council that is to follow do not represent the Government taking a decision to impose something on Northern Ireland, but rather what the Northern Ireland Executive have agreed and what the Northern Ireland Assembly supported in its recent LCM vote. Together with the top-ups that the Executive will implement and fund from the block grant, Northern Ireland will have the most generous welfare system in the United Kingdom and one of the most generous in the world.
We have been having the debate on welfare reform in Northern Ireland for nearly four years. The dispute over the budget has been a drag anchor on Northern Ireland politics for too long, and it is time to get this matter settled. I firmly believe that without these questions of financial sustainability being resolved once and for all, we would be on an inexorable path to direct rule, and that is an outcome that nobody in this House wants. The Stormont House agreement ran into trouble at the implementation stage. This is our chance to learn from experience in trying to ensure that the fresh start agreement stays on track and plays its part in delivering effective, confident and stable devolved government for Northern Ireland. I commend the Bill to the House.
I join the Secretary of State in thanking everyone who has played a role in bringing the Bill to this stage and in taking it through this House—those inside the House and those outside it.
I repeat that we have not opposed the Bill, despite our serious concerns over welfare reform, as it avoids a collapse in the devolved institutions or a return to direct rule, which would have been unthinkable and a disaster for Northern Ireland. I say again to the Government that alongside welfare reform, a jobs and growth programme is needed. Notwithstanding that, today we have helped to resolve the impasse that there was in Northern Ireland, allowing its Government to carry on with the peace and progress that they want and we all want for them.
Today we have had all the stages of this welfare reform Bill for Northern Ireland. At this third and final stage, we would say again that we must have a higher ambition and aspiration to ensure the fulfilment of a meaningful devolution process in Northern Ireland. By that, we mean that we should not have brought the Bill here, as we have said during all its stages. We would also say that we have seen the Secretary of State and the Conservative Government succumb to the unwillingness of Sinn Féin and the DUP to take such a Bill through the Northern Ireland Assembly.
From a societal point of view, this enabling Bill is about addressing the needs of families and individuals who need to access the benefits system to ensure that they can live and rear their families with a relative degree of comfort. Being in receipt of benefit or having to access the benefits system is not a lifestyle choice. People are forced into this trap because of lack of access to jobs and employment, because they have lost their job or their place in employment, or because insufficient resources have been placed where jobs were located, or not located. My hon. Friends the Members for Foyle (Mark Durkan) and for Belfast South (Dr McDonnell) and I believe that there needs to be a twin-track policy that enables investment in jobs—new jobs and the sustaining of existing jobs—and investment in skills and training to ensure and facilitate all having the necessary access to employment and therefore not having to rely on benefits.
Our proposed amendments sought to curtail the power of the Secretary of State and to clarify the twin-track approach—the parallel powers—of the Northern Ireland Assembly and the Secretary of State in relation to welfare. At this late stage, we say that the Secretary of State should report directly to this House, the Speaker of the Northern Ireland Assembly and the wider community with regard to the claimant count, the sanctions and the Bill’s requirements.
Obviously, we believe that this Bill should have been taken on the Floor of the Assembly, to fulfil the ambitions of all those people on the island of Ireland, both north and south, who voted for full devolution. We and, I think, other Members from Northern Ireland still believe there should be more devolution measures and that we and all the citizens we represent have an enormous opportunity. We will strive to work with the Government and the Northern Ireland Executive to achieve a more fulfilled economy and training sphere.
I thank the Government for bringing forward this Bill this evening. It will settle the issue of welfare reform for Northern Ireland after many years of dispute, not because of any unwillingness by three of the parties in the Northern Ireland Assembly—ourselves, the Ulster Unionist party and the Alliance party—but because it was blocked over and over again by the SDLP and Sinn Féin. It was rich of Ms Ritchie to complain that it was not being taken in the Northern Ireland Assembly, because it was as a result of her party’s actions that it could not get through the Assembly.
Anyone who opposes or who has opposed this Bill, or who voted with those who tabled amendments to it, are, in effect, in favour of continuing the stalemate and of continuing to fine the Northern Ireland Executive £2 million a week for failing to implement welfare reform. They are against having a sustainable budget in Northern Ireland and in favour of the continuation of a welfare system that is separate from that used in the rest of the United Kingdom. The absence of top-ups would mean that the increased cost to Northern Ireland would become greater with every passing year, and new computer systems would also cost hundreds of millions of pounds a year. Those who opposed the Bill in Committee earlier and who will vote against it tonight will, in effect, be voting for the collapse of the Northern Ireland Assembly and a return to direct rule, which would result in the full implementation of all the things they rail against, without any top-ups or amelioration for the Northern Ireland Executive.
This has been a good day for Northern Ireland, because we have finally made progress in implementing the Stormont House agreement, putting the finances of Northern Ireland on a sound, sustainable footing, and creating a welfare system that is good, reformed and fit for purpose in meeting the needs of the people of Northern Ireland. This has been a good day for this House and a good day for Northern Ireland.
Question put and agreed to.
Bill accordingly read the Third time and passed.