Following our announcement on 15 December 2008 that we would bring forward legislation early in the new year to respond quickly to any crisis or hardship situation, the deputy First Minister and I are pleased that we introduced the Financial Assistance Bill in the Assembly earlier today.
The Bill’s aim is to provide the Executive with flexibility in the allocation and distribution of resources across Departments, so that they will be able to respond quickly, effectively and decisively to deal with exceptional circumstances or to tackle poverty, social exclusion or deprivation.
We have tabled a motion for tomorrow’s plenary sitting to ask the Assembly to approve the Bill’s proceeding under the accelerated-passage procedure. Subject to the Assembly giving its approval to the use of the procedure, the Bill’s Second Stage debate will follow immediately. We expect that the Bill will pass all its Stages, with the Assembly’s approval, by the end of January 2009.
The legislation’s purpose is to assist Ministers with their departmental duties and to provide a statutory basis for taking action where none presently exists. The deputy First Minister and I have agreed that there should be a change to the ministerial code, which will ensure that all the schemes that flow from the legislation go to the Executive for approval before they can proceed.
That is almost self-explanatory in that we are the only part of the United Kingdom that has produced this scheme. Indeed, I suspect that some of the other devolved institutions will look at us with considerable envy. The scheme shows the benefit of devolution because it simply would not have been introduced under direct rule. It shows that the Executive are able to react and consider the interests of the people whom we represent. Even if the means are not immediately at our disposal, we are prepared to take the necessary steps to act on the decisions that we take.
We deliberately opted for accelerated passage as opposed to the suspension of standing orders, which we had originally considered, to allow for more debate and more Assembly involvement. It gives us an opportunity to listen to the views of the Assembly tomorrow and before the Executive meet on Thursday.
I have read the correspondence and I am aware of the points raised. There are some easy answers to the issues that the honourable lady and others have raised in respect of the legislation. However, I put it to her that it would be wrong for us to give all the answers before we meet our Executive colleagues on Thursday. We are proceeding with the legislation as provided today. We do not have a closed mind, and we are open to any sensible amendments that will improve the legislation.