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I beg to move
That the Financial Assistance Bill proceed under the accelerated passage procedure.
Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. The Financial Assistance Bill fulfils a commitment that the First Minister and I gave during the debate that was held in the Assembly on 15 December 2008 on the impact of the global economic downturn. During that debate, we stated that we would introduce legislation early in the new year that would allow the Executive to respond quickly and effectively to the needs of our people.
The Bill aims to provide a firm statutory basis for the Executive to respond to exceptional circumstances or to provide additional financial aid when that is seen as a necessary element of the Executive’s response to tackling poverty, deprivation and social exclusion. The fact that the legislation will confer the necessary legislative authority to enable us to assist households with fuel payments means that time is of the essence. For that reason, we are seeking support for the accelerated passage of the Bill.
Subject to the Assembly’s agreement, that procedure will allow the Bill to pass all its Stages by the end of January and, in turn, will allow for the cost of resources that have been allocated for a fuel poverty scheme to be incurred during this financial year. Without the accelerated passage procedure, the earliest that we would anticipate having the necessary legal authority to incur such expenditure would be well into the next financial year. That would result in our losing the opportunity to use the allocated resources during this financial year.
I am sure that Members recognise that we need to get the fuel payment out as soon as possible in order for it to be effective in its aim of alleviating fuel poverty and hardship this winter. The only way to get that payment out to people is to pass the new legislation. We are taking this action in acknowledgement of the real hardship and urgent need of those who cannot afford to heat their homes this winter and of those who are struggling seriously to find a way to continue to heat their homes.
In coming to the Assembly seeking accelerated passage for the Financial Assistance Bill, we must all acknowledge that, in the past, we have not been able to respond adequately and swiftly to unfolding and unforeseen events.
The Assembly and the Executive have a responsibility to make provision for dealing with such events in a timely manner, so as to help alleviate suffering and distress in our communities. Surely no-one wants to see our communities continue to suffer from deprivation, poverty and disadvantage.
The junior Ministers discussed their proposals for the Bill and its accelerated passage through the Assembly with the Committee for the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister at a special meeting on 5 January. We are grateful to Committee members for agreeing to that meeting and for agreeing to support accelerated passage. The Chairperson formally informed us of that support on 6 January, and for that we are also grateful.
During that meeting, in answer to concerns raised about the role of the Executive and individual Ministers regarding any designations made under the Bill, the junior Ministers advised the Committee that the requirement for any determination or designation under the Bill that would be brought to the Executive would be strengthened by an amendment to the ministerial code. The Committee has asked to see details of that amendment. Amendments to the ministerial code can be proposed to the Assembly only by the Executive; therefore, the amendment must be considered and agreed by the Executive at their next meeting on 15 January. We will forward to the Committee details of the amendment to which we are asking the Executive to agree.
Our proposal to the Executive is that paragraph 2.4 of the ministerial code be amended by the inclusion of a new subsection as follows:
“Any matter which relates to a proposal to make a determination and designation under the Financial Assistance Act 2009 shall be brought to the attention of the Executive Committee by the responsible Minister to be considered by the Committee.”
In essence, it will mean that any exercise of powers under the Bill will be with Executive agreement.
I hope that I have explained the reasons for seeking accelerated passage and the consequences of its not being granted, as required by Standing Order 42(4). I trust that the Assembly can see the exceptional nature of the issue and the fact that a genuine and urgent necessity exists that has been brought about by the global economic crisis.
Standing Order 42(4)(c) also requires us to explain, if appropriate, any steps taken to minimise the future use of the accelerated passage procedure. I am aware that some members of the Committee for the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister suggested decoupling clauses 1 and 2 of the Bill. However, they need to be aware that the Bill is about addressing, as a matter of urgency, hardship, whether arising from unforeseen circumstances or from a person’s experience of poverty, deprivation and social exclusion. The Executive need powers to respond urgently in either situation.
Our experience since restoration has shown that, as an Executive, we need to be in a position to react quickly to unforeseen events and to ensure that measures can be put in place urgently in order to deal with inadequacies in current provisions for tackling poverty, social exclusion, or patterns of deprivation. The Bill provides us with the legislative basis upon which to do that, and it is important that it be enacted at the earliest opportunity. We hope that the powers that the Executive will have under the Bill will avoid the need for urgent Bills to tackle unforeseen events in the future or gaps in the arrangements to tackle poverty, social exclusion or deprivation.
We assure the Assembly that, where time permits, our practice will be to take Bills through the Assembly under the normal process, as we have done, for example, in relation to the Public Authorities (Reform) Bill.
I am grateful for the opportunity to provide an insight into the Committee’s role in this important legislation. I will also offer some views on behalf of my own political party.
Standing Order 42(3) states:
“Where, exceptionally, a Bill…is thought to require accelerated passage…the member in charge of the Bill” — or in this case, members —
“shall, before introduction of the Bill in the Assembly, explain to the appropriate committee —
(a) the reason or reasons for accelerated passage;
(b) the consequences of accelerated passage not being granted; and, if appropriate,
(c) any steps he or she has taken to minimise the future use of the accelerated passage procedure.”
I intend to provide the Assembly with information on the role of the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister (OFMDFM) which is relevant to the requirements of the Standing Orders. The OFMDFM Committee became aware of the fact that the legislation before the House today would be required when the First Minister made a statement to the House on 15 December 2008. He announced that the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister proposed:
“to introduce a Bill to provide for permissive powers to implement remedial action in response to any circumstance that the Executive agree warrants rapid and effective action.” — [Official Report, Vol 36, No3, p122, col 1].
The Committee received a copy of the Bill and an explanatory memorandum on Wednesday 31 December 2008, and was briefed on the proposed Financial Assistance Bill by the junior Ministers on 5 January 2009. They explained the reasons as per Standing Order 42(3) for seeking accelerated passage for the Bill through the Assembly, and the Committee agreed to endorse the accelerated passage. I trust that my explanation of the Committee’s consideration of the Financial Assistance Bill will assist the House in its consideration of the motion for accelerated passage.
I will now offer insights on a party political basis. The Ulster Unionist Party recognises fully the dire circumstances that many people are facing at present due to unprecedented economic circumstances. On a daily basis, we are becoming increasingly aware of how integrated the global economy really is, as job losses are on the rise, and production, exports and inward investments are all down.
The Ulster Unionist Party also supports the fact that the Executive, despite 154 days of self-imposed intransigence, have finally come up with some form of plan to help some of those most affected by the current circumstances, and this Bill forms a part of that plan. If the Executive had been able to meet sooner, those most in need may well have been assisted by now.
The Bill that was introduced yesterday, and which will be further considered today, will set out the legislative foundations that allow assistance to be given to those who receive pension credits and income support in order that they can further meet their fuel and energy needs. Although this Bill is, perhaps, not the perfect mechanism through which to provide such help, it is to be welcomed.
Therefore, the Ulster Unionist Party recognises the need to implement those measures quickly, and I accept the arguments for accelerated passage. However, the Financial Assistance Bill is a substantial piece of legislation. It proposes to give unique powers to the First Minister and deputy First Minister, which could have considerable ramifications on how Departments manage their budgets, and, indeed, what control they have over the entirety of those budgets in the future. It is crucial, therefore, that the Bill is given the greatest amount of scrutiny possible because it will have a lasting impact. It is crucial, therefore, that we get it right. We do not want to legislate in haste only to repent at leisure.
Recently, the Local Government (Boundaries) Bill and the Commission for Victims and Survivors Bill were pushed through the Assembly by accelerated passage for less than satisfactory reasons. During the debates on those Bills, parties, including the Ulster Unionist Party, brought forward, in good faith, reasonable amendments that sought to improve those Bills for the benefit of the people of Northern Ireland. Unfortunately, all of those amendments were treated with impunity by the relevant Ministers, and Sinn Féin and the DUP ran roughshod over all attempts to improve those Bills.
If a Bill must progress through the Chamber by accelerated passage, all Members’ opinions must be given due respect and serious consideration by the relevant Ministers. In this instance, I understand that there are quite serious reservations at Executive and Committee level about the current make-up of the Bill. I hope that the First Minister and the deputy First Minister will be open to reasoned and constructive debate and that any potential amendments to aspects of the Bill may be brought forward from any quarter. Not to do so would be an abuse of the accelerated-passage procedure and an abuse of power; not only by OFMDFM, but, in particular, by Sinn Féin and the DUP.
I look forward to the Bill’s passage and the potential aid and relief that it may bring to people who suffer from fuel poverty throughout Northern Ireland. However, the desire and need to help those people should not be used as an excuse to allow a Bill to be passed that is either sloppy or detrimental to the principles of good Government.
I support the accelerated passage of the Financial Assistance Bill. Given the current volatile economic climate, it is welcome.
At present, we are witnessing those difficult times at first hand. Accelerated passage of the Bill will allow the Government to take remedial action in both the current situation and exceptional circumstances that may arise in the future. Initially, it will allow the distribution of £15 million in a bid to reduce fuel poverty in society. It will also provide the Executive with the legislative framework that will enable fast, effective financial assistance to be delivered to the people who are most in need.
We live in a time when people are in need. They need assistance now — not in six months’ time. Accelerated passage of the Bill will enable such help to be provided. It will enable the Government to take remedial action and to act swiftly to any exceptional circumstances that may arise. We have only to think back to circumstances such as flooding and the hike in fuel prices during the past year to see the benefits that the legislation will bring. It will allow the Executive and Government Departments to assist the people who are in greatest need.
I welcome the accelerated passage of the Bill.
Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I welcome the Bill and support its accelerated passage. The Bill is an important piece of legislation that will enable the Assembly to respond quickly to events that may arise in the future.
As regards the current economic downturn and concerns about whether the Assembly can meet the public’s needs, particularly those of less-well-off people, the Bill will enable the Executive to provide payments to support them. It is important that the Assembly is able to respond. The general public expects a local Assembly to respond quicker than direct rule Ministers would have done. Therefore, it is important to have in place legislation that enables it to do so. Accelerated passage is the only way to enable payments to be made quickly in the present situation.
Junior Ministers, Mr Donaldson and Mr Kelly, provided the Committee with a detailed explanation of why accelerated passage is necessary. Members raised several questions and debate ensued. This morning, the deputy First Minister has explained the change to the ministerial code that will enable Ministers who may have concerns that the legislation will undermine their powers.
The legislation helps all Ministers collectively. Although its powers must be directed by the First Minister and the deputy First Minister, that must be done in conjunction with the other Executive Ministers. Therefore, it is important that the Assembly recognises that the legislation will bring Ministers together to provide a response to the community’s needs. The Bill empowers all Ministers to make payments and legislation where required and to, therefore, be able to deal with situations that might arise in the future for which no legislation exists at present.
Although the Assembly has been up and running for several years, there is no legislation that ensures that it can respond quickly and efficiently to the community’s needs in such circumstances.
It is important that the Bill not be held up at this stage. Before the Christmas recess, all Members were seeking to act quickly to meet the community’s needs and to respond to requests from the business community and the public. The process must not be held up any further. We must grant the Bill accelerated passage so that the process can operate. Go raibh maith agat.
I welcome the opportunity to speak about the accelerated passage of such a wide-ranging and sweeping piece of legislation. The SDLP shares many of the concerns that Mr Danny Kennedy expressed on behalf of the Ulster Unionist Party.
As a member of Sinn Féin, the deputy First Minister’s words of concern about the dire need and hardship facing people in our community ring particularly hollow. These are most exceptional times, but, for 154 days, the deputy First Minister’s party, in partnership with the DUP, did not tackle the economic downturn.
I remind Members that, on 15 September 2008, the Minister for Social Development, Margaret Ritchie, submitted proposals for dealing with fuel poverty for discussion at the Executive meeting on 18 September, but that meeting was cancelled. On 2 October, she submitted proposals for urgent procedures to be used. That lends somewhat to Francie Molloy’s lie that the Assembly did not have the ability to deal with an emergency situation, because urgent procedures and regulations are available to Ministers.
Will the First Minister therefore explain why the Bill grants the First Minister and the deputy First Minister the ability to tell other Ministers how to spend and prioritise their budget, when they are not being given the money to do so? That is what the Bill states.
I am grateful to the Member for giving way. Does she agree that, if the Executive had been meeting, it would have been entirely possible for legislation to have been implemented last autumn? A modality scheme could have been put in place, with the money allocated in the December monitoring round and handed out before Christmas.
I thank Dr Farry for his support, and, indeed, that is what I was saying. Had the Minister for Social Development been supported by the other Ministers in the Executive, the money would already be in the pockets of those who are most in need. Electricity bills are hitting the mats of homes throughout the North as we speak.
Only yesterday, in response to a question about the need for a full-time older persons’ commissioner, the First Minister said that, by its very nature, it takes between one year and two years for such substantial legislation to be brought before the Assembly. However, the OFMDFM Committee received notice of last Monday’s meeting only on New Year’s Eve. That hardly gave any of us enough time to consider such a far-reaching piece of legislation.
We have difficulties with clause 2. However, because of its concerns for social justice and for the people facing hardship, our party will not oppose the use of the accelerated-passage procedure for the Bill. Nevertheless, we will seek amendments to the entire Bill, because we are concerned at some of the powers that the First Minister and the deputy First Minister, and their respective parties, are taking on to themselves.
I will specifically address the issue of accelerated passage, and, despite evidence to the contrary, I do not want to repeat myself. If accelerated passage is granted, I will discuss the detail of the Bill during its Second Stage.
The Alliance Party sees a principled difference between accelerated passage being necessary for clause 1 and clause 2 of the Bill. I welcome the fact that the First Minister and deputy First Minister — particularly the latter — have indicated that they are willing to consider reasonable amendments. Furthermore, in the past few minutes, I have received notification from the private office in the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister that it intends to answer my queries as quickly as possible. I appreciate that development, because I was concerned yesterday after Question Time that that might not happen.
First, I will discuss accelerated passage of clause 1. Members have already referred to the current financial circumstances and the hardship that people in our community are experiencing. All Members recognise that we must take urgent action to address that problem. From that perspective, the Alliance Party thinks that the emergency provisions included in clause 1 merit accelerated passage. Although the party does not agree with every aspect of clause 1, it believes that its concerns can be addressed through amendments during the accelerated passage procedure. Therefore, the party is happy to support the accelerated passage of clause 1 in the context that it can be subject to amendment, the details of which I will discuss during the Bill’s Second Stage.
However, there is a significant difference between consideration of clause 1 and clause 2, which deals with social exclusion, deprivation and poverty. Everyone will agree that those urgent issues must be addressed. No one would have argued that those issues were not urgent when the Executive were established a year and a half ago or that they have not been urgent since that time. However, we must question whether accelerated passage is necessary in order to address the provisions in the Bill that cover those issues or whether they would be better addressed by the Committee, which could gather evidence from, for example, the community and voluntary sector, other Committees such as the Committee for Health, Social Services and Public Safety, the Committee for Social Development, the Committee for Enterprise, Trade and Investment, the Committee for Education and all other Departments that are involved in tackling patterns of social exclusion, deprivation and poverty. That procedure could determine the appropriateness of establishing any mechanisms.
During Committee meetings, I highlighted the fact that the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister has identified a gap — which affects clause 2 — in its ability to direct other Departments on cross-cutting themes, on which it is the policy driver but the delivery mechanism lies with other Departments. I agree that such a mechanism is necessary.
The matter has been debated in two contexts. First, during the inquiry into child poverty, it became apparent that, if a Minister decided to frustrate action on child poverty issues or tackling social exclusion deliberately, it would be difficult to force that Minister to adhere to the policy that was agreed by the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister. Secondly, the issue was debated in the context of the cessation of the Executive programme fund and the special programme fund, both of which provided an opportunity to draw together a central fund to tackle cross-cutting issues. After the cessation of those funds, and because of the lack of ring-fencing, important questions had to be answered about what levers existed in the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister to ensure delivery of key issues that might not be of high priority in individual Department budgets but are important to the Executive’s overall function and the Programme for Government.
That matter caused a protracted debate. At the time, the junior Ministers suggested that such a capability gap did not exist. However, this legislation, particularly in the context of clause 2, indicates that such a gap does exist. At my request, the Committee commissioned research on how other devolved Administrations and other Governments deal with cross-cutting issues. Of course, the situation elsewhere is often not as complex, because the Assembly is a mandatory coalition rather than a voluntary coalition that is based on the agreement of some form of programme for government.
However, that request was answered with a number of suggestions that are different from those that have been formulated in the legislation.
It is important that there should be a Committee Stage to consider the options that were outlined in that piece of research, the issues that arise in clause 2 of the Bill and, more importantly, the implications for other cross-cutting themes — such as sustainability, community relations and the many other important themes in the Programme for Government — and how they can be enacted.
We are conscious, in the current climate, of the urgency of tackling social deprivation and poverty, because those are particularly pressing issues in a time of economic hardship. However, my party believes that the provisions for exceptional circumstances that are outlined in clause 1 would give OFMDFM the power to intervene in areas of social deprivation and exclusion in the interim, while more reasoned ways of dealing with those issues on a longer-term basis could be subject to the Committee procedure, and more robust mechanisms could perhaps be put in place.
We have significant reservations about accelerated passage with regard to clause 2, though not with the principle that some action must be taken to tighten the way in which the Executive respond to the issues that are dealt with in that clause. There is a distinction between those. We are not claiming that the current arrangements are perfect; we are simply claiming that they could be better thought through if there were to be a Committee Stage, and perhaps alternative arrangements could be put in place. On the other hand, perhaps the Committee Stage would identify that alternative measures would not be robust enough to deal with the situation.
The requirement for accelerated passage has been outlined substantially in regard to clause 1, and we are willing to accept that. The consequences of accelerated passage not being granted are apparent. A number of Members have focused on the anticipated first use of the Bill. However, there is a distinct danger in focusing too much on that anticipated first use, because one must also consider other uses to which the Bill might be put in the future. We accept that, in relation to the first use of the Bill and with regard to clause 1, the need for accelerated passage has been established, and my party is content with that, although it is less content with that in respect of clause 2.
I will now consider the steps taken to minimise future use of accelerated passage. The need for legislation was first identified towards the end of last summer when the Department for Social Development (DSD) was considering the issue of fuel poverty. At that point, it was identified that, if DSD — or possibly the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment (DETI) — was to bring forward some kind of mechanism to tackle fuel poverty, there would be no legislative cover for that. The Executive, quite rightly, decided that the issue should not be dealt with Department by Department, through a series of Bills, but that a single Bill should encompass all Departments. That is the right way to go; there is no dispute on that. However, no progress was made on that through the autumn. At a meeting of the OFMDFM Committee, I asked whether there was any reason why that legislation had not been progressed — other than the self-imposed hiatus in Executive functioning during the autumn. There was no other reason, or if there was, the junior Ministers did not provide any detail on it.
On the one hand, the formulation of a single Executive Bill — rather than a series of Bills from individual Departments — will avoid the repeated use of accelerated passage. On the other hand, I am concerned that accelerated passage could have been invoked earlier, if it was necessary, or that it might not have been needed at all had the lack of legislative cover been addressed in a timely fashion. I am not convinced, with regard to either option, that clause 3 has been satisfied.
Several Members have focused heavily on the anticipated first use of the Bill. Stephen Moutray, for example, said that it would enable such help to be given. However, we must be conscious of the fact that it could enable a wide range of other things.
I am loath to use the phrase “Trojan Horse”, but there is a danger that the need that precipitates the Bill, and its anticipated first use, become the only issues on which Members focus, rather than the Bill’s enabling powers.
I will discuss our concerns about the extent of the Bill’s enabling powers at its Second Stage, because there are some ways in which those concerns can be addressed through amendments. I do not want to get into that now, but we must be very conscious of the difference between what the Bill enables the Department to do and what the Department could use the Bill to do in the first instance.
The Good Friday Agreement afforded autonomy to Ministers within their departmental remits. That was slightly altered by the St Andrews Agreement. We have never been enthusiastic about that autonomy; we would prefer to see collectivity and drive towards that. My concern is that rather than being a drive towards greater collectivity, this Bill provides greater power for OFMDFM and a reduction in the autonomy of other ministries. That is not necessarily the same as collective working, and I will explore that during the Second Stage.
As Members will have gathered from what I have said, we are not satisfied with accelerated passage for clause 2, but we accept that accelerated passage is necessary for clause 1. Clause 2 still forms part of the Bill, but we will be able to make amendments as the Second Stage progresses. We will, therefore, abstain from voting on the issue of accelerated passage.
I support accelerated passage for this Bill. The comments from across this Assembly are very clear. Although Members may have some concerns, the need for accelerated passage is obvious. It is imperative that the Executive and the Assembly are able to respond to conditions, whether financial or otherwise. My colleague Stephen Moutray listed some of the occasions on which it was necessary to do so — I believe that it is necessary now.
Every one of us is aware of the issue of fuel poverty. Accelerated passage is needed so that the money will be available to the people who need it most. As I am sure that other Members are, I am in constant contact with elderly people and vulnerable families. The dire circumstances that those people face are very clear. When I come to this Assembly, my duty is to deliver for those people. I hope that this Assembly will also deliver for them — it is very important that it does so.
It is imperative that this Assembly is able to respond when the need exists; not in a few months’ time when the problems and difficulties have become worse and the financial hardship that people face has become almost unbearable. The legacy may be there in two months’ time, but the need to respond exists today.
We are in very difficult circumstances. Some have lost their jobs, and the occupations of others are in doubt. People are worried about water rates and their prospects for the future. Fuel poverty is very clearly one of the issues about which people are concerned. It is important that we are able to respond to the needs of all the vulnerable people whom we meet on a daily basis. The spectre of fuel poverty hangs over the heads of hundreds of thousands of our constituents like the sword of Damocles. That is all the more reason to grant accelerated passage to this Bill so that progress can be made very quickly.
Accelerated passage will enable the Ministers, the Executive and this Assembly to respond in an urgent and effective manner. Let us not get bogged down in rhetoric — instead, let us ensure that our constituents feel the benefits of a fully working Assembly and Executive. I support the motion.
I speak about the issue of accelerated passage for this Bill, and I will have more to say during its Second Stage. Most people will think that this is an innocuous, well-intentioned piece of legislation that is merited by the situation. I describe it as a loathsome, dishonest piece of legislation. In fact, I find it particularly loathsome because it is so dishonest.
We are told that motivation for the Bill has come from the fuel poverty issue, and, no doubt, we will be asked to reflect on matters such as last year’s flooding situation. We are told that a fast-track mechanism is needed — and I agree — but it must be the right fast-track mechanism, and this Bill is not that.
I deeply resent being pushed into accepting accelerated passage for the Bill in order to get fuel poverty payments to the people who need them. The SDLP will agree to accelerated passage, because those people need payments, but it deeply resents being forced to do so.
Members should take a glance at what is happening in the USA today, where the Senate is holding confirmation hearings for Senator Hillary Clinton’s nomination to be that country’s Secretary of State. That is democracy at work. The decision to appoint the Secretary of State or other members of his Cabinet does not lie with the President or the President to be. The legislature there protects its democratic rights jealously; it recognises that it represents the people, and it subjects even the President’s decisions to scrutiny. That is what should be happening in the Assembly; however, it is not happening and, most importantly, it will not happen if this piece of legislation goes through without amendment.
The Assembly and its scrutiny Committees should be examining the Bill line by line. Were they to do so, they would not like what they would see and they would demand changes. The Bill makes far-reaching changes to how decisions on major issues, with major financial implications, can be taken in the Assembly. It places power in the hands of the First Minister and the deputy First Minister, which is an arrogation of the rights of the entire Executive, the Assembly and its Committees. It is a disgrace that this is being done under the pretext of getting money to the fuel poor.
Earlier, I referred to dishonesty in the Bill. I shall quote from the letter that was sent to the Chairperson of the Committee for the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister and from the Bill’s explanatory and financial memorandum. I do so because those documents tell us that the Bill is a measure by which the Executive will take action. The letter to the Chairperson states that there will be:
“powers to implement remedial action in response to any circumstance that the Executive agrees warrants rapid and effective action.”
We are told in paragraph 4 of the explanatory and financial memorandum:
“The aim of the Bill is to provide the Executive with flexibility in the allocation and distribution of resources across all Departments”.
In paragraph 7 we are told:
“the Executive needs to be prepared, both financially and legislatively, to deal with exceptional, extreme and unanticipated circumstances … The legislation will provide them with the flexibility to take remedial action to respond to circumstances that the Executive agrees warrants rapid and effective action.”
I ask Members to examine the Bill and to find where it is stated that the Executive will decide what action is required and what remedy will be applied to address the situation. Members can look, but they will find that it is not there — the powers are given entirely to the First Minister and the deputy First Minister.
The Committee for the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister had sight of the Bill only at the last minute and briefly. It, too, was railroaded into accepting accelerated passage, and the argument used, which is the same as has been used on all of us, was that it is essential to get the fuel poverty money out — would you want to stand in the way? None of us wants to stand in the way.
I am interested in what the Member has said. I object to his use of the word “railroaded”. The Committee had little time to organise the meeting, but a full and frank discussion of the Bill was held with the junior Ministers. The Committee did not feel railroaded into accepting accelerated passage.
I do not speak for, or defend, the actions of the Finance Minister in seeking accelerated passage; I make precise arguments relating to the Financial Assistance Bill. Under the pretext of achieving a good end, attempts are being made to push through the Assembly a very wrong piece of legislation.
Does the Member accept that the Minister for Social Development’s use of accelerated passage was to achieve parity legislation? Accelerated passage is a well-established means of introducing parity legislation. For instance, its use was required to ensure that social security payments in Northern Ireland remained in line with those in the rest of the United Kingdom, and that was a matter of urgency.
I welcome and support the Member’s comments. I resent any imputation on the use of accelerated passage from members of parties that held up fuel poverty payments for 154 days, as my colleague Dolores Kelly said.
It is incredible that the Financial Assistance Bill will not be considered by the Committee for Finance and Personnel — of which I am a member. It is even more incredible that the Department of Finance and Personnel (DFP) did not inform the Committee that such a Bill was being proposed. The only information that members received about the Bill was a passing reference made to it by officials who attended the Committee to talk about another matter. Such treatment shows contempt for the Committee for Finance and Personnel.
Are Mitchel McLaughlin, the Chairperson of the Committee for Finance and Personnel, Simon Hamilton, its Deputy Chairperson, and the eight remaining members of the Committee prepared to tolerate such treatment?
Members must raise their voices, here and at Committee meetings, in protestation at what is being done. The democracy of the Assembly is being subverted; it is being stolen right in front of our eyes. Members must examine the Bill, recognise it for what it is and protest against it.
I urge members of other Committees not to think that this is a private matter for OFMDFM and, perhaps, DFP. It is not. It is possible that emergency regulations involving any Department will be created. Look at the references to tackling poverty, social exclusion, patterns of deprivation and the catch-all phrase “exceptional circumstances”. That affects all Members, their Committees, Departments and Ministers. Wake up and stop the authority, which has been conferred on you as Assembly Members, Committee members and Ministers, being taken away.
I will say more at the Bill’s Second Stage. At that Stage, and at the Bill’s Consideration Stage, the time will be right for the Assembly to stand up for itself and to assert its proper democratic rights.
As Dolores Kelly said, the SDLP will table amendments to the Bill, and I ask Members to pay close attention to them. The democracy of the Assembly is under fundamental assault in the Bill. Do not allow that to happen.
My party and I are wary of the use of accelerated passage in these circumstances. Accelerated passage should be used sparingly for such legislation as budget Bills and urgent parity legislation, which, for instance, would ensure that social security payments here remain in line with those in the rest of the United Kingdom. That has been the accepted practice over many years. I fear that the practice is being abused and that a run of Bills is being forced through the Assembly without the proper and deserved scrutiny.
It is to be hoped that it is no more than a coincidence that the three most controversial pieces of legislation to have progressed over the past 12 months — the Commission for Victims and Survivors Bill, the Local Government (Boundaries) Bill and the Financial Assistance Bill — have been subjected to accelerated passage.
Are controversial Bills that involve major issues and that divide the parties to follow that pattern? Will the parties, having been denied a Committee Stage, be able to sort out those issues only on the Floor of the Chamber, whereas the more routine Bills, on which parties can reach consensus, will be dealt with by Committees at their leisure? If so, that is a matter of deep regret, and it has major implications for democracy in the Chamber.
I believe that the legislation, particularly clause 2, contains major issues that merit proper scrutiny. Some relate to the nature of power sharing in Northern Ireland, and, given our legacy, parties must be sensitive to that. We must ensure that we bring everyone with us as we make progress in Northern Ireland. I appreciate the argument that the measures that are contained in the Bill could, if phrased correctly, strengthen the cohesion and collectivity of the Executive, and that is to be welcomed. Equally, I can see —
In that case, will he defend his point? As the word “Executive” does not appear in the Bill, how exactly will it contribute to cohesion in the Executive?
The point that I was making is that, if the Executive were properly referenced in the Bill, I recognise the potential for the measures in clause 2 to enhance collectivity and cohesion in the Executive and between Ministers. Equally, I recognise the danger that the measures, particularly as they are currently framed, could lead to more acrimony in the Executive, increased division, and the alienation of parties and Ministers. For that reason, clause 2 requires proper debate and scrutiny, so that parties can tease out all the arguments and satisfy themselves that the measures are in the interests of Northern Ireland.
A broader issue relates to the financial procedures that are used by the Assembly and, as Mr O’Loan mentioned briefly, by the Executive. Members must ask themselves why the Bill’s measures and objectives, particularly those in clause 2, cannot be addressed through the Budget and, more particularly, the monitoring rounds. Those are the established procedures for dealing with such matters. The Bill may offer some added value, but, equally, it may undermine the existing ways in which the Assembly conducts its financial management. Again, that issue requires proper scrutiny.
Also, Members must be conscious not only of the powers that are being set out on paper, but of the uses to which they may be put. I am concerned about the implications that they will have for parity between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK and the Assembly’s wider relationship with its parent Government in London. Members must be mindful of situations in which money is spent in Northern Ireland that has implications for that relationship.
In particular, if people in Northern Ireland end up with a more generous settlement of financial support than our fellow citizens in the UK, that may be a source of tension. In responding to that point, I would like either the First Minister or the deputy First Minister to clarify whether the Bill has implications for the principle of parity that has, in its strictest sense, been established for 60 years.
Beyond that, even if the Bill is not a direct threat to the parity principle, are there dangers in using resources that could jeopardise the funding relationship between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK? I appreciate that there is building tension in the current debate between the Scottish Government and the Treasury and that that is reflected in the UK Parliament.
Northern Ireland has not fallen under the same degree of scrutiny due, in part, to our peace process. As society normalises and we have stability in the Assembly, that debate may well move on. We must be wary of what we are putting in place and the implications that it may have for the relationship between a devolved Administration and the UK Parliament as a whole.
My other point relates to the urgency of the measure. I accept fully that there is an urgency to issue winter fuel payments as quickly as possible. Part of my argument is that the money could be better spent in insulating homes so that people benefit not only this winter, but in subsequent winters. Obviously, £15 million can only go so far in insulating homes, but a start could have been made. However, at this stage, there is an urgency to get money into people’s hands to alleviate their difficulties.
Nevertheless, the Assembly should not be in the position of having to consider accelerated passage for the Bill. Legislation could have been approved by the Executive in September; proper scrutiny could have taken place on the Floor of the Assembly and in Committee during the autumn where modalities could have been put in place to enable payments to be made once the legislation was signed off; and the money could have been allocated to places where it did not already exist in the December monitoring round, which would have allowed payments to have been made, potentially, before the winter recess. Even if the Bill were to be put in place by the end of January, there may well be a further delay and the winter will be almost over.
However, we are where we are, and we will do our best to try to make this happen, but much of the delay has been due to the inability of the Executive to meet and the inability of Ministers to agree. The people of Northern Ireland have suffered as a consequence.
The Alliance Party will not object to accelerated passage today, because it appreciates the urgency of putting in place a measure that will allow emergency payments to be made. It sees the urgency of clause 1, but it does not see the urgency of clause 2. Clause 2 deserves proper scrutiny by a relevant Committee, either by the Committee for Finance and Personnel or the Committee for the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister. My party believes that that issue could be addressed through an amendment to decouple clause 2 from the Bill and for the Executive to bring that matter back at a future stage. That would have been a more appropriate way of dealing with the issue, rather than tying ourselves in knots over accelerated passage, when, in fact, one half of the Bill needs to go through and the other does not.
Danny Kennedy spoke in quite measured terms about the concerns that the Ulster Unionist Party has with the Bill. He stated, and I restate, that we support fully the need to get payments to those in need and to act quickly. We share the concerns of other Members about the potential to use what is undoubtedly a crisis measure to sneak through, or to bring though — which is perhaps the appropriate language — legislation that may well be ill-considered and that in future situations may prove not to have the most rigorous of safeguards. We view this as a fundamental change in the relationship between the Ministers, the Executive and the Assembly. We are concerned about its implications, and we do not think that it is something into which we should be rushed.
My party seeks to put to the House, in measured tones, the fact that it is incumbent on those seeking to use accelerated passage to recognise the fact that it does away with many of the democratic safeguards. Therefore, they must listen carefully to what other Members, particularly those from other parties, have to say. A balance must be struck.
In previous forms of legislation or in previous cases where accelerated passage has been used — as has been highlighted by other Members — the precedent has not been helpful. Where there is genuine concern, that concern should be reflected. I will listen to what the deputy First Minister and the First Minister say about how they will deal with the legitimate concerns that we will raise.
There is a case for making amendments, and I urge the House collectively not to reject all amendments out of hand, but to find a way to build consensus. We all share the concern that fuel poverty payments must be made to people as quickly as possible, but that it should be done by building consensus.
I have many questions about the Bill, as I am sure do all Members, including those who sit on the Committee for the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister. However, as Naomi Long rightly pointed out, those Committee members are not being given the chance properly to scrutinise the legislation and the intentions behind it. The agreed legislative process is being circumvented by attempting to grant the Financial Assistance Bill accelerated passage.
I have to ask why accelerated passage is being sought for the Bill. Mrs Long outlined the distinctions between clause 1 and clause 2, and they are important. I agree with much of what she said, but I believe that the entire Bill deserves scrutiny as to whether it merits accelerated passage. The Department for Social Development already has a framework in place to deliver payments to alleviate fuel poverty, so I do not think that the focus on the need for this Bill should take away from the debate and scrutiny that it deserves.
This enabling legislation would allow for a fundamental shift in the way in which the Executive operate. It would create for the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister powers that are not part of the Good Friday Agreement or the St Andrews Agreement. At the core of those agreements are the principles of power sharing and collective responsibility. Those are the fundamental ideas on which the peace process and the Assembly are based. That is what we told the people of this country that we had agreed, and those are the principles that make this Province a destination for delegations from around the world to examine peace processes.
This piece of legislation undermines those principles. It will weaken the Executive system whereby Executive members must collectively agree on decisions on how money is spent. This legislation will suck power away from that arrangement and shift it to the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister by allowing that office to make unilateral decisions on how money is spent. It will undercut the operational autonomy of Ministers and the Executive’s responsibility to agree collectively on their programmes, strategies and how budgetary decisions are made.
I agree with the Member. I also agree that there have been some hiccups in the way in which the Assembly and its decision-making processes operate and that they must be examined and addressed. However, that must happen deliberately, collectively and through agreed and existing structures. We are in a dire economic situation, and we need to intervene quickly and creatively to deal effectively with the serious consequences of the job losses and the financial declines that are now occurring. However, the provision of emergency additional moneys to address fuel poverty, and, in particular, to provide for the winter fuel allowance, is already supported by well-functioning structures. Why do we suddenly need new ones, and how would such a change be financially efficient?
Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I have listened very carefully to the views that Members have expressed, and I am grateful for the constructive tone that was struck, and by the queries raised.
Danny Kennedy and Naomi Long’s contributions demonstrated that they are anxious to be helpful and constructive. They made reasoned points, which were diametrically opposed to the bit of a rant that some SDLP Members went on. I express my appreciation to the members of the OFMDFM Committee for supporting the Bill’s accelerated passage.
I will now address the key concerns and questions that have been raised. I will focus on the issues that relate to the accelerated passage of the Bill, as there will be an opportunity to address questions and comments on the policy in the debate on the Bill’s Second Stage.
Danny Kennedy raised the issue of full consultation with Executive Ministers. Following consultation with our Executive colleagues and our departmental Committee, and in light of the views that they expressed, we have recommended to the Executive a series of amendments to the Bill. Those amendments cover the approval role of the Assembly in regard to schemes under clause 2, the timing of the making of the regulations and the duration of schemes. Although it is not appropriate to discuss the detail today, we will advise our Committee of the amendments and consider them in detail at the Executive meeting on Thursday 15 January.
I am grateful to the deputy First Minister for giving way. He said that it is not appropriate to provide details of the proposed amendments. However, given that the Bill has been tabled for debate in the Assembly today, before it was taken to the Executive Committee, why is it not appropriate to explain in detail, or to publish the details of, those amendments?
The deputy First Minister indicated that he is minded to table at least one amendment, and he mentioned giving some rights to the Assembly. I find it very strange that the First Minister made frequent interjections during my speech, and other Members’ speeches, about the nonsense that we were speaking, when it is clear that even he and the deputy First Minister feel that the Bill requires amendment.
The Bill has been printed and has reached its First Stage in the Assembly, and the First Minister and deputy First Minister are already telling us that amendments are necessary. That tells me that the Bill is a half-baked piece of legislation, which should never have come to the House in its present form.
That is not a helpful contribution. Given the nature of the situation that the Bill seeks to address, it is important that we face up to the challenges that lie out there for our people and ensure that the Bill receives accelerated passage so that we can ensure that people are assisted and helped. The approach that Declan O’Loan adopted suggests clearly that he wants to put that day off, which the public would not welcome.
I am grateful to the deputy First Minister for giving way and for his statement that amendments are being tabled and will be considered at the Executive meeting on Thursday. Given that the deadline for Members to table amendments is 4.30 pm on Thursday, it would be helpful, in the spirit of co-operation, if the deputy First Minister considered giving some type of briefing to the OFMDFM Committee at its meeting tomorrow afternoon, so that we know what to expect in regard to the agreed or proposed amendments to the Bill.
We will consider that, and I am sympathetic to the point that the Member makes.
I want to emphasise that the Bill will not impact on departmental budget management. Any financial requirements arising from the exercise of powers onto the Bill will be handled through the normal budgetary processes.
Dolores Kelly, Danny Kennedy and Stephen Farry raised the issue of the five-month impasse during which the Executive did not meet. Some people may not want to believe it, but work on the deteriorating economic situation continued over the summer. The First Minister and I held a series of meetings with key stakeholders, including banks, the business sector, trade unions, the community and voluntary sector, community representatives, the construction industry, energy companies and the energy regulator.
After that series of meetings, we presented a package of measures dealing with the credit crunch and the economic downturn to the Executive, which was subsequently presented to the Assembly on 15 December 2008.
The need for accelerated passage comes from the Executive’s desire to make fuel payments available as quickly as possible. On 15 December, the Executive meeting on the December monitoring round agreed to fund such a scheme. We then moved to prepare the Bill over the Christmas period so that it could be introduced at the earliest opportunity after the Assembly’s return from recess.
Some Members said that the Bill concentrates greater power on OFMDFM, but it is not intended to have that effect. In fact, the Bill is intended to improve the Executive’s collective decision-making. We cannot envisage circumstances in which Departments would not prioritise addressing hardship or poverty. The Bill is also aimed at responding to exceptional circumstances and will work with the agreement of the Executive. The Bill is about managing public expenditure.
For some time, Members have spoken about cohesion and about the Executive’s ability to work collectively. As Minister of Education, I was a member of an Executive that was led by David Trimble and Séamus Mallon. On countless occasions, at countless Executive meetings, Séamus Mallon, as deputy First Minister, emphasised, at every opportunity, the responsibility on individual Ministers to deliver their parties for Executive decisions. However, the SDLP’s general approach to the Executive now seems to be the total opposite of that, and it repudiates what Séamus Mallon said. [Interruption.]
With respect, I wish to finish my point. On 15 December, the First Minister and I attended the Executive meeting to discuss the December monitoring round, and I did not hear the SDLP Minister oppose the decision or vote against the Executive’s decision. However, she then ran out to the media and accused the Executive of being involved in a smash-and-grab raid —
No, I will not give way. The Member is trying to prevent me from making my point, but I am going to make it anyway. When a Minister sits mute at an Executive meeting and then, at the first opportunity, runs out to the media and claims that there was a smash-and-grab raid on her Department — which was total and absolute nonsense — it makes me have serious concerns about the role being played by the SDLP in the Assembly and in the Executive.
The deputy First Minister reflected on his time as a member of the Executive when Sinn Féin was one of the smaller parties and other parties were in charge, and I wish to comment on that point.
When they appeared before the Committee, the First Minister and the junior Ministers stressed that the ministerial code, as contained in the Northern Ireland Act 1998 and amended at St Andrews, prevents the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister from intervening in individual ministerial business without due regard to the views of Ministers. Furthermore, any changes would have to go through the Executive.
I accept entirely that that gives protection to Sinn Féin and DUP Ministers. However, it does not make clear, for example, whether a scheme initiated by the First Minister and the deputy First Minister and administered through OFMDFM — which the Bill would allow them to do — but which would interfere with the remit of the Departments of Health, Employment and Learning or Social Development could be approved by the Executive without the acceptance or agreement of the Ministers concerned.
I asked at the time whether I could have some detail on the relevant parts of the ministerial code. [Interruption.]
The First Minister is interjecting; perhaps it would have been more helpful if he had picked up the telephone and told me this when I asked. I wrote to the First Minister and asked whether he could indicate what would prevent such interference from happening, because that is one of my party’s key concerns about the structure of the Bill. Can someone — preferably the deputy First Minister, given that he is addressing the issue — give us the assurances that we are looking for and show us the details? It is not a very important point for his party in its current position, but it was a key Sinn Féin negotiating point in 1998 to ensure that Sinn Féin Ministers were protected within their departmental autonomy. That is one of the issues that the other parties are concerned about.
I fully understand the Member’s point, and I agree with her. When it comes to implementing the decisions that will flow from the proposed legislation, it comes down to our motivation as the leaders of the two largest parties in the Executive and the Assembly. There have been attempts to engage in scaremongering. I do not attribute it to the Ulster Unionist Party or the Alliance Party, but there have been attempts to impugn my motives and those of the First Minister for bringing this legislation to the Executive. That is a ridiculous approach, particularly in the context of the dire economic circumstances.
The Bill is about managing expenditure at Executive level and ensuring, with Executive agreement, that resources are directed in response to exceptional circumstances and to address urgent unmet social need. The decisions to be taken on those provisions will, almost invariably, be cross-cutting; therefore, they will have to be taken by the Executive Committee. As we have already explained, we intend to amend the ministerial code in order to make it explicitly clear that any proposal for a determination or a designation must be agreed by the Executive. The rights of smaller parties must be at the forefront of the minds of Executive Ministers.
Dolores Kelly said that DSD could have made the payments in December. The fact of the matter is that the Social Development Minister did not have the legislative powers to make fuel poverty payments. This legislation will provide the necessary powers.
Naomi Long raised the issue of the use of accelerated passage for the powers that are included in clause 2 of the Bill. The Bill’s purpose is to urgently address hardships that arise as a result of unforeseen circumstances, or from a person’s experience of poverty, deprivation or social exclusion. In our view, the Executive need powers to respond urgently in both situations. Our experience since restoration has shown that the Executive need to be in a position to react quickly to unforeseen events.
As I said, our experience since restoration has shown that the Executive need to be in a position to react quickly to unforeseen events. There have been quite a number of unforeseen events over the course of recent years. The Bill provides us with the legislative basis on which to deal with such eventualities, and it is important that the Bill be enacted at the earliest possible opportunity.
Under the provisions of the Bill, the Executive will be involved fully in all decision-making, the relevant Committees will perform their normal scrutiny role, and the Assembly will have control of the scheme that will be created under the regulations. Therefore, protections are clearly in place.
Naomi Long asked whether the Bill could have been introduced earlier, thereby avoiding the need for accelerated passage. With the benefit of hindsight, any legislative proposal that is designed to improve local conditions could be criticised for not being thought of earlier. The need to have a legislative basis through which fuel payments can be made is the catalyst for the Bill. It was only as recently as 15 December that the Executive reached agreement on funding such a scheme and the consequent need for urgent legislation for it.
These interventions are actually more robust than the supplementary questions that are asked during Question Time.
The fact is that the Committee for Social Development did not even have a copy of the necessary budget in order to scrutinise what was discussed at the December monitoring round because the Minister for Social Development was incapable of providing it.
I appreciate that the deputy First Minister has given away to many Members, so I thank him for giving away to me also.
With due respect, the benefit of hindsight does not apply, because during the summer, it was noted that there was a lack of legislative cover to allow for fuel payments. At that point, the Department for Social Development produced draft legislation. As I mentioned earlier, OFMDFM and the Executive felt quite rightly that it was better to provide cover not simply for one Department, but for all Departments simultaneously. That need was identified in August or September, but OFMDFM drafted no legislation in the intervening three months.
My point is that the benefit of hindsight does not apply. I accept the First Minister’s interjection about funds becoming available only through the December monitoring round. However, proper legislative cover to allow for the distribution of payments could have been introduced in the three months before December. Therefore, my point is that the problem was actually identified much earlier than December.
I confirm what the First Minister said. Dawn Purvis raised this issue. The reality is that the Department for Social Development did not propose draft legislation. To give the impression that it did is totally and absolutely erroneous.
In response to Declan O’Loan, I emphasise that the Executive must be at the heart of this process. The Bill is designed to give the Executive the flexibility to allocate and distribute funds across all Departments so that they can respond to any crisis or hardship situation.
Harking back to what Mrs Long said, OFMDFM decided that it had to implement legislation that would allow it to deal comprehensively with any situation with which it might be confronted; for example, we had to deal with the floods and concerns about the safety of cattle and pork consumption. We are confronted with those types of situations almost annually, so it is important that we can deal with them.
Prior to making any determination or designation on fuel payments, the First Minister and I will bring the matter to the Executive for consideration and agreement — although that is required already under the current ministerial code — in order to put this aspect of the process beyond doubt. On 15 January, the First Minister and I will ask the Executive to agree a proposed draft amendment to the ministerial code that will require all future proposed designations and determinations under the Bill to be brought to the Executive for consideration and agreement.
Subject to Executive agreement, the draft amendment to the ministerial code will be brought to the Assembly for approval by cross-community support. However, it is not appropriate to seek the Assembly’s agreement to the amendment until the Bill has received Royal Assent. As I explained earlier, I confirm that any proposals that are required under the legislation before the code is amended will be brought to the Executive, as is required by the current ministerial code.
The Ulster Unionist Party feels a bit left out of the discussion, because we have tried to take a fairly responsible attitude. Earlier, I spoke about the need for appropriate language, but I have been surprised by the tenor that the debate has taken. Perhaps the deputy First Minister will address that issue. Will he assure the House that, when he brings those matters to Executive colleagues, he will specifically address the concerns of the smaller parties in the Executive, particularly as they have the larger chunks of the Budget to manage? I heard him say that he understood that position. Such an assurance would go some way to helping us through that issue.
I am willing to give that assurance. I was a member of a previous Executive in which Sinn Féin was not one of the larger parties, so I understand the situation that is faced by Ministers Empey, McGimpsey and Ritchie. It is important that the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister and the other Ministers recognise that. I want a harmonious situation in the Executive, because that is what the public want. I want all Ministers to behave positively and constructively, and that includes the First Minister and the deputy First Minister. We have a duty and a responsibility to lead the Executive in a way that enables them to produce results for the people whom they represent.
Stephen Farry talked about the issue of breaching parity. He seemed to be suggesting that we should not assist our communities because others are failing to help their communities. That is a mistake; the Bill is concerned with devolved Government working for our people.
I thank all Members who spoke in the debate. I look forward to discussing the issues further during the onward passage of the Financial Assistance Bill.
Question put and agreed to.
Resolved (with cross-community support):
That the Financial Assistance Bill [NIA 4/08] proceed under the accelerated passage procedure, in accordance with Standing Order 40(4).