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I remind Members that interventions must be made through the Chair. In the previous debate, 31 interventions were made through the Chair, and a countless number were made across the Floor of the House. I remind Members that there is no accelerated passage for that practice. I hope that the debate runs smoothly, through the Chair.
I beg to move
That the Second Stage of the Financial Assistance Bill [NIA 4/08] be agreed.
We meet today as Members of a local Assembly that has been elected by the community that we all serve. In return for the votes that the people of Northern Ireland gave us, we promised that devolved Government would put their needs first. The Financial Assistance Bill is an important milestone in delivering upon those promises.
Governments, especially devolved Governments such as ours, must be able to act swiftly and decisively and we must use our expert local knowledge to deliver in a way that the direct rule Administration did not and could not.
Every day, we strive to provide shelter where there is homelessness, heat where there is cold and food where there is hunger. The rights to shelter, heat and food are basic and inalienable, and it is our duty to protect them. Protecting such rights at all times is the essence of the Financial Assistance Bill. It will ensure that, for the first time, immediate action can be taken in the face of any emergency. The Bill will provide the legislative framework to ensure that — no matter what situation should arise — all the elements of Government can co-ordinate to provide immediate respite.
The biggest crime that any Government can commit is to procrastinate in the face of a crisis. It is an even greater crime if such procrastination is the result of bureaucracy and red tape. The Financial Assistance Bill will ensure that the Executive will be able to act immediately to provide financial assistance regardless of the situation or emergency faced.
Emergencies and crises are not new to us; we have dealt with them in the past. The flooding in 2008 left many households with repair bills that they could not afford. Sudden increases in fuel costs left many older people with the choice of either heating or eating. The crisis in meat production at the end of the year had the potential to threaten the jobs and livelihoods of those who depend on the agrifood industries.
The Executive dealt with each of those situations in the best possible way, but not always in a manner that the people deserved. All too often, assistance has been delayed. We must have the ability to act quickly, effectively and decisively at the moment when action is most needed. At present, we cannot do that. We do not deny that, in some instances, responsibility for a crisis will fall to a single Department, which may have the legislative cover necessary to provide appropriate financial assistance. Crises may, however, impact on more than one Department and the legislative cover necessary to provide an appropriate financial response may not exist. Even when the emergency is the responsibility of a single Department, that Department may not have the necessary legislative authority to meet the needs that arise.
The Bill will fill the hole that currently exists in local legislation. It will ensure that the Executive can, for the first time, work as a unit to tackle the hardship that arises out of any crisis and target resources at specific areas of need and deliver to those at greatest risk.
There has been much speculation regarding the exact nature and intention of the Bill. I take the opportunity to correct some of the wildly ill-informed conjecture that we heard from some quarters. The Member for North Antrim Declan O’Loan has now absented himself from the Chamber. That is unfortunate, and I will hold back some of my remarks that relate to his comments on the off chance that he will return.
The Executive will use the Bill to determine when an emergency has arisen and when financial assistance should be provided. I said “the Executive”. Where there are no arrangements for providing assistance, or where existing arrangements are — or are likely to be — ineffective, inadequate or unsatisfactory, the Bill will give the designated Department or Departments power to make a scheme that will provide financial assistance in exceptional circumstances. Crises are often the responsibility of several Departments. When that is the case, the Bill will allow the Executive to designate OFMDFM as the lead Department, in order that it can develop a scheme.
It is important, when putting together legislation to deal with emergency situations, to be as flexible as possible. For that reason, the Bill allows for financial assistance to be given in any form — grant, loan or guarantee — and for it to be direct or indirect. The Bill also provides for any scheme to be made by means of regulations, subject to negative resolution, and to provide for the matters to be included in a scheme.
This Bill will provide the First Minister and deputy First Minister — as the heads of the Executive — with the necessary statutory powers to take remedial action to respond to any crisis that the Executive agree warrants rapid and effective intervention, where current arrangements for doing so do not exist.
Again, the House will note that I have indicated that the Executive should agree. The Member for North Antrim Declan O’Loan has expressed his views, but he clearly does not understand the present legislative position. Under the Northern Ireland (St Andrews Agreement) Act 2006, there is a statutory basis for the ministerial code, and that ministerial code requires Ministers to bring any novel or contentious issues before the Executive. Therefore, even though the word “Executive” is not contained in the Bill, all these matters would have already come — by way of the ministerial code — to the Executive. There is no need to have the word “Executive” inserted as the legislation is already in place that requires these matters to come to the Executive.
However, to put it beyond any doubt — and as the deputy First Minister has indicated — we are currently improving the ministerial code with a proposal, which we will putting to our Executive colleagues, to expressly cite this Bill as a requirement for any scheme to be brought before the Executive for agreement. Therefore, the Executive, at all times, would be asked to examine and agree to the matters contained as a result of schemes in this legislation.
The Bill introduces an element of flexibility, desperately needed in any emergency, to allow the allocation and distribution of resources across all Departments. That will allow the Executive to respond to any future crisis or hardship situation.
I am aware that many Members have concerns in relation to the breadth of the Bill; those concerns are legitimate and should be addressed. The Bill will not diminish or override the authority of individual Ministers to allocate resources. Furthermore, it does not touch upon the responsibility of the Finance Minister to carry out his normal role in relation to spending plans. Moreover, it will not cut across the relationship between individual Ministers and their accounting officers in respect of the management of public funds. The Bill is enabling legislation, not a spending proposal.
As joint chairpersons of the Executive, the deputy First Minister and I will be responsible for determining the situations that warrant intervention under the legislation. We will also have the authority to determine the most appropriate Department or Departments to develop schemes. That process will be carried out in consultation with, and with the agreement of, the Executive as already provided for in the ministerial code. To make that absolutely clear, we have made the necessary proposal for an amendment in respect of this legislation.
The Financial Assistance Bill does not attempt, in any way, to bypass the normal Assembly scrutiny procedures. Once a designation has been made, the subsequent scheme or schemes and associated regulations will be subject to the normal process of Committee and Assembly scrutiny.
The OFMDFM Committee and other departmental Committees have stressed the need for urgent and decisive action in the face of the current economic downturn, and addressing fuel poverty among the most vulnerable is clearly an area where urgent action is needed. That is particularly the case given the unacceptably high levels of fuel poverty in Northern Ireland, the increases in fuel bills and the sustained period of cold weather that we have experienced. However, we cannot legislate for each situation as it arises, and this Bill provides the enabling legislation so that unforeseen circumstances can be responded to by the Executive quickly, effectively and — it is important to say — legally. Therefore, this Bill provides us with the capability to respond more effectively to unforeseen circumstances, to mitigate financial hardship and to provide a more effective, co-ordinated response.
The Financial Assistance Bill is the most important piece of legislation to be tabled since the return of devolved Government. The Bill will ensure that, for the first time, the Northern Ireland Executive have the ability to examine the wider picture and the problems that we face as a single, dynamic unit, and to flex and shape around the challenges that arise.
In direct response to the comments that were made by Mrs Naomi Long, representing the Alliance Party, I assure the Assembly that this Bill increases the collectivity of the Executive and puts the Executive at the centre of the decisions that will be taken, particularly those when emergencies arise. We live in unprecedented times, in which there is great uncertainty. Over the coming months, many people will face hardship that has not been experienced in, perhaps, two generations. Make no mistake: the man and woman on the street are afraid and are looking to their elected representatives and to the Assembly for answers.
This Bill provides the leadership and security for which the community is looking. In times of crisis, Northern Ireland was often placed low on a direct rule Government’s list of priorities. Devolution means that that is no longer the case — locally elected politicians are securing and delivering what is needed by local people. No one could have predicted the events that have unfolded, and we certainly cannot predict what lies ahead, but we can, and should, be ready for whatever the future throws at us. I commend the Bill to the Assembly.
I am grateful again for the opportunity to contribute to the debate. Initially, I will speak as Chairperson of the Committee for the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister and will then make some observations on the Ulster Unionist Party position.
As the First Minister outlined, the Bill provides powers that will regularise the allocation and distribution of funds in response to any crisis or hardship situation, and extend the Executive’s powers to deal effectively with poverty.
On Monday, 5 January, the junior Ministers briefed the Committee on the proposals in the Bill, for which the Committee is grateful. The need for such legislation has been prompted, principally, by the need to provide a statutory basis for the fuel payments that were announced as part of the Executive’s response to the economic downturn. That will authorise fuel poverty payments totalling £15 million being made to those who are most in need. The Committee wishes to see those payments made as quickly as possible to help to alleviate the difficulties of those who are experiencing fuel poverty.
The OFMDFM Committee was advised that the Bill provides a firm statutory basis for the Executive to respond to future exceptional circumstances. Such circumstances may involve hardship for specific groups or individuals, or a situation arising that is related to the Executive’s response to poverty, social exclusion or deprivation, and which requires financial intervention but for which arrangements do not exist or are not fit for purpose.
During the briefing by the junior Ministers, members of the Committee asked a number of questions and sought clarification on the Bill and its clauses. Committee members queried the definition of the term “exceptional circumstances” and how that would be interpreted by the First Minister and deputy First Minister. The Committee also asked about the decision-making process and how individual Ministers, the Assembly and the Assembly Committees can raise an issue of concern under the term “exceptional circumstances”, which is in the Bill.
The Committee asked about the position of individual Ministers and the Executive in relation to decisions to use the clauses in the Bill. The junior Ministers reiterated the importance of the Executive’s agreement when deciding whether the term “exceptional circumstances” applied, and they advised that there would be an amendment to the ministerial code to take the Financial Assistance Bill into account.
The junior Ministers — as OFMDFM did today — gave an undertaking to the Committee that it will have sight of changes to the ministerial code as soon as possible. The junior Ministers also advised that they wished to ensure that when the legislation is fully enacted, the changes to the ministerial code will be in place. I hope that the Ministers from OFMDFM can take the opportunity provided by this debate to assure us that that will be the case and is their intention.
The Committee has written to the First Minister and deputy First Minister seeking further information on the amendment to the ministerial code and on the decision-making process in the Executive in relation to the Financial Assistance Bill.
Members asked a number of questions about the delivery of such financial assistance schemes and, in particular, the fuel poverty scheme. The junior Ministers advised that it would be more than likely that the Department for Social Development would be in charge of the fuel poverty scheme and that the Executive are considering all options for payment of the £15 million that is available.
The Committee questioned the junior Ministers on discussions that had taken place with the Treasury about parity with social security payments. The junior Ministers confirmed that the scheme would not contravene the principle of parity. Members also questioned the junior Ministers about scrutiny arrangements for the use of the Bill should an exceptional circumstance apply and also the mechanism to discuss that matter with the Committee when required. The junior Ministers assured members that there is no intention to exclude the scrutiny role of the Committee in relation to either the exceptional circumstance provision or the poverty, social exclusion and deprivation aspects of the Bill. It would be helpful if that point could be reiterated today.
The Committee has been advised that the First Minister and deputy First Minister have proposed amendments to the Bill and to the ministerial code. I welcome the indication from the deputy First Minister that the Committee will have the opportunity to consider those proposed amendments at its regular meeting tomorrow afternoon. That would afford members the opportunity to make further comment at Consideration Stage of the Bill next week.
I turn now to observations made on behalf of the Ulster Unionist Party. My party fully supports the intentions of the Bill. The need for the Bill has been amply demonstrated by the hardships caused over the past year through the impact of the vast rise in food and fuel costs. The suffering of those most in need has been palpable. Although those prices are now declining, and food and fuel are becoming more affordable, the legacy is increased debt for those who can least afford it. Our hope is that the Bill will contribute, and is necessary, to the proposal that additional relief from fuel poverty be provided urgently.
As the fast-moving economic crisis develops and deepens, there will undoubtedly be other emergency financial measures that will need to be enacted under the provisions of the Bill. It is worth saying that had these powers been in place in 2008, the Executive may have been able to act in order to obviate the most adverse effects of the vast rise in the prices of life’s necessities; or perhaps they would not have done so, given that the Executive did not meet for five months during the most critical period of that year.
Although my party supports the intentions of the Bill and its accelerated passage, it is concerned. I have listened, and continue to listen, carefully to the responses given by the First Minister and deputy First Minister in the debate. I have been quietly surprised at the rank bad form that the First Minister appears to be in, but, nonetheless, I am interested in his responses to this important debate. We are concerned that the Bill should be subjected to effective scrutiny and, where appropriate, suitable amendment so that it may prove timely and effective in its operation.
We are also concerned that although the Bill should provide the potential for fast and effective Executive action in emergency situations, it should not be so overbearing that it would provide virtual dictatorial powers to the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister.
When the First Minister spoke in the Assembly on 15 December 2008, he advised Members that OFMDFM proposed to bring the Bill to the House. He spoke of how the Bill would extend the Executive’s power to deal effectively with poverty and disadvantage. However, it is OFMDFM’s powers that the Bill will extend, enabling it to operate without, effectively, reference to the Executive. In parliamentary business, it is known as a Henry VIII measure; in other words, centralising powers in OFMDFM at the expense of the wider Executive. It is worth pondering what poor old Henry might think of this place and this legislation; however, it seems a bit unreasonable to drag him into the debate.
Centralising power in OFMDFM at the expense of the wider Executive is important because we are operating a voluntary coalition, or, to use the First Minister’s own words, a four-party mandatory coalition, comprising all the main parties represented in the Executive. [Interruption.]
A voluntary coalition should make for a consensual Government operating without an official opposition. Mr Robinson has continually lectured the SDLP and the Ulster Unionist Party about the responsibilities involved in being part of a four-party mandatory coalition. The Bill highlights that we are part of that coalition perhaps only when it suits Mr Robinson and Mr McGuinness. It is of genuine concern that they are showing such little respect for Executive and parliamentary procedures. The proof of the pudding will be in the eating.
In our view, for effective consensual government at Executive level, there has to be a coming together of the complete Executive in order to create that consensus. The Bill, as it stands, does not appear to meet that necessity. Instead, it provides powers for the First Minister and deputy First Minister to, potentially, dictate to the Executive what will be enacted. Any action taken will be decided by negative resolution, offering no room for debate and, again, highlighting the fact that the DUP and Sinn Féin do not respect parliamentary procedures.
The Bill, potentially, sidesteps the vexed questions of where money will be diverted from in order to fund emergency measures and how the impact of that diversion from existing programmes will be handled. We have forsaken a contingency fund to provide for such emergencies, using, instead, the midterm financial review for such purposes. However, the midterm review procedure is too long-winded and does not facilitate a fast response as is required under this legislation. The likelihood is that OFMDFM will, or could, arbitrarily allocate moneys from other programmes over the heads of the Ministers concerned.
Where will that money come from? It will come from the highest spending Departments of course, which are, respectively, Education, Health, and Employment and Learning, followed by the Department for Social Development. When decisions to reallocate resources are made at short notice — decisions that will affect the execution of existing programmes — it is absolutely necessary that they are taken by the whole Executive. I am not arguing that money should not be reallocated in response to a crisis or a hardship situation; I am simply arguing that any reallocations should be made in a way that limits collateral damage.
It is clear that the Member’s speech was written before he listened to anything that has been said during the debate. The deputy First Minister and I have made it clear that all those matters must be brought before the Executive. They are already required to be brought before the Executive under the current ministerial code.
In order to put the issue beyond doubt, I reiterate that the ministerial code is to be changed. A proposal to that effect will be put to the Executive on 15 January 2009. Although the issue will be brought to the Executive, the Member continues to argue that the First Minister and the deputy First Minister will make a decision on it without reference to the Executive. Why does he continue to make that point when he has been told that the Executive will make decisions on all those matters?
I am pleased that the First Minister has taken the opportunity to, apparently, put the issue beyond doubt, which should be the position. However, although that response is helpful, in the absence of sight of changes to the ministerial code and of direct confirmation that those changes will be in place before the legislation is enacted, I have to say that the proof of the pudding will be in the eating.
Given that it is not explicit in the legislation that the Executive will be required to give prior approval — which is, after all, by negative resolution — the comments of the First Minister and the deputy First Minister are all fine and well. Why, however, is that not explicit in legislation? Why must the ministerial code be changed? Why not change the legislation?
I thank the Member for giving way. In fact, I asked the legislative draftsmen that question in order to determine whether the matter could be put beyond doubt in legislation. I was told immediately that such matters cannot be put into legislation because they are already the legal position. That is a duplication of legislation. The ministerial code is already legislated for and is the legal position. The requirement is already in place. The deputy First Minister and I are putting the matter beyond doubt by expressly referring to this piece of legislation in a new amendment to the ministerial code.
Again, I thank the First Minister for his clarity. I raised the matter at the briefing meeting between the Committee and the junior Ministers. The fact is that my Committee has a role to scrutinise legislation, but not the ministerial code. It was not brought before us. Therefore, the clarity that the First Minister provides is helpful. The Committee will seek to measure it.
Finally, I reiterate my party’s support for the need for the Bill and, indeed, the necessity of accelerated passage. However, I point to potential pitfalls in how the Bill’s powers are, or could be, concentrated in OFMDFM at the expense of the wider Executive, and the need for any amendment to make the Bill acceptable to the spirit of democracy, freedoms and liberties that the Assembly should embody.
It is normal practice to suspend business at 12.30 pm for a Business Committee meeting. However, the Speaker has asked that the debate continue until 1.00 pm. Before I call Mr Shannon, I ask Members to stick as closely as possible to the subject of the debate. A mention of Henry VIII is probably all right; however, his six wives do not need to be mentioned as well.
Unlike Henry VIII, I have only one wife, which is enough for me.
I want to put on record my support for the Financial Assistance Bill and for the need to have this legislation in place as soon as possible. I thank the First Minister for his clarification of matters. I hope that the Members who queried them — some of whom seem to have vacated the Chamber — have taken note of what he said.
Members do not need to stand in the Chamber and elaborate on the causes of the economic crisis or discuss to whom the fault for it belongs. It is enough to know that everyone feels its effects. We understand that it is real. It adversely affects the lives of people throughout the Province.
It is our duty to alleviate those effects as much as we can; we have all been elected to make a practical difference.
Fuel poverty is a major issue in the Province, especially during this cold winter. The 2006 house condition survey found that 34% of Northern Ireland households were in fuel poverty at that time. That was before the recent 33% hike in electricity, gas and oil prices. The price of gas has now been cut by some 10%, but that still leaves people with over 20% more to pay than last year.
With money so much tighter, people have been left in a shocking predicament. The Executive have recognised that fact, among other issues, and decided that this is a time of crisis in which there may be deaths due to some people being unable to eat healthily or pay for fuel.
It wasnae sae lang ago that a’ redd hoo twau oardinarey pensioners, haein paed fer fid, haetin an fer whut they needit, wur left wi’ only £2, er wor, wi’ jist 47 pence tae dae theim tha rest o’ tha week. It’s hard tae tak in whun ye think this tuk place afoar tha reacint hike in price.
It canny be a’ ‘Tak in oan tha chin’ tiem fer theim yins whua wull undootably hae reel herdship wi’ this new rise. As Help tha Aged hae scrivven en noted, whun we strip awau aw tha blether, tha elderly er left tae ither dae wi’oot a’ meal er pit oan anither jumper an tichts, er sit in tha coul.
A while ago, I read about two pensioners who, having paid for food, heating and the bare essentials, were left with £2 and 47p respectively to do them for the rest of the week. Those were average pensioners who could have been anywhere in the Province. Indeed, that situation is even more unbelievable and shocking in that it occurred even before the most recent price hike.
People who will have major difficulties cannot be left simply to take the new price rise on the chin. As Help the Aged has noted, when the rhetoric is stripped away, elderly people are left to choose between not eating a meal or putting on another jumper or a pair of tights and sitting in the cold. The situation is that simple and that frightening. The thought of someone in Northern Ireland dying due to a lack of heating can never be tolerated.
The Department for Social Development’s 2004 document, ‘Ending Fuel Poverty: A Strategy for Northern Ireland’, states the Government’s intent to eradicate fuel poverty in vulnerable households by 2010, and in all households by 2016. It will be impossible for that, or any other, Government target to be met if we do not step in and make a practical difference. The purpose of this Bill is to allow us to step in and make that practical difference before it is too late.
We have had other problems and catastrophes in the past, such as the pork crisis just before Christmas, the beef crisis about a year ago and the flooding calamities. We will hear calls in the Chamber — both later today and in the future — that every motion needs to be dissected, discussed and debated, and there is no doubting that that is true.
However, every crisis needs an urgent response. That is why we are implementing measures to ensure that the Executive can make warranted, rapid and effective financial interventions in times of need. It is not a diversion of democracy; it is a path to provision. We are passing a measure that every Member agrees with and that will help people in times of trouble. None of us would refuse help that is available to our constituents, and we all fight for them as hard as we can. Therefore, I see no point in not backing a Bill that is designed simply to implement measures to allow needs to be met at the time when they are greatest.
I try to be positive in my attitude to life, and I am a firm believer that there is light at the end of the tunnel. However, some people in the Province are so financially weighed down that they cannot lift their head long enough to see, or hold on to, that light. It is our job to guide those people towards the light, and the Financial Assistance Bill is a signpost in the tunnel to indicate that the light is coming closer.
Accelerated passage should not be used simply to cut out the middlemen. It should only be used in exceptional circumstances. The financial situation in the Province, and in the UK as a whole, will lead us all to the conclusion that these are exceptional times that require exceptional legislation. We must be prepared to meet the needs of our people in these times of trouble.
Members of the OFMDFM Committee are tasked with tackling many issues, such as child poverty, fuel poverty and our constituents’ quality of life.
The Bill will help people in greatest need when they need it most — not after they have been floored by the burden. I support the Bill and its accelerated passage, and ask Members to do the same.
Go raibh míle maith agat. I welcome the opportunity to speak during the Second Stage of the Bill, which has the potential to make a real difference to people in the North.
It is important to reflect on the reality of life for our constituents, which is the reason for the introduction of the legislation. We are debating the Second Stage of the Financial Assistance Bill during one of the coldest winters in memory and when our economy and our people face a recession that will devastate many businesses, communities and families. Against that bleak background, people are, rightly, seeking assistance from their political representatives. There is an onus on all Members to do everything in their power to provide the necessary help and assistance as quickly as possible. Therefore, I welcome the Bill and hope that it passes swiftly through the legislative process.
I welcome the Bill’s headline-grabbing initiative — the £150 fuel poverty payments. I am sure that all Members have been dealing with constituents who have been crippled by the recent scandalous hike in the cost of heating their homes. The phrase “heat or eat” is not a campaign slogan for countless families in the North, rather a stark and devastating reality for many of them. People in our community — a western twenty-first-century society — cannot afford to heat their homes and put food on the table. That should, and does, shame all of us.
The Bill alone will not alleviate all those problems, and I am conscious that the Assembly’s lack of fiscal sovereignty limits its power to intervene. We will be unable to implement the changes that the people demand and deserve until all parties are prepared to take control of our economic destiny, realise the full potential of all-Ireland economic co-operation and cut the threadbare purse strings with Britain. Nevertheless, given the Assembly’s operational parameters, the Bill is a step in the right direction. Therefore, I was surprised and disappointed that the SDLP failed to support the accelerated passage process at last week’s meeting of the Committee for the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister.
It is not a point of order. The reality is that the SDLP did not support the Bill in the OFMDFM Committee — that is a fact.
The people of the North are crying out for power-sharing to work and to make a real difference to people’s lives, and the Bill is intended to do just that, as well as enabling the Executive to issue the fuel hardship payment. Furthermore, it will create powers to make similar interventions in the future.
I particularly welcome clause 2, and I believe that many in civic society will do so, too. The Committee heard evidence from many groups and organisations that are struggling, and clause 2 gives the First Minister and deputy First Minister — acting jointly — the power to determine situations whereby financial assistance needs to be provided in order to tackle poverty, social exclusion or patterns of deprivation.
I welcome, too, the assurance given by the First Minister and deputy First Minister on the proposed amendment to the ministerial code, which will ensure that determination of schemes must be agreed by the Executive.
I note also the comments that were made about the Assembly’s role in the approval of such a proposed scheme, as well as the guarantees that Ministers will determine their own budgetary priorities.
The present funding arrangements are clearly unsatisfactory. The Executive have no power to intervene and provide financial assistance to tackle poverty, social exclusion or deprivation when it is determined that such a situation exists. The new legislation will change all of that. It will allow effective intervention, including financial assistance, to be made when the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister determines that any given situation requires it. That is a significant sea change, with the potential to help make a real difference to those who are in greatest need.
There have been enough unhelpful comments today; I do not intend to subject us to any more.
I believe that people of all communities and constituencies will welcome that sea change. The Bill will close a capability gap that existed throughout the lifetime of the last Executive — the UUP and SDLP First and deputy First Ministers did not address it. Thankfully, the First Minister and deputy First Minister of this Executive have done so, and I commend them both. Go raibh maith agat.
On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. I distinctly heard you say at the start of this discussion that Members should try to keep to the point of the Bill, and should discuss what is actually in front of us. Ms Anderson, who is now seated, proceeded to discuss a completely different Bill — one that will be used at the whim of the Executive to change all sorts of spending priorities. That is not what this Bill is about, and the Member did not stick to the point.
It is rich that members of Sinn Féin who held up progress and measures to deal with the economic downturn are asking us to be responsible. It was Sinn Féin that would not allow the Executive to meet. The First Minister — I did not realise that he was at the side of the Chamber — said last autumn that he had passed some 24 papers to the deputy First Minister for approval. Where are they now? The momentum that they tried to gain in their meetings before Christmas now seems to be lost.
I wish to make some points about the Financial Assistance Bill. The SDLP welcomes the principle that there must be some action to enable the Executive to help to alleviate the effects of emergency or hardship situations through financial assistance. In particular, the Bill seems to be an appropriate vehicle for the introduction of the fuel credit scheme. However, there are a number of points on which I would welcome clarity, or which merit further consideration.
In view of the potentially sweeping powers contained in the Bill, and the potential financial implications of schemes that may be established under its authority, I would have expected the Assembly procedure to be affirmative, rather than negative, resolution.
Having just mentioned the sweeping powers of the Bill, does the Member share my surprise at the apparent split in the Sinn Féin position? The deputy First Minister clearly gave an undertaking that he was sensitive to the needs of the smaller parties in the Executive and that the Bill would be used only in extremis. Yet his party colleague, Ms Anderson, appeared to say that it would be a fundamental change in our relationship. In fact, I think that I heard the First Minister say that it was the most significant form of legislation to come before the House. Does she share my surprise that there appears to be a dichotomy in that position? Will she seek further clarification on that point?
The Member has expressed concerns that were articulated earlier. Non-explicit terms lead people to suspect the motives of other parties — particularly when not everybody trusts the motives of other parties.
However, I will return to my script. The SDLP is concerned that there are potential resource implications of schemes — made under the authority of this Bill — that we would have expected to have required DFP consent, rather than just the approval of OFMDFM. As drafted, it seems that the intent of the Bill is that the determinations of the First Minister and the deputy First Minister will not require the consent or agreement of the Executive or the relevant Minister.
I urge the First Minister to further expand on what level of consultation and consent is required from the Minister of the relevant Department. It is difficult for the other Members of this House to work in a vacuum and to make assumptions about what might be contained in the amendments to the ministerial code. We can deal only with what is before us. We do not have details of the amendments in writing, although the First Minister has made some attempts —
There is no requirement for the Member to continue on her current trail, so I will save her some energy. This piece of legislation is not in isolation; it is part of an overall statute book that already states that the Executive will consider any legislation that requires controversial or novel decisions. Therefore, all the schemes in this Bill would normally have come before the Executive.
To put it beyond doubt, we are expressly including that in the ministerial code in terms that are being drawn up by the draftsmen. The statute book already contains the requirement for us to bring those schemes before the Executive. Therefore, there is no power grab — neither I nor the deputy First Minister are taking decisions ourselves. All those matters will be decided by the Executive, which will increase their collective decision-making power.
I thank the First Minister for his time-saving exercise on my behalf. However, clause 2 of the Bill — which is the most problematic clause and the one that most concerns our party — states that it enables the First Minister and the deputy First Minister, acting jointly, to designate a Northern Ireland Department to establish, by regulations, a scheme to provide financial assistance to:
“tackle poverty, social exclusion or patterns of deprivation based on objective need”.
The First Minister said that the legislation on the statute books is not required to double up, so one wonders why that clause is needed, given that the Good Friday Agreement and St Andrews legislation put a statutory commitment and requirement on the Executive to tackle deprivation, poverty and social exclusion.
At a Committee meeting last week, the junior Ministers stated that some Departments needed to sharpen up their practices of tackling poverty. That was somewhat rich, as it came from a Department that has yet to publish its anti-poverty strategy and action plan and its cohesion, sharing and integration strategy and action plan. That strategy, by junior Minister Kelly’s own admission, should have been before this House by the end of November 2008.
The majority of people who are living in poverty are women, including women with dependants and older female pensioners. However, that Department has not, to date, published an action plan for the gender-equality strategy. The group that was established on a cross-departmental basis by the Department’s equality unit has not met since May 2008. One wonders what level of urgency is given to tackling poverty by OFMDFM.
The Member will be pleased to note that I was about to draw Mrs Kelly’s attention to that point; however, she had returned to the subject of the Bill. Once again, I remind Members to stick to the subject in question.
The Member’s point about tackling patterns of social and economic deprivation is important, because the inquiry into child poverty that the OFMDFM Committee undertook resulted in recommendations on two fronts: first, on how to tackle child poverty; and, secondly, on the departmental levers that are available to ensure policy delivery from OFMDFM. Does the Member agree that it would have been helpful to have received a formal response to that inquiry before inserting the clause 2 provisions into the Bill?
I must support Mrs Long’s comments. Perhaps the First Minister — who is in a position to know — can tell us whether his Department’s failure to respond to that inquiry is because of a lack of agreement between the two largest parties, or has its response been delayed as a result of the backlog that the Executive’s failure to meet for five months created?
I am grateful to the Member for giving way. Would she care to speculate about the rationale underlying clause 2? That limits the Bill to tackling:
“poverty, social exclusion or patterns of deprivation”.
Although tackling those matters is a cross-cutting theme for the Executive, there are other important themes, such as co-ordinating the economy — the top theme — community relations, and so on. Is it not strange that such areas, in which additional spending might be required in certain circumstances, have not been included in clause 2?
There is much concern in our party, and in other parties, that Departments’ budgets will be raided to fund particular parties’ pet projects. Although such concerns are not explicit in the cases mentioned in the Bill, real concerns exist. When the Committee for the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister asked the junior Ministers to define “exceptional circumstances”, they were unable to do so. [Interruption.]
Apart from on spending powers, the SDLP has some concerns with other provisions in the Bill. There is no mention of budgets or of potential resource implications that might arise from schemes proposed under the authority of the Bill, particularly those that concern compliance with the requirements of managing public money. Therefore, I would appreciate some clarification about intentions, particularly on whether it is envisaged that money to fund schemes that might be created to deal with extraordinary circumstances would come from additional, centrally supplied funding or from within existing departmental budgets. That key point requires clarification.
Regardless of earlier comments, a great deal of concern about the Bill remains, particularly about clause 2, and it would be helpful were the First Minister to inform Members whether his, or the deputy first Minister’s, intended amendments will result in a decoupling of clause 1 and clause 2. The SDLP fully appreciates the hardship that communities and individuals are facing, and, therefore, it did not entirely oppose the Bill’s receiving accelerated passage.
However, the SDLP has many concerns, particularly those that I raised about clause 2, and we will table amendments for the Bill’s Consideration Stage.
The Business Committee has arranged to meet immediately on the lunchtime suspension. I propose, therefore, by leave of the Assembly, to suspend the sitting until 2.00 pm. Naomi Long will be the first Member to speak on resumption of the debate.
The sitting was suspended at 12.55 pm.
On resuming (Mr Speaker in the Chair) —
Word of my impending speech must have permeated the corridors; hence there is a low turnout.
I speak as deputy leader of the Alliance Party, which has endeavoured, over the past several years, to provide constructive opposition in the House. Mr Kennedy, in labelling the Alliance Party the “Government’s nuisance factor”, demonstrated that he does not appreciate that concept or recognise the need for opposition in the House. I contend that those who are in Government and, at the same time, think that they can be the opposition are the greater nuisance factor. Perhaps it would be better for them to resolve that issue rather than casting aspersions on others.
However, I want to deal now with the general content of the Bill. All Members who spoke in today’s debates on accelerated passage for, and Second Stage of, the Bill mentioned the exceptional financial hardships and the global economic downturn. Both have, undoubtedly, had a direct and negative effect on our constituents across the board. In particular, people who were already experiencing social and economic deprivation have felt the squeeze more intensely than others.
No one would dispute that the serious issue must be addressed in a timely way. The deputy First Minister’s concluding remarks in the previous debate, and his interpretation of my colleague Dr Farry’s comments on parity were, to put it mildly, ungenerous. The Alliance Party did not suggest that the principle of parity should be used as an excuse not to intervene to assist those who are in dire financial straits.
However, it is important for the Assembly to maintain a good relationship with the Treasury to ensure that its Budget is sufficient to facilitate continued interventions. Therefore, the Alliance Party’s concern that the Assembly should not be seen to breach parity is a valid one, particularly given that clause 2 of the Bill refers specifically to matters that would traditionally be addressed through the social security system. The Alliance Party raised the issue simply to ensure that the Assembly does not do anything to breach parity or to jeopardise the sensitive relationship with the Treasury. I doubt, frankly, that anyone in the Executive who had time to think the matter through would have done other than to consider that issue carefully. The Alliance Party felt that it was important to raise the matter, but it is not an excuse for a “do nothing” attitude.
The Alliance Party is not opposed to the general thrust of what clause 1 of the Bill seeks to achieve and is not opposed to those provisions being made available. We recognise the need to empower the Executive to act swiftly in exceptional circumstances, and we could, and will, debate how best to achieve that. However, we have concerns about the mechanism to be used.
I listened carefully to interventions from the deputy First Minister and the First Minister on the extent of such powers, their curtailment under the Northern Ireland Act 1998 and subsequent amendments made to that Act at St Andrews. Although any legislation made by the House can overrule its previous legislation, it remains subordinate to that Act, and I accept the point that was made about that.
The First Minister rightly said that the 1998 Act and the ministerial code require any proposals that make explicit reference to the Executive to be brought before that body. The point that I made in my earlier speech on accelerated passage is, however, slightly more subtle. I pointed out to the deputy First Minister that my party’s concern is not such matters being required to come before the Executive, but the extent to which the Executive would be in position to accept or reject them.
Moreover, the majority of the Executive are members of the two parties that hold the positions of First Minister and deputy First Minister. Therefore, they could, essentially, agree to a package of measures that was opposed by a Minister from a minority party, despite the fact that it may affect that Minister’s Department.
I thank the Member for giving way. We can do all those things already with existing legislation. The Executive, through its ministerial code, requires every Minister to accept the decisions of the Executive; therefore, the Executive, by their numbers at present and without this piece of legislation, could decide what would happen in any Department, and the relevant Minister would be legally bound to follow.
What the Executive cannot do at the moment is intervene directly with financial assistance — and that is the purpose of this legislation. That is not in their gift; otherwise we would not be having this debate. The Executive would be able to make such direct financial assistance without regard to the relevant Ministers.
The First Minister’s explanation of how Ministers are bound to agree to the decisions of the Executive is exactly the reason why other Ministers who disagree with the Executive’s decision have to agree to it during the Executive meeting; otherwise they will be hounded out of office. Furthermore, if all those powers are already possible under legislation, what is the purpose of clause 2?
I am grateful to the Member’s generosity in giving way; however, I must respond to the nonsensical intervention of the SDLP. Because a Minister has to agree with an outcome does not mean that that Minister has to agree with it during an Executive meeting. The point that was raised by the deputy First Minister was that the SDLP’s Minister agreed during the Executive meeting with the proposition and disagreed with it outside. If there is a disagreement with the proposal before the meeting, that is where the disagreement should be aired — not outside afterwards having remained silent inside.
My understanding of the legislation is that it is in the gift of any Minister to vote against a proposal in the Executive without breaching the ministerial code, but that it is not in his or her gift to frustrate the delivery of an Executive decision once that decision has been taken. That is my understanding of the matter, but I am not in the Executive so that is irrelevant. However, I seem to be better informed than some parties with Members in the Executive.
The first issue that I have with the Bill is that the threshold for “exceptional” is determined by OFMDFM. There are issues around that, but they are less important than the issue of delivery. The delivery of the financial scheme can be with any Department or with a third party. Therefore, OFMDFM can intervene directly in what would normally be delivered by another Department.
The First Minister is correct that the Executive can overrule the view of a Minister. However, that Minister would then have to deliver those decisions within his or her own departmental remit. That is giving power to OFMDFM to intervene and deliver a financial package that would affect a Minister’s departmental remit without his or her agreement, which is a significant change. Therefore, I am concerned with some of the issues involved.
I raise the matter because the Alliance Party has not championed the arrangements for Government here. I make no excuse for that, because they are a contrived and, at times, ridiculous way of doing business. Nevertheless, they are there for a purpose: to provide protection for people who felt that their position in Government might be exploited and ignored by others in a more powerful position. This piece of legislation changes significantly that position in that some of the autonomy given to Ministers has been ceded. In principle, I do not object to that. I believe that it would be better if Ministers were less autonomous and more collective.
However, I am not convinced that the Bill proposes a move from autonomy to collectivity. I think that Danny Kennedy suggested that it proposed a sort of directional form of leadership, almost akin to dictatorship. That is not collectivity, and that is where my issue with the balance lies.
Neither I nor my colleagues dispute that there is an issue with the delivery of cross-cutting themes within OFMDFM. The policy drivers lie with OFMDFM, but the delivery mechanisms lie with other Departments. The Committee for the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister has debated the matter ad nauseum, and we have debated it at length with the First Minister and deputy First Minister and the junior Ministers. In fact, the topic has become something of a hobby horse of mine. Thus, it is not in dispute that there are issues. However, every time that the Committee and I have raised the issue, we have been told that the current legislative framework and mechanisms and ministerial code are sufficient to ensure that Ministers deliver on those cross-cutting agendas. It, therefore, seems bizarre that we are now accepting that more needs to be done.
That said, my issue with clause 2 really comes down to delivery. I accept that there is a need to deal with cross-cutting measures in a more appropriate way, but there are other mechanisms for doing that, and they should have been considered. For example, the Minister of Finance and Personnel can choose to ring-fence proportions of budgets for specific purposes; that is what happens in other places, and that mechanism may be appropriate here. The Executive programme funds are a mechanism that has been tried, tested and abandoned, but similar mechanisms are used in Scotland, Wales and other places, where Ministers pool resources to follow a particular agenda.
I am concerned that the measures in the Bill tackle only one aspect of the cross-cutting nature of OFMDFM. I am saddened that the opportunity has not been taken to consider the delivery of cross-cutting themes more widely; for example, themes such as sustainability, equality, community relations and good relations. Consideration could have been given to how they will be delivered and what policy and financial levers are in place to ensure that Departments deliver on those policies. When I raised that point, the answer that I received was that no Minister would resist such action, which begs the question why special powers are needed. However, I will set that issue aside, because we could go round in circles forever.
Careful consideration must be given to the issue of autonomy for individual Departments, specifically when the Ministers in question are from the smaller parties in the Executive, because their degree of protection in the Executive is much weaker. That sensitivity must be accepted and acknowledged by all. It is not much of a response to say that it is OK because we can simply ride roughshod over them now.
When I raised that issue with the deputy First Minister, he indicated that, to some degree, we are dependent on the trust — so to speak — in the goodwill of the First Minister and deputy First Minster. Far be it from me to suggest that that trust is not universally given, but it is not just a matter of trust in the two individuals in question, nor is it even about trust in their two parties; it is a matter of trusting in perpetuity that anyone who holds those posts is a trustworthy and well-meaning individual. That is quite a different issue when it comes to the legislation. It is not a matter of understanding.
It is frustrating that Members completely fixate on the first use of the Bill rather than the Bill itself, because the debate is not just about trusting the motivation behind clause 1, it is also about knowing that it will not be used for other purposes. The issue is not necessarily about the lack of trust in the two individuals who, in the initial stages of the legislation, will hold the post of First Minister and deputy First Minister; it is about the general concern about where powers lie within the Executive and the Assembly.
Again, that matter could be resolved through amendment. I have written a letter to the First Minister and the deputy Minister in which I have expanded on the points that I am making today. I am not, in any way, suggesting that I do not accept the reassurances that were given to the Committee. Junior Ministers Donaldson and Kelly were insistent that the Bill was not intended to be a power grab. I do not dispute their motivation, but if the legislation could be used for other purposes, we should be sensitive to that and take full cognisance of it when we decide how to proceed.
The First Minister said that the Bill was enabling legislation, not a spending proposal. Unfortunately, some Members have become fixated on the spending proposal and the benefits that will accrue from the Bill, and they have lost sight of the enabling powers that it contains. That is the concern. However, I accept that the First Minister made that point after he said that there would not always money available and that the powers would not be as open to abuse as some Members had suggested.
I want to raise an issue from the viewpoint of the protection of OFMDFM. It is conceivable that an incompetent Minister, having failed to deliver within his or her departmental remit for the public, could formulate bizarre proposals for financial assistance. That Minister would wish OFMDFM to be the perpetual bad guy who says no in every situation — although that might come more naturally to some than to others, people could be put in a very difficult situation. Therefore, the co-operation and the collectivity between the Departments and OFMDFM is crucial and goes far below the surface of the Executive, because, as I said, it would be possible for people to exploit the powers in the Bill in that way if they so wished. That would be detrimental to collectivity, harmony and good government, and it is another concern.
I appreciate that the First Minister and the deputy First Minister have been present throughout the debate and have responded and made some helpful interventions. That has been a useful part of the debate.
I am concerned that the ministerial code provisions are to be strengthened but have not yet been agreed by the Executive. I understand the timing issue, because the ministerial code cannot refer to a piece of legislation that has not been passed. However, the proposed changes have not even been agreed at an Executive meeting, which leaves — for want of a better term — a confidence gap. Despite the good will of the First Minister and the deputy First Minister, the Executive could reject the proposed changes. Therefore, there is an issue about the Assembly making decisions on the Bill in, essentially, a gap period in which no formal decisions have been made.
I referred earlier to the notion of the Bill as a potential Trojan Horse. I do not want the Bill to be seen as a Trojan Horse. The Bill can be tied down in such a way as to eliminate that allegation, which has been bandied about. It would be to everyone’s benefit if amendments were to be respectfully considered and responded to fully, because the opportunity to close down the fear surrounding the Bill would be helpful.
In one of his interventions, the First Minister said that the Bill would be used in cases where powers did not already exist or were insufficient. It is worth drawing to the attention of the House that clause 4(5) states:
“Financial assistance may be provided under this Act even though other powers to provide financial assistance exist.”
Therefore, the powers will not be used exclusively in cases where powers do not exist or are shoddy.
The Bill could be used in circumstances where that is not the case. That is a catch-all term, because there could, to be fair, be a provision of which Ministers or officials are unaware, and they could be caught foul of it if it were not there. Therefore, I am not disputing it. However, it is important that we debate the issue in sufficient detail and that we do not make broad-sweep comments that are less than accurate. I would like clarification that the issue around the definition of the threshold for it to be an exceptional circumstance would have to be agreed fully by the Executive. They have indicated that, for action to be taken, the issue would have to be agreed fully by the Executive, but I would like clarification on that.
We have not had sight of the amendments that the Executive are proposing, but we intend to bring amendments to deal with some of the issues that we have suggested. We do it not in any way to unpick what is happening, but because we believe that there are significant issues here.
The significant issue about clause 2 is that it should be considered in much more detail. I would like it to be deleted and dealt with — not over a protracted period, because we recognise the importance of dealing with the issue in a timely way, but quickly, with a proper Committee Stage — even a short one — to allow those measures to be addressed.
The measures in clause 1 would allow the First Minister and deputy First Minister to undertake whatever interventions they wish in the interim while the Bill is being subjected to a Committee Stage. Therefore, I do not believe that it undermines the power of the Executive to act and intervene.
Finally, the role of the Assembly has been raised in relation to the issue. There have been a lot of interventions, and I apologise if I am attributing them to the wrong individuals — it is not with malign intent — but I think that it was the deputy First Minister who said that there may be amendments to the Bill. One of the issues was the timing of schemes and another, I believe, was the approval role of the Assembly.
There has been some debate about the Bill being subject to negative resolution, which, in my understanding, does not necessarily preclude debate on it, but it does change the context slightly. However, regulations will be brought forward, and, normally, they would be retrospectively considered by Committees and the Assembly. In that case, it is worth noting that people should not be fixated on the opportunity to deal with the regulations, because, essentially, they would be dealt with retrospectively. The Assembly needs to be conscious that when the powers are being granted, much of this will move away from the Floor of the House to be dealt with by the Executive directly and by Committees only retrospectively.
I support the Financial Assistance Bill. It is a timely and appropriate Bill that will help people in our society who have been worst affected by the global economic downturn. I welcome the fact that the Bill has been prompted by the need to provide a statutory basis for the fuel payments announcement as part of the Executive’s response to the economic downturn. I also welcome the fact that the legislation will award the Executive with powers to react swiftly in response to any circumstances that they agree warrant express and effectual action. The legislation will grant the Executive the flexibility to deal with those who are at risk of poverty or social exclusion owing to exceptional circumstances or because of inadequate or unsatisfactory funding arrangements.
The Bill provides the ability to respond to not only the prevailing climate, but to circumstances that could and may arise. The Bill will help to protect local interests and provide the legislative framework that will allow the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister and, indeed, other Departments to work and provide rapid and effective financial intervention to arising circumstances. There is no doubt that that is what our local economy needs.
We are living in exceptional circumstances, and witnessing at first hand a situation in which many are struggling to survive with sudden financial strain. However, I have no need to tell Members about that, as I am sure that they hear it day and daily from concerned constituents who are facing the strain and squeeze that many are experiencing.
I am glad that the Bill will allow us to deliver to people on the ground. It will allow the Executive to get down to business and disburse the £15 million that will address fuel poverty by providing payments to some of those who are most in need at this time. For too long under direct rule we were unable to take action; this legislation will enable us to intervene financially and assist the most vulnerable in society. The Bill will allow the Executive to manage public expenditure and ensure that resources are directed in response to exceptional circumstances and in such a way that addresses urgent and unmet social need.
The Bill will also allow Departments to respond promptly with financial assistance where the Executive warrant it. Departments must utilise the Bill to do whatever they can to alleviate any hardships that may arise. There are dark days ahead for many in society, and I believe that the Bill will allow the Executive to intervene financially both rapidly and effectively.
I welcome the accelerated passage of the Bill, and I encourage its continued momentum. It is important that we proceed speedily with this action, given that the Bill will benefit many of our constituents who are suffering at this time. The Bill has the potential to have a positive impact on those individuals, groups or areas that could suffer from poverty or social exclusion. I commend the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister for the swift production of the Bill, and I look forward to seeing it being used to its full potential.
When I was speaking about the Bill’s accelerated passage, I intimated that we were mindful of the good intent behind the Bill and the need to tackle some of the issues that are before us, but I also suggested that concerns had been raised about how the Bill might be used inappropriately in future. However, the more that I listen to the contributions from Members from both the major parties, the more concerned I become.
Although there was a reassurance from the First Minister and the deputy First Minister that this was not an attempt to grab power or an initiative that was designed to centralise power, other Members appear to see the good, as they put it, that the Bill might do. Mr Moutray has just spoken about the dark days to come, and I agree that many challenges lie ahead of us, but surely that was not the purpose of this legislation — it was designed to deal with any unexpected emergencies to which we could respond quickly.
I thank the Member for giving way. That is precisely the point that my party colleagues and I made. The provisions to deal with exceptional circumstances are contained in clause 1 of the Bill. One could choose to intervene routinely under the provisions of clause 2; the two clauses are clearly distinct.
I thank the Member for her intervention. Not for the first time she has been able to put her finger on the points that cause great concern. I am sorry if I cause her some embarrassment, and I promise not to do it too frequently, but I share her concerns about clause 2. The provisions of the Bill that seek to sort out immediate problems will, of course, have the full support of the House. However, to look in general for nebulous things that might go wrong and prepare ourselves to respond to them on a sixpence will require either a great deal more thought, or the ability to deal with them under existing provisions.
Ms Anderson is not in the Chamber, but I listen to her contributions on many subjects during Policing Board meetings. I was somewhat disheartened to hear her talk about the need to break the threadbare economic relationship with the United Kingdom. It seemed to be a much bigger political stance than that which I was prepared for. It is not the wisest course of action to try to ally ourselves with people who are also facing significant financial pressures.
When the time comes to make amendments to the Bill, I will look for some reassurance that, as the First Minister and the deputy First Minister said, it is not a Trojan Horse, nor is it calculated to take power away, but that it will enable sensible decisions to be made in the right manner.
I come to Mrs Long’s point about clause 2. I am not sure why, in clause 2 (a), we decide:
“to tackle poverty, social exclusion or patterns of deprivation based on objective need”.
Surely, other issues could be included, or fewer issues included. It seems that the clause is worded in an unnecessarily specific way. In fact, the whole of clause 2 causes me some angst.
The key issue is confidence. The conditions for confidence required to give this Bill accelerated passage without proper scrutiny do not exist. Whether for the right or wrong reasons, the Executive did not meet for 154 days. I am not saying that both sides did not have their reasons, but that did cause a considerable amount of concern in the country.
I hope that I do not embarrass the deputy First Minister in the way that I did Mrs Long, but I do share with him a view that the country wants to see all parties getting together collectively to tackle these very real problems as a corporate body. It is disappointing when these issues are used divisively. Therefore, the question is: can we frame this legislation, and, indeed, this debate, in a way that reassures people that, collectively, we will tackle these problems while being mindful of the powers of those Ministers who have specific responsibility?
I make my next point gently and reasonably: the difficulties that the Minister for Social Development had with the budget, fuel payments and suchlike did not go unnoticed and caused concern. Surely, there is a better way to deal with such issues, because we are trying to work for the good of all.
Another factor that undermines confidence relates to education. I do not hold that the Minister of Education cannot take different views, but the country is crying out for us to reach some form of decision on that matter. It does look, collectively, to —
Thank you, Mr Speaker. I stand corrected. I thought that I wavered for only a fraction, but your eagle eye obviously spotted it.
The issue is about moving forward with some form of collective responsibility. I asked, when accelerated passage was being considered, that those Members moving the motion would heed legitimate concerns that were put properly. Those concerns have been expressed. I say with some reluctance that the Bill in its current form would pose some difficulties in gaining support. However, with a bit of imagination and by working together, I am sure that we could find provisions that would satisfy all concerned. That would be a useful proposal.
The Ulster Unionist Party fully supports the initiative of finding ways to get money to those in poverty, particularly in fuel poverty, and understands the need for a proper legal mechanism with which to do that. However, it asks respectfully of the House that we find a way of doing so that builds confidence and community consensus in a proper manner.
We are debating the principle of the Bill, and I support the principle of a Bill that deals with emergency procedures such as the situation created by fuel poverty. There is a need for legislation, and there is a need for the right legislation. This Bill is not the right legislation. Despite what was said by the First Minister and the deputy First Minister, serious concerns about the Bill remain.
The First Minister said:
“the Financial Assistance Bill is the most important piece of legislation to be tabled since the return of devolved Government”.
Those are his words, not mine.
He said that the Bill would give a local Administration the real powers to deal with our local problems, which is a clear indication that the right mechanisms have not been in place to create local solutions to local problems. If that is the case, it suggests that the Bill is not merely concerned with the introduction of emergency powers for occasional use. Rather, it suggests that the Bill is concerned with the introduction of a mechanism for OFMDFM to circumvent the existing, agreed processes of Government. Perhaps it will be used as a way for OFMDFM to create its own measures for its favourite schemes. Members are entitled to have serious concerns about the Bill and the way in which it has been presented to them.
As other Members have stated, the most serious concerns arise from clause 2, which relates to “unsatisfactory funding arrangements”. Once again, it confers powers on the First Minister and deputy First Minister. Why are those powers not conferred on the Executive? We were told not to be silly, because all the powers would come with the agreement of the Executive, and I shall say more about that later. If that is the case, why is that not stated on the face of the Bill?
The powers in the Bill are exercisable when:
“a situation exists which requires financial assistance to be provided to tackle poverty, social exclusion or patterns of deprivation based on objective need”.
I am not surprised, therefore, that Stephen Farry said that other powers may be included — for example, to rescue the economy. Who knows what other powers might be included? I can see why his mind moved in that direction. If special powers are to be introduced around a wide sphere of action, that begs a very serious question.
I wonder whether any of that reminds Members of the debate that took place on the Programme for Government and the attendant Budget. The Programme for Government and the Budget were created out of a considerable process involving widespread consultation with the Assembly and the wider public, through representative groups and individuals who were given an opportunity to comment on an annual Budget. I will talk about my view that the Budget ought to be annual, but the Programme for Government and the Budget have legitimate processes that are clearly laid down. Why, then, should a substitute process be introduced, which the Bill gives every appearance of creating.
I also remind the House of the existing processes to deal with changes to the political, social and economic environment during the year. There are three-monthly monitoring rounds. Those have a due process, under which all Ministers can bid for any funds that have been released, and they can make a case for those funds based on need. The Department of Finance and Personnel and the Minister of Finance and Personnel reflect on that in order to bring proposals to the Executive, where a decision is made. That is the proper way to do business, and I doubt that there is not proper legal cover for that. Therefore, the procedures that are governed by the Bill need to be used only when those normal procedures are not adequate. I see no protections to say that those would be used only in exceptional or extreme circumstances.
Members will remember that the Minister of Finance and Personnel has refused to table a revised Budget for 2009-10 in the Assembly. The most to which he would yield was a strategic stocktake and, very grudgingly, an Assembly debate on his statement. We wanted a proper revised Budget that would give proper consideration to issues such as poverty, social exclusion and patterns of deprivation. The same Ministers who would not carry out a proper process on a Budget for next year say that the situation is so extreme that extreme measures are needed. There is a fundamental contradiction in what the Ministers tell us.
Even if there is no proper Budget for next year, in his stocktake I presume that the Finance Minister will bring to the Executive his best call on the reallocation of resources to address these issues. However, to accept this Bill, Members must believe that there is some emergency on the horizon that will face us very soon in these policy areas and that will need the railroading through the Assembly of a measure that gives the entire power to the First Minister and deputy First Minister.
This morning, we were reminded that, under the ministerial code, any such matters would have to come before the Executive in any case, and asked what we were worried about. The process in front of us is open to political chicanery; of that, there is no doubt. Under it, OFMDFM can bring a proposal to the Executive. There must be serious concern for the smaller parties in the Executive, because the parties of OFMDFM hold the majority of seats in the Executive. That situation was reflected upon this morning by the First Minister. He used the word “trust” as the ultimate defence of these proposals. The SDLP’s experience in the Executive has tested whether that Committee is operated in a collective fashion, and that makes us ask whether we can depend on trust. Most Members would prefer to examine the letter of the Bill and to place their trust there.
I turn to the phrase used in the Bill: “based on objective need”. How can OFMDFM possibly assess objective need across policy areas that rest in other Departments? That is simply not convincing. Assessing objective need requires substantive analytical work — probably involving several Departments — and that is not within the capacity of the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister. Furthermore, data sharing is a serious and major issue. Departments may not be legally empowered to share personal data collected for a particular purpose. Those issues are not addressed in the Bill.
There is an extraordinary failure in the Bill: namely, to refer to the role of DFP and the Minister of Finance and Personnel. No other financial decision can be made without such reference. There is no clarity as to where the money will come from.
The First Minister referred this morning to the proposals made, some considerable time ago, by the Minister for Social Development to deal with fuel poverty. The First Minister said that the money was not there. However, what was needed at the time was the creation of a scheme and regulations to support it, and after that, the First Minister said, the money would be available. He said that it was not available until the December monitoring round, which means it was available at the December monitoring round. Had the Executive been meeting, they would have been perfectly capable of stating that that extreme situation would have first call on moneys released — as they were — in the December monitoring round. That was perfectly possible, and it had been done for the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety in the Budget at the start of the year.
The First Minister knows perfectly well that that was a possible way of dealing with the situation. OFMDFM failed to come up with that remedy, yet it now comes before the House and claims that there is such urgency that it needs this incorrect set of proposals.
I have serious concerns about the Bill. The SDLP will table amendments to it, once it sees what amendments Ministers themselves bring forward. The First Minister claims that the SDLP Minister and other individual Ministers enjoy total protection under the ministerial code with respect to this Bill. To test that, the SDLP may table an amendment to the effect that the First Minister and deputy First Minister in conjunction with the relevant Department will determine whether financial assistance may be provided. However, we will have to formulate the wording of our amendments with due consideration and in the light of any others put forward.
If the First Minister and the deputy First Minister are serious about not attempting to overrule any individual Minister, the SDLP is interested in the reaction to such a proposal.
The SDLP is very sceptical about the need for clause 2 at all. Furthermore, we endorse the point that Danny Kennedy made that all Members should be entitled to see the ministerial amendments well before the deadline for Members tabling amendments for Consideration Stage. That all points to the unacceptably rushed procedure of:
“the most important piece of legislation to be tabled since the return of devolved Government.”
By the manner in which they have handled the detail of the Bill, the First Minister and the deputy First Minister have not provided a proper service to the Assembly.
I am pleased to speak to the Bill, and I am also pleased that the First Minister and the deputy First Minister have helped speed its progress through the Assembly. Although I welcome the Bill in general, it is not ideal.
I am sure that every Member in the Chamber still laments the loss of the 154 days in which the Executive did not meet. Not only could those people who have suffered have had their problems resolved by now, but we now face dealing with another other potentially contentious and, it appears, ill thought-out Bill.
The Bill will place unique and unprecedented power in the hands of the First Minister and the deputy First Minister. If the decision was made by design, it is another example of the desire of the DUP and Sinn Féin to accumulate power. If it is by defect, it highlights the rushed nature of the legislation. Either way, although I support the Bill’s intentions, it will not deliver good or effective government in its current form.
I was very surprised when I was informed that no powers and no system were in place to distribute the fuel payments announced as part of the December monitoring round. I find that difficult to accept, particularly given that two successful rounds of hardship-relief payments to householders who had their homes flooded had previously been made, the second of which was paid just a few months ago, in August 2008.
On 15 December 2008, the First Minister announced that his Office would 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. That power is intended to regularise the allocation and distribution of funds in response to any crisis or hardship situation.” — [Official Report, Vol 36, No 3, p122, col 1].
However, this Bill does not mention the need for Executive consent. The deputy First Minister mentioned the change to the ministerial code, but the Bill itself does not mention the Executive at all. All powers to initiate such remedial action are placed with the First Minister and the deputy First Minister, acting jointly. All powers to decide what those exceptional circumstances are, as well as the power to designate a Department to tackle those circumstances through financial aid, also lie with them. The allocation of such powers could be to the detriment of smaller parties in the Executive.
Clause2(1)(b) states that the powers conferred are exercisable if the First Minister and deputy First Minister, acting jointly, determine:
“that arrangements to provide such financial assistance are not in place, or that such arrangements as are in place for that purpose are, or are likely to be, ineffective, inadequate or for any reason unsatisfactory”.
That paragraph has serious implications for the ability of Ministers and departmental accounting officers to manage their departmental budgets autonomously. An accounting officer’s ability to balance a Department’s books effectively is one of the founding principles of the administration of government in the United Kingdom. Therefore, the impact of the Bill should not be underestimated.
Where the money comes from is also a major issue. The financial package agreed in December was sourced from a monitoring round, which, at the Minister of Finance and Personnel’s discretion, is usually subject to Executive approval, in the procedure at least.
However, there is no stipulation in the Bill designating where the money should come from. It appears that, in its current form, the Bill allows the First and deputy First Ministers to redirect moneys within departmental budgets, thereby overriding departmental Ministers and diminishing the role of the Minister of Finance and Personnel.
The Bill has the potential to create much hostility between Ministers and to allow the larger parties to dictate the workings of Departments that are run by Ministers from smaller parties. In short, the Bill takes a step away from power sharing between all parties toward a two-party diktat.
There is a need to ensure that the Bill is based on the consent of the entire Executive, especially the Department that will have to deliver, and potentially pay for, remedial action. There needs to be clear procedures concerning where the money will come from and transparency regarding what constitutes a crisis or hardship situation. In its present form, this is an imperfect Bill that will potentially damage the workings of the Executive.
The Bill will help us to implement the fuel payments. Much has been made of that when explaining the reasoning behind the Bill and, in particular, the need for accelerated passage, which I believe is right and proper for that reason. However, this Bill has far-reaching and long-standing implications for the decision-making process of the Northern Ireland Executive and the Assembly. We are told to trust this process and are presented with the threat of not getting fuel payments out to those who need them — I hope that that matter is not being used as a scare tactic to get this extensive Bill through the Assembly.
Some intentions of the Bill are extremely commendable, and a mechanism to help the most vulnerable in our society in times of crisis is also very necessary. However, we must ensure that we get the correct mechanism, rather than one that does not facilitate good Government.
The Alliance Party will not frustrate the Second Stage of the Bill; however, we are very far from being satisfied with its contents. In particular, we have major reservations regarding clause 2. We feel we can support — or, rather, not frustrate — the Second Stage on the basis that we look forward to seeking to decouple clause 2 from the Bill and to the Department bringing that matter back to the Committee for full scrutiny at a future stage.
I appreciate the need for a special emergency fund to be set up and the associated powers put in place. It is important that we decouple that principle from any proposed use of the fund — we have been in danger of confusing those two issues during today’s debates. However, it goes without saying that we cannot anticipate the future. We do not know what lies around the corner and cannot foresee what social or economic problems, or what natural or man-made disasters, may afflict our society. Therefore, it is wise that we prepare for such eventualities — that argument has been well made and, essentially, won. That is accepted.
That leads to the issue of parity, which has been bounced around this morning. It is important to recognise that, as things stand, winter fuel payments must go ahead. We are where we are; people need financial assistance. We have, perhaps, lost the opportunity to do something a little more creative with the funds involved, owing to the delays over the past months. We must get payments out to people in order to see them through this winter as best we can.
That said, it is important to appreciate the arguments regarding how that money could be used better. The funds could be used to improve the insulation and energy efficiency of the homes of vulnerable people in society. Rather than a one-off payment being made to see them through this winter, such investment could provide people with assistance for a number of winters. If we were to roll out that level of funding on an annual basis, we could make a lot of progress.
I think that the proposed expenditure has to be placed in its proper context. However, with respect to our current situation, we need to proceed with the payments: that is accepted.
Clause 2 is causing the most controversy for Members, and I have a number of concerns about the implications that lie before us. The terms of reference for the special emergency fund are essentially open-ended, which may be perfectly logical, because we cannot anticipate the emergencies that may confront us. However, clause 2 is defined by poverty, social exclusion and patterns of deprivation. I recognise the importance of those issues, but why have other issues not been considered within the same framework? Other important matters cut across Departments: a number of important cross-cutting themes have already been highlighted in the Programme for Government.
Indeed, the economy has — quite rightly — been highlighted as the number-one priority in our society. It is easy to make the argument that the Government must provide special assistance measures to address the current economic downturn. Indeed, the First Minister can recite the different measures that were announced by himself and the Finance Minister immediately before Christmas. However, there is still a frustration in society about the lack of a coherent and sufficient level of response from the Executive, especially when one compares the degrees of responses that have come from different jurisdictions; not just on these islands, but elsewhere.
There may be a situation in which Departments are either not able or not willing to play their role in a co-ordinated and effective joined-up response by the Executive to dealing with the economy. The clause may need to be reconsidered in order to include other areas, such as the economy or tackling a shared future, which again cut across all Departments, or, indeed, tackling the environment and combating climate change. That, again, is a challenge for all aspects of Government, as is how we engage with the green economy, which involves several Departments in a situation in which some may be willing while others are not.
Clause 2 may have its uses, but my question is this: why has it been defined in such a narrow way when there are so many challenges facing Government that require a joined-up response?
The second issue relates to the role of the Finance Minister. The Finance Minister may not always come from the same parties as the First Minister and deputy First Minister, and issues regarding co-ordination among the different parties involved may need to be considered in the future.
Members have asked where the money will come from for this. Presumably, two things could happen: first, money could be ringfenced from the annual Budget — which begs the question how much? Secondly, money could be surrendered through the monitoring rounds, with the first call on resources going to this special fund in order to deliver financial assistance to a number of different schemes. The danger in that type of approach is that it risks jeopardising and distorting the existing patterns of funding through the Departments. How much distortion from the current provision of funding is anticipated by the First Minister and deputy First Minister, bearing in mind that our budgets are currently very tight?
Does the Member agree that it would be helpful to get clarification about whether the funding to facilitate the packages has to be, as is anticipated for the first use, from a special pot of surrendered money, or whether the powers could be used to direct spending within departmental budgets in future?
The last point is the bigger concern — whether there would be powers of direction whereby ministerial decisions made about spending priorities in Departments could be overruled.
I am concerned about the implications of the Bill for the nature of power sharing in our society. Power sharing is a concept that most of us support and appreciate the need for, although there are different forms; from voluntary coalition to the current mandatory four-party coalition.
I am frustrated by the current system of government, whereby parties pick up different portfolios based on the lucky dip of d’Hondt. Policy outcomes can be heavily skewed, depending on which Minister holds a relevant post. To give an example, with the Speaker’s indulgence: the Sinn Féin Minister of Education has a particular viewpoint, which is resisted by other parties in the Chamber. Equally, on the other side of the fence, the Minister of the Environment has adopted a policy towards an environmental protection agency that is supported only by his own party. I understand that that can be deeply frustrating for parties in the Executive.
In any Government, people do not surrender their interest in the outcome of portfolios that they do not directly control. In joined-up government, everything must be knitted together to provide co-ordinated and cohesive solutions for society. There is a problem with the very nature of the Government, which exposes some of the contradictions of mandatory coalition. The Bill may go some way to correcting that problem by bringing more cohesion to Government, and I would welcome the greater sense of collectivity that that would bring to the Executive.
However, is that the wisest way to proceed? Perhaps a more comprehensive approach is required — through the Assembly and Executive Review Committee — in order to examine the nature of the Government rather than matters being conducted in a piecemeal fashion that could potentially lead to more acrimony and disagreement in the Executive, especially if individual Ministers find that things are being done over their heads or without their direct consent. In a voluntary coalition, everyone signs up to a single programme for government, so those contradictions do not exist. However, the debate has demonstrated the contradictions of a mandatory coalition.
How the money is spent has implications for Northern Ireland’s wider relationship within these islands, particularly its relationship with the UK Treasury. The expenditure that is provided for under clause 1 or clause 2 could result in measures that lead to the financial assistance given to citizens in Northern Ireland being more generous than that given in the rest of the United Kingdom.
The parity principle has been very dear to the Assembly and to its predecessors, from the late 1940s onwards. A relatively low tax base has enabled the citizens of Northern Ireland to have the same level of social protection as their counterparts elsewhere in the UK. Although it is true that, under devolution, we are free to break that parity principle, we do so at our peril. I appreciate that Members have been told — by the First Minister and deputy First Minister, and the Chairperson of the Committee — that there is no threat to parity from the proposed funding for warm homes, and I will take that at face value. However, the potential exists for the introduction of other measures that will create difficulties. Even if, strictly speaking, the parity principle is not broken, that could still cause problems with the UK Treasury.
There is a debate about the relationship between the Scottish Government and the UK Parliament, and a number of English MPs have expressed their unease. Northern Ireland has escaped much of that scrutiny, largely due to the peace process. However, some caution must be exercised about how money is spent — which leads to those differential outcomes — lest it come back to bite us in the future. That is the case, particularly when there is uncertainty in the UK about wider financial settlements, and issues such as revisions of the Barnett formula are being discussed. As we move towards a more normal and stable society, those risks may become more acute. We need to be somewhat cautious about how quickly we jump into certain funding measures, and all implications must be properly assessed.
All Members who contributed to the debate recognise that the Bill is a very important piece of legislation.
Obviously, some Members have expressed their intent to have the matter dealt with speedily. Other Members have urged a degree of caution when dealing with certain aspects of the legislation. Elements of the Bill are to be welcomed. I envisage that they will be progressed rapidly, which will be good for society.
Equally, we must pause for a moment in order to have much greater debate in the Committee on issues that range from the nature of power sharing to the implications for the system of financial management and the purposes for which special financial assistance can and cannot be provided. Those important debates affect all aspects of Government, and we should not rush those discussions. Those issues can be dealt with through amendments during the Consideration Stage of the Bill.
I suppose that it is the nature of politics that a Second Stage can deal with the detail of a Bill, rather than what it should deal with — its general principles. The purpose of Second Stage is to reach agreement on a Bill’s general principles. Details are supposed to be dealt with at Consideration Stage.
For the most part, Members’ contributions have been constructive. I welcome those that have clearly supported the Bill. Members who have not given unqualified support to the Bill fall into two categories. First, there are those who have put forward their concerns in a constructive manner — I include the Member who has just resumed his seat in that category. Secondly, there are those who have gone out of their way deliberately to make a party-political rant; to attempt to throw in red herrings; to engage in scaremongering; and to tell what might be described — if I were permitted to do so — as half-truths or worse.
It is clear that those Members have no interest in what the Bill says and means, as opposed to what they want the public to believe when it reads the newspaper headlines that they attempt to create. It is clear who belongs in that category. I will deal with those Members more directly as I continue my speech.
If he were present, I would tell the Chairman of the Committee, who considers me to be in “rank bad form”, that I arrived at the Chamber in very good form. Certain Members’ contributions to the debate changed that. I consider the behaviour of some Members, who are prepared to allow people who are in poverty and deprivation to be secondary to their party-political point-scoring, to be rank bad form. That is pretty despicable.
During the course of the debate, it became clear that certain Members, or their research assistants, had written their speeches beforehand and had them typed up nicely. Even though the facts became clear during the debate, those Members were not quick enough to amend their speeches and, therefore, spewed out the inaccuracies that were already contained in them; in particular, the Ulster Unionist Party Member for South Down came out with the greatest lot of drivel that I have ever heard in the Chamber. Had he listened during the debate, he would have recognised the inaccuracies that he repeated. I hope that he examines the Bill and discovers just how wrong the points are at which he has arrived.
The Chairman of the Committee, who is not present, seemed to assume the form of a Jekyll-and-Hyde character in the debate. He divided himself when he indicated that he would speak first as the Chairman of the Committee, and then as an Ulster Unionist Party Member. He is a much nicer person when he is the Chairman of the Committee. Perhaps, next time, he would concentrate more on that role than the other.
Several Members, including the Chairperson of the Committee, raised the issue of the Executive’s role in decision-making under this legislation. I have repeatedly made it clear that the existing legislation states that decisions on these issues will be taken by the Executive. Despite that, Members continued to speak as if I had not repeatedly made that point. I would have expected Members to be familiar with the laws that determine how decisions are made in Northern Ireland since the changes were made to the St Andrews Agreement. However, lest there be any doubt, I will set out the position clearly.
“shall act in accordance with the provisions of the Ministerial Code”.
The present ministerial code was agreed by the Assembly on 20 March 2007. In paragraph 2·4, under the heading “Duty to bring matters to the attention of the Executive Committee”, it states, inter alia:
“Any matter which:-
(i) cuts across the responsibilities of two or more Ministers;” and
(v) is significant or controversial and is clearly outside the scope of the agreed programme referred to in paragraph 20 of Strand One of the Agreement;”
— that is the Programme for Government —
“shall be brought to the attention of the Executive Committee by the responsible Minister to be considered by the Committee”.
The ministerial code goes on to make it clear:
“no expenditure can be properly incurred without the approval of the Department of Finance and Personnel”.
That deals with two issues about which we have been talking: the role of the Department of Finance and Personnel and the role of the Executive. It is abundantly clear that any schemes under this legislation would be crosscutting or, by definition, significant or controversial, and would, therefore, require Executive approval. Indeed, section 28A(10) indicates that a Minister has:
“no Ministerial authority to take any decision in contravention of a provision of the Ministerial Code made under subsection (5)”.
That subsection requires Ministers to bring matters to the Executive. Therefore, it is clear that the law already requires Executive approval for any scheme that would be made under this Bill. The amendment to the ministerial code that we are now contemplating is merely to make that explicit in case there should be any doubt in the mind of any Member or any Minister. Given that, it would not be appropriate to refer to the Executive on the face of the Bill because it is already in legislation and in our ministerial code.
The way in which our legislation operates is to confer powers on Departments, but to make those powers subject to the agreement of the Executive. If OFMDFM was interested in a power grab, which was referred to by several Members, it could utilise the powers that it already enjoys under section 17 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 to determine the functions to be exercisable by each Department. In short, we do not need new legislation if we wanted to put powers into the Office of the First Minister and the deputy First Minister, or to take functions away from any other Minister. If we wanted to have a power grab, the necessary legislation is already on the statute book.
Several Members referred to parity. If we were merely to adhere to parity on all issues, devolution would be unnecessary and a lot of people here would be redundant. The benefit of devolution is that it allows those directly elected by the people of Northern Ireland to respond to the needs of the people of Northern Ireland. Does any Member in the Chamber seriously believe that the kind of use that we intend to make of this legislation in its first use would have been made by direct rule Ministers if we did not have the provisions of the devolution settlement? It would not have been, nor has it been anywhere else in the United Kingdom. Let us be very clear, therefore: devolution allows a local administration to tailor its own policies and public expenditure to best meet the needs of that local community.
If Members really believe that parity in all matters is of the uppermost importance, they will vote against the Bill and they will publicly tell people on income support and old-age pensioners, who might benefit from fuel-poverty payments, that they believe in parity and that given that other people in the UK are not receiving those payments they should not receive them either. That is the logical extension of their case, which will deny the people of Northern Ireland the benefits of our announcements. That tenable and legitimate argument supports total integration. However, I suspect that, in the present circumstances, few recipients of the fuel-poverty payments will support that view.
I will discuss the Bill’s purpose. Many Members have said that clause 1 is jolly good and will be supported but that they will not support clause 2. We must be clear about the direction and terminology of the Bill. Clause 1 deals with unforeseen hardship whereas clause 2 deals with hardship that has been identified in the Programme for Government. Therefore, we are dealing with hardship.
When Dr Farry asks whether environmental and economic issues should be included, my answer is that the Bill deals with how the Executive respond to hardship. Although everything could be thrown into the Bill, it has not been designed with the intention of resolving all the problems of Government across the panoply of ministerial responsibilities. The deputy First Minister and I have no intention of using clause 2 for any purpose other than to realise the agreed goals in the Programme for Government.
I am sorry that the deputy leader of the Alliance Party is not in the Chamber to listen my comments. At the moment, OFMDFM does have a responsibility when it comes to poverty issues, and so on. In fact, the terminology with which the SDLP Member for North Antrim was unhappy arose directly from the St Andrews document. It was not something that we dreamed up: it was a duty placed upon us following St Andrews, and the terminology used in the Bill is the exact terminology that was used then.
It is clear that although OFMDFM has a role to play in dealing with those issues, a mechanism is required to enable it to do so, because they are cross-cutting issues. Such a mechanism has been put into place in clause 2, which will bring the matter to the Executive. It will be for the Executive to decide whether to proceed on the recommendations of the First Minister and deputy First Minister.
Members mentioned the Finance Minister, who I am glad to see is in the Chamber. None of the terms of the legislation interfere with his role. All of his responsibilities to find the money that the Executive might decide they want to spend will remain with him. It is right to say that he will carry out those responsibilities through the in-year monitoring rounds, or he might be able to squeeze new money from the Treasury, which can be a difficult task. It could also be achieved through reprioritisation within Departments or between one Department and another. Those are his options. Clearly, when schemes are brought to the Executive, it will be up to the Finance Minister to indicate whether he can find the money for them and from where that money will be found.
Those are the normal issues in which the Executive, and the Finance Minister in particular, have a role to play.
There is no Machiavellian plot for the deputy First Minister and I to “suck out” — I think that that was the term that was used — functions and powers from various Departments and to make their decisions for them. I suspect that that refers to the three Departments that are not under the control of the deputy First Minister and me. Those Ministers are bound already by the ministerial code. Therefore, they are bound already by the Executive’s decisions. If the Executive, yesterday, today, or at any time before the Bill receives Royal Assent, were to make a decision on a matter that relates to any of those Departments, the relevant Ministers are required by the ministerial code to accept and to act upon that decision.
There is nothing new in relation to the roles and responsibilities of Ministers. Ministers will still be under the authority of the decision that is made collectively by the Executive. As I said earlier in response to an intervention — there were perhaps one too many interventions earlier — the legislation will improve the collectivity of the Executive massively.
I accept the criticisms that have come from several quarters — they have certainly been offered by my colleagues on this side of the House — about the system of government. However, we have to deal with the system of government that we have. It is not an ideal situation; I do not believe that anybody thinks that mandatory coalition is the best possible form of government. We take many of the steps that we have to because of the odd system of government within which we have to work. If there were a voluntary coalition, there would effectively be no need to take some of the steps that are outlined in clause 2 of the Bill.
I think that one of the SDLP Members indicated that the difference between the systems is that in a voluntary coalition, everyone would have signed up to the Programme for Government. Let me make it very clear: everybody in this mandatory coalition signed up to the Programme for Government. That Programme for Government, having been signed up to unanimously by every Minister in the Executive, was brought before the Assembly and signed up to by the Assembly. Therefore, the Programme for Government has all the greater authority because it has the Assembly’s support.
Some of the required changes are necessary because of the awkward system of Government that we have. However, even if we had a voluntary coalition, we would not have the powers that the Bill will give us to deal with emergency circumstances. To that extent, the Bill will provide us with the enabling power to spend money in circumstances where the Executive agree that it should be spent.
Mrs Kelly, a Member for Upper Bann, raised the issue of resource implications. She is right; the Bill does not provide additional funding for particular schemes. The purpose of the Bill is not to provide; it is to enable the Finance Minister and the Executive to be able to allocate funding if the case merits it and if there is an emergency. It should not be any surprise that the Bill itself does not indicate how money should be either gathered or spent. That is a role that has been decided already and one that the Finance Minister will exercise. Therefore, DFP remains responsible for those issues and will report to the Executive when their decision is made. The Minister for Finance and Personnel is as responsible as any other Minister for the decisions that the Executive make, but I think that he would soon tell the Executive if they are making a decision on a matter for which he cannot find the money. I do not believe that any Executive Minister would wish to get into that situation.
The Chairperson of the Committee for the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister, a Member for Newry and Armagh, requested details of the amendments to the Bill. I hope that my reply will be a sufficient response to Basil McCrea, the absent Member UUP from Lagan Valley, who wanted to hear assurances and to be convinced that we are willing to consider amendments to the Bill and to have it improved. I hope that he is listening in his office, as he is not in the Chamber.
The SDLP Member for North Antrim said that he was appalled that we were considering amendments to this Bill at its Second Stage. That was a remarkable comment. We consider it a duty on ourselves to listen to the Committee, which made suggestions about changes that could be made, as did ministerial colleagues — including the SDLP Minister. We will propose to our Executive colleagues that some changes should be made to the Bill. I hope that those changes will improve the Bill and, perhaps, allay some of the concerns that Ministers and Members have.
As far as the Committee being given details of those amendments is concerned, the deputy First Minister and I have always been co-operative with the Committee. The deputy First Minister indicated that he sees good sense in assisting the Committee. As I speak, a letter is in the final stages of being drafted that will provide Mr O’Loan with the information that he seeks.
I find it somewhat strange that the people who most readily state that these issues should be dealt with by the Executive — and who ask where the Executive’s name is in the Bill — are the ones who are asking us to give answers before we consult with our Executive colleagues. I enter the caveat that, while we will provide the Committee with the details of what we propose to the Executive, we listen to our Executive colleagues, and it will be them who collectively take the decision. They may want to make other amendments, they may not want some of the current amendments, or they may want to modify some of the amendments that we make. In that context, we are happy to provide that information to assist the Committee in doing its job.
Mr O’Loan also complained that while the Committee will have a role in scrutinising legislation relating to OFMDFM, it will not have a role in relation to any amendment that we might make or consider regarding the ministerial code. Just as the ministerial code was approved by the Assembly, any change to it must be approved by the Assembly. Therefore, Assembly Members will see and, no doubt, debate those changes. If it wishes, the Assembly can set up a Committee. Mr Speaker, I am sure that you will be able to draw Members’ attention to the procedures if they want to set up a Committee to consider that issue.
The leader of the Alliance Party said that several other issues of Government needed consideration. I have canvassed for an Alliance Party place on the Assembly and Executive Review Committee. That party should have had that place from the beginning — I agree with him on that matter. I will seek his support for changes to improve the way that we govern in Northern Ireland. I hope that we will be able to convince colleagues around this Chamber of the need to constantly improve and reform the way that we do business in the Assembly.
I will touch on a further issue that was raised by Mrs Kelly: the strategy to tackle poverty. Anybody who wandered into the Chamber or the Galleries would have thought that nothing had happened in OFMDFM in relation to that matter. Of course, the St Andrews Agreement already deals with the subject matter of clause 2 of the Bill by placing a duty on the Executive to tackle poverty.
The Member did not say all that I will say, so I advise her to listen further.
The St Andrews Agreement places a duty on the Executive to adopt a strategy to tackle poverty. After devolution, one of our first actions was to examine Lifetime Opportunities, the anti-poverty strategy. We revised that strategy and included a new proposal for a ministerial subcommittee on poverty. The Member should have been aware of that; she considered that proposal as a member of the OFMDFM Committee some time ago. Last year, the Executive endorsed that strategy.
In addition, the Member referred to the Executive’s response to the anti-poverty inquiry, which was co-ordinated across all Departments and was agreed by the Executive on 11 December 2008. The following day, the response was forwarded to the Committee for the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister for consideration, which I understand has been scheduled for 28 January 2009.
The Member for Newry and Armagh Mr Kennedy — I am not sure whether he was speaking in his Dr Jekyll or Mr Hyde mode, although I suspect it was in his less pleasant form — mentioned the potential removal of Assembly scrutiny powers, and several other Members raised the negative resolution procedure. Without saying anything about what the deputy First Minister and I might propose in relation to negative or affirmative resolution matters, it is sufficient to say on this occasion that, even under negative resolution, the Assembly has the power to annul resolutions made as a result of this legislation. Members will probably accept that there is a stronger case for negative resolution powers — which are, by nature, emergency powers — for clause 1, and we will want to further consider clause 2.
I was touched when the deputy leader of the Alliance Party, Mrs Long, adopted the mode of wishing to protect OFMDFM from irresponsible Ministers who might wish to use the force of the legislation to blame the First Minister and the deputy First Minister for failing to agree to some proposition that he or she might have in mind. The ability to say no comes with the territory and with politics. The Member for East Belfast probably knows that it is every Minister’s responsibility to take such decisions; they must have the ability to say no when it is appropriate to do so, rather than pass the buck.
However, although irresponsible Ministers could use the legislation to pass the buck to the First Minister and the deputy First Minister, those same irresponsible Ministers could publicly — as has happened in the past — call for measures to be taken that they know they have neither the power nor the money to take, and, therefore, leave it for other people to say no. So, introducing the legislation will save us from few problems, because Ministers will continue to publicly claim that something should be done in his or her Department and that, if only those terrible fellows and girls in the Executive would not stop it from happening, he or she would be happy to do it. In fact, Ministers have been acting in that manner, which the deputy leader of the Alliance Party described as irresponsible. I will not add to her definition of irresponsible; nevertheless, under the present circumstances, those Ministers can still act irresponsibly. If someone intends to act irresponsibly, he or she will do so regardless of whether the legislation is introduced.
The deputy leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, who has now returned to the Chamber, made some other points. His position in the party may change now that it has been taken over by the Tory Party. If we follow the Tory example, we will not be talking about dishing out money as a result of this legislation; cuts will be coming from the Ulster Unionist Party/Conservative Party alignment, because, no doubt, the Ulster Unionist Party will adopt the planned Tory cuts and will, therefore, be happy to tell the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety that his budget will be reduced as a consequence of the new tie-up. I hope that Danny Kennedy has a greater knowledge of legislation than he has of the Henry VIII powers to which he referred.
Obviously, he does not know what Henry VIII powers are. If he did, he would not have said that OFMDFM had given itself those powers in relation to the Financial Assistance Bill. The Member should know that Henry VIII powers apply to cases in which a Minister succeeds in getting a piece of legislation passed that he or she can subsequently amend or repeal. There is no such provision in the Financial Assistance Bill. Therefore, Henry can stay at rest; he has no role in this legislation. The Member knows as much about Tudor monarchs as he does about Tudor crisps. [Laughter.]
I hope that the Member reads the Hansard report tomorrow to see what I said about him before he came into the Chamber.
I provided advice on how he could be a nicer person.
The Member for East Belfast Naomi Long said that clause 2 is not required for cross-departmental working because existing arrangements should suffice. If the member reads clause 2, she will see that determinations will be made only in the event of existing arrangements being unsatisfactory. If existing arrangements are unsatisfactory, they are not sufficient; therefore, determinations will not be used if the existing arrangements are satisfactory.
I have dealt with the Member for Lagan Valley Basil McCrea’s concerns that the wording of clause 2 is too specific. The wording of the clause is the same as that of the Northern Ireland (St Andrews Agreement) Act 2007, which requires the Executive to agree a strategy to tackle poverty, social exclusion and patterns of deprivation based on objective need.
I trust that I have dealt with all the main concerns that were raised during the debate. Today, we are dealing with the principle of the Bill, for which there is, from what I have heard today, general support; although some Members may wish to propose amendments. Indeed, they may wish to support the amendments that the deputy First Minister and I hope to table. Notwithstanding Members’ concerns and queries, I sense that there is broad appreciation for the need for the provision in the Bill that will enable us to deal decisively and urgently with the financial hardship of the most vulnerable.
I have attempted to address Members’ concerns, but I — or my officials — will trawl through the Hansard report lest I have missed anything; if I have, I will reply directly to the Member. I commend the Bill to the Assembly.
Question put and agreed to.
That the Second Stage of the Financial Assistance Bill [NIA 11/07] be agreed.