Members will have a copy of the Marshalled List of amendments detailing the order for consideration. The amendments have been grouped for debate in my provisional grouping of amendments selected list. There are two groups of amendments, and we will debate the amendments in each group in turn. The first debate will be on amendment Nos 1 to 11, which deal with Executive and ministerial authority to produce schemes for financial assistance, and the associated procedures.
I remind Members who intend to speak that, during the debates on the two groups of amendments, they should address all the amendments in each particular group on which they wish to comment. Once the initial debate on each group is completed, any subsequent amendments in the group will be moved formally as we go through the Bill, and the Question on each will be put without further debate. The Questions on stand part will be taken at the appropriate points in the Bill. If that is clear, we shall proceed.
Clause 1 (Exceptional circumstances: power to provide financial assistance)
We now come to the first group of amendments for debate. With amendment No 1, it will be convenient to debate amendment Nos 2 to 11. As I said, those amendments deal with Executive and ministerial authority to produce schemes for financial assistance, and the associated procedures. I advise Members that amendment Nos 6 and 8 are mutually exclusive. Therefore, if amendment No 6 is made, I will not call amendment No 8.
I beg to move amendment No 1: In page 1, line 3, after “jointly,” insert
“and with the agreement of the Executive Committee,”.
The following amendments stood on the Marshalled List:
No 2: In page 1, line 6, leave out “and” and insert
“(bb) 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 other reason unsatisfactory, and”. — [Mrs Long.]
No 3: In page 1, line 9, after “may” insert
No 4: In page 1, line 14, after “jointly,” insert
“and with the agreement of the Executive Committee,”. — [Mr O’Loan.]
No 5: In page 1, line 19, leave out from “(a)” to end and insert
“require the approval of the Executive Committee.” — [Mr Kennedy.]
No 6: In page 1, line 19, at end insert
“and of any department on which functions are imposed or from which functions are removed by virtue of the regulations.” — [Mrs Long.]
No 7: In page 1, line 19, at end insert
“(4A) A department may only be designated under subsection (3)(a) with its consent.” — [Mrs Long.]
No 8: In page 1, line 19, at end insert
“( ) Regulations made by a department under this section require the approval of any other department with responsibilities for any matter dealt with by the regulations.” — [Mr Kennedy.]
No 9: In clause 2, page 2, line 16, after “may” insert
“, at any time within 6 months from the date of the determination under subsection (1),” — [The First Minister (Mr P Robinson).]
No 10: In clause 2, page 2, line 27, leave out subsection (5) and insert
“(5) No regulations shall be made under this section unless a draft of the regulations has been laid before, and approved by a resolution of, the Assembly.” — [The First Minister (Mr P Robinson).]
No 11: In clause 3, page 3, line 16, at end insert
“(2) A scheme contained in regulations under section 1 or 2 may provide for the scheme to cease to have effect at the end of a specified period from the date on which the regulations are made; but (without prejudice to the operation of section 28 of the Interpretation Act (Northern Ireland) 1954) the scheme may include such saving provisions as the relevant department thinks necessary or appropriate for dealing with matters or proceedings under the scheme which are outstanding at the time the scheme ceases to have effect.” — [The First Minister (Mr P Robinson).]
The Ulster Unionist Party agreed in principle to the establishment of a statutory mechanism to make it easier for the Executive to provide financial assistance to people in exceptional circumstances. However, the Bill deviates widely from that initial goal. Regardless of the protests and attempts that Mr Robinson will use to cover up his and Mr McGuinness’s intentions, make no mistake — the Bill will put unique and far-reaching powers into the hands of the First Minister and the deputy First Minister.
It is deeply regrettable that the DUP and Sinn Féin have used the vulnerable people in our society as an excuse and a cover for a personal power grab. Let no one be mistaken: this is a politburo Bill. We all want to get the agreed payments out as quickly as possible to people in need — the Executive were able to get £1,000 to all affected households that were damaged in the floods of August 2008.
The Bill contains two major clauses, the first of which is designed to allow the First Minister and the deputy First Minister to decide what constitutes an emergency and what any Department should do about it. The second major clause gives the First Minister and the deputy First Minister the power to override the policy decisions of any Department with regard to social issues if they deem it necessary. That is the only prerequisite that they need. If the First Minister and the deputy First Minister say jump, all the other Departments will have to ask how high. It is serious stuff for the Assembly; it is draconian politics, it is fundamentally undemocratic, and it is a little worrying.
Amendment No 1, which we have tabled along with other colleagues, has been laid in good faith; it genuinely seeks to improve the Bill, and I hope that Members of the DUP and Sinn Féin recognise that fact. By ensuring that the agreement of the Executive Committee is sought, the DUP and Sinn Féin will be able to remove accusations that the Bill is a power grab. If the amendment is incorporated into the Bill, it will ensure that the Executive Committee agrees on whether an exceptional circumstance exists and on whether it is desirable to provide financial assistance to address it. The amendment will in no way reduce the Executive’s ability to react to emergencies; rather it will ensure that more consensual action is taken, which will potentially lead to better and more long-lasting results.
Last week, Peter Robinson said that a revised ministerial code will ensure that the Executive would be consulted; the amendment seeks to make that commitment categorical. I also remind the First Minister that the same ministerial code has allowed Minister Ruane to wreak havoc with our education system and to praise Bobby Sands publicly — hardly grounds for instilling much confidence on these Benches. That is why we need a definitive assurance in the Bill that all decisions will be Executive decisions. It is the basis of the power-sharing arrangements that have allowed Northern Ireland to progress positively in the past 10 years; today, the DUP and Sinn Féin are jeopardising that system.
Mr Robinson also made much of the fact that his legislative draftsmen informed him that reference to the Executive cannot be put into legislation, because it is already the legal position. However, if the amendment is passed by the legislative Assembly, it will form part of this exceptional Bill. If the First Minister and the deputy First Minister do not want to be accused of control freakery, they should support the amendment and ensure Executive consent for defining exceptional circumstances and implementing schemes of financial assistance.
Amendment No 5, which was also tabled by the Ulster Unionist Party, seeks further legislative assurance that when regulations have been made by any Department or Departments, they are subject to the agreement of the whole Executive and not just the First Minister and the deputy First Minister. It is a second firewall against the emergence of a politburo Bill.
Amendment No 7, which was tabled by the Ulster Unionist Party and the Alliance Party, seeks to ensure that no Department can be forced into taking any action by the First Minister and the deputy First Minister, or the larger parties, without that Department’s explicit consent. As the Bill stands, if the majority of the Executive want a scheme put in place to tackle a certain circumstance, there is nothing that the chosen Department could do to stop it. Policy and financial costs could be enforced regardless of the implications that they may have on the Department’s other priorities and agreed targets.
What would that scenario mean for public service agreements and for the Programme for Government? It could mean that rather than reaching a consensual agreement, some Ministers may have to pit some people’s needs against the perceived needs of others, as designated by the majority parties. That would be grossly unfair and deeply divisive for the Executive. That is no way to run this Government.
Amendment No 8 is an extension of that principle. It seeks to ensure that regulations that are made by a Department require the approval of any other Department with responsibilities for any matters that are dealt with by those regulations. Ministers cannot be placed in a position whereby other Departments are designated to implement policy that will directly affect how they do their jobs. For example, if a health emergency originates from the agriculture sector, we cannot have the First Minister and the deputy First Minister decreeing actions for the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development that the Chief Medical Officer does not agree with. That is not how effective, efficient and joined-up government works. The Financial Assistance Bill pays no heed to the principles of joined-up and co-operative government.
The Ulster Unionist Party also supports amendment Nos 2 and 6, which were tabled by the Alliance Party, and amendment No 4, which was tabled by the SDLP. I believe that those amendments seek to achieve the same ends as the Ulster Unionist Party amendments, in that they try to move clause 1 away from a power grab and towards a co-operative mechanism that is suitable for the purpose of addressing an emergency situation. That is what we agreed to, and that is what we should get. Those amendments have been tabled in an attempt to increase democratic accountability and facilitate a genuine sharing of power.
I implore the DUP Back-Benchers to think carefully about what they are doing today. They are about to create new powers for the Office of the First Minister and the deputy First Minister that are well outside the norm of the rest of the United Kingdom. The Financial Assistance Bill is a thoroughly un-British Bill, which the leaders of Sinn Féin and the DUP have dreamed up together. It will effectively create a politburo office, without the constitutional constraints that are necessary in this society. Is that what those DUP Back-Benchers want to be involved in? Has the desire of their leader to grab power made the rest of that party lose control of its senses?
Mr Robinson and Mr McGuinness will suggest today that the smaller parties are getting carried away. Is that scaremongering? Yes, of course it is. I suggest in advance that all legislation can be abused, and bad legislation especially so. Why take the chance with the British parliamentary system and the people of Northern Ireland? The Ulster Unionist Party is not asking for the Bill to be thrown out; it is asking for a common-sense, realistic and co-operative approach.
I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute to this debate, initially as Chairperson of the Committee for the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister, after which I shall make some observations on behalf of the Ulster Unionist Party. I shall, apparently, start by being nicer.
I wish to be strictly factual. It is important for the good working and integrity of Assembly Committees that a Committee Chairperson should outline the facts of any Bill. Therefore, I will do that now.
On Monday 5 January 2009, my Committee held an emergency meeting and agreed to the junior Ministers’ request for accelerated passage of the Financial Assistance Bill. After that meeting, the Committee wrote to the First Minister and deputy First Minister in order to seek further information on the proposed amendment to the ministerial code and on the Executive’s decision-making process in relation to the Bill. On Wednesday 14 January 2009, prior to the Executive meeting on 15 January, the Committee was briefed by departmental officials from OFMFDM on the First Minister and deputy First Minister’s proposed amendments to the Financial Assistance Bill and to the ministerial code.
An additional meeting of the Committee was held on Monday 19 January in order to consider the Executive’s four agreed amendments, which were placed on the Marshalled List, and to consider the proposed change to the ministerial code. Mr Shannon proposed that the Committee agree amendment No 3. The Committee divided on the proposal: six members voted Aye, one member voted No, and one member did not vote. Mr Shannon proposed that the Committee agree amendment No 9. The Committee divided on the proposal: six members voted Aye, one member voted No, and one member did not vote.
Mr Shannon proposed that the Committee agree amendment No 10. Six members voted in favour of that proposal, one member voted against and one member did not vote. Mr Shannon proposed that the Committee agree amendment No 11. Five members voted in favour of that proposal, one member voted against and two members did not vote. The Committee noted the letter from the First Minister and deputy First Minister regarding the proposed amendment to the ministerial code. I hope that that outlines clearly the facts of the position that was adopted by the Committee for the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister.
I shall now make some remarks as an Ulster Unionist Member. Last Tuesday, 13 January, when questioned by the Member for East Belfast Mrs Long on whether the Bill would bring an end to departmental autonomy, the deputy First Minister, Martin McGuinness, said:
“I fully understand the Member’s point, and I agree with her. When it comes to implementing the decisions that will flow from the proposed legislation, it comes down to our motivation as the leaders of the two largest parties in the Executive and the Assembly.” — [Official Report, Vol 36, No 5, p214, col 1-2].
That is what the Bill boils down to. If the legislation is passed in its current form, the only guarantee that Ministers will have that their Departments and policies are not overrun by the First Minister and deputy First Minister acting together is to make a play to their better nature or to rely on their motivation. In the Bill’s current form, the only accountability that will be in place against the actions of the two-headed joint bearers of office, Messrs Robinson and McGuinness, is their own consciences. Taking all things into consideration —
I am sorry that the Member has not followed closely what I have said. Perhaps he will now take the opportunity to listen up.
Taking everything into consideration, we should be alarmed. Amendments No 1, No 5, No 7 and No 8 seek to ensure that power is genuinely shared and that the principles of the Belfast Agreement are adhered to. If the First Minister and deputy First Minister want to allay fears, they must support those amendments. Otherwise, the Bill will represent a personal carve-up by the First Minister and deputy First Minister in the name of the most vulnerable people. That is deeply regrettable.
In any circumstances of emergency, it is obvious that every Minister will want to work together to come up with a solution. Beyond the desire of the First and deputy First Minister to grab power, I do not see the logic or the need to reserve that role exclusively for them. If the First and deputy First Minister want to remove accusations that the Bill takes a politburo approach, they should accept those amendments and prove to the House and to the people of Northern Ireland that their intentions are solely to help people in times of emergency. The Ulster Unionist Party supports completely the principle of ensuring that quick and decisive action can be taken to deal with any emergency, but the Bill is not about that.
The Ulster Unionist Party supports amendments No 2 and No 6, which were tabled exclusively by the Alliance Party, and amendment No 4, which was tabled by the SDLP. Those amendments genuinely seek to improve the Bill by increasing accountability and distributing power throughout the Executive. They will make the Bill more in tune with parliamentary conventions. The parliamentary system of government works only when power is not accumulated in a single office or with a single person.
That is true of emergencies and of general day-to-day policy decisions. The Bill is profoundly flawed and unparliamentary, and it runs contrary to the traditions of British parliamentary democracy.
I ask DUP Members not to go down this road merely to satisfy their leader’s appetite for accumulating power. Sinn Féin’s reputation for centralised control is well-known, and this Bill adds to it. The Bill, which shows Sinn Féin and the DUP acting as a tag team, is perverse and regrettable.
I support the amendments.
I oppose amendments No 1, No 4 and No 5. When I read the amendments, I ask myself whether the Members who tabled them learned anything from the debate on the Bill’s Second Stage. Mr Kennedy and Mr Elliott, along with Mrs Kelly and Mr O’Loan, sadly appear to have struggled to understand the Bill’s content.
I will tell you more.
Even though that point was dealt with extensively last week in the Second Stage debate, those Members still fail to comprehend that their amendments are redundant in the light of the Northern Ireland (St Andrews Agreement) Act 2006.
Despite the best efforts of the First Minister last week to explain the intricacies of the legislation — particularly for the benefit of Mr Kennedy, who appeared to struggle with the finer detail — Mr Kennedy and his party colleague Mr Elliott tabled two amendments that lack purpose. Is that a case of slow learning? Or is it mischief making to create an opportunity for the two gentlemen in question to engage in their Tweedle-Dee and Tweedle-Dum act? I let the public decide.
For the benefit of the Members who tabled amendments No 1, No 4 and No 5, I will explain why I oppose them: they are unnecessary. The statutory basis for the ministerial code lies in the Northern Ireland (St Andrews Agreement) Act 2006. The code requires Ministers to bring any novel or contentious issues before the Executive. Therefore, even though the word “Executive” is not in the Bill, all those matters come to the Executive in accordance with the ministerial code.
“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.” —[Official Report, Vol 36, No 5, p217, col 2].
Those were the words of the First Minister in the Chamber last week.
Moreover, Members may recall that the First Minister, in the Second Stage debate, informed the House that the word “Executive” was not to be included in the Bill, as that would duplicate the legislation. That was not his opinion, but that of the legislative draftsmen. When it comes to drafting legislation, I take the word of experts rather than that of Mr Kennedy, Mr Elliott or Mrs Kelly.
To put it beyond any doubt: an amendment to the ministerial code, already agreed by the Executive, will be brought before the House when the Bill before us has been enacted.
I will not. The Member will have plenty of time to speak shortly and I am sure that she will have her say.
I ask the Members who tabled amendments No 1, No 4 and No 5 why, in the light of the agreed change to the ministerial code and of the view taken by the legislative draftsmen that their amendments are unnecessary, they persist in a redundant course of action?
It is ironic that the Members from the Ulster Unionist Party and the SDLP have suddenly expressed a desire for the Executive to work together as a group. After all, those parties, as the architects of the now obsolete Belfast Agreement, created a totally unaccountable system of Government in which the Executive lacked any form of control. It is ironic indeed that those two parties now act as the guardians of collective responsibility.
I fear that some in the House who chose —
I fear that there are some in the House who chose to play politics with this Bill rather than support it and the benefits that it will bring to those in need in the Province. However, it is not for me but for those Members to explain that. My party and I will oppose amendments No 1, No 4 and No 5.
Once again, I welcome the opportunity to speak on the Bill and sincerely hope that today’s debate can put to bed much of the ill-informed rhetoric that has surrounded it. I want to refute the suggestion that the Bill is little more than a power grab by OFMDFM. Such concerns have been expressed despite repeated assurances that they are entirely unfounded as, under the ministerial code, all proposed schemes for financial assistance must be brought before the Executive. Furthermore, as the First Minister and the deputy First Minister pointed out last week, under the provisions of the Bill the Executive will be involved fully in all decision making. Moreover, the relevant Committees will perform their normal scrutiny role and the Assembly will have control of any schemes created under the regulations.
Despite that, the First Minister and the deputy First Minister have had to clarify the situation further and have tabled several amendments to deal with Members’ concerns.
“No regulations shall be made under this section unless a draft of the regulations has been laid before, and approved by a resolution of, the Assembly.’ ”
I do not know how much clearer the Bill can be.
Amendments No 1, No 4 and No 5 ask that any scheme introduced should require the approval of the Executive. However, given that any scheme will be cross-cutting — for example, involving a bid to DFP and the delivery Department for financial assistance — it will automatically have to come to the Executive for approval. Furthermore, the Executive have given an assurance that they will amend the ministerial code; therefore amendments No 1, No 4 and No 5 are unnecessary, and I agree with Mr Spratt on that point.
Sinn Féin opposes amendment No 2 as it would slow down the process of any scheme identified for implementation. The Bill, without amendment No 2 — [Interruption.]
No. The people are demanding prompt action from their public representatives, as they will in any further crisis; and quite rightly so. [Interruption.] The Members will have time to have their say.
If adopted, amendment Nos 6, 7 and 8 would give any Department a veto, enabling them to refuse to implement a scheme and frustrate the role of the Executive and the Assembly. They would be able to refuse to assist another Department in implementing a scheme by denying it access to relevant data. We should not allow such resistance to frustrate the process of the Bill.
I acknowledge that, even if it did not do so in the Committee, the SDLP supported accelerated passage in the Chamber last week. One of its members said that that was:
“because of its concerns for social justice and for the people facing hardship”. — [Official Report, Vol 36, No 5, p206, col 2].
That was a welcome recognition of what the Bill is all about — social justice and providing tangible assistance to all people. There is no ulterior motive, no hidden agenda and no power grab. If nothing else, the current economic situation demonstrates that the Executive and the Assembly need to be in a position to react quickly to unforeseen circumstances and events — otherwise, what is the point in any of us being here?
The Bill provides us with a legislative basis on which to deal with whatever eventualities we face. On this occasion, the need to legislate for fuel payments is the catalyst; it could be something else tomorrow or the day after that. None of us can predict the future, but I am sure that we all accept that the economic downturn will not be the only economic crisis to face the Executive.
People are demanding prompt action from their public representatives, just as they will in the future, and quite rightly so. The Bill will give us the ability to take that action swiftly. That is what the people elected us to do, and it is time that we all started getting on with the business of doing it. Go raibh míle maith agat.
Last week I described this Bill as loathsome. I see that some amendments have been proposed — they do not persuade me any more as to the appropriateness of the Bill. I merely use the term “obnoxious” for the potentially amended Bill that now comes before us. [Interruption.]
It is not a Bill that should be accepted by any democratic Assembly. If people want to know what this Bill is really about, they should simply consider three statements from the First Minister. Last week, he told us:
“The Financial Assistance Bill is the most important piece of legislation to be tabled since the return of devolved Government.” — [Official Report, Vol 36, No 5, p218, col 1].
To reiterate, he described it as: “the most important”. Therefore, anyone who thinks that it is an occasional piece of legislation to deal with unthought of emergencies may need to start to think otherwise.
In relation to a comment that was made in last week’s debate, he said:
“I suspect that that refers to the three Departments that are not under the control of the deputy First Minister and me.” — [Official Report, Vol 36, No 5, p237, col 1].
That leaves us with almost half the Executive under the control of the First Minister, and almost another half under the control of the deputy First Minister. Very often, people’s unscripted words reveal what they actually think and, in this case, those quotes demonstrate clearly what the First Minister actually thinks.
I believe that Mussolini had a phrase for this: “uno Duce, una voce”. [Laughter.] When they think that they are having internal party debates, other members of those parties must now remember where they stand.
During this morning’s questions on the strategic stocktake statement, you, Mr Deputy Speaker, working in a very different capacity, asked a question about the gap in funding in relation to the absence of the children’s fund.
We heard the First Minister say — very clearly — that the answer to that gap would be found in clause 2 of the Financial Assistance Bill.
By its very nature, does that statement not suggest that the DUP and Sinn Féin have admitted that they have made a mistake in doing away with the Executive fund that allowed them the capacity to deal with matters such as the children’s fund? Have they not, in effect, taken money from young people and children?
For the benefit of the SDLP Members, this is an enabling Bill. It does not allocate funds; it enables a mechanism to be put in place that allows Government to respond in a joined-up way and on a cross-departmental basis to all poverty and hardship issues. I would have thought that anybody who wants to help those who are in poverty and hardship would support such a mechanism.
Perhaps it is fortunate that I did not quite hear the First Minister’s comment.
I very much agree with what my colleague Dolores Kelly said about the children’s fund and the gap therein. The First Minister’s comment on that point, when taken logically, suggests that the proper mechanisms for dealing with what is identified already as a gap in Government provisions and the attendant funding for that gap are not being dealt with through the Budget — and, of course, they have not given us a Budget for next year. However, in what passes for a Budget for next year, they have not written in the mechanisms to deal with those issues or included them in a way that could be tested by the Assembly, if the process were to be done properly. Instead, they want to have this action in reserve so that they themselves can claim the credit for dealing with certain matters.
If this is not a power grab, we will soon know. We will know because the First Minister and deputy First Minister will support the amendments as they come before them and their parties. That will give the authority —
Is the Member struck by the irony — we have used the term “irony”; I heard Mr Spratt using such big words — that Members on this side of the House are quite prepared to give way and to take interventions and that those Members who assure us that there is no power grab will not take a single intervention? They will not defend their position because they cannot defend their position.
I thank the Member, and I think that his point has been well noted by all.
I will come to the detail of the amendments in a moment, but this, broadly, is what the amendments are about: the Bill needs to protect the independence of individual Departments. We are told that the Bill is about emergency legislation, and one of my deep resentments about the Bill is the repeated reference to the fuel-poverty situation.
I will say it again, as I said last week: under the pretext of dealing with fuel poverty, a far more general measure is being proposed, and there is a deceit being perpetrated — or attempting to be perpetrated on the Assembly — and it is certainly at this moment being perpetrated on the public.
Further to that point of order, maybe you will tell your Clerk to listen more carefully before he gives you such advice, because the person who is bringing forward this measure is myself, and if a deceit is being perpetrated, it can only be by the person who is bringing it forward.
I think that it is appropriate for a Member to point out, in any situation, that a Bill, or any measure that is brought forward, may not be all that it seems, and I do that. [Interruption.]
Among the amendments proposed by the First Minister and deputy First Minister is one that refers to six months for regulation after designation. In addition, they are being prepared, under pressure, to bring the matter for affirmative resolution by the Assembly. Both of those argue against these being emergency provisions. One argument concerning the matter is what measure would be available if a crisis developed on the first day of the long recess. However, we can see that no remedies could be implemented until the matter came before the Assembly.
We are entitled to point out that this rushed piece of legislation and its emergency provisions come as a considerable contradiction — I know that if I were to use words such as “hypocrisy” or “hypocritical” the First Minister would protest strongly, so I will not use those words. However, there is a contradiction between those parties bringing forward this legislation and the fact that they did not call an Executive meeting for 154 days.
Will the Member correct his statement, because I sought a meeting on a number of occasions during that time? Therefore, perhaps the Member would like to rephrase his earlier remarks.
Last week, in his contributions, the First Minister said:
“The biggest crime that any Government can commit is to procrastinate in the face of a crisis.” — [Official Report, Vol 36, No 5, p216, col 2].
Given that we are in the face of a crisis, particularly in the construction industry, would the First Minister not call the failure to make a decision on Maze/Long Kesh regeneration, procrastination?
Absolutely, and I think that that will be seen generally by the public, and internationally, as standing for one of the failures of the leadership of this Executive.
Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. What we see before us remains a measure by which the two parties in the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister have a mechanism, if they choose to use it, to introduce measures that will suit their own purposes and their own electorates. If this legislation is passed, they will have a mechanism that will enable them to use public money to buy the votes of the electorate for themselves. That is not a good piece of public policy.
With regard to the proposed amendments, clause 1 asks that there be the agreement of the Executive Committee, in addition to that of the First Minister and the deputy First Minister, as to when the powers are exercisable. We have heard it repeated today that the ministerial code looks after that. I looked at the terms of the ministerial code, and they do not convince me that they provide a guarantee. We have been told that there is an offer to alter the ministerial code. Members have not seen the wording of that alteration. Irrespective of what goes into the ministerial code, if the First Minister and the deputy First Minister are serious about a guarantee, it should be written on the face of the Bill.
It does not alter my view. If the Bill is as straightforward and innocuous a piece of legislation as it is purported to be, the proposed amendments to clause 1 should simply be made.
Amendment No 3, which has been tabled by the First Minister and the deputy First Minister, does not make me any more content about the legislation’s overall efficacy and appropriateness.
Amendment No 4 relates to the designation of a Department, and it asks that that be done with the Executive Committee’s agreement. Again, that will test how serious the First Minister and the deputy First Minister are about sharing power in a shared Executive.
Amendment No 5 asks that regulations:
“require the approval of the Executive Committee”,
rather than simply that of OFMDFM. That offers the same test to the First Minister and the deputy First Minister. Let us see if they are prepared to agree to that.
Amendment No 6 relates to the assent of the other Departments that may be affected and asks that approval be required from:
“any department on which functions are imposed or from which functions are removed by virtue of the regulations.”
Similarly, amendment No 7 relates to Departments. It asks that:
“A department may only be designated under subsection (3)(a) with its consent.”
Once again, that is, in many ways, an acid test of the seriousness of the First Minister and the deputy First Minister and of whether they will not claim all power to themselves or share out the goodies among their own electorates and attempt to claim political credit for so doing. We shall see whether the First Minister and the deputy First Minister are prepared to accept those amendments.
Amendment No 8 deals, in similar terms, with giving proper rights to the Department concerned. I have already referred to amendments No 9 and No 10.
The Assembly will debate clause 2 later in the debate. At present, I want to state my party’s intention to oppose clause 2. I do so simply to present the integrity of my party’s attitude to the Bill, which is that clause 2 should be removed and clause 1 should be substantially amended in the way that I have described.
On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. All Members are used to the cut and thrust of political debate, and we are all big enough to handle it. However, I am concerned that that cut and thrust of debate among politicians should not be visited upon Assembly staff.
Earlier, during an intervention, the First Minister said that your Clerk should listen more carefully, and it was said in an aggressive tone and in a high-handed fashion. I have long been concerned that elements in the Chamber want to erode its authority and the independence of its staff.
Notwithstanding that matter, Mr Deputy Speaker, I ask you to examine the Hansard report and to consider the treatment of staff on the Floor of the Chamber during the course of the debate. It was quite clear as to whom the First Minister referred.
Order. I have undertaken already to review what happened earlier, and I promised to look at the Hansard report. The Speaker will report back on the matter.
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 12.40 pm.
On resuming (Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr Dallat] in the Chair) —
During last week’s debate, when Members knew that I was to speak immediately after the lunch break, few of them appeared in the Chamber. I notice that I have had the same effect this week. In future, the Chamber could be kept quiet if Members have advance warning of when I am to speak.
Given the content of this morning’s session, I want to reiterate that I do not dispute that the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister (OFMDFM) and the Executive require emergency powers. I welcome the introduction of such powers. After this morning’s session, it is worth reiterating that all Members want to avoid a delay in the provision of the financial assistance that has been promised. We have our own views about which types of financial assistance might be better than simple monetary offers. Nevertheless, at this stage, that proposal seems to be the most effective way forward, and, on that score, all Members want to avoid a delay.
However, as the Alliance Party highlighted during the Second Stage, we want to address several aspects of the Bill through a series of amendments, none of which diminish the Bill’s ability to deal with current financial circumstances, or prevent Executive intervention. However, the amendments do, perhaps, safeguard and reassure Members about some of the detail of the Bill and how it could be used in future. As I stressed last week, the Assembly is not debating the first use of the Bill; rather we are debating the purposes for which it can be used thereafter.
I want to put on record some aspects of the Bill that require reconsideration. The Alliance Party and others want to avoid the centralisation of Government power in OFMDFM. Indeed, before he took up his current position, the present First Minister was nervous about the centralisation of power in OFMDFM. When that Department had no formal scrutiny Committee and no Standing Committee, he expressed concern when proposing the introduction of such a Committee.
Referring to the people in London who drafted the legislation, he said:
“It could be that they did not expect the First Minister and Deputy First Minister to grab so many functions and place them in the central Department.” — [Official Report, Bound Volume 2, p204, col 1].
He was, therefore, not entirely comfortable with the handling of that issue. He continued:
“As it stands, the First and Deputy First Ministers, who have the authority to issue determinations, could take more and more responsibility to the central Department. Without scrutiny, they could take key government issues away from the eyes of Members and the public.” — [Official Report, Bound Volume 2, p204, col 1].
For those reasons, we are concerned that the Bill has limited scope and that there is need for people to co-operate; therefore, we have not tabled amendments with any malign intent or frustration. We want to ensure that that level of scrutiny, collaboration and co-operation in the Executive, and with the Chamber, is maintained when the legislation is passed.
Furthermore, the Alliance Party wants enhanced collectivity in the Executive and is comfortable with using a diminution of individual ministerial autonomy to achieve that end. However, we are concerned that the reduction in individual ministerial autonomy will not be replaced with enhanced collectivity but with enhanced powers in OFMDFM, which acts on behalf of the Executive. That is a weak safeguard under the current circumstances where the same parties have a majority in the Executive and in the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister.
I will concentrate on and explain the rationale behind the Alliance Party’s amendments.
The purpose of amendment No 2 is to ensure that the powers made available are only invoked in exceptional circumstances. There can be situations in which emergency measures are necessary, and, indeed, where other assistance may be required. If it is appropriate, that should be done — as far as possible — within the existing structures of government, through the normal spending rounds, and through the normal departmental functions.
My party wishes to limit the powers made available by the legislation. I do not think that the amendment applies a significant or extreme limitation; it simply curtails the power of OFMDFM, and makes it clear that clause 5 — the catch-all clause, which states that the powers can be used even where other legislation exists — should only be used genuinely. The amendment at least copper-fastens the stipulation that it should only be done as a protective position, and that it is not the intent to use the provisions of that clause on a repeated basis to circumvent the normal procedures.
I will consider amendment Nos 6 and 7 together. The purpose of those is to define the limitations of the transfers of power. My party aims to ensure that the powers provided in the legislation lead to an enhancement of collectivity in the Executive, along with a reduction in the autonomy of Ministers. Those two things must be balanced. It is not sufficient to reduce the autonomy of Ministers without enhancing the collectivity of the Executive. It is not necessarily a measure of collectivity if OFMDFM has merely to agree with the party colleagues of the First Minister and deputy First Minister in the Executive. There should be a requirement for the agreement of the Minister — or Ministers — affected by any measures. That is particularly important for those parties with smaller numbers in the Executive.
Given the balance of Sinn Féin and the DUP in the Executive, a requirement for agreement between members of the Executive would clearly provide little protection to the Ulster Unionist Party or the SDLP.
During the Second Stage of the Bill last week, the First Minister and deputy First Minister highlighted the fact that the Executive can currently direct Ministers. My party does not dispute that that is the case. However, under normal circumstances, Ministers only bring their proposals to the Executive if they have some impact on another Department or overlap responsibilities, if they do not have sufficient funds to implement the proposals, or where the proposals are controversial. The Bill would extend the power of OFMDFM to intervene on issues that lie within the remit of a single Department, for which a budget is available — but perhaps a decision has been made not to use it for that purpose — and which do not impact on other Departments, and which are not controversial. That changes the balance, at least in tone, if not more significantly — my party suggests that it is more significant.
The Bill represents an increase in centralisation and a dilution of the autonomy of Ministers, which, as the Bill stands, is not balanced by an increase in collectivity and collective working within the Executive. Amendment Nos 6 and 7 are aimed at achieving that balance. In order for OFMDFM to deliver on the requirements of the Bill, it would have to have the agreement of the relevant Minister. One does not foresee there being significant difficulties in getting the agreement of Ministers who belong to the parties of the First Minister and the deputy First Minister. I would not imagine that, in what are exceptional circumstances, there would be any difficulty in getting any Minister in the Executive to agree with reasoned and sensible proposals, whether that Minister is in the same party as the First Minister or the deputy First Minister, or any other party. In practice, there is no reason why any Minister would choose to withhold co-operation.
The amendments would provide a degree of protection. If the good and harmonious functioning of the Executive, to which the deputy First Minister aspired last week, were actually in place, there would rarely be an issue, because it would be discussed around the Executive table, Ministers would agree, and there would be no problem. However, in cases where that good and harmonious working relationship does not exist — far be it from me to suggest that there are such cases — the amendments would provide a significant confidence-building measure. It would make it clear to those Ministers who might feel threatened by the legislation that its intention is not for OFMDFM to threaten them. On the other hand, the amendments would not curtail OFMDFM from making decisions; it would merely have to co-operate with other Ministers, and we have been given assurances that that will be done anyway.
I will now discuss the amendments tabled by the SDLP and the Ulster Unionist Party. Amendment No 1 is a genuine attempt to state explicitly what the First Minister and deputy First Minister have already stated to be implicit in the legislation, in the context of the Northern Ireland Act 1998.
I, therefore, have no real objection to amendment No 1. However, I highlight the fact that it does not provide the protection for more junior parties in Government that we — as a party — believe is necessary. Last week, I stressed that the Good Friday Agreement and the St Andrews Agreement allowed for a degree of autonomy. As I have already stated, the workings of the Executive and the balance of power in the Executive — being as it is — provide very little protection for the smaller parties in Government.
However, we have no particular objection to the amendment. I cannot foresee a legal difficulty in explicitly stating what is already implicit. Perhaps that issue could be dealt with in the response to the debate, because I cannot understand how making something explicit creates a difficulty if it is already implicit. I have a similar position on amendment Nos 4 and 5, as they essentially follow the same function. They simply seek to explicitly insert reference to Executive co-operation into the legislation that is — apparently — already there implicitly.
Amendment No 8 is an attempt to do what we have done with amendment Nos 6 and 7. As such, we have no real objections to that amendment and are happy to support it. It is simply a case of ensuring that it is recognised in this legislation that all Ministers have particular areas of responsibility. We should be aspiring to an Executive of equals who co-operate with one another, rather than some members of the Executive being more equal than others.
The final amendments in the group are from OFMDFM, and they are being made on behalf of the Executive as a whole. As we were informed at the OFMDFM Committee last Monday, those amendments were agreed by the Executive Committee. I will come to amendment No 11 later, but we view amendment Nos 3, 9 and 10 as improvements to the Bill and we do not intend to oppose them. Although we do not feel that they address some of our substantive concerns, nevertheless, we think that they will improve the Bill.
Amendment No 3 closes down the opportunity for people to exploit the emergency powers, of which some people were fearful. If an emergency, or exceptional circumstance, is agreed, regulations must be introduced within three months, which seems to be an entirely reasonable proposition. If a situation is so exceptional, I cannot foresee any reason why action would not be taken within three months. The amendment also prevents someone from establishing that there are exceptional circumstances and then either failing to deal with them, or using them as a reason for introducing additional regulations down the line when they have changed. It is a sensible amendment, and we will support it.
Amendment No 9 performs a similar role in respect of clause 2, although it proposes a time limit of six months as the issues in clause 2 are not as urgent. I make that point because it will be quite important in the context of the debate on the urgency of passing clause 2. The difference between the three-month and six-month time limits recognises the significant difference in how quickly action is needed in respect of the issues in clause 2 compared to those in clause 1.
Without prejudice to our opposition to clause 2 stand part of the Bill, which will be discussed during the debate on the next group of amendments, we believe that amendment No 9 will improve clause 2. Members have mentioned Executive programme funds and special programme funds. In Committee and elsewhere, we have had quite a considerable debate about how other Administrations are able to ensure that policy that is driven by the centre is delivered by Departments. I would prefer that clause 2 be debated in that context rather than as part of this Bill.
Amendment No 10 deals with an issue that I raised during the debate last week. I had some concern about the fact that the regulations were to be subject to negative resolution. In most cases, regulations do not come before a Committee, for example, until it is dealing with them retrospectively.
Bringing the regulations before the Assembly affords Members the opportunity to express their opinions about them, and that is a welcome improvement. Therefore, the Alliance Party will support amendment No 10, although it should be noted that that decision is without prejudice to our intention to oppose that clause 2 stand part of the Bill.
Amendment No 11, which pertains to clause 3, will permit sunset clauses to be included in schemes. It is unclear why that must be made explicit in the legislation when, implicitly, any scheme or regulation could be constructed to include a sunset clause. Nevertheless, that feature has been made explicit, when others’ concerns about the Bill have not. Why is that? Furthermore, amendment No 11 does not require schemes to include sunset clauses, so regulations could continue in perpetuity — although some will come to an end, they need not all do so.
The other element of amendment No 11 appears to be a tidying-up exercise. Although a scheme might draw to a close, a savings scheme, for example, that a Department initiated in order to free-up money for financial assistance could continue. If my interpretation is correct — I would appreciate it if the First Minister were to clarify whether it is — the Alliance Party is reasonably comfortable with amendment No 11 and will not oppose it.
The amendments drafted by the Alliance Party and, in its assessment, those drafted by other parties seek to ensure that rightful protections are afforded to everyone in the Executive — there should be no privileged elite — and it is important for confidence building that that should be the case.
As I said last week, the Good Friday Agreement mechanisms are unwieldy, and, at times, ridiculous and bizarre. Often, they have hampered, rather than facilitated, good government, and the Alliance Party has been forthright about that. I do not mean that the principles are flawed; I mean simply that the way in which parties have gone about attempting to compensate for the lack of trust when delivering those principles is often unwieldy.
Members are being asked to take OFMDFM on trust, which is, in effect, what Martina Anderson said during her intervention this morning. That is a remarkable development. If that trust now exists, I wish to be the first to say that that is fantastic. In that context, let us move rapidly towards greater collectivity, and, ultimately, let us have a voluntary coalition. If everyone in the Chamber is secure about the fact that no Member will seek to abuse his or her position, such a course of action would be sensible, efficient and effective — let us get on with it.
However, I suspect that the trust that Members would be obliged to give to OFMDFM in such a context does not regularly exist — even between the DUP and Sinn Féin — and, if the mechanisms were to be significantly unpicked, it would not only be the SDLP, the Ulster Unionist Party and the Alliance Party that would be expressing concerns now. The Government balance could change, so I encourage Sinn Féin and DUP Members to consider carefully the position in which this legislation could place their Ministers in any future Administration.
I am not talking about trust in Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness, in the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister, or even in the DUP and Sinn Féin. The Alliance Party is not seeking to impugn the integrity of any of those people or groups of people —
I will in a moment.
I am talking about whether Members are confident that anyone who may hold those posts, in all circumstances, will not seek to abuse the power given to them — for ever is a very long time.
The Member raises an important issue — the dynamic within the Executive. Will she agree that it is easy to envisage a situation in which the two parties that occupy OFMDFM will come to an agreement that is not based on trust but on political necessity and one in which both will have a vested interest? Furthermore, does the Member agree that the benefit of whatever decision they make will not be conferred on the other parties in the Executive? In fact, attempts will not even be made to confer the benefits on the other parties.
I could go further than simply agreeing that that is a possibility; I could quote chapter and verse of when it has happened. However, that would fall outside the remit of this debate, and I suspect that the Deputy Speaker would call me to order, so I will not go any further.
None of the proposed amendments, from any of the parties, will delay the interventions that are intended by the Executive, or diminish the OFMDFM team’s acting together in good faith with other Ministers in the Executive. There is, however, a major confidence-building opportunity available to those in OFMDFM. If they are striving to achieve increased collectivity and good and harmonious working, they should accept the amendments that have been tabled in good faith. Such acceptance will inform the Executive of their intent.
I oppose amendment No 2. Last week, we went through, in some length, the reasons for the need for the Financial Assistance Bill. There was consensus on the principle of the Bill. Therefore, it is with dismay that we find ourselves with a list of unnecessary amendments.
Amendment No 2 is one of a qualifying nature, and it seems to be unnecessary. Clause 1 of the Bill provides the power to provide financial assistance in exceptional circumstances. Exceptional circumstances are events that are out of the ordinary, such as floods — the likes of which have never been seen in our lifetimes — and not mundane happenings.
I thought that our interpretation of what was exceptional was the same, but the Member, obviously, has a different opinion to me. The Bill shows clearly what is exceptional. Floods and economic downturns —the likes of which have not been experienced before or seen in our lifetimes or in the past century — are exceptional. Exceptional circumstances mean exactly that. They are unexpected events for which we did not have the foresight to legislate. That is what the word “exceptional” means in my book.
The Member is in danger of arguing against the first purpose that the Bill is being used to serve — winter fuel payments. His definition of “exceptional” covers unforeseen events, such as natural or manmade disasters, but that excludes the events that will require payment of the winter fuel payments. Everyone knows that winter is coming; it has occurred every year since the beginning of the earth. A lot of discussions were held about what measures should be taken to deal with the looming winter, not only here, but in other jurisdictions across the water. Does the Member, therefore, see that as being exceptional, because, so far, his definition does not qualify for that?
That is a third request. I will continue, if Mr O’Loan does not mind. I am content to give way, usually, but I would like to get into the thrust of my speech.
Considering the definition of “exceptional”, it would be pedantic to further qualify that there is no legislation in place. Common sense will dictate that if there were to be a Bill to cover it, the circumstances would not be exceptional, and, therefore, the Bill would not be required, to follow the line of thought of some. When legislating, we are ever under the rule that to overstate things is to add more pressure and to tie things up to a greater extent.
To add that amendment to the Bill would not, as some Members suggested, add any more protection from its misuse, if that is its intention. The opposite is true, because it would over-complicate matters. Indeed, it confirms the need for the Bill to remain as it stands to cater for unforeseen circumstances for which no provision has been made. If a scheme to assist in such circumstances were already in place, the Bill would not be needed. It is clear, therefore, that, nicely worded though the amendment is, it is unnecessary, and it adds to the length of the Bill without enhancing its quality.
Some time ago, the Minister of the Environment, Sammy Wilson, suggested in the Chamber that there was far too much paperwork. He illustrated his point by bringing a massive pile of papers into the Chamber and suggesting that Members should recycle more. I suggest to the Member that she recycle amendment No 2; the quicker the better. It is an unnecessary amendment that adds nothing to the Bill and, therefore, I suggest that Members join me in opposing it.
I will speak to the first group of amendments that appears on the Marshalled List for the Consideration Stage of the Financial Assistance Bill. My colleagues and I support amendment Nos 3, 9, 10 and 11, as proposed by the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister.
Amendment No 3 inserts the following:
“at any time within 3 months from the date of the determination under subsection (1)”.
This amendment ensures that any regulations made under the power in clause 1 to provide financial assistance in any exceptional circumstances have to be made within three months of the relevant determination. That limitation is welcome, because it places a discipline on designated Departments to award assistance within three months. It allows them to award financial assistance within a reasonable timescale and, ultimately, to remedy, or assist in remedying, the problems created by an unforeseen or exceptional circumstance. That will ensure —
Order, please. I ask the Member to confine his remarks to the Bill under discussion. I request that other Members make their remarks through the Chair; that is how the debate began this afternoon, and, from where I am sitting, it was a godsend.
I am happy to comply, Mr Deputy Speaker.
Bearing in mind the exceptional circumstances of the past year, amendment No 3 ensures that any problems are dealt with immediately. It also ensures that Departments do not abuse the designation of powers at a later stage, when the original circumstance that gave rise to the determination no longer exists.
I welcome amendment No 9, which specifies that, under clause 2, the relevant Department may introduce a scheme for the provision of financial assistance:
“at any time within 6 months from the date of the determination”.
When unsatisfactory funding arrangements mean that financial assistance is required to tackle poverty, social exclusion or patterns of deprivation, amendment No 9 requires any regulations to be made within six months. As with the previous amendment, it places a discipline on all Departments that are designated to provide financial assistance when such a circumstance arises to do so swiftly and without delay. It ensures that people are awarded prompt financial assistance for their specific problem and do not have to wait for 12 or 24 months, as was the case under direct rule. Amendment No 9 ensures that Ministers deal with problems as they occur and that they are able to take remedial action quickly and efficiently.
Amendment No 10 is also beneficial because it increases the Assembly’s power by ensuring that no regulations can be made under clause 2 unless a draft of those regulations has been laid before, and approved by, a resolution of the Assembly. It ensures an affirmative resolution by Members, as opposed to the negative resolution that was proposed initially.
I believe that the amendment addresses the numerous concerns expressed by many Members, and it will ensure that the proposed regulations require not only Executive agreement but the agreement of the Assembly as a whole before they can be brought into operation.
As regards amendment No 11, which refers to the schemes for financial assistance in clause 3, I welcome OFMDFM’s revision of the time limit. I endorse the fact that it allows regulations under clauses 1 and 2 to have limited shelf life. That will ensure that Departments that have implemented schemes — particularly under clause 1 — will consider whether those schemes should be time-limited. Time-limiting is logical; it ensures that if exceptional circumstances were to arise and a Department were designated powers to deal with those circumstances, they would be dealt with as and when they were required, not a year down the line. Therefore, I support amendment Nos 3, 9, 10 and 11, and I oppose amendment Nos 1, 2, 4, 6, 7 and 8.
I listened carefully to Mrs Long. She asked whether trust prevailed in the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister and between parties in the Chamber. In one sense, that captured some of what I was going to say. The First Minister and the deputy First Minister would want the Chamber to draw conclusions based on best hopes, good faith and good intentions, and that the legislation would be used only in a limited way and in the precise terms outlined by the First Minister. On the other hand, the First Minister can hear that when Members look at the legislation, they draw conclusions based on their worst fears; fears about the real purpose and roll-out of the legislation over the months, years and, potentially, decades to come.
In order to probe into whether we should rely on the best hopes and intentions of the First Minister and the deputy First Minister or whether we should be more cautious in our approach, I look at the evidence gathered over a long period in respect of how the parties that occupy the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister — and the characters who occupy that office — have approached certain matters. Against the weight of evidence going back a significant time, I draw the conclusion that clause 2 is evidence of a pattern and a culture, and it is about a changed approach to the nature of Government in this part of the world. I will explain why. I have always said that when it comes to negotiations, one must be up at the crack of dawn in order to deal with the DUP — if not earlier — [Interruption.]
Over a long period and around a range of issues that go to the essence of the democracy that we have or have not in the North, I have observed a culture and an approach that leads the SDLP to conclude that one needs to be very cautious about giving more power to certain offices about certain issues in this part of the world.
The DUP Members know that, at St Andrews, I saw them make an article of faith about eroding the proper authority of Ministers; they succeeded, because no one was there with the craft or the ability to compete in the negotiations to stop that happening.
I can tell you about the many things that the SDLP was doing at St Andrews, and I will come to that in my speech.
We were trying to stop in its tracks what the British Government and Sinn Féin were allowing to happen — the development of an expanded role for MI5 in the North, so that they would have 400 members —
At St Andrews, I saw the First Minister, through the DUP, eroding the proper authority of Ministers and pulling back control and authority from where it properly resided — in ministerial office. This morning, Mr Spratt made cryptic references to the fact that the Executive had no control over Ministers in the past. Yet, he was referring to two decisions, and two decisions alone, that were taken by Sinn Féin. A decision was taken about the 11-plus — but not on an alternative to it — and, six years later, we are none the wiser about what is going to happen.
On the other hand, there was a decision about the maternity hospital. The Assembly and its Committees had good evidence that the decision taken by the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety at that time to locate maternity provision at the site of the Royal Victoria Hospital was absolutely right, justified and evidence-based. That is what Jimmy Spratt was referring to. On that pretext, the DUP began to erode the power of Ministers. What do we see in this legislation? We see more of the same — more erosion of the power of Ministers.
However, it goes further than that. At St Andrews, we saw the exact same culture and pattern of behaviour when it came to the affairs of the North/South Ministerial Council and the various elements of North/Southery.
I knew that my speech was elaborate, but I did not think that it measured up to a thesis. [Laughter.]
In response to your point, Mr Deputy Speaker, I am replying to the words of Mr Robinson in last week’s debate, when he said that he was not trying to suck out ministerial authority.
I will give way in a second; I have been very generous to other people. In his New Year’s Eve statement, the First Minister raised fundamental questions about the future of the North/South Ministerial Council; he asked whether it was a most efficient use of our resources. We can see an agenda, an approach and a culture. I suggest that Sinn Féin, which currently holds the office of the deputy First Minister, should have its eyes wide open when it comes to what the legislation might do.
Therefore, I say to the First Minister, whom I will let speak in a second, that for all the warm words — and many pages of words detail the past debates — the evidence, in as much as I have outlined it, supports a culture of control and limiting Ministers’ authority.
I am very grateful to the Member for giving way. I want to examine his thesis a little more closely. The kernel of it appears to be that the Democratic Unionist Party has an agenda. Quite why any political party would have an agenda, I do not know. It seems that no political party would ever want to be accused of that.
As the Member puts it, that agenda — which he opposes — erodes ministerial powers. The DUP would put that differently and say that it brings power into the Executive. If that agenda erodes ministerial powers, why is the Member supporting an amendment that will give power to the Executive over issues that, under the provisions of the Bill, will be dealt with in a ministerial capacity and will therefore come ultimately to the Executive anyway?
I will reply to that in two ways.
Many of the amendments mitigate the excesses of what is proposed in the Bill. Therefore, when faced with the options of granting authority where you do not want it to go or of mitigating the proposal in question, the latter is the preferred option.
Secondly, it is curious that the First Minister raised the matter, because in replying, I rely on what he said in last week’s debate on this very issue about ministerial authority and Executive control. The contradiction in what the First Minister has said is in his words of last week, when he said:
“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.” — [Official Report, Vol 36, No 5, p237, col 1].
If I were to draw conclusions from the First Minister having just said that clauses in the Bill will give responsibility to the Executive, I must also remind myself that in the Chamber a week ago, the First Minister said:
“I suspect that that refers to the three Departments that are not under the control of the deputy First Minister and me.” — [Official Report, Vol 36, No 5, p237, col 1].
Consider those words. He did not use the words “influence”, “persuasion” or “encouragement”. In reference to DUP and Sinn Féin Ministers, the word that the First Minister used — and that I presume reflected the view of the deputy First Minister — was “control”.
Therefore, after hearing what the First Minister said about “controlling” his own Ministers, I must ask myself whether I am reassured about amendments that are related to taking matters to the Executive. I do not know what the definition of a political poodle is, but if that is not it, I do not know what a poodle is.
We know about the First Minister’s attempts to control. We know about how he tried to control the Minister for Social Development on an issue — [Interruption.]
Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker.
We know what control means when it comes to the First Minister, and his own Ministers must draw conclusions from that. We know how the First Minister tried to control another matter involving the Minister for Social Development. I will not comment further on that because it is going through the courts. I am sure that the Minister for Social Development will take her chances when the court’s decision becomes known.
However, the point is that the First Minister has form when it comes to issues of control — that is his choice of language. To confirm that point, I refer to other comments that Declan O’Loan made this morning about the Bill. In order to understand the scope and intention behind what the First Minister is proposing, one must consider what he has said. Last week he said:
“The Financial Assistance Bill is the most important piece of legislation to be tabled since the return of devolved Government.” — [Official Report, Vol 36, No 5, p218, col 1].
As I said, I respect the First Minister and the people around him — they are very careful about their use of words. Their approach to negotiations, and to much besides, is to be precise and technical, and I respect that. They are good at it, the SDLP is also good at it, and if other parties were half as good at it, we would not be in the mess that we are in at the moment. [Laughter.]
Therefore, the First Minister meant it when he said that the Bill is:
“the most important piece of legislation to be tabled since the return of devolved Government.” — [Official Report, Vol 36, No 5, p218, col 1].
Those are not idle words, nor is it a casual remark. The First Minister is being deadly serious, just as he was in the summer when he somehow got the deputy First Minister to agree that a justice Minister should be appointed by cross-community vote at all times. The First Minister quickly came out and stated that “at all times” meant “at all times”.
I appreciate that, Mr Deputy Speaker. I am drawing the conclusion that the First Minister means what he says. Therefore, when the First Minister says that the Bill is an important piece of legislation, I draw conclusions about its size, scale and intentions.
I also find it very curious, as other Members surely must, that the Bill is billed as being even more important than the legislation on the Budget that the Assembly passed last year. The Assembly passed legislation for the spending of millions and millions of pounds over this year and future years, and yet the Financial Assistance Bill is somehow considered to be more important than that and all other legislation that has come to the Chamber since restoration. Therefore, be warned — the First Minister and others have plans for how the Bill will pan out.
We have a multiparty coalition, so all sorts of tensions and fractures exist. In that regard, I have some sympathy with the First Minister, because his role is to build consensus around our fledgling institutions. However, the way in which the Bill is being handled, in addition to his hectoring and the aggressive tone that he has displayed today, not least to members of Assembly staff, leads me to conclude that he is still trying to get his head around the difficult concept of building consensus around our fledgling institutions.
When I examine the Bill, I remind myself that the First Minister likes power but does not like accountability. For example, we do not have a Budget for the coming year. Furthermore, the First Minister and Martin McGuinness have proposed measures that will curtail their presence in the Chamber, where they answer to the elected representatives of the North about their actions, and that includes, I must say, explaining provisions that may arise from this Bill.
However, the First Minister has a partner in all of this — the deputy First Minister. As time passes, the deputy First Minister demonstrates more and more that he is very much a deputy. The DUP and its advisers continue to run rings around Sinn Féin across Government. If I were to look up, I am sure that I would see a smile on someone’s face: he knows it; Sinn Féin knows it; and everyone else is beginning to know it.
The Financial Assistance Bill is just another example of the DUP’s taking power on to itself, and it is doing so with Sinn Féin connivance. When Peter goes to Martin and asks him to jump, Members know what the answer is — how high? Others make the spurious, irrelevant and insulting point that Sinn Féin has signed up to administer British rule in Northern Ireland. However, in the past year and a half — in case after case — we have seen what no one would have predicted — self-proclaimed Irish republicans administering DUP rule in Northern Ireland. We shall discuss that issue over the coming months.
I am not sure how I can attempt to follow that or to say such wonderful things about the First Minister. Nevertheless, I speak to oppose amendment Nos 6, 7 and 8. Having listened to the debate, it is obvious that those who proposed the amendments have not listened to one iota of anything that the First Minister said during the Second Stage of the Bill last Tuesday. Mind you, I am not at all surprised by some Members.
The amendments take us back to the days of the failed Belfast Agreement when rogue Ministers did whatever they wanted without any accountability. At St Andrews, the DUP ensured that there would be accountability as part of its negotiations.
I have just started. You will have plenty of time to speak.
Therefore, a Minister could no longer do what he or she wanted without the approval of the Executive. My party’s successful negotiations have ensured that those structures are now more democratic due to the fact that major decisions must be brought before the Executive and be made subject to their agreement. If we compare the Belfast Agreement to structures in which individuals are accountable to the Executive and the Assembly, I know what I prefer, and I know what the people of Northern Ireland prefer.
Presumably, the Member would argue that the decisions taken by the Sinn Féin Minister of Health and the Sinn Féin Minister of Education in the first mandate and in the current mandate are examples of rogue Ministers? Does he also recognise that the Minister of the Environment is a rogue Minister in that a decision was taken regarding the establishment of an environmental protection agency, which was supported by four parties in the Assembly, but it was opposed by the Minister’s party? Surely, that Minister is a rogue Minister from the Member’s own party.
I do not mind being accused of being a rogue Minister, but will the Member accept that I was not a rogue Minister in respect of the accusations that are being made here today? A former Minister was a rogue in that instance, and she engaged herself in a good piece of roguery, because an independent environmental protection agency would have been a disaster.
I accept the comments made by both Members. Without straying further, the environmental protection agency decision was a good one.
Yesterday, during questions to the Minister of Education, Basil McCrea said that the people of Northern Ireland long for a return to the good old days of Martin McGuinness. However, I remind the Member that during that time, Martin McGuinness took the decision to abolish the 11-plus against the will of the other Ministers in the House.
When the Assembly met under the structures of the Belfast Agreement, Ministers could make controversial decisions free from the control of the Executive.
As far as the DUP is concerned, any proposals for regulations will be subject to the agreement of the Executive where the First Minister and the deputy First Minister will be able to take account of the views of all Ministers.
I was not speaking against any particular individual, Mr Deputy Speaker; I was just making a general comment. [Interruption.]
I cannot see a situation in which functions would be forced onto a Department against its wishes. However, one Minister should not be allowed to frustrate the will of the Executive as a whole in their duty to provide financial assistance in exceptional circumstances or in an emergency situation.
McCrea, but not this McCrea.
In our earlier discussion of the clauses of the Bill, we made it clear that we are not against helping people in specific circumstances. We wish to find a mechanism to do that. From our Benches, we tried to speak constructively, and said that we did not think it appropriate to take this tragedy and use it for other wider political purposes.
We have tabled these amendments in order to safeguard the proper decisions that we want Ministers to make in addressing fuel poverty and fuel payments. There is a question about trust, which was mentioned by colleagues on the Benches to my right. We are all in the political game; we know that at different times we are political opponents, and that words are said from time to time. However, this issue gives us an opportunity to do something positive. It is most distressing to realise that in every single contentious debate that we have had, whether on education, the review of public administration (RPA) or victims’ commissioners, no one ever listens to the opinion of other people that are supposed to be a part of the four-party mandatory coalition, or to those people who feel that they have a role to play as an opposition. That is the issue.
I know that some Members will shake their heads and say that that is irrelevant, but it does matter. The people of Northern Ireland expect us to find a way forward in what is a very trying set of circumstances. In tabling our amendments, we are asking, in very measured tones, the First Minister and the deputy First Minister to consider the points that we have put forward and take them on board. If the issue does not matter, and if it is already implicit, as Mrs Long said, what is the problem with making it explicit? That would send a powerful message to the people of Northern Ireland that we are united in trying to deal with the issue at hand. If it is a misconception that the two big parties are simply carving up power, let us find a way of demonstrating that that is the case, and do something about it.
Let us make no bones about it: when it comes to dealing with other matters of concern that are in the background, there is no equality of esteem in the Executive. The SDLP and UUP Ministers do not receive papers on time, are not consulted properly and are not brought into the decision-making process. If that situation changed, there would be a completely different attitude in the House. We support and understand the desire to find a mechanism for getting people the money that they need, but we will not support Trojan Horses that take a tragedy and turn it into a political opportunity.
In the year or more since I became an MLA, I have witnessed a stripping away of democracy — a chipping at the edges. What was supposed to be a coalition of the willing, to be inclusive, to bring people together and to ensure that everyone had a share in this institution, has been systematically taken apart. That is why there are so many objections to the Bill.
I hope that people listen to this debate, because if we go down the route that is being proposed, we will destroy the entire Assembly.
We must find a way of working together, and I look to the First Minister, to whom I give the respect that he deserves because of his position, for leadership on the issue. I look to him to see how the Executive and the House can be brought together.
No Member wishes not to include checks and balances and a mechanism by which Members can have input into the decisions that are made by Ministers, Departments, the Executive and the Assembly. Does the Member agree that that can be done in a plethora of ways? It can be done through the work of Committees, through asking questions to Ministers, by demanding that Ministers come to the Assembly and by the requirement for weighted voting in the Executive and in the Assembly.
Surely the Member overemphasised his point when he said that all the accountability mechanisms are being removed from the Assembly. Will he be more specific and say exactly which accountability mechanisms have been removed?
Mr Deputy Speaker, I hope that you will allow me the latitude to respond to that. One of the minor but significant disappointments is that Mr Wilson was made a Minister. I say that not because I do not hold him in esteem, because I do. It is not because I do not think that he can do a good job, because he can. It is because, as he will accept, he is one of the few people prepared to speak his mind and stand up to say what is right. Unfortunately, he has been shackled by ministerial responsibility; the control freakery means that he is no longer able to speak out. He has not been able to express an opinion on important votes, but I will not embarrass him by talking about the education and skills authority.
The Ulster Unionist Party wants to find a way to help the people who need, for example, fuel payments. However, we will not accept the Bill as a Trojan Horse. If the Members opposite want to find a collective solution to the many challenges that will face us in the coming year, now is the time to start talking to people as equals and as colleagues. They should listen to what we have said, act upon the good advice that we have given and support the amendments that we have tabled.
Despite all the banter and name calling of a variety in the Chamber, the debate, which is on one of the many important issues to have come before the Assembly, is being treated correctly. We often spend time debating private Members’ motions, which, if they do call on the Executive to take action, are entirely ignored by members of the Executive. I refer not only to the actions of the former Minister of the Environment on the Environmental Protection Agency. That is why it is important to have a proper debate and why it is unfortunate that the Bill did not have a proper Committee Stage, which might have allowed some of the issues to be teased out and dealt with properly.
Basil McCrea said that Members at the other end of the Chamber were not listening; I think that he said that Members in general were not listening. I disagree with Mr McCrea on that —although I do not disagree with him on the general principles of the Bill — because some of us are listening.
I am in broad agreement with the thrust of all the amendments. I say that with some quick qualifications. Amendment No 8, which was tabled by Danny Kennedy, is not quite as good as amendment No 6, which was tabled by the Alliance Party, but it covers broadly the same area. Amendment Nos 9 and No 10, which were tabled by the First Minister and deputy First Minister, are without prejudice to our general position on clause 2. Amendment Nos 9 and No 10 need to be given proper consideration at the next Stage, and they need to receive the clarification that Naomi Long requested from the First Minister.
Some Members examined the detail of the amendments, came here to have a serious debate, engaged in a constructive debate and are prepared to make and take interventions. They understand that that is what debate is supposed to be about.
Unfortunately, too many Members come into this Chamber and are not prepared to engage in debate. Their speeches are written for them by researchers, and even when you, Mr Deputy Speaker, call them to order, they cannot find a place in their speeches that is relevant to the terms of the Bill, and we run into further problems. Given the age that the Assembly has reached, it is time, when we have a debate on legislation, that Members engage in debate and do not merely read out speeches that were written a couple of days ago and which are not now relevant.
I trust that having made my point to the Deputy Speaker, I will have made it to Members. I will now go into detail.
I was disappointed with Mr Spratt’s speech. He listed a number of amendments to which he was opposed, but he did not list amendment Nos 2 and 6. I began to think that there was something wrong; that perhaps an amendment put forward by my party was being listened to by the DUP. Could it be that, contrary to what happened during the passage of the Local Government (Boundaries) Act (Northern Ireland) 2008 and the Commission for Victims and Survivors Act (Northern Ireland) 2008, the parties in Government were listening to the opposition, and not just the opposition listening to the Government?
Sadly, that hope was lost when Mr Shannon began to speak. I found his comments interesting. I give him credit for understanding the concept of debate, because he takes interventions — he does not respond to them, but at least he takes them. [Laughter.]
Perhaps the next time Government Back-Benchers have a meeting, he could give a lesson on the concept of debate to Members such as Ms Anderson, though members of his own party are sometimes in the same position as her.
Some of Mr Shannon’s points were interesting. He said that amendment No 2, which adds an additional point to clause 1 about powers not existing or not being useful elsewhere, was merely a form of words. The amendment, in fact, inserts what he is agreeing to in clause 2 directly into the principles in clause 1. If that is so wrong in clause 1, why is it so acceptable in clause 2? No answer to that has been forthcoming, which means that we need to put the same phraseology into clause 1 as is being used in clause 2. It is more than just a list of words or making paper for the Environment Minister to complain about. The amendment seeks to improve the Bill — in the same way that the First Minister and deputy First Minister sought to include additional qualifications and make improvements — by applying a condition to clause 1 that is validly applied to clause 2.
I have an important point to make in relation to Mr Shannon’s speech. He discussed what would constitute an emergency, and Stephen Moutray said that the Bill would be for use in unforeseen circumstances. However, Mr Shannon said that we will all recognise an emergency when we see it. He gave examples, and referred to the economic downturn. The economic downturn is a major worldwide event that has been ongoing for some time and will continue for a very considerable time to come. The downturn has major ramifications for every Department. It will increase the demands upon them, and effective responses will be expected in addressing it. The only way to address it meaningfully is to revise the Programme for Government and the Budget, consulting properly with the Assembly, its Committees and the public — not by urgent, extreme, one-off remedies, the power for which, through this Bill, is to be given to OFMDFM.
I am supposed to say that I am grateful for the intervention. However, I may now have to allow Mr Shannon an intervention so that he may respond to Mr O’Loan, and I am deeply reluctant to do so.
Unfortunately, I have allowed Mr O’Loan to disrupt my train of thought, which sought to attack Mr Shannon’s general inability to recognise that winter tends to happen — as Stephen Farry pointed out — once each year. Winter crises are not unprecedented. [Interruption.]
Unfortunately, the Environment Minister seems to be unaware that climate change encompasses a variety of changes and is not a uniform change in any particular direction. Storms and climate change tend to happen in wintertime. We will, however, steer clear of that issue, in deference to the Deputy Speaker’s earlier ruling.
The issue of what is unprecedented has been over-egged by people such as Mr Shannon, who described such events as something that would never have been seen before. However, there were quite severe floods in my constituency in August 2008, and some of the areas affected were also affected by similar flooding fewer than 20 years ago. Those floods were hardly unprecedented, but they certainly created an emergency.
I am more inclined to agree with the First Minister’s definition of what constitutes an emergency rather than Mr Shannon’s. It was a good attempt from a Back-Bencher in defence of the Executive’s position, but I am afraid that he failed to persuade me.
Ms Anderson made a great deal of the point that amendment No 2, which was tabled by the Alliance Party, would result in delays. I am not sure what delays are envisaged given that we have been told by the two principal parties that all is sweetness and light, and that everything in the Executive is working well — Mr Attwood disagreed, but he is not in the Chamber to defend that position. However, if we accept that view, what delay would there be if the First Minister and deputy First Minister were to consult the relevant Minister or Ministers on what powers and finances exist and whether that particular procedure were needed? There is no delay that is realistic or feasible, and for Ms Anderson to make the point — as she read her notes and refused to take an intervention on the matter — that there will be a delay, means that the point will be argued at greater length and detail as it is clearly unsubstantiated and unsubstantiatable — [Interruption.]
I would happily give way, but the fact that Ms Anderson neither makes nor receives interventions speaks for itself.
That point needs to be substantiated. [Laughter.]
At least we now have a member of the Administration who is prepared to argue the detail of the Bill. I welcome the intervention from the First Minister in that respect, although I suspect that clause 2(1)(b) could also be subject to judicial review. Therefore, I am not sure why that argument applies to clause 1 and not to clause 2.
Those points need to be made, because it is clear that, yet again, the Executive are unwilling to listen to any arguments emanating from this end of the Chamber. That was illustrated by the fine speech made by Mr Ian McCrea, in which he dwelt much on how the Belfast Agreement has failed, and the fact that Sinn Féin has given up ministerial authority, but did nothing to deal with the substance of the amendments tabled from this end of the Chamber.
If one examines the balance of this debate — as, hopefully, more impartial people than those who sit at the other end of this Chamber will do — it will be seen that the strong weight of argument behind the amendments tabled in an effort to make this a better Bill should be realised. Those amendments will help to ensure that the emergency provisions go through. They will also ensure that, for those of us who are still a little bit sceptical about the fine workings of the Executive, this Bill is not a Trojan horse designed to damage the workings of Departments other than those controlled, in their own terms, by the First Minister and deputy First Minister
I will resist the temptation to read out my 120,000-word thesis, but I will certainly pass a copy to Declan O’Loan to peruse at his leisure, at some time in the future
This is an important debate. At times, I get the impression that some Members from the DUP and Sinn Féin seem to resent the fact that the debate is taking place, and that Members — from a range of parties — have tabled reasoned and constructive amendments. This is the heart of the legislative process; this is why we have an Assembly. We should welcome the fact that we are having debates of this nature rather than trying to avoid them.
Had the Bill had a proper Committee Stage, a lot of this work could have taken place in the Committee rather than on the Floor of the Assembly, but we are where we are.
I want to make only a couple of points. The first is that there is, perhaps, a greater need to ensure the co-operation of Departments and Ministers in relation to clause 1 than in relation to clause 2. That may seem to be a slightly counter-intuitive statement. However, clause 2 deals with more medium- and long-term situations where there is a potential failing in the structures of Government to address cross-cutting issues; therefore, there may well be a situation in which the First Minister and deputy First Minister — as well as the wider Executive — must be seen to be taking action to address shortcomings and the failure of Departments to work towards commonly held objectives for the greater good of the people of Northern Ireland. In that sense, a greater sense of collectivity is to be welcomed.
There may be a danger of clause 1 stripping out any role for the relevant Ministers and Departments from the consideration process. Given the very short-term nature of the interventions and given that they are not, essentially, going to be mainstream, long-term actions, that militates in favour of having a greater degree of co-operation and ensuring that Ministers are on board.
That goes to the heart of what we are trying to achieve through amendment No 2, which is about ensuring that we are not running a coach and horses through existing schemes of Departments and that whatever interventions are made — albeit in the context of there being an emergency or exceptional circumstances — are properly thought out and thought through, and we are not needlessly duplicating or ignoring systems that are already in place. However, such interventions may be an effective way of dealing with emergency situations if they can result in money being directed toward such situations.
Therefore, there is merit in having a safeguard to ensure that there is not needless duplication in Government and that Government is an efficiently operating institution — all parties in the Chamber would look toward that. This is an important debate; it is important that we give consideration to amendments. The amendments tabled by my party are certainly in no way aimed at delaying or undermining the Bill — they are designed to make the Bill more transparent and more effective. All parties should be capable of uniting around our amendments and some of the other amendments that have been tabled by other parties.
I will be very brief. I am pleased to see that a number of amendments to the Financial Assistance Bill have been tabled. The majority of those amendments go a long way toward improving the legislation and making it a better mechanism for serving the needs and the rights of the people of Northern Ireland, which the First Minister so eloquently referenced in his remarks last week.
During last week’s debate, I expressed my concerns that the legislation in its original form creates too fundamental a shift in the decision-making processes of the Assembly and the Executive to warrant accelerated passage. I was not persuaded by the First Minister’s assurance that the ministerial code would play a real role in defining the use of this legislation and limiting the powers that it bestows to OFMDFM in its unamended form.
Part of the Pledge of Office commits Ministers to participate fully in the Executive Committee, yet we find ourselves regarding this legislation as urgent because that commitment was not met for several months last year. Nonetheless, the current economic situation requires flexibility and creativity. The worldwide economic forecast suggests that the downturn in which we find ourselves may reach unprecedented levels, and Northern Ireland will not be exempt. If this legislation creates an additional tool for addressing the difficulties faced by the people of this Province, it warrants full consideration.
Looking at the specifics of the Bill and the amendments, I support those amendments that give an explicit role to the whole of the Executive in making determinations that a situation warrants the exercise of this legislation. That includes amendment Nos 1, 4 and 5. Collective responsibility and power sharing are at the core of this body’s processes — however flawed they may seem at times — and those principles need to be inserted into this Bill. That is also a more accurate reflection of the budgetary processes that the Executive follow.
I also support amendment Nos 6, 7 and 8, which create the requirement for direct engagement with those Departments that stand to gain or lose functions as a result of schemes generated by this legislation. The value of consultation is a lesson that we learn over and over again in the implementation of new policies and schemes.
I oppose the inclusion of clause 2 in the Bill. I hope that amendment Nos 9 and 10 are unnecessary. In that situation, I will support amendment No 2. Failing the removal of clause 2 from the legislation — which I hope will not be the case — I will support amendment Nos 3, 9 and 10. I share the views expressed earlier by Naomi Long regarding amendment No 11.
I am very willing to give way to any Member at any stage. The Speaker indicated that there were around 31 interventions during the Second Stage of the Bill, yet, when I spoke, there was not one intervention. I encourage it this time around, particularly from those who have behaved in a positive and responsible way during the course of the debate.
I welcome the contributions that Members have made, and I intend to deal particularly with the amendments that have been tabled in the name of the deputy First Minister and me, namely amendment Nos 3, 9, 10 and 11.
Before I do that, I will make some general comments about conduct during this debate, and my disappointment with some of the parties present. In particular, it is sad that the official opposition — the Alliance Party — is seen to behave in a much more responsible way in dealing with amendments and legislation than two of the Executive parties. It is worth pointing out to those two parties that their Ministers need to get legislation through the Assembly, and, if we were to behave in the irresponsible way that those two parties have done, clearly their Ministers would not get that legislation through.
It is not a threat; it is very clearly a statement of fact indicating that we do not behave in the irresponsible way that they seem to enjoy.
Like the leader of the Alliance Party, I have a lot of sympathy with most of the amendments that have been tabled. However, an awful lot of them are completely unnecessary because they have already been dealt with. I made strenuous efforts during the Second Stage of the Bill — as did the deputy First Minister — to point out to Members that their concerns about control, power grabs and such issues were unfounded. I set that out very clearly, and am tempted to read out the detail of what I said. With encouragement, I might just do that before I sit down.
I set out in detail why every decision that will be taken on determinations, designations and schemes will be taken by the Executive. Further than that, we now show clearly with our own amendments — which I remind the Member for Lagan Valley Mr Basil McCrea come as a result of our listening to what people have said in Committee, in the debate on accelerated passage, and at the Second Stage of the Bill — were made and agreed by the Executive.
The outcome of those amendments will be that, not only will the Executive have a role in any such schemes under clause 1 and clause 2, but the Assembly will have a role in both cases as well.
In the case of clause 2 —
I am grateful to the First Minister for giving way. The point that I sought to make — and I think that I did so in quite a responsible manner — was that the First Minister can see combined opposition from the parties in this area of the Chamber. There is, as I understand from what I have heard Members say, little difference between the opinions put forward by the Alliance Party, the SDLP, the PUP and the Ulster Unionists. If there has been a misunderstanding, we offer the First Minister the opportunity to clarify. As he said, we have a role to play. This is not the Executive; this is the Assembly expressing an opinion. I thought that Members on our Benches had put the point across in a constructive manner.
That is all the encouragement that I need to go back over what I said during the Bill’s Second Stage. When I go over that, the Member will see that all the answers to those issues were given last week. He stood up a short time ago and said that people were not listening; he should point the finger at himself — he clearly was not listening. All those issues have already been dealt with. In fact, last week, I pointed out that when I met with legislative counsel to discuss the Bill, one of the first questions that I asked was whether we should put on the face of the Bill the very issue that is the subject of amendment No 1 and two other amendments. The answer came back very clearly that we should not do that; so, on that advice from legislative counsel, we did not do that.
There is one statute book, and it is already our legal responsibility to accept the ministerial code; it is a statute-based ministerial code. Although she has left — and my understanding of parliamentary etiquette is that a Member should not leave the Chamber until the following participant in the debate has completed his or her speech — the Member for East Belfast Dawn Purvis confused ministerial conduct issues with ministerial code issues. She clearly does not know the difference between the two.
The law requires us to uphold the ministerial code, and the ministerial code requires that those matters come before the Executive. Therefore, it is not a matter of choice — or trust, as some Members have indicated — that the Executive deal with all those issues, but a requirement. The amendment, therefore, is unnecessary. It will make no difference to the outcome whatsoever if the amendment is passed, apart from the violence that it would cause in legislative terms.
I will give way in a moment.
If Members wish, I will explain in detail the violence that passing the amendment would cause due to the duplicating of legislation and the difficulties entailed in that. Either way, the outcome will be the same; when an emergency arises, or in the case of clause 2 matters, when a project is determined, the proposal will come from the First Minister and the deputy First Minister to the Executive. Such a proposal may be suggested by the OFMDFM Committee, Executive colleagues, or through an Adjournment debate. Whatever the triggering motion — if that is not an unfortunate term — the reality is that the First Minister and deputy First Minister will bring the proposal to the Executive.
The proposal will be brought to the Executive in order to designate a Department and in order to determine that it is an emergency matter appropriate to be dealt with under the Bill. That will also be done in relation to the scheme. It might be brought to the Executive on two occasions, as, I suspect, the determination and the designation will be done at the same time. However, on at least two occasions, before anything happens in relation to a scheme, it will go to the Executive for their decision.
As regards clause 2, it means that, before a scheme has any outcome, the Assembly will determine whether it proceeds. As regards clause 1 matters, the Assembly can annul any decision that is taken by the Executive with regard to a scheme.
Certain Members in the Chamber — and some who left the debate to go a press conference and have a rant in the Great Hall — attempted to create the impression that decisions would be taken by the First Minister and the deputy First Minister; that no one else would have any say; that this was a power grab; and that we would take everything onto ourselves. They have all attempted to create that impression. However, every one of them knows that that is not the case.
Had Members come to the debate from last week’s position, I would have understood why they would raise that issue, just as I had sought counsel from legislative draftsmen. However, despite my clarification of the issue during that debate, Members have persisted. As I pointed out in my winding-up speech —
I will give way in a moment. I have not forgotten.
I pointed out in my winding-up speech that that was, perhaps, for the very reason that the leader of the Alliance Party has suggested: Members’ researchers had done much work, burnt the midnight oil and typed up their prepared speeches, which Members had brought along with them to the debate. Even though the answers to their questions had been provided in the debate —
The fact is that every Member knew at the end of that debate why the matter could not be included on the face of the Bill. There is one statute book. The matter is already a legal requirement; therefore, it need not be duplicated. If everything in a Bill were duplicated, why would the Assembly not indicate that legislation is subject to judicial review? There are a host of criteria and procedures that are already required. Should we put them in every Bill?
If the Ulster Unionist Party believes that every Bill is a stand-alone Bill, into which everything and the kitchen sink must go, why is it not written down in every Bill that Northern Ireland must remain part of the United Kingdom? Is it not necessary to have that requirement in any constitutional Bill? The Ulster Unionist Party could not care less about whether Northern Ireland remains part of the United Kingdom: clearly, the matter is less important than the subject of that party’s amendment, because both are part of the legislative framework. They are both on the statute book and there is, therefore, no requirement for either to be duplicated in legislation. Both issues are already accepted.
This will not change what will, ultimately, happen. The only question is whether it should be included on the face of the Bill. The answer from legislative draftsmen and legal counsel is that it should not, because it does not need to be.
Stand up, the Member who says that I should ignore my legal advice and put down in the Bill what is said by Assembly Members, who have no authority to speak on legal matters? I must say that I will take the legal advice. The SDLP should be aware that it is wise to take legal advice. It should know well that Ministers must take legal advice, because there are consequences when they do not.
I thank the First Minister for giving way eventually. The point that he made about Members ranting about the situation is unjustified. Anything that I have said in the public domain or in the Chamber has been measured in tone; it is not my intention to simply rant about the issue or to whip up hysteria, but simply to deal with issues of concern.
The Minister claims that some Members have not listened. In fact, we listen carefully. That is why the Alliance Party has dealt with the amendments in a slightly different way. Last week, my party’s main concern was about the smaller parties in Government and the amount of protection that they would get from Executive and OFMDFM control and decisions. We dealt specifically with those issues. Contrary to the First Minister’s view, my party did listen to his reassurances.
The First Minister also said that it is not a matter of trust. The deputy First Minister, perhaps, confused the issue by saying on record that it is a matter of trust.
In response to the point about protection for the smaller parties in Government, the deputy First Minister said:
“I fully understand the Member’s point, and I agree with her. When it comes to implementing the decisions that will flow from the proposed legislation, it comes down to our motivation as the leaders of the two largest parties in the Executive and the Assembly.” — [Official Report, Vol 36, No 5, p214].
Therefore, he said that it was a matter of trust. If both sides of OFMDFM provided clarity, we might be more confident that we know whether it is a matter of fact, a matter of law or simply a matter of trust.
I am not sure whether this will help the Member for East Belfast much, but I clearly distinguished between the Alliance Party’s approach to this matter and that of the Ulster Unionists and the SDLP. She can have that on the record again and put it in election literature if that would be helpful. I will even provide an appropriate photograph to go along with it.
I am sorry that I missed that remark, but I will come to the person who made it soon. I have been a Member of Parliament for some 30 years, and I have watched opposition parties trying to destroy Government Bills in many different fashions. When in opposition, the Conservatives and the Labour Party both attempt to indict Government and question their motives; that is the role of opposition parties. That could understandably have been the role of the Alliance Party, but my criticism of the Alliance Party is on a different level. It aspires to collective Government, but it will support an amendment that runs counter to collective Government.
I will deal with these two issues and then give way to the honourable lady.
The Alliance Party cannot have its cake and eat it, or perhaps it can. The Alliance Party cannot argue that, in this set of amendments, power should be put into the hands of the Executive and, in the next set of amendments, argue that the Executive should not have overall power and that there should be a ministerial veto before that happens. There are stances in the 11 amendments that are contradictory, but the Alliance Party has already indicated its support for all of them. The Alliance Party simply cannot hold on to that position.
I assure the First Minister that our party did not engage in a rant; we simply pointed out what we believe to be the inadequacies of the legislation. Does the First Minister understand the lack of trust that this side of the House has in both him and the deputy First Minister and their way of carrying out Government? Sinn Féin delayed Executive meetings for 154 days, allegedly on the premise that it was not respected as a political partner and that the Executive were about full partnership in Government. Can the First Minister explain why our Minister, Margaret Ritchie, receives Executive papers only one hour before Executive meetings? Is that respect? Is that partnership in Government? Is that good government?
It is also nonsense. [Laughter.]
The Member claims that her party has not engaged in a rant. However, representatives of her party have touched on everything from the St Andrews Agreement to Mussolini. In a press conference today, she claimed that a crime was being committed against the nationalist community in the activities that we were engaging in. Let us be clear: the SDLP has been involved in a rant, as has the Ulster Unionist Party.
The Member knows my views on the delay in having Executive meetings. If I could, I would point the finger at Sinn Féin and say that this difficulty was caused by the delay in having Executive meetings; but that is not the case.
I will tell the Member why there is a delay. The Minister from her party told Executive colleagues that she already had appropriate power and that legislation was not required. Therefore, the legislative draftsmen were not alerted because the Minister argued that there was no need for additional legislation because she had the power to make fuel-poverty payments. I am happy for anyone to challenge that assertion; that position is clearly on record.
The Minister for Social Development receives her papers at the same time as all other Ministers. A difficulty often arises in the Executive — as one would expect in all executives — whereby Ministers are keen to receive approval for papers that they have prepared, which often arrive late from Departments and have to be processed in order to be included on the agenda. The fact that papers are put on the table at such a late stage assists Ministers in achieving the earliest possible approval for papers and policies.
We could, of course, introduce a cut-off time for the receipt of papers, after which Ministers must wait for a fortnight until the next Executive meeting. However, I suspect that her party’s Minister would, before too long, claim that certain papers are so important that they warrant exclusion from those criteria. The Minister for Social Development is not treated differently from any other Minister.
I have not finished my point. I will return to the Member, although I wish to address several points that he has made. I am in no hurry; I can, if necessary, delay my flight at 7.40 pm.
The opposition parties at Westminster contrive many means to discredit Government proposals. It is not the Cabinet’s role to do so, and, therefore, the fact that parties in the Executive are acting in that manner is, frankly, contrary to the arrangements of working together in joined-up Government. Some Members are pouring out language about how important it is for Northern Ireland to progress and for parties in the Executive to work together and demonstrate more trust — which is rhetoric that we hear from time to time — while those same Members are doing everything possible to undermine the two main parties in the Executive.
It is legitimate for a political party that is attempting to end a system of government to act in that way. My colleagues and I assumed such a role during the previous Assembly. We did not support its structures and arrangements, and that is, ultimately, why we secured changes at St Andrews. If the Member is behaving in such a fashion because he is against the system and wants to bring it down, the Ulster Unionist Party should inform the people of its modus operandi. That party is telling the electorate that it supports the Assembly and democracy and devolution in Northern Ireland. Its role is inconsistent.
The Ulster Unionist Party’s role today was, frankly, deplorable, because it knew that there was no power grab and that the Executive will take decisions. That party needed to find a Member who was gullible enough to argue in the House — without blushing and without embarrassment showing on his face — and attempt to mislead and con people into believing that there is no accountability and that the First Minister and deputy First Minister will take all decisions.
They needed a volunteer to do that. They looked around their ranks, and forward stepped a Member for Fermanagh and South Tyrone, Tom Elliott, who, as David Ford — a Member for South Antrim — indicated, dutifully read the speech that had been prepared for him. He did not deviate from it, and clearly, he could not have deviated from it. However, the speech was nonsense and inaccurate, and every Member from that party knows that it was inaccurate.
They attempted to gull people outside the Assembly into believing that there was a power grab by the First Minister and deputy First Minister. However, the Ministers from that party, as much as any Minister on either this side or that side of the House, will be involved in making the decision as to whether we proceed with any of the matters that may be under discussion. It is as simple as that.
Does the First Minister accept that, when documentation is supplied to the Executive at a late stage and when he and his Sinn Féin colleagues have agreed on the related proposals, to expect everyone else to simply agree with those proposals, which are then forced through, removes confidence that members of the Executive have had an opportunity to make an input to and perhaps even enhance them? That suggests that they are not being treated as equal partners and, as such, there is a lack of trust. There is a genuine mistrust of the concept of increasing the powers of the First Minister and deputy First Minister to allow them to act jointly.
How many times does one have to say it? I am prepared to give people a fool’s pardon when it happens once, or perhaps twice, but certain Members continue with that argument, even though they have been told over and over again that the First Minister and deputy First Minister will not be making the decisions in question and that the Executive will make them. Yet, even after all that, interventions such as that of the previous Member to speak are still made.
Of course, the Executive will have to make some decisions. If people do not like those decisions, they will of course use pejorative language such as “pushed through the Executive”. However, is the Member telling me that the better alternative to that situation is for a minority in the Executive to have a veto? I would be quite happy to move to majority rule if the rest of the House is ready to do so, but decisions have to be made, and they have to be made within the law as it stands. There may be Ministers — whether that is one, two, or more — who do not agree with those decisions, and although we attempt to get consensus in the Executive at all times, if that is not possible, we have to take a majority decision.
The point that we are trying to express is that if we were to rely solely on majority rule, there would be no political settlement, because as it stands, the unionists outnumber the nationalists. That is what this issue is about. That is the reason that a lot of people were speaking about individual ministerial responsibility.
My party prefers some form of collectivism whereby people work together; however, the simple fact is that if an issue is brought to the Executive, the two big parties have a majority and they simply vote us out. If an issue is brought to the Assembly, those parties have the votes and they vote us out. Even if cross-community support and the safeguards that it affords are required, the combined votes of the Alliance Party, the SDLP, the PUP, Dr Deeny and the Ulster Unionist Party will not stop anything.
In those circumstances, we seek safeguards so that there is ministerial responsibility and so that the parties can work together collectively. That is the central tenet of what we are trying to defend, and the proposals put those elements at risk. If those are put at risk, the whole Assembly is put at risk.
Quite frankly, I think that the Member is being deliberately obtuse in his remarks. Let us consider the danger that he claims is facing accountability. First, the Executive will decide whether a particular scheme will be established — therein lies full accountability to the Executive.
The designation and the scheme have full accountability to the Executive. Clause 2 has full accountability to this Assembly. Clause 1 provides the Assembly with the power to annul a decision that has been taken if does not agree with it. Members can also avail themselves of the other accountability measures that were outlined by the Minister of the Environment — the ability to question; the ability to table motions; and the ability to have a debate on the issue if they so wish, because every party has its own time to do that.
There is maximum accountability on all those schemes. Even though Members are aware of that, we still — even now — have a member of the Ulster Unionist Party rising in his place to try to give the impression that there is no accountability in the schemes. There is no more accountability on any other issue than there is on those schemes. The Ministers from that Member’s party take decisions without any reference to the Executive or to this Assembly. He is quite content if his party’s Ministers do that. When his party was — [Interruption.] The Member should sit down — only one person is allowed to stand.
When his party was the largest in this Assembly, there were no complaints about those issues from that party. That party should be very careful —
Everybody knows that. I have no doubt that the Sinn Féin representatives are aware of that. The Member who opened the debate — I am not sure where he has gone — talked about how measures in the ministerial code allowed Caitríona Ruane to do this, that and the other. If the ministerial code was not in place, the Minister of Education could have taken all the decisions on education — just as she would have been able to under the system that was set up by the Ulster Unionist Party.
I have no ability to prevent the Minister of Education from making a comment, no more than I have the ability to prevent any Member from making a comment. We have free speech in this part of the world — people can say whatever they want to. However, the Executive have the determination as to whether decisions are taken by Ministers on various issues.
It is not the same for everybody, which is the key issue. Papers must originate somewhere. The concern, and the fear, is that important papers arise out of backroom discussions between the parties in OFMDFM and are presented at the last minute — or after the last minute — to the Executive. That is illustrative of the nature of power in the Executive, and it impinges exactly on this Bill.
The First Minister referred to other party members and me as being irresponsible. He was very concerned about words that were used this morning. We do not mind words being used in debate — we can take that. However, we are being very responsible in what we say, and we are making our points in full seriousness. We have real concerns that the nature of the dynamics of the Executive are not up to the standard that is required to serve what remains a divided society, and that the politics of this Assembly still represent that divided society.
Consequently, there is a major job be done to deliver consensus, and the First Minister and the deputy First Minister have the key responsibility for doing that.
Mr Deputy Speaker; you and your colleagues should consider the general point about the nature of interventions in the House. In the House of Commons, interventions, by their nature, are necessarily short. Here, interventions become speeches, comprising points that Members meant to say earlier or have thought of since.
I shall deal with the matter of ministerial papers. The deputy First Minister and I have studiously avoided dealing with any papers that are received late, without giving Executive members an opportunity to read them thoroughly. We have adjourned meetings in order to allow Ministers to read such papers if they are urgent and require to be dealt with. In fact, on one occasion, we reached provisional agreement on a paper in order to allow Ministers to go away and read it in more detail. Therefore, it is not a case of forcing papers through.
I shall now return to the remarks made by the Member for East Antrim who is also the Minister of the Environment, concerning the fact that the Minister for Social Development receives her papers at the same time as other Ministers. Of course, some Ministers will know about the contents of some papers beforehand, because papers come from Departments — if they come from Ms Ritchie’s Department, she will know about them before her ministerial colleagues. Papers are circulated by the Executive secretariat to all Ministers — not selectively — at the appropriate time.
I challenge the Members who wish the Executive to be included in the face of the Bill to show me any other piece of legislation made by this subordinate legislature — from 1922 to the present day — that does what they are asking this Assembly to do. Will one of them stand and cite the precedent for such an amendment? Where is it stated that such a function should be exercised by the Executive? Such a precedent cannot be found; the only place that it can be found is in the primary legislation that set up the Assembly — the Northern Ireland Act 1998. Such provision does not exist because it does not need to exist — the power is already there. It is completely unnecessary to duplicate in legislation that which is already in legislation.
I could make the point in greater detail; however, I believe that I have made it sufficiently clearly for any reasonable man or woman to take it on board. I suspect that anyone who has not accepted that point by now will not accept it and is attempting to discourage people outside the Chamber about the Bill.
The Member for North Antrim Mr O’Loan complained about the legislation being rushed through — in fact, his Minister wanted it rushed through also. Once again, I offer the opportunity to any Member who believes that we should not be attempting to put legislation in place to enable us to make payments to say so. I am not saying that the whole Bill should be judged by its first use; however, that was the reason why the Minister for Social Development wished legislation to be rushed through — and it was thought more appropriate to have the power so that on each occasion when an emergency arose we would not have to bring forward legislation.
I thank the First Minister for giving way. Does he now acknowledge the fact — which he did not do earlier — that Minister Ritchie, when bringing forward her paper on tackling fuel poverty, put into that paper the point that she did her not have the necessary powers, that there was a need to introduce such legislation, and that she suggested ways in which that could be done?
The Member was not listening. I will say it again: the only person who objected to accelerated passage during the course of the debate, but who did not divide the House, was the Member for East Belfast Dawn Purvis. [Laughter.]
Mr Deputy Speaker, it seems that a lot of hit-and-run Members have spoken during the debate. They make their contribution, exit the Chamber and do not have the courtesy to listen to responses. However, the Member for West Belfast Alex Attwood referred to my remarks about the Financial Assistance Bill being the most important piece of legislation to be progressed by the Assembly so far. It is the most important, because it demonstrates the use and value of devolution and the ability to respond to the needs of the people of Northern Ireland. It marks a difference between devolution and direct rule, and it provides the Executive with the ability to take immediate action when there is an urgent or emergency situation.
A number of previous Bills have concerned legacy matters, but the Financial Assistance Bill is the creation of the new Administration, and I believe that it will be implemented in a proper manner and with full accountability. I would be interested to have a discussion on the issue in a year’s time, and, at that stage, I would hope to hear apologies from Members all round the Chamber who gave dire warnings on what the outcome might be.
The Member for West Belfast Alex Attwood also spoke about the removal of ministerial power. Ministers in any democratic Government are responsible for their Departments; they are in control of their Departments — and I use the word “control” deliberately. They act under the authority of those who have the job of hiring and firing them. That is the position in the British Cabinet; each Minister has control of his or her Department, but he or she can be hired and fired by the Prime Minister.
Today, we had the absurdity of the Member for Fermanagh and South Tyrone Tom Elliott describing the legislation as un-British. He said that the power that was being taken by the First Minister and the deputy First Minister was unique. However, the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom would take that power to himself — probably without even reference to his Cabinet — unlike the deputy First Minister and I, who will bring each issue to the Executive, as our ministerial code requires us to do. The Member’s argument is absurd.
The United Kingdom Government act on the basis of collective responsibility at an Executive level, and although it appears that the Member for Fermanagh and South Tyrone disapproves of that, this measure and the changes that were made at St Andrews enhance collective responsibility in the Executive. If I had my way, I would enhance it even more, but the system within which we operate allows accountability within the Executive. That accountability was introduced in the St Andrews Agreement, and was absent previously.
Although I do not want to dwell on the legal technicalities, I should perhaps mention one further point. Members who suggested including a reference to the Executive in the Bill seem to assume that the Executive determine powers in Northern Ireland through legislation. They do not; under the present legislation, power is delegated to Departments not to the Executive.
Some Members may argue that even if we wanted to make this change in the Bill, it would not be the right route to take. In any case, I suspect that the approval of the Secretary of State would probably be required to do so. Powers in Northern Ireland are delegated to Departments. The problem of accountability was solved at St Andrews through the ministerial code, which requires collective decision-making. That is why the decision was taken in this case to use that mechanism.
The Member for West Belfast Alex Attwood seemed unaware that the removal of individual ministerial power is not a function of the Bill but of the St Andrews Agreement. Without that agreement, the Assembly would not be sitting; in fact, it is already law in Northern Ireland. The requirement for Ministers to act in accordance with the decisions of the Executive is contained in the Pledge of Office, and that provision was passed on 20 March 2007 as part of the ministerial code. The SDLP opposed the provision at the time, but, despite that party’s opposition, it is a legal requirement.
The deputy First Minister and I do not rely on good faith or trust. I suspect that I trust the Member for South Belfast as much as she trusts me. Therefore, I ask her to take decisions based not on trust but on the legal requirement for the First Minister and the deputy First Minister to bring the matter to the Executive at each stage of the process.
Three or four Members raised the issue of trust and, to avoid confusion, the Member for East Belfast Mrs Naomi Long also mentioned it. I am not asking anyone to trust the First Minister and the deputy First Minister in relation to the Bill, although, speaking for myself, trust in me would be well placed. Legislative safeguards are in place, and if either the deputy First Minister or I did not bring any determination, designation or scheme to the Executive, we would be in breach of the ministerial code.
On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. In the course of the debate, the First Minister claimed that the Minister for Social Development had misled her Executive colleagues to such an extent that she indicated, even after the Executive had started to meet again, that she had legislative cover and, therefore, the power to issue payments. I have been provided with an extract of a paper that was circulated by the Minister for Social Development to her Executive colleagues. It was sent to all Ministers on 2 October 2008, when the Executive were not meeting. The paper stated:
“DSD does not have legislative authority to make such payments and therefore Executive approval will be sought to take forward the necessary legislation in the Assembly through use of the accelerated passage procedure.”
Mr Deputy Speaker, I am asking you to ask the First Minister to withdraw his earlier statement, which was misleading to the House and misrepresented a ministerial colleague.
Yes. I am saying that the First Minister’s claims during the course of this debate were misleading the House. He was leaving the House with the clear impression that the Minister for Social Development had never signalled that she did not have legislative cover and had in fact been signalling — including in December when the Executive were meeting again — that she did have. I have an extract of a paper that I believe was circulated to all ministerial colleagues at a time when the Executive were not meeting, which made that clear. The First Minister would have been in possession of that paper and would know about it. He was speaking in contradiction of that today. That is misleading the House.
As far as the general accusation is concerned, I stand by the position that I indicated earlier: when the Executive dealt with the issue of fuel poverty at their first meeting back, the Minister was questioned at the Executive table as to her legal competence, and she was still arguing that she may have that legal cover and she was still trying to clarify the position.
When there is a leak inquiry, it will be interesting to find out how the Member for Foyle came to be in possession of those Executive papers. That is a further issue that will have to be dealt with. It would be a breach of the ministerial code for any Minister to have disseminated such papers.
Mr Kennedy, the Chairperson of the Committee for the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister, told the Assembly that he had two roles: one as the Chairman of the Committee and one as an Ulster Unionist Party member. I was glad that he at least warned the Assembly about what was to follow. He indicated that he wanted to be factual in his statement. He then made his factual statement as Chairman of the Committee, and stopped being factual thereafter.
I remind the Assembly again that, in relation to the accusation of a power grab, as First Minister and deputy First Minister, we already have the legislative cover to change the functions of any Department through a process set out in the Northern Ireland Act 1998 and the Department’s designation order. Legislative cover is already available for any issue in relation to the powers of the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister. Therefore, there is no need for legislation to be brought into place to give it that further ability — if it were its intention to make a power grab.
The chief role of the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister is not one of exercising power, but one of co-ordinating the various Departments. There are probably few Departments with as little direct power as OFMDFM; most of the other Departments have direct responsibility and powers. However, OFMDFM’s chief role is that of attempting to co-ordinate the activities of the Executive.
I, therefore, cannot support amendment Nos 1, 4 and 5, which seek to place in the Bill the requirement for Executive agreement to determinations and designations by the First Minister and deputy First Minister under clause 1.
Some Members referred to the ministerial code. I think that it was the Member for North Antrim Mr O’Loan who indicated that he had not seen —
He has gone, too.
For those Members who were sufficiently interested to stay for my response, the change that is being sought to the ministerial code is to point 2.4. It involves the inclusion of new paragraph vii, which states that a proposal to make a determination, designation and scheme for the provision of financial assistance under the Financial Assistance Act (Northern Ireland) 2009 shall be brought to the attention of the Executive Committee by the responsible Minister, to be considered by the Committee. The Executive also agreed that, following agreement by the Executive, these draft amendments would be submitted by us, on behalf of the Executive, to the Assembly for its approval. We, therefore, intend to table the motion in the Assembly to seek its approval following the enactment of the Financial Assistance Bill.
That matter was passed by the Executive, and, therefore, Assembly approval for the change will be sought. The change requires cross-community support in the Assembly, and we will deal with that matter following the passage of the Bill. The Executive agreed that matter on 15 January 2009, and we will implement it as soon as possible. Therefore, in my view, there is no need to support amendment Nos 1, 4 and 5, which have been brought before the House today. We accept that there is no good reason to repeat or cross-reference various aspects of our law.
At first sight, amendment No 2 looks reasonable in that it brings clause 1 into line with clause 2 by copying to clause 1 the provisions in clause 2(1)(b). Those provisions require the First Minister and deputy First Minister to determine that current funding arrangements are unsatisfactory. That is an important consideration in relation to a situation that requires financial assistance to be provided to tackle, and so on, as is clause 2.
Where such a situation is not exceptional or an emergency, the principal considerations are different when we come to clause 1. We are dealing with an emergency or other exceptional event, and the important aspects are a speedy and effective response. In the clause 1 scenario, we do not consider it conducive to a rapid response to unforeseen events to require Ministers to conduct some sort of inquiry into the adequacy or effectiveness of other powers before they can decide whether to act under the Bill.
As I indicated to the Member for South Antrim after he made an intervention, if that requirement were placed on us, the courts could, of course, be asked to decide by judicial review the question of the adequacy or effectiveness of other powers and the reasonableness of the decision that we have taken.
Let me just finish this point and then I will give way to the Member.
I can say to the Members who proposed the amendment that if a clear and effective funding route to address the emergency is available, Ministers will consider that fact while exercising their vote under clause 1(1)(c) in determining whether they ought to proceed under the Bill. Clearly, if a perfectly adequate and suitable mechanism were already in place, it would not be appropriate to use the Bill — although in exercising their power, Ministers will want to consider whether the alternative funding route is the best available; for example, if it requires more time to implement or actions by some other authority outside Government.
I am telling the Member that, first of all, in the natural course of determining whether the Bill would be used at all, we would consider the existing legislative capability and how appropriate it might be. The normal process of examining papers that are brought to the Executive involves considering alternative ways in which the Executive might respond to an emergency situation. If a Department already has perfectly adequate legal capability to deal with an emergency, that existing mechanism would be used.
Alternatively, if that mechanism was slower or required outside support, a different route would be taken. The insertion of that clause gives something upon which to hang a judicial review over whether the Executive had properly considered the available options.
In practice, the outcome will be the same, so I hope that the Member will withdraw his amendment. I was minded to accept it in the early stages, because it seemed to be a reasonable proposition. However, concern about other consequences is such that we decided not to accept it — at least, in its present form. The issue may be reconsidered before Further Consideration Stage.
The First Minister said originally that the issue might be that the clause would leave regulations open to judicial review. The Alliance Party is making the point that clause 4(5) provides cover in cases where an alternative mechanism might exist, but the choice is made not to use it.
Therefore, asking the First Minister to explore the issue retains a backstop position that covers the use of the legislation from judicial review, even when an alternative mechanism is in place. It is not our intention to frustrate the process, but simply to ensure that it is written into the Bill that alternative mechanisms will be sought. That would reassure Members who are still concerned that the Bill represents a power grab.
I will be very clear. The Executive will consider all the alternatives when they take a decision. The Executive will face an obvious choice at that stage. The House has heard references to Hitler, Mussolini, and I will now bring in Machiavelli; the reality is that we are talking about the normal decisions that any Executive take while considering any matter. There is no need to put every thought in our heads into a Bill. Ministers will adopt the normal process. I will certainly look at the clause again before Final Stage.
I appreciate the First Minister’s offer; however, it falls short of stating that due consideration will be given to the amendment in company with the Members who proposed it. It seems to amount to the First Minister saying that he might be prepared to consider it. If the First Minister could make his offer a bit stronger there may be some meeting of minds.
I have said that the outcome will be the same, irrespective of whether the matter is in legislation, because it is the normal good practice of Government to look at alternatives and to decide how best to proceed. Therefore, that is what would happen.
As for looking at the amendment again, I listened attentively to all the remarks made in the debate, and all those matters will be considered. I told the Member that I was sympathetic to his amendment, but what it proposes must be done in a way that does not cause delay at a time when emergency decisions must be taken, and in a way that avoids judicial review.
The amendment will be looked at again in that context. If the Member feels able to —
Amendment Nos 6, 7 and 8 require the designation of a Department under clause 1 to be subject to its approval, and they require any regulations that impose functions on a Department to also be subject to the approval of that Department. When viewed in isolation, those amendments may not seem unreasonable. However, they must be viewed in the wider context of decision-making under clause 1.
As we said previously, any proposal for a determination, designation or scheme, will have to go to the Executive for consideration and agreement. The views of all Ministers will need to be taken into account in reaching decisions, and, as joint Chairpersons of the Executive Committee, the deputy First Minister and I have a duty to try to ensure that such decisions are arrived at by consensus. Given the type of situation that clause 1 is designed to address, it is difficult to see any circumstances where unanimity would not be reached at Executive level.
In any case, the need for formal consent to designate the relevant Department would not arise, because the First Minister and deputy First Minister would sound out informally whether the Department was willing and able to make the regulations before designating it. It would never be in our interest to designate an unwilling Department; if the First Minister and deputy First Minister felt that an issue needed to be advanced as a matter of urgency, the last thing that they would want to do would be to put it into the hands of an unsupportive and unwilling Department. Therefore, in my view, there is no need for amendment No 7.
However, amendment Nos 6 and 8 would allow a Department, for whatever reason, to frustrate the will of the Executive as a whole by refusing to approve a scheme in which the Department had a role to play in the provision of financial assistance to prevent, control or mitigate any aspects of a set of exceptional circumstances or an emergency. That is clearly unreasonable in a backdrop where the Executive as a whole have agreed the proposed scheme and where the First Minister and deputy First Minister have fulfilled their duty to try to ensure that agreement on the scheme was reached by consensus.
I hope that the proposers of amendment Nos 6 and 8, particularly those who argue for more collective responsibility in the Executive, recognise that it would be entirely wrong for one Minister or Department to frustrate the wishes of the whole Executive and effectively give that Minister or Department a veto on operating a scheme that was agreed by the Executive. That would be contrary to the Pledge of Office, contrary to the ministerial code, and fundamentally undemocratic. Why should one Department or Minister be able to thwart all the others? In regard to clause 2, those amendments would also give such a Minister or Department the power to thwart the will of the Assembly, because, if such a scheme were proceeding, it would have been subject to affirmative resolution in the Assembly.
Having dealt with the amendments that were tabled by Members other than the deputy First Minister and me, I will deal with those that we tabled. The deputy First Minister and I have reflected on some of the points that members of the OFMDFM Committee made and on those that were made in the earlier debates on the Bill about the scope of the enabling powers in clauses 1 and 2 and how they would operate in practice. As a consequence, we tabled amendments that are designed to improve the effectiveness of those clauses. Amendment Nos 3 and 9 were tabled to specifically restrict the potentially open-ended nature of the validity of determinations that are made under clauses 1 and 2.
Amendment No 3 will make a small, but very significant, amendment to clause 1(2). That amendment requires that regulations that contain schemes that are made under clause 1 must be made within three months of a determination by the First Minister and deputy First Minister.
Amendment No 9 will make a similar amendment to clause 2, except in the case of regulations that are made under clause 2. The time limit for making those regulations will be six months. A question arose in the debate, which I think came from the Alliance Party, as to why there was a difference between the time limits in amendment Nos 3 and 9.
The answer is simple: if we were to bring forward a scheme because there is an emergency, it should happen quickly. Both amendments have been tabled to remove some Members’ concern that we were putting in place schemes that may be used at any time in future. They will specify their use, and the designated Departments will have a specified period to bring forward the schemes; we have also said that there should be some indication of the lifetime of the scheme. Therefore, it would be the responsibility of the relevant Department to make the regulations within those time frames. As Members will be aware, the Bill defines the relevant Department as the Department designated by the First Minister and the deputy First Minister, or, if none is designated, the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister.
The time limits of three to six months will provide a discipline for the relevant Department to act promptly to put a scheme in place and to avoid any suggestion that the determination might be used inappropriately at a much later date when the original circumstances no longer apply.
I have already indicated the reason for the difference in the time limits between clause 1 and clause 2. It is simply an acknowledgement of the greater urgency that will be attached to establishing schemes made under clause 1, which are intended to provide financial assistance to prevent, control or to mitigate the effects of exceptional circumstances. It also reflects the fact that amendment No 10, which we have also tabled, will require that regulations made under clause 2 will be subject to a higher form of Assembly control than those under clause 1. I shall say more about that amendment in a moment.
Amendment Nos 3 and 9 will significantly improve the effectiveness of clauses 1 and 2 by ensuring that there is a time link between the making of determinations and the making of subsequent subordinate legislation to give effect to those determinations.
I will now turn to amendment No 10. During last week’s debates, some Members raised concerns about the approval role of the Assembly in relation to regulations made under clauses 1 and 2. To address those concerns, we have decided to amend clause 2 to increase the degree of control that the Assembly will have in respect of making regulations under clause 2.
Amendment No 10 will require regulations made under clause 2 to be subject to approval in draft by the Assembly rather than being subject to negative resolution. That means that the regulations cannot be made until after they have been approved by a resolution of the Assembly. We do not believe that there should be a corresponding change to the form of Assembly control over clause 1 regulations. Clause 1 is about taking swift and decisive action in response to an emergency or crisis. We do not believe that the Assembly control of regulations under clause 1 should be by way of draft affirmative procedure, as that could delay the Executive’s reaction to a crisis by some four weeks, or considerably longer over a holiday period, while the necessary Assembly approval is obtained. We are satisfied, therefore, that negative resolution is appropriate for regulations made under clause 1. However, if the Assembly thought it necessary, it could annul the regulations through negative resolution.
I trust that the amendment will provide some reassurance to Members that the enabling powers that we are taking in clause 2 to tackle poverty, social exclusion and deprivation will, when they are invoked, be subject to the most rigorous form of Assembly scrutiny.
The final amendment that we have tabled is amendment No 11, which adds a new subsection 2 to clause 3. The new subsection provides a permissive power to enable the relevant Department to put a time limit on the duration of a scheme in the regulations establishing that scheme. It also gives the relevant Department the power to include saving provisions in a scheme to deal with any matters or proceedings that are outstanding after the scheme has ceased to operate. The inclusion of the permissive power in the Bill will ensure that a relevant Department consciously addresses the length of time over which financial assistance needs to be operational.
This has been a useful, if protracted, debate. In the House last week, the Executive undertook to consider issues that Members raised, and, where necessary, to table amendments to the Bill. I believe that the Executive have today fulfilled that promise with a range of important amendments in response to matters raised by ministerial colleagues, Assembly Members, and, before that, by the Committee for the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister.
That approach is a clear example of the value of the Assembly process, even under accelerated passage, and of the willingness of the Executive to listen. We have given the Assembly an important role in relation to clause 2, and we have set time limits on the exercise of the powers contained in that clause. The Financial Assistance Bill is stronger as a result.
I also welcome the opportunity that the debate has given us to consider amendments that have been tabled by other Members. Once again, I hope that Members will accept our explanation that many of the issues that have been raised in their amendments are already catered for in legislation or by practice, and that the amendments are unnecessary and inappropriate. Therefore, I ask Members to support amendment Nos 3, 9, 10, and 11 on the Marshalled List, and to oppose, if moved, all the other amendments.
I will attempt to do justice to the many contributors to the debate, as it is my task to so do. At the outset, many Members who were not involved in tabling the ministerial amendments were at pains to point out that neither they, nor their parties, sought to restrict the accelerated passage of the Bill. We fully accept that the purpose of clause 1 of the Bill is to enable money to be paid in order to address particular situations. However, as Mrs Long said, this is not about those payments per se. It is about how the legislation will stand on the statute book and with regard to the framework for this Assembly well into the future.
Mr Elliott, who moved the amendments on behalf of the Alliance Party, the SDLP and the Ulster Unionist Party, contended that those amendments had been tabled in response to our parties’ collective concerns about the real intent of the Bill. Little has happened this afternoon to change our minds about that analysis. Mr Elliott said that the Bill represented a politburo approach, and spoke about the centralised nature of control within the DUP and Sinn Féin. He was genuinely at pains to improve the Bill; that was the genuine nature of many of the contributions made by Members from the Alliance Party, the SDLP and the Ulster Unionist Party; it is their views that I seek to represent this afternoon.
We want to ensure greater accountability, in line with parliamentary accountability elsewhere. Mr Kennedy said that clauses 1 and 2 of the Bill were “profoundly flawed and unparliamentary”, and were intended to satisfy the First Minister’s personal motivation. It will come as no surprise to Members that Mr Spratt, Mr Moutray and Mr Shannon, in defending the Executive’s amendments, were speaking on behalf of the DUP and Sinn Féin.
It is disappointing to note the lack of contributions from the Sinn Féin Benches. One wonders now whether that party is so compliant as to be silent. Where did its manifesto pledge to stand up to the DUP go? It has been singularly lacking, not only in the production of this legislation, but in the party’s contributions this afternoon.
Declan O’Loan described the Bill as loathsome, and went as far as saying that it was obnoxious. He said that it should not be accepted by any democratic Assembly.
Members from the parties opposite tried to say that the other parties did not want to make payments to the fuel poor. It is a bit obscene that, while they are introducing legislation with sweeping powers, those parties ask us not to hit them while they have the fuel poor in their arms. They are hiding behind the payments that are to be made to people and behind the emergency of fuel costs in order to bring forward sweeping powers in clauses 1 and 2 of the Bill. The First Minister said that the legislation was the most important piece of legislation to have come before the House, and my colleague Mr Attwood dealt with those comments in detail.
Clause 2 will be debated later, but Ms Anderson delivered a lecture on that part of the Bill. It is unfortunate that Sinn Féin Members are so lacking in confidence in the validity of their argument that they will not take interventions. In Ms Anderson’s contribution last week —
I do not accept that. For 154 days, Sinn Féin prevented the Executive from meeting to deal with the paper and the proposals that the SDLP’s Minister brought to the Executive, which included initially, after her consultations with the Finance Minister, payments that were to be made to pensioners. We have yet to see the outworkings of what OFMDFM has now —
I will when I am ready.
Will OFMDFM be able to deliver on the promises that it has made and will £15 million be enough, because no one — [Interruption.]
The Member raised the question of whether the £15 million that has been allocated by the Finance Minister would be sufficient to meet the requirement to make a fuel payment to those who had been designated for that payment. Will she accept that the only Department that was engaged in being able to say how many people would be in each of those categories was the Department for Social Development? If that money is not sufficient, then only one Department and only one Minister will have to answer to the House about why there is a shortfall.
As I am sure the First Minister knows to his regret, the Minister for Social Development is well able to answer the questions and to give account of herself. As we said in the debate, the Minister has the necessary data to show how many people are in receipt of benefit.
I shall now return to the contributions that Members made to the debate. Ms Anderson said last week in the debate on 13 January that she welcomed clause 2. She said:
“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.” — [Official Report, Vol 36, No 5, p222, col 2].
Today, other Members interpreted that passage to read that clause 2 of the Bill would result in a carve-up under which Sinn Féin and the DUP would be deciding among themselves which schemes in their constituencies should be funded and that they would raid other Departments in order to do that. One Member said that Sinn Féin and the DUP would be buying votes.
The issue of trust has come up often in the debate. Frankly, we do not trust Sinn Féin and the DUP to deliver for the people. That is the bottom line. We are asked to trust them — the deputy First Minister asked us to do that last week — but we wonder why, 154 days after they began to seek a date for the devolution of policing and justice, one has not obtained. There may be an under-the-table deal yet to be produced. Why is there not equality among the partners in Government? I made that point earlier: there is a lack of equality, partnership and recognition of the electoral mandate of both the Ulster Unionist Party and the SDLP —
As many Members have said, the Bill places an obligation on the First Minister and deputy First Minister to create an Executive that function well and harmoniously. We do not believe that the Bill will assist in that. To our cost, we know that ministerial papers — despite the explanation given earlier by the First Minister — appear an hour before meetings. Half an hour before meetings, there is not even an agenda, never mind papers. The Executive do not function well or harmoniously.
The amendments tabled by the Ulster Unionist Party, the SDLP and the Alliance Party seek to make explicit what is implicit in the Bill. They are concerned to protect the rights of Ministers to autonomy — to have a say in how their departmental budget is spent. That is the reason for our amendments. We do not believe that the amendments brought by the First Minister and deputy First Minister are sufficient to encourage or build trust.
Alliance Party Members said, on more than one occasion, that they sought by their amendments to improve the Bill and to address substantive concerns about it. They were concerned that emergency Bills would be exploited; even some of the Members opposite could not define what is meant by “emergency”. Some Members made great play of the fact that winter is coming; others seemed not to know that winter would be coming. It is not hard to understand such a reaction from those who dispute the facts and ravages of climate change.
Alliance Party Members also said that the reason for tabling some of their amendments was to increase the degree of collective decision-making in the Executive. However, other Members said that a majority vote in the Executive would decide whether a Department’s funds or budget was raided. That gives rise to a lack of trust. The First Minister’s comments of last week that Departments under his control or that of the deputy First Minister would not be affected have been quoted back to him more than once. That is why there is a lack of trust.
If, at any time, the First Minster wants to answer that particular point, I would be happy to allow him to intervene. However, the First Minister appears to have indicated from a sedentary position that he has dealt with that issue, but obviously he has not done so to Mrs Long’s satisfaction. I have no doubt that she can submit a question for written answer on that matter at some date in the not too distant future.
During his contributions, Mr Attwood talked about the good faith and intentions of the two ruling parties. Although he took a rather pessimistic view, it was a very honest view, and one which Members will not be surprised to learn that I share.
In his response, the First Minister referred to the commitments and vetoes that the DUP established out of its negotiations with Sinn Féin, and there was silence from Sinn Féin on that point. That party did not dispute the fact that the DUP had wrought additional concessions from it at St Andrews.
To clarify that issue for the Member, and to ensure that there is no doubt in her mind, no concessions were bought from Sinn Féin at St Andrews or at any other negotiations. Furthermore, Sinn Féin did not agree to any relegation of ministerial power at those negotiations, or through this Bill. The Bill is about ensuring that, when they arise, emergencies can be tackled.
Mrs Kelly also pointed out that some Members stated that winter comes around every year, and she is quite correct in making that point. That being the case, why did the Minister for Social Development not allocate sufficient funds from her budget to cover the emergencies that arise every winter?
I thank the Member for his contribution; however, I did not say that those concessions were bought. Sinn Féin did not have the good sense to sell those concessions — it gave them to the DUP, and his protestations on that issue are a little late.
Furthermore, in the December monitoring round, Sinn Féin agreed to the movement to other Departments of £30 million of Department for Social Development funds, which the Minister for Social Development wanted to reallocate within her Department. Indeed, £20 million of those funds went to the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, because of the mess that was made with Crossnacreevey. Sinn Féin has many questions to answer, but I am sure that the electorate will take those questions up with the party at some stage in the future.
This debate also partly centred on the rationale for the legislation. Although it is clear that all the parties on this side of the House support giving Ministers legislative cover under clause 1, those Members want explicit amendments, which place the Executive at the centre of both the discussions and the decision-making, to be made to the Bill.
Furthermore, although I do not want to get into the matter of the allegation of misleading of the House that will be referred to the Office of the Speaker, some clarity is required. An important question has yet to be answered properly by the First Minister. Did he receive a copy of a paper on 2 October 2008 from the Minister for Social Development that stated that financial regulations were required?
Order. That matter has already been dealt with. Furthermore, will those Members who have just arrived please note that we have established a code of conduct that means that we do not shout across the Floor but make comments through the Chair.
I was here, Mr Wilson, but I still require some clarity. I understand fully why an allegation of misleading the House should be referred to the Speaker. That is perfectly proper. However, it is a different matter entirely whether the First Minster confirms receipt of a paper from the Department for Social Development on 2 October 2008 on legislative cover for fuel payments.
As I understand it, that is the question that my colleague Mrs Kelly is asking. That does not affect your earlier ruling. We have yet to get an answer from the First Minister on that matter.
I take it that the Deputy Speaker is not going to respond to Mr Attwood on that point.
I hope that I have reflected accurately the many contributions that Members have made. It would be a fair comment to say that despite the First Minister’s response at the end of their contributions, Members remain to be convinced. Members do not yet believe that enough trust has been established in the DUP and Sinn Féin to let this legislation — that is, both clause 1 and clause 2 — go through without the amendments that we sought, which were intended to provide better protection to relevant Departments, Ministers, the Executive and the Assembly.
During his contributions this afternoon, we were shown some elements of the First Minister’s nature, including his domineering instincts. In one of his contributions, he said that Members of parties in the Executive should not challenge anything that the Executive is deciding, for the sole reason that their parties are in the Executive. That is a load of nonsense. This is about accountability, and it would seem that some Members do not like the accountability that goes with the power that has been vested in them as a result of their position, which exists in any democratic society.
There is not much more to add at this stage. I expect that Members — and the public — will judge this matter by the fact that three of the parties represented in this House have tabled amendments to the Bill. Indeed, I believe that the PUP Member may be in a position to support our amendments, because she seemed to share many of our concerns relating to clause 1 and clause 2. I hope that — as other Members have said — the Back-Bench Members of the DUP and Sinn Féin will listen to the thrust of the arguments made by the other parties and will stand up to their party leaders, so that they can play their centrist role in the dictatorial parties that they now belong to.
Question put, That amendment No 1 be made.
Mr Armstrong, Mr Attwood, Mr Beggs, Mr D Bradley, Mrs M Bradley, Mr P J Bradley, Mr Burns, Mr Cobain, Rev Dr Robert Coulter, Mr Cree, Mr Durkan, Mr Elliott, Dr Farry, Mr Ford, Mr Gallagher, Mr Gardiner, Mrs Hanna, Mrs D Kelly, Mr Kennedy, Ms Lo, Mrs Long, Mr A Maginness, Mr McCallister, Mr McClarty, Mr B McCrea, Dr McDonnell, Mr McFarland, Mr McGlone, Ms Purvis, Mr P Ramsey, Mr K Robinson, Mr Savage.
Tellers for the Ayes: Mr Attwood and Mr Kennedy.
Ms Anderson, Mr Boylan, Mr Brady, Mr Bresland, Mr Brolly, Lord Browne, Mr Buchanan, Mr Butler, Mr T Clarke, Mr W Clarke, Mr Craig, Mr Dodds, Mr Easton, Ms Gildernew, Mr Hamilton, Mr Hilditch, Mr Irwin, Mr G Kelly, Mr A Maskey, Mr P Maskey, Mr F McCann, Ms J McCann, Mr McCartney, Mr McCausland, Mr I McCrea, Dr W McCrea, MrMcElduff, Miss McIlveen, Mr McKay, Mr McLaughlin, Mr McQuillan, Lord Morrow, Mr Moutray, Mr Murphy, Mr Newton, Ms Ní Chuilín, Mr O’Dowd, Mrs O’Neill, Mr Paisley Jnr, Ms S Ramsey, Mr G Robinson, Mrs I Robinson, Mr P Robinson, Mr Ross, Ms Ruane, Mr Shannon, Mr Simpson, Mr Spratt, Mr Storey, Mr Weir, Mr Wells, Mr S Wilson.
Tellers for the Noes: Miss McIlveen and Mr Moutray.
Question accordingly negatived.
Question put, That amendment No 2 be made.
The Assembly divided:Ayes 31; Noes 52.
Mr Armstrong, Mr Attwood, Mr Beggs, Mr D Bradley, Mrs M Bradley, Mr P J Bradley, Mr Burns, Mr Cobain, Rev Dr Robert Coulter, Mr Cree, Mr Durkan, Mr Elliott, Dr Farry, Mr Ford, Mr Gardiner, Mrs Hanna, Mrs D Kelly, Mr Kennedy, Ms Lo, Mrs Long, Mr A Maginness, Mr McCallister, Mr McClarty, Mr B McCrea, Dr McDonnell, Mr McFarland, Mr McGlone, Ms Purvis, Mr P Ramsey, Mr K Robinson, Mr Savage.
Tellers for the Ayes: Dr Farry and Ms Lo.
Ms Anderson, Mr Boylan, Mr Brady, Mr Bresland, Mr Brolly, Lord Browne, Mr Buchanan, Mr Butler, Mr T Clarke, Mr W Clarke, Mr Craig, Mr Dodds, Mr Easton, Ms Gildernew, Mr Hamilton, Mr Hilditch, Mr Irwin, Mr G Kelly, Mr A Maskey, Mr P Maskey, Mr F McCann, Ms J McCann, Mr McCartney, Mr McCausland, Mr I McCrea, Dr W McCrea, Mr McElduff, Miss McIlveen, Mr McKay, Mr McLaughlin, Mr McQuillan, Lord Morrow, Mr Moutray, Mr Murphy, Mr Newton, Ms Ní Chuilín, Mr O’Dowd, Mrs O’Neill, Mr Paisley Jnr, Ms S Ramsey, Mr G Robinson, Mrs I Robinson, Mr P Robinson, Mr Ross, Ms Ruane, Mr Shannon, Mr Simpson, Mr Spratt, Mr Storey, Mr Weir, Mr Wells, Mr S Wilson.
Tellers for the Noes: Ms Anderson and Ms J McCann.
Question accordingly negatived.
Amendment No 3 made: In page 1, line 9, after “may” insert
“, at any time within 3 months from the date of the determination under subsection (1),”. — [The First Minister (Mr P Robinson).]
Question put, That amendment No 4 be made.
The Assembly divided: Ayes 31; Noes 52.
Mr Armstrong, Mr Attwood, Mr Beggs, Mr D Bradley, Mrs M Bradley, Mr P J Bradley, Mr Burns, Mr Cobain, Rev Dr Robert Coulter, Mr Cree, Mr Durkan, Mr Elliott, Dr Farry, Mr Ford, Mr Gardiner, Mrs Hanna, Mrs D Kelly, Mr Kennedy, Ms Lo, Mrs Long, Mr A Maginness, Mr McCallister, Mr McClarty, Mr B McCrea, Dr McDonnell, Mr McFarland, Mr McGlone, Ms Purvis, Mr P Ramsey, Mr K Robinson, Mr Savage.
Tellers for the Ayes: Mr Attwood and Mr P J Bradley.
Ms Anderson, Mr Boylan, Mr Brady, Mr Bresland, Mr Brolly, Lord Browne, Mr Buchanan, Mr Butler, Mr T Clarke, Mr W Clarke, Mr Craig, Mr Dodds, Mr Easton, Ms Gildernew, Mr Hamilton, Mr Hilditch, Mr Irwin, Mr G Kelly, Mr A Maskey, Mr P Maskey, Mr F McCann, Ms J McCann, Mr McCartney, Mr McCausland, Mr I McCrea, Dr W McCrea, Mr McElduff, Miss McIlveen, Mr McKay, Mr McLaughlin, Mr McQuillan, Lord Morrow, Mr Moutray, Mr Murphy, Mr Newton, Ms Ní Chuilín, Mr O’Dowd, Mrs O’Neill, Mr Paisley Jnr, Ms S Ramsey, Mr G Robinson, Mrs I Robinson, Mr P Robinson, Mr Ross, Ms Ruane, Mr Shannon, Mr Simpson, Mr Spratt, Mr Storey, Mr Weir, Mr Wells, Mr S Wilson.
Tellers for the Noes: Mr Bresland and Mr T Clarke.
Question accordingly negatived.
Question put, That amendment No 5 be made.
The Assembly divided: Ayes 31; Noes 52.
Mr Armstrong, Mr Attwood, Mr Beggs, Mr D Bradley, Mrs M Bradley, Mr P J Bradley, Mr Burns, Mr Cobain, Rev Dr Robert Coulter, Mr Cree, Mr Durkan, Mr Elliott, Dr Farry, Mr Ford, Mr Gardiner, Mrs Hanna, Mrs D Kelly, Mr Kennedy, Ms Lo, Mrs Long, Mr A Maginness, Mr McCallister, Mr McClarty, Mr B McCrea, Dr McDonnell, Mr McFarland, Mr McGlone, Ms Purvis, Mr P Ramsey, Mr K Robinson, Mr Savage.
Tellers for the Ayes: Mr Kennedy and Mr McCallister.
Ms Anderson, Mr Boylan, Mr Brady, Mr Bresland, Mr Brolly, Lord Browne, Mr Buchanan, Mr Butler, Mr T Clarke, Mr W Clarke, Mr Craig, Mr Dodds, Mr Easton, Ms Gildernew, Mr Hamilton, Mr Hilditch, Mr Irwin, Mr G Kelly, Mr A Maskey, Mr P Maskey, Mr F McCann, Ms J McCann, Mr McCartney, Mr McCausland, Mr I McCrea, Dr W McCrea, Mr McElduff, Miss McIlveen, Mr McKay, MrMcLaughlin, Mr McQuillan, Lord Morrow, Mr Moutray, Mr Murphy, Mr Newton, Ms Ní Chuilín, Mr O’Dowd, Mrs O’Neill, Mr Paisley Jnr, Ms S Ramsey, Mr G Robinson, Mrs I Robinson, Mr P Robinson, Mr Ross, Ms Ruane, Mr Shannon, Mr Simpson, Mr Spratt, Mr Storey, Mr Weir, Mr Wells, Mr S Wilson.
Tellers for the Noes: Mr Brady and Mr F McCann.
Question accordingly negatived.
Amendment No 6 was negatived, so I will proceed to call amendment No 8.
Question, That amendment No 8 be made, put and negatived.
Clause 1, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Clause 2 (Unsatisfactory funding arrangements: power to provide financial assistance)
Amendment No 9 made: In page 2, line 16, after “may” insert
Amendment No 10 made: In page 2, line 27, leave out subsection (5) and insert
“(5) No regulations shall be made under this section unless a draft of the regulations has been laid before, and approved by a resolution of, the Assembly.” — [The First Minister (Mr P Robinson).]
Mr Speaker, I thank you for your assistance. I seem to have the knack of clearing the House.
Much of what I will raise today on clause 2, I also raised last week. However, having reviewed the Hansard report of last’s week debate carefully, I note that, unlike with clause 1, OFMDFM made very little effort to address the concerns about clause 2 in any meaningful way. The Ministers gave more detailed consideration to the issues that were raised in relation to clause 1.
At all stages of the Bill — during the debate on accelerated passage, at Second Stage and as latterly as during today’s Consideration Stage — Members on all sides of the House have made it very clear that they recognise the exceptional economic situation in which we currently find ourselves. There is a crisis in the global economy, and the financial hardship that is being experienced throughout our community is being felt by all. Undoubtedly, that has made the effects of poverty and deprivation more acute.
However, those issues are not new. As far as possible, each Department should have been tackling them proactively, as a matter of priority. In that respect, the clause 2 provisions are quite distinct from those of clause 1. The urgency to have the clause 1 provisions in place to allow action to be taken in exceptional circumstances is a different urgency from that associated with clause 2, which deals with inadequacies in the current funding arrangements — of which I think we have been aware for some time.
Clause 1 deals with exceptional circumstances. However, clause 2 tackles the cross-cutting themes of poverty, social exclusion and patterns of deprivation. There is a distinct difference. Under clause 1, a rapid response is required for emergency situations. However, clause 2 allows the Department to tackle — potentially more effectively — poverty, social exclusion and patterns of deprivation. A distinction has been noted in the specified periods of time for laying a scheme under the two clauses: three months under the first, due to the urgency; six months under the second, because it is less urgent. The First Minister reiterated that fact a number of times in the Chamber today.
There was some debate last week about urgency. I want to return to a rather pedantic point that my colleague David Ford and I made to the deputy First Minister. The issue we raised was not that there was no urgency in tackling poverty — we accept that there is such urgency — but rather whether we urgently need to change the mechanism for dealing with those cases. Our argument is that the provisions for emergency and exceptional circumstances in clause 1 allow, in exceptional circumstances, interventions to be undertaken in the meantime, while full Committee consideration of clause 2, as a separate Bill, would be able to take place.
We believe that the level of urgency attached to clause 1 that made accelerated passage acceptable does not exist in respect of clause 2.
No one in the Chamber questions the need to tackle poverty and social exclusion proactively. However, some may question whether that has happened. One need only consider the child poverty inquiry, which is still awaiting a formal response from OFMDFM, as evidence that, at times, the approach has been less than proactive. I will go further and say that the Alliance Party recognises, and has highlighted in Committee and in the Chamber, that the current arrangements for dealing with cross-cutting issues are inadequate. That is the case particularly, but not exclusively, in respect of poverty, social exclusion and patterns of deprivation.
OFMDFM does have particular responsibilities in those matters. Therefore, power-grabbing is less of an issue in clause 2, because the Department already has the responsibility to tackle poverty, social exclusion and other cross-cutting issues. However, those other cross-cutting issues include children, older people, equality, community relations and sustainability, and the arguments being made for clause 2 — that policy on poverty and social exclusion is not necessarily easily controlled by OFMDFM when other Departments are responsible for delivery — could be made for any of them. In the case of the other cross-cutting issues, the policy drivers are in OFMDFM but other Departments are responsible for delivery. At present, the Programme for Government is the only mechanism for ensuring that those cross-cutting themes are adequately prioritised and delivered on by Departments.
It is conceivable that internal pressure on departmental budgets and priorities might mean that Departments do not prioritise, or address, cross-cutting issues with the enthusiasm that OFMDFM wishes. From the Alliance Party’s perspective, there is no question that additional mechanisms are needed in order to deal with cross-cutting issues. Therefore, we have made it clear that we support the intention in clause 2 to address an identified defect in the governance arrangements for cross-cutting matters.
One of our main concerns is the fact that clause 2 deals with the inadequacy that exists for only one cross-cutting theme, albeit that it is an important one, particularly in the current economic climate. We want to see the capacity gap filled in relation to all cross-cutting themes, and we believe that the possibility of doing so could, and should, have been explored had the Bill been afforded a Committee Stage. The argument for accelerated passage related specifically to the issues in clause 1; the issues in clause 2 could, and should, have been subject to fuller exploration. Even if the measures that would arise from such consideration were ultimately only applicable to poverty and social exclusion, I am not convinced that clause 2 is the only, or best, way in which to achieve that objective — co-ordination of policy delivery in other Departments by OFMDFM is a wider issue.
The Committee’s discussions on poverty and social exclusion included much debate about other mechanisms. Some Members have, for example, already referred to the Executive programme funds and other special funds as a way in which to co-ordinate the Government approach to cross-cutting themes. The limitations of that are recognised — there is often a stop-start delivery process, with people receiving three years of funding and then finding themselves without funding.
An alternative method would be to ring-fence parts of departmental budgets using certain criteria and priorities in the Programme for Government — a method used elsewhere. Furthermore, the use of in-year monitoring rounds is another, more distant, lever by which to ensure that departmental priorities are aligned properly, because that mechanism lies with DFP rather than OFMDFM.
Full Committee consideration of the issues in clause 2 is critical if we are to ensure that all the options have been fully considered, thought through and explored, even to the point of elimination. It is not clear that that has happened. The Bill is another mechanism to tackle cross-cutting themes, but it would be helpful if its provisions were brought back to the OFMDFM Committee in the form of a separate Bill, where those provisions could be fully explored and debated.
On several occasions in recent weeks, the First Minister has expressed frustration that Members at this end of the Chamber do not appear to be listening to what he says. I hope that my contributions so far in the debates show him that we have been listening, if not necessarily agreeing. However, the same charge could be levelled fairly at Members at the other end of the Chamber, because when the First Minister was summing up last week, he paraphrased my intervention by saying:
“The Member for East Belfast Naomi Long said that clause 2 is not required for cross-departmental working because existing arrangements should suffice.” — [Official Report, Vol 36, No 5, p239, col 1].
Actually, that was the assurance that the junior Ministers gave us on many occasions when we pressed them on the delivery of cross-cutting themes — it was not my assertion. If the First Minister refers to the Hansard report, he will see that I actually said:
“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 nauseam, 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.” — [Official Report, Vol 36, No 5, p227, col 1].
Therefore, we were acknowledging that clause 2 addresses a defect in the governance arrangements. We are unclear about why only one cross-cutting issue is being tackled, because several issues would benefit from such an intervention. More importantly, we are unclear as to why that is being done with such undue haste, when a Committee Stage would have allowed us to explore the opportunities by examining other cross-cutting themes. A Committee Stage would have also allowed us to take advice from and consult with those who are engaged in work on poverty and social exclusion, in order to ascertain which of the many available mechanisms to ensure delivery of OFMDFM priorities would be the best fit for the particular set of arrangements in our Government. A Committee Stage would also have allowed us to scrutinise fully all the various aspects of clause 2.
It is clause 2 that has led to concerns from some Members about its becoming a Trojan Horse. It is clear from clause 1 what the Bill’s intentions are, but clause 2 appears to have been added on. It is, in some ways, not necessary for the delivery of the aims and objectives of financial assistance in emergency situations. That raises questions as to why it forms part of the Bill.
I do not want to labour that point, because I would prefer to hear the First Minister explain the rationale for clause 2. It would be better were clause 2, as amended, not ordered to stand part of the Bill, and if the First Minister and deputy First Minister were to put the provisions in clause 2 into a separate piece of legislation, which would then be subject to a Committee Stage. I do not anticipate any need for that process to be slow or delayed, and it would give us the opportunity to fully scrutinise the provisions, take consultation and give detailed thought to the Bill.
In the interim, that would not have any effect on the delivery of the Bill’s first use, which is dealt with in clause 1, nor on any intervention in exceptional circumstances that relate to poverty and social exclusion, which are also covered under clause 1. Therefore, if issues arose in the interim that led the First Minister and the deputy First Minister to feel that there were exceptional circumstances and that their intervention was required on issues of poverty, social exclusion and deprivation, they would be able to apply the provisions in clause 1.
From that perspective, there is nothing to be lost, but potentially much to be gained, from eliminating clause 2 from the Bill and returning it to the House as a new piece of legislation.
Naomi Long and I were speaking beforehand, and we realised that the matter had probably been discussed fairly widely earlier. Nevertheless, I wish to add some brief comments in support of the retention of clause 2 of the Bill. I am a member of the Committee for the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister, and, as many Members are aware, over the past 18 months, we have dealt with some of the many cross-cutting, cross-departmental matters that are the responsibility of OFMDFM. We have considered the anti-poverty strategy, the victims’ strategy, the draft children’s strategy action plan, and many other documents relating to poverty and social deprivation. It has become very clear through those discussions that although the Department has responsibility for those strategies, it rarely has any financial power to accompany that responsibility.
As a member of that Committee, I have repeatedly raised my concerns and frustrations about the Department’s lack of ability to fund directly or ring-fence funding for those important issues. Those sentiments have also been echoed by Committee members from the SDLP, the Alliance Party, the Ulster Unionist Party and Sinn Féin. In fact, one of the agreed recommendations of the child poverty inquiry was that OFMDFM would examine more effective ways of ensuring funds and ring-fenced funding for anti-poverty and child-poverty issues, which we all have to deal with. Therefore, I find it hard to understand that when OFMDFM puts forward a proposal to provide a mechanism to fund those cross-cutting anti-poverty and social-deprivation issues, there is some opposition from Members who are also members of that Committee.
I welcome the proposal for clause 2. It has the potential to make a real and significant impact. It also provides, for the first time, a possible fund to accompany the key actions arising out of the anti-poverty strategy, which the Committee has considered.
Will the Member indicate where the Bill provides a ring-fenced fund for anything? It simply provides an enabling power to allow OFMDFM to intervene in such circumstances as it feels it is necessary. It is not actually creating a fund or doing anything of the sort that he has just described.
I disagree with the Member. We discussed the issue at the Committee meeting last week, we had some input into the process, and questions were asked of the junior Ministers. My wording is very clear: I said that it provides a possible fund to accompany the key actions arising out of the anti-poverty strategy, which we all agreed to. We hope that the creation and retention of clause 2 will address that issue.
In my eyes, it is an example of some Members endeavouring to undermine and collapse the Bill. They say that they are not doing that, but that is what it seems like. It is a Bill that is for the betterment of people who are struggling in society.
I am grateful as ever to Mr Shannon for giving way. He said that some Members are seeking to collapse the Bill, but he is going way beyond what Naomi Long spoke about in proposing the opposition to clause 2. The Bill stands, as far as we are concerned, because clause 1 is essential to deal with urgent matters. The issue that is being made from this corner of the House is the need to have proper powers of scrutiny over the contents of clause 2. That is not collapsing the Bill; that is ensuring that what is required urgently goes through urgently, and that which requires detailed consideration is given detailed consideration.
I thank the Member for his intervention. Supporting the retention of clause 2 would be a clear example that there is no intention to do that. If clause 2 were removed, it would hinder the Executive in tackling poverty, addressing social exclusion and all patterns of deprivation. Is that what Members want? The Bill provides the Executive with the ability to assist at an early opportunity, to address the shortfall and to provide swift and effective financial assistance where unsatisfactory funding arrangements are causing poverty and social exclusion.
In speaking to this group of amendments, it would not be wrong of me to refer back to amendment No 10. If the Members who have voiced their concerns would care to study it, they would realise that if it is moved, it will ensure that not only do their Executive Ministers have a say in the regulations — owing to the ministerial code as set out in the St Andrews Agreement — but they will have a say in the House before any regulations can be made or brought forward.
The retention of clause 2 makes it clear to the Northern Ireland electorate that OFMDFM, the First Minister, the deputy First Minister and my party care about those who are struggling to pay their bills, struggling with poverty and deprivation, and struggling against exclusion. Clause 2 also demonstrates the commitment of the First Minister, the deputy First Minister and my party to taking real action on such difficult issues. I urge Members who care about those who are most in need to support the retention of clause 2.
I wish to make several points about the notice of intention to oppose the question that clause 2 stand part of the Bill. Clause 2 is not, as has been suggested, a power grab. Specifically, Dolores Kelly claimed during last week’s debates on the Bill that clause 2:
“has the potential to amount more to a carve-up of power and resources than to a power-sharing arrangement.” — [Official Report, Vol 36, No 5, p212, col 1].
That is simply not true. That fact is that the legislation that would allow OFMDFM to transfer powers, roles and responsibilities from other Departments already exists. OFMDFM does not need clause 2 for such transfers, because the law as it stands already allows it to transfer functions from one Department to another. Indeed, the First Minister confirmed that today. Let us put that argument to bed straight away and concentrate on the real motivation behind clause 2 and the Bill as a whole.
The purpose of the Bill is to provide assistance to people now —
No, I will not. We have had enough interventions today, and I do not intend to subject the House to any more.
The purpose of the Bill is to provide assistance to people now, and to give us a legal framework to allow for swift and effective intervention during any future crisis. The Bill is about addressing objective need and ensuring that effective, cross-cutting departmental approaches can be put in place in order to assist people. All of us are aware of strategies and programmes that look great on paper, but deliver nothing, because they did not enjoy a cross-departmental approach. Last week, I said that I welcomed clause 2, and I believe that many in civic society will do likewise. The Committee for the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister has heard —
The Committee for the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister has heard evidence from many groups and organisations that deal with child poverty. Clause 2 gives the First Minister and the deputy First Minister, acting jointly, the power to determine those situations in which financial assistance must be provided in order to tackle poverty, social exclusion and patterns of deprivation. That is, of course, subject to the approval of the Executive and the Assembly, as stated in amendment No 10 to clause 2, which reads, if needed, because it may not be understood:
“No regulations shall be made under this section unless a draft of the regulations has been laid before, and approved by a resolution of, the Assembly.”
It is a real point of order. I am happy to be guided by you on this matter, and perhaps you can help me. Instructions or communications were given or made about not reading speeches. If we are not going to be allowed to intervene, why do we not just publish —
Go raibh maith agat.
Clause 2 aims to plug the obvious capability gap that exists in addressing social need. A legal observation of the amendment opposing clause 2 reveals that its adoption could result in a judicial review that might potentially delay the implementation of a scheme aimed at tackling poverty, deprivation and social need. Many Members have said time and again that there must be a joined-up approach to the issue, on which the electorate rightly demands action. Clause 2 will give the Executive the opportunity and the authority to plug those gaps, and to effect action when social need has been identified.
Many of those recommendations required a cross-departmental approach to ensure that they are effective and that they can deliver real, meaningful change to children. Without such an approach, those recommendations will, in all likelihood, remain unimplemented, and we will fail to achieve our stated aims of halving child poverty by 2010 and eradicating it by 2020. The first child poverty deadline is less than a year way, and it is clear that unless we begin to make positive interventions now, there will be no hope of achieving those laudable objectives. Clause 2 aims to provide the tool to do just that, if required.
The notice that was given to oppose that clause 2 stand part of the Bill has less to do with fear of a power grab and more to do with the fact that a number of parties and Members are seeking to go into opposition, rather than seeking to deliver change for the people. That is opposition for opposition’s sake, and they are not considering the merit of each case. The opposing parties are concerned that the Executive, which are headed by the DUP and Sinn Féin, will deliver. Their opposition emanates from the fact that the SDLP and the UUP are simply increasingly afraid of the Executive delivering because the last one, of which they were the central parties, did not step up to the mark.
The people are crying out for power sharing to be delivered. They want the process to work, and they want their elected representatives to make a meaningful difference to their lives. The Financial Assistance Bill, particularly clause 2, can help us to do just that. Therefore, I oppose the notice that was given to oppose that clause 2 stand part of the Bill. The three opposing parties are trying to prevent a mechanism from being put in place that would allow the Executive to put schemes in place swiftly to tackle poverty and deprivation. Shame on you all. Sinn Féin does not support the opposition to the clause. Go raibh míle maith agat.
I am grateful for the opportunity to speak as an Ulster Unionist Party Member. I do not speak, in any capacity, as the Chairperson of the Committee for the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister.
Clause 2 represents the underlying motivations of the Bill, and our concerns about it. The title of clause 2 is:
“Unsatisfactory funding arrangements: power to provide financial assistance”.
For that, one can read: the chief executive and political committee of the Sinn Féin/DUP axis, otherwise known as the politburo.
Clause 2 will potentially give powers to the First Minister and deputy First Minister to intervene in any Department’s functions, if they deem it necessary, to tackle poverty, social inclusion or patterns of deprivation based on objective need. In my view, the clause deviates from the original objective of the Bill, and it is, therefore, undemocratic. It represents a significant accumulation of power in the hands of the First Minister and deputy First Minister.
It is a sad reality that poverty, social inclusion and patterns of deprivation are apparent in all societies and that, unfortunately, those will be present for the foreseeable future. That is deeply regrettable, but the Bill potentially means that Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness have, essentially, given themselves unbounded and overreaching power into each Department in Northern Ireland.
The only reasons that the First Minister and deputy First Minister must give to enforce policy on other Departments is if they deem that no arrangements are in place to provide financial assistance, or if they deem that those that are in place are ineffective or inadequate. Those are potentially sweeping, unaccountable and cross-cutting powers.
The extent of the power grab was perfectly represented by the contribution of the previous Member who spoke in the debate.
Is the Member aware that OFMDFM already has a role and a responsibility in that area of activity? It is not grabbing power; the Department already has those responsibilities. Moreover, is he aware that far from the First Minister and deputy First Minister taking any decisions on such matters, those decisions will go to the Executive and in the case of clause 2, all of them will come before the House before they are acted upon?
I thank the First Minister for his contribution. Would that the First Minister and deputy First Minister would take decisions to deal with some of those issues effectively — they have not done so in the past.
“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.” — [Official Report, Vol 36, No 5, p222, col 2].
“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”. — [Official Report, Vol 36, No 5, p222, col 2].
I hope that there will be opportunity for the First Minister to correct the Member for Foyle if she has given an unfair assessment of what the Bill represents. Does it represent a glory-hunting power grab by the First Minister and deputy First Minister and a significant sea change in the make up and workings of the Executive in Northern Ireland?
On 14 August 2006, Mr Robinson, speaking of the make-up of devolved Government, said:
“First, I do not feel that OFMDFM has too much work to do — I do not object to the Department having plenty to do. My problem is when it gets involved in areas that are better placed elsewhere, and that, in some cases, have already been placed with other Departments. I am more concerned about duplication than whether the Department has too much work. Frankly, there is not an awful lot of day-to-day executive decision-making in OFMDFM”.
It appears that the First Minister’s desire to have day-to-day Executive decision-making placed in his Department has overtaken his desire to reduce duplication, or his problem with OFMDFM getting involved in areas that are better placed elsewhere. The lack of Executive decision-making power obviously does not sit well with his image of what a First Minister should be doing. In essence, clause 2 is as much about seeking to cover the First Minister and deputy First Minister in some glory as about seeking to help the vulnerable.
If the First Minister wants to reduce hardship, social exclusion and poverty, he and the deputy First Minister would be much better getting on with the jobs over which they have power.
They would do much better to come up with policies to tackle child poverty, publish the repeatedly delayed cohesion, sharing, and integration strategy, and co-ordinate the agreements in the Programme for Government that commit the entire Executive to tackling poverty and social exclusion.
Practically every Department has programmes and spending to address the issues. It is the job of OFMDFM to help them to achieve their targets. It is not its job to dictate what must be done or to take power away from individual Ministers and Departments. If this clause is passed, the Executive and the Assembly may well be reduced to little more than a parish council, rubber-stamping the decisions of the DUP and Sinn Féin. In light of yesterday’s debate on reducing the number of Government Departments, the Bill may well achieve that goal prematurely.
What will be the point of thousands of civil servants devising policies and recommendations, only for them to be overruled by the First Minister and deputy First Minister? The Bill makes the calls for efficiency savings seem laughable.
This is potentially a politburo Bill. No one in the Assembly, regardless of party allegiance, should be mistaken about the serious ramifications that the Bill may have for the workings of the Executive. Furthermore, it has the potential to be deeply divisive, not just among the parties, but between Ministers in the same Executive.
I ask all Members to reflect on those issues. I oppose clause 2.
First, I apologise for missing the early part of the debate. I was called to a meeting.
When I spoke in the previous debate on the Bill, my colleague Declan O’Loan suggested that I was outlining a thesis; therefore this speech will be a postscript to what has gone before. In many regards, some of my thinking has been anticipated by Mr Kennedy in his speech, and I only want to make a number of small points.
As outlined by Mr Kennedy — there are whispers in the corridors of this Building that the First Minister and the deputy First Minister are not on the same page on a range of matters that are currently within their remit. As I understand it, issues surrounding the Commission for Victims and Survivors and the programme for work have yet —
I accept your ruling; however, that was the first point of substance that I have made, and I have already been called to account when I have not yet finished my sentence, never mind my argument. I ask for some latitude so that the point made by Mr Kennedy, and the point that I am going to echo, can be reiterated on the Floor of the Chamber.
Returning to my point, even before the First Minister and deputy First Minister assume the additional responsibilities outlined in clause 2 of the Bill, there are concerns, whispers, indications and evidence that matters are not being handled promptly and quickly. For example, I have heard that Executive papers and agendas are only being signed off at the eleventh hour, in anticipation of Executive meetings.
I have outlined what might be happening with respect to the work of the Commission for Victims and Survivors, and Mr Kennedy has referred to the proposals on cohesion, sharing and integration. I have also heard that there are some tensions surrounding the approval of —
I am coming to the point that you have just made, Mr Speaker. I find that there is a tension between clause 2 of the Bill and the fact that only a matter of weeks after 153 days of Executive suspension; following the welcome restoration of that Executive, and when things are still settling down, that there is a tension between the First Minister, the deputy First Minister, and their respective parties in taking on the responsibilities that are contained in clause 2. That is in the context where the responsibilities that that office currently has, it has been reported, are not being managed promptly, reasonably and efficiently in some regards.
When that appears to be the situation, why do the First Minister and the deputy First Minister wish to take on the responsibilities contained in clause 2 of the Bill? The answer — which was suggested in an earlier intervention that the First Minister may want to respond to — is supplied in the comments of Martina Anderson in an earlier debate on the Bill.
In a scripted commentary — presumably endorsed and approved by her party to reflect how it views clause 2 of the Bill — the Member for Foyle made it unambiguously clear, as Danny Kennedy outlined in his speech, what Sinn Féin believed to be the intention of clause 2, ending with the words:
“That is a significant sea change”. — [Official Report, Vol 36, No 5, p222. col 2].
Therefore, when I look at OFMDFM and how it manages the current business, and when I see that, for political reasons, it is overreaching in taking on other responsibilities, I draw conclusions from what Sinn Féin — presumably speaking on behalf of the deputy First Minister — said: “a significant sea change”. I am affirmed in that view by how the First Minister replied to Mr Kennedy from a sedentary position just a few minutes ago. When Mr Kennedy was speaking — and I took a note of this — the First Minister muttered to Mr Danny Kennedy that OFMDFM was already dealing with issues of poverty and social deprivation.
I have heard a lot of your comments today, First Minister — there have been mutterings under your breath in response to various things that have been said on the Floor.
The point is that the First Minister is trying to portray the Bill as run-of-the-mill, more of the same, an extension of what OFMDFM does already, yet that contention was exposed by the comments of Martina Anderson in a previous debate when she said that this is a significant sea change. I would submit that that is the truth of the matter: that the truth of clause 2 is to create a significant sea change, in not just the powers and responsibilities of OFMDFM, but in the culture around the Executive table and in the relationship with all other Ministers.
Given that there are, clearly, people who privately have ambitions in respect of how clause 2 might be managed and rolled-out over coming months in various initiatives, I suggest that we need to guard against those who see this as a significant sea change, and who have ambitions and intentions around what that sea change would look like, how it will impact on the authority of the Assembly, the Committees and Ministers, and how will that fundamentally change the culture of what this Government should be.
It has been a long day — I have been in the Chamber since 10.30 am and I have discussed everything from the financial side of things to the issues that are now in front of us. The issue with regard to the heart of the opposition to this particular clause is the fear, as yet unreconciled, about a power grab.
I understand, and have tried to accept in previous debates, that there are certain difficulties with the form of Government in which, for historic reasons, we find ourselves. It is difficult to run a Government when there is no unifying vision about the way forward and whether the state itself should actually exist. Many people in the Executive have completely different strategic objectives. I understand that that creates difficulties and yet, in these trying times, we need to find some way of providing an effective collective response.
There is — if I may make a mild criticism, but only by way of trying to be helpful — a sense that Ministers act like medieval barons, who do not accept the central authority and just do what they want from their castle. I would like to find a way to get people to work together in a collectivism that is based on mutual respect and an idea that we should try to resolve things together.
I heard the First Minister speak in the conclusion to the debate on clause 1. I may not have got it absolutely correct — although he will, no doubt, correct me if I have not — but he said that he shared the idea about collectivism and that, in his own opinion, he would want more control, as it were; a more collective approach.
The argument is about balance and about whether this is the most appropriate way to address the issue.
One of the accusations — I think that it was made by the First Minister, among others — is that people do not listen. However, I listened to Mrs Long in this and in previous debates. The aims of the Bill could be achieved in a stand-alone piece of legislation.
My concern is that clause 2 — which gives wide-ranging powers — is being tagged on to a provision that is necessary and immediate. However, the powers in clause 2 are not connected with the need to provide financial assistance in exceptional circumstances. Some Members have said that we should not judge the legislation by its first use.
I am worried about the tone of the debate: it does not seem helpful that people who express legitimate concerns are ridiculed or told that they do not listen or that they are stupid. If Members are misinformed or are of a different opinion, surely we should try to enlighten them through reasoned debate. That is why I find it very strange to be reminded repeatedly by the First Minister that our concerns can be discussed by the Executive and that they will be brought to the Assembly. What is the point of bringing them to the Assembly if all that we get is the reading of prepared scripts that allow no intervention or engagement to resolve the issues collectively?
That does not seem to be putting theory into practice. We got the feeling that the First Minister thought that we did not understand the issues. I accept the democratic result and the mandate of the last election; however, it is worth stating — categorically — that we cannot win a vote in this House if the two larger parties combine, as the previous vote illustrated.
The issue arises — under our strange rules of democracy, which the amendments seek to change— that we need to find some form of collectivism to work together. The issue is wider than what occurs in the House. I do not know exactly what was said, but Mr Attwood mentioned reports about the different treatment accorded to various Ministers.
I thank the Speaker for his direction. However, my point is fundamental to our concerns about over-reaching powers.
I was disappointed in how Martina Anderson made her point, because she made a statement on the Bill that other people have quoted. For the record, I will quote it again. She stated, in a scripted response, 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.” — [Official report, Vol 36, No 5, p222, col 2].
That does not seem to be terribly inclusive. She stated that this is a significant sea change. It appears to me to be a fundamental renegotiation of the relationship between the Assembly and the Executive and its Ministers. Yet we do not have the chance to debate it; it is being rushed through.
The First Minister made it clear that we should not be worried because they already have those powers: if they already have them why have they not used them? Why have they not taken steps to deal with the terrible issues of poverty and social deprivation?
We are really talking about a fundamental change in the relationship between Members, the Executive and Ministers. Taking that to its logical conclusion, I think that it means the end of a four-party mandatory coalition and a move toward some form of voluntary coalition, particularly between the two major parties. It would be a fundamental challenge to democracy if we were to find ourselves in the situation whereby we are not allowed to have an effective voice. I am sure that that is not the intention behind either the legislation or the people introducing it.
Although I recognise the need to find some ways to intervene effectively in what are very trying times, I do not think that it is appropriate that those means be tagged on to the end of what is emergency legislation. I suggest that there is a better way of taking such action and that in order to do what the people of Northern Ireland want us to do, we should introduce alternative legislation that can be scrutinised adequately in the proper time.
Normally, when Members move that a clause not stand part of the Bill, it is because they oppose, in every sense and every term, the contents of that clause. Naomi Long and I are not taking that position; we believe that clause 2 should not stand part of the Bill, not because we oppose in all circumstances the powers that it contains, but because it is sufficiently wide ranging and important to merit detailed scrutiny. Frankly, that scrutiny cannot be done solely at Consideration Stage and Further Consideration Stage.
We have accepted the urgency of getting clause 1 in place in order that we can deal with, in particular, the current fuel payments. However, the circumstances that apply to clause 1 — such as the current urgent situation and any future urgent matters — simply do not apply to clause 2 and are being used to ensure that the legislation is forced through without the necessary level of consideration. The contributions of the majority of Members who spoke in the debate clearly demonstrated the need to have such consideration.
For the benefit of those Members who were listening, which was clearly not everybody, when proposing that clause 2 does not stand part of the Bill, Naomi Long made it clear that major issues exist that deal with cross-cutting themes. Other than those issues that are highlighted under clause 2, many more exist that are the responsibility of OFMDFM and on which action may be required at any stage. They are valid issues for consideration, and that point was acknowledged by the very fact that the First Minister called this:
“the most important piece of legislation to be tabled since the return of devolved Government.” — [Official Report, Vol 36, No 5, p218, col 1].
The matter is too serious to be nodded through in the same way that the clause 1 urgency procedures were effectively nodded through.
Jim Shannon, who extended me his customary courtesy of giving way when I yet again requested that he do so, failed completely to deal with the issue and failed to acknowledge that Naomi Long had already supported the procedures for dealing with urgent matters. The important thing now is to get the best possible procedures in place for those matters that are covered by clause 2.
It was a little bit unfortunate when Mr Shannon went on to say — and I am paraphrasing him — that the DUP cares about those people who are struggling to pay fuel bills. I think that every party in the Assembly cares about those people and about those who are living in poverty and deprivation of various sorts. It is unfair and unreasonable to suggest that those of us who accepted that clause 1 be agreed as a matter of urgency but who demanded the proper scrutiny of clause 2 do not recognise those needs and do not share those concerns. I suspect that Mr Shannon did not really mean that, and it is a great pity that he is not here now, as I would happily give way to allow him to make a comment.
We then heard speeches from Members of the other party that forms the Executive — as they see it. Martina Anderson gave us her customary prepared speech, with no interventions. One of the interesting points that she made proved, I think, the case that the Alliance Party is seeking to make. She said that she was confident of the support of civic society for the measures that are included in clause 2.
She may well be correct. However, there is a simple way to find out: let us put it to the test. Give civic society the opportunity to make written representations on the powers that are contained in clause 2 by putting them into another Bill that is subject to proper scrutiny and normal procedures. Let us give civic society the opportunity to bring delegations to meet the OFMDFM Committee, to put their concerns on record, and to discuss issues with Ministers. If the Assembly is confident that civic society talks about those issues favourably, let us give it the opportunity to do so.
Subsequently, Ms Anderson went on to talk about the child poverty inquiry that was conducted by the OFMDFM Committee, and its 49 recommendations. She did not acknowledge that, to date, OFMDFM has not responded to those 49 recommendations. The issue is not that other Departments have yet to carry out their responsibilities: the first response to a Committee report should come from the Department to which the Committee is designated. That has not happened. Therefore, it is not so much the case that Martina Anderson was attacking other Departments, but that she was pointing the finger at OFMDFM — a Department with which she has a close party connection through one of its Ministers and one of its junior Ministers.
Therefore, it is time for people who make allegations about the way that matters are conducted to consider the position from which they make their allegations. That is the clearest proof of the inadequacies of aspects of the current system and the need to ensure that the Assembly makes improvements.
Unlike Jim Shannon, Ms Anderson does not give way to any other Member when she makes allegations about other parties’ lack of concern. Her comments simply do not reflect reality. Any member of the OFMDFM Committee ought to know how frequently Naomi Long and other Members have drawn attention to the need for a proper approach to tackle issues such as poverty, exclusion and deprivation. Although Ms Anderson is not in her place, junior Minister Kelly is in his. I have no doubt that he is aware of the number of times that Mrs Long and others have contacted him to discuss the issue.
Therefore, there is a lack of factual representation as to how OFMDFM has responded to issues that currently relate to it. My party accepts cross-cutting themes and that responsibility for many of them lies with the First Minister and the deputy First Minister. Those do not simply include issues in the Bill that might conceivably be considered as DSD issues; they also include an entire raft of matters as far removed as sustainability, which might otherwise be considered a DOE issue. Certainly, my understanding is that the child poverty inquiry relates to OFMDFM, DSD, DHSSPS, probably to DARD, and to a few other Departments that I have not considered.
The cross-cutting themes for which OFMDFM has responsibility must be dealt with properly. There may well be mechanisms in clause 2 to do that. However, that case has not been made. Certainly, I do not make the case that clause 2 is a power grab, because I acknowledge that those powers already exist in OFMDFM. One might say that clause 1 is a power grab, but that it is necessary for urgent reasons. Given the range of OFMDFM’S responsibilities on those cross-cutting themes — in particular, poverty, deprivation and exclusion — it is important that that piece of legislation is got right.
Naomi Long referred to an interchange that occurred between the deputy First Minister and me during the debate on the Bill’s accelerated passage. He took two interventions from me, so I suppose that, when that is averaged with Ms Anderson, it is one each. I made the point that the issue was not whether the Executive need powers to respond urgently, but whether the Executive urgently needs powers without proper scrutiny.
Unfortunately, although he took my intervention, the deputy First Minister did not respond to my point. He merely said that:
“our experience since restoration has shown that the Executive need to be in a position to react quickly to unforeseen events.” — [Official Report, Vol 36, No 5, p214].
That is a given. The question is whether they need those powers urgently when they have not needed them urgently since May 2007 even though the issues have existed since then. If the Executive make the case that they need those powers, they ought to acknowledge that it is their duty to accept proper scrutiny.
I am not sure that I agree with Danny Kennedy, who said that the Assembly could end up like a parish council that rubber-stamps what is requested by the First Minister and the deputy First Minister. The Assembly has slightly higher powers than the average parish council.
However, there are real issues about ensuring that a legislature carries out its duties. Unfortunately, this is yet another Bill that contains some matters that may warrant the use of the accelerated passage procedure, but there are other details that need to be examined properly.
It has not been demonstrated in any way that clause 2 requires urgent procedure. Maybe the First Minister will do better tonight than the deputy First Minister did last week and sway me with the power of his oratory. However, what I have heard from Back-Benchers of the two lead parties in the House has not persuaded me of anything. History tells us that, frequently, legislation in haste results in bad legislation.
We, in this part of the House, have acknowledged the need for the use of urgent procedures on clause 1 matters. However, no valid case has been made for the accelerated passage procedure being used for clause 2. To ensure that the process moves forward in a better way, clause 2 should be removed and dealt with properly.
This afternoon’s debates have illustrated the utter lack of confidence and how much work needs to be done to build the required confidence in the Assembly, the Executive and, possibly, even within OFMDFM. Removing clause 2 from the Bill, putting it into another Bill and subjecting it to proper scrutiny would be one way of starting that process of building confidence.
It gets a little depressing when the same people put forward the same arguments, even though those arguments have been demolished beyond any shadow of doubt in previous debates. The Member for Lagan Valley Mr Basil McCrea complained about parties making references to people being misinformed, stupid or whatever. However, I do not care what term anyone in the House might use.
I ask everyone to consider the following situation. People, such as Danny Kennedy, came to the debate tonight with written speeches and made certain accusations. Those people were informed that, far from being a matter that is subject to OFMDFM, this is a matter that will go to the Executive at each Stage and be voted on by the Assembly, and that nothing will happen until that occurs. After the accelerated passage debate, those people came back at the Second Stage and made the same points again, even though they had already been informed of the answers.
Even though they were given those answers again during the Second Stage of the Bill, they made the same arguments today during the debate on clause 1 issues. Those people had already been given the answers on two occasions, and one would have thought that those answers would have penetrated even the dullest minds. However, even after clause 1 has been dealt with, the same lame arguments that have no substance whatsoever are read out to us once again in the hope that someone will be gulled into believing that there is some truth in what is being said. There is no truth in those arguments; they are totally inaccurate and totally misleading.
Let me make it very clear once again so that there is no shadow of doubt whatsoever: the First Minister and the deputy First are not grabbing power from anyone through clause 2 of the Bill. The clause 2 issues are our own areas of responsibility. Do I need to say it again? There is no power grab, because those issues are already within our bailiwick. Furthermore, any determination that is made under that clause goes to the Executive for agreement; any designation goes to the Executive for agreement; and any scheme that is reached goes to the Executive for agreement. When all that has happened, it comes to the Assembly for agreement before it starts. How could anyone with two brain cells to rub together stand up in the Assembly and liken that process to the politburo?
They are not slow learners, because they do not learn at all. They have been told repeatedly, yet they have repeatedly misrepresented the situation and repeatedly attempted to use buzz words to secure media coverage of the nonsense that they have been uttering in the Chamber.
This system is more democratic than any that operates in the democratic world. No other Minister is engaging with such a process. It would not happen at Westminster or the Dáil, and it does not happen with any other Minister. The Executive approves it all, and each scheme must come before the Assembly. It is the most democratic system possible.
Basil McCrea talked about whispers in the corridor. He took that line from Alex Attwood, who has again absented himself. He claimed that there are rumours of disagreement on this, that or the other issue, and he tried to embellish it slightly by saying that, as a result, it is clear that there is a divergence and no agreement on how to progress. That assertion shows how badly informed he is.
The Executive have agreed a way forward and have unanimously agreed a three-year Programme for Government. All four Executive parties agreed to that. The Executive have agreed their Budget — not only for one year, but for three years — which gives the lie to those who argue that there is no Budget for this year. Furthermore, the Executive have agreed a 10-year investment strategy. Therefore, a clear direction has been agreed, not only by the First Minister and deputy First Minister, but by every Executive Minister, including the Minister from the SDLP and the two Ministers from the Ulster Unionist Party.
As I said earlier, I expect all Members’ contributions, as far as possible, to relate to the issue under debate, which is opposition to clause 2 of the Bill. I have continually said that I am prepared to allow Members some latitude as long as they do not overstep the line. On occasions, Members are inclined to use that latitude to overstep the line.
I have no doubt that my comments were in order, because the people who made the remarks on which I am commenting were not ruled out of order. Therefore, if it was in order for those individuals to make the remarks, it is, clearly, in order for me to respond to them. The Member, who seems to talk out of both sides of her mouth at the same time, stood up in the Chamber a short time ago and made exactly the same comment — that she was responding to points that were made during the debate.
However, I will move on. The unholy alliance that opposes clause 2 is interesting. One group has a defensible and responsible argument, whereas the other groups are totally irresponsible. If I was allowed to diverge, I would say that they need to examine their consciences and roles, because they cannot be part of the Executive and oppose it while lecturing everybody about the need for collective Government and for us all to work together. Their position does not add up.
On the one hand, there are the representatives of the Alliance Party, who are taking the position — as I understand it —