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Further Consideration Stage

Executive Committee Business – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 4:15 pm on 26th January 2009.

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Debate resumed:

Photo of Martin McGuinness Martin McGuinness Sinn Féin

Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I am speaking on amendment Nos 4 to 11, and I ask the Assembly to oppose all of them.

Amendment No 4 would require the Executive’s agreement to any determination by the First Minister and deputy First Minister under clause 2. That issue has been dealt with exhaustively.

Before Question Time, Dolores Kelly once again tried to suggest that the Bill is OFMDFM’s attempt at a power grab. I want to assure Members that that is not the case. When in operation, the Bill will, in fact, enhance the Executive’s ability to act collectively. It will give the Executive the flexibility to allocate and distribute funds across all Departments in order to respond to any crisis or hardship situation. We do not restate in legislation that which is already a legislative requirement, as we explained in the debate on the Bill at Consideration Stage. Let me say again that the draft amendment to the ministerial code, which the Executive have agreed, will make their approval explicit, thus reinforcing the existing requirement to seek Executive approval for determinations, designations and schemes under the legislation.

Tom Elliott asked from where the funding for any financial assistance payable under the scheme would come. As I have just said, that will be a matter for the Executive, where the First Minister and I designate a Department to provide financial assistance. The funding required will have to be identified through existing processes for determining public expenditure. An example of that was when the Executive agreed the allocation of £15 million for fuel poverty as part of the December monitoring round.

The Bill is about managing public expenditure at an Executive level and ensuring, with Executive agreement, that resources are directed in response to exceptional circumstances and to deal with unmet social need. The Executive are already at the heart of the operation of the Bill, so I urge Members to oppose amendment No 4.

Amendment No 5 would restrict the operation of clause 2 to exceptional circumstances, and thereby significantly restrict the Executive’s scope for intervention to tackle poverty and social exclusion. Sadly, the circumstances whereby almost one quarter of our children live in poverty are not exceptional, and it is those circumstances that we so urgently need to address. This legislation is one such way in which to do that. For that reason, we would not accept such a restriction in the clause’s scope.

Amendment No 6, if it were made, would require that circumstances giving rise to a determination under clause 2 aimed at tackling poverty and social exclusion would need to be unforeseen. I am sure that Members can foresee that the impact of the present economic downturn could seriously and adversely affect those areas, groups and individuals who are living in poverty or are at risk of poverty — such as lone parents or people with a disability, or areas that are already suffering from deprivation, which is made worse by rising unemployment. I am sure that Members would not want to ignore those individuals or areas, because we can foresee the difficulties and disadvantage that they experience. The amendment is, therefore, unacceptable.

Amendment No 7 seeks to restrict the Executive’s ability to take action to tackle poverty under clause 2. However, before making a determination, it is important that the First Minister and I determine jointly, in consultation with our Committee, and, ultimately, with the approval of the Assembly, that existing provisions to tackle poverty and social exclusion are insufficient to effect the improvement in people’s lives that we are aiming to achieve.

There may be situations wherein the limited scope of a programme means that arrangements may be adequate, and even effective, given limited objectives. That does not mean that the arrangements are satisfactory and represent everything that could, and should, be done to address a specific problem. Therefore, we should not impose a restriction or limit the scope for taking effective action, which that amendment would certainly do. For that reason, we will reject it.

Amendment No 8 would reduce from six months to three months the time limit between a determination under clause 2 and the making of the consequent regulations. Members will acknowledge that the clause 1 schemes are, by definition, of greater urgency than those under clause 2, given that they enable us to respond to emergency situations as they arise. For that reason, we proposed amendments that differentiated the time limits within which schemes had to be made after the making of the respective determination, with a lengthier period of six months for clause 2 schemes. To reduce a time limit in a manner that would effectively reduce the scope for scrutiny would be a retrograde step, particularly as the Assembly’s approval must be obtained before regulations can be made. For that reason, we totally reject amendment No 8.

Similar to amendment No 1, amendment No 9 requires a Department to inform its Committee that it has been designated under clause 2. As with amendment No 1, that is not necessary, because the Committee would be notified, in any event, as part of the ongoing liaison between a Department and its Committee.

Amendment No 10 proposes to make explicit on the face of the Bill that the approval of the Department of Finance and Personnel is required for any regulations that are made under clause 2. As with amendment No 2, it is unnecessary to make it explicit that agreement is required from the Minister of Finance and Personnel, given the need to obtain Executive approval for a proposed scheme, at which time the relevant Minister may make known his or her views. Furthermore, the Bill does not in any way diminish the authority of the Department of Finance and Personnel in respect of its Minister’s role in the approval of public expenditure in general.

Amendment No 11, in the same way as amendment 3, places a duty on the “relevant department” to:

“provide a report on the operation of the scheme to the appropriate statutory committee.”

I find it hard to believe that a Department would wish to provide a report to its Committee without a statutory duty being placed on it. We intend to report to the OFMDFM Committee, to the Assembly and, furthermore, to the public on the outcomes of schemes for which we are responsible.

Photo of Naomi Long Naomi Long Alliance

I thank the Minister for giving way. He said that he did not foresee a situation in which a Department would not wish to report to its Committee. Why, in that case, is there a resistance to including that requirement in the Bill as a statutory duty, if, in all foreseeable circumstances, Departments will be content to report to their Committees?

Photo of Martin McGuinness Martin McGuinness Sinn Féin

Our view is that there is no need to include that requirement. We certainly intend to report to our Committee, to the Assembly and, furthermore, to the public on the outcomes of schemes for which we are responsible. We fully expect that other Departments will do the same and that they will provide details such as who benefited and the overall cost of schemes to the public purse.

It is also open to a Committee to request such information on any scheme at any time as part of its ongoing scrutiny role, particularly if a longer time frame is envisaged for the implementation of a scheme.

Therefore, amendment No 11 is unnecessary and unacceptable. I urge the Assembly to reject all the amendments.

Photo of John McCallister John McCallister UUP

Amendment No 4, which the Ulster Unionist Party tabled, was intended to manoeuvre clause 2 away from being used as a general tool with the potential of being used by OFMDFM in normal situations to override Ministers, Departments and Programme for Government targets in furtherance of OFMDFM’s political agenda. Amendment No 4 changes that tool into one that enables financial assistance to be given in unforeseen circumstances of poverty, social exclusion and deprivation.

If the issue is merely one of procedure, in the case of amendment No 4, the deputy First Minister should have no problem in making explicit the involvement of the Assembly and the Executive Committee in any decision that is made under clause 2, lest Members believe that it is — as his colleagues appear to believe — a sea change in the way that OFMDFM works.

Amendment No 5 mirrors amendment No 6, which was also tabled by the UUP. It seeks to ensure that clause 2 is not used in normal circumstances. The use of “exceptional circumstances” in amendment No 5 mirrors the wording in clause 1 and brings clause 2 more into line with the long title of the Bill.

Amendment No 6 ensures that the use of clause 2 does not override existing targets and policies that are laid out in the Programme for Government and the Budget. Departments have policies and targets to address on poverty, social exclusion and patterns of deprivation. Failure to support amendment No 6 will reinforce fears that OFMDFM is seeking a power grab and more influence.

Amendment No 7 removes the carte blanche approach of clause 2. If the original words are retained, clause 2 will allow the First Minister and deputy First Minister to make up schemes and regulations as they go along. During the debate on accelerated passage, in response to a question from the Member for East Belfast Mrs Naomi Long on whether the Bill would end departmental autonomy, the deputy First Minister said:

“I fully understand the Member’s point, and I agree with her. When it comes to implementing the decision 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].

His statement illustrates strongly the motivation of the First Minister and deputy First Minister.

With regard to amendment No 8, if the Bill is intended to address emergency situations, a Department should act quickly — three months being preferable to six months. If the Bill represents a sea change in the way in which OFMDFM acts, Sinn Féin and the DUP will reject amendment No 8.

Amendment No 9 is similar to amendment No 1 and seeks to ensure powers of scrutiny for Statutory Committees on any proposal under clause 2. That is very important, because clause 2 represents a sea change in the way in which the Executive work.

Amendment No 10 is similar to the SDLP’s amendment No 2 to clause 1, and it will give Ministers peace of mind that they can control their own budgets and implement their own policies.

Amendment No 11 is similar to amendment No 3, which was tabled by the SDLP. It will ensure that the policy and financial assistance can be democratically assessed by the Assembly and the public, and it will provide a window into crucial decisions made by OFMDFM.

In opening the debate on the second group of amendments, my colleague Mr Elliott said that the amendments will open up our democratic process to accountability and transparency. That is needed, because the Bill could dramatically change the role of Departments and the origin of money for financial assistance. Other Members mentioned the cross-cutting measures in which Departments must engage.

Mr Elliott mentioned a shared and normalised future, and said that he did not want a carve-up. That sentiment was rejected by Ms Anderson, who wants Sinn Féin and the DUP to be in the driving seat, which will render everyone else irrelevant. As Mr Elliott said, definitive boundaries and purpose for the measures in the Bill are required.

Mr Shannon held back his support for the amendments. Despite what DUP Members keep saying, not one day has been lost through the debates on the Bill. The Bill has not been held back, and the Members who say otherwise should encourage such democratic accountability instead of shying away from it.

I mentioned the point that Ms Anderson raised in her rejection of the amendments. I would not say that any Member is not committed to addressing poverty, social exclusion and deprivation. Our concerns about the Bill are more to do with the control that it gives OFMDFM. All parties agree that we must do much more to address poverty, social exclusion and deprivation.

Dolores Kelly said that clause 2 is unnecessary and spoke about the Budget process, which is another important point. In an intervention, Mr O’Loan asked why we have not had a Budget process. It is strange that there is always an annual Budget in every other part of the United Kingdom and even the Republic of Ireland, which the deputy First Minister mentioned earlier. Indeed, in exceptional economic circumstances, which it could be argued that we are in at present, those countries might have a Budget more frequently than that. In contrast, we have set a three-year Budget.

In Mrs Long’s contribution, she pointed out that, although the First Minister thought that nobody was listening, there is a difference between listening to, and simply not agreeing with, him. Although I disagree with some of Mrs Long’s interpretations of our amendments, there is a purpose to getting cross-departmental solutions. Departments must be responsible for improving the implementation of various policy initiatives.

Photo of Naomi Long Naomi Long Alliance 4:30 pm, 26th January 2009

Does the Member agree that almost all Members who have spoken have said that there is a need to get cross-cutting measures in place so that they function well? Had the Bill been brought through a proper Committee Stage, with open and frank discussion and debate, we would not be having the continuing reservations and concerns that people are expressing, and the distrust that people are expressing in the intent of the Bill, because it would have been clear and open to everyone to have their say, and people would have been much more confident about the intent of clause 2.

Photo of John McCallister John McCallister UUP

I thank the honourable Member for her intervention. I agree wholeheartedly, because the problem that the Bill has encountered relates to the difference between emergency measures and taking a step back and deciding on the best mechanisms for dealing with the other issues. Although we all accept that poverty, social exclusion and deprivation must be addressed as quickly as possible, those issues do not come under the category of emergency measures.

The deputy First Minister has been in office since May 2007, but now, all of a sudden, accelerated passage is needed to get the Bill through. Even in the deputy First Minister’s contribution, I believe he said that a quarter of children are living in poverty, which is a shame. It is an absolute outrage that, in this day and age —

Photo of Jimmy Spratt Jimmy Spratt DUP

Will the Member give way?

Photo of John McCallister John McCallister UUP

I will give way in a moment.

It is an absolute outrage, in this day and age, that that is the case. I agree with the deputy First Minister that it is a shame, and the Executive should be working on those issues instead of taking 154 days off. They should be bringing proposals and ideas to the Assembly to address the types of issues on which Members have been focusing and raising through private Members’ motions for almost two years.

Photo of Jimmy Spratt Jimmy Spratt DUP

Does the Member agree that the UUP Committee members from his party agreed to the Bill’s accelerated passage through the House, and, in fact, that the only person who voted against it was the SDLP Committee member?

Photo of Dolores Kelly Dolores Kelly Social Democratic and Labour Party

On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. I ask Mr Spratt to withdraw his comments. I did not vote against it.

Photo of David McClarty David McClarty UUP

Order. That is not a point of order, Mrs Kelly.

Photo of Naomi Long Naomi Long Alliance

I thank the Member for giving way. That is not an accurate reflection of what happened, because in addition to the members who voted in favour of accelerated passage, a number expressed reservations about clause 2 forming part of the Bill and made note that, if possible, they would exclude clause 2 at Consideration Stage. Furthermore, I abstained from voting on the proposal to support the accelerated passage of the Bill, because clause 2 was still part of the Bill when it came before the Committee. Therefore, there was, I believe, never an issue from any Committee member about the need for the issues in clause 1 to be dealt with quickly, but clause 2 required additional consideration. Therefore, if we are going to reflect what happened in Committee, we have to reflect it in full.

Photo of John McCallister John McCallister UUP

I thank both Members for their interventions. However, at no time has anyone in the Ulster Unionist Party tried to say anything other than the version that Mrs Long gave of what went on in the Committee. Indeed, my deputy leader, Mr Kennedy, who is the Chairperson of the Committee for the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister, made that perfectly clear in last week’s debate. As Chairperson, he reflected accurately events that took place in the Committee. Therefore, at no time did we shy away from that fact, and we always made the distinction between the major issues, which are getting financial assistance out rapidly and also cross-governmental issues, which should be being dealt with, so that a more effective way can be found to deal with them.

I hope that Members will consider the amendments proposed by the Ulster Unionist Party and support them.

Question put, That amendment No 4 be made.

The Assembly divided: Ayes 23; Noes 54.

AYES

Mr Attwood, Mr Beggs, Mr D Bradley, Mr P J Bradley, Mr Burns, Mr Cobain, Mr Cree, Mr Durkan, Mr Elliott, Mr Gallagher, Mr Gardiner, Mrs D Kelly,  Mr A Maginness, Mr McCallister, Mr B McCrea,  Mr McFarland, Mr McGlone, Mr O’Loan, Ms Purvis, Mr P Ramsey, Mr K Robinson, Mr Savage, Mr B Wilson.

Tellers for the Ayes: Mr Elliott and Mr McCallister.

NOES

Ms Anderson, Mr Boylan, Mr Brady, Mr Bresland,  Mr Brolly, Lord Browne, Mr Buchanan, Mr Butler,  Mr Campbell, Mr T Clarke, Mr Dodds, Mr Doherty,  Mr Donaldson, Mr Easton, Mrs Foster, Ms Gildernew, Mr Hamilton, Mr Hilditch, 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, Mrs McGill, Mr M McGuinness,  Miss McIlveen, Mr McKay, Mr McLaughlin,  Mr McQuillan, Mr Molloy, Lord Morrow, Mr Moutray, Mr Murphy, Mr Newton, Ms Ní Chuilín, Mr O’Dowd, Mrs O’Neill, Rev Dr Ian Paisley, Ms S Ramsey,  Mr G 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 Boylan and Mr Moutray.

The following Members voted in both Lobbies and are therefore not counted in the result:

Dr Farry, Mr Ford, Mrs Long, Mr Lunn, Mr McCarthy.

Question accordingly negatived.

Photo of David McClarty David McClarty UUP

I remind Members that amendments Nos 5 and 6 are mutually exclusive. Therefore if amendment No 5 is made, I will not call amendment No 6.

Question, That amendment No 5 be made, put and negatived.

Question, That amendment No 6 be made, put and negatived.

Question, That amendment No 7 be made, put and negatived.

Question, That amendment No 8 be made, put and negatived.

Question, That amendment No 9 be made, put and negatived.

Question, That amendment No 10 be made, put and negatived.

Question, That amendment No 11 be made, put and negatived.

Clause 3 (Schemes for financial assistance)

Photo of David McClarty David McClarty UUP

We now come to the third group of amendments for debate. With amendment No 12, it will be convenient to debate amendment No 13. The third debate will deal with schemes for financial assistance.

Photo of Declan O'Loan Declan O'Loan Social Democratic and Labour Party

I beg to move amendment No 12: In page 3, line 13, leave out from “disputes” to “to” and insert

“data protection issues, disputes as to overpayment recovery,”.

The following amendment stood on the Marshalled List:

No 13: In clause 4, page 3, line 37, at end insert

“(6) The First Minister and deputy First Minister shall lay a report, by means of a statement, annually to the Assembly on the operation of any schemes made under this Act.” — [Mrs Long.]

Photo of Declan O'Loan Declan O'Loan Social Democratic and Labour Party

Hope springs eternal in the human frame — I think that that is the correct quote. [Interruption.]

Photo of Declan O'Loan Declan O'Loan Social Democratic and Labour Party

Even though previous amendments have not been accepted, I hope that Members will examine these amendments dispassionately. I hope that Members will see their usefulness and recognise that they would add to and improve the Bill.

Amendment No 12, which relates to clause 3, would add significant and useful protections to the Bill on issues that may not have been considered previously. If that amendment is made, it will enable discussion on how schemes passed under regulations will deal with the complex legal issue of data protection. Not all Members may have realised that information that a particular Department has collected for a specific purpose can be legally used only for that purpose — that issue must be considered when a scheme is designed. Amendment No 12 does not say how that matter would be considered or what the outcome of that consideration should be, but it would ensure that it were thought about.

Likewise, there is the important issue of disputes over overpayment recovery. For example, in cases concerning tax credits and Child Support Agency awards, overpayments have been made —money has been issued in good faith, and subsequent attempts have been made to claw back that money. It is desirable that that issue be considered when the scheme is introduced. My party believes that the Bill will be better if amendment No 13 is made.

Members from the Alliance Party proposed amendment No 13, which also has the SDLP’s support. I would like to think that even Members who have rejected previous amendments will support that amendment, because they have said that they would support a report to the Assembly, and that is what this amendment would secure. Amendment No 13 states:

The First Minister and deputy First Minister shall lay a report, by means of a statement, annually to the Assembly on the operation of any schemes made under this Act.”

Some Members have previously indicated that such a report should be made to the Assembly; therefore, I look forward to their support for that amendment.

Photo of Jimmy Spratt Jimmy Spratt DUP 5:00 pm, 26th January 2009

I intend to be brief. I oppose amendment Nos 12 and 13. [Interruption.] Surprise, surprise.

The SDLP has not fully thought out amendment No 12. If made, that amendment would allow data-protection issues to be dealt with in schemes under clause 1 or 2. The reason why I say that that amendment is ill thought out is that it would bring matters under data-protection legislation — Members may not know that. Data protection is a reserved matter, so, were it made, the amendment would delay the Bill — an issue about which we talked earlier. Effectively, the consent of the Secretary of State would have to be sought, and the Bill would have to be laid before Parliament at Westminster for a 20-day period. I assume that Members would not —

Photo of Declan O'Loan Declan O'Loan Social Democratic and Labour Party

If there are data-protection issues in a legal sense, which is exactly what I am saying, they cannot simply be avoided by not having words in the Bill that relate to those issues. If those issues are there to be considered, they are there to be considered. If we should be referring the legislation to the Secretary of State, we should be referring it to the Secretary of State — I do not know whether that is the case. All the more, that underlines the points that have been argued here very strongly — that the Bill should have been properly scrutinised in Committee and that this is the wrong way in which to attempt to go about enacting this particular piece of legislation.

Photo of Jimmy Spratt Jimmy Spratt DUP

I hear what the Member is saying, but that would have the effect of delaying the Bill. Members have made it very clear that they do not want to delay the Bill in any way. I think it was Mrs Long who stated today that the process must be gone through, and I agree with that. I assume that neither she nor Mr McCallister will support these amendments, given that that would delay the Bill.

Amendment No 13 would result in the First Minister and deputy First Minister having to lay an annual report before the Assembly on the operation of any schemes implemented under the Bill. Yet again, there is an issue in trying to bring about something which is inappropriate. It would be inappropriate for the First Minister and deputy First Minister to account for schemes made by other Departments. This is a common-sense matter, and I hope that the House will agree with me that that would be the case with this particular amendment.

The desire from these Benches is to help people, and to help people as quickly as possible. That can be achieved through the Financial Assistance Bill, which has at its core the motivation to get help to those in need. The public can judge the motivation of others in the Chamber, and what their sole desire is; whether it is to delay getting the assistance out or to delay the Bill, which I believe is much needed at this point in time. Many people are looking to the Bill going through this House as quickly as possible. We oppose amendment Nos 12 and 13.

Photo of Claire McGill Claire McGill Sinn Féin

Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I oppose amendment Nos 12 and 13. I was not here for the debate last week — I could not be here — but I have read the Hansard report, and I very much welcome the Bill. I welcome the provisions contained therein to deal with exceptional circumstances, poverty, social exclusion and patterns of deprivation. I think John McCallister said earlier that everyone believes those matters to be important, and they should be dealt with. I wish to record my welcome for the Bill.

Today’s debate has been interesting, certainly, but when I was preparing for it, I read the Hansard report of last week’s debate. A Member said earlier that Members on this side of the House did not fully understand — I do not think that the Member even used the word “fully” — the legislative process. I think that that Member was addressing a party colleague. I want to comment on the research that that I did on last week’s debate. I sat for some considerable time — [Interruption.]

No. It is important —

Photo of David McClarty David McClarty UUP

Order. You may speak on this group of amendments and no others. There will be no referring back to last week; last week is done and dusted. Please speak on these amendments, Mrs McGill.

Photo of Claire McGill Claire McGill Sinn Féin

I will obviously abide by your ruling, but I am referring to a comment that was made by a Member in the House today in relation to the understanding of the debate on this side of the House. I wanted to use the example of my research — for some considerable time last night — to point out that it is quite difficult to understand when one reads some of the contributions. I do not want to press the point, but I want to say that I did learn —

Photo of David McClarty David McClarty UUP

Order. Nor will I allow you to press the point, Mrs McGill.

The time to make a comment about what a Member has said is after they have said it, and during the relevant section of the debate. Please continue, but keep your comments to the amendments in group 3.

Photo of Claire McGill Claire McGill Sinn Féin

Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. I will try to remember that, and I will refer to the Hansard report if I forget it.

It is my understanding — as Mr Spratt mentioned earlier — that data protection is a reserved matter.

Photo of Naomi Long Naomi Long Alliance

Does the Member accept that although we cannot affect reserved matters, we still have to abide by decisions made in the context of those matters? If, for example, data protection law applies to the UK and is a reserved matter, it still applies to us in the work that we do. We cannot change it; however, it still applies.

Photo of Claire McGill Claire McGill Sinn Féin

I thank the Member for her intervention. That is the point that I was about to make. I see no need to include proposed amendment No 12, and Mrs Long has made that point for me. Clause 3(i), which immediately follows on from where proposed amendment No 12 would be inserted, provides for:

“any other matter which appears to the relevant department to be necessary or appropriate for the efficient and effective administration of the scheme.”

I believe that that would cover data protection issues.

As for amendment No 13, it has already been mentioned that other Departments have responsibility in such matters. Perhaps, therefore, it would not be appropriate for the First Minister and deputy First Minister to bring a report before the Assembly. It is important that we hear what is happening; however, there are a number of opportunities to do that, including through Assembly questions and via Committees.

In conclusion, I was going to say something about the previous debate, but I will abide by your ruling, Mr Deputy Speaker. I oppose amendment Nos 13 and 14.

Photo of John McCallister John McCallister UUP

It is good to hear Mrs McGill stand up for the rights of Westminster. I am sure that the deputy First Minister will have a word with her about that after the debate.

Clause 3 outlines the further provisions that can, and should, under certain circumstances, be included to ensure efficient and effective management of the financial assistance schemes. Amendment No 12, as tabled by the SDLP, raises pertinent issues surrounding data protection, and the implications that the Bill will have in respect of the potential sharing of information among Departments, and the use of personal data to provide financial assistance beyond benefits. There are statutory procedures that must be followed when using an individual’s personal information, and that may affect the ability of Departments to implement schemes for financial assistance. I am interested to hear the deputy First Minister’s response on that important issue.

I note that Mr Spratt thought that we could not support the proposed amendments, in case doing so delayed the passage of the Bill.

Throughout the debate, my party has said that it does not want to delay the payment of financial assistance to those who need it most; it wants to ensure proper democratic accountability. If any Member wants to make an intervention on that point, I am happy to give way.

Amendment 13, which amends clause 4, is sensible because it will increase accountability to the Assembly; it would, however, have been better to be passed in conjunction with the SDLP’s amendments Nos 1, 3, 9, and 11. Alone, it cannot guarantee that Statutory Committees will be involved at any stage of the process, although it would increase the overall democratic input of the legislative Assembly. That is to be welcomed.

In the previous debate the deputy First Minister said that he assumed that Statutory Committees would be involved. However, there must be a guarantee. I support the amendment.

Photo of Naomi Long Naomi Long Alliance 5:15 pm, 26th January 2009

Certain Members persist in peddling the lie that the Alliance Party wishes to frustrate or delay: that is simply not the case. My party wants to make the Bill as robust as possible and to enshrine in it, with amendment No 13, a proper mechanism for reporting and engaging with the Assembly — the need for which has been expressed by Members from all parties.

My party is minded to support both amendment No 12 and amendment No 13. However, I will listen carefully to the deputy First Minister’s assessment of amendment No 12. My reading of it is that it does not impose any additional obligation; nor does it change any legislation with regard to a reserved matter. It simply highlights two key concerns, the first of which is that possible data-protection issues must be considered when schemes are drawn up. For example, there could be conflicts between Departments on data sharing or between a Department and a third-party organisation that has been called upon to deliver a scheme.

I am not sure about the point that Jimmy Spratt made; perhaps the deputy First Minister can clarify it. If data-protection and data-sharing issues arise, they will do so notwithstanding any legislation that is passed by the House. They are reserved matters. There is already primary legislation at Westminster to deal with those issues. As Members have been told repeatedly by the First Minister and the deputy First Minister, Westminster legislation takes precedence: Northern Ireland’s legislation simply amends the local situation.

In that regard, the Assembly will not add obligations simply by referring to those issues in the Bill; it will merely highlight a conflict. I am interested to hear the deputy First Minister’s assessment of that point.

The other key concern that is highlighted in that section is overpayment recovery. I understand Departments’ obligation to recover finances that are awarded in error. That has been a source of much debate, particularly when the error is not the result of misinformation being provided by members of the public who apply to the scheme, but of ineffectual administration of the scheme by Departments.

That can cause people significant further hardship. Clause 2 targets those people because they already experience hardship and deprivation. Therefore, it is not unreasonable, in the event of overpayment or error, to ask Departments to consider how they will recover that money in a timely and fair fashion that will not add unduly to the hardship of the people whom they have assisted. There is nothing in the substance of amendment No 12 that causes me concern.

As regards amendment No 13, all parties have said in different ways that they want to maximise engagement with the House on matters that relate to the Bill and that they want the Assembly to be kept informed about schemes. The deputy First Minister and Mrs McGill said that they could not see the need for amendment No 11, which requires Departments to report through their Statutory Committees. They believe that that is unnecessary. Amendment No 11 is simply a mechanism by which Departments can keep their Committees regularly appraised. Given that, according to certain Members, Departments intend to do so anyway, it is not particularly onerous to make that an obligation. Amendment No 11 creates a reason for a Committee to pursue the matter if its Department has failed.

Given that when we open our Committee papers we often have to follow up on issues and delays, it would be reassuring to have a statutory obligation that ensured that we receive an annual report. Amendment No 13 recognises that some of the schemes are cross-cutting; we are talking about dealing with things that may affect more than one Department. It is a scheme’s totality and operations that are of interest to Members of the House. Therefore, it would be better if the First Minister and deputy First Minister would, as joint chairs of the Executive, report annually on behalf of the Executive as a whole.

That would be in much the same way that the First Minister and deputy First Minister update us on issues in the Programme for Government, not all of which are delivered by OFMDFM, which is their Department. Indeed, they also update us on cross-cutting themes such as community relations, equality and sustainability, young people and children and older people. Although delivery on those issues may be spread across a number of Departments, OFMDFM has a special responsibility for them and, therefore, the First Minister and deputy First Minister report to the Assembly. So, it should not cause any particular concern if they do so in this case.

It is feasible that more than one scheme could be in operation at any time. Therefore, it would make sense for the First Minister and deputy First Minister to give us an overview of how many schemes are in operation, how far those have progressed, how they are being delivered, and so on. I cannot see a problem with having legislation that provides for that to happen on a regular basis. Indeed, given that amendment No 11 has fallen, it would be a prompt for Committees to return to the issue if they wanted a more detailed assessment from a Department about its role in any scheme and how effective it has been within its remit.

There seems to be a circular breakdown of logic operating. On one hand, people are saying that it would not be appropriate for Departments to carry out the role individually because more than one Department may be involved and they would probably be doing it any way. On the other hand, people are saying that the First Minister and deputy First Minister cannot do it because they cannot speak on behalf of all the Departments, even though they do that frequently on cross-cutting issues.

I do not think that there is an issue with amendment No 13, and I am interested in whether the deputy First Minister will able to clarify the problem about specifying the issues of overpayment and data protection when he responds to the debate. I do not understand how we could have encroached on reserve matters when we are not applying to change any such issue.

Photo of Alex Attwood Alex Attwood Social Democratic and Labour Party

It is odd what comes out when you least expect it. The exchange between Mr O’Loan and Mr Spratt, which took place early in the debate on this group of amendments, gave the game away. Mr Spratt said, presumably on behalf of the DUP, that the latest amendments tabled by the SDLP and others would be rejected: I presume that the deputy First Minister will confirm that in due course. It is curious, because I cannot recall any piece of legislation being passed in this Chamber without even one amendment having been accepted from, let us say, the minority parties.

Photo of Carál Ní Chuilín Carál Ní Chuilín Sinn Féin

You may get used to it.

Photo of Alex Attwood Alex Attwood Social Democratic and Labour Party

That comment gives the game away again. From a sedentary position, the Sinn Féin Whip said: “get used to it.” On this group of amendments, the message being sent out by Mr Spratt and Ms Ní Chuilín to the Chamber and to the people of Northern Ireland is: get used to it. Get used to the fact that when legislation is tabled on the Floor of the Assembly, and reasoned amendments are tabled by the minority parties, not one of those amendments will be accepted; get used to it.

Photo of Carál Ní Chuilín Carál Ní Chuilín Sinn Féin

I know that you were working yourself into a point there, but —

Photo of David McClarty David McClarty UUP

Order. Will the Member refer all her remarks through the Chair and not directly to another Member?

Photo of Carál Ní Chuilín Carál Ní Chuilín Sinn Féin

I was making the point that if a Minister who is responsible for introducing legislative frameworks to deliver services to people in most need is incompetent, the House will take whatever action is required to provide a remedy; so, get used to it.

Photo of Alex Attwood Alex Attwood Social Democratic and Labour Party

If that is the Sinn Féin Whip’s best response to my point, that party should be worried. My point was clear and explicit. In the dying hours of the debate, Mr Spratt said that the DUP will not accept any amendments from the minority parties, even the reasonable amendments that were tabled by Mr O’Loan. Through that response, Sinn Féin was explicitly telling the SDLP, the Ulster Unionist Party, the PUP, the Alliance Party and the people of the North of Ireland to get used to power being in the hands of the DUP and Sinn Féin, to get used to their views not being heard or acknowledged, and to get used to the fact that sensible amendments that will improve the legislation will be rejected.

That scenario is bad enough. However, Peter Robinson said that the legislation is the “most important piece of legislation” to come before the House. Furthermore, it has been granted accelerated passage. Given those points and in the event of such sea-change legislation, I would expect some acknowledgment — however small — that the legislation can be improved through one of the many amendments that the other parties tabled. However, that did not happen. Not one has been accepted, and we are told to get used to it.

My second point betrays the DUP and Sinn Féin most. Amendment No 12, which was tabled by the SDLP, refers to overpayment issues, which Mr O’Loan, Mr McCallister and Mrs Long outlined. We know that clause 3 is particularly relevant for the constituencies that are in greatest need. From our experience in our constituency offices, we also know that overpayment issues and overpayment recovery sometimes arise with benefit uptake and payments to those in need. Therefore, Members should be acutely aware that further issues over the recovery of payments could arise as a result of clause 2, which introduces mechanisms to deal with poverty, need and social deprivation. It seems natural and organic that a Bill that addresses issues of poverty and deprivation should contain a mechanism that legislates against further impediment and burden being placed on those in need. However, even that amendment was not accepted.

Photo of Claire McGill Claire McGill Sinn Féin

I thank the Member for giving way. I was not going to say that the amendments are not reasonable, but I hope that he agrees that the provisions of the amendments are accounted for elsewhere in the Bill. We are not saying that our way on overpayments must be followed and that the Bill does not address that point; I believe that the Bill will address those issues. Of course people are concerned about that matter.

Photo of Alex Attwood Alex Attwood Social Democratic and Labour Party

I have a great deal of regard for the Member for West Tyrone. I sit on a Committee with her, and I know that she fights vigorously for her constituency, and I know about the issues that she tackles. However, I am mindful that she was not in the Chamber last week, and I assure her that the Bill does not contain such provisions.

Given that I am saying that to her, and reassuring her about that, could I suggest to her that if that is the case, will she now, on behalf of Sinn Féin, acknowledge that that provision is not in the Bill, that it should be inserted into the Bill, and that one way, at this very last minute, to change the Bill so that it will protect people who already have a heavy burden, would be to amend the Bill? Does the Member agree with me that given that that provision is not in the Bill, it would be better now if she and Sinn Féin changed tack and supported the amendment?

I hope that the deputy First Minister has more to say, and I invite him to say more in that regard, given that a member of his party seems now to accept that what is not in the Bill is not in the Bill, and what should be in the Bill should be put in through the SDLP amendment.

Photo of Claire McGill Claire McGill Sinn Féin 5:30 pm, 26th January 2009

I thank the Member for giving way. It is my view that the Bill takes account of that, as I said in my earlier contribution.

Photo of Alex Attwood Alex Attwood Social Democratic and Labour Party

I hear what the Member says, but on this occasion, the Member is wrong. Therefore, I say to the Member, and to the deputy First Minister, let us get it right. Let us accept that amendment, so that, given that there is a common commitment in the House to help those who live in deprivation and who are in poverty, there is still yet another protection for them in the event that this legislation should result in them being in a situation of overpayment.

The third point that I want to make is that the Bill demonstrates the dogmatism of Sinn Féin and the DUP. That is reflected in amendment No 13, which, at a very minimum, suggests that it would be sensible for the First Minister and deputy First Minister to deliver a report, by means of a statement, not once a week, once a month, or once a quarter, but once a year — four times in the lifetime of this Assembly, in the event that the legislation is relied upon in the future life of this Assembly. Once a year. The Northern Ireland Policing Board must table a report once a year, as must the Police Ombudsman, the Electoral Commission, the Probation Board, the Justice Agency, the PSNI, every council in the North, and the Assembly Commission — yet it is not good enough for the First Minister and deputy First Minister to table a report once a year in respect of this legislation.

What makes the First Minister and deputy First Minister so precious? Why is it that a minimum standard that informs the life of every single public body in the North is a standard that the First Minister and the deputy First Minister think does not apply to them? Why are the standards for everyone else, but not for two people in Northern Ireland who are meant to be the political leadership of this part of the world? What makes them so exceptional and special that they do not have the obligations that every other person in a leadership role in a public body has? I ask the deputy First Minister to explain that.

Why, in regard to an exceptional piece of legislation, in which there is heightened public interest, and certainly heightened political concern, is it not thought appropriate and worthwhile for the First Minister and deputy First Minister to report once a year to the House? If, when the legislation about the Police Ombudsman or the PSNI was being tabled, I had suggested that they had to report once only every four years, can you imagine the hysteria that I would have faced from the DUP, Sinn Féin and others for saying that there are public officials in Northern Ireland who do not have the accountability requirements of others.

I would have been, rightly, knocked back, but the SDLP, rightly, did not make such a preposterous proposal. However, by rejecting amendment No 13, the First Minister and the deputy First Minister are saying that they are different. Therein lies the essential truth behind this Bill. By rejecting that amendment, the First Minister and deputy First Minister are acting in a dogmatic, centralised and powerful way. They think that they do not have to live up to the standards of anyone else who has that level of responsibility and who must report once a year, every year.

The First Minister and deputy First Minister refuse to include provisions to protect those who are vulnerable in a situation of overpayment, and the Sinn Féin Whip told us to “get used to it”. In the last minutes of this debate — when there are fewer Members in the Chamber — it is odd how some of the self-evident truths of this Bill become clear.

Let me tell the First Minister and deputy First Minister that we do not live by the standards of “get used to it”. People in Northern Ireland will have heard loud and clear — from the mouths of the authors and the supporters of this Bill — that they should get used to the nature and character of DUP and Sinn Féin power in this part of the world. The people have been told that if they do not like it, they can lump it.

Photo of Martin McGuinness Martin McGuinness Sinn Féin

Amendment Nos 12 and 13 cover data protection, dealing with disputes regarding overpayment recovery and reporting arrangements. The latter has also been discussed in the context of reporting to Statutory Committees, which was proposed in amendment Nos 3 and 11.

Although I agree that issues of data protection may arise in the course of implementing schemes, the Bill is certainly not the vehicle for resolving such issues. As has already been pointed out, data protection is a reserved matter. It cannot be dealt with in the Bill without the consent of the Secretary of State and the Bill being laid before Parliament for 20 days. We cannot be sure that the Secretary of State would give his agreement. Even if that agreement was forthcoming, it would inevitably delay the Bill’s passage and — ultimately — the fuel-credit payments that we wish to make urgently through this legislation. I assure those who raised the matter that any data protection issues that may arise will not be ignored and will be settled within the existing legal framework.

Amendment No 12 also proposes that clause 3 should specify that schemes will cover disputes regarding the recovery of overpayments, and that was also mentioned. That is unnecessary as the list of issues in clause 3 for which a scheme can provide is neither exhaustive nor mandatory. The legislation could, therefore, deal with disputes about overpayment recovery as it is currently drafted.

Amendment No 13 proposes that the First Minister and deputy First Minister should report annually to the Assembly on the operation of any schemes that are made under the legislation. I agree with the Alliance Party Members: accountability is essential throughout the process of implementing and developing the schemes. We have no difficulty with the intended outcome of the amendment. However, accountability for the operation of any scheme rests with the designated Department — not with the First Minister and deputy First Minister.

Furthermore, I expect that the Minister responsible would wish to evaluate the impact of schemes in line with good-practice guidance. We intend to report to our Committee on the outcome of any schemes that OFMDFM implements. I fully expect other Ministers to do likewise, without the need for the legislation to place that duty on them.

Photo of David Ford David Ford Alliance

I appreciate the Minister giving way. We certainly accept the point that he made about individual Ministers reporting to their individual Committees. However, the purpose of the amendment is to seek a wider report on the overall operation, which can only be done by the First Minister and deputy First Minister jointly reporting to the Assembly as a single body. He has not answered that point.

Photo of Martin McGuinness Martin McGuinness Sinn Féin

The point that I am making is that it is expected that individual Departments, like my Department, would report to their Committees and to the Assembly. Indeed, if that were not to happen, the Executive would ensure that such reporting mechanisms were included in regulations governing particular schemes, and that is why we reject the amendments.

I reassure Alex Attwood that dealing with overpayments is possible under the Bill as currently drafted. Concerns expressed on that matter have been dealt with.

Photo of Dolores Kelly Dolores Kelly Social Democratic and Labour Party

It is most regrettable that, once again, attempts by parties on this side of the House to give an honest appraisal of the legislation and, where possible, to improve it have been totally ignored by the DUP and Sinn Féin.

The deputy First Minister said that he sympathises with the Alliance Party’s attempt, using amendment No 13, to improve accountability; however, many of the proposed amendments sought to improve the accountability of the First Minister and the deputy First Minister, the ability of Committees to scrutinise their Departments, and the House’s ability to scrutinise legislation. Nevertheless, he and the First Minister remain bullish in their attitude towards rejecting those amendments. One wonders whether the deputy First Minister’s sympathy for Alliance Party amendments is a continued attempt to woo that party into breaching d’Hondt in the devolution of policing and justice powers. Perhaps the deputy First Minister will respond to that point on another day?

I was somewhat surprised by Mr Spratt’s comment about the SDLP’s audacity to play politics in an institution such as this — an institution to which we were elected as politicians. In the past few days, a lot of smoke and mirrors have been employed in the debates about this legislation, and there have been suggestions that the SDLP, the Alliance Party, the PUP and the Ulster Unionist Party have been seeking to delay it. Clearly, that has not been the case.

My party has great difficulty with clause 2, and in order to protect the most vulnerable people in our society, we attempted to improve clause 3 by dealing with data protection matters. In spite of that, no one will listen to us. However, there is continuing confusion on the Benches opposite between reserved matters and the regulations and improvements that we can make under our own volition.

During her contribution, Mrs McGill said that she carried out a lot of research last night — her Sunday evening must have been very boring. Even having undertaken that level of research —

Photo of Claire McGill Claire McGill Sinn Féin

I thank the Member for giving way. I am looking at you, Mr Deputy Speaker, because I am wondering whether I am allowed to respond. I was talking about a debate that was held last week, and the Member is referring to that.

Photo of David McClarty David McClarty UUP

The Member will not be able to influence the debate last week, so if Mrs Kelly is happy to allow an intervention, the Member is permitted to intervene.

Photo of Claire McGill Claire McGill Sinn Féin

I was not present during the debate last week, so I read the Official Report in order to inform myself about the Bill, and I was informed of it by some of the contributions.

Photo of Dolores Kelly Dolores Kelly Social Democratic and Labour Party

I am not sure whether Mrs McGill expects me to reply to that comment. Nevertheless, I was attempting to point out to her that if she had read and understood the contributions and concerns of those who tabled the amendments, she would appreciate that nowhere does the legislation oblige the First Minister or the deputy First Minister to make a statement.

If Mrs McGill is arguing that it would be up to other Departments and other Ministers to issue such statements, she has failed to recognise that the DUP and Sinn Féin have used the cross-cutting nature of OFMDFM’s responsibilities, particularly in tackling poverty, social exclusion, deprivation and children and young people as their arguments in favour of the Financial Assistance Bill. Due to the cross-cutting nature of their remit, it is clear and right that an amendment such as amendment No 13 be tabled today. Therefore, the First Minister and deputy First Minister should be expected to make an annual statement.

In his response, the deputy First Minister said that he was sure that such a statement would be made but that he did not believe that there should be an obligation on either him or the First Minister to make one. However, as Members said today and in previous debates, OFMDFM does not have Members’ trust, because, as some Members said today, papers to the Committee often do not follow on time and decisions are held up. Several decisions and strategies were held up long before the 154-day logjam; decisions have been lying somewhere in the bends of OFMDFM since last spring.

The First Minister and deputy First Minister — and the DUP and Sinn Féin — should not be frightened of such an obligation. Surely making such a statement is in the interests of good accountability and good scrutiny.

Alex Attwood and Declan O’Loan explained the reason that it was necessary to table amendment No 12, which was tabled by the SDLP and which proposes to insert into clause 3 the words:

“data protection issues, disputes as to overpayment recovery”.

Hardly a day goes by that my constituency office — like, I am sure, those of other Members — is not contacted by people who are worried about overpayments. Given the experience that we have with child tax credits and overpayments in particular, and the financial hardship, pressure, strain and worry that they place on individuals, I do not understand why amendment No 12 would not be accepted.

I think that it was Mr Spratt who suggested that Ministers should table only competent legislation that does not require amendments. The Member should be aware that the First Minister and deputy First Minister tabled amendments to the Financial Assistance Bill, so they have admitted that the legislation required amending. Furthermore, following the accelerated passage of the Commission for Victims and Survivors Bill, the First Minister and deputy First Minister tabled amendments. Therefore, it is an established precedent that Ministers who introduce legislation may table amendments.

The bullish attitude that was displayed by Sinn Féin and the DUP in not listening to the concerns of others was regrettable. No one showed it more clearly than Carál Ní Chuilín. She told the House and the public to “get used to” DUP and Sinn Féin rule without any recognition of the contribution that other parties might make by suggesting how legislation might be improved. If something does not fit in with Sinn Féin or the DUP’s view of the world, it is not accepted, and that is tough on the rest of us. Such an attitude is coming from a party that cried for years that its electoral mandate should be honoured and upheld. However, it is not taking on board the views of other parties now, particularly those of the SDLP, which has a proven track record on the delivery of social justice and welfare issues on behalf of the people.

Question put, That amendment No 12 be made.

The Assembly divided: Ayes 24; Noes 53.

AYES

Mr Attwood, Mr Beggs, Mr P J Bradley, Mr Burns,  Mr Cobain, Mr Durkan, Mr Elliott, Dr Farry, Mr Ford, Mr Gallagher, Mr Gardiner, Mrs D Kelly, Mrs Long, Mr Lunn, Mr A Maginness, Mr McCallister,  Mr McCarthy, Mr B McCrea, Mr McGlone, Mr O’Loan, Ms Purvis, Mr P Ramsey, Mr Savage, Mr B Wilson.

Tellers for the Ayes: Mrs D Kelly and Mr O’Loan.

NOES

Mr Adams, Ms Anderson, Mr Brady, Mr Bresland,  Mr Brolly, Lord Browne, Mr Buchanan, Mr Butler,  Mr Campbell, Mr T Clarke, Mr Craig, Mr Dodds,  Mr Doherty, Mr Donaldson, Mr Easton, Mrs Foster,  Ms Gildernew, Mr Hamilton, Mr Hilditch, 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, Mrs McGill,  Mr M McGuinness, Miss McIlveen, Mr McKay,  Mr McLaughlin, Mr McQuillan, Mr Molloy,  Lord Morrow, Mr Moutray, Mr Murphy, Mr Newton, Ms Ní Chuilín, Mr O’Dowd, Mrs O’Neill,  Rev Dr Ian Paisley, Mr Poots, Ms S Ramsey,  Mr G Robinson, Mr P Robinson, Mr Ross, Ms Ruane, Mr Shannon, Mr Simpson, Mr Spratt, Mr Weir.

Tellers for the Noes: Mr P Maskey and Mr Moutray.

Question accordingly negatived.

Clause 4 (Financial assistance)

Question put, That amendment No 13 be made.

The Assembly divided: Ayes 23; Noes 53.

AYES

Mr Attwood, Mr Beggs, Mr P J Bradley, Mr Burns,  Mr Cobain, Mr Elliott, Dr Farry, Mr Ford,  Mr Gallagher, Mr Gardiner, Mrs D Kelly, Mrs Long, Mr Lunn, Mr A Maginness, Mr McCallister,  Mr McCarthy, Mr B McCrea, Mr McGlone, Mr O’Loan, Ms Purvis, Mr P Ramsey, Mr Savage, Mr B Wilson.

Tellers for the Ayes: Mr Lunn and Mr McCarthy.

NOES

Mr Adams, Ms Anderson, Mr Brady, Mr Bresland,  Mr Brolly, Lord Browne, Mr Buchanan, Mr Butler,  Mr Campbell, Mr T Clarke, Mr Craig, Mr Dodds,  Mr Doherty, Mr Donaldson, Mr Easton, Mrs Foster,  Ms Gildernew, Mr Hamilton, Mr Hilditch, 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, Mrs McGill,  Mr M McGuinness, Miss McIlveen, Mr McKay,  Mr McLaughlin, Mr McQuillan, Mr Molloy,  Lord Morrow, Mr Moutray, Mr Murphy, Mr Newton, Ms Ní Chuilín, Mr O’Dowd, Mrs O’Neill,  Rev Dr Ian Paisley, Mr Poots, Ms S Ramsey,  Mr G Robinson, Mr P Robinson, Mr Ross, Ms Ruane, Mr Shannon, Mr Simpson, Mr Spratt, Mr Weir.

Tellers for the Noes: Mr Brolly and Mr Moutray.

Question accordingly negatived.

Photo of David McClarty David McClarty UUP 5:45 pm, 26th January 2009

That concludes the Further Consideration Stage of the Financial Assistance Bill. The Bill stands referred to the Speaker.

(Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr Molloy] in the Chair)