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Further Consideration Stage

Executive Committee Business – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 12:15 pm on 26th January 2009.

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Photo of Martin McGuinness Martin McGuinness Sinn Féin 12:15 pm, 26th January 2009

Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I beg to move

That the Further Consideration Stage of the Financial Assistance Bill be agreed.

Photo of William Hay William Hay Speaker

Members have been provided with a copy of the Marshalled List, which details the order of amendments for consideration. The amendments have been grouped for debate in my provisional grouping of amendments selected list. There are three groups of amendments. The Assembly will debate the amendments in each group in turn.

The first debate will be on amendment Nos 1, 2 and 3, which deal with imposing additional responsibilites, by notifications, approvals and reports, upon Departments to Committees and to the Department of Finance and Personnel.

The second debate will be on amendment Nos 4 to 11, which deal with the power to provide financial assistance where unsatisfactory funding arrangements exist.

The third debate will be on amendment Nos 12 and 13, which deal with schemes for financial assistance.

I remind Members who intend to speak that during the debates on the three groups of amendments, they must address all the amendments in the particular group on which they wish to comment. When 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.

I also remind Members that this is the Further Consideration Stage of the Bill. Under Standing Order 37(2), this Stage is restricted to debating any further amendments tabled to the Bill.

If that is clear, we shall proceed.

We now come to the first group of amendments for debate. In the debate on amendment No 1, it will be convenient to debate amendment Nos 2 and 3.

These amendments deal with imposing additional responsibilities, by notifications, approvals and reports, on Departments to Committees and to the Department of Finance and Personnel.

Photo of Dolores Kelly Dolores Kelly Social Democratic and Labour Party

I beg to move amendment No 1: In page 1, line 18, at end insert

“(3A) The relevant department shall notify, as soon as is practicable, the appropriate statutory committee of any designation under this section.”

The following amendments stood on the Marshalled List:

No 2: In page 1, line 20, at end insert

“(4A) Regulations made under this section, if made by a department other than the Department of Finance and Personnel, require the approval of that department.” — [Mr O’Loan.]

No 3: In page 2, line 4, at end insert

“(8) The relevant department shall, within 1 year of the commencement of the scheme, provide a report on the operation of the scheme to the appropriate statutory committee.” — [Mrs D Kelly.]

It was well articulated last week, particularly by the SDLP, and also by the Ulster Unionist Party and the Alliance Party, that we have no desire to hold up the process and that we fully recognise the need for legislative cover to provide assistance in an emergency situation. In your opening remarks, Mr Speaker, you pointed out quite rightly that these amendments seek to ensure that the relevant Committee, which may fall under the legislation of any of the schemes to be introduced, shall have full sight of the scheme when it is introduced, at the point of designation. Amendment No 1 seeks to ensure that the matter is brought before the relevant Committee as soon as the scheme is initiated.

Amendment No 2 looks to the financial situation in which a Department might find itself. If there are no Executive funds or contingency funds, the approval of the Minister of Finance and Personnel should be sought, and the Executive should give consideration to where a Department’s money might come from. There is concern that this legislation will give the First Minister and the deputy First Minister the authority to instruct a Department on how it should use its money, without regard having been given to the Programme for Government or any other money having been secured. It is incumbent on the Minister of Finance and Personnel to indicate at an early stage — during the monitoring rounds, for example — what contingency fund he hopes to introduce to provide the money.

When the Executive and the First Minister and the deputy First Minister are considering the introduction of a scheme, consideration must be given to where the money will come from so that the relevant Minister has an opportunity to indicate what impact that loss of finance will have if there is no additional or new money. It is also important that the legislation should oblige a Department to provide a report to the relevant Committee within one year of the scheme’s commencement, because Committees need to have oversight.

Mr Speaker, you have spoken many times about the primacy of the Assembly and the scrutiny Committees, and other Members have said that Committees have a clear role and remit and that they welcome their scrutiny.

These amendments seek to improve the legislation and should not cause the First Minister or the deputy First Minister any concern. The amendments seek to put the relevant Committees in good stead in respect of the scheme’s introduction, outworking, evaluation and impact. That may also inform future debates concerning the Programme for Government and any decision on whether those should be mainstreamed at the next Budget round. It is our party’s wish that Members, particularly those from Sinn Féin and the DUP, will give consideration to our concerns and support these genuine attempts to improve the legislation.

Photo of Stephen Moutray Stephen Moutray DUP

I rise to speak on the first group of amendments that appear on the Marshalled List for the Further Consideration Stage of the Financial Assistance Bill. At the outset, I wish to state that my colleagues and I oppose amendment Nos 1, 2 and 3. Last week, the Assembly held a marathon debate concerning the Financial Assistance Bill and its context. Having read the long list of purposeless amendments that have been tabled this week, I believe that this could be another marathon debate.

I have no problem with a marathon debate. However, the same point is being made time and time again, and some Members are using the debate as a political football. Are the Members who have tabled the amendments not listening to the First Minister?

The amendments that are listed in group 1 undoubtedly attempt to use the Bill as a political point-scoring exercise and attempt to sabotage its ability to assist those who are most in need. Although those Members are trying to score points, they are hindering and deterring the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister (OFMDFM) and the Executive in assisting those who are most in need.

Photo of Stephen Moutray Stephen Moutray DUP

No.

Amendment No 1 requires a Department that has been designated under clause 1 by the First Minister and deputy First Minister to inform its Assembly Committee of any designation. Is that procedure not already in operation? The Members are surely aware of the ongoing liaison between Departments and Committees. That is standard protocol. Therefore, the amendment is unnecessary because it calls for the introduction of a process that already exists.

Likewise, amendment No 2 requires the Department of Finance and Personnel (DFP) to approve any regulations made under clause 1. That amendment is totally unnecessary, because the Minister of Finance and Personnel will make his views known when the Executive — I repeat, the Executive — are asked to agree a proposed scheme. Once again, duplication is being introduced.

I oppose the content of amendment No 3, which lacks purpose and rationale. The amendment, in effect, says that — and I am sure that Members will, at some stage, try to attack my interpretation — [Interruption.]

Photo of William Hay William Hay Speaker

Order. I apologise to the Member. Mobile phones must be switched off, if possible. None of us is innocent; we all make that mistake with mobile phones. However, mobile phones must be switched off, if possible.

Photo of Barry McElduff Barry McElduff Sinn Féin

On a point of order, Mr Speaker, will you clarify whether that instruction is optional or mandatory?

Photo of William Hay William Hay Speaker

Order. We are all to blame, and Members must switch off mobile phones or, at least, put them on silent mode.

Photo of Stephen Moutray Stephen Moutray DUP

I reject amendment No 3 on the basis that there should be a statutory duty to report on a scheme. Furthermore, that report should be made to the Assembly, rather than directly to the relevant Committee. In any event, Members should be aware that the Committee for the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister can, as part of its scrutiny role, seek information or an update on the operation or roll-out of any scheme at any time. Members are again choosing to play politics with the Bill rather than supporting its content and the benefits that it will bring to those who are most in need. I oppose the amendments.

Photo of Mickey Brady Mickey Brady Sinn Féin

Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I oppose amendment Nos 1, 2 and 3. The policy objectives and the purpose of the Financial Assistance Bill have been addressed; it will deal with emergency situations that arise extraordinarily. Amendment No 1 —

Photo of Mickey Brady Mickey Brady Sinn Féin

No.

Amendment No 1 is superfluous. As Mr Moutray said, there was a marathon debate last week on the amendments, which are largely irrelevant. Points have been reiterated, and the debate has almost become political theatre. Some parties seem to be tabling amendments and filibustering rather than addressing the reason for the legislation. In my experience, those who are fuel poor, vulnerable, on benefits or elderly are constantly asking when they will receive the money.

The Minister previously said:

“Show me the money, and I will do the business”.

People are now asking when they will receive the money — the sooner the better, I say, because people are suffering daily as a result of all this discussion, which is really of no benefit to those people at whom the legislation is aimed.

The purpose of amendment No 2 is to seek to require the Minister of Finance and Personnel and his Department to approve for other Departments money that may or may not be available. However, the Executive operate on the principle of collective responsibility, so anything that happens will be the Executive’s responsibility. No single Minister should be in a position in which he or she can hold back legislation that is most necessary.

The statutory duty sought under amendment No 3 is already in place — the appropriate Committee must consider any proposed scheme, and all proposed schemes will eventually come before the Executive. My colleagues will deal with the other amendments. I reject the amendments, which are largely superfluous and of no benefit to those people most in need. Go raibh maith agat.

Photo of John McCallister John McCallister UUP 12:30 pm, 26th January 2009

At the outset, I totally reject Mr Moutray’s opening remarks about other parties not wanting to help those most in need. The Ulster Unionist Party has made it clear throughout the debates on the Bill that we are very much committed — as I accept that everyone in the House is committed — to helping those most in need.

Photo of Naomi Long Naomi Long Alliance

Does the Member agree that not one of the debates that has taken place on the subject has delayed fuel payments by one day? Protocol requires that the Bill go through all the legislative Stages. Mr Moutray has exposed only his own lack of understanding of the legislative process.

Photo of John McCallister John McCallister UUP

I am grateful to the Member for her intervention, and what she says is absolutely true. During last week’s Consideration Stage debate, the First Minister pointed out that it was very unparliamentary for Members to leave the Chamber during the course of the debate. Debate is not delaying the Bill; rather, it is an important part of the democratic process.

Photo of William Hay William Hay Speaker

Order. The Member should return to addressing the proposed amendments to clause 1.

Photo of Peter Robinson Peter Robinson DUP

For clarification, in case anyone thinks that I want everyone to stay in the Chamber all day for the entire debate, there is a general courtesy that a Member who speaks should remain in the Chamber until the Member who speaks next has completed his or her speech.

Photo of John McCallister John McCallister UUP

I am grateful for that intervention, and I will return to discussing the Bill immediately. I am not sure whether the First Minister’s colleague Mr Moutray stayed in the Chamber until the next Member to speak had finished.

The SDLP, along with the Ulster Unionist Party and the Alliance Party, has attempted to table amendments that will improve the Bill’s democratic accountability. The amendments would bring the legislation more into line with the power-sharing character of the unique Government institutions that we have in Northern Ireland. The amendments that were proposed last week were an attempt to ensure that decisions made in any emergency situation be made by the entire Executive, with the consent of the relevant Departments.

The amendments that the SDLP tabled for today are aimed at ensuring that the Assembly appropriately scrutinises designations of financial assistance. Despite the ill-tempered reception that the amendments received last week, the SDLP has proposed others that will improve the Bill. Amendment No 1 seeks to ensure that the relevant Statutory Committee be notified by the related Department of any designation of financial assistance under clause 1. Designations under clause 1 are subject to negative resolution, and that will result in limited, or no, opportunity for Members to scrutinise proposals. Amendment No 1 would ensure that the relevant Department would be able to examine, and have input into, proposals if appropriate.

I see no reason for rejecting that amendment, over and above the fact that, to date, the DUP and Sinn Féin have yet to accept any amendment to a Bill that received accelerated passage. Not only would amendment No 1 enable Committees to scrutinise proposals on behalf of the people of Northern Ireland, but they would be able to add their diverse, and often expert, experience, which, in many instances, would help to improve pieces of legislation that all Committees in this place consider.

Photo of Basil McCrea Basil McCrea UUP

Does the Member share my wry sense of amusement that not only will people not accept amendments but — save for the First Minister — they will not even take interventions, so unsure are they of their positions? The point was made to Members opposite that they do not even understand the legislative process; they will not even let us debate the matter, never mind listening to what we have to say.

Photo of John McCallister John McCallister UUP

I am grateful to my honourable friend for that intervention — he is absolutely right. As the debate progresses, it will be interesting to see whether Members of the two main parties in Government — bar the First Minister and the deputy First Minister — take interventions.

All Ministers are aware of the positive input that Committees can make to proposals. It will be a lost opportunity if amendment No 1 is not accepted. I hope that the deputy First Minister will be more receptive than the co-holder of his office to the recommendations that will be made by Members today.

The deputy First Minister will probably make reference to over-legislating and over-complicating the Bill. However, amendment No 1 is an important and worthwhile addition, which the deputy First Minister would accept if he were more in tune with the implications of accelerated passage.

Amendment No 2 seeks to ensure that the Bill does not impinge on the ability of Departments to manage their budgets and to meet their settled targets and public service agreements. The recent strategic stocktake highlighted the tight fiscal position in which all Departments find themselves. The amendment will provide Ministers with the peace of mind that they will be able to continue to manage their own budgets.

Amendment No 3 is another sensible proposal that will ensure that the success or failure of any scheme can be examined by the Assembly. For policy to be implemented successfully, it must be monitored and evaluated throughout its life and afterwards. The amendment provides an opportunity for Departments to learn from their mistakes and to share successes with other Departments, Committees and non-governmental organisations.

To not accept the amendments will make little sense. They are reasonable and constructive, and they will benefit this piece of legislation. I thank the SDLP Members who tabled the amendments, and I look forward to the deputy First Minister’s response.

Photo of Stephen Farry Stephen Farry Alliance

I support amendment Nos 1 and 3, and I seek some clarification on amendment No 2. Today’s debate is important. It is certainly well within the procedures of the House to have it as it is part and parcel of the legislative process. The debate needs to be more constructive, brief and to the point than was the case last week, when we had extensive discussions about these matters.

My party appreciates that Members can discuss amendments at Consideration Stage and Further Consideration Stage and that we do not have the guillotine system that exists in the House of Commons. In the context of Northern Ireland’s divided society and the multi-party system, it is important that free and open exchange takes place, but with that comes a responsibility on Members about how they approach debates.

Photo of Basil McCrea Basil McCrea UUP

May I check that the Member is encouraging debate and that he welcomes interventions? We recommend that the two parties to which the First Minister and the deputy First Minister belong should take interventions and listen to what we have to say.

Photo of William Hay William Hay Speaker

Order, order. On at least two occasions during the debate, Members have almost forced others to take interventions. It is up to the Member who has the Floor whether he or she decides to take an intervention. That could be rather risky, but Members decide whether they want to take interventions. This issue has been raised on several occasions; nobody can force the Member who has the Floor to take an intervention if he or she does not want to.

Photo of Stephen Farry Stephen Farry Alliance

Thank you for your points, Mr Speaker. I am more than happy to take interventions, as was just demonstrated when I took one from Mr Basil McCrea.

Nevertheless, Mr Speaker’s point touches on the fact that, more than 18 months into this mandate, we await the commencement of free and open debates. If Members continue to merely read out their speeches, rather than other Members having to listen to them, those making the speeches may as well just hand them to the Office of the Official Report for printing.

Photo of Peter Robinson Peter Robinson DUP

Surely the Member will acknowledge that conducting a debate in the Chamber does not depend simply on the occurrence of interventions. A debate consists of a Member speaking, followed by subsequent Members dealing with the comments that he or she has made.

Photo of Stephen Farry Stephen Farry Alliance

I fully concur with the First Minister’s remarks, and his Back-Bench colleagues, and those belonging to Sinn Féin, would do well to listen to them. I recognise that the First Minister engages in debate, and such conduct should be encouraged in respect of all Members.

Returning to the substance of the amendments, it is important that we do not rehearse the arguments made last week, when there was a full debate on clause 1 and, although not to the same extent, on clause 2.

The Alliance Party takes a slightly different approach to clause 1 than it does to clause 2. We envisage that clause 1 would deal with short-term and exceptional circumstances, in which case more checks and balances would ensure that relevant Departments and Ministers act in accordance with them.

Furthermore, Mr Brady said that the Bill is designed to deal with emergency situations; however, we should focus on it dealing with exceptional circumstances. Winter-fuel payments are not emergency provisions — winter happens every year. However, circumstances might be exceptional, particularly, for example, in the present economic situation, and it is important that we make that distinction.

My colleague Naomi Long will discuss clause 2, and she will demonstrate that a different approach might be appropriate when dealing with longer-term systemic situations that pertain to delivering policies throughout Departments. I can envisage circumstances — for example, if a Department or a Minister is not operating in line with a policy direction that has been centrally agreed by the Executive — in which it might be possible, indeed, necessary, to make progress without the consent of the relevant Department or Minister.

Nevertheless, we should move more cautiously with clause 1 in order to ensure that all parties sign up to it, and that is why I am sympathetic to the thrust of amendment No 2, although more explanation is required about whether the final “department” contained in it refers to the Department of Finance and Personnel or to the first Department mentioned. If it refers to the first Department mentioned, the amendment’s drafting might be tautological, but if it refers to the second, the amendment would be acceptable to the Alliance Party. I shall await clarification at the end of the debate from those who tabled that amendment.

An argument may be made that the actions stipulated in amendment Nos 1 and 3 would happen in any event; however, there is no reason why they should not be added to the Bill to provide additional reassurance and to ensure proper reporting and accountability in Committees and in the Assembly. Therefore, the Alliance Party has no difficulty in accepting them both. Thank you, Mr Speaker, and I look forward to a free exchange of ideas among Members during the rest of the debate.

Photo of Martin McGuinness Martin McGuinness Sinn Féin

Having read the Official Report of last week’s seven-hour Consideration Stage, I should not be entirely surprised that an even greater number of amendments have been tabled for the Bill’s Further Consideration Stage. I intend to oppose the three amendments in group 1.

Amendment No 1 would require a Department to inform its Committee that it had been designated by the First Minister and deputy First Minister under clause 1 for the purpose of creating a scheme. Amendment No 1 is unnecessary because such notification would occur in any event as part of ongoing liaison between a Department and its Committee.

During the Bill’s Second Stage and Consideration Stage, it was emphasised that any regulations made under clause 1 or clause 2 would be subject to normal Committee consideration, including any proposal by a Department to make regulations using the powers provided for in the Bill. It is normal practice for a Department that is proposing to make regulations to write to its departmental Committee Clerk to advise the Committee of a proposed statutory rule.

That practice will be no different in the case of regulations being made under clause 1 to deal with exceptional circumstances. The letter to the Committee will provide sufficient information for it to carry out an informed policy scrutiny. That notification procedure is set out in the handbook on subordinate legislation.

In addition to that formal communication, I would expect that departmental Assembly liaison officers would contact their departmental Committee Clerk to alert them immediately once they become aware that their Department had been designated under this legislation. In view of that, I reject amendment No 1, because it is unnecessary. Committees will be aware from an early stage that a Department has been designated to make regulations under this legislation.

Amendment No 2 would require the Department of Finance and Personnel to approve any regulations made under clause 1 of the Bill. When viewed in isolation, amendment No 2 does not seem unreasonable. However, it has to be viewed in the wider context of decision-making under clause 1. As we have said in previous debates on the Bill, any proposal for a determination, designation or scheme will have to come to the Executive for consideration and agreement. The views of all Ministers — including the Minister of Finance and Personnel — will have to be considered in reaching decisions. I reject amendment No 2, because the Minister of Finance and Personnel will have made his views known when the Executive were asked to agree to a proposed scheme.

Amendment No 3 would require the relevant Department to report on the scheme, to its Committee, within a year of the scheme’s commencement. The Members who tabled this amendment and amendment No 1 seem to believe that the Committees will be kept in the dark or ignored by their Departments; that will not be the case. However, if there is to be a statutory duty to report on a scheme, such a report would be to the Assembly and not to the relevant Committee.

In any event, a Committee could seek information on the operation of the scheme at any time, as part of its scrutiny role. Therefore, it is unnecessary to place a statutory duty on relevant Departments to produce a report on the operation of a scheme to a Committee. I ask Members to reject amendment Nos 1, 2 and 3.

Photo of Declan O'Loan Declan O'Loan Social Democratic and Labour Party 12:45 pm, 26th January 2009

I am glad to have the opportunity to make a winding-up speech on the first group of amendments and to summarise the debate. As several Members said, a substantial debate on the Bill was held in the Chamber last week, and that debate was seen by many of us as being necessary.

I have used the words “loathsome” and “obnoxious” in relation to the legislation, but, today, I describe it as “dangerous”. That description should be taken at least as seriously, because, as legislators in a democratic Assembly, we should guard vigilantly the rights of that Assembly and its elements — particularly, in the context of this debate, its Committees. That is true in any legislature, and it is particularly true in a society that remains unstable and which has parliamentary institutions that are still subject to the test. Anyone who challenges that contention should remember that the Executive did not meet for 154 days, as has been referred to often.

Therefore, any measure that proposes significant changes to how the Assembly runs itself should be subject to close scrutiny. No one should misrepresent that as an attempt to hold up payments to those who are in need. It is for that reason that I am disappointed in the reaction of OFMDFM and its representative parties to the amendments. If OFMDFM was of a mind to assuage the concerns of others, it would have been willing to listen to these modest amendments.

Members will know well that we sought more substantial changes. We wished to delete clause 2 and await a more considered introduction of its provisions before the relevant Committee.

OFMDFM resisted that utterly and successfully. The changes that we sought to make to clause 1 of the Bill were also rejected. We are now submitting very modest changes to clause 1, the first of which is that we want a report of the designation to be made to the relevant Committee. Secondly, we want DFP to approve the regulations. Thirdly, a report on a scheme should be made to the relevant departmental Committee within a year. The unwillingness of the parties in OFMDFM to assent to those modest changes brings no comfort to those who table the amendments, or to their parties, that they will be given a fair crack of the whip in the relationships and decision-making in the Executive.

In proposing the amendments, Dolores Kelly outlined the reasons for tabling them with absolute clarity. She emphasised that there is no desire to hold up the financial measures that will represent the first use of the Bill. Naomi Long pointed out correctly that the amendments have not held up the proceedings of the Assembly or the payments even by one day. Other factors, to which I referred earlier, have held up those payments considerably.

Photo of Peter Robinson Peter Robinson DUP

Would the Member like to give way on that issue?

Photo of Peter Robinson Peter Robinson DUP

I am grateful to the Member. He is right, and, in fact, that point was raised on 18 occasions during debates on the earlier Stages of the Bill. The erroneous argument was made that the Bill required accelerated passage because the Executive had not met for 154 days. In support of that argument, the leader of Mr O’Loan’s party relayed to the House leaked information that had been provided to him by some dishonourable person whom he has not named. [Interruption.]

I am sure that everyone agrees that someone who leaks a confidential Government document is, unquestionably, dishonourable. I am sure that the Member will accept that the document dated 2 October 2008 may not have signalled the end of the issue and that his Minister came to her Executive colleagues and said that her officials were pursuing with the Departmental Solicitor’s Office and officials from other Departments whether another Department had the power to make the payments. There is a fistful of correspondence that demonstrates that right up to December 2008, the matter had not been closed. Therefore, the challenge has been answered, and I hope that there will not only be a withdrawal but an apology from the leader of the SDLP.

Photo of William Hay William Hay Speaker

Order. It is important to return to the debate and to the business on the Floor of the House.

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

I have no difficulty in getting back to the debate, and I am sure that everything that the First Minister said will be studied closely. Undoubtedly, the leader of the SDLP, in due course and in the proper place, will respond.

I noted that the deputy First Minister was sent out to speak on the Bill today, but the First Minister evidently felt it necessary to come to his rescue when the nature of the Bill and its progress was challenged.

I turn now to the responses to the amendment.

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

Certainly; I am pleased to give way to the deputy First Minister.

Photo of Martin McGuinness Martin McGuinness Sinn Féin

The Member knows that the deputy First Minister does not need to be rescued by anyone.

He mentioned the Executive not meeting for 154 days, although when they finally met, they did so after reaching an important agreement on the transfer of policing and justice powers. Given that he raised that issue, he should recall the period from the summer of 1998 to the winter of 1999 when the offices of First Minister and deputy First Minister were held by David Trimble and Séamus Mallon. Under their stewardship, the Executive failed to meet for a period of 500 days.

Photo of William Hay William Hay Speaker

Order. I must remind Members that good practice dictates that interventions must relate to the issues being debated on the Floor, which are the amendments.

Photo of Basil McCrea Basil McCrea UUP

Will the Member take an intervention from this side of the House?

Photo of Basil McCrea Basil McCrea UUP

Does the Member share with me the relief that the deputy First Minister does not need to be rescued, because he and the First Minister are in the same boat? Will he also join me in saying that whenever we discussed leaks and various other things, issues of public interest were involved? I recall that in another place

Photo of William Hay William Hay Speaker

Order. I remind Members once again that good practice in interventions is that they must relate to the business being discussed in the House.

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

Thank you. I will be glad to pursue my own remarks.

I believe that the deputy First Minister misrepresents the historical record. If, at some point, he wishes to outline the gains that his party made during those 154 days, and his precise timetable for the devolution of policing and justice, I will be happy —

Photo of William Hay William Hay Speaker

Order. The Member must return to the debate.

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

I accept what you say, Mr Speaker.

I was disappointed by Stephen Moutray’s responses to the individual amendments. He said that reporting the designation to the Committee was already standard protocol. If it is in place already, why is there resistance to writing this simple amendment into the Bill?

Amendment No 2 is important. In relation to the point that Stephen Farry raised, the exact wording has been properly verified by those who are competent to do so, as far as parliamentary drafting is concerned; therefore, the Member can be confident that the words, “of that department”, clearly refer to the Department of Finance and Personnel. It is a necessary provision. As John McCallister said, it will give Ministers peace of mind that they will retain control over their own budgets. Again, if the two parties want to give the assurance that they are working in partnership with others in the Executive, they can support this amendment.

Without amendment No 2, we could find ourselves in the situation where the Public Accounts Committee, the Government auditor, or other oversight bodies would, later on, find themselves looking at the scheme and the regulations and saying that there were financial deficits or irregularities. DFP would be put in the position of saying that it had nothing to do with creating the scheme; it simply allocated a certain sum of money, but was not involved in how that money would be spent. That is not good Government. Amendment No 2 is valid.

Stephen Moutray — surprisingly for a democrat speaking in a democratic Chamber — was not happy that the Committee that was set up to scrutinise that activity should report on the scheme within a year. He said that it would be better if the matter were to come to the Assembly as a whole. Where is the provision in the Bill that a report be made to the Assembly as a whole? It is not there.

We have made our points cogently in relation to the amendments, and the Bill would be better if those amendments were included.

The deputy First Minister referred to existing protocols around informing Committees. He used the words, “I would expect”. He believes that everything is covered by ordinary procedure. Once again, the SDLP wants much more confidence on the issue and the clarity that would be expressed by writing those straightforward amendments into the Bill.

Photo of Mark Durkan Mark Durkan Leader of the Social Democratic & Labour Party

I thank the Member for giving way. The deputy First Minister referred to the fact that Committees receive information and advice on subordinate legislation. However, many Committees have complained about the terms in which they receive that information, and its timing. Rather than to expect things simply to happen, it is the business of legislation to be very clear about what is required to happen.

Photo of Declan O'Loan Declan O'Loan Social Democratic and Labour Party 1:00 pm, 26th January 2009

I thank the Member for that useful intervention. I rest my case, and I support the three amendments.

Question put, That amendment No 1 be made.

The Assembly divided: Ayes 34; Noes 55.

AYES

Mr Armstrong, Mr Attwood, Mr Beggs, Mr D Bradley, Mr P J Bradley, Mr Burns, Mr Burnside, Mr Cobain, Rev Dr Robert Coulter, Mr Cree, Mr Durkan, Mr Elliott, Dr Farry, Mr Ford, Mr Gallagher, Mr Gardiner, Mrs D Kelly, Ms Lo, Mrs Long, Mr Lunn, Mr A Maginness, Mr McCallister, Mr McCarthy, Mr McClarty, Mr B McCrea, Mr McFarland, Mr McGlone, Mr Neeson, Mr O’Loan, Ms Purvis, Mr P Ramsey, Mr K Robinson, Mr Savage, Mr B Wilson.

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

NOES

Mr Adams, Ms Anderson, Mr Boylan, Mr Brady, Mr Bresland, Mr Brolly, Lord Browne, Mr Butler, Mr Campbell, Mr T Clarke, Mr W Clarke, Mr Craig, Mr Dodds, Mr Doherty, Mr Easton, Mrs Foster, Mr Hamilton, Mr Hilditch, Mr Irwin, Mr A Maskey, Mr P Maskey, Mr F McCann, Ms J McCann, Mr McCartney, Mr McCausland, Mr I McCrea, Dr W McCrea, Mr McElduff, Mrs McGill, Mr M McGuinness, Miss McIlveen, Mr McLaughlin, Mr McQuillan, Mr Molloy, Lord Morrow, Mr Moutray, Mr Newton, Ms Ní Chuilín, Mr O’Dowd, Mrs O’Neill, Mr Paisley Jnr, 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 Storey, Mr Weir, Mr Wells, Mr S Wilson.

Tellers for the Noes: Mr Brolly and Mr Moutray.

Question accordingly negatived.

Question put, That amendment No 2 be made.

The Assembly divided: Ayes 34; Noes 56.

AYES

Mr Armstrong, Mr Attwood, Mr Beggs, Mr D Bradley, Mr P J Bradley, Mr Burns, Mr Burnside, Mr Cobain, Rev Dr Robert Coulter, Mr Cree, Mr Durkan, Mr Elliott, Dr Farry, Mr Ford, Mr Gallagher, Mr Gardiner, Mrs D Kelly, Ms Lo, Mrs Long, Mr Lunn, Mr A Maginness, Mr McCallister, Mr McCarthy, Mr McClarty, Mr B McCrea, Mr McFarland, Mr McGlone, Mr Neeson, Mr O’Loan, Ms Purvis, Mr P Ramsey, Mr K Robinson, Mr Savage, Mr B Wilson.

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

NOES

Mr Adams, Ms Anderson, Mr Boylan, Mr Brady, Mr Bresland, Mr Brolly, Lord Browne, Mr Butler, Mr Campbell, Mr T Clarke, Mr W Clarke, Mr Craig, Mr Dodds, Mr Doherty, Mr Easton, Mrs Foster, Mr Hamilton, Mr Hilditch, Mr Irwin, Mr A Maskey, Mr P Maskey, Mr F McCann, Ms J McCann, Mr McCartney, Mr McCausland, Mr I McCrea, Dr W McCrea, Mr McElduff, Mrs McGill, Mr M McGuinness, Miss McIlveen, Mr McKay, Mr McLaughlin, Mr McQuillan, Mr Molloy, Lord Morrow, Mr Moutray, Mr Newton, Ms Ní Chuilín, Mr O’Dowd, Mrs O’Neill, Mr Paisley Jnr, 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 Storey, Mr Weir, Mr Wells, Mr S Wilson.

Tellers for the Noes: Mr Brolly and Mr Moutray.

Question accordingly negatived.

Question, That amendment No 3 be made, put and negatived.

Clause 2 (Unsatisfactory funding arrangements: power to provide financial assistance)

Photo of William Hay William Hay Speaker

Order. We now come to the second group of amendments for debate. With amendment No 4, it will be convenient to debate amendment Nos 5 to 11. I advise Members that amendment Nos 5 and 6 are mutually exclusive. Therefore, if amendment No 5 is made, I will not call amendment No 6. The second debate deals with the power to provide financial assistance where unsatisfactory funding agreements exist.

Photo of Tom Elliott Tom Elliott UUP

I beg to move amendment No 4: In page 2, line 7, after “acting jointly,” insert

“and with the agreement of the Executive Committee,”.

The following amendments stood on the Marshalled List:

No 5: In page 2, line 7, at end insert “( ) that exceptional circumstances exist,”. — [Mr O’ Loan.]

No 6: In page 2 line 8, leave out “a” and insert “an unforeseen”. — [Mr Elliott.]

No 7: In page 2, line 13, leave out line 13 and insert “be ineffective or inadequate, and”. — [Mrs D Kelly.]

No 8: In page 2, line 16, leave out “6 months” and insert “3 months”. — [Mr Elliott.]

No 9: In page 2, line 25, at end insert

“(3A) The relevant department shall notify, as soon as is practicable, the appropriate statutory committee of any designation under this section.” — [Mrs D Kelly.]

No 10: In page 2, line 27, at end insert

“(4A) Regulations made under this section, if made by a department other than the Department of Finance and Personnel, require the approval of that department.” — [Mr O’Loan.]

No 11: In page 2, line 35, at end insert

“(8) The relevant department shall, within 1 year of the commencement of the scheme, provide a report on the operation of the scheme to the appropriate statutory committee.” — [Mrs D Kelly.]

During last week’s Consideration Stage of the Financial Assistance Bill, I noted with interest that the First Minister informed the House that clause 2 of the Bill did not represent a power grab. He said that:

“one cannot grab power that one already has. That power is already resident in OFMDFM.” — [Official Report, Vol 36, No 7, Part 1, p359, col 1].

The First Minister’s view is that clause 2 is a tidying-up exercise that makes explicit what is already implicit. He even suggested that, when undertaking that tidying-up exercise, clause 2 is the:

“more open, transparent and democratic way”. — [Official Report, Vol 36, No 7, p360, col 1].

I thank the First Minister, because his reasoning provides the rationale for the Ulster Unionist Party’s amendment — amendment No 4 — which proposes that consent be required of the Executive Committee for the exercise of the powers conferred on OFMDFM by clause 2.

Today, the deputy First Minister may tell the House that amendment No 4 is unnecessary. He may even take a leaf out of the First Minister’s book and accuse those of us who support it of not having two brain cells to rub together, but that is not the point. Amendment No 4 is merely intended as a tidying-up exercise, and in tabling it, we are trying to be helpful and constructive to the Bill. A power grab is not being carried out by the Executive Committee; one cannot grab power that one already has. That power is already resident in the Executive Committee, and, as the First Minister said last week:

“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.” — [Official Report, Vol 36, No 7, p358, col 1].

Given that that is the case, amendment No 4 is an open, transparent and democratic way of making explicit what the First Minister has already said. After all, who would wish to argue against making processes in the Chamber more open, transparent and democratic? To reject amendment No 4 suggests that the Member for Foyle Ms Anderson was correct in her boast that clause 2 represents a “significant sea change”, and is not merely a tidying-up exercise; it will be saying that clause 2 is not merely making explicit what is implicit but is a significant sea change in the workings of the Executive.

The overriding message that has been picked up by the media and the public is that the Bill is exclusively designed to provide financial assistance to address emergency situations. Neither I nor my party wishes to go against that, and neither do the majority of Members. However, the manner in which the Bill has been presented has led people to believe that that is the Bill’s only purpose.

Clause 2 is not designed to address emergency situations. Regardless of all the previous protestations of the First Minister, clause 2 is designed to significantly change the role of his Department, as the Member for Foyle Martina Anderson has stated.

The Bill is called the Financial Assistance Bill, but at Consideration Stage, it appeared that the First Minister could not decipher whether clause 2 was designed to provide specific instances of financial assistance, or whether it should be used as a tool to promote his Department’s co-ordinating role on the cross-cutting themes of poverty, social exclusion and patterns of deprivation. The First Minister made much of the fact that his Department already has a cross-cutting role to co-ordinate those and other issues. Is the Bill concerned merely with enhancing policy co-ordination, or does it represent a significant sea change in the role of OFMDFM?

These devolved institutions should seek to ensure that all parties, which represent different sections of society in Northern Ireland, work together for the common good of all in light of our collective past. The role of First Minister and deputy First Minister, as representatives of the largest parties, is to co-ordinate and provide innovation on the cross-cutting themes that affect more than one Department, be they child poverty, sustainability, and the other issues that regularly come before the House. Indeed, the first objective in the public service agreement outlined on the OFMDFM website is to assist Government in making and implementing well-informed decisions and improving public services. The word used is “assist”, not “dictate”.

I disagree with the First Minister’s interpretation of clause 2. To suggest that it is a continuation of the powers of the First Minister and deputy First Minister is not correct. Clause 2 moves the role of the First Minister and deputy First Minister beyond providing co-ordination to overriding the power of Departments for any reason they deem necessary.

Have the decisions that Sinn Féin and the DUP have made to date been conducive to a shared and normalised future for Northern Ireland? The Bill will give the DUP and Sinn Féin more power to produce and implement policy on an us-and-them basis. We are slowly moving away from co-operation to an enforced carve-up on all these issues.

The Ulster Unionist Party has tabled further amendments to clause 2 that will move the Bill closer to the original intention, namely, to provide financial assistance to people who are suffering from unforeseen events and actions. Amendment No 6 will ensure that clause 2 is not used as a normal policy tool by OFMDFM to override Departments and the Programme for Government. It will ensure that only poverty, social exclusion or deprivation not foreseen or factored into the Programme for Government and Departments’ own schemes and policies can be addressed. Failure to accept the amendment will justify Sinn Féin’s interpretation of the Bill as a sea change in the way we do business in this House.

I draw the deputy First Minister’s attention to the fact that, whereas clause 2 stipulates that the First and deputy First Minister may exercise their powers when a situation exists which “requires” financial assistance to be provided, clause 1 states that they should act on an exceptional circumstance only if and when they deem it to be “desirable”. The word “requires” implies compulsion; “desirable” implies a lower threshold of need. I want clarification of those terms. The Assembly should be informed why different words have been selected for each clause, and exactly what the ramifications are.

Clause 2(1)(b) states that financial assistance can be provided when the First Minister and deputy First Minister deem that existing arrangements and policies are “for any other reason unsatisfactory”. That should sound alarm bells. What is meant by “any other reason”?

If the Bill is genuinely about financial assistance to people in exceptional circumstances or unforeseen situations of poverty, social exclusion or deprivation — rather than to effect a sea change in the way that the Executive create and implement policy — we must act quickly in each circumstance. However, during the Consideration Stage, the First Minister stated that:

“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.” — [Official Report, Vol 36, No 7, Part 1, p342].

Poverty, social exclusion and deprivation are likely to be with us for the foreseeable future and many years to come. How, then, can a situation that is unforeseen or out of the ordinary be given a timescale for reaction? The Ulster Unionist Party’s amendments will clarify the intention of the Bill and give it definitive boundaries and purpose.

By reducing the time to react under clause 2, amendment No 8 reflects the urgency that should be shown in reacting to a critical situation. If clause 2 is not to be used exclusively for emergency situations, we should all ask where the money will come from.

Last week, in his ministerial statement, the Minister of Finance and Personnel said that:

“the main source of funding to address emerging pressures is expected to come from the resources that were allocated in the Budget process”. — [Official Report, Vol 36, No 7, Part 1, p301].

However, we have been told that the shortfall between what Departments need to meet their Programme for Government targets and what is actually available is over £1 billion. At this stage, there will be a difficult balancing act between reduced requirements and emerging pressures. The clause has the potential to add a duplicating spending pressure to our already stretched Budget. I ask the deputy First Minister whether, if he uses the powers of clause 2 to give significant financial assistance, reductions will have to be made in other areas.

If clause 2 is to stand, it is crucial that it be used only for unforeseen circumstances of poverty, deprivation or social exclusion that require immediate action. Otherwise, the Bill, rather than better co-ordinating Government in Northern Ireland, will further divide parties and Ministers in the Executive.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon DUP 1:30 pm, 26th January 2009

I oppose the proposed amendments to clause 2. My colleague will speak to amendment Nos 4, 5, 6 and 7, and I will speak to amendment Nos 8, 9, 10 and 11. We want to dismiss the supposed need for those amendments as quickly as possible so that the Assembly, rather than holding things back, can get down to the business of helping the people of this Province. That is what I am about, and I hope that I can persuade other Members to be of the same opinion.

In this time of recession, people need good legislators who see their needs, and they need good legislation that will meet those needs. The Bill will show the public that we have both. I am anxious to get the Bill in place so that when the need arises, it can do the job that it is designed to do, which is to help people.

Amendment No 8 proposes to reduce the time limit from six months to three months from when a determination is made under clause 2 to the making of any consequent regulations. Given the time that is required for consultation, for example, that would mean that the relevant Department could run the risk of not meeting its proposed deadline. We all know that it can take some time for consultations to be completed and for the Assembly to approve regulations in draft form. Meanwhile, the people in the street would be worse off. I believe that amendment No 8, if agreed to, would reduce the effectiveness of the legislation and would be a backward step.

Amendment No 9 is as unnecessary as amendment No 1, which relates to clause 1. Amendment No 9 would require that a Department that has been designated by the Office of the First Minster and deputy First Minster inform its Assembly Committee of that designation. The amendment is unnecessary because notification will take place in any event as part of the ongoing liaison between a Department and its Assembly Committee. For example, when the junior Ministers have been requested to attend the Committee for the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister, they have done so. Very clearly, all the Committees liaise, particularly —

Photo of Dolores Kelly Dolores Kelly Social Democratic and Labour Party

I thank Mr Shannon for giving way. I am sure that he will acknowledge the fact that much of the work of the Committee for the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister has had to be changed because of the failure of the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister to send papers on time. Will he also acknowledge that that office overuses the phrases “a paper to follow” and “something to be decided shortly”?

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon DUP

I thank the Member for her intervention. Obviously, we are still bedding in and there are still things to do. [Laughter.]

We are not entirely happy with everything; however, we are all keen to see things move forward, and I am very keen to see that happen. I oppose amendment Nos 8 and 9 because I believe that they are unnecessary.

Amendment No 10

Photo of Naomi Long Naomi Long Alliance

I thank the Member for giving way. Several Sinn Féin and DUP Members made the point that their opposing the amendments will speed up the process. Will the Member state clearly how many extra days would be added to the process if the amendments were agreed to?

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon DUP

I was going to say that I am glad to accept the Member’s interventions, but that is not entirely true. In the Assembly, the DUP and the First Minister and deputy First Minister have tried to ensure that all Committees have representation. During the previous Assembly mandate, when roles were reversed, contact from the Ulster Unionist Party and the SDLP left a lot to be desired.

Amendment No 10 proposes that the Department of Finance and Personnel is required to approve any regulations that are made under clause 2. That amendment is unnecessary, because the Minister of Finance and Personnel will make his views well known to the Executive when they ask him to approve a proposed scheme.

Like amendment No 3, amendment No 11 proposes that:

“The relevant department shall, within 1 year of the commencement of the scheme, provide a report on the operation of the scheme to the appropriate statutory committee.”

If there were to be a statutory duty to report on a scheme, it should be to the Assembly as a whole and not directly to the Assembly Committee concerned. In any event, the Committee could seek information on the operation of any scheme at any time as part of its scrutiny role, especially if that scheme were to run for longer than the period that the amendment envisages. It has been made abundantly clear today that OFMDFM is not attempting to pull the wool over people’s eyes. We are ensuring that the Bill really meets people’s needs and circumstances.

The amendments that have been proposed do not give adequate protection. Indeed, they do the opposite — they merely add red tape and, in some cases, take away from the purpose of the Bill, which is to help people at times when they most need it.

I reject the proposed amendments and ask that all Members in the Chamber do the same to ensure that the Bill has the power to do what it is designed to do — that is, to step into the breach and make a real difference to the lives of those in need.

Photo of Martina Anderson Martina Anderson Sinn Féin

Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I object to all 13 amendments, and particularly wish to comment on amendment Nos 4 to 11. Amendment No 4 is entirely unnecessary. The joint First Ministers have already told the House that they will be bringing proposals for an amendment to the ministerial code. That will ensure that determinations of the scheme under the Bill must be agreed by the Executive, therefore ensuring the rights of all Ministers.

Amendment Nos 5 and 6 would impose additional requirements that would, effectively, defeat the current intention of the Bill, which is to identify the capability gap where a scheme is required.

Photo of Martina Anderson Martina Anderson Sinn Féin

Absolutely not. [Laughter.]

Photo of Martina Anderson Martina Anderson Sinn Féin

It is abundantly clear to me that those gaps exist already. The OFMDFM Committee heard a wealth of evidence that exposed clearly the fact that the current programmes and policies are not delivering. There are programmes and policies that replicate the failed outcomes of the past. That is precisely the reason why the Committee, in its report on the inquiry into child poverty, concluded that OFMDFM, as lead office, should:

“have a role in challenging departmental Delivery Agreements to ensure the relevance and robustness of departmental targets and actions”.

I will repeat that. OFMDFM should:

“have a role in challenging departmental Delivery Agreements to ensure the relevance and robustness of departmental targets and actions”.

In fact, the Committee went even further and recommended that OFMDFM, along with DFP, should consider the introduction of a system of financial incentives and penalties to ensure that cross-departmental priorities, such as child poverty, are delivered on.

I find it strange that parties that endorsed those recommendations in the Committee now seem to feel that OFMDFM should have no role in identifying and implementing cross-departmental priorities. It is also strange that those parties argue that OFMDFM should not challenge any Department’s ability to tackle poverty yet, in the report on the inquiry into child poverty, they recommended that OFMDFM should take on that role.

Similarly, amendment No 7 would restrict the ability of the Bill to make a genuine and swift intervention by providing financial assistance to tackle poverty, social exclusion and patterns of deprivation when funding arrangements are unsatisfactory.

I must admit that I find amendment No 8 curious, but I am sure that some of the opposing parties will explain it. On the one hand, we have parties in the Chamber complaining about the alleged plot to undermine the influence and authority of individual Ministers, yet the original six-month time frame would allow sufficient time for consultation and engagement with the relevant Minister and to get the approval of the Executive and the Assembly. I oppose that amendment.

Amendment No 9 is entirely unnecessary. It is part of any Committee’s normal role and remit to scrutinise the work of relevant Departments. Any Committee can ask for the kind of notification that is referred to in the amendment at any time. The Committees should be doing that anyway, and I would have grave concerns if the SDLP feels that it needs additional legislation to carry out the role that it should have been performing for the past 18 months.

Amendment No 10 is also unnecessary, because the Bill ensures that all potential schemes must be agreed at the Executive, thereby allowing all Ministers to make their views known.

My objection to amendment No 11 is similar to my objection to amendment No 9 in that any statutory Committee can request such a report at any stage. Not only that, it is the responsibility of the Committees to get an update on the progress of any relevant report, programme, project or policy. That is what MLAs — particularly as Committee members — are paid to do; therefore, they should be getting on with their job.

In rejecting those amendments, I find it regrettable that the SDLP, the Alliance party and the UUP seem intent on trying to take over the Bill — which is, clearly, designed to tackling poverty, social exclusion and deprivation, providing much-needed assistance —

Photo of David Ford David Ford Alliance 1:45 pm, 26th January 2009

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Could you ascertain, Mr Speaker, whether it is in order for a Member to make statements about the position of another party when that party has not contributed to this portion of the debate, and when the Member is not willing to accept an intervention to clarify that point?

Some Members:

Hear, hear.

Photo of William Hay William Hay Speaker

I am sure that the Member will be quite able to defend his party and himself at this or future debates. I have to say again, to all sides of the House, that Members should not persist in interventions. It is up to the Member who has the Floor whether he or she wants to take that intervention. Members should not persist. [Interruption.] Order, Members should not persist.

Photo of Martina Anderson Martina Anderson Sinn Féin

Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Maybe they understand that now.

Those parties seem intent on trying to take over the Bill — which is, clearly, designed to tackle poverty, social exclusion and deprivation, providing much-needed assistance to our people — in order to pursue their own narrow political agendas of opposing Sinn Féin on the one hand and the DUP on the other.

Yesterday’s men and women are still recovering from the shock that the people relegated them to third and fourth place. Today’s men and women have moved on to build a better society, and we are doing so without you. The vast majority of the people are standing with us because they want a new and better society for all.

Photo of William Hay William Hay Speaker

I ask the Member to speak to the amendments.

Photo of Martina Anderson Martina Anderson Sinn Féin

Just as the people could see, at the last election, who will be delivering for them, I am confident that the people of the North will see this wreckers’ charter for what it is.

Photo of William Hay William Hay Speaker

I must insist that the Member speaks directly to the amendments.

Photo of Martina Anderson Martina Anderson Sinn Féin

For that reason, I will oppose emotions [Laughter.] — this motion — and I oppose amendments —

Photo of Martina Anderson Martina Anderson Sinn Féin

I oppose amendment No 4 to amendment No 11. Go raibh maith agat.

Photo of Stephen Farry Stephen Farry Alliance

Will the Member give way? [Laughter.]

Photo of Stephen Farry Stephen Farry Alliance

I am grateful to the Member for giving way. This is an important debate. Does the Member agree that it is the convention in other Parliaments around the world — and I appreciate that we are an immature democracy, but trying to learn — that there is a proper give and take in debate with regard to interventions?

Photo of Dolores Kelly Dolores Kelly Social Democratic and Labour Party

Of course, I completely endorse what Dr Farry has said. As a matter of curiosity, however, and it may be helpful for Dr Farry to know, that although Ms Anderson does not take interventions here, she prints on the Sinn Féin website something that one is alleged to have said. That is how they reply, as I have found to be the case.

With regard to the amendments, clause 2 of the Bill is entirely unnecessary, and it is a false pretence to include it in a financial assistance Bill. It is, and remains, a power grab by Sinn Féin and the DUP. In her contribution, Ms Anderson said that they have moved on, and the voluntary coalition that exists between Sinn Féin and the DUP is how this society will be governed. She suggested, rather erroneously, that our party’s Minister had failed in her ability to deliver. I believe that the record shows that Ms Ritchie, as the sole SDLP Minister of the Executive, has delivered despite the fact that Sinn Féin and the DUP took £30 million off the social development budget.

Photo of Francie Molloy Francie Molloy Sinn Féin

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Should not the Member also speak to the Bill?

Photo of William Hay William Hay Speaker

I have warned all sides of the House, and I am prepared to give Members some latitude when they are speaking to the amendments, but, really, some Members are almost stretching it to a point. I remind Members: please, as far as possible, try to speak to the business that is on the Floor at this moment, and that business is amendments to the Financial Assistance Bill.

Photo of Dolores Kelly Dolores Kelly Social Democratic and Labour Party

Thank you, Mr Speaker, but I was merely responding to some of the accusations that Ms Anderson made. It was Ms Anderson who let the cat out of the bag when she said that the Bill was going to be a “significant sea change”.

Clause 2 does have the potential to bring about a significant sea change. None of the parties are opposed to the Bill in its entirety, they do not want to see any delay, nor indeed, are they causing any such delay.

Unfortunately, Mr Shannon has left, but in answer to his question, the legislative process has not been delayed by one day. It is a matter of public record that the Committee for the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister agreed to the accelerated passage of the Bill. It is entirely untrue and unfair to give the impression that a delay has been caused by any of the other parties in their attempts to make a bad piece of legislation better.

Ms Anderson suggested that clause 2 is aimed at addressing capability gaps. Surely, if there are capability gaps in the Programme for Government, or indeed, in the Budget, an annual Budget review would identify those gaps within each Department. Legislation enabling a power grab by the First Minister and deputy First Minister is, therefore, not required.

Proposed amendment Nos 4 to 11, which we support, attempt to try to ensure that the Executive remains at the heart of Government. Proposed amendment No 4 stipulates that power should not simply be confined to the First Minister and the deputy First Minister, but that the agreement of the Executive Committee is required. In an interview, Mr Molloy said that Sinn Féin and the DUP would have the majority vote in the Executive, and, as Ms Anderson pointed out, that is obviously the case as we move towards a new future which is Sinn Féin and DUP controlled.

It is entirely erroneous to suggest, as Mr Shannon did, that clause 2 is designed to help the people of the Province in their time of need. It is not about that at all; we all know that it is about directing money to areas where there is poverty, social exclusion and deprivation. Mr Kelly informed the House that the First Minister and the deputy First Minister would bring forward legislation by November 2008; surely their failure to do that constitutes a capability gap in the building of a better and more inclusive society.

I note that in the Committee for the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister, Sinn Féin and the DUP now accept the findings of the Lifetime Opportunities strategy, something which they have bad-mouthed on a regular and routine basis over the past couple of years because it was created under direct rule. If clause 2 is to deal, in some way, with social exclusion, deprivation and poverty, one wonders why Sinn Féin and the DUP were not doing what they were supposed to do, and why, 18 months into a new Administration, none of those strategies have been produced. For example, many Members will accept that the victims and survivors of the conflict are often disadvantaged — through the loss of the main wage earner and so on — and yet there is further procrastination in bringing forward the strategy for victims and survivors. Although that strategy is now being put out to consultation, albeit on a limited basis, no precise dates have been given.

Photo of William Hay William Hay Speaker

Order. I must once again remind the Member to try, as far as possible, to keep her remarks to the amendments that are being discussed.

Photo of Dolores Kelly Dolores Kelly Social Democratic and Labour Party

Thank you, Mr Speaker. I want to finish my last remarks by saying that a capability gap exists within the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister.

Ms Anderson, and others, asked why amendment No 8 seeks to remove “6 months” from clause 2 and insert “3 months”. The purpose of the legislation is to respond quickly to emergency situations. One would have to ask whether it is really an emergency if six months is the length of time that it takes to act. Therefore, it is an attempt to improve the Bill, and to put it on the footing that the DUP and Sinn Féin have suggested that it already is. To a certain extent, we accept their rationale, but we want to improve upon it.

Proposed amendment No 10 concerns determining where the budget will come from, and relates to clause 1 in which an attempt is made to identify the money prior to any scheme being initiated. Proposed amendment No 11 is aimed at ensuring that all Members of the Assembly and the Committees have the opportunity to scrutinise the outworkings of any scheme under this initiative. Other parties will do well to remember that majorities can be created in all shapes and forms.

During his contribution to the debate on the Bill’s Consideration Stage, the First Minister suggested that it could determine who has responsibility for preschool-aged children, which could, clearly, fall upon the Minister of Education, Caitríona Ruane. That may well be an area in which the scheme might be used and action taken.

The SDLP takes its responsibilities of scrutiny and public accountability seriously. It does not sell itself out nor do deals behind closed doors for its own party-political advantage. It works for the greater good of the community.

Photo of Naomi Long Naomi Long Alliance

I rise to give the Alliance Party’s position on the second group of amendments. I will preface my party’s response to those amendments by reiterating its stance on two particular matters.

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

The First Minister refers continually to his frustration that my party does not listen to him. Mr Moutray also expressed his concern. It may be news to Members on the DUP Benches that, unlike them, the rest of the House can still exercise its right to hear what the First Minister says and not agree with him. However frustrating or novel that concept might be for them, to hear is not to obey. It is worth putting on record that the Assembly has free thought and speech: long may that continue.

The other issue is the differences between parties’ positions on clauses 1 and 2. The Alliance Party’s position on clause 2 is quite different to those of the Ulster Unionist Party and the SDLP. Had Ms Anderson conceded the politeness and courtesy of giving way, her misapprehension that the Alliance Party supports all of the amendments in the second group could have been corrected. Clearly, however, Ms Anderson does not believe that she needs correction on any matter.

Clause 2 deals with a cross-cutting theme for which OFMDFM already has direct departmental responsibility. The policy drivers for tackling poverty, social exclusion and patterns of deprivation already exist in OFMDFM. That is its specific duty. Therefore, my party does not consider clause 2 to be a power grab, but rather an attempt to deal with the failure of all Departments to co-ordinate on the delivery of a cohesive agenda.

During the past few weeks, I have acknowledged repeatedly, both in the Committee and in debates in the Chamber, that there are major difficulties in delivery with regard to those issues because functional responsibility often rests with other Departments or multiple Departments, which leads to tensions between them on issues, such as those to which Mrs Kelly referred — childcare for school-aged children, for example. That gives rise to significant problems.

Martina Anderson rightly referred to the fact that the matter was discussed by the Committee and that it recommended that it should be highlighted. However, she failed to understand or convey the subtlety of that discussion. It is quite right that the Committee recognised the potential need for financial levers for the delivery of considered cross-cutting themes. However, it did not agree that clause 2 was the right mechanism by which to do that.

In fact, junior Minister Donaldson and junior Minister Kelly tried repeatedly to convince the Committee that no additional levers are required and that the status quo is sufficient. The Committee was not convinced. Subsequently, it stated in its report that those levers might be necessary. I recognise the need for OFMDFM controls of those cross-cutting themes. My query is whether they might also be needed for many other cross-cutting themes — community relations, equality and sustainability, for example.

My party’s consistent position is that clause 2 is not unsound in principle. It welcomes the fact that the First Minister and the deputy First Minister have attempted to tackle that capacity gap. However, it wants to ensure that the entire range of cross-cutting themes is considered fully for inclusion in such a clause and that the entire range of potential levers that can be exerted by OFMDFM and other Departments is considered. That is why my party called for that particular clause to be taken back and be subject to a full Committee Stage.

That is a subtle difference in the positions of the different parties.

I will now speak about the amendments in group 2. Amendment No 4 is largely a repetition of last week’s debate, and the point has already been made. We have no principled objection to amendment No 4, and we have already put on record our position that the Executive should act jointly. However, in the context of what has already been debated at Consideration Stage, we are not sure that amendment No 4 adds anything of substance. At Consideration Stage, my main concern was that those Ministers whose parties do not form a majority in the Executive would have precious little protection. The insertion of “Executive” into the Bill does not give those Ministers any additional protection; that is unfortunate, but it is fact.

We are not in favour of amendment No 5. We have recognised that OFMDFM already has a responsibility for cross-cutting themes, so we do not accept that exceptional circumstances must be proven for OFMDFM to be able to act on issues of social exclusion, deprivation and patterns of need. Indeed, that would be a reduction in the powers held by OFMDFM.

Photo of Declan O'Loan Declan O'Loan Social Democratic and Labour Party 2:00 pm, 26th January 2009

I seek clarification from the Member. There ought to be a proper process in which an annual Budget is driven by a Programme for Government, and that Programme for Government should be revised and produced annually as a new document. The Programme for Government is the responsibility of OFMDFM in consultation with all other departmental Ministers. Given all that, what circumstance exists that could not be called exceptional, other than the annual Programme for Government? Does the Member not have concerns that a rejection of amendment No 5 would be an opportunity for parties in OFMDFM to act on matters that are not exceptional and that ought to be properly dealt with in the Programme for Government?

Photo of Naomi Long Naomi Long Alliance

The difficulty with the Member’s proposition is his statement of where these things ought to be rightly dealt with. Social exclusion, deprivation, poverty, and so on ought to be rightly dealt with by OFMDFM; that is the current situation. The issue with the Programme for Government is that, when Ministers sign off on the Budget and the Programme for Government and are not supported by their parties, or when Ministers sign off on an overall Programme for Government but do not give sufficient budgetary priority to its cross-cutting themes, there can be problems that are not tackled.

One example of that is poverty and social exclusion. It is already a priority for the Executive, but that has not led to the Health Minister and the Education Minister coming together and making a decision on who will provide school-age childcare. If OFMDFM intervention is required to make that happen, frankly, so be it. That is exactly the kind of circumstance that is not unforeseen but that needs to be tackled. It is also a valid circumstance where OFMDFM — in order to meet its departmental responsibilities — needs to have some way of making other parties in Government work together to achieve objectives, if they have chosen not to do that.

I do not believe that there is a need for exceptional circumstance to be proved, therefore, because that would represent a reduction in OFMDFM’s current responsibilities. Furthermore, in the preface to my detailed consideration of the amendments, I acknowledged that there are flaws in the current arrangements with regard to cross-cutting issues, so I do not support amendment No 5.

The insertion of “unforeseen” in amendment No 6 is a change of the circumstances. We must accept that OFMDFM has a responsibility for tackling the issues that are referred to in clause 2. Those issues do not have to be unforeseen or exceptional for OFMDFM to act on them. Indeed, to the contrary, OFMDFM should be tackling those issues as a matter of routine. It would have been better if we had been able to write into the Bill that OFMDFM would act in direct co-operation with the individual Ministers whose Departments are affected.

The Alliance Party moved that amendment last week, but it was not supported. Acceptance of that amendment would have led to better collaboration and an enhanced Bill. Amendment No 6 does not go any way towards achieving that end and simply removes some responsibility from OFMDFM.

Amendment No 7 aims to delete the phrase “for any other reason unsatisfactory” from clause 2(1)(b). I understand and sympathise with the motivation for the amendment, but the Alliance Party and I are unsure about supporting it for two reasons. There may be reasons, other than those that are stated in the Bill, why mechanisms are unsatisfactory. The Bill states that those reasons should be ineffective or inadequate. I highlighted that matter in my response to Mr O’Loan’s intervention. For example, an individual Department with responsibility for delivering on a particular issue might not give that issue as high a priority as OFMDFM considers necessary. There might be circumstances where such issues are not prioritised. For example, issues such as school-age childcare and acute care might compete for attention in the health budget, and huge tensions could arise about which matter is more important. OFMDFM might have a particular view on that situation, and, therefore, it is important to recognise that unspecified circumstances might arise.

My second reason for having reservations about the amendment is that it is, essentially, negated by clause 4(5), which states:

“Financial assistance may be provided under this Act even though other powers to provide financial assistance exist.”

Therefore, clause 4(5) completely undercuts any attempt to ensure that the provision applies in exceptional circumstances only. Unless clause 4(5) is deleted, the amendment will not have any effect on the provisions of the Bill. However, the Alliance Party is sympathetic to the motivation of the Members who tabled the amendment.

The Alliance Party opposes amendment No 8. Last week, we highlighted the material difference between the urgency of the measures outlined in clause 1 and clause 2. Clause 1 deals with exceptional circumstances in which an immediate response is required, whereas clause 2 deals with a different, less immediate set of circumstances. The First Minister and deputy First Minister conveyed that message previously. Therefore, regulations could, reasonably, be made and a scheme could be brought to the House within three months.

If the circumstances are exceptional and urgent intervention is necessary, three months seems to be a reasonable time period. However, the wording of clause 2 does not require it to be an emergency, and, therefore, six months seems to be a reasonable period. Six months could permit more complete consideration of measures and could, perhaps, lead to more robust and considered mechanisms than would be created in emergency circumstances.

Photo of Tom Elliott Tom Elliott UUP

I thank the Member for giving way. Does she accept that the issues provided for in clause 2 could be recurring, and that the Assembly might have to deal with them on several occasions during its lifetime?

Photo of Naomi Long Naomi Long Alliance

Yes. However, that does not affect my argument. If six months are available in which to address the issue, regulations will, potentially, be more robust and considered than those that have been established within three months, as would be the case in an emergency. However, no one wants to treat every incident as an emergency, because that would lead to poorly considered action.

Photo of Dolores Kelly Dolores Kelly Social Democratic and Labour Party

Could it not be argued that clause 2 should be omitted from the Bill? That would allow a six-month consultation period under accelerated passage.

Is it also the case that many schemes cannot be introduced because of the failure of the First Minister and deputy First Minister to agree the financial situation — for example, the delivery and implementation of the Peace III fund?

Photo of Naomi Long Naomi Long Alliance

To some degree, the Member is reading my mind, because during last week’s debate, I made a point about clause 2 being omitted, but the time for that argument has passed. I stated then that it would be appropriate for fuller consideration to be given to the issue. Clause 2 is more substantive and complex than clause 1, and accelerated passage is an action taken in haste that will be repented at leisure — but we are where we are. However, it is a very flawed argument to then say that because of that precedent, everything should be done in haste. I would rather that six months were available to consider the regulations that are established under clause 2, as I am on record as saying that I would rather have had a proper Committee Stage to consider clause 2 in its entirety.

I have no principled objection to amendment No 9, which states that the relevant Department will notify the appropriate Committee of any designation; however, given that that will happen in any case, I am not sure what the amendment adds to the Bill. It does not particularly concern me, because the motivation behind the amendment is quite reasonable. Implicit in the amendment is the assumption that only one Department will be involved in the delivery of cross-cutting themes. That is quite flawed: two, three, four or even more Departments could be involved in the delivery of cross-cutting themes. One Department or a number of Departments could be involved, which is not made fully clear in the amendment.

As with amendment No 2, the Alliance Party understands the principle of amendment No 10, and some clarification has been provided on the wording. However, I want to put on record that the wording of the amendment is ambiguous. It mentions two Departments, stating:

“Regulations made under this section, if made by a department other than the Department of Finance and Personnel, require the approval of that department.”

The amendment is ambiguous about the Department to which it refers — the Department making the regulations or the Department of Finance and Personnel. I accept Mrs Kelly’s and Mr O’Loan’s reassurances that the Assembly Bill Office is content that that refers to the Department of Finance and Personnel.

One particular issue that relates to amendment No 10 does not apply to amendment No 2. Amendment No 2 deals with largely unforeseen and exceptional circumstances in which it is likely that additional moneys that have not been budgeted for would have to be taken into a central fund and used for emergency circumstances, whether through a monitoring round or another mechanism. It is implicit in clause 2 that the issue concerns how money is organised within existing budgets. Therefore, I am not sure that the argument for consulting DFP with regard to clause 2 is as strong as the argument for consulting DFP with regard to clause 1. However, I have no strong objection to the amendment, other than having an issue with the ambiguity of the wording.

The Alliance Party is content with amendment No 11 and has no difficulty with it in principle. However — not surprisingly — the party believes that amendment No 13 handles the issue of reporting back to the House more effectively, because more than one Department could be involved, and reporting directly to the Assembly in that circumstance is a much better way to ensure that all Members are apprised of the full extent of activity under the Bill. There would be nothing to preclude a Committee from calling for a report from the relevant Department about the detailed contribution that that Department is making under any scheme, but an annual report to the Assembly — which could subsequently trigger those reports — would be a more coherent way to handle that reporting rather than each Department producing separate reports. I suspect that it would also be a more comprehensive report for Members, who may have concerns that what is presented to their Committee does not give them the full flavour of what is being done under the powers of the Bill.

I hope that it is now clear where the Alliance Party stands on the amendments and the reasoning behind that position. The party will not support amendment Nos 5 to 8, and it queries how the remainder of the amendments will make a difference to the operation of the Bill.

Photo of Ian McCrea Ian McCrea DUP 2:15 pm, 26th January 2009

I oppose amendment Nos 4, 5, 6 and 7. It is regrettable that we are, once again, considering amendments that fail to offer any positive contributions to the Bill.

Amendment No 4 would require the Executive Committee to agree to any determination under clause 2 by the First Minister and the deputy First Minister. However, that amendment is not required as such agreement is already required under the current ministerial code. To make things more specific to the Bill, a draft amendment to the ministerial code has been proposed. Executive approval has been gained, but that amendment will be subject to the approval of the Assembly once the Financial Assistance Bill has been enacted. Therefore, amendment No 4 is unnecessary and should not be supported.

I welcome the fact that the Alliance Party has listened to the First Minister and now considers his views as the rest of us do. Amendment No 5 would result in an additional requirement that would restrict clause 2 to exceptional circumstances. As a result, the clause would become a more restrictive version of clause 1. It would also prevent the Bill from being of any benefit in tackling poverty situations that are not considered to arise from exceptional circumstances.

Photo of Dolores Kelly Dolores Kelly Social Democratic and Labour Party

I thank the Member for giving way, which is something of a breakthrough for Members — with the exception of Jim Shannon — on some Benches. Will the Member outline when he thinks that poverty, social exclusion and deprivation will not be features of our society and why the clause would not apply to exceptional circumstances? Surely the Executive and the Assembly have a role to tackle those issues on an ongoing, routine and daily basis?

Photo of Ian McCrea Ian McCrea DUP

The Member knows that the role of the Committee for the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister is to scrutinise any functions of that office. I will know exceptional circumstances when they occur. [Laughter.]

If the Member does not know exceptional circumstances, I am sure that her constituents will be the first to tell her.

Amendment No 6 would result in an additional requirement, which would add a further restriction to clause 2 by limiting the exercise of powers to situations that are considered to be unforeseen. The purpose of clause 2 is to allow action to be taken to tackle poverty when current funding arrangements are unsatisfactory. However, that may still be necessary in situations that are not considered to be unforeseen.

Amendment No 7 has the potential to restrict the ability to take action to tackle poverty under clause 2 by removing “for any other reason unsatisfactory” from the list of grounds for intervening — even when the arrangements that are in place to provide financial assistance are unsatisfactory. It is important to retain the widest possible powers to intervene when existing arrangements for tackling poverty are unsatisfactory; they simply cannot be cut.

The amendments in group 2 demonstrate that some people in this House are intent on playing politics with poverty. That is why there is no substance in any of those amendments, and I call on the House to reject them.

Photo of David McClarty David McClarty UUP

Order. As Question Time will commence at 2.30 pm, I suggest that the House takes its ease until that time. This debate will continue after Question Time, when the next Member to speak will be the deputy First Minister.

(Mr Speaker in the Chair)