Further Consideration Stage

Part of Executive Committee Business – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 1:00 pm on 26th January 2009.

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Photo of Tom Elliott Tom Elliott UUP 1:00 pm, 26th January 2009

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.