Further Consideration Stage

Part of Executive Committee Business – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 2:00 pm on 26th January 2009.

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Photo of Naomi Long Naomi Long Alliance 2:00 pm, 26th January 2009

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.