Only a few days to go: We’re raising £25,000 to keep TheyWorkForYou running and make sure people across the UK can hold their elected representatives to account.Donate to our crowdfunder
“Expenditure for purposes of children and young persons
3A.—(1) The Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister may incur expenditure for the purpose of assisting activities which that Office considers promote the interests of, or are otherwise of benefit to, children or young persons.
(2) In particular that Office may provide financial assistance to any person for the purpose mentioned in subsection (1).
(3) In this section—
‘financial assistance’ means assistance by way of grants or loans on such conditions (including conditions as to repayment) as that Office may determine;
The following amendments stood on the Marshalled List:
No 2: After clause 3 insert
“Expenditure for purposes of sustainable development
3B.—(1) The Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister may incur expenditure for any purpose calculated to contribute to the achievement of sustainable development.
(2) In particular that Office may provide financial assistance to bodies which have among their objectives the promotion of sustainable development.
(3) In subsection (2) ‘financial assistance’ means assistance by way of grants or loans on such conditions (including conditions as to repayment) as that Office may determine.” — [Minister of Finance and Personnel (Mr S Wilson).]
No 3: In the long title leave out from “to provide” to “to the Department of Finance and Personnel” and insert
“to enable the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister to incur expenditure for certain purposes” — [Minister of Finance and Personnel (Mr S Wilson).]
I thank the Assembly for the ringing endorsement that it gave to clauses 1 to 3. We just about got them through and no more.
With amendment No 1, I will speak to amendment No 2, as both amendments deal with the power to incur expenditure. Amendment No 3 is consequential to amendments Nos 1 and 2 having been made and my opposition to clause 4 having been accepted. I hope that that is clear to everybody.
I have tabled amendment Nos 1 and 2 on the basis that they are solely to regularise OFMDFM’s current position on expenditure that relates to children and young persons and sustainable development, which is covered under the sole authority of the Budget Act (Northern Ireland) 2009. I stress that OFMDFM has confirmed that the proposed amendments are not an extension of powers.
As regards amendment No 1, OFMDFM has secured the necessary funding for expenditure relating to children and young persons until March 2011. The money that has been allocated for 2009-2010 is £729,000; for 2010-11, it is £1·6 million. Types of expenditure that relate to amendment No 1 include projects that support data collection and evaluation of exemplar pilot projects to evidence the economic and social benefits of early intervention in tackling issues that affect children’s well-being and achievements. Other examples are support of the participation network and the progressing of a play and leisure policy for Northern Ireland.
The work that has been carried out does not duplicate the work of any other Department; rather, it is designed to act as a catalyst to encourage the promotion of children’s rights and to improve co-ordination on cross-cutting issues.
Amendment No 2 creates specific statutory powers for OFMDFM to incur expenditure to contribute to sustainable development and to provide financial assistance to bodies that have the promotion of sustainable development among their objectives. OFMDFM has also secured necessary funding for amendment No 2 of approximately £120,000 for 2010-11.
In July 2006, responsibility for sustainable development was transferred from DOE to OFMDFM on the instruction of the then Secretary of State, Peter Hain. Sustainable development is a cross-cutting theme with many component parts. As such, delivery of policy aims cannot be singularly allocated and attributed to single Departments. It is often required that several Departments collaborate to deliver a single outcome. That is why it is important that OFMDFM has a detached and neutral overarching strategic role in the promotion and administration of the sustainable development policy.
As part of its strategic oversight role relating to sustainable development, OFMDFM will regularly and closely monitor the work of other Departments to ensure that, wherever possible, schemes remain complementary to one another and to avoid duplication.
Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. In addressing the first group of amendments, I want to refer briefly to the Committee’s scrutiny of the Bill. A financial provisions Bill is normally required every two to three years to tidy up routine financial matters, such as adjustments to statutory limits and various technical and non-controversial issues. Prior to the formal introduction of the Bill to the Assembly, the Committee was advised that its provisions would be of interest to the Committee for Enterprise, Trade and Investment, the Public Accounts Committee and the Audit Committee. The Committee, therefore, sought the views of those Committees at an early stage; however, no issues were raised.
The Committee received a pre-introductory briefing from DFP officials on 4 February 2009. During the briefing, the officials provided an explanation of the repeal of the requirement to prepare finance accounts in clause 5, and they subsequently provided the Committee with a detailed written briefing on the issue. Members were content that the issue had been adequately addressed and recognised that the removal of the requirement to produce finance accounts that are identical to the public income and expenditure accounts will avoid duplication in the preparation of future government accounts.
The Bill was referred to the Committee on completion of its Second Stage on 3 March 2009, and the Committee issued a public notice inviting written evidence on the provisions of the Bill. No written evidence was received during that public consultation, and no other issues were raised during the Committee’s clause-by-clause scrutiny of the Bill.
I now turn to proposed amendment Nos 1 and 2, which create statutory powers for OFMDFM to incur expenditure for purposes of children and young persons and for sustainable development. The Minister wrote to advise the Committee of the proposed amendments on 9 September. During a subsequent briefing session on 23 September, his officials clarified that the amendments were to regularise expenditure in those areas that is already being carried out under the Budget Act 2009. Although Committee members were concerned at the delay in bringing those amendments forward, they accepted the explanations given. That said, members queried whether there is a need to create a similar statutory power for OFMDFM to incur expenditure for assisting activities for the benefit of older persons.
On 24 September, the Committee wrote to the Committee for OFMDFM to raise that matter and to seek assurance that it was content with proposed amendment Nos 1 and 2. I understand that the Committee for OFMDFM wrote to its Department in that regard but that a response from OFMDFM is still outstanding.
Notwithstanding that, I confirm that the Committee for Finance and Personnel is content with amendment Nos 1 and 2. I also note the consequential amendment in respect of the long title of the Bill.
I support the first group of amendments. This process is fairly complex, and, when it was explained to me yesterday, I felt more like a competitor in ‘The Krypton Factor’ than someone who is trying to pass legislation. The amendments are quite technical, so it is unlikely that we will hit the front page of today’s ‘Belfast Telegraph’ because of their importance. I am reminded of the remarks of my colleague Mr Wells, who often talks about speaking to a hushed and rapt Assembly, because there does not appear to be a great deal of interest in these amendments.
As the Minister indicated, these are worthy amendments. They are technical, but they tidy up and regularise positions that have already been adopted. They deal with the two issues of young people and sustainable development. It is appropriate that there be focus on the power and role of OFMDFM in respect of young people. Various projects involving the Participation Network have been mentioned. It is important that we get this on the right legal basis.
As the Minister indicated, OFMDFM has confirmed that this is an issue of regularisation, not of additional powers. If the latter were the case, the House would be more sceptical of the amendments.
I shall wear my Environment Committee hat for a moment: when that Committee looked at the issue of climate change — I hope that the Minister does not keel over at this point — we centred on the need for joined-up government and a cross-cutting approach. Sustainable development is cross-cutting in nature; the various impacts on different Departments can be seen.Given that sustainable development is a cross-cutting issue, it is important for one Department to have some sort of co-ordinating role in government. Consequently, the regularisation of funding through OFMDFM seems to be a fairly sensible way forward.
I am always happy to be surprised by the ingenuity of Members in finding controversy where there is none. However, amendment Nos 1 and 2 are, essentially, technical, and the Bill will be better for them.
Is the Member talking handbags, pens, quality of life or quality of numbers? Perhaps Mrs Robinson will intervene during the debate.
I thank the Minister for bringing forward the Bill, and I recognise that, in doing so, he is largely doing technical work for other Ministers. However, I query the introduction of substantial and significant amendments that effectively result in new proposals by different Departments. As the Chairperson of the Committee said, the Bill has already gone through Committee, and the Committee for Finance and Personnel has reported on it. Although the Committee received a short briefing from the Department of Finance and Personnel on 23 September 2009, I am sure that the Minister appreciates that that is not an ideal scenario. Nevertheless, the Bill was accepted, and I recognise the efforts being made to ensure that it is effective and that it is as correct as possible.
“incur expenditure for the purpose of assisting activities which that Office considers promote the interests of, or are otherwise of benefit to, children or young persons.”
The Commissioner for Children and Young People (Northern Ireland) Order 2003 defines a “child or young person” as anyone “under the age of 18”. My understanding is that OFMDFM has a co-ordinating role with regard to children and young people and that it is OFMDFM’s responsibility to ensure that the Executive’s children and young people’s strategy is implemented. Although I am all for co-ordinated and joined-up government, I ask the Minister to clarify when such a spending power will be used. Given OFMDFM’s intended role, will the Minister explain how OFMDFM envisages spending the money? How will OFMDFM ensure that it does not, perhaps — it is an extended “perhaps” — step on the toes of other Ministers? Does the formalisation of that spending power herald the reintroduction of a cross-cutting departmental children’s fund? I would be grateful for the Minister’s clarification of those points.
I welcome the introduction of the provision for OFMDFM to incur expenditure that is:
“calculated to contribute to the achievement of sustainable development.”
However, I suggest to OFMDFM that the publication of a sustainable development strategy is necessary. Given the perceived co-ordinating role of OFMDFM, I seek further clarification from the Minister on what that funding is intended for.
Peter Weir feared that Members might raise unnecessary controversy, and I do not wish to do that. However, there are matters that need to be raised and that demand answers from the Minister, so that we can have assurances on the proposed amendments.
First, I am surprised that significant amendments to the Bill have been tabled so late in the day; Mr McNarry rightly referred to that. We are told that, when a financial provisions Bill is created, as happens every so often, all Departments are consulted and asked whether they want to include any financial measures. The amendments relating to OFMDFM are being tabled only now at the Bill’s Consideration Stage rather than when it was drafted. That is disappointing and merits an explanation from the Minister.
When departmental officials gave evidence to the Committee on 23 September, they told us that the expenditure in proposed clauses 3A and 3B, which deal with activities that benefit children and young people and sustainable development respectively, could be covered under the Budget Act (Northern Ireland) 2009. If that is correct, why is it necessary to have specific legislation on those aspects? The Committee was told that such expenditure could be conducted temporarily under the Budget Act (Northern Ireland) 2009, which I found strange. Surely, something is permissible under the Act or it is not. If it is permissible, why are these specific clauses being introduced?
I want to ask about the scope of the proposed clauses. At face value, they are wide-ranging and will permit OFMDFM to spend an unspecified sum of money on activities that benefit children and young people and sustainable development. During one Committee session, Mr McNarry correctly asked about the budgets for those activities and was told:
“In 2009-2010, the budget for children and young people is about £729,000 and for 2010-2011 it is £1·6 million. The sustainable development budget for those years is around £120,000 per annum.”
Those figures are fairly small. I want absolute confirmation from the Minister that the seemingly sweeping powers in the proposed clauses will be used only at the budgetary levels about which we were told. I want to make sure that a Trojan Horse is not being created that will give extremely broad powers to OFMDFM that could be used for purposes that the Assembly has not been apprised of and may have concerns about. If the Minister can give me those assurances, I will be comforted.
I ask the Minister to make it clear that the powers for sustainable development will be used for activities ordinarily understood to be covered by the term, such as environmental protection and sustainability. Will he assure me that the activities will not be broadened to include those that pertain to economic development? Should we establish any link in our minds between the measures being created in the Bill and the provisions in the Financial Assistance Act (Northern Ireland) 2009?
Finally, we were told that Executive programme funds for schemes such as those involving children and young people were not a good route, and they were abandoned. Is something equivalent to those funds being created via the back door? If so, is that an admission of failure? That also relates to my question about the scale and the scope of the new clauses.
It is a pleasure to contribute to this debate. Although the debate is largely technical in nature, it is worth reflecting that it is the only Executive business in the Chamber this week. Therefore, we should make best use of our limited opportunities.
The Alliance Party is happy to support the amendments that have been proposed by the Minister of Finance and Personnel. We have some concerns about the process that led to this point. However, we regard the amendments as innocuous and, unlike Declan O’Loan, we do not believe in a mass conspiracy or the use of Trojan Horses. That said, I share some of Declan O’Loan’s concerns about the process. If the amendments are accepted, the legislation that is passed will, in effect, be much different from that which the Minister originally introduced. Members should note that all the amendments are being driven by the Minister and the Executive. The Bill’s nature will potentially be changed by an unprecedented 30% to 40%.
I am concerned about the reasons why a clause on social economy was initially included in the Bill but is no longer considered necessary. It has been removed, and, all of a sudden, the need for clauses on older people and sustainable development has been identified. I will not second-guess the assertion of the Minister and the relevant Department that those powers are necessary. Although they may well be necessary, there is some confusion in the House about why the authority from the Budget legislation is not sufficient to take such powers forward.
The trawl system for legislation in Departments needs to be tidied up. I want the Minister to assure the House that we can have confidence in the integrity of that process because, on the first trawl, we were told that we need powers for the social economy. Subsequently, we were told that we did not need those powers. Thereafter, subsequent to the introduction of the legislation and well past the midnight hour, OFMDFM proposed two additional clauses. That should raise questions about how well officials are tuned in, within their own remit, to the powers that need to be clarified.
I note that a bottom-up approach has been taken whereby the ball is very much in the court of individual Departments to identify necessary changes. There could be merit in complementing that with a top-down approach whereby we consider the cross-cutting responsibilities that are led by Departments and ask whether the authorities are in place. I am not sure if any individual in government has the role of policing the system to ensure that everything is in order and up to speed.
We have two issues before us in relation to OFMDFM. There are, potentially, other cross-cutting issues for which that Department has lead authority. That begs the question as to why it was not considered necessary to enhance or clarify those powers as well. Good relations is a prime example of an area for which OFMDFM has the lead but which cuts across a range of Departments. Some Members support the introduction of a cross-cutting action plan that holds other Departments to account and ensures that OFMDFM is in a position to take the lead and invest resources as appropriate. I accept that, although powers are in place, their use is constrained by budgetary resources, and Ministers cannot spend money that they do not have or that has not been allocated through budget headings. We have that safeguard.
Finally, I ask the Minister whether the definition of sustainable development in the Bill is linked formally to the sustainable development strategy, which is in draft at the moment but will, hopefully, become a formal document in the near future.
That said, despite our concerns about the process, we will take it at face value that the powers are necessary, and we will support the amendments.
Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. My party supports the purposes of the Bill and the proposed amendment Nos 1 and 2. Other Committee members spoke about the manner in which the amendments were tabled and recorded their concerns. I will not labour that point, which I think has been well taken.
I want to address a particular point. During the briefing on 23 September 2009, I asked officials why, if there was a need to address the issue of children and young people, they had not also considered whether there was room to accommodate special measures for older people. The officials said that they had not thought of it. That is not meant to be a criticism, because their answer represented an unusual degree of candour and straightforwardness that is not always available at that level. I also asked them to take the matter back for further consideration, which they agreed to do. I note that the Chairperson’s report says that there has been some correspondence between the Minister of Finance and Personnel and OFMDFM on the subject.
I want to share with Members why I believe that those concerns are important. There is an established acceptance that there is a considerable deficit in the take-up of benefit entitlements, particularly by older people, which amounts to many millions of pounds. That is no particular fault of Departments here; communicating the relevant information effectively has been a historical difficulty. There is a cultural resistance, particularly among older people, to dependence on the state or to drawing down financial assistance, even though they contributed to those funds throughout their working lives.
The A2B Access to Benefits organisation works to address the take-up deficit and has calculated that it could amount to as much as £50 million. That money does not come from the block grant; it is an addition, which returns to the Treasury each year because it goes unclaimed. For a fairly modest investment by the Minister of Finance and Personnel of some £150,000 that could be matched by a third-party contribution, Access to Benefits could continue to roll out its benefit take-up programme. The web-based advice that it provides could be available to every household that has a computer as well as every constituency office and advice centre. The advice is free, and Access to Benefits, which developed the software, could also provide training.
Such an initiative by the Minister —
I normally remind the House that when Members speak to a particular clause of a Bill, they should try, as far as possible, to keep to the subject. From time to time, all Members, including the Member who raised the point of order, have strayed from the subject when we are discussing a Bill. Once again, I remind all Members, as far as possible, to keep to discussion of the clauses of the Bill.
I can defend the position. The record of the Committee’s discussion, at which Mr McNarry was present, indicates that this is an issue. The Chairperson’s report notes that the Minister of Finance and Personnel has agreed to take up the matter. My point is that the issue is of great significance to older people across all sections of our community and could be resolved for a relatively modest investment. I appeal to the Minister because I believe that he is sensitive to those issues and has demonstrated a willingness to get involved. This is an issue that he could take forward. If he needs additional powers, perhaps, he should have included them in the proposals that are before us today. Nevertheless, it is a work in progress, and I hope that I have made the case for taking it further.
Despite my colleague Peter Weir commenting that we would be speaking to an empty House that is disinterested, uninterested in and uncomprehending of the proposals, contributions to the debate have shown that he was wrong. He tried to provoke me by introducing the topic of climate change and linking it to sustainable development. However, I will not rise to that bait at the moment. I could if I were provoked, but I will do my best not to.
I thank the Committee for its work. As the Chairperson indicated, the Bill was accepted by the Committee after going through its Committee Stage without substantial comment. The Committee received no objections when it sought written submissions and information from other Departments. That shows that the Bill is relatively uncontroversial.
The Committee Chairperson asked whether powers similar to those proposed that would allow OFMDFM to deal with sustainable development and children and young people would be needed for older people. Indeed, other Members mentioned that. The amendments to include powers that deal with children and young people and sustainable development came about as a result of a request by OFMDFM. However, it did not seek such powers for older people.
Some Members asked why amendments were being proposed at this stage. That is because an internal review took place. The Department of Finance and Personnel asked other Departments whether they wanted any matters to be included in the Bill. Members will be aware that when Bills are presented, rather than taking forward legislation in their own right, sometimes Departments will ask for issues to be included in the legislation in question. Given that the Bill is a piece of financial provisions legislation, when OFMDFM reviewed its legislation internally, it concluded that the specified powers needed to be included. OFMDFM asked for the inclusion of those powers on 28 August 2009, hence the late amendments. Officials explained that to the Committee when they gave evidence.
I will address Mr McNarry’s points. He questioned the relevance of Mr McLaughlin’s speech. As you pointed out, Mr Speaker, when it comes to irrelevance, Mr McNarry is never shown to be wanting. He started off making the frivolous point that he had a team supporting him in the Assembly this morning while Mr O’Loan is the sole representative of the SDLP. I have a magnificent team behind me. However, when it came to Mr McNarry’s contribution, I think I understood why he needed so many people backing him. It is clear that he needs someone to do the listening while he sits there. He always reminds me of the worst third-form pupil that a teacher could have on a Friday afternoon — he is there, but he is not paying attention.
Mr McNarry has a suspicion that the Bill is somehow trying to sneak in additional powers and money for OFMDFM. He asked me to clarify that, and I will do so.
I will repeat myself, because I made the purpose of the money quite clear in my opening speech. I said it in plain English, and, as far as I can remember, Mr McNarry was awake and in his place at the time. The money is not for projects. Rather, OFMDFM will use it to consider the work that is being done for children and young people.
I repeat: the money will be used to support data collection, which may inform spending on projects for young people. The money will be used to evaluate exemplar projects, which will enable us to find out whether money is being spent well. If money is not being spent well, projects will have to be changed. The money will be spent to gather evidence on the economic and social benefits of early intervention to tackle issues. It will not be spent on early intervention projects but on an examination of the benefits of projects that will be taken on by other Departments. The money will be spent on considering examples to support the participation network and on progressing the development of a play and leisure policy for Northern Ireland.
Mr McNarry sought clarification on how the money will be spent, but I would not have had to repeat myself if he had been listening the first time.
As Mr McNarry indicated, it was worth listening to the clarification.
Mr O’Loan has a conspiracy theory for everything that I say. He asked how we can be sure that the amendments will not blossom into massive expenditure. Mr O’Loan should know me well enough to be aware that I always try to ensure that Ministers, regardless of who they are, do not pillage the public purse for additional money as soon as they get their foot in the door. The amount of money being allocated to projects was laid out in the Budget that was agreed for 2008-2011. Any expansion in expenditure on the issues that we have authorised will be subject to Assembly scrutiny in a budgetary settlement or demand. However, the scope for that is limited, because the money will not be used for the delivery of projects. Rather, it will be used to support sustainable development, work for children and young people, and so on.
Mr O’Loan and every other Member will have an opportunity for a detailed examination of the money that is being requested in the amendments and the authority that is being given to OFMDFM to spend that money. It is not the “Trojan Horse” that Mr O’Loan suspected, and I hope that he is “comforted” by the assurances that I have given, although I am not sure about that.
“The Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister may incur expenditure for the purpose of assisting activities which that Office considers promote the interests of, or are otherwise of benefit to, children or young persons.”
That seems to empower OFMDFM not only to research and analyse projects but to contribute to, and be the financial purveyor of, significant projects.
I have put it on record in the debate that the purpose of the bid, and the subsequent powers and money being made available, is to support the development policy. Should there be any request for moneys to expand that role, it would be totally transparent in any Budget bid that might be made, and that would be where the Assembly would have input. I hope that I have made clear the purpose of the amendment and the reason that was given by OFMDFM for seeking it. I hope that that gives the Member the comfort that he needs.
Dr Farry is not a conspiracist, I am glad to hear. Well, at least, he does not believe that there is any great conspiracy here. However, he raised a number of issues. He mentioned that OFMDFM might wish to have the same powers conferred upon it to deal with other issues. As I said in my responses to other Members’ comments, no such requests have been made at this stage by OFMDFM. If such requests were to be made later, once OFMDFM has examined its legislative arrangements, it would be free to ask for those powers. However, at present, there is deemed to be no need for OFMDFM to have such powers. That is the picture that we have at present.
Dr Farry raised another issue about older people. I apologise, I have already dealt with that issue.
Mr McLaughlin made a point about benefit uptake and whether there is scope in this Bill for something to be done about that. There is a role to be played in promoting the uptake of benefits. The question is whether that is a role for OFMDFM or for some other Department. Only three weeks ago, the Assembly passed the Rates (Amendment) Bill, into which Mr McLaughlin had some input as the former Chairperson of the Committee for Finance and Personnel.
That legislation related to data collection that will help us to ensure an increase in the 24,000 elderly people who benefit from help with paying their rates, because we should be able to identify others who are eligible. However, there is still substantial under-representation of people who should receive that benefit but who currently do not.
Whether promotion of uptake should be an extended role for another Department; whether we would fund it through DSD, DFP or OFMDFM, which already has a role in dealing with older people; and whether there is some cross-cutting work that could be done are matters that can and should be explored in future.
Mr McLaughlin made the very good point that, apart from the work that must be done to promote it, improving benefit uptake will not impact on our Budget at all, because any increase in benefit uptake will be taken outside the block grant and will be, therefore, extra money for the economy and extra money for people who find themselves at a disadvantage at present.
I thank Members for their contributions to this part of the debate.
Amendment No 1 agreed to.
New clause ordered to stand part of the Bill.