Further Consideration Stage

Executive Committee Business – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 4:45 pm on 15th February 2010.

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Photo of John Dallat John Dallat Social Democratic and Labour Party 4:45 pm, 15th February 2010

I call the Minister of the Environment, Mr Edwin Poots, to move the Further Consideration Stage of the Local Government (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill.

Moved — [The Minister of the Environment (Mr Poots).]

Photo of John Dallat John Dallat Social Democratic and Labour Party

Members will have a copy of the Marshalled List of amendments detailing the order for consideration. There is one amendment, so there will be a single debate on that amendment, which deals with reducing the amount to be paid under any future severance scheme to take account of other elected offices held while serving as a councillor.

Clause 19 (Severance payments to councillors)

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

I beg to move the following amendment: In page 11, line 30, leave out subsection (3) and insert

“(3) If regulations under subsection (2)(a) provide for the amount of any severance payment payable to, or in respect of, a person to be calculated by reference to any period for which that person was a councillor, then for the purposes of that calculation there shall be disregarded any period in which that person was both a councillor and—

(a)        a member of the Assembly (within the meaning of the Northern Ireland Act 1998);

(b)        a member of the House of Commons; or

(c)        a member of the European Parliament.”

The amendment is a replacement for clause 19(3) and relates to severance payments to councillors. At Consideration Stage, I advised that I agreed with the amendment that Mr Kinahan and Mr McCallister tabled. That amendment provided that, where the method of calculating the amount of severance payment depends on length of service, my Department’s regulations must provide that any period in which a person was both a councillor and an Assembly Member, or a councillor and a Member of the House of Commons, will be disregarded.

During the debate at Consideration Stage, I pointed out that I wished to amend the provision to include any period in which a person was both a councillor and a Member of the European Parliament. I also sought clarity from Members on whether any period of service as a Member of the Assembly should include periods of service in previous Assemblies or bodies. There appears to be consensus among Members that only periods of service as a Member of the Assembly since 1998 should be disregarded. Accordingly, my proposed amendment provides that service as a Member of the Assembly since 1998 will be disregarded in calculating the amount of any severance payment. Any period in which a person was both a councillor and a Member of the European Parliament will also be disregarded.

My proposed amendment will make it clearer to the public that periods in which a councillor received payment from the public purse for another elected public office will not be counted for the purposes of a severance award.

Photo of Dolores Kelly Dolores Kelly Social Democratic and Labour Party

I declare an interest as a member of Craigavon Borough Council and as a Member of the House.

On behalf of the Committee for the Environment, I welcome the amendment. The Committee considered proposals for the amendment on 4 February 2010 and gave its support, subject to the term “Assembly” being defined. The Committee concurred that, for a range of reasons, it would be appropriate that, in clause 19, “the Assembly” should refer to the Assembly that was established under the Northern Ireland Act 1998. Committee members who have immediate relatives who may be affected by the definition abstained from the discussion. The Committee welcomed the Minister’s letter of 10 February, which indicated that “the Assembly” should refer to the Assembly that was established under the Northern Ireland Act 1998. The Committee gave its full support to the amendment on 11 February.

Photo of Peter Weir Peter Weir DUP

I declare an interest as a Member of the House, a member of North Down Borough Council, a member of the transition committee of North Down Borough Council and Ards Borough Council, the vice-president of the Northern Ireland Local Government Association and a member of policy development panel A. Having used up my time, I should probably sit down now. I should also indicate that —

Photo of Peter Weir Peter Weir DUP

The Minister has heckled me using the words “Policing Board”. However, those of us who carry the extensive burden of sitting on the Policing Board do not receive remuneration for it. Membership of the Policing Board does not, therefore, count as a clash. The Chairperson of the Committee for the Environment, who served on the Policing Board previously, can testify to that.

I have no intention of falling within the purview of this, or any other, amendment or of seeking any remuneration under the clause. Therefore, I can speak in the debate with a reasonably clear conscience if nothing else.

Photo of Peter Weir Peter Weir DUP

Some Members may view this as a somewhat novel situation.

The House welcomed the previous amendment, on which the new amendment is based, as an honest attempt to square the circle between two reasonable but contradictory positions on severance for councillors who were involved in the Assembly. On the one hand, there is a feeling that those who benefited substantially from the public purse as Members of the Assembly should not be treated on the same basis as councillors, who are paid a relatively small amount.

On the other hand, there was an equally valid argument that anyone receiving a form of redundancy payment should be treated equitably. One could argue that a full-time politician is no different from a doctor, lawyer or accountant who also leaves the council through severance and who may be on a higher wage than an Assembly Member. Both arguments are valid.

Mr Kinahan and others put forward a reasonable argument to try to square the circle that councillors who had been Members of the Assembly should not benefit for the period during which they had been Members, but for any period before that, they should be eligible when they had been in the same position as other councillors. For example, it may be in future that someone will be a Member for a month before an election, as has happened. If there were a simple blanket disqualification on all MLAs for all time, MLAs who had served 20 years on the council would receive nothing because they had been MLAs for a month. That is not equitable.

The argument relating to the Assembly and the House of Commons is a good one. However, as it was raised in the debate by the Minister, Mr Ford and me, it left a definitional issue as to what is meant by “Assembly”. The intention is to cover Members from the 1998 Assembly onwards, but that question was left unresolved. Given the brief look of blind panic on the face of the proposer of the motion, it is clear that issues relating to the 1982 and 1973 Assemblies had not been taken into direct consideration. I may be wrong, but there is only one councillor in Northern Ireland affected by membership of the 1973 Assembly: an individual in south Down. Several councillors, though not many, are affected by membership of the 1982 Assembly.

There is a difference between the 1982 Assembly and the 1998 Assembly. Members will recall that the 1982 Prior Assembly was the “rolling devolution” that never rolled. Commensurate with that, the remuneration that Members of the 1982 Assembly received would have been only a fraction of what Members of this House receive. From that point of view, membership of the 1982 Assembly was not, in effect, a full-time job. Consequently, with regard to the Minister’s amendment, it is fair and equitable to say that this provision should apply from 1998 onwards.

The Minister proposes one other tidying-up amendment on membership of the European Parliament. Logically, if we are disqualifying people for the period of their service in the Assembly and in the House of Commons, the European Parliament is analogous. Until recently, Members of the European Parliament received the same wages as MPs. That has now been standardised, and MEPs are paid the same wage throughout Europe. Logically, membership of the European Parliament should be on the same basis as membership of the Northern Ireland Assembly and the House of Commons. Only one person who has been a councillor has also been an MEP, and that was for a matter of months. That will soon come to an end anyway.

From the point of view of equity, this is a comprehensive solution. Some will continue to argue on either side of the equation: either that there should be no payment or full payment. However, this seems to be a sensible compromise. I welcome the work that has been done by the Minister in tidying up the Bill through this amendment to ensure that it is effective. It should be welcomed by all sides of the House and I support it.

Photo of Danny Kinahan Danny Kinahan UUP

I declare an interest as a councillor on Antrim Borough Council.

I welcome the amendment and support the changes that it will introduce. It is only a slight change, despite the rather long explanation that we just heard. I would like to claim credit for it. There was not a moment of panic; there might have been a tiny bit the other day, but none at the moment.

I am pleased that the amendment applies to Members of the Assembly, within the meaning of the Northern Ireland Act 1998. I had not thought about that difference, so I welcome the clarification. I also welcome the fact that the amendment includes MEPs. I congratulate all the councillors who have worked hard on our behalf for many years. In many cases, initially, they received no pay or pension. They should be congratulated, and they deserve severance payments.

If I were offered a severance payment, I would not accept it. I have been a councillor for only an initial term, and severance payments should not apply to new boys. I would welcome the MEP’s emulating her colleague’s decision to stand down from Belfast City Council.

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP 5:00 pm, 15th February 2010

I thank the Members who contributed to the debate. I do not think that anything new was raised. We have struck a harmonious note once again. That is a further demonstration of the type of unity that we can bring to the House, even to the extent that Mr Ford did not speak during the debate. That greatly assisted us in respect of community relations.

Photo of David Ford David Ford Alliance

I am astounded, Mr Deputy Speaker. I really did not think that it was necessary for all parties in the House to say that they agree. The work was done last week. However, if the Minister wants me to speak, I will say that I am glad that the work was done last week and that it has been tidied up today.

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

That really seals the deal now that we have Mr Ford’s support. I thank all the Members who addressed the amendment today. I trust that everything is clarified and that we can now move ahead. In the not-too-distant future, I hope to bring other legislation on local government issues before the House.

Question, That the amendment be made, put and agreed to.

Clause 19, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Photo of John Dallat John Dallat Social Democratic and Labour Party

That concludes the Further Consideration Stage of the Local Government (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill. The Bill stands referred to the Speaker.