On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. Yesterday, during the debate on the emergency service at the Royal Victoria Hospital, the Minister of Health referred to Mr McCarthy, a Member for Strangford, in the following terms:
“Mr McCarthy, in true style as that of the village idiot, behaved in an opportunistic way and did not make any rational points whatsoever.”— [Official Report, Vol 74, No 4, p269, col 1].
I believe that the use of the term “village idiot” was contemptible, offensive, demeaning and outrageously hurtful. I ask you, Mr Deputy Speaker, to look at the remark, rule on it and, if you find my argument coherent and convincing, ask the Minister to withdraw that offensive remark and apologise to the Member, who is a respected Member of the House and should not be treated in such a shabby way.
Further to that point of order — I thank the Member for raising it — I honestly did not hear the comment at the time because I was so engrossed in the subject that we were discussing, which is so important. I think that, when someone resorts to that type of language, they are losing the argument. In fact, on that occasion, the argument was lost.
Mr Deputy Speaker, with your permission, I wish to make a statement in compliance with section 52 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998, regarding a meeting of the North/South Ministerial Council (NSMC) in trade and business development sectoral format.
The meeting was held in the offices of the North/South Ministerial Council in Armagh on Thursday 1 March 2012. The Executive were represented by me in my capacity as Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment and by John O’Dowd MLA, Minister of Education. The Irish Government were represented by Richard Bruton TD, Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation. The statement has been agreed with the Minister of Education, and I make it on behalf of us both.
Ministers welcomed the recently appointed chairperson, Martin Cronin, and vice chairperson, Joanne Spain, to their first NSMC meeting. The Council noted the planned retirement of the chief executive officer, Liam Nellis, and thanked him for his commitment and contribution to the work of InterTradeIreland.
The chairperson and the CEO updated Ministers on InterTradeIreland’s performance and business activities. Of particular note in 2011 was the generation of £119·8 million of business value from companies participating in trade and innovation programmes and the fact that 2,576 companies have participated in InterTradeIreland trade and innovation programmes and accessed cross-border business information and advice services.
Ministers discussed the recommendations highlighted in an InterTradeIreland report, ‘All Island Public Procurement: A Competitiveness Study’. We noted the establishment of a North/South working group to take forward actions to improve the visibility and accessibility of the £18 billion public procurement market — a key driver of demand in the economy — and the capability of small and medium-sized enterprises to win tenders on a cross-border basis.
The Council noted ongoing and future initiatives developed by InterTradeIreland to encourage and stimulate greater co-operation to increase applications to European Union framework programmes, including enhanced levels of SME participation. InterTradeIreland analysis shows that 137 collaborative applications have proved successful, securing funding of €40 million for 50 proposals.
Ministers welcomed the continued success and development of the US-Ireland Research and Development Partnership, including the recent extension to include telecommunications and energy and sustainability. The Council noted InterTradeIreland’s draft annual report and accounts for 2011. The Council approved Tourism Ireland’s business plan 2012 and recommended that the budget provision for 2012 be €62·7 million. The Council agreed to meet in trade and business development sectoral format in autumn 2012.
I commend the statement to the Assembly.
I thank the Minister for her very comprehensive report on the meeting. I note the retirement of the CEO of InterTradeIreland, Mr Liam Nellis, and take the opportunity to pay tribute to him and his leadership over many years and wish him well in his retirement. I am sure that the Minister shares those sentiments.
InterTradeIreland is a very important element in economic recovery. I note the £119 million of value that has been generated from companies associated with InterTradeIreland. Will the Minister advise the House whether there was any discussion of how to develop that further so as to increase the impact of trade between North and South and through InterTradeIreland?
I thank the Chair for his comments, particularly those relating to the CEO, who tells me that he is looking forward to spending more time on the golf course. Undoubtedly, he will be with us for the Irish Open.
We had a discussion about how InterTradeIreland can add value to the work, in our case, of Invest Northern Ireland and make sure that there is no duplication of the work carried out by both bodies. Subsequent to the Council meeting, I met the new chairperson, Martin Cronin, and he, too, is keen to ensure that the work that InterTradeIreland delivers in Northern Ireland will add value, particularly for small and medium-sized businesses that, perhaps, Invest Northern Ireland has not traditionally worked with.
I referred to the amount of value that we were able to deliver through the work of InterTradeIreland. For me, the fact that we had 68 companies participating that were first-time innovators is very important, as is the figure of 62 companies exporting for the first time. As the Member will know, we have stringent targets for more exports from Northern Ireland right across the world, but, of course, a lot of our first-time exporters export to the Republic of Ireland, and I am sure it is the same vice versa.
I look forward to working with the new chair and, indeed, with new and existing members of the board. I also look forward to the appointment of the new chief executive, which we hope will take place before the autumn.
That will be done by making sure that our programmes are such that they will help small businesses in Northern Ireland. I am fond of the Go-2-Tender programme that InterTradeIreland developed because that assists our companies to look at the public procurement market in the Republic of Ireland. There have been quite innovative ways in which InterTradeIreland has tried to assist small companies, not least through trying to develop an app for iPhones. It has developed a version of the app for Android phones, which we hope will be launched quite soon.
We are doing all that we can to ensure that small and medium-sized companies are aware of the opportunities available to them in the public procurement market in the Republic of Ireland. We want to make sure that, in the words we used at the Council meeting, they have visibility and accessibility but also the capability to apply to those public procurement markets. I hope that InterTradeIreland will be able to assist companies to reach all three of those targets so that we can assist them in a very meaningful way.
Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I thank the Minister for her statement. I welcome the work that InterTradeIreland is doing to increase applications to the EU framework programme. The Committee is looking at that as part of its inquiry into research and development. Some stakeholders said that Enterprise Ireland put greater focus on that than Invest NI in the North. Will Invest NI change that focus and consider working with Enterprise Ireland to carry out work that would be of benefit to both jurisdictions?
I have no difficulty in saying that Invest NI already works with Enterprise Ireland and has no difficulty in working with Enterprise Ireland in relation to the innovation sector. As I said in my response to the Chairman’s question, it is important that bodies do not duplicate the work of each other but instead take forward programmes that we need to take forward.
I am pleased to say that under the auspices of InterTradeIreland we have again invited Commissioner Geoghegan-Quinn to Belfast in June, when we hope to have another meaningful engagement with her. Again, we will focus on small and medium-sized companies, as we did on the last occasion that we spoke to her. However, we need to make sure that Horizon 2020 takes account of the fact that small companies have found it difficult to engage with FP7. We are looking forward to that engagement in June, but I say to the Member that it is important that we do not duplicate each other’s work and instead take advantage of the value added.
Again, I thank the Minister for the update on the meeting. With regard to procurement and tenders, I wonder whether the Minister had an opportunity at the meeting to discuss an issue raised in a House of Commons report today from the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee on fuel fraud, in which the Committee expressed bitter disappointment that authorities either side of the border have been unable to bring forward a single tender procedure for a marker for rebated diesel?
I know I have great powers, but I do not know how I would have been able to have a discussion on 1 March about a report that comes out today. It is amazing that the Member should seek to know whether I have discussed a report that is only out today. However, the issue is a serious one. It is an issue that I wrote to the Northern Ireland Select Committee about, because I have had representations from councils about it. I very much look forward to reading the report when I receive it today.
I thank the Minister for her statement and welcome the progress made to date. I notice that the Minister said that she wanted to avoid duplication. Of course, we welcome that. Are any efforts being made to reduce bureaucracy and red tape, particularly for new small businesses on both sides of the border?
I thank the Member for his question. A lot of the effort of InterTradeIreland is on trying to make things easier for a lot of our small and medium-sized companies. That is the whole idea behind the development of apps for mobile phones and the new app that we are developing for Android phones. The whole idea behind its programmes, whether it is the Go-2-Tender programme, the Fusion programme or the Acumen programme, is to make things easy for a company.
Some of the framework 7 difficulties have centred on bureaucracy and form filling, and that is an issue that we hope to raise yet again with the European Commissioner when she visits us in June.
There are a number of programmes from InterTradeIreland that help companies get involved in innovation. I have visited some of those companies and have seen first-hand the benefits of those programmes. The Fusion and Acumen programmes really try to encourage small companies to take advantage. The Fusion programme allows a graduate to work in a firm for a period of time. When I visited Augher creamery, I was told that the company had been able to use the graduate to full effect and had retained the graduate after the programme had finished. Indeed, on many occasions, graduates who are placed as a result of InterTradeIreland programmes are kept on in the business, and that is a good indicator of the worth of the programme, because people are retaining that member of staff.
So, there is always much more that we can do. Some of the programmes are working well, and we look forward to working with the new chairperson to identify new ways to help companies to innovate.
Go raibh maith agat. I thank the Minister for her statement. I want to ask her about SMEs accessing European funding, both North and South. What is the Minister’s view on putting a one-stop shop in place, where small businesses could go to get advice and support and be signposted towards European funding for innovation?
I hope that we have been able to provide some of what the Member has been asking for through the Boosting Business scheme and Invest NI. Again, we come to the point that we should not all want InterTradeIreland or Invest NI to do everything; the issue is the two agencies working together and making sure that they complement each other. If Invest NI has someone coming to it and believes that an InterTradeIreland programme is better fitted to what they are doing, it should signpost the person to InterTradeIreland and vice versa. That is something that I discussed with the boards of Invest NI and InterTradeIreland when I came into my position back in 2008. That is working well. Obviously, there is always room for improvement, but I reiterated that to the chairperson when I met him just last week.
Go raibh maith agat a LeasCheann Comhairle. Mo bhuíochas leis an Aire chomh maith. I thank the Minister for the detail she has provided today. Key to all of this is the InterTradeIreland analysis that 137 collaborative applications have proven successful in securing funding of €40 million for 50 proposals, which is extremely welcome. A good part of that is down to information and advice sharing. Given that success, how could that good practice be shared with other Departments to draw down EU funding, engage in collaborative projects and get more advice and assistance out to other businesses in other fields?
The way in which the North/South procurement group has worked is a good example of how Departments can work together. As I understand it, SIB and the Assembly’s central procurement division are working with the central procurement division in the Republic of Ireland’s Government — forgive me if that is not the right title — to share practices within that group. The group has been up and running for over a year and worked quite well. It informs the Go-2-Tender programme and what people need to take account of. We will run more seminars around Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland in the coming months to see if there is more information that we can give to companies so that they can avail themselves of it. That is a good model that is working between the Finance Department, SIB and their counterparts in the Republic of Ireland.
The Minister referred to an £18 billion public procurement market. Using whatever are the latest figures that she has, will she tell us what has been Northern Ireland companies’ share of the Republic’s procurement market and vice versa in respect of our procurement market and companies from the Republic, given that Northern Ireland exports to the Republic fell by 16% last year?
I thank the Member for his question. I do not have the precise figures in front of me. I will, of course, write to the Member with those figures. I believe that Northern Ireland companies are better off as a result of using the InterTradeIreland Go-2-Tender programme than they would be if it were not there. It gives them information, advice and assistance in looking for tenders. Frankly, as small businesses, they would suffer if they did not have that advice and assistance. I am happy to write to the Member with the details.
I thank the Member for his question. Access to finance took up a considerable amount of time at the Council meeting. We talked about what Invest NI is doing to assist small and medium-sized businesses in Northern Ireland in that regard. When InterTradeIreland does its quarterly monitor, it asks questions about access to finance. That helps to inform us whether there have been fundamental changes between each quarter. I hope that it will continue to do that. It is important to reflect the difficulties in getting access to finance so that we, as Ministers, can try to intervene if we think that it is necessary. It will not surprise the House to hear that access to finance is a subject that I raised again at the North/South Ministerial Council.
I advise Members that they have a Marshalled List of amendments detailing the order of consideration. The amendments have been grouped for debate in the provisional grouping of amendments selected list.
There are two groups of amendments, and we will debate the amendments in each group in turn. The first debate will be on amendment Nos 1 to 4 and amendment No 7, which deal with changes to the state pension age for men and women. The second debate will be on amendment Nos 5 and 6, which deal with winter fuel payments and a duty to report.
Once the debate on each group is completed, any further 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. The Questions on stand part will be taken at the appropriate points in the Bill. If that is clear, we shall proceed.
Clause 1 (Equalisation of and increase in pensionable age for men and women)
The following amendments stood on the Marshalled List:
No 2: In page 1, line 9, leave out subsection (4). — [Mr Durkan.]
No 3: In page 2, leave out lines 5 to 14 and insert
“6th April 1955 to 5th May 1955
6th May 2020
6th May 1955 to 5th June 1955
6th July 2020
6th June 1955 to 5th July 1955
6th September 2020
6th July 1955 to 5th August 1955
6th November 2020
6th August 1955 to 5th September 1955
6th January 2021
6th September 1955 to 5th October 1955
6th March 2021
6th October 1955 to 5th November 1955
6th May 2021
6th November 1955 to 5th December 1955
6th July 2021
6th December 1955 to 5th January 1956
6th September 2021
6th January 1956 to 5th February 1956
6th November 2021
6th February 1956 to 5th March 1956
6th January 2022
6th March 1956 to 5th April 1956
6th March 2022” — [Mr Durkan.]
No 4: In page 2, line 15, leave out “1954” and insert “1956”. — [Mr Durkan.]
No 7: In schedule 1, page 23, line 21, leave out “2018” and insert “2020”. — [Mr Durkan.]
I welcome the opportunity not only to debate the Bill once again but to move amendments to it. I am pleased to avail myself of this opportunity, particularly because it had been the Minister’s intention to give the Bill accelerated passage. That reluctance to have such an important issue publicly debated and scrutinised now seems strange, given the Minister’s recent assertions that the Welfare Reform Bill must have full scrutiny and transparency.
We support the rationale behind the Bill. The equalisation of pension age is right and just. It is also common sense that the increase in life expectancy is reflected in an increase in pensionable age. However, we have issues with the current Bill and the impact that it will have on many people here.
The logic behind the Bill is clear and understandable: the qualifying age for pensions should be raised because life expectancy is increasing. People are living longer, and it is assumed that they will be willing and able to work longer. It is also assumed that there will be jobs for people to stay in for longer.
The Bill is being pushed as reformist and progressive legislation that is based on the developing and changing needs of society. Therefore, in our opinion, it is remarkable that it contains such blatant inequalities. The SDLP, as a party that has a core and fundamental principle of equality, sees merit in the equalisation of the pension age for men and women. However, forcing an expectant group of women of a certain age to change their life, plans and futures without considering the challenges that that will pose for them is a far cry from equality.
The time frame within which the pension expectations of those 7,000-odd women will be disrupted is purely a money-saving exercise by the Westminster Government. It is designed to get more money in from people while putting less out, and it is certainly not based on the needs of the individual. It is also particularly unfair to force women to face two accelerations when men will face only one.
The Bill will throw the retirement plans of many into disarray. Previously stated timescales had indicated that there would be no changes until 2020. Therefore, women who have left their job in the belief that they could rely on receiving their pension on their sixty-fifth birthday may not have enough savings or resources to live on for a year to 16 months. We have no guarantees that the goalposts will not move again and move often, and we have serious concerns about that as we go forward.
Although some changes were made in Westminster that mitigated some of the burden facing women, they do not go far enough, specifically for women who will be affected by the changes come 2018. The upper age limit for benefits has been extended to assist older people who cannot get work, but we must consider the wider impact that that has and the wider impression that it creates.
Many older people who have worked their entire life and saved into pension schemes simply do not want to go on benefits. They want what they are entitled to and what they have worked for. To force them to accept these changes, without sufficient time to make adequate provision, is unfair and illogical.
Using the extended benefit qualification as an option flies in the face of what the Assembly is professing to do, which is to cut down on welfare dependency. It would be contradictory of the Assembly to accept such a move that would leave us going backwards — a move that offers benefits as a lifestyle choice rather than as a short-term lifesaver.
Keeping older people trapped in a job when they may wish to retire will also have serious ramifications. It will certainly exacerbate the ever-growing problem we have of youth unemployment. Furthermore, there are implications for sectors in which people are, reluctantly, working longer. They could well become disenchanted, and that may impact on the service or skill that they provide. Instead of stabilising the economy, those measures could create a stagnant and disenfranchised workforce who will feel aggrieved by a Government who have, once again, put the working-class person at the bottom of their mandate. It will also keep people in important jobs for which they are no longer physically fit.
It is accepted, although it should not be accepted by us, that we have a lower standard of living here in Northern Ireland. We have higher rates of poverty and higher rates of disability. The Bill would automatically impact on a person’s eligibility for the winter fuel payment and, therefore, increase our struggle in the battle against fuel poverty. People are being told to save for their retirement to supplement their pension, but the sad reality is that so many people here live on the breadline that saving is beyond them.
Although there can be no argument that people are living longer, we need to ensure that they have a quality of life to match their quantity of years. Last week’s Budget in Westminster signalled yet again the Tories’ apparently insatiable appetite for attacking the most vulnerable.
The proposed move to index pension increases by the consumer price index (CPI) rather than the retail price index will ultimately devalue public sector pensions by up to 15%. That change will, undoubtedly, hit public sector workers hard, as it will the poorest in society, by making them permanently disadvantaged. Passing this clause in the Bill today will enshrine in law the use of CPI as the minimum legal requirement for pension increase, which means that, even when the deficit is gone, our hard-working public sector workers and the poorest in society will be hit year after year, even when earnings growth has returned.
The Assembly needs to consider its options. We need to recognise the severe detrimental impact the changes will have on individuals in society. One possibility that had been raised in Westminster prior to the Bill receiving Royal Assent was to negotiate a way of using CPI as a temporary measure, for example, for three years, in order to help stabilise the economy. That would represent a fair contribution from benefits and recipients at a time when wage growth is suppressed. Such an alternative would work to reduce the deficit while not unfairly impacting on individuals’ incomes over the longer term.
In my view, that is an option that needs much exploration and deserves our attention and consideration. I am hopeful that we can look at this more closely at the next stage of the Bill and thrash out a solution to this complex clause in order to mitigate the harsh reality it imposes, as drafted.
I move my amendments to make the Bill, in our opinion, fairer and more balanced. Acceptance of our amendments would display that the Assembly has a real understanding of, and sympathy for, the hardship being faced by so many of our citizens. We have here an opportunity to mitigate that, even slightly.
We believe that a compromise can be reached between the aims of the coalition Government and the needs of our people. As previously stated, we concur with the thinking behind the Bill, but our difficulty is with the timetable for its implementation. This Bill accelerates too fast the equalisation and increase of pension ages. It is irrational and unfair for a Government to move the goalposts for individuals who have worked hard and planned for their retirement, leaving them to reorganise and, in many cases, struggle.
I bring these amendments before the Assembly in the belief that we must investigate the options that best serve our constituents. My amended timetable represents a compromise between the existing statute and the proposed acceleration. The current legislation allows for equalisation by 2020 and an increase in state pension age between 2024 and 2026. The proposed legislation accelerates that, envisaging equalisation by 2018 and an increase in the state pension age by 2020. Our amendments still allow for equalisation and an increase in qualifying age by 2020. However, we believe that our proposal to start the reform in 2020 acknowledges Turner’s recommendation that adequate time must be given for the affected individuals to prepare for the extra time that they will be without their expected pensions. Our amendments will mean that the Bill can still generate savings and bring equality, but will do so more fairly.
Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Although I am speaking as the Chair of the Social Development Committee, the Committee has not been able to adopt a position on these amendments. I very much appreciate the short period of latitude that the Deputy Speaker has given me to outline the backdrop to the amendments in the context of the Committee’s deliberations.
The Committee considered the Bill at Committee Stage and produced a report, which was published and printed on 8 March. It is fair to say that clause 1, to which the current amendments apply, was the clause that gave the Committee most concern. All members of the Committee had concerns of various natures around clause 1. Clause 1 relates specifically to the equalisation of the pensionable age for women and men and the increase in eligibility to 66 years of age for men and women. Although the Committee did consider this, and took quite a number of presentations and submissions from various stakeholders, it did not go into the business of trying to amend the Bill.
Even though the Committee voted not to support clause 1, members felt that, rather than prolong the Committee Stage of the Bill, we would leave it to the parties and other Members to bring amendments at the appropriate stage; for example, today. Although concerns were expressed by a range of members — indeed, the Committee rejected clause 1 by way of a vote — nevertheless, we did not consider any of the amendments. Therefore, I will not be addressing the amendments on behalf of the Committee. Thank you, a LeasCheann Comhairle, for allowing me a degree of latitude.
My party will support the amendments moved by Mark Durkan. We very much appreciate that those amendments are, in a way, difficult. We fully understand the arguments around parity. This is, as we have been told, an issue of parity. By the same token, even in the context of the British Government dealing with some of these issues, it was drawn to the Committee’s attention that a very clear anomaly would impact on quite a number of women. Those women would be impacted on in quite a negative way by the extension of the age criteria. The British Government did bring forward some transitional arrangements that reduced the number of women that that would impact on, but we understand that it will still have an impact on around 7,000 women. We teased this out with the Department and were eventually told that if, for example, the Executive or the Minister were of a mind to address that anomaly, it would cost somewhere in the region of £57 million.
At least that would have allowed the Minister, the Department and the Executive to consider whether they would be prepared to adopt such an amendment or transitional arrangement on the basis of cost, because they would, at least, have a price tag to consider. However, we were given further information that it would not, in fact, be just £57 million, because there would be other important consequential arrangements: for example, as we do not have an IT system that is fit for purpose, we would have to spend money on that. We were then told that people living elsewhere might want to come here. Someone actually said that people might want to come from Wales to live here because women of a particular age would get a better deal on their pension. When we continued to further tease this out, we were told that the bottom line was that it was an issue of parity that we could not change anyway. My view and that of my party is that we do not believe that the whole question of parity has been properly and thoroughly teased out and exhausted.
We are not oblivious to the issue of parity, and we are certainly not oblivious to the likely attendant costs if the Assembly and Executive were to take a different view from that directed by the British Government. However, by the same token, we believe that when British Ministers talk about flexibility in the system, and so on, we need to examine what that means. My experience as a member of the Committee for Social Development for almost a year is that I have seen little evidence of that flexibility. I am somewhat disappointed by that, because we keep coming back to the argument that, no matter how many arguments you bring forward, it is an issue of parity and you cannot get round that.
The Committee received a number of presentations during its consideration of the Bill. One was from Age NI, which acknowledged that people were living longer, thankfully, but that did not necessarily mean that they were healthier. In fact, Age NI presented figures to show that the life expectancy of people living here in the North was different from those living in Britain. People’s life expectancy here in the North is lower than that of those living elsewhere. Obviously, we will deal with that in more detail later in the debate.
Representatives of NIPSA made it clear to the Committee that it supported the principle of parity, “warts and all”, and they elaborated on the reasons for that. I do not second-guess the reasons put forward; I merely make the point that there are those, including us, who are fully aware of the issue of parity. The reason why we are prepared to support Mark Durkan’s amendments is because we want to fully consider and exhaust all opportunities to right what we believe to be a wrong. NIPSA introduced an interesting argument, which was that it agreed with the principle of equalisation, but asked why it had to be on the basis of women who could retire aged 60 having to wait until the age of 65 to become equal to men: why could the equalisation not be done in reverse? In other words, why should men not be able to retire at the age of 60 — the same age as women — instead of 65? That would fit into the development profile of some of the points that Mark Durkan made about the fact that people who are unemployed could take up jobs vacated by people who were able to retire earlier.
I do not want to elaborate any further on the comments made by Mark Durkan. Suffice it to say that we believe that further transitional arrangements could be introduced into the Bill. On that basis, although we are not entirely happy with the amendments put forward by Mark Durkan, we think that they seek to improve on that being imposed by the British Government. I say “imposed” with clarity on its meaning. The Bill deals with equalising the age of retirement between women and men up to the age of 65 and then upward to the age of 66. Mark Durkan already made the point, and I made the same point during a previous debate in the Chamber, which is that I have no doubt that, in the time ahead, the British Government will continue to extend upward the age of retirement. On that basis, therefore, Sinn Féin is prepared to support Mark Durkan’s amendments.
No one in the Assembly wants to increase the retirement age for anyone. However, when we were elected to serve our country, we did so knowing that we would at times have to take decisions that we would rather not take. I oppose amendment Nos 1, 2, 3, 4 and 7 on the grounds that all they would do would be to increase the economic cost to the taxpayer while still achieving the same result.
Our country has an ageing demographic, as we have heard again and again in the plethora of debates in the Chamber. Projections by the Office for National Statistics in 2008 indicate that the number of people reaching the age of 66 in 2026 is expected to live for a year and a half longer than originally projected. That is to be welcomed, but it also comes with an added financial cost to the taxpayers of Northern Ireland.
An underpinning policy has been placed on us by Westminster to rebalance the financial burden between those of working age and those of pensionable age. The simple and overriding fact is that Northern Ireland has a commitment to ensure parity with the rest of the UK. That has to be adhered to for two main reasons, the first being economics. Simply put, if we do not equalise state pension age by November 2018, we would have to find the extra economic resources, as not to equalise it would result in significantly increased expenditure on pension or benefits that we would have to find as a devolved region.
Secondly, we would have to look carefully into the area of breaking parity and what that would mean for Northern Ireland. We would have to be sure that we can legally impose territorial limitations on any entitlement to ensure that we are not inundated by people from other regions.
No, I want to continue. Breaking parity would take economic resources away from our population and may mean that other programmes would suffer.
Finally, the Pensions Bill already has provisions to ensure that the minimum number of people would experience delay when they are entitled to a state pension and that the delay would be kept to a minimum. The transition is accelerated from the draft Bill so that instead of increasing in one-month increments, state pension age increases in increments of three months, which means that the longest delay would be 18 months as opposed to two years. Under the original proposals, approximately 800 women would have experienced a delay of two years, but under the revised proposals, no woman will face a delay of over 18 months. That is to be welcomed.
I cannot in good faith support the amendments. To do so would be to increase the economic burden on our already stretched taxpayers and ultimately delay the inevitable. No matter what we do, the fact remains that the age at which some people will receive state pension will be delayed. As elected Members, it is our duty to ensure that it is done while causing as little pain as possible to the entire community of Northern Ireland.
I welcome the opportunity to contribute to today’s debate. I pay particular tribute to the manner in which the Committee for Social Development conducted the Committee Stage. Everyone was given his or her place, and everyone’s opinion was taken into account.
Mr Durkan proposes one primary amendment, and everything that flows from that is consequential. All that is predicated on legislation brought by the coalition Government, but that is also predicated on the actions of a previous coalition Government who, in 1942, in the midst of the greatest conflagration and slaughter that mankind has ever endured, decided that things would have to change.
They had a very simple idea. Everything that we talk about in the Chamber today is predicated on that idea. It was the notion that everyone of working age would be expected to pay a weekly national insurance contribution. In return, benefits would flow from that contribution to the sick, the widowed, the retired and the unemployed, and an element would go to families. Today, we are discussing something that began over 60 years ago.
The truth is that the world has changed to a degree. In those days, the proportion of people in paid work to those who were not in paid work was much greater. Social divisions were as, if not more, pronounced. It was a method by which society could do what could be adjudicated as being right. However, the basis of that notion was that people would work in industry, which was generally heavy industry — in engineering and in steelworks. It was hard graft. Wives would not benefit from washing machines or other modern conveniences of life. Everyone would live until around their mid-60s, with a substantial proportion of people expiring before they were 70 or 80.
Today, longevity has increased greatly. On Sunday, I had the privilege to be around the lower parts of my constituency where I encountered three young children who were all less than seven months old. Yesterday, I learned from a television report that one in three people — in other words, one of those children — will live to be 100 years old. Therefore, it is important that we do something that recognises that fact.
Every fibre of my person wants to support Mark H Durkan’s amendment. The fact that it has to be paid for is the difficulty. To the Minister, I repeat my usual mantra: can it be done and, if so, at what cost? Will it breach parity? If so, what will be the cost? Will the Minister take whatever steps he can to ameliorate its outworkings? To a degree, they have already been ameliorated by alterations at Westminster. My position and that of my party will depend on the arguments that are made by the Minister on the notions of parity and cost.
I welcome the opportunity to speak in the debate, given the huge impact that it will have on our constituents. I am sure that fellow Members will, like me, have received a volume of concerns from constituents who are understandably worried about the changes, which will alter the entire pension system over the next number of years. As other Members said, we have an ageing population, and one that is living longer. Therefore, we need to ensure that the pension system is structured in such a way that gives promised incomes that can be delivered in the future and that we can avert any crisis that might arise from not making adequate preparations. I share many of the concerns raised about what the most appropriate and fair way is to deal with it.
Although we welcome the equalisation of the state pension age for men and women, key problems are associated with the Government’s proposals; namely, the great speed at which the proposals are now to be brought in. Women’s state pension age was due to reach 65 by 2020. That timetable had been in place for years. Women who would be affected by it were adjusting accordingly. However, in June 2010, the new coalition Government announced a review of the timetable for increasing the state pension age to 66 by 2020, rather than by 2026, thereby accelerating the process so that women’s pension age reaches 65 by November 2018.
My colleague Naomi Long MP was one of many who raised that issue with the Government on behalf of constituents during the passage of the Pensions Bill at Westminster. The Government responded to those calls by amending a clause, which now means that nobody has to wait more than 18 months. That amendment ameliorates the increase in the state pension age for around 245,000 women and 240,000 men, at a cost of £1·1 billion.
That was a positive step forward, and we should welcome it. Although the Alliance Party is sympathetic to those who now find themselves with less time to prepare financially, we believe that the place to fight the Bill’s aspects was at Westminster. All parties in the Chamber had the opportunity to do that, and I am glad that my colleague did so. Unfortunately, the Government were only ever going to shift so far. As others said, we need to be realistic, not play populist politics with the issue. We must accept that Northern Ireland simply cannot afford to break parity on the issue.
I oppose amendment Nos 1, 2, 3, 4 and 7 in group 1, which relates to the equalisation of the state pension age between men and women and the timeline for increasing the state pension age from 65 to 66. Although I and others have concerns about the Pensions Bill, I am even more concerned about the amendments, because money would have to be taken out of other Departments to pay for the proposals. The amendments seem to be ill thought out, with a year changed here and a year or two changed there, there are no costings, and they appear amateurish in nature, maybe reflecting the inexperience of the proposer.
Under the amendments, we would see the equalisation of the state pension age between men and women in 2020 rather than 2018. The retirement age for men stands at 65, and the Bill aims to increase the age for men and women to 66 by 2020. Under the proposed amendments, there would be a two-year difference between what happens in Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK, and the Department for Social Development would have to fund that difference — if the money could, indeed, be found — which would have major repercussions on the amount of money we have. Which Departments’ budgets would that come out of? Would it mean that we have to close hospitals and schools? Would we see job losses as a result of having to pay for the changes proposed under the amendments? If so, that would have an impact on the Northern Ireland economy.
I urge Members to understand the serious consequences of voting for the amendments and, therefore, oppose them.
Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker, for the opportunity to speak this morning. I oppose amendment Nos 1, 2, 3 and 4. Those of us on the Social Development Committee all have concerns. Like all Members of the Assembly, we have senior citizens coming into our offices and, therefore, we know that the elderly have a lot of concerns. One of my concerns is the speed at which the reforms are going through Westminster under the Tory-Lib Dem coalition. We need to take that into account. For me, this morning is about backing the Minister and the Bill, in respect of the equalisation of the state pension age between men and women.
Last week, I was at a welfare reform seminar in east Belfast. Many people there had concerns, as have many Members in the Assembly, including me. Les Allamby from the Law Centre was there. He recognises that breaking parity would mean taking money from other Departments. Breaking parity would also have an impact on the amount we get for pensions, which is something like £1·9 billion. So, there is a whole question over that. Bumper Graham from the Northern Ireland Public Service Alliance (NIPSA), which I think was mentioned, was also there. He said that he did not want to break parity and he recognises that we cannot do so. He does not like parity, warts and all, but feels, on behalf of NIPSA and its members, that breaking parity would mean that additional money would be taken from the block grant.
When the Minister is responding later, I would like him to give us a rough idea of how much it would cost to implement the changes proposed in the amendments. How much would it cost Northern Ireland if we were to drain money from other areas, as my colleague said? I urge Members to seriously consider the implications —
On what Mr Copeland said: we have spent years going through the debate on parity. I know that people are genuinely concerned about what breaking parity may cost. The Member spoke about people living to 100. I think that that is great, but there are parts of this city where people die earlier than expected. Therein lies the inequality: there will be people who die without ever enjoying any return for what they paid into the pension system. That is what we are talking about. There are also inequalities, and that is where we are coming from.
The Member makes a good point, but I go back to mine, which is that if we do not go with the Bill, if we go with these amendments, it will cost us money somewhere along the line. People will suffer because of cuts in other Departments. I reiterate my request for the Minister to respond to that later. I urge Members to seriously consider the impact of these decisions. Delay is inevitable for us all, so I oppose amendment Nos 1, 2, 3 and 4.
I also oppose the group 1 amendments, which relate to the equalisation of the state pension age between men and women, as well as the timeline for increasing the state pension retirement age from 65 to 66 overall.
As the Bill stands, it ensures that Northern Ireland is brought into line with the rest of the United Kingdom and there is no difference between the retirement age here and anywhere else in the UK. As a unionist, I favour parity with the rest of our nation. I am also concerned that, should these amendments pass, we will see money being taken out of other aspects of the social security system to meet the demands placed on the Department for Social Development by this House. Under these amendments, we will see the equalisation of the retirement age of men and women in 2020 rather than 2018, in line with national policy.
The current retirement age for men is 65, and the Bill aims to increase that to 66 by 2020 for men and women. The amendments would lead to a delay of two years between Northern Ireland and Great Britain, with the new retirement age of 66 being reached by 2020 in GB, but not until 2022 in Northern Ireland. Similarly, the equalisation of the retirement age between men and women will happen in 2020 under these amendments, rather than in 2018, as will be the case elsewhere in the UK.
Given that these amendments embrace national policy, albeit two years later, I do not understand their thrust or purpose, other than to delay the inevitable. They would leave the Department for Social Development to fund the two-year difference. That would have major repercussions on other vital aspects of the Department, which is responsible for administering and running a social security system that is fit for all purposes and assists those in need by securing a safety net for individuals and families.
The reality is that the two-year delay proposed by the amendments could lead to a funding gap for a total of four years, as equalisation in the retirement age of men and women will occur by 2020 rather than 2018. That would mean the Department having to pay out proportionately more money than GB for women’s pensions in that period. A further funding difference will be created by the increase to 66 in the overall state retirement age between 2020 and 2022, as opposed to that occurring two years earlier in the rest of the UK.
I urge Members to acknowledge and understand the repercussions of what they will do by voting for the amendments in this group. They may think that they are doing some a favour by letting some people receive their pension earlier than anywhere else in the UK. The reality is that they are not. In fact, they could harm those dependent on other vital aspects of the social security system.
Amendment Nos 1, 2, 3, 4 and 7 are concerned with changes to the state pension age. Perhaps it would assist the House if I were to take a step back and reiterate precisely what clause 1 does. Existing legislation provides for the equalisation of the state pension age for men and women at 65 between April 2010 and April 2020, and to increase it to 66 between April 2024 and April 2026. The Bill proposes to phase in the increase in the pension age to 66 between December 2018 and October 2020. That change has been made in response to increases in life expectancy and is intended to ensure that the state pension remains sustainable for future generations.
The pace of equalising pension ages for men and women at 65 will accelerate from 2016, so that women will have the same state pension age as men by November 2018 instead of April 2020. That is necessary because any option that would widen the gap between the state pension age for men and women would run contrary to directive 79/7/EEC, and the increase in the state pension age to 66 must, therefore, be applied to men and women at the same time. These measures correspond to measures in the Pensions Act 2011 and will result in an estimated reduction in expenditure on pensioner benefits in Northern Ireland of £810 million between 2016 and 2026.
I listened carefully to the arguments put forward in support of the amendments. I appreciate that the amendments are intended to ensure that the equalisation of the pension age reverts to the existing timetable and that the increase of the pension age to 66 should start from May 2020 and be completed by April 2022. That would mean a clear breach of parity, and as several Members queried the extent of the cost to the Northern Ireland block grant of such a breach, I can confirm that it is estimated at £270 million. I know that some Members believe that we can have a kind of “pick and mix” approach to parity and that we can gobble up the goodies that we like and spit out the things that we do not. They seem to expect the Westminster Government or, perhaps more correctly, taxpayers across the UK to pick up the tab. Can we really say to people in Britain that we will happily take the £3 billion that they give us every year to keep our social security system running but that they should not expect us to work as long as them before we can access our pensions? There is an issue of equality and parity across the United Kingdom.
Let us look at the cold facts. According to the Office for National Statistics, in the period 2008 to 2010, the average life expectancy for a man aged 65 in Northern Ireland was 17·4 years. That compared with 17·7 years in Wales, 18·2 years in England and 16·8 years in Scotland. Therefore, life expectancy for men here was broadly similar to that in Wales, marginally less than that in England and higher than that in Scotland. The same is true for women, for whom life expectancy at 65 here in the same period was 20·2 years, which compared with 20·3 years in Wales, 20·8 years in England but only 19·3 years in Scotland. Some Members will argue that there is not necessarily a correlation between living longer and having good health to enjoy old age, and I think that we all accept that. However, it is true that, in general, people are staying fitter for longer, and it is certainly true that parts of Great Britain have worse health problems than we do. Can we really argue that it is right to expect taxpayers in Britain with lower life expectancies to continue to fund our benefit system, while they have to work longer than people here before they can get their pensions?
We must remember that the funding arrangements for social security are unique. They operate outside of the Barnett formula and are based on actual need. Therefore, in effect, our benefit costs are fully funded. However, that funding stream is predicated specifically on the maintenance of parity. Any additional costs arising from a breach of parity would have to be picked up by the Northern Ireland block grant. The statement of funding principles provides for funding to be reviewed if parity is breached.
Only last week, the Chancellor announced his plans to look at the disparity between local rates of pay in the private and public sectors; in short, regionalisation of pay. It is not a seismic leap to fear that a review of funding for social security could trigger consideration of regional rates of benefit. Those Members who say that we should test the boundaries of parity —
I appreciate the Minister’s giving way. I have been listening very carefully to what he has been saying, and I note that he has mounted an argument that is built around parity. However, that is the opposite argument to the one that his Westminster colleagues mounted when they supported these amendments when they were tabled in Westminster. We have a situation where the Finance Minister in this House, who also happens to be an MP, voted for these very amendments — the same amendments, when they were before the House of Commons — and made the point that people were entitled to the sort of provisions that are outlined in the amendments. The Minister for Social Development has come into this House to argue the contrary. If devolution is to mean something, it should mean that the rights of people who are elected to represent constituents at a regional level should be upheld. The Minister is being a bit disingenuous in arguing for parity when his own MPs supported the amendments that we have tabled in this House.
The Member has failed to grasp the point that I just made because he does not want to understand it. Let us recall it for his benefit so that he understands. The Chancellor was announcing his plans to look at the disparity between local rates of pay in the private and public sectors; in short, regionalisation of pay. I repeat, for the Member’s benefit, that it is not a seismic leap to fear that a review of funding for social security could trigger consideration of regional rates of benefit. So, those Members who say that we should test the boundaries of parity, or push the envelope that bit further, are playing a potentially dangerous game.
I have highlighted already the additional cost of £270 million that we would face and the dangers of breaking down the issue of parity. The amendments raise a number of other questions.
Thank you, sir. Can you explain whether this money would have to be found from your budget or from the Executive Budget, and can you give some indication of the scale of the difficulties that would be faced by having to replace the £270 million to which you referred?
I thank the Member for his intervention. It is a point that he and others made earlier on, and I was going to return to it in due course. However, I am happy to respond at this point. The £270 million commitment would not be a DSD commitment; it would be an Executive commitment. The question, therefore, would be for the Executive to decide whether we take that £270 million out of the education budget or the health budget, but, of course, Mr McDevitt is so busy talking to others that he does not bother listening for that important point. That is the sort of important issue that he does not want to face up to and acknowledge.
I only give way if I am going to hear something constructive, and I have heard nothing.
There are other issues that need to be considered, and the amendments raise a number of those. The first concerns the ability of the DWP computer system to operate different schemes for Northern Ireland and Great Britain. It should be remembered that the upper age limits for working-age benefits are also affected. This would have to be impacted and costed, and any costs would fall to Northern Ireland. The figure of £270 million would then be topped up further by additional costs.
Secondly, whether, in light of the reciprocal arrangements with Great Britain and the fact that there are no residence requirements for entitlement to a state pension, we could legally prevent people who live in any other part of the United Kingdom — any part of Great Britain — from claiming the Northern Ireland pension rather than waiting longer to qualify for the Great Britain pension. Thirdly, in relation to the pension entitlement of European Economic Area workers, here and in Great Britain, will it be necessary or even possible to calculate Northern Ireland pension entitlement on a pro rata basis?
Those are major issues, with the potential for significant additional costs, and those costs would have to be met out of the budgets of other Departments. Working purely on the additional benefits costs at around £270 million, where is that money to come from? Are we to take the money away from the health service, the education service, or where? In an ideal world, no one would want to increase state pension ages. It does not give me any pleasure to have to resist the amendments, but we cannot bury our heads in the sand. We have to accept the financial realities with which we are faced, and I believe that there is a general acceptance that changes to state pension ages are inevitable.
To summarise, the proposals in the Bill have been made in response to the increase in life expectancy and are intended to ensure that the state pension remains sustainable for future generations. They correspond to measures in the Pensions Act 2011 and will result in an estimated reduction in expenditure on pensioner benefits in Northern Ireland of £810 million by 2026. The amendments, if accepted, are a clear breach of parity and will result in a cost to the Northern Ireland block of some £270 million. That will raise major questions about how and to whom a Northern Ireland pension would be payable.
I will now pick up on points that a number of Members made. First, I noticed Mark Durkan’s concerns about the speed of introduction of the changes. In an ideal world, none of us would want to change the existing timetables, but we must accept that people are living longer and that the Westminster Government have decided that the original timetable is unsustainable. That is the reality, however much we may not like it. He was also prone to comment about accelerated passage. In fact, I sought the Committee’s views on accelerated passage because I wanted to give women as much time as possible to prepare for the changes. Some members of the Committee argued the importance of the scrutiny role of the Committee, and the Committee’s response to me made clear that it believed that the arguments for and against accelerated passage were finely balanced, so I am surprised at the Member’s jibe about accelerated passage.
Mr Maskey raised the issue of equalising the pension age at 60. I am sure that many folk would find that very appealing and attractive. Mr Maskey thinks that that needs to be considered. It was put to him, I think, by some trade union representatives.
I merely used that as an example in the spirit of generosity. I was making the point that we understood the whole principle of parity, and I was referring to other people also understanding it. I was not necessarily advocating anything. I was repeating what was given to the Committee.
I take the Member’s point. If I recollect exactly, it was put was put to him by a lobby group for a trade union, rather than it being a personal viewpoint. Whoever advocates it needs to get a dose of reality. We are facing an ageing population, here in Northern Ireland and, indeed, throughout the United Kingdom. That is a reality. The number of people of working age compared with people of pensionable age, which is called the support ratio, is falling. My understanding is that the ratio is currently 3:1 and will be 2:1 by 2020. In Northern Ireland, the number of people who are aged 65 or over is expected to increase by 25% between 2010 and 2015. Between 2010 and 2025, it is expected to rise by 42%. We cannot bury our heads in the sand about the fact that the number of people of pensionable age is increasing substantially. It is as simple as that.
Michael Copeland raised the issue of the national insurance system and reminded us of its origins. I understand his point about the system and how people have paid in all their lives. Unfortunately — this is, in a sense, a legacy of the original Beveridge scheme — full pensions started to be paid shortly after the system was set up. So, individuals do not have their own separate pension pot building up in the national insurance fund. The reality of the system is that today’s contributions pay for today’s benefits.
I will finish off by addressing a couple of points that Members raised, one of which was concern about the implications of bringing forward the proposals. I have certainly expressed our concerns to Ministers in London very strongly and clearly. I share many of the concerns about the effects of the proposed changes, and I have made clear to Ministers in London my view that planning for retirement is a long-term process. There is no doubt about that. Changes introduced at short notice do little to inspire confidence in the pension system or to encourage individuals to make long-term plans. Indeed, in June 2011, I urged Iain Duncan Smith to alleviate the impact of the pension-age changes on women. On 18 October 2011, the House of Commons accepted an amendment to the Westminster Bill to alter the timetable for increase to 66 by October 2020 rather than by April 2020, and the amended proposal provides a maximum increase in pension age of 18 months rather than the two years under the original proposal. That concession eased the impact on the women most significantly affected by the original proposals. However, I emphasise that we have expressed concerns directly to the Government at Westminster and to Iain Duncan Smith.
Alex Maskey asked what the next move might be and whether there will be further changes at Westminster. On 29 November 2011, George Osborne made a speech in which he said very clearly that the intention was, in due course, to increase the age from 66 to 67. The direction of movement by the Conservative/Lib Dem coalition Government at Westminster is, therefore, very clear.
Fra McCann said that not everyone lives to 100. He is right. Some folk do, and some folk live well into their 90s. However, although many people do not reach that age, the fact is that, as I have indicated, the average age is increasing. That is the really significant figure.
I welcome Stewart Dickson’s comments. He picked up on the point of an ageing population and said that we should not play populist politics with this. I welcome his comment.
The amendments would have a significant impact, and I have set that out very clearly. They would lead to a breach of parity, a cost of £270 million that would have to be met out of other Departments and major questions about how and to whom a Northern Ireland pension would be payable. For those very strong and substantial reasons, along with the other points that I have made, I urge Members to oppose the amendments.
I thank all Members who have taken part in this morning’s debate thus far. I will go through the contributions and touch on some points that have been raised.
First, we had the Chair of the Social Development Committee, Mr Alex Maskey, who referred to the Committee’s consideration of, and opposition to, clause 1. I would like to take this opportunity to commend Mr Maskey on his chairmanship of the Committee during a very long and complex process. I concur with his assertion that we have not had the exhaustive debate on parity that is required and that will certainly be required as we await the Welfare Reform Bill. We also need to push the boundaries and see what flexibilities we may be afforded. I appreciate his party’s support for our amendments, and also welcome the amendments that it has tabled. I will speak about them later.
Paula Bradley spoke largely about the increase in the financial cost to the taxpayer of increasing the pensionable age. I would have thought that given Ms Bradley’s professional background, she would be acutely aware that sometimes societal costs should outweigh financial ones. Mr Easton’s intervention displayed either a complete lack of attention or a lack of understanding. We are not opposing equalisation, so the talk of the EU directive is a complete red herring. We are not opposing equalisation: let me re-emphasise that for anyone who did not catch it.
The economic burden has to be looked at in the context of the savings that the legislation will realise for the Government as it is. I think the acceleration will realise something like £10 billion over 10 years for the Westminster Government, so the £270 million that we are talking about here today is peanuts, really.
Mr Copeland gave us a timely reminder of the origin of our pension scheme and accurately pointed out subsequent changes in our societal fabric. The fact that we have fewer people in paid employment is a sad reality. I wish that the Government would approach creating employment with the same zeal with which they are attacking the most vulnerable in our society. Mr Copeland also asked about costs. We really do need to look at the costs before passing this punitive legislation.
I welcome Stewart Dickson’s remarks and his reiteration of our concerns.
I will get around to that now. [Laughter.] I think it is unhelpful to be asking where it might come from, and saying things like, “It will have to come from the health budget.” However, that might give Edwin Poots someone else to blame for the closure of hospitals, as if he needed someone else.
I am grateful to the Member for giving way. Does the Member agree that these are issues of extreme importance? The Minister has set out what is, factually, the financial position. To be fair, you gave way to the Member and he asked you a question. You spoke earlier about flexibility. What exactly do you mean about flexibility, and where will the money come from?
There are lots of areas that the Westminster Government, as well as this Government, could look at where more money could be found. Last year or the year before, our party presented a paper with 57 options for raising revenue. I do not agree with all of them — [Interruption.] That was tabled, and it has not been looked at —
It is OK to throw back the recommendations in it that would not work or were erroneous, but there were plenty of other recommendations in it that were not. They are silent on them and inactive on them.
I welcome Stewart Dickson’s reiteration of our concerns. He pointed out that his colleague Naomi Long had supported these amendments in Westminster, but I must contest his assertion that that is where the fight takes place and here we just roll over. We have to be consistent. The Alliance Party has to be consistent, too, and so does the DUP.
Mr Easton then spoke again. His assessment of the amendments is that they are amateurish and ill conceived. He is certainly at odds with his party’s MPs, who voted for the same amendments. Does that make them amateurish as well? Sammy Douglas spoke about the cost, and he said that he was concerned about how such a move might be financed. They are genuine concerns, and it is something that we have to explore fully. We all have to explore that fully together. Pam Brown also spoke about the repercussions. We need a debate on what the repercussions might be. Will it mean that we have to take money out of health or education? We need to have that debate rather than just scaremongering.
I was glad that the Minister listened carefully to our arguments. He spoke about the cost of £270 million to the Northern Ireland block. Does that figure take into account an increase in the working-age benefits that will be paid? That qualifying age will have increased as well. I understand that that comes from a different source, but we are talking about parity and flexibility. They have to be looked at. We should ask what the additional cost is to the Treasury of increasing the qualifying age for work-related benefits.
Thank you for that point of information.
We have a lower life expectancy here, so surely pensions will not ultimately cost as much as they do in other, more affluent areas.
A discussion ensued between my colleague Mr McDevitt and the Minister about parity. The Minister’s Westminster colleagues seem to care more about corporation tax, on which they continue to fight for disparity. Is that a dangerous game?
I am grateful to the Member for giving way. It is important that the Member gives some clarity to his and his party’s position. The Minister has set out the cost to the Northern Ireland Executive of £270 million. The other benefits that he is talking about are paid for by Her Majesty’s Treasury in London; they do not come out of the Northern Ireland Executive accounts. Maybe you will clarify the position. Where will the money come from to pay for this? Which Departments? Will it be the Health Department, the Education Department or DEL? Where will the money come from to pay for the amendments that you are talking about?
I have already addressed both those points. I recognised that the other benefits come from the Treasury, and I referred to my party’s economic document as one area for exploration of where the funding could come from.
The scaremongering around the impact of a breach of parity on other services here is disingenuous, and I have already referred to the health aspect. The Minister spoke about my reference to accelerated passage. He made it very clear that it was his intention to give the Bill accelerated passage during an unannounced visit to the Committee. I wonder whether the Minister has considered whether the increase in pensionable age will have a knock-on impact on eligibility for or entitlement to other benefits, such as free public transport. Maybe he is still of a mind to do away with that altogether.
We could have just come along today to vote against the Bill, but we have come with compromise and with proposals that we believe could be workable. We have said that we will not dance merrily to the Tory tune as some in the House happily do, even though their colleagues and members of other parties support these exact recommendations in Westminster. The Labour Party proposed the same time frame for the Pensions Bill, but, unfortunately, the amendment was not passed. However, it had the support of DUP and Alliance Party representatives over there. The Assembly must ask itself why it is OK for the DUP to vote one way in Westminster on measures that affect Northern Ireland, but, when it actually has the power to change them here, it shies away from doing so.
The Member has mentioned that several times. Had that vote been successful, that would have become Westminster policy and we would not be breaking parity, because we would be following the same policy for the four countries of the United Kingdom.
If we in this Chamber took the head staggers and voted for the amendment and found the £270 million, what would the Member do when the next breach of parity came along in the form of an amendment? How would he hold the line? People would say, “If you are prepared to find the £270 million for this, you can find it for many other issues”. Once you break parity, you go down a very serious road, and I advise him not to do that.
We accept the constraints of parity, but we will not accept from the Executive a lack of creative thinking on and investigation of alternatives for this region. With these amendments, the Pensions Bill would illustrate that, although Northern Ireland accepts its position and cannot deviate from parity lightly, we are testing the flexibilities that Owen Paterson —
I have done enough. Come on.
Earlier this month, Owen Paterson clarified that those flexibilities exist. To make parity work as far as we can without bargaining our citizens’ welfare, the SDLP seeks to open negotiations on a way forward. Our remit is making government work, not conceding to every Tory-imposed deal simply because we fear challenging it.
Mr Agnew, Mr Boylan, Ms Boyle, Mr D Bradley, Mr Brady, Mr Byrne, Mr W Clarke, Mr Dallat, Mr Durkan, Mr Eastwood, Mrs D Kelly, Mr G Kelly, Mr Lynch, Mr McDevitt, Mr McElduff, Mr McGlone, Mr McKay, Mrs McKevitt, Mr McLaughlin, Mr McMullan, Mr A Maginness, Mr A Maskey, Mr Molloy, Mr Murphy, Mr Ó hOisín, Mr P Ramsey, Ms S Ramsey.
Tellers for the Ayes: Mr Byrne and Mr Dallat.
Mr Allister, Mr S Anderson, Mr Bell, Ms P Bradley, Ms Pam Brown, Mr Buchanan, Mr T Clarke, Mr Copeland, Mr Craig, Mr Cree, Mr Dickson, Mrs Dobson, Mr Douglas, Mr Dunne, Mr Easton, Mr Elliott, Mr Ford, Mrs Foster, Mr Frew, Mr Gardiner, Mr Girvan, Mr Givan, Mrs Hale, Mr Hamilton, Mr Hilditch, Mr Humphrey, Mr Hussey, Mr Irwin, Mr Kennedy, Mr Kinahan, Ms Lo, Mr McCallister, Mr McCarthy, Mr McCausland, Mr B McCrea, Mr I McCrea, Miss M McIlveen, Mr McNarry, Mr McQuillan, Lord Morrow, Mr Moutray, Mr Nesbitt, Mr Poots, Mr G Robinson, Mr Ross, Mr Storey, Mr Swann, Mr Weir, Mr Wells.
Tellers for the Noes: Mr Easton and Mr G Robinson.
Question accordingly negatived.
We move on to the second group. With amendment No 5, it will be convenient to debate amendment No 6. The amendments deal with entitlement to the winter fuel payment and requiring the Department to report on the cost of pension provision and life expectancy in different occupational sectors.
I beg to move amendment No 5: In page 2, line 17, at end insert
“(8) This section shall be disregarded for the purposes of determining entitlement to Winter Fuel Payment in accordance with the Social Fund Winter Fuel Payment Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2000.”
The following amendment stood on the Marshalled List:
No 6: After clause 1, insert the following new clause:
“Duty to report on the impact of health inequalities and occupation on the cost of pension provision for various occupational sectors of the population
1A. The Department for Social Development shall, within one year of the date on which this Act receives Royal Assent, lay a report before the Assembly on the differences in the cost of pension provision for various occupational sectors of the population arising from health inequalities, including the impact of occupation on life expectancy.” — [Mr A Maskey.]
Order, order. Can we have peace in the Assembly, please? We have a Member speaking, and there is a lot of background noise. I would prefer it if we were able to listen to the Member. Those who wish to leave, please leave.
Go raibh maith agat a LeasCheann Comhairle. Arís. Let us have peace in our time at least. I have a piece of paper here somewhere that I need to refer to.
As a member of the Social Development Committee, I thank the officials from the Committee who supported all the Committee members during our consideration of the Bill at Committee Stage. I also thank departmental officials for their support. I thank in particular all the stakeholder organisations that came to the Committee and made their respective presentations.
Obviously, the amendment is very specific. It is quite self-explanatory and relatively simple and straightforward. Clearly, the key issue from the perspective of the members of the Social Development Committee and of my party has been fuel poverty. We were very pleased that the Committee embarked on a ground-breaking initiative by working together with all the other Committees on fuel poverty. Thankfully, the House will shortly have the report from that work to debate. That work involved eight of the Assembly Committees, all of which have some remit or responsibility for scrutinising their respective Departments, which have some role in relation to fuel poverty. I remind the House that we had a working meeting, a conference-type engagement with eight Assembly Committees, eight of the Executive Departments and well over 30 stakeholder organisations. There were almost 100 people, all of whom were relatively senior, if not the most senior, in their respective organisations and agencies, taking part in a wide-ranging discussion on fuel poverty.
One of the main issues that came up in that discussion was the impact that fuel poverty has on our older citizens. Some of the presentations and the figures included in them told us that somewhere in the region of 44% of households in the North suffer from fuel poverty. So, the argument and the logic behind the amendment is simply that a lot of older citizens are more vulnerable and more prone to the effects of cold weather and therefore are more in need of winter fuel support. Everybody has made that point, and no one has dissented from it. On that basis, the logic is that, if we increase the pensionable age from 60 to 65 for women and then from 65 to 66 for everyone, more of our citizens will fall into fuel poverty and into the category of people who need more support to deal with fuel poverty and fuel costs. The Minister has reminded us that the British Government Minister repeated recently their intention to continue the upward spiral of the pension age.
The amendment would disconnect eligibility for the fuel poverty payment from the pension age. If we increase the pension age, we will probably make more people worse off in respect of fuel poverty and increase the need for support. The amendment would break the link and leave things where they are, although that is not specified.
As the Minister explained, he and his Department are seeking to enact the Bill, which has been handed down from London. What we are trying to do is highlight the fact that that is not necessarily a good thing and is one of the more negative consequences of the Bill. I do not think that anyone dissented from the fact that many of our senior citizens are vulnerable to fuel poverty and need additional support. Therefore, the logic is that, if the pension age is increased, the number of people who will be prone to fuel poverty and fall into that trap will also increase.
I commend the Executive for recently extending eligibility for winter fuel payments. In my view, that vindicates the amendment, because the Executive recognise that there is a need for it. The effect of the Bill will be to increase that need. It is a fairly self-explanatory amendment, and I do not think that it needs a lot of debate.
I respect people’s views on parity. It is a big issue, and it is not simple. The British Government have made it clear that their proposal to extend the age of pension eligibility is not simply about the fact that, thankfully, we are all growing older and are able to work longer. They have made it clear that it is, by and large, a financial transaction. They also clearly say that the costs of pensions are increasingly unsustainable. That may or may not be the case, and it has to be addressed. We do not have to address the issue here. It is not simply a matter of saying, “We will take the money from here and put it over there”. I understand the logic of Members who spoke about that earlier. The state has to look at how we make pensions sustainable in the longer term. I accept that that is a complex and difficult challenge for all of us.
As I said, I respect the point about parity. I heard Members say that they were unionists and, therefore, accepted the principle of parity. I accept their view, and I am not second-guessing it. I do not wish to disrespect that argument, as there is logic in it from their point of view. However, none of the proposals actually addresses local circumstances. That is why my party wants to make this amendment and supports the previous amendment.
We understand that, in some cases, there may be substantial costs attached. We do not believe that the arguments have yet been fully and properly explored directly with the British Government. We want that engagement to continue much more robustly, because therein lies what we hear from British Government representatives about greater flexibility. Having been the Chair of the Social Development Committee for almost a year, I have seen little evidence of it. However, I would dearly love to be able to explore that more fully and robustly. Who knows what the outcome might be?
I have no doubt that, in the time ahead, there will increasingly be arguments around regionalisation and whether we should deal with certain issues on the basis of parity or in some other way. I have no doubt that those arguments will come to our table in due course, and I do not think that we should necessarily fear them. However, it is incumbent on us, as an institution, to examine critically how we can best represent the interests of the people whom we were elected to serve. There is compelling evidence, which has been pointed out by a range of stakeholders and by the Department, that there are people here whose life expectancy is lower than in other regions. We are also talking about people’s quality of life and their health profile, which is not as good a story as it perhaps is in other places. There are a lot of reasons for that, some of which have been rehearsed in the Chamber over recent years, and they will have to be explored further.
I ask Members to consider the amendment on its own merits. It would simply break the link between retirement and eligibility for winter fuel payments, as opposed to the outworking of the Bill, which means that people will be eligible only when they reach pension age. As we know, the Bill’s purpose is to extend upwards the age at which people can retire. Therefore, on the basis of the compelling evidence presented to us, we firmly believe that the consequence of the Bill would be more of our older citizens becoming vulnerable to fuel poverty. That would be a backward step, and I urge Members to support the amendment on that basis.
The Business Committee has arranged to meet immediately after the lunchtime suspension. I propose, therefore, by leave of the Assembly, to suspend the sitting until 2.00 pm. The first item of business after lunchtime will be Question Time.
The debate stood suspended.
The sitting was suspended at 12.31 pm.ITC Franklin Gothic Demi';">
On resuming (Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr Dallat] in the Chair) —
One hundred and fifty one staff will leave the Prison Service on 31 March under the terms of the voluntary early retirement scheme. Their compensation in lieu of notice payment and the nine-month severance payment will be made before the end of this month. Their statutory lump sum and compensation payment will be made in April. All payments will be taxed within the 2011-12 tax year. That decision was taken following consultation with the Departmental Solicitor’s Office, internal audit and Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs.
That is a very disappointing response from the Minister, because, as he knows, I asked that specific question when officials from the Prison Service came before the Committee. They assured me that tax could be taken in 2012-13. Furthermore, staff were advised by officers in the Prison Service that it would be in 2012-13, and, indeed, some of the written material made it clear that it could be taken in that year. His decision will mean that many prison officers will pay up to £2,000 extra in tax, simply because of the lack of flexibility that has been shown. Finally, HMRC has indicated to prison officers —
If there was a question in there, I will attempt to answer it. Mr Wells says that HMRC “could not care less” what year the tax is paid. That is certainly not the understanding I have, which is a clear interpretation of tax law, which is that, since the pay becomes available in the current tax year, the tax is due on the basis of the current tax year.
Mr Wells talks about prison officers potentially losing up to £2,000 because of this decision. It is certainly the case that some prison officers will lose in the region of £2,000 or, perhaps, slightly more because tax is liable in this tax year. However, it should also be made clear that, as a result of negotiations between the Prison Service and HMRC, a number of prison officers will save up to £5,000 through legitimate ways of dealing with the tax issue, as opposed to what would have been regarded by HMRC as tax avoidance.
I struggle to find the connection between the original question and that. As I said to the House yesterday — I am not sure whether Mr Maskey was present — I have not personally read the advice. I do not need to read the advice in all cases.
I thank the Minister for his answers. Mr Wells asked a question to which I did not hear an answer, so I will ask again: were prison officers given advice that the outworkings of the gratuity payments would be in the 2012-13 year? My understanding is that they were, but I ask the Minister whether they were given that advice.
It is certainly my understanding that information was conveyed, at one stage, to members of the Justice Committee that payments would be taxable, potentially next year. I believe that was said in November last year. That was corrected at a meeting of the Justice Committee in February this year. I am not in a position to say what information may or may not have been supplied to officers. It is regrettable that that mistake was made at a Committee meeting last year, but it was corrected subsequently.
Given the success of the gratuity scheme, in that 500 serving prison officers applied to leave the service, how will they be facilitated? What is the time frame for the appointment of the replacement personnel?
I thank Mrs Kelly for the question. The only information that can be given specifically at this point is that 151 officers are leaving this week, and, because of the wrong pension calculations in the Department of Finance and Personnel, a further six will leave during April. It is not possible to give a firm date when others will leave; that will depend on the needs of the service. Also, as I have pointed out, officers could lose their compensation in lieu of notice if they are given notice.
It is expected that, in the autumn, the first of the 200 new entrants who applied last month will come into post and will be fully operational by the end of the year.
The accounting officer for the Office of the Police Ombudsman has always been the chief executive. Accounting officer responsibility changed from the acting chief executive to the interim chief executive following his appointment at the end of January this year. My Department’s role was to designate formally the incoming interim chief executive as accounting officer for the Office of the Police Ombudsman. My permanent secretary, as departmental accounting officer of the DOJ, wrote to the interim chief executive on 30 January 2012 to confirm the change of accounting officer role from the acting chief executive to the interim chief executive.
I thank the Minister for his answer so far. He will be aware of the interference in the Office of the Police Ombudsman. Indeed, his Department was criticised about that. Does he understand why the interim chief executive being put forward by the Department of Justice will further worry people about what might be still going on in the office? Have any changes been made, especially structural changes or the regrading and demotion of senior staff, by the interim chief executive?
I am not aware of interference in the office by my officials. The interim chief executive was not put forward by the Department of Justice. The ombudsman sought the assistance of the Department of Justice in identifying an interim chief executive of an appropriate grade. The permanent secretary of my Department contacted the head of the Civil Service and DFP about that. I cannot see how that constitutes interference.
I thank Mrs Dobson for her question. The long-term arrangements will have to be determined by the new ombudsman when he or she takes up post. At this stage, the issue is that the interim chief executive carries certain responsibilities. However, it is clear from the McCusker report that issues about the grading and staffing of the office as a whole will have to be addressed. That can be carried through only when the new ombudsman is in a position to make those decisions.
The Minister’s answers so far make it clear that his Department has acted entirely properly and in the best interests of an effectively functioning Police Ombudsman’s office. Does he agree that those who are swift to accuse his Department of wrongdoing should be just as swift to acknowledge when his Department acts in an entirely appropriate fashion, as it has clearly done in relation to this matter? I do not mean now.
That would be nice. I am not necessarily sure that, in the Chamber, any Minister gets recognition when things are done right, but we can certainly expect the kicks when things are done wrong.
As far as I am concerned, the Department of Justice has acted entirely properly in seeking to ensure the continuity of the ombudsman’s office, given the difficulties that the office has been in. I welcome my friend’s suggestion that that is right and should be acknowledged by all parts of the House, although I am not holding my breath.
As I stated yesterday, the pace of prison reform is accelerating. Over the next six months, we plan to build on the foundations that have been laid. My objectives focus on four main delivery areas: structural reform in the Prison Service; increasing the skills and capacity of staff in NIPS; preparing the way for cultural change in NIPS; and developing a more efficient and effective justice system.
Measures for delivering structural reform include the transfer of healthcare staff to the South Eastern Trust on 1 April; ensuring improved accountability and governance arrangements; and a number of pivotal reviews, including those of corporate governance and of learning and skills for prisoners. I also plan to publish a new prison estate strategy next month.
To increase the skills and capacity of staff in the Prison Service, we will develop a range of fit-for-purpose training programmes for new and existing staff on which a truly professionalised service can be built, and we will delayer the current seven-tier management structure down to four to improve accountability. Other measures will begin to effect cultural change and include letting go long-serving staff who do not want to be part of a reformed NIPS; the recruitment of new custody officers, with the first appointees expected to be operational by the new year; and the introduction, by the end of June, of a new disciplinary system for uniformed staff.
Other measures will improve the wider justice system and include work to ensure that the prison reforms are properly aligned with the approach being taken by the Department to offending right across the justice system; the publication of a strategic framework for reducing offending; the introduction of a faster, fairer justice Bill before the end of the year; and further consideration of statutory time limits by the Criminal Justice Board.
The key issue in the oversight of that programme of work is the set-up of the group that I chair as part of the recommendations of the prison review team. It will meet quarterly and includes independent members. It had its first meeting last month and will meet again in May. Given the experience of those who serve on the group, I believe that we have a very sound way of ensuring that oversight is maintained in the process. After each meeting, the group will ensure that a report is submitted to the Justice Committee so that it can also play its role in the proper oversight of the Department. There will also be a departmental reform group, which will be led by the permanent secretary and include participation by the probation service and DHSSPS. The Department has also scheduled a number of workshops, working with other Departments throughout the spring of this year to consider cross-cutting and strategic issues.
Go raibh maith agat a LeasCheann Comhairle agus buíochas don Aire as an fhreagra sin. I thank the Minister for his answers.
The Minister mentioned his statement to the House yesterday on his objectives for the next six months. Does he feel that he will be able to deliver the full-body scanners to Maghaberry and other prisons in the next six months?
I thank Mr McCartney for his question. I can state only what I said yesterday, which is that we are not sure what the timescale will be, because the timescale for some of the processes is dependent on licensing arrangements that have to be considered at UK national level. However, I repeat my assurance to Mr McCartney that we will work as fast as we can in the Northern Ireland Prison Service to move on the issue of full-body scanners and get pilots under way.
There is a thought abroad that the Minister’s prison reforms have more to do with looking after the comforts of criminals than looking after and delivering justice to victims. Does the Minister accept that it is vital that the general public have confidence in anything that he does, that everything that he does is seen to be fair, open and transparent and that the reforms also consider victims’ needs?
Yes, I certainly consider it necessary that everything should be fair, open and transparent. On the specific issue of victims, the Department has been doing a lot of work around the needs of victims and witnesses, some of which Lord Morrow will know from his time as Chair of the Justice Committee. A lot of that depends on the work currently being done by the Justice Committee around meeting the needs of victims, which will inform the work to be done by the Department in the coming months.
The Minister referred to the oversight body. It is right and proper that there be such a body to look after the conduct of the reforms, but the Minister chairs it himself. I suggest that it might be better if there were an independent chair instead, in order to validate the independence and give that body more power.
I see where Mr Maginness is coming from, but any suggestion that the personalities who serve on that oversight committee would somehow be overly leaned on by me as chair was not shown to be the case at the initial meeting, and I do not expect it to be the case going forward. The Member is a member of the Justice Committee, which will receive a report after each meeting of the oversight group. That will enable the Committee to also hold the Department to account. I think those measures are sufficiently open and transparent to ensure that the oversight work is done correctly, but it will be up to him and other members of the Committee to hold me and the oversight group to account.
On publication of the Criminal Justice Inspection report, I made clear the need for the Office of the Police Ombudsman to take swift and robust action in response. The office developed an action plan to implement the recommendations in full. It also committed itself to seeking independent validation of the implementation process from CJINI. Since publication of the report, I have received regular updates from both the ombudsman’s office and Dr Michael Maguire on the implementation of the recommendations.
I am pleased to advise that there has been progress on a number of fronts, particularly in reforming the processes around the investigation and reporting of historic cases. Criminal Justice Inspection has also confirmed that the proposals for the development of the historical directorate are sensible and provide a basis for a more robust approach to the investigation of historical cases. Further work is required in order to implement the recommendations fully, and that will take some further time. However, I have been assured that the ombudsman’s office recognises the challenges and importance of delivering on the action plan in a timely manner, and I am pleased that priority is being given to this work.
The simple answer is that the new ombudsman, who I believe is close to being appointed, will lead that work. That appointment has been at ministerial level with the First Minister and deputy First Minister. The new ombudsman will, I hope, be in post as soon as can be and will have the responsibility of leading the work around the confidential unit.
I am also pleased to tell the House that the business case has been agreed to grant another £10 million to engage in the historical work of the ombudsman’s office, which will ensure that staff are in post when the new ombudsman is able to take up responsibilities to deal with these historical cases which have been blighting the work of the office for so long.
The Minister will be aware that the report highlighted the fact that police confidence in entrusting the ombudsman’s office with highly confidential information required the establishment of the confidential unit. Does the Minister share my concerns that any reduction in that confidentiality could lead to a loss of police confidence, which is vital to the success of any ombudsman’s office?
The Committee Chair highlights the importance of Police Service confidence in the ombudsman’s office. It is also absolutely clear that we need to ensure that there is public confidence. There is no benefit in having confidence on one side and not on the other. I trust that that will be something that the new ombudsman can take up. I recognise the points that he has made about the operation of the confidential unit in dealing with those difficult cases.
One of Criminal Justice Inspection’s recommendations was for a skills and competency audit of staff. Has that been taken forward? If not, why not? When will it be complete? If it has been carried out, what did it find?
The best answer that I can give is that I understand that a skills and competency audit has been carried out. However, it is not part of my function to know exactly what the detail of it is. I will see what information is available in the Department and write to the Member if necessary.
Following the review of the full-body searching of prisoners, which was published in December 2010, and the August 2010 agreement, the frequency of full-body searching in our prisons has already been significantly reduced.
In its final report, the prison review team concluded:
“Full-body searching is a procedure which is intrusive and invades the privacy of all prisoners, but is justified as proportionate and necessary to prevent the smuggling of contraband or weapons.”
It goes on to say:
“If other less intrusive and more effective electronic methods become available, they should be piloted, and their use considered.”
In line with that, the Prison Service has subsequently conducted a further review of full-body imaging scanners for potential use in prisons. On the basis of that review, as I have previously said, I intend to initiate a pilot of full-body imaging scanners as soon as the necessary authorisation for use of that technology in prisons is obtained. The outcome of such a pilot, when it is introduced, may reduce the frequency of full-body searching.
Go raibh maith agat a LeasCheann Comhairle agus gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as an fhreagra a thug sé ansin agus ba mhaith liom an méid seo a fhiafraí de.
I thank the Minister for his answer. In the meantime, will he help to recommence dialogue between prison officials and republican prisoners in Roe House in order to bring that continuing dispute to an end?
I certainly share Mr Bradley’s desire that we should bring the dispute to an end. Certainly, as I understand it, the offer of a prisoner forum has been made to those in Roe House, both in Roe 3 and Roe 4. However, prisoners have been unwilling to engage in that form of discussion, which, I believe, would be the best way, given that it is in line with the August 2010 agreement, to carry forward discussions on the management of Roe House. The important issue for me is to ensure that we provide the best possible regime for all prisoners in custody, commensurate with their human rights and the need to provide safety and security for staff and prisoners.
Yes. The August agreement was concerned with internal movement. The issue of searching prisoners on entering and leaving prison remains the same in every prison in Northern Ireland, as it is, as I understand, in England, Wales and Scotland. At present, full-body searching is the best arrangement that we have. However, as I made clear in the answer that I have just given to Mr Bradley, we are seeking technological solutions that would meet that need.
Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Given that, in answers to previous questions, the Minister said that he was committed to putting in place full-body imaging scanners, can he communicate that to prisoners in some way so that they know about his intention to do that?
I would have thought that the number of times that I have answered questions in the Chamber on that issue would have made it fairly clear publicly. It has certainly been reported in the media. However, I have no difficulty in ensuring that anybody who is aware of and concerned about the needs of prisoners is aware of our intention to move to a technological solution as soon as we can find a suitable one.
I think that Mr Copeland goes a bit beyond the precise detail of the pilot. I will happily inform the House when we have some understanding of what technological solutions can be piloted, after taking into account potential licensing issues, what is being done and the potential cost, although I suspect that it would be only an estimate at this stage. We will then have to ascertain how effective the process is compared with the existing search arrangements, and that will require a detailed study. If we simply discussed it at this point, I suspect that the discussion would not be particularly well informed.
Addressing the needs of victims and witnesses of crime has been high on my list of priorities since I became Minister. I have published a code of practice for victims of crime, two new guides to the criminal justice system, a handbook for adult victims of sexual violence and guidance on achieving best evidence. I have also brought forward legislation to expand the availability of special measures for vulnerable and intimidated witnesses. Victims’ champions have been appointed for each of the criminal justice agencies, and I have met them to discuss how we can best work together to provide a more seamless and responsive service for victims.
I am encouraged that the latest Northern Ireland victim and witnesses survey statistical report, which was published on 15 March, shows that victim and witness satisfaction has increased from 67·9% to 70% since devolution. Although that is a modest increase, it is statistically significant and indicates that the measures that have been taken so far are having a positive effect.
Later this year, I plan to publish for consultation a new five-year strategy for victims and witnesses. I have given a commitment that the proposed new strategy will be substantially informed by the outcome of the Justice Committee’s recent inquiry into the services provided to victims and witnesses of crime. I look forward to receiving the Committee’s report in the near future.
Work is also under way on a number of new initiatives, including the development of a victim impact scheme, the establishment of witness care units and the introduction of a witness intermediary service. It is my sincere hope that all those measures will help to improve the victim’s journey through the criminal justice system, and I will personally oversee their delivery.
I thank Mr Lunn for his supplementary question. The initial proposal came from Criminal Justice Inspection, when it carried out its thematic inspection report on the care and treatment of victims and witnesses. As a result of that, I wrote to the different agencies across the criminal justice system shortly before Christmas inviting them to nominate a victims’ champion at senior level for their organisation.
The role of victims’ champions is to provide an organisational focus on the way each organisation treats victims and witnesses and, hopefully, where necessary, to challenge attitudes and behaviours. A couple of weeks ago, I had a useful meeting with victims’ champions across the different agencies, and we had a very productive discussion on working collaboratively to improve services for victims and, indeed, to establish an amount of collaborative work, which is already under way. I will seek regular reports from the victims’ champions to ensure that that progress is maintained.
I assure Mr McCrea that the issue of court infrastructure is under review at the moment. One of the key issues is to ensure that we provide better facilities for victims and witnesses, including, where necessary, facilities to separate them from perpetrators or alleged perpetrators of crime. It is not easy given the current state of the estate, which consists of many buildings that, although beautiful and historic, are not adequate for modern needs.
As I have previously advised the Member, Lyndhurst Gardens does not meet the criteria for inclusion in the salting schedule. There are alternative routes, such as Westway Drive, that are treated and can be used to provide access to the main road network. The Member will also be aware that Roads Service has provided two salt boxes at that location for use by the public on a self-help basis.
Nevertheless, I empathise with the residents of the area and appreciate the difficulties that they encounter during severe wintry weather. I am prepared to look at the issue again and will discuss it with the divisional roads manager prior to meeting the Member. I hope that that may lead to an outcome that is satisfactory to all parties.
I thank the Minister for his welcome reply. It may perhaps seem strange that I am asking about gritting on a day such as today, but I commend the Minister for his answer. I have previously raised the point with departmental officials that the route through Westway Drive does not provide access to the estate. The area is at the top of the Black Mountain, and it has a steep gradient that provides considerable difficulties to the significant number of senior citizens who live in a settled community there. I very much welcome such a meeting with the Minister, and I thank him for his response.
I am grateful to the Member for his supplementary question. I also pay tribute to him for the doughty way in which he has pursued the issue, even in today’s pleasant weather conditions.
Being mindful of wintry conditions, I think that it is important that we look at all aspects of winter preparation. I can inform the House that, on a yearly basis after the winter period, Roads Service reviews how it has performed and assesses whether there are any outstanding issues. Clearly, the Member has raised one such issue. We will look at it and meet him at some stage to discuss it further.
I am grateful to the Member for his supplementary question, albeit that it seems a long way from Lyndhurst Gardens. [Laughter.] When there is common cause, we will co-operate. However, my understanding is that, in the system that is operated in the Republic of Ireland — I would be very grateful if the Member would pay some attention to the answer to the question he posed — there are differences in emphasis and approach that may not be easily reconciled. We are happy to look at instances in which meaningful co-operation can be operated successfully.
Does the Minister believe that the current gritting policy is fit for purpose? Is it perhaps time to carry out a significant review of the management and provision of gritting services, particularly in our towns and cities? I am sure that the Minister knows that the experience in the city of Belfast is less than satisfactory. Many large urban residential areas are left ungritted and, the residents would argue, without access to proper gritting services.
I am grateful to the Member for his supplementary question. I refer him to the answer that I gave some moments ago. On an ongoing basis, Roads Service reviews the practices that are engaged in over the winter season, and we will continue to do that. However, the priority has to be the main strategic roads network, and it is not economically viable or possible to grit every road, lane-way or footpath. So, we have to make the available resources count to the best advantage. I am happy to continue to look at the situation. I can say that salting 28% of the road network covers 80% of the main traffic movements. Since becoming Minister, I have instigated dialogue with and have had a very good response from local government on the subject of footpaths and town centre areas. I hope to build on that in the future so that we can make as much progress as possible in a sensible and cost-effective way.
Roads Service has advised that this scheme was subject to a public inquiry in 2007 and, in response to a recommendation in the inspector’s report, officials have been examining alternative junction proposals for Bellshill Road and Annaghmore Road, Castledawson. These alternative proposals were the subject of a further public inquiry, which took place on 13 and 14 February 2012. Roads Service hopes to complete statutory procedures for the scheme later this year. However, I should explain that there is no allocation for this scheme in the current Budget period up to 2015 to allow the scheme to proceed to construction. On that basis, and subject to the outcome of the public inquiry and funding determined by the investment strategy for Northern Ireland 2012-2021, it is anticipated that any work on the ground will not commence before 2015-16 at the earliest.
I thank the Minister for his detailed answer. He has anticipated the issue that I intended to follow up on, which was whether he believes that he can secure the funding for the scheme. He has outlined the timeline, and I thank him for that. Is he confident that the funds for the scheme are still secure?
The Member will want to consult Hansard to see the reply that I gave him. I will repeat that it is anticipated that any work on the ground will not commence before 2015-16 at the earliest, but that, of course, is subject to the outcome of the public inquiry and funding, which will, largely, be determined by the investment strategy for Northern Ireland (ISNI). The ISNI strategy, he will know, has been consulted on and is now subject to further work. It has not yet reached the Executive table for approval and, obviously then, approval by this House, but its content will be key in bringing forward this scheme and other schemes of this nature.
Does the Minister agree that it is somewhat disingenuous of Members, particularly Sinn Féin Members, to complain about the delay or deferral of major roads schemes such as the A6 project, when the Budget 2011-15, which was proposed by the former Minister last January and voted for by them, clearly set out that this and other worthy schemes would not proceed until 2015 at least, because of the decisions to prioritise other roads?
I thank the Member for her supplementary question. She makes a very fair point, in that having agreed at Executive level the various economic programmes, the Programme for Government and, presumably, at an early stage, the ISNI strategy, it will be incumbent on Members to bear that in mind when they particularly advance the cause of projects or schemes in their areas. It is all very well to play populist politics — many people have built a career on that, and I do not exclude myself from that either — but we need to be cautious that we do not exceed ourselves and make promises that we cannot realistically keep.
Go raibh maith agat a LeasCheann Comhairle agus mo bhuíochas leis an Aire chomh maith. I thank the Minister for his response. I am concerned principally, although not exclusively, about the part of the road that is in my constituency. I heard Mrs Overend’s point that a number of parties in this House voted for that Budget, and we are, perhaps, living with the consequences now. A number of environmental concerns were expressed by residents on the south Derry side of the proposed extended route of the thoroughfare. Can the Minister provide assurances that those environmental concerns, and, indeed, further concerns were expressed, but they are, obviously —
Yes, I just about got that, Mr Deputy Speaker. I thank the Member for his supplementary question. I assure him that due consideration will be given to all the points that he raised, particularly through the public inquiry stage and the outcome of the inspector’s report, which will be dealt with not only by my officials but by me.
Lord Morrow has leapfrogged the mountain to go to the A5 rather than Randalstown and Castledawson. I am happy to say that the inspector’s report on the A5 has been received. Officials are working on that. It has not yet reached my desk. I will be very pleased to inform Lord Morrow about the outcome of my deliberations on that when I am in a position to do so, and I might even wait for some advice that, in the past, has not been forthcoming from him regarding his clear view on the A5. I am happy to deal with that in due course, and I do not wish to raise the temperature or for Lord Morrow to be excited unduly. We will give it careful consideration, and, in due time, he will learn its outcome.
Roads Service carries out regular inspections of all public roads and footways to ensure that essential response maintenance is identified and completed as necessary. During those inspections, all defects are noted, including, for example, defective signs and signs needing cleaning to improve their visibility. The frequency of the inspections depends on the type of road and the volume of vehicular and pedestrian traffic. Town centres and major traffic routes are inspected monthly, while all other roads and footways are inspected at either two-monthly or four-monthly intervals.
In addition, to maintain street lighting and sign illumination equipment in good condition, Roads Service carries out ongoing cycles of night-time scouting and follow-up repairs. Lighting inspections are undertaken every two weeks during winter and every four weeks in summer. Any defects that are found are programmed for remedial action and are normally repaired within five working days. That will also include the cleaning of the equipment, when appropriate. Repairs to traffic signals are carried out under Roads Service’s traffic signal maintenance contract. The contract also provides for the cleaning of traffic signal lenses and a quarterly inspection at each traffic signal installation. Any reported damage or operational faults will have remedial work carried out by the maintenance company, in accordance with response times specified in the contract.
I thank the Minister for his answer. I am sure that he and other Members may have noticed that, over the past number of months, road signage, in addition to street light boxes, on major commuter routes have been in a state of disrepair, posing safety concerns. What is the Minister doing to ensure that such problems are seen to efficiently, which will secure the safety of all road users?
Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Like Mr McLaughlin, I also apologise for not being here. I can only put it down to confusion around the new summer time. Minister, given the very mild winter that we have had, how much additional funding is available for road repairs?
The clock seemed to spring forward there fairly dramatically in terms of the licence given to the question.
It is not a matter of saving money or having money in reserve because of winter maintenance. The winter preparations are put in place in the expectation that those resources will be required, and, therefore, it is important that they are in place. We have had a very mild winter, and about 46,000 tons of salt have been used to salt the road network. I pay tribute to all the staff who undertook those duties in very unsocial hours on behalf not only of the Department but of the wider community. As I said, we will continue to review the winter practices. I cannot indicate that there are no savings accrued. Simply, we continue to learn lessons and apply good practice in all our winter preparation.
If the Minister cares to visit north Belfast, he will see that there is not very much maintenance of roads signage, and I do not share his rosy assessment of the way in which the Department is carrying out its work. What moneys are being spent on the repair and upgrade of roads signage and safety barriers throughout the North? When I say “the North”, I do not just mean north Belfast.
You meant Northern Ireland I assume. You did not, presumably, mean the occupied Six Counties. [Laughter.] It is a long time since anybody said that, thank goodness.
I am concerned at the Member’s earlier remarks about his perception of the condition of signage in north Belfast, and I am happy to look at particular instances. The contract for maintenance of road signs, traffic lights and lamp posts is undertaken on a Northern Ireland basis, and, if possible, we will extrapolate those figures and provide them to the Member.
I can advise the Member that the proposal to build a bridge at Narrow Water between County Down and County Louth is being taken forward by Louth County Council in association with Newry and Mourne District Council, and my Department has no direct involvement in the project. In those circumstances, I am not in a position to provide an update on the proposal.
Given that the Programme for Government has outlined the importance of tourism and job creation in the tourism sector, and given the important role that our road infrastructure has to play to help deliver that, what attempts has the Minister made to help deliver that important North/South cross-border tourism bridge project?
I am grateful to the Member for her supplementary question, and I understand that she and colleagues have been pressing for the project. As I said, my Department has never, at any stage, been the lead Department on the project, and I confirm that that was the case even under my predecessor, the former Minister, the Member for Newry and Armagh. I have had meetings with and had representations from Newry and Mourne District Council and Louth County Council recently, and I have met members from the local chambers of trade and commerce in Warrenpoint, Kilkeel and Dundalk, and I understand the emphasis that was placed on the project from a tourism point of view. However, as roads Minister, it is my chief responsibility to improve the overall strategic road network. That is best served in this area by bringing forward the southern relief road from Newry, which is now in its early stages of preparation. I hope that the Member will support that project as we move to improve the infrastructural main strategic road network all over Northern Ireland.
I am grateful to the Member for his question. He raises a challenge that all Members should consider when talking about upgrading the strategic road network, and, indeed, projects such as the Ballynahinch bypass. The Member has organised meetings for me to attend in Ballynahinch so that I might understand the strength of feeling on that issue. I pay tribute to him for that. In comparison with other schemes, it is largely a tourism project, like the bridge project at Narrow Water. Of course, money is tight. We are waiting for the investment strategy to be published and agreed, and many of the key decisions will depend on that. Improving the overall road infrastructure remains my key objective. Tourism projects might best be served by the tourism Minister.
Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. The Minister believes that it is not his responsibility to provide road infrastructure to enable tourists to get to their destination. I disagree with that. I believe that the Minister has a responsibility. If the Minister did not have the resources in his Department, did he bring a paper to the Executive seeking a contribution from his ministerial colleagues?
I am pleased to advise that Roads Service has committed to the construction of two major road improvement schemes along the A32 Omagh to Enniskillen route. Those are at Drumskinny, which has an overall estimated scheme cost of £1·8 million and is now nearing completion, and at Shannaragh — I hope that I got that right, otherwise I will be criticised — which has an overall scheme cost of £7·3 million. Work on that has just recently commenced, with a view to completion in March 2013.
Together, those schemes will improve the quality of the route, enhance road safety and reduce travel times. However, the delivery of any further schemes along the route will be determined by the investment strategy for Northern Ireland 2011-2021, consultation on which concluded recently.
Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I thank the Minister for his answer. Is his Department in discussion with the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety about the strategic importance of the A32 in relation to, for example, the regular ambulance traffic between Omagh and Enniskillen? Will he give a bit more detail about future schemes?
I am grateful to the Member for his supplementary question. He will recall that the former Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety, my party colleague Michael McGimpsey, did indeed make a contribution to the A32 scheme — the Cherrymount Link scheme — which commenced in October 2011 and remains programmed for February 2013. The total value of the priority schemes that are listed in the A32 strategy is in the region of £20 million. However, as I have said, the progression of the remaining schemes that are identified in that strategy is dependent on the availability of funding and the satisfactory completion of the statutory consultation process.
I thank the Minister for his answer. Does he accept that the ambulance travel times for patients from Omagh to Enniskillen are not really acceptable given the nature of the road? Will he state what target times are expected, given the improvements that he outlined?
I am grateful to the Member for his concern. This issue has been raised by him and others. We continue to look at the situation through Translink and initiatives that are supported by the rural transport fund. There is some desire to improve accessibility to hospital appointments etc. The Member will know that we are working on it and will continue to see how things can be improved. It is not simple or straightforward; there are financial considerations. A pilot scheme is envisaged for getting to appointments at Altnagelvin Area Hospital. We will continue to work on that and make progress.
I thank the Member for raising again with me the Enniskillen bypass. It is very close to his heart as well as being in his constituency. We are bringing forward the scheme in its preparatory stages, but much of the finance that we can allocate to it will depend on the outcome of the ISNI. I am aware of that scheme and others around Northern Ireland; I think of schemes like the A6, the Dungiven bypass, the A26 and the bypasses for Ballynahinch, Magherafelt and Cookstown. There are any amount of projects that I, as roads Minister, want to bring forward subject to the available finance. I will look for support from Members of the House and members of the Executive as we seek to achieve that.
Roads Service cuts grass in areas that are deemed to be part of the public road to prevent overgrowth onto carriageways and footway surfaces and to prevent the obstruction of sight lines and traffic signs. Such grass-cutting operations are carried out for road safety reasons and not for cosmetic or amenity purposes. In contrast, grass cutting that is undertaken by the Housing Executive and district councils is primarily for cosmetic or amenity purposes. Therefore, different standards are applicable, with the frequency of grass cutting that is carried out for cosmetic or amenity purposes being significantly greater than for Roads Service’s road-safety-related activities. Roads Service also has a number of partnerships with district councils. Some councils wish to have a higher standard of grass cutting in some urban areas for aesthetic or amenity purposes than that provided under the Roads Service policy. In those cases, councils accept responsibility for the work and are reimbursed for the number of cuts that are required under the Roads Service policy, which is five cuts a year in urban areas. I got there eventually, I think.
All weed spraying that is required on publicly adopted roads is carried out by Roads Service contractors. On occasions, there may be some communication with councils regarding areas that require additional attention. I am keen to identify any potential efficiencies that can be achieved through enhanced collaborative working between Roads Service, councils and the Housing Executive. I plan to meet my counterparts the Minister of the Environment and the Minister for Social Development to explore the options.
“provide the Assembly, or ensure that the Assembly is provided, with the property, staff and services required for the Assembly’s purposes.”
To meet that statutory obligation, the Assembly Commission recently agreed a corporate strategy for the next four years. That strategy has been copied to all Members and is available on AssISt.
The Commission sees an Assembly that builds a better future for the people of Northern Ireland through fostering a peaceful, stable and prosperous society. Our vision is to best serve the Assembly in that task by being at the forefront of providing outstanding and progressive parliamentary services. The corporate strategy sets out three distinct aims: first, to provide outstanding parliamentary services; secondly, to influence, enable and deliver change; and thirdly, to be an effective and progressive organisation.
The strategy will be delivered through directorate business plans for each functional area in the Assembly secretariat and through a number of investment projects, such as the e-Committees project, the roof replacement project and the replacement of IT systems. The Commission’s running costs budget is set to fall by 8·9% from £48·4 million in 2010-11 to £44·08 million in 2014-15. However, the Commission recognises the need to offer political leadership in prudent financial management and will seek to deliver the same high-quality services to the Assembly and its Members but with that reduced budget.
I thank Mr Weir for his fairly detailed response and for outlining in some detail the four-year programme that the Commission has undertaken. I note that he said that spend will fall by some 9% — I think that he said 8·9%. In these austere times, I suspect that that is something that the House will welcome. Can he assure the House that the Commission is, in fact, fit for purpose and that it has adequate resources to carry out this programme of work over the next four years?
I can give that assurance to the Member. Obviously, the Commission, and, indeed, the Assembly itself, should not sit in some sort of ivory tower. In circumstances in which there are cutbacks to the overall block grant in Northern Ireland, the Assembly has to take its share of the pain. However, the Commission has introduced an organisation-wide review of all business areas to ensure that services are delivered in the most efficient manner. It is entirely possible that the nature of the delivery of some services in some areas will change as a result of the reviews, but the programme for those reviews means that nothing will happen without wide-ranging consultation with Members as the Commission’s key stakeholders.
There are no direct plans to repeat them at the moment. However, I think that there is a wider issue with outreach from the Assembly, and I think that it is important that we get both community understanding of what happens in the Assembly and community buy-in. We have to look at how we promote it in the most cost-effective way, and there are a range of ways that that can be done. For example, the recent revamping of the Assembly website to try to make it a lot more user-friendly and much more of an educational tool is one area where that has been done and should be embraced. All options will ultimately be considered, but, obviously, in tighter financial circumstances, we may be in the position where we can do fewer things than we would like to, in an ideal world.
Does the Commission have any plans to restore some of the works of art and artefacts that are shamefully stashed away in storage? Is there any prospect of them seeing the light of day, and, particularly in this jubilee year, will the portrait of Her Majesty be restored to the Building? That would be a most fitting tribute in the year that we are in.
Obviously, we will be looking at whatever methods we can to create a welcoming environment for everyone in Northern Ireland.
One of the aims must be, obviously not simply from a Commission point of view, looking after the Members and the direct services to the Assembly Members themselves, but also looking at the ways they interact with the public and help attract people into the Building. Therefore, what we put on display will obviously be an issue that the Assembly Commission will deal with.
I do not think that there is any attempt to hide away any artefacts in that regard. Obviously, one of the issues that we will face in the Commission as we move forward will be to consider the best way that we can have displays in the Assembly that maximise the number of people that we are getting through the doors. The message needs to go out to everyone in Northern Ireland that this is somewhere to visit and somewhere that everyone should come to see in action. Public displays can play a useful part in that.
Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Videoconferencing facilities are currently available in Room 30, which is one of the Committee Rooms, and Room 54, which is an Assembly Education Service Room. The videoconferencing unit was installed in Room 30 in February 2010 and, in Room 54, it was established in October 2010. The videoconferencing facility is only available in Room 30 if a television screen has been requested for use, as a permanent television has not been installed in that Room. It might be of interest to the Member that no records have been kept on the use of the videoconferencing in Room 30; however, it has been used by at least two Committees since its installation.
I thank Mr McCann for his question. Videoconferencing facilities are available to individual Members, and, in some cases, have been booked by party administrations for their use by contacting the Education Service. The key point is that you should contact the Education Service directly. That is not a bad idea if you want to organise a videoconference with a community or voluntary group in your constituency. That is the type of thing that it is there for.
The Member has confirmed the availability of videoconferencing facilities. Given the austere times that we are in at the moment, everyone is looking to initiate cost-saving measures. Does this mean that Ministers will be able to avail themselves of videoconferencing, for example, if they wanted to liaise with their counterparts in the Irish Republic?
You are keeping well yourself, Gregory? [Laughter.]
The same argument could be applied on an east-west basis, but I think there might be a churlishness in the question. Videoconferencing facilities are available to individual Members. The Assembly Commission essentially serves Members, as opposed to the Executive. However, I am sure that, if Ministers seek use of this facility, it will be granted to them. I have no doubt about that.