Clause 10 (Pension age)

Executive Committee Business – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 7:00 pm on 27th January 2014.

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Photo of Daithí McKay Daithí McKay Sinn Féin 7:00 pm, 27th January 2014

Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle.  I beg to move amendment No 3:In page 6, leave out lines 15 and 16 and insert

"specified by the scheme regulations for the scheme; and such regulations may specify any age not exceeding 68, but not less than 65".

The following amendments stood on the Marshalled List:

No 4: In clause 10, page 6, line 22, at end insert

"(b) prison officers; or

(c) paramedics and ambulance care attendants".— [Mr Agnew.]

No 5: In clause 10, page 6, leave out lines 27 and 28 and insert

"specified by the scheme regulations for the scheme; and such regulations may specify any age not exceeding 68, but not less than 65".— [Mr McKay.]

No 6: In clause 10, page 6, line 29, leave out from the beginning to the first "the" on line 33 and insert "Any".— [Mr McKay.]

No 7: In clause 10, page 6, line 36, at end insert

"(5A) The Department of Finance and Personnel may by order, made in relation to persons under a scheme under section 1 who are persons of such description as is specified in the order, provide—

(a) that subsections (1) and (4) do not apply in relation to such persons, and

(b) that the normal pension age and the deferred pension age in relation to such persons is such age as the order may provide.

(5B) Before making an order under subsection (5A), the Department must consult such persons (or representatives of such persons) as appear to the Department likely to be affected by the order.

(5C) An order under subsection (5A) is subject to the affirmative procedure.".— [Mr Attwood.]

No 8: In clause 10, page 6, line 36 at end insert

"(5A) The Department of Finance and Personnel may by order, made in relation to persons under a scheme under section 1 who are persons of such description as is specified in the order, provide—

(a) that subsections (1) and (4) do not apply in relation to such persons, and

(b) that the normal pension age and the deferred pension age in relation to such persons must in the order specify 60.

(5B) Before making an order under subsection (5A), the Department must consult such persons (or representatives of such persons) as appear to the Department likely to be affected by the order.

(5C) An order under subsection (5A) is subject to the affirmative procedure.".— [Mr Attwood.]

No 9: In clause 10, page 6, line 36, at end insert

"(5A) The Department of Finance and Personnel may by order, made in relation to persons under a scheme under section 1 who are persons of such description as is specified in the order, provide—

(a) that subsections (1) and (4) do not apply in relation to such persons, and

(b) that the normal pension age and the deferred pension age in relation to such persons may in the order specify any age not exceeding 60 but not less than 55.

(5B) Before making an order under subsection (5A), the Department must consult such persons (or representatives of such persons) as appear to the Department likely to be affected by the order.

(5C) An order under subsection (5A) is subject to the affirmative procedure".— [Mr Attwood.]

No 10: In clause 10, page 6, line 36, at end insert

"(5D) The Department of Finance and Personnel must conduct a review of the provisions of section 10 as to how such provisions may affect the persons set out in section 1(2)(a), (b), (c), (d) and (e) of this Act, shall lay a report of the review before the Assembly and shall do so in advance of commencement of section 10 (apart from this subsection) further to the relevant commencement provisions at section 36 of the Act.".— [Mr Attwood.]

No 11: In clause 10, page 6, line 36, at end insert

"(5E) The Department of Finance and Personnel must conduct a review at intervals of not less than every two years following commencement of section 10 of the Act as to how the provisions of the Act affect the persons set out in section 1(2) of the Act and shall lay a report of the review before the Assembly on or before six months following the commencement of the review.".— [Mr Attwood.]

No 12: In clause 10, page 7, line 7, leave out paragraph (c).— [Mr McKay.]

No 16: In clause 32, page 18, line 18, leave out from "is" to "higher" on line 20 and insert

"does not exceed 68, but is not less than 65".— [Mr McKay.]

No 17: In clause 33, page 20, leave out line 24.— [Mr McKay.]

No 18: In clause 36, page 21, line 11, at end insert

"( ) section 10(5D);".— [Mr Attwood.]

No 20: In clause 36, page 21, line 15, at beginning insert

"Subject to section 10(5D)".— [Mr Attwood.]

This group is focused on clause 10, as was the case at Consideration Stage.  I do not think it would be good legislation for the public sector pension age to be automatically made the same as the state pension age.  There is much evidence —

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

Order.  There are a number of conversations going on.  I ask Members to respect the Member who has the Floor.

Photo of Daithí McKay Daithí McKay Sinn Féin

Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle.  Like I said, I do not think it would be good legislation if the public sector pension age was to be automatically made the same as the state pension age.  We received a lot of evidence at Committee, and I am sure that Members have received evidence individually as well, that backs up that claim.  It should be subject to the same scrutiny as many other devolved areas.  Of course, parties will have different views on what age it should be — whether it should remain at 65 or rise to 68 over a period of time in future years, or otherwise.  The amendments that we have brought forward introduce flexibility into the scheme regulations to try to meet what Members are looking for in the Bill.

Flexibility really is the key thing.  We do have flexibility in the Bill already through a previous Sinn Féin amendment at Consideration Stage, which took into consideration the needs of firefighters.  There were also similar amendments at that stage from the SDLP.

So, that is evidence.  The reason why we did that was that evidence may still be forthcoming on the effects on service provision of a greater pension age for firefighters.  So, it is crucial that we have a devolutionary role and are accountable for pension age.  We should not hand that over en masse to Westminster. 

Indeed, in the debate on the previous group of amendments, Paul Givan, I believe, made the point that amendment Nos 15 and 19 show the benefit of devolution.  That is because, if those issues were in the hands of direct rule Ministers, they would never have been dealt with.  I suppose I echo that concern in a different way, in that if we have the power of pension age and the variance of that in response to whatever issues come up as a result of the legislation, we need the flexibility to respond accordingly.  We may have instances where evidence points to certain legislative changes having an effect on public service provision.  In those cases, we should have flexibility to respond accordingly.

Photo of Sammy Wilson Sammy Wilson Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Treasury)

He is talking in very vague, general terms, saying things such as, "We have to have flexibility"; "There may be cases when we want to exercise some discretion".  Could he be quite specific?  Under what circumstances would he see the flexibility that he is asking for being exercised?

Photo of Daithí McKay Daithí McKay Sinn Féin

I thank the Member for his intervention.  The thing about pensions is that it is such a huge issue.  The Committee considered the case of the firefighters.  We were all sympathetic to the case that they put forward, because we delved into that in detail.  We have not considered in full the case of paramedics or prison officers and so on.  So, we believe that, by putting those matters at a secondary level, they can be considered.  We may arrive at the same decision on the set pension age as is introduced in the Bill, but we think that that flexibility should be there.  If the Ministers responsible in each respective area, whether that is education or health, want to make exceptional circumstances because of the effect that it might have on front line service provision, we believe that that flexibility should be put in place.

Photo of Sammy Wilson Sammy Wilson Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Treasury)

I thank the Member for giving way again.  He is now getting down to specific cases.  For example, we may wish to put greater flexibility in to allow for earlier retirement in education.  What would the justification to the general public be for saying that, while a manual labourer working on a building site has to work until the age of 66 or 67, which is what happens in the private sector, a teacher should be allowed to retire at the age of 65 because we have built in that flexibility?  Where is the logic in that?  How does he defend that?

Photo of Daithí McKay Daithí McKay Sinn Féin

Where the legislation that is before us is concerned, Westminster could decide that the state pension age is 80.  We would not be able to do anything about that.  That does not make sense to me.  We might take the position that what Westminster is proposing on state pension age may be agreeable, but the whole purpose of devolution is that there should be local accountability for those matters.  We may receive more evidence in the Williams report to show that firefighters should not be on the front line at the age of 60 because people's lives would be put at risk.  Given that there are cases like that, I think that we should give due consideration to the issues in a more detailed way.  The purpose of the Assembly, the Departments and especially the Committees is to ensure that we make the right decisions.  If we make the wrong decision on this legislation, there is an opportunity to tinker with the regulations to ensure that any difficulties can be easily ironed out further down the line. 

Amendment No 4, which the Green Party tabled, extends the police pension age of 60 to prison officers, paramedics and ambulance care attendants.  I suppose that that reflects some of the concerns that were voiced at Committee Stage.  In Committee, we heard at length about the firefighters' case, as I outlined.  We heard about the Williams review and evidence that firefighters would be unable to maintain the required fitness levels at 55 to 60 years of age.  As I have already said, there are other roles that we did not look at in detail.  To be fair, the Fire Brigades' Union came before the Committee by itself.  It gave detailed evidence and responded to questions.  We had an opportunity to follow up on many of the issues with the Health Minister and his Department.  We did not receive conclusive answers.  I think that the Assembly made the right decision to make an exception for firefighters at Consideration Stage.

If it is the case for firefighters, it certainly might and could be the case for people in other public service roles.  The Finance Committee noted from its research and evidence that, apart from firefighters and police officers, certain other physically or emotionally demanding public service roles, such as that of prison officers, or of teachers, as the Member who spoke previously mentioned —

Photo of Sammy Wilson Sammy Wilson Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Treasury)

The Member is making a distinction.  He is somehow saying that public service roles are much more demanding than roles in the private sector.  I gave one example in an earlier intervention of how, in the private sector, to which amendment No 4 would not apply, workers may well be required to work in far more physically demanding conditions, yet they would not have that flexibility.  How does he make the case that public service jobs are more demanding than jobs in the private sector?  He is making that distinction with that particular amendment.  Does he not recognise just how divisive that is in the public debate between private sector and public sector workers?

Photo of Daithí McKay Daithí McKay Sinn Féin

In the amendments that we are bringing forward, we are setting the range at 65 to 68 years of age.  Within that, regulations could still be put in place that reflect what the Westminster Government want.  Therefore, as I said, we have deliberately been flexible in that regard so that we will have flexibility at regulation level.

My previous comments about certain roles being physically or emotionally demanding, such as those of prison officers, teachers, paramedics and mental health nurses, come from the Committee report, which was agreed by all parties in the Assembly.  The report was based on the evidence that came before us.  Therefore, those roles were identified as being potentially problematic when discussing the consequences of an automatic link between normal pension age and future increases in the state pension age.  The main issue for my party is the fact that you are almost giving a blank cheque to the Westminster Government by ensuring that any future increases in the state pension age automatically become the norm here, regardless of whether they are right or wrong.  The fact of the matter is that we should not give that power of accountability away, regardless of the respective position that each party here holds on what should be the normal pension age for those particular occupations.

The BMA cited the Working Longer review in its argument against setting a link between the normal pension age and the state pension age.  That report will consider the evidence of the impact of working beyond 60 years of age.  The BMA argued that the Bill should be amended to enable the review's findings to be taken into account.  Similarly, UNISON cited the Working Longer review, which will look at specific groups, such as paramedics, who are named in the Green Party's amendment.  UNISON also made the point that public sector employers may find it preferable that some groups have a lower normal pension age.  Linking to state pension age means that there is no role for the Executive or the Assembly to consider potential economic and employment impacts as well as service impact.  That is a considerable gap.

NASUWT also opposed the state pension age linkage.  Interestingly, the cross-party Committee for Education also raised concerns about the impact that increases in the retirement age for teachers may have on employment levels for qualified teachers.  Of course, that is a huge issue at the moment.  The Executive and the Assembly should therefore have some flexibility in making decisions around that issue, because it impacts on unemployment, and on youth unemployment in particular.

The Finance Committee sought DFP's view of the merits of an amendment to provide flexibility at secondary legislation stage for individual Departments and Ministers to determine, in the scheme design, the most appropriate normal pension age for schemes falling within their remit.  Ultimately, the Committee was unable to agree clause 10.

Photo of Sammy Wilson Sammy Wilson Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Treasury) 5:30 pm, 27th January 2014

I thank the Member for giving way.  He is quite generous in giving way, and it allows for some debate on the issue.  He is now making spurious arguments about the economic impact of all this.  If the retirement age for teachers went up, he asked about what would happen to young teachers and would we find that there were no vacancies for them.  Does he accept that, if we deviate from the legislation and the provisions in the rest of the United Kingdom, we will pay for it out of the public purse and the block grant?  If we are paying to allow teachers at one end to retire earlier than they do in the other parts of the United Kingdom, where is the money coming from to recruit teachers as new entrants at the other end?

Photo of Daithí McKay Daithí McKay Sinn Féin

We might deviate by adopting the amendments, but we could adopt them, and there could be no cost to the local budget.  Indeed, we have already deviated from Westminster on firefighters when we introduced flexibility, which is quite similar in principle to these amendments.  Therefore, there will not necessarily be any additional cost as a result of our amendments, because it has the framework of 65 to 68 years of age.  That is an issue for another day.  If the Minister of Health or the Minister of Education wish to bear a particular cost because they feel that a certain issue should be addressed, that is entirely down to them.  Obviously, there are economic service impacts, which should be taken into consideration by the respective Ministers, Committees and MLAs.  That is the responsible way to approach the legislation.

I will quote from the Committee report:

"the Committee believes that there is a need for sufficient flexibility to enable evidence-based decisions to be taken at a scheme level on whether certain public service roles ... should have a lower NPA than is set in the Bill. As such, the Committee recommends that the Minister of Finance and Personnel tables the necessary amendment to clause 10 at Consideration Stage to provide this flexibility, on the basis that any costs arising from future decisions to vary from parity in this area at a scheme level will be met by the responsible departments."

So, yes, there may be a cost if Departments want to go down that route, and they will have to put a case forward to meet those costs.

There has been considerable concern about clause 10 standing without any inbuilt flexibility.  The General Teaching Council expressed concern about the number of unemployed teachers over the past four years.  Clearly, high unemployment rates among recently qualified teachers could be worsened by putting those powers elsewhere rather than in the hands of Executive Ministers.

Photo of Sammy Wilson Sammy Wilson Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Treasury)

I thank the Member for giving way.  I really cannot allow him to go on with this nonsense about the fact that, if you increase the retirement age, you will create unemployment at the other end.  The logic of what the Member is saying is this:  let everybody retire at 40, and we will do away with all unemployment because everybody who is unemployed at present can take up the jobs of the people who retire at 40.  How do you afford that?

Photo of Daithí McKay Daithí McKay Sinn Féin

I will explain to the Member again.  We are talking about introducing flexibility, and if a Minister wants to make a change that has a cost, he or she can put forward a rationale for meeting that cost within his or her own budget or otherwise.  We are talking about primary legislation, and we want this to be set at secondary level — regulation level — so that we can make exceptions for those cases, such as firefighters.  We have already agreed that there should be an exceptional case for firefighters, and a cost will be associated with that.  Evidence may come forward that indicates that firefighters should not retire at 60.  I am sure that many Members on both sides of the House might sympathise with that case.  That is why we need to look at this in greater detail, rather than just taking a broad-brush approach to all employees.  We are talking about over 200,000 employees in the local economy.  I think that we owe it to them to consider this in the fullest way, regardless of what conclusion we come to, whether it is to go with the status quo proposed at Westminster or otherwise.  That is what we should be doing as legislators. 

On the other party amendments, we are quite in favour of the Green Party amendment and look forward to listening to the case for that.  We are also in favour of the SDLP amendments, many of which stand exclusive. 

In conclusion, we believe that there is an opportunity to introduce flexibility in the Bill through all the many amendments before us.  It is irresponsible not to make provision for the Assembly or the Executive to take into account the impact that this will have on employment, youth unemployment, the economy, the public service and, perhaps most crucially for a lot of people, the emergency services.  We should not have a dogmatic approach to clause 10, because it is guaranteed to create problems in the future.

Broadly speaking, the amendments in this group break into four easily grouped sections.  The Committee Chair moved and outlined the lead amendment in the first section, which includes amendment No 3 and a number of consequential amendments, namely amendment Nos 5, 6, 12, 16, and 17.  Clearly, you either accept or reject them as a package.

I listened to the Chair speaking about those amendments, and what was there at Consideration Stage has, to a certain level, been rehashed but in a much more subtle form, so I praise him for his subtlety if nothing else.  However, the cry that we cannot rely on perfidious Albion across the water or leave ourselves at the mercy of a future Chancellor is one that may not have quite the same resonance on these Benches as it does across the way. 

I have to make a couple of points about this group of amendments.  First, the Chair consistently said that the idea was simply to have flexibility.  I think that, given the level of variation in the schemes within the envelope of cost, that is there already.  Consequently, I question the need for them. 

Secondly, I think that they point, again in a much more subtle manner, to a break between the normal pension age and the state pension age, which, I think, is fundamentally dangerous.  It was, in broad pension reform and the broad central thrust of the Bill, one of the key recommendations of the Hutton report.  If we move away from that broad thrust — there can be, in individual circumstances, some examination of that — it will start to cost the Executive tens of millions and then perhaps hundreds of millions as we move on, which we can ill afford.  The points made by my colleague Mr Wilson and others about the message that it sends out to the private sector, as opposed to the public sector, are highly significant.  These amendments, however well they are dressed up, cannot be afforded. 

The second set of amendments, which has one main amendment, No 4, and two consequential amendments, Nos 18 and 20, is an attempt to change the normal pension age in a couple of sectors.  Again, although we all admire the work done by the people in those sectors, such as prison officers and paramedics, if we start framing legislation, particularly primary legislation, on the basis of occupations for which we have some sympathy or empathy, we will not make very good law.  If you are in, if you like, an unsympathetic job, to be honest, you can stick it there for as long as you can tolerate it.  However, if you are in a job that we have more empathy with, perhaps that could be —

Photo of Peter Weir Peter Weir DUP

I will give way briefly.

Photo of Steven Agnew Steven Agnew Green

I would like the Member to clarify something.  If he does not think that we should make, in legislation, exceptions for jobs with which, as he put it, there is sympathy, why are the police in the Bill?  Why are they given an exemption?

Photo of Peter Weir Peter Weir DUP

I am glad that the Member asked that.  Perhaps it shows his level of ignorance of the general thrust of the Hutton recommendations.  There were specific recommendations in the Hutton report on the police and, to some extent, firefighters.  They were singled out, which was not the case for prison officers or anyone else, be it paramedics, ambulance drivers or whatever.  That was a clear distinction.  If we are going to say that such and such a profession is good, so we will give it good terms, or that such and such a profession is not quite so good, so it will not get quite so good terms, where do we put teachers, for example, as have been mentioned, or a whole range of occupations?  You could pick out almost any profession.  On that basis, there may be some of us who want to raise the age of retirement for tax collectors to about 90 because we —

Photo of Steven Agnew Steven Agnew Green

I thank the Member for giving way, because, of course, it is about extending the rationale of the Hutton review.  He may not have made specific references, but the reference was to do with the physical nature of those jobs.  Therefore, it is about extending that to other areas of work for which the same rationale applies.  To suggest that it is a matter of good jobs and bad jobs is erroneous.  That was never the basis of the review.

Photo of Peter Weir Peter Weir DUP

With respect, it seems that the Member opposite wants to put himself in the mind of Lord Hutton.  If it is about extending the rationale, why not include some who work in the Forest Service, who have quite a physical job?  Why not include those in Roads Service, for instance, who perhaps are out on the ground every day?  Let us be honest:  the Member opposite is not looking to extend the rationale because he has sympathy for particular professions; it is because he has a profound disagreement with the meaning and thrust of the Bill and is trying to kill it off by the back door.  That is what is really behind this.

We have to stick with what is in Hutton and the recommendations that have been put in place.  There will be scheme-specific regulations.  If there is a desire, within the cost envelope of the overall scheme, for the Minister of Health to look at variations for particular types of employees, for example, there is the scope to do that.  This would, essentially, impose that. 

I can understand the concerns that people have raised about us being forced into a situation in which the age of retirement is escalating because of demographics and an ageing population.  Quite frankly, I think that that is an inevitable evil that we are going to have to face up to in society.  I can understand people saying that they entered a profession at such and such a position, with a particular retirement age, but the ground rules, or the goalposts, are shifting.  If we were to accept the amendments of Mr Agnew and others, it would actually start to shift the goalposts in the opposite direction, because the normal pension age for these professions has been 65, and has been so for a number of years.  At a time when we are asking large numbers of people in the public sector to accept a higher pension age because of changes in demographics, we would be singling out certain groups for whom to push the pension age downwards.  That simply does not add up.

The reason why there have been a number of exceptions is the fact that there are jobs that certainly require a high degree of physicality.  One of the principal reasons given for an exception when we heard detailed evidence from the firefighters was the sheer lack of any back-room jobs in the structure of the Fire Service for firefighters who had failed a very specific physical test.  That number was not large, but there was virtually no opportunity for them to do back-room functions.  There is much more flexibility on that with regard to prison officers or within the broad remit of the health service.  If the Health Minister or the Minister of Justice feel that there is a strong case, I think they can make those variations.  So, I am not supportive of those amendments.

On a more positive note, I turn to the idea of allowing some degree of variation, which gives at least some power to the Department.  I refer to amendment Nos 7, 8 and 9, which are, largely, being pushed by the SDLP.  There is some degree of merit in them.  In the amendments, if we are talking about a greater level of flexibility, all our variations are on the same theme.  Because it does not specify a specific age and allows that greater level of flexibility, I and, I think, my party would be minded to support amendment No 7, which is the one that allows the maximum flexibility.  It does not have the same level of prescriptive quality of amendment Nos 8 and 9, so we would certainly be happy to support amendment No 7.

Finally, the general idea behind amendment Nos 10 and 11 is a reasonable and sound one.  It says, "This is obviously a very major change.  We need to ensure that proper reviews are carried out by the Department".  The essential difference between amendment Nos 10 and 11 is an issue around timing.  From that perspective, the weakness of amendment No 10 is that it comes in so early.  Indeed, it really comes in before the changes are, in effect, put into place.  There is an argument that, even if that were able to be carried out, the level of information generated from that would be very limited.  I think that it is due to kick in six months into the process.  From that point of view, amendment No 11 is certainly the one that we on these Benches prefer.  That seems to be quite a sensible approach.  There is rationale behind it, and it has the most appropriate timescale.  From that point of view, we are not willing to accept amendment No 10, but we are willing to support amendment No 11.

Photo of Alex Attwood Alex Attwood Social Democratic and Labour Party 5:45 pm, 27th January 2014

I confirm that we will support the Sinn Féin amendments, which add a little bit to the Bill, mindful that some of what is in the Bill will be in place only in the early 2030s.  It will probably be 2034 before the pension age of 68 kicks in.  Subject to what Mr Agnew has to say, we will support the Green Party amendments.  Obviously, we urge everybody to support the SDLP amendments, which revolve around a concept that is already in the Bill and which, one way or the other, people might argue to introduce further into the Bill:  how to scope out flexibility, and what flexibilities there may or not be on the far side of flexibility being scoped out.  The essential discussion that Mr Weir touched on in his final comments is about how you scope out flexibility, and what, if any, flexibility might arise on the far side of scoping.  That is the essence of the amendments that the SDLP is proposing.

If you were to go through various contributions from Consideration Stage, which I relied on earlier and I am going to rely on again, the proper conclusion that has to be drawn from that which has already been conceded here this afternoon and in the Consideration Stage, and the argument behind our amendments, is that you put as much as possible into primary legislation and that you have as much review as possible around what is in primary legislation.  That is the only sustainable and proper place to be when it comes to the issue of flexibility.  Unless you are going to create confusion and a bit of a muddle, the best way to proceed is to gather in the Bill now the various options of flexibility and methods of reviewing things to identify how flexibility might or might not prevail.

What do I rely on in argument to advance that position?  At the risk of being kicked under the table, I will correct one point made by my colleague Mr Bradley.  It was not a failure of his hearing; it was a failure of my explanation.

It was our own Finance Minister, not a Finance Minister in London, who said in Consideration Stage that the Bill was:

"designed to last for a generation at least." — [Official Report, Vol 90, No 6, p19, col 2].

Recognising that sense of things, his colleague Mr Girvan, who is not here at the moment, said at Consideration Stage about why it was worthwhile to have a Committee Stage, even though he said that the Bill could have been dealt with through a legislative consent motion.  He said in Consideration Stage that the Committee had:

"given us an opportunity to see what flexibility could be worked into the scheme.  There are probably those on the other side of the Irish Sea at Westminster who feel that some accommodation and further negotiation would have helped". — [Official Report, Vol 90, No 6, p58, col 2.]

He made the argument in Consideration Stage, when he rejected the argument for a legislative consent motion, that you should build flexibility in to this Bill.  That is something that he indicated that people at Westminster might wish that they had done when discussing their pensions Bill.  In that regard, he was probably thinking about the Fire Brigades' Union, which has gone on strike four times in recent months about accommodation and flexibility. 

That is what is at the heart of amendment Nos 7, 8, 9, 10, and 11.  Amendment Nos 10 and 11 are, in my view, the mummy and daddy of amendments, and amendments Nos 7, 8 and 9 are the children of the mummy and daddy amendments.  That is how I think we should look at them.  I am sure that that will produce some commentary later from somebody or other, but that is how they are. 

Why do I think that we should have amendment Nos 7, 8, 9, 10 and 11 as the parents and the children?  Mr McKay again read into the record what he read into the record at Consideration Stage about the Committee's view.  This is what the Committee said, and he stressed that this was what the Committee said.  It was not what he thought or anybody else thought; he said that this was the Committee's view.  Indeed, if you check Hansard, you will see that he says those words at or around 5.40 pm on the day of the Consideration Stage debate.  He said:

"The Committee believes that there is a need for sufficient flexibility to enable evidence-based decisions to be taken at a scheme level". — [Official Report, Vol 90, No 6, p56, col 2.]

He said that that was to determine whether public sector roles have a lower normal pension age than set out in clause 10.  He then added, and again said that it was the Committee's view, that, if you leave it until the secondary legislation, why stipulate a normal pension age in the primary legislation in a rigid way?  He was making the point that, if people rely on secondary legislation to scope out what should or should not be the flexibility, why should clause 10 contain a rigid description of what the normal pension age should or should not be? 

I think that the argument about flexibility is added to by the Finance Minister's comments at Consideration Stage, when he berated the SDLP in the following way and then, in my view, added usefully to the debate once he showed a bit more wisdom.  What he said about our amendments at that stage was that we, the SDLP:

"do not understand, comprehend or appreciate what this Bill seeks to do." — [Official Report, Vol 90, No 6, p49, col 1.]

He went on to say that the Bill:

"is enabling framework legislation that provides flexibilities, where necessary ... It is important that the Ministers who are responsible for each of the pension schemes have such flexibilities." — [Official Report, Vol 90, No 6, p49, col 2.]

So, the point that I am making is that the Committee is explicit and unanimous about flexibility.  Mr Girvan now argues that it is good that we have flexibility, because those who passed the legislation may wish that they had shown more flexibility, and the Minister himself has now accepted that it is important to have flexibility in the legislation.  The point behind all that is that there is no dispute about a need for flexibility, only about where it is placed and how it is shaped.  That is what our three amendments — amendment Nos 7, 8 and 9 — do.  They would put into the legislation more comprehensively that which has already been conceded in the legislation specifically.  That is the value of the three amendments.  They would put into legislation not just that the Finance Minister can bring about a situation of flexibility by way of order — a proposal in amendment No 7 that Mr Weir indicated the DUP might vote in favour of — but what the other options might be beyond that; other options that are in the Bill because of the amendments that govern the issue of firefighters and police officers. 

We argue that it is better to create certainty in the legislation around what the flexibility options might be.  Just as we have done for firefighters and police officers, it is better to put flexibility into the legislation without anticipating whether any one or other of the options might be taken up by the Finance Minister in future.  We argue that the sum of the parts of amendments Nos 7, 8 and 9 is necessary to ensure that, as we go forward and in the event that any flexibility is required, people might have some sense of what the flexibilities are.

In short, there are five reasons why it is important to put the flexibility options that are outlined in amendment Nos 7, 8 and 9 into the Bill.  The first is that, for political reasons, we should say to ourselves and to those workers who may be affected by any one of the flexibility options that we acknowledge that the options, by way of order or whatever the Minister decides — be it 55 to 65, 55 to 60, or 65 — are the broad pitch on which we might or might not decide to play in the future.

Secondly, we would say to categories of workers that the options are not prescriptive or restrictive to two categories of workers only; namely, firefighters and police officers.  Thirdly, if they were put into law, it would be saying that there is not one law for one and a different law for others and that the flexibility options might be available to all categories of workers if there is evidence to back it up, and I will deal with that point shortly.

Fourthly, it would recognise that, in putting forward the options and putting them in the Bill, we will not tie the hands of any Minister in bringing forward proposals, be it the Minister who is responsible for any one pension scheme or the Finance Minister.  Fifthly, it would recognise that, as things stand, there are significant gaps in the data and evidence needed to interrogate what might be flexible options for the categories of workers that are named in clause 1.  When you gather all of that together, it seems to me that to create certainty and avoid doubt, to show solidarity with workers, to recognise that there are gaps in data and evidence, and to demonstrate that there is not one law for one category of worker and a different law for another category of worker, it is best to put amendment Nos 7, 8 and 9 into the Bill.  That will ensure that all bases are covered as we move forward.

The parent amendments are amendment Nos 10 and 11.  If made, they will provide the mechanisms that would be undertaken to identify whether any category or subcategory of worker should enjoy any of the flexibilities that are outlined in the previous amendments.  In that regard, I want to rely on the contributions of Mr Weir — he has gone now, but he may return shortly — in the Consideration Stage debate.  Whether he knew it or not, it was his contributions at Consideration Stage that got the SDLP thinking about what amendment Nos 10 and 11 might look like.

Photo of Simon Hamilton Simon Hamilton DUP

He had better not come back.

Photo of Alex Attwood Alex Attwood Social Democratic and Labour Party 6:00 pm, 27th January 2014

I wish he was here because I would be interested in how he would respond to what he said at that stage.  Why do we believe that it is necessary to have a short-term review in advance of clause 10 being commenced and an ongoing review into the impact of clause 10 on all the categories of workers named in clause 1?

I do not think that I have ever relied so much on the words of the DUP to try to validate my arguments.  However, putting that aside, this is what Mr Weir said of firefighters and police officers at Consideration Stage:

"Rightly, society needs them to have a particular level of fitness and physical ability.  That is a clear issue that goes to the heart of health and safety concerns and saving people’s lives."

In justifying the flexibility that is shown to two categories of workers in clause 1, he says that it goes to the heart of health and safety concerns and saving people's lives.  To qualify that assertion, he said:

"there is a requirement on firefighters that is simply not there in most other public sector realms.  Consequently, theirs is a unique case."

He added:

" A unique, cogent and impressive case has been made for the firefighters". — [Official Report, Vol 90, No 6, p60, col 2].

Let me be clear:  I agree with Mr Weir's contention that clear issues go to the heart of health and safety concerns and saving people's lives that may justify flexibility.  What I cannot accept — this is where there is a contradiction in the DUP position — is that, when it comes to firefighters, given the limits of evidence and data that were recorded by Mr McKay on behalf of the Committee through questions that were asked of one or two other Ministers, is the argument that there is not a "unique, cogent and impressive case" to be made for categories other than firefighters in the way that Mr Weir relied on.

Therefore, at this stage of the legislation, being mindful of how it will impact on categories of workers named in clause 1 other than firefighters and police officers, we have an obligation to identify in real time over the next short period whether there is a unique, cogent and impressive case to be made for other categories of workers.

To develop the point, I will go back to what the Finance Minister said during the Consideration Stage debate on this general theme:

"Where there might be age-related factors or concerns about possible correlations between pension age and fitness, it is right that they should be investigated and subject to regular review." — [Official Report, Vol 90, No 6, p69, col 2].

So the Minister has accepted that there may be some correlation between pension age and fitness and that it is right that they should be investigated and subject to regular review.  If that is the view of the Finance Minister, it falls to him and the House to pass legislation in this Bill that interrogates the potential of a correlation between pension age and fitness, and has that investigated now and made subject to regular review.  Otherwise, we are saying what Mr Weir said was his contention, namely that, when it comes to firefighters and police officers, there is a unique, cogent and impressive case.  We need to know whether there is such a case for others, and we need to rely on the Minister's words when he said that there may be a possible correlation between pension age and fitness, and that it should be investigated and subject to regular review.

If the Minister is minded to accept the general review clause whereby there would be a review every two years, on the basis of what he and the DUP have said, is it not also the case that there should be, as outlined in amendment No 10, an investigation or review now to draw a conclusion on whether there is a cogent and impressive case for flexibility?  Why do I say that?  I say it because, if anything, evidence is beginning to emerge that suggests to me that there is a unique and cogent case for other categories of workers.

Mr Weir, in his earlier contribution, said that Hutton identified firefighters and police officers and that that is the basis on which the flexibility might be granted in amendments to clause 10.  Potentially, is there now, in real time, the same argument for other categories of workers?  I will rely on just two pieces of evidence.  The first is the evidence of the British Medical Association (BMA), not just to the Committee but to the ongoing Working Longer review, to which it said:

"there is a strong case that frontline medical staff have roles that are particularly physically, mentally and/or emotionally demanding and so should have their normal pension age capped".

The BMA went on to make a point that seems to me to be compelling and conclusive.  It said about front line medical staff that there will be individuals who have:

"Tasks that require physical exertion, good vision, dexterity, eye-hand coordination skills, rapid responses to events (including decisions in the middle of the night)".

Many a long hour and day in the Chamber are spent discussing health service issues.  As we speak, various reviews and inquiries are ongoing into the past conduct of health authorities and individuals in their employment.   A lot of that comes down to whether the right call was made at any one time in individual cases and critical incidents.  The BMA told the Working Longer review what seems to be self-evident, even though none of us is a doctor, namely that there are tasks that require physical exertion, good vision, dexterity, eye-hand coordination and rapid response to events, including at night.  Does that not fulfil the Weir test?

What is the Weir test?  Let me remind you.  The Weir test is:

"a clear issue that goes to the heart of health and safety concerns and saving people’s lives."  — [Official Report, Vol 90, No 6, Part 1, p60, col 2].

Those were Mr Weir's words at Consideration Stage, which, in his view, justified the flexibility for police officers and firefighters — issues of health and safety and saving people's lives.  On the face of it, does the same not apply to doctors and other front line medical staff whose daily business is at the heart of health and safety concerns and saving people's lives?  Their capacity or otherwise for physical exertion, good vision, dexterity, eye-hand coordination and rapid response to events is very challenging.

What I am saying to the Minister is that, beyond the ongoing review on the far side of the legislation being commenced, there is a need for an immediate review to interrogate evidence of that nature to see whether it does or does not justify the flexibilities that we propose might be visited upon any category of worker through amendment Nos 7, 8 and 9.

When looking at front line medical staff, we should also look at NIPSA's evidence to the Working Longer review.  NIPSA, as touched on in Mr Agnew's amendment, made a particular comment on paramedics and what it refers to as "hospital property and estate staff", whom we often view as porters and people fulfilling that sort of function in the hospital estate.

They point to the fact that ambulance men and women have high sickness absence rates, but that there is an even higher sickness absence rate among paramedics.  Given that, when they respond to an incident, they have to carry a responder, a portable defibrillator, oxygen cylinders and drugs bags, never mind all the other requirements of their job, it suggests to me that they, too, have issues with not only physical ability, but with good vision, dexterity, eye-hand coordination and the other categories of function required by doctors and other front line staff.

In conclusion, our argument is that you should put all the potential models of flexibility into the Bill to show support and solidarity, not least because they are already in the Bill for firefighters and police officers.  That does no violence to any Minister responsible for any scheme or to the Minister of Finance and Personnel in bringing forward any proposals by way of order to the House.  It does no violence to what it might or might not look like to have in the Bill the fact that it may be one of three options or it may be any other model within option number one in terms of the amendments when it comes to an order being laid by the Minister. 

In the run-down period between now and when the Bill becomes live and commenced, we should undertake a review to determine whether the Weir test is or is not satisfied by other categories of workers.  It may be that that review will not conclude in good time for the Bill being commenced, or it may give us a further evidence base upon which to say that an order might or might not be laid before the House by the Finance Minister.  However, we owe that to other categories of workers beyond those who have already been identified, given the evidence that has been submitted in various places, including in the House and to the Working Longer review.  We owe it to them to interrogate whether any flexibility, as outlined in the amendments tabled by the SDLP, should or should not be visited upon any other category of worker beyond firefighter and police officer.  That is the common-sense position, the good-practice position and the position that safeguards the interest of the workers and those whom they come into contact with.  For all those reasons, I commend the amendments.

I hate being predictable, as Mr Bradley referred to.  The trouble is, if you take a straight line, you tend to become predictable.  I will remain predictable and say that I see merit in amendment Nos 7 and 11 and will, therefore, support them.  That is the second time I have supported two SDLP amendments, and I did not get credit the first time either.  However, to be serious, we must not lose sight of the cost of pensions in the future and the ability of pension funds to meet their liabilities.  We have to be realistic.

Amendment No 4, which was tabled by Mr Agnew, seeks to make changes to the schemes for prison officers, paramedics and ambulance care attendants.  The independent Public Service Pensions Commission did not recommend any exception from the general policy link between scheme pension age and state pension age for any groups other than firefighters and police officers and the armed forces, but subject to regular review.  Also, it is my understanding that the normal scheme pension age for newly recruited prison officers, paramedics and ambulance care attendants is already set at 65.  Therefore, I do not see why we should take a step back from that change.

Amendment Nos 7, 8 and 9 are all variations of each other and would provide an option for the Department of Finance and Personnel to specify by order that pension age can be set at something different from the state pension age.  If we are to support any of these amendments, it would mostly likely be amendment No 7, as it is more flexible and does not tie us to any specific age.

Finally, amendment Nos 10 and 11 seek to ensure that the Department of Finance and Personnel conducts reviews on how the provisions of the Bill affect members of the various public sector schemes.  We support that concept, as it is in line with the Hutton recommendations, although I seek clarification from the Minister as to whether a review prior to the commencement of section 10 could delay the implementation of the Bill and whether, therefore, there would be associated costs.  That information will help to clarify whether we can support amendment No 10 and, therefore, amendment Nos 18 and 20 and amendment No 11, or just amendment No 11.

Photo of Steven Agnew Steven Agnew Green 12:00 am, 27th January 2014

On behalf of the Green Party NI, I support a number of amendments in this group, namely amendment Nos 3, 4, 5 and 6.  It seems like the House is going to go with amendment No 7 out of amendment Nos 7, 8 and 9, which are mutually exclusive, and I am certainly happy to support that, and the mother and father of all amendments, amendment Nos 10 and 11.  I cannot help but reference that comment.

Photo of Steven Agnew Steven Agnew Green

Mummy and daddy; apologies.  We are happy to support those amendments, along with amendment Nos 16, 18 and 20.  I am left unsure as to the rationale for amendment Nos 12 and 17, and I will listen to the winding-up speech and decide from there, but at this point I am still open-minded on those amendments.

I will address the amendments under review before I address my own amendment.  It is right that we should base legislation on evidence, and we need to give ourselves the room to look at evidence.  At the Bill's Consideration Stage I said that it was an accountant's Bill that was designed simply to balance the books.  Whilst that should always be an important and key consideration in any piece of legislation, it is not the sole important factor, and we have to take into account the reality on the ground.

Whilst we may not want to make special exceptions for certain categories of workers, we have to consider it.  The reality is that whilst we may want to extend the pension age for some professions so that the numbers add up, we contradict ourselves if those people are then unable to reach their pension age because of ill health.  Although we can talk about life expectancy increasing, we have to look at health expectancy.  That is where we must look at the evidence of the health expectancy of those workers and what they can be expected to do in the later years of their working lives.

Is it reasonable, fair and right that we should extend the working life of workers who are in particularly difficult physical areas of work? 

 

It is not purely about the physical aspect, and that is why I welcome and put my name to the SDLP amendments to initiate the review process and to give order to exclude different areas of workers.  I think that we need to gather more evidence on the impact on teachers of working late in life.  The Working Longer review, which is ongoing, has been cited.  So, we need to hear back on that evidence, and we need to give ourselves the flexibility to ensure that our policy and our regulations are based on the best available evidence and take into account the well-being of workers, not just the maximum that we can draw out of people.  We should seek to ensure that, when we do increase health outcomes for people, we do not simply use that as an excuse to force people to work longer. 

I welcome the fact that, because of an increase in the numbers of female workers, we have an increased workforce and increased contributions towards pensions.  That financial element is rarely referenced in these debates.  We have had a significant shift in the level of female workers over recent decades, and at no point did we say that we should bring down the pension age because that meant that we were contributing more.  Instead, we sought to produce more and to consume more to further fuel a consumption-driven economy.  So, the economic arguments are presented almost as fact, but it is important to remember that they are very much a political take on facts and are not completely objective.

My amendment looks at paramedics and prison officers, and I will explain why I included them.  Mr Attwood has stolen my thunder by pulling out a few quotes that I picked out from the Bill's previous stage.  I will repeat some of what Mr Attwood quoted on firefighters.  Mr Hamilton said that:

"firefighters perform a vital role in the emergency services"

I agree with that.  So do paramedics.  He continued:

"There are obvious public safety issues that mean that standards of fitness for the role for those in the Fire and Rescue Service should be in place and should be met."

I agree with that.  The same is true of paramedics.  He also said:

"Where there might be age-related factors or concerns about possible correlations between pension age and fitness, it is right that they should be investigated and subject to regular review."

That is true of firefighters and true of paramedics.  He went on to say:

"for the future regime for firefighters, fitness assessment and maintenance must be the fundamental guiding principle, not age." — [Official Report, Vol 90, No 6, p69, col 2].

Again, I apply that to paramedics.

Coming back to Mr Weir's point about what was in the Hutton review, we can look at what Hutton said and interpret it in the way that we so choose.  I cannot speak for Lord Hutton, but nor can Mr Weir.  The rationale that he outlined for why there should be exceptions for firefighters and police officers applies to other professions, and I think that there is no doubt that paramedics and prison officers are among those.  I am certainly not saying that they are exclusive to those professions.  There may be others that we should be considering, which is why I welcome the SDLP amendments.  I put those forward to highlight that we cannot simply single out members of the Police Service and firefighters and not look at other areas of work and other professions that, for reasons unknown to me, had, before this stage of debate, been ignored to a large extent. 

Paramedics carry heavy equipment.  In the unfortunate cases, where need be, we charge them with carrying our loved ones on a stretcher.  There is a vital, physical element to their job.  The nature of their work, among other factors, has led to the unenviable position of paramedics holding the record for the worst retirement rates for ill health in the NHS.

I did not pluck those two professions out of the air.  There is clear evidence that paramedics already have difficulty meeting the current retirement age.  We should acknowledge that, see how we can mitigate that aspect of their work and give people a realistic chance of working until their retirement age and being able to carry out their job to the level expected until then.

Prison officers must undertake five tests of fitness, and all must be passed in order for them to remain in their jobs.  Test one is grip strength; test two is endurance fitness; test three is dynamic strength; test four is agility; and test five is static shield hold.  Those are all aptitudes that will reduce with age, particularly towards the later stages of life and after possibly decades of working in a physically demanding environment.  Indeed, when the retirement age of prison officers was looked at in the Fresh Start negotiations of 1987, front line prison staff had a life expectancy of 18 months above their retirement age.  That is the type of evidence that we need to gather.  Are we seriously suggesting that we expect people to work for the vast majority of their life, with no real expectation of a fulfilling and valuable retirement?  I do not think that that is fair.

The issue of cost rightly comes up.  We have to weigh up the cost, and, under devolution, we have to make our own choices in Northern Ireland.  The Finance Minister may say that it is for those who table amendments to outline the costs, but I think that it is remiss of him if he has not assessed in his accounting what the cost would be of including different professions with similarly demanding roles to those of Fire Service and Prison Service personnel.  I fail to understand the rationale for why police officers are included in the Bill but those other professions are not.

Mr Weir made the point that I introduced the amendment because I am not entirely happy with the Bill.  I make no apology for that:  I am not.  I am not wedded to the state pension age set by the UK Government, none of whose parties' MPs was elected in Northern Ireland.  That is why we have devolution — so that we can legislate in a way that we believe to be correct, without slavishly following the UK Government of whatever colour and hue it might be at any given time.

I suspect that when you pick away at the Bill and look at the reality for many professions, increasing the pension age beyond 65 — indeed, for many professions, beyond 60 — is not realistic or feasible.  It might make the numbers add up, but you cannot force people to work beyond their physical capability, no matter how much you might want them to and how much it might suit the accountants.

I ask Members to support amendment No 4, and I thank those who spoke in favour of it.  The Green Party NI supports the majority of amendments in the group.

Photo of Simon Hamilton Simon Hamilton DUP 6:30 pm, 27th January 2014

In the middle of his comments, I think that Mr Attwood mentioned BMA evidence about the ability to respond rapidly to events, particularly at night.  As I listened to him in full flow, having had much evidence down through the years in his role as Minister of the Environment and Minister for Social Development, and given the pleasure I had in shadowing him in Committee Chair and Deputy Chair positions over that time, I feared for my ability to respond at all had events extended much further into the evening, but we have picked up the pace somewhat.

I welcome the opportunity to comment on the amendments included in group 2 on clause 10.  I remind Members, if I may, what clause 10 is all about.  It has provisions that are fundamental to the reform of public service pensions in Northern Ireland.  The clause contains the vital link with normal scheme pension age and state pension age, with exceptions for police and firefighters, as has been mentioned by many.  It also contains provisions to regularise normal scheme pension ages to 65 for all members of the workforce, with the exception of police and firefighters.

Amendment No 3, if adopted, would remove a fundamental plank of the reform of public service pensions, which is the linking of normal scheme pension age with state pension age for the majority of public service workers, with the exceptions that the Bill has made for police and firefighters.  The amendments, if adopted, will delete all references to the link with normal scheme pension age and state pension age.  The amendments provide for scheme regulations to specify normal and deferred pension age somewhere between 65 and 68.  Amendment Nos 5, 6, 12, 16 and 17 are entirely consequential to amendment No 3.

The amendments go against the whole thrust of the reforms proposed by Lord Hutton and the Executive decision of 8 March 2012, which stated that the Executive would commit to the policy for a new career average revalued earnings model with pension age linked to state pension age to be adopted for general use in the public services schemes and would adopt that approach consistently for each of the public sector pension schemes, in line with their equivalent scheme in Great Britain, and not adopt different approaches for Northern Ireland.

The policy for the reform of public service pensions is formulated on recommendations made by the Independent Public Service Pensions Commission, sometimes referred to as the Hutton commission.  The commission reported that the public service pension structure in the United Kingdom has not responded flexibly to rising pension costs and increases in longevity in the past few decades, and it is not tenable in the long term.

The Independent Public Service Pensions Commission, chaired by Lord Hutton, concluded in its final report, published on 10 March 2011:

"The introduction of the link to the State Pension Age, which will initially move Normal Pension Ages to 65, will move the proportion of adult life in retirement for public service pension scheme members back to about a third: roughly where it was in the 1980s.  The current State Pension Age of 65 is already the Normal Pension Age for most new entrants to public service pension schemes.  Moving to this for future accrual will more fairly distribute the benefits between scheme members. In the long term, the timetabled increases in State Pension Age should help to keep the proportion of adult life in retirement for members around this level, on current life expectancy projections."

On the issue of affordability, we have two strands of legislative control.  First is the primary enabling framework that the Bill will provide.  If the Public Service Pensions Act in Northern Ireland differs significantly on key provisions from the Public Service Pensions Act in Great Britain, Her Majesty's Treasury will demand to be recouped for our more generous public service pension schemes in Northern Ireland.  It is important that we get this primary framework enabling legislation through the legislative passage successfully and retain, in particular, the link with normal scheme pension age and state pension age.

Secondly, each scheme will have to produce its own secondary legislation, setting out the detail of scheme design.  I will provide more details on that.  There is scope at the secondary legislation stage to introduce variations to meet the needs of particular workforces.  Again, those must be contained in the overall costs of the scheme.  Such costs would have to be met by some form of adjustment to employer contributions and to members’ contributions and benefits.

The essence of the reforms of public service pensions is to make them sustainable by addressing the ever-increasing pensions liability.  We are all aware that the intention is that state pension age will increase to 66 by 2020, 67 by 2028 and 68 by the mid-2030s.

Why is that happening?  It is a perfectly sensible and logical response that aims to control costs to the taxpayer and the public purse at a time when we are all living longer.  The consequence of an ageing population is that we must align state and public pension schemes accordingly. 

I consider it to be an issue of fairness.  I have yet to hear a cogent rationale for treating public sector workers significantly differently from those in the private sector.  Many in the private sector depend on their state pension and do not have an occupational pension.

Photo of Steven Agnew Steven Agnew Green

I thank the Minister for giving way.  The rationale can work two ways.  We could seek not to change the state pension age to recognise all workers and accept that the arguments made for firefighters, the Police Service and, by some of us, for other professions should ensure that those in physically demanding jobs do not have their pension age extended.  It does not have to be that, because one group is being disadvantaged, we should disadvantage everyone equally.

Photo of Simon Hamilton Simon Hamilton DUP

That is not particularly an argument for fairness, I have to say.  I advanced the argument at Consideration Stage and have heard nobody who suggests flexibility, including the Member, give any argument for how any of us could tell a fisherman, farmer or someone who works in a heavy engineering business that they should continue working to the age of 66, 67 or 68 — most likely beyond that in the future — so that somebody working in the Civil Service can retire at the age of 65.  I do not think that that is fair.  Are they suggesting some sort of two-tier system in which some in the private sector work to an age well beyond 65 so that some public sector workers can retire at 65?  To me, that does not seem fair.  I have listened to the arguments put forward by Members and have yet to hear any strong argument for why particular employees should be treated more generously. 

When the Bill was introduced, the House was advised about the potential cost of failing to meet the April 2015 deadline set by Her Majesty's Treasury for the main schemes:  health, teachers, firefighters, police and the Civil Service.  That is now estimated to be in the region of £300 million for the first year, 2015-16.  The key issue to consider, should these amendments be accepted, is cost.  Specifying a normal or deferred pension age below state pension age has the potential to increase costs.  I instructed my officials to get some indicative costs on what the change would mean.  I know from Consideration Stage that there is some scepticism about the estimates provided by the Government Actuary’s Department.  However, I point out that we went to the Government Actuary’s Department for the second estimate of the overall costs of non-compliance with pension reform at the request of the Committee for Finance and Personnel.  The amounts involved are significant, as we knew that they would be because the provision of public service pensions is a huge pressure on public expenditure.  The Government Actuary estimated the costs of breaking the link with normal scheme pension age and state pension age and moving to a normal scheme pension age of 65 to be in the region of £30 million to £40 million in year 1, which is 2015-16, and rising in the longer term to £70 million to £90 million a year.  Some might be wondering why the cost would arise in 2015-16.  It is quite simple:  the change would give rise to a future liability for the pension scheme, and the thrust of the reform is to have regular valuations and to effectively manage and anticipate costs that may materialise. 

 

Cost is a critical issue.  I made clear that there will be scope for variances by each responsible Minister at secondary legislation stage.  However, the variances must be contained within the overall cost envelope of the pension scheme.  If we were to break from and exceed the cost envelope of the equivalent scheme in Great Britain, Her Majesty's Treasury would undoubtedly seek to recoup the difference.  Her Majesty's Treasury will not foot the bill for more generous public service pension provision in Northern Ireland than in the rest of the United Kingdom — why should it?  I want Members to be under no illusion.  I want to make it abundantly clear, yet again, that the Department of Finance and Personnel will not make up any shortfall to Treasury.  Her Majesty's Treasury funding projections are formulated on the presumption that the policy intention contained in the Westminster Public Service Pensions Act will be applied in Northern Ireland.  On that basis, any divergence from the policy contained in the Westminster Act has the potential to have a financial impact.  This approach across devolved administrations was also recommended by Lord Hutton in his review. 

We already have an estimate for the cost of delay from the Government Actuary's Department of £300 million a year.  Therefore, we need to keep the impetus up and move forward on this important framework Bill, with enabling powers for secondary legislation.  There is extensive scope for variance in scheme design at secondary legislation stage.  Secondary legislation would be required to amend the rules of each devolved public service pension scheme to give effect to the reform measures in the Public Service Pensions Bill.  That work would be taken forward by each of the Departments that have individual responsibility for pension schemes.  The secondary legislation will provide scope for each relevant Minister to consider which variations may be possible and appropriate for each of their schemes.  Ministers are likely to give consideration to the approach taken to date in mirroring the comparable scheme in Great Britain when designing their Northern Ireland scheme and its regulations. 

Scope exists to vary the scheme design and regulations to suit the requirements of their individual workforces.  In my view, those variations will provide scope to address emerging concerns such as the consequences of an older workforce and job capabilities.  We need to be careful, however, about equating inability to perform work with older people.  This will, of course, require consultation with scheme representatives and trade unions.  Following such consultation, scheme-specific designs will be developed for each public service pension scheme in Northern Ireland.  Ministers in Northern Ireland with responsibility for public service pension schemes will need to take account of keeping within the parameters of the cost of the overall core provisions set out in the primary legislation.  Ministers will also need to take account of their counterpart schemes in Great Britain.

Ministers will also want to take account of the cost of changing their own IT systems.  It should be noted that the IT systems that are used by main schemes here are modelled on the IT systems for the Great Britain scheme.  Therefore, there will be a cost to amend systems if Ministers depart too far from their equivalent scheme in Great Britain.  Variations to Northern Ireland scheme designs from their comparable schemes in Great Britain would have to be considered in the context of the overall scheme valuation, which will be subject to provisions for the valuation and cost controls as set out in GB.

A wide range of variations could be made in the secondary legislation.  They include the level at which the accrual rate is set, the uprating factor for the annual revaluation of pension benefits while in service, the employee contribution rate, lump-sum payments, actuarial reduction, and the range of ancillary benefits.

In summary, it should be clear from the points I have made that schemes will have considerable scope to vary a number of factors at secondary legislation stage.  In doing so, a key constraint will, of course, be any financial consequence.  Such variances, which may be applied to firefighters, for example, as agreed at Consideration Stage, must be met in the costs of the scheme.  That will mean a reduction in employee benefits and/or an increase in employee contributions.  It is entirely appropriate to have some flexibility at secondary legislation stage.  However, fundamental aspects of the reform must be adhered to, which is exactly the purpose of the framework-enabling legislation that we are debating today.  Should that not happen, the money will need to be provided by the sector in question to make up any shortfall that HM Treasury will require. 

I will certainly ensure that the principal Civil Service pension scheme in Northern Ireland, for which I have ministerial responsibility, will stay within its cost envelope.  I will ensure that I will not have to explain to the electorate in Northern Ireland why I spend more on Civil Service pensions here than Great Britain does and, as a consequence, have to reduce the money that I have to spend on the provision of public services.

I urge Members to oppose amendment No 3 and the consequential amendment Nos 5, 6, 12, 16 and 17.  The link with normal scheme pension age and state pension age must be adhered to in clause 10.

I move to amendment No 4, tabled by Mr Agnew, in respect of prison officers, paramedics and ambulance care attendants.  He tabled amendment No 4 to clause 10 to enable prison officers or paramedics and ambulance care attendants to avail themselves of the normal pension age specified by the scheme regulations for the scheme.  Such regulations may specify any age not exceeding 60, but not less than 55.  The provision to link the public service normal scheme pension age with state pension age contained in clause 10 is, as I have already explained today and a fortnight ago, one of the core provisions of the Public Service Pensions Bill.  Although I certainly value the service that is provided by our public servants across a range of diverse areas, I simply cannot agree with or endorse the points made by Mr Agnew and others who support that exceptions be made in this framework-enabling legislation for those groups of workers.

Mr Agnew, in his interventions with Mr Weir and his own comments, relied quite heavily on the physical nature of the employment.  Mr Weir — now the elusive Mr Weir — made a point about physicality.  We accept that there is physicality in jobs right across the public service.  He mentioned Roads Service and Forest Service, and he could mention the Housing Executive.  I might even want to have an exception for anybody who has the misfortune to work directly with me in the public service.  With regard to physicality, the argument that Mr Weir advanced that there are other areas of the public service that are equally if not more physical than some of those that the Member put forward has been completely ignored in the Member's argument.

Photo of Steven Agnew Steven Agnew Green

I have not ignored them at all.  Indeed, I acknowledged them in speaking to my amendment and to the amendments put forward by the SDLP.  There should be a mechanism to look at other professions, and that is provided when you take my amendment and the SDLP's amendments together.

Photo of Simon Hamilton Simon Hamilton DUP

The Member has ignored them in this sense:  he has not brought forward a specific amendment giving the sort of flexibility that he wants for prison officers, paramedics and ambulance care attendants.  In that respect, he has ignored them, and he has ignored the arguments that Mr Weir advanced in respect of the physicality of other members of staff.  I put it to the Member that his amendment has more to do with those who may have lobbied him than with any consideration of the evidence that may or may not be there.  I do not want to jump ahead too much but, in many respects, amendment No 11 proposed by the SDLP is a far better amendment to deal with those problems on a range of physical jobs that might be out there and the effects that that might have on retirement age, rather than jumping to a conclusion here and now tonight.  The difference with firefighters and police officers — certainly firefighters, which we addressed at Consideration Stage — was that the Bill and Hutton recognised that an argument was put forward that was evidence based.  I have not heard a convincing argument that the members of staff that Mr Agnew wants to create flexibility for have an above-and-beyond physicality in their job that justifies the sort of exemptions that he is seeking.

I also listened to Mr McKay talk a lot about the representations that he had from teachers.  Again, no amendment has been put forward tonight.  I suspect that that is as much to do with the fact the Mr O'Dowd, the Education Minister, does not want him to advance such an amendment and tie his hands in respect of the cost that such flexibilities would incur.

The independent Public Service Pensions Commission did not recommend any exception from the general policy to link scheme pension age with state pension age for any employment apart from firefighters, police officers and members of the armed forces.  I accept the point that Mr Agnew made about making any changes on an evidential basis.  He will forgive me if I do not accept the evidence, such as it was, that he advanced during his contribution.  Rather, I would like to have a more considered approach to it, and that is why I have sympathy for amendment No 11, and why I rely, at this point, on the work that was done by the independent Public Service Pensions Commission headed by Lord Hutton.

Members may not be aware of some changes that have already been made over the years to normal scheme pension ages, and I am now keen to enlighten them.  Normal scheme pension age for newly recruited prison officers, paramedics and ambulance care workers is already set at 65, and has been for some years.  The proposal to make provision in the Bill for a pension age of 60 for those employments would represent a regressive provision from the current position — a point that was advanced by Mrs Cochrane. 

On 8 March 2012, the Northern Ireland Executive came to a decision about moving to a career average revalued earnings model and to adopt that approach consistently across all schemes, consistent with GB.  The policy to link public service normal scheme pension ages to state pension age for prison officers, paramedics and ambulance care attendants is already established in the remainder of the UK — so that is the point about consistency with GB — in the Westminster Public Service Pensions Act 2013. 

I will turn to the specific sectors mentioned.  Further thought should have been put into this amendment, as there are varying inconsistencies.  First, paramedics who joined the Health and Social Care scheme from 1 April 2008 onwards have a normal pension age of 65, which was introduced following a partnership review of NHS pensions by employers and trade unions.  This amendment would mean that those staff would have a protected pension age of 65 up to 31 March 2015, then a normal pension age of 60 going forward if this amendment were carried.

Secondly, nurses and mental health officers who joined before 1 April 1995 have special rights to retire at 55.  That will cease from April 2015 onwards.  Again, if that amendment were carried, A&E nurses, for example, would have a higher normal pension age than paramedics.

Finally, the role of an ambulance care attendant involves the management and transportation of patients to and from healthcare facilities in non-emergency situations only.  Therefore, they cannot in any way, shape or form be set in the same category as even paramedics and prison officers.

Northern Ireland Prison Service officials have made it clear that they do not support an earlier pension age for operational prison grade staff for the following reasons:  first, prison officers are within the scope of the principal Civil Service pension scheme for Northern Ireland, and agreement was reached to introduce a new normal retirement age of 65 when the new pension scheme was introduced.  That means that staff appointed to that scheme already have a higher pension age than 60.  Secondly, the Cabinet Office has moved to link normal scheme pension age for prison officers in Great Britain in the principal Civil Service pension scheme to state pension age, and parity should be maintained.

For paramedics and ambulance care workers, new entrants to the Health and Social Care pension scheme since 2008 have, as I mentioned, a normal pension age of 65.  That includes paramedics and ambulance care attendants.

A tripartite review between NHS employers, NHS trade unions and the Department of Health in Great Britain has been established to address the impact of working longer in the NHS.  The NHS has a diverse workforce, and the review has identified a range of groups of staff in the health and social care sector and the NHS for whom working longer is a particular issue.

I accept that there are areas of work where working longer creates physical issues.  However, I want to go back to Mr Agnew's point, which he also made at Consideration Stage, about forcing people to work beyond their physical capability.  If people are not able to work for a physical reason, such as a disability, it will not be the case that they will be forced to work until the new pension age, whether that is 66, 67, or 68.  People will be medically retired as appropriate.

The review also identified a range of areas that could make it easier for people to remain in work for longer; for example, improving awareness of pension scheme flexibilities and developing more appropriate health and well-being policies.

The Public Service Pensions Bill provides for scope at secondary legislation to incorporate variances in scheme design in the case of each sector to suit the requirements of the workforces and to provide options for those who may not wish to or are unable to remain in service until normal scheme pension age.

Each Minister who is responsible for one of the five pension schemes that are covered by the Bill are perfectly free to create such differences as they see appropriate when they bring forward the scheme regulations.  The only condition is that the cost of any variances is dealt with within the scheme's overall cost envelope.

In summary, I urge Members to oppose amendment No 4.

I will now turn to the SDLP amendments, which the Green Party also supported, on clause 10 provisions.  Amendment Nos 7, 8 and 9 would provide a new power to my Department to give effect to any review of the link with normal scheme pension age and state pension age.  Amendment Nos 18 and 20 are consequential to those.  Amendments Nos 10 and 11 would create a new requirement for my Department to conduct a review.

To understand all those amendments, it is logical to deal with amendment Nos 10 and 11 first.  I want to ensure that Members fully understand what those amendments are about.

Amendment Nos 10 and 11 would require the Department of Finance and Personnel to conduct a review of the provisions of clause 10 and their effect on members of public service pension schemes.

Amendment No 10 proposes that the Department should lay a report on the review in the Assembly before the clause takes effect, and that review would exclude police and firefighters.

In his concluding remarks, Mr Attwood said that the amendment No 10 review might not conclude before the Bill becomes operative.  That is exactly my concern.  It may be his closet desire, but it is very much my concern.  The review must be done, which he will know, given that this is his amendment.  It is his amendment, so he knows that it must be done in advance of clause 10 becoming operative.

Photo of Alex Attwood Alex Attwood Social Democratic and Labour Party

Given the potential scale of the review and the fact that it is to be conducted in a short period of time, it seems to me that it may be able to conclude its view on only one or more than one category of worker as identified in clause 1.  Therefore, I recognise that it is a short window and that it would be intense.  It may not conclude at all its work, but it may conclude some of it.

Photo of Simon Hamilton Simon Hamilton DUP

I am afraid that that is a risk that I am not prepared to take, because, if the amendment passes, my Department is required to lay the report before the Assembly in advance of clause 10 becoming operative.  The Member will appreciate and, I think, accept that, given how extensive the piece of work would be, that would take some time.  I cannot imagine that any Minister responsible for bringing forward regulations would start work on those regulations until the review was concluded.  Therefore, if the review is not concluded until after April 2015, when the clause is to become operative, we have a serious problem.

Photo of Alex Attwood Alex Attwood Social Democratic and Labour Party

I think that he is misunderstanding the amendments, so let us go to the words.  Amendment No 10 proposes that the Department:

"must conduct a review of the provisions of section 10" and

"shall lay a report of the review before the Assembly ... in advance of commencement of section 10".

I would like to think that the review would be completed and concluded at the time when a report is laid before the Assembly, but it may not be.  Therefore, the review report may be complete in one or other matter but may not be completed across the full range of the contents of the review.  If that is the case, that is the case, but at least you could have a situation in which a review in part might be concluded for some categories of workers, a report could be tabled and, further to the report being tabled, some action taken by the relevant Minister in consultation with you.  I think that that is a perfectly reasonable situation, given the time frames to which we are working.

Photo of Simon Hamilton Simon Hamilton DUP

That may be the Member's view on how it works in operation.  It does not sound as robust as perhaps he wants it to be, if it is simply a case of, "We'll review one category of workers and put a report forward, and sure it doesn't matter".  My concern is that if we allow amendment No 10 to pass, we are required to complete a comprehensive review in advance of the clause becoming operative.  If we do not get the clause operating when it is meant to operate, which is April of next year, we will have serious financial consequences to deal with from Treasury.

May I also familiarise Mr Bradley with his amendment?  When he was dealing with the issue of police widows and widowers' pensions, Mr Bradley said to Mr Allister, who is no longer in his place, that the reviews mentioned in amendment Nos 10 and 11 would deal with that sort of issue.  They would not.  The reviews that would be carried out as a result of amendment Nos 10 and 11, were those amendments to pass, would be to do only with the operation of clause 10, not any other issues that would be floating around.

Amendment No 11 would provide that the Department conduct its review every two years following the commencement of clause 10 and lay a report within six months of the review having started.  The review would be more comprehensive, in that it will include police and firefighters, as well as other public servants listed in clause 1.  The key difference between the amendments is that amendment No 10 proposes that the Department lay a report on the review in the Assembly before the clause takes effect, while amendment No 11, as I said, would provide that the Department conduct its review every two years following the commencement of section 10 and lay a report within six months of the review having started.

Although do not consider it necessary, given the scope that exists in secondary legislation, my Department would not be averse, in principle, to reviewing the link from normal scheme pension age to state pension age.  In Lord Hutton's report on public service pensions reform, he recommended that the link between the state pension age and normal pension age be regularly reviewed, something which Mr Attwood pointed out earlier.  Indeed, I agree:  it should be reviewed.  I understand that there is a review pencilled in for firefighters, for example — I remember that from Consideration Stage — after all the various legislation, including our own, is passed.  I ask the Member to bear in mind that any review could recommend increasing pension age as fitness levels improve over time.  In fact, the latest review of firefighters — the Williams review — concluded that, because of increasing and improving fitness standards, the pension age for new entrants should remain at 60 and not change.  Let us bear in mind that any review could see the pension age go up for firefighters, or even for police officers, in future.  Therefore, it is a two-way process.  It is not something that will necessarily or automatically a reduction in age for everybody.  In the longer term, if you take a very, very long-term view, I would expect most pension ages to go up.  That is, in part, what the Bill is doing.

Once again, I make it abundantly clear that, although there is scope for secondary legislation to have variances that take account of the particular needs of a workforce, they must be paid for by the pension scheme for that sector.  The case has already been made for the link between normal scheme pension age and state pension age following the extensive review by Lord Hutton, who was appointed by the previous Labour Government.  There is, therefore, no need to conduct such a review at this stage before the commencement of the Bill.  Members also need to consider what such a review would achieve if done now.  As for the practical consequences of these reforms when implemented in April 2015, a number of key facts must be considered.  Many existing members will have full transitional protection and will retire at the normal scheme pension age that was specified when they joined.  For the Civil Service pension scheme in Northern Ireland, for example, over one third can retire at 60.  The increase to state pension age is some time off.  I have already provided Members with the timeline:  it will increase to 66 by 2020, 67 by 2028 and probably 68 by the mid-2030s.  The normal scheme pension age changed from 60 to 65 for those joining public service pension schemes around 2006.  I ask Members to consider those facts.

The obvious outworking is that few in our public service workforce will retire at 65 over the next few years.  No one will work until 66 until 2020.  Even in 2020, most will not have to work until 66 as they have benefited from the full 10 years of transition protection provided in the Bill.  Therefore, there is no urgency to conduct a review of the actual impact on the workforce and those working in the public services in Northern Ireland.  I also have a concern about the potential for such a review to be done, as I mentioned, before the commencement of clause 10.  Any review will take time.  I note that amendment No 11 requires a report to be laid in the Assembly on or before six months of the commencement of any such review.  It is reasonable to expect such a review to take that time to complete, certainly if it is to be done comprehensively.

I remind Members that the matter we are debating today is the primary legislation to give effect to the reform of public service pension schemes in Northern Ireland.  This will provide a framework of enabling legislation only.  Work will then need to be completed by each sector on the secondary scheme-specific legislation and also on the logistics of changing IT systems.  The House has also been advised —

Photo of Alex Attwood Alex Attwood Social Democratic and Labour Party 7:00 pm, 27th January 2014

I thank the Minister for giving way.  I acknowledge — I do not necessarily welcome it, but I suppose that I should use the word "welcome" — that he indicated that he and others are minded to support amendment No 11.  However, I cannot welcome the comments that he has just made about there being no urgency in a clause 11 review.  Given that you are not minded to support an immediate review, as under clause 10, it would narrow some of the differences in the Chamber if you indicated that there might be some urgency around a review in clause 11.  It would be useful if you indicated that there might be an earlier rather than a later review, which seems to be what you are hinting at.  Given all the work that will be carried out in various pension schemes for the workers identified in clause 1, and given that a lot of work undertaken by your fellow Ministers, including the Minister of the Environment, might create some data and further evidence that could inform the wider review referred to in clause 11, it seems that that new source data might help you to conduct a clause 11 review, independent of and in addition to the fact that there are good reasons to undertake further interrogation of the potential categories of workers who could have flexibility further to the legislation generally.  Is there not a requirement to do something earlier than you imply, which is a later clause 11 review?

(Mr Speaker in the Chair)

Photo of Simon Hamilton Simon Hamilton DUP

I am not ill-disposed to an earlier rather than a later review.  Perhaps, in drafting the amendment, the Member might have considered how early the first review should be.  In inheriting it as it is, I repeat that I am not ill-disposed to doing it earlier rather than later.  Certainly, if a raft of evidence comes forward, it would be necessary to do the review earlier rather than later.  However, I reiterate that I do not think that the urgency is as steep as the Member thinks it is.

The amendment that, if he is right, I am prepared to accept, requires that to be done within two years.  I do not think that there will be the sort of fundamental change that he thinks there will be inside two years, but all practical considerations taken into account, I am happy to do it significantly earlier than two years if required.

Photo of Alex Attwood Alex Attwood Social Democratic and Labour Party

That is useful, because the clause was, with the assistance of the Bill Office, carefully drafted so that, technically, a review could commence as soon as clause 10 commenced.  I am not sure when clause 10 will commence, but it certainly will not be any later than March of next year and, presumably, earlier.  So, technically, a review could commence as soon as clause 10 was commenced.  Although I would like that to happen, I welcome the fact that the Minister has now said that it could be earlier — indeed, I think that he used the phrase "significantly earlier" — than two years after the clause has commenced.  That is some progress.

Photo of Simon Hamilton Simon Hamilton DUP

I will not commit myself to a particular start date. The Member will know from ministerial experience that that is not a good idea.  I accept the requirement placed upon me and my office by the clause and will adhere to that.  However, I reiterate that I do not think that there is the same urgency because I do not think that it affects the volume of people that the Member thinks that it does, never mind the practical problems of doing a review as outlined in amendment No 10

Amendment No 11 specifies that a review would take place at a later stage.  I still do not think that it affects as many people as the Member thinks, but I will be bound by that amendment and we will advance said review.  However, you have to consider the practical issues, timing issues and the gathering of evidence that would allow us to do that.  It would be churlish to have it one year and 364 days after commencement of the clause, and that is not my intention. 

When the Bill was introduced, the House was also advised of the potential cost of failing to meet the April 2015 guideline set by Her Majesty's Treasury for the main schemes.  This is now estimated to be in the region of £300 million, as I said before.  A review led by my Department — let me make this perfectly clear — will not mean that I, as Finance Minister, will provide any funding for changes.  The thrust of the reform is to contain the costs to the taxpayer and the public purse.  Any variances, therefore, must be contained within the cost envelope.  Any sector that exceeds this will need to make up the shortfall to Her Majesty's Treasury.  In summary, I ask Members to oppose amendment No 10 but support amendment No 11. 

I will now deal with amendment Nos 7, 8, and 9.  These are all variations of one amendment:  the power to exempt certain persons from the link with state pension age and to specify a pension age.  Each amendment would confer on the Department of Finance and  Personnel a power to specify, by order, that the link for normal scheme pension age to state pension age should not apply for certain persons of such description also specified in that order.  They would provide options for the Department of Finance and Personnel to specify that pension age be set at either that specified in amendment No 7, which would be such an age as specified in the order; that specified in amendment No 8, which is 60; or that specified in amendment No 9, which is not exceeding 60 but not less than 55. 

Although I do not consider such a provision to be necessary, I realise that the issue of linking normal scheme pension age to state pension age is a key concern of a number of Members here today.  I want to be clear that this link is necessary to control costs for the reasons that I stated earlier in the debate.  At the risk of sounding like a stuck record, any variations must be contained within the costs of the scheme.  If that does not happen, the sector in Northern Ireland will have to take money from the services that they provide, whether it is fire, education, health or police, to make up any shortfall that Her Majesty's Treasury will seek to recoup.  Do not be under any illusion that I, as Finance Minister, will meet these costs.  However, I am not opposed to ensuring fairness as the reforms roll out and am therefore content for my officials to review the issue. 

We debated the issue of affirmative resolution last week.  I remain of the view that negative resolution is the appropriate route and that affirmative resolution is a more elongated process that has the potential to delay any order coming into effect.  That is all the more reason for Members to oppose amendment No 10 and have a review before the commencement date of the order. 

I do not want to risk not achieving the date of April 2015 that has been set by Her Majesty's Treasury for implementation of the reforms.  I am also reluctant to exercise retrospective implementation powers.  I wish to have flexibility on this matter across the public sector pension schemes and, for that reason, I can support amendment No 7, which does not specify any ages, but I oppose amendments No 8 and 9.  Thank you.

Photo of Simon Hamilton Simon Hamilton DUP

Had I not concluded?  Can I allow the intervention?

Photo of Simon Hamilton Simon Hamilton DUP

If I can, I will.  Sure, we are out for the night anyway.

Photo of Alex Attwood Alex Attwood Social Democratic and Labour Party

You are just too keen to get out the door.  I understand that you are now saying that you support amendment No 7 but not amendment Nos 8 and 9.  However, you did not give any reason why you would not put an example of what a ministerial order might look in the Bill, save a general one in clause 7.  Why not have options in the Bill for an order that you might want to table, as outlined in amendment Nos 8 and 9?

Photo of Simon Hamilton Simon Hamilton DUP

He has certainly elongated proceedings.  Those are options that the Member tabled in his amendments.  They are mutually exclusive, so if amendment No 7 is made, amendment Nos 8 and 9 cannot be moved.

Photo of Simon Hamilton Simon Hamilton DUP

That is my understanding.

Photo of William Hay William Hay Speaker

To clarify the position, the Minister is correct.  If amendment No 7 is made, amendment Nos 8 and 9 will not be moved.

Photo of Alex Attwood Alex Attwood Social Democratic and Labour Party

I have to withdraw my intervention. [Laughter.] I wish now that I had let you get out the door.  In the very elaborate drafting of the amendments, there was probing in amendment Nos 8 and 9, but I felt that there was also some opportunity to make amendment Nos 7, 8 and 9.  I will take the ruling of the Speaker and sit down quickly.

Photo of Simon Hamilton Simon Hamilton DUP

I do not wish to elongate the Member's embarrassment, but amendment Nos 7, 8 and 9 all refer to "(5A)", "(5B)" and "(5C)".  Therefore, they are self-evidently mutually exclusive.

Photo of Simon Hamilton Simon Hamilton DUP

Here is someone who may wish to elongate your embarrassment.

Photo of Peter Weir Peter Weir DUP

I would be happy to elongate the Member's embarrassment.  I may have this the wrong way round, but I think that the Member referred to amendment Nos 7, 8 and 9 as parent amendments, with amendment Nos 10 and 11 being the children.  I suppose that it is really a question of which of your parents you are choosing.  Indeed, in a slightly bizarre arrangement, they seem to be like step-parents.

Photo of Simon Hamilton Simon Hamilton DUP

I am not getting into that. 

I touched on the reason why I prefer amendment No 7.  Although I do not think that amendment No 7 is necessary, in a spirit of conviviality, and recognising that there are concerns, I think that amendment No 7 gives the Department of Finance and Personnel much more flexibility to make an order on an age that will, perhaps, be prescribed as a result of the review that we have just been talking about.  Amendment Nos 8 and 9 are much more prescriptive and tight.  On reflection, I am sure that the Member will recognise that, in those circumstances, amendment No 7 is a better amendment for me to accept.  With that, I rest my case.

Photo of Mitchel McLaughlin Mitchel McLaughlin Sinn Féin

Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle.  At Consideration Stage, I argued that we needed to give ourselves some flexibility to deal with these complex and difficult issues while, at the same time, supporting and accepting the case for reform.  I also argued that we needed to consider how we could future-proof the legislation. 

We should bear in mind that, when the legislation was first mooted, the option that was argued for was a legislative consent motion, and for us simply to go for parity.  However, we have added value to the original proposal.  This is not the first time that has happened in the Assembly.  For instance, the Welfare Reform Bill has been affected by involving the Assembly and allowing Members from the various parties to scrutinise the legislation and involve themselves in researching the options.  I think that the general intention behind that was not only to forge a good working relationship between the Executive and the Assembly, but to add value and reflect the particular circumstances and character of the social and economic reality in this region, which is not necessarily contemporaneous with all that applies in Britain.

There was an attempt by one Member on the opposite Benches — a former Finance Minister — to create a diversion around costing out the arguments for each of the flexibilities that might be considered.  We had an amendment to clause 10 accepted at Consideration Stage.  In a sense, I regret having had to argue that case, because we were into the whole idea of a self-denying ordinance — that we could not have flexibility or depart, otherwise there would be a cost and an impact on the block grant.  Well, there may be circumstances when we consider all that and decide that this is what we are going to do.  This idea of putting a price on everything and perhaps not discussing the value of it is really only damaging our own case.

Think about the air passenger duty argument.  I saw Members getting excited here about the overall cost if we simply wiped out air passenger duty unilaterally in this region, yet I did not hear one single Member arguing for that.  However, there were arguments about taking a look at the possibility of developing individual routes and costing out that type of intervention if it would help us to achieve the objective of growing the economy.  In other words, giving ourselves the tools to do the job and the flexibility to approach these issues.

What is reflected in the Bill as a result of the work done already is the fact that the unique circumstances applying to firefighters are recognised.  That was not in the first draft, and in a sense I am sorry that it was necessary to demonstrate that there were special circumstances.  It would have been better to have given ourselves the flexibility and then to examine the individual circumstances in the light of experience, as it would appear that they are doing at Westminster in any event.

Special circumstances do arise, and in the amendment from Mr Allister that was passed earlier, another special circumstance was identified and the opportunity taken for the Assembly, operating in local circumstances, to take a decision.  That is what informs our approach today.  The amendments that we offered — Nos 3, 5 , 6 and 12 — give expression to the support that the Assembly gave to our amendment to clause 10.  With that done, we are simply in a good-grace way examining how we can add sinew and muscle to that.

It is a matter for individual Ministers and the Minister of Finance to negotiate this out.  It is a matter of ensuring, to the best of our ability, that what we do passes the test of affordability as well as the possible impacts on the wider block grant.  We may decide or we may not decide to use the power.  Having the power and the flexibility does not cost anything.  It is when applying that flexibility and power that we have to deal with the holistic argument.

I do not intend to drag this out.  All the arguments have been rehearsed.  Daithí McKay made our case for the amendments.  The amendments add value and reflect the flexibility that we voted for at Consideration Stage, and I hope that Members will find it possible to support those amendments.

Question put, That amendment No 3 be made.

The Assembly divided:

Ayes 40; Noes 48.