Oral Answers to Questions – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 2:00 pm on 17th February 2014.

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Photo of Steven Agnew Steven Agnew Green 2:00 pm, 17th February 2014

1. asked the Minister of Finance and Personnel for an update on the equal pay settlement for staff in the PSNI, Department of Justice and Northern Ireland Office. (AQO 5542/11-15)

Photo of Simon Hamilton Simon Hamilton DUP

Members will remember that it was clearly established in court that there is no legal liability for any payment in relation to equal pay in the Police Service of Northern Ireland, the Department of Justice or, indeed, the Northern Ireland Office.  As I said before, I understand the genuine feelings that people have on the matter.  I am working hard to find some way in which those feelings can be recognised.  Since I last spoke on this issue in the Assembly, I have spoken with the Minister of Justice, and officials from both our Departments have met.  I am consulting with officials to investigate whether there are any possible solutions to the issue that could be considered by the Northern Ireland Executive.

Photo of Steven Agnew Steven Agnew Green

I thank the Minister for his answer.  He outlined that there was no legal requirement on his Department.  Equally, however, in the past, there have been situations, such as with the Presbyterian Mutual Society, where there has been no legal obligation, but there has been a moral obligation on the Executive to act.  Does he not accept that, in this case, because of the inequalities that exist in our current Civil Service, there is such a moral obligation?

Photo of Simon Hamilton Simon Hamilton DUP

I do not accept that there are inequalities.  If there were inequalities in pay, I would expect the requisite Department, whether the Department of Justice or any other, to come forward with a case of an unequal pay situation needing to be rectified.  He is right about the language I have used:  I have stressed that, although there is no legal liability and, therefore, it is not an equal pay issue, even though we continue to refer to it as such, there is a moral responsibility on me to investigate opportunities or potential solutions for a recognition of the moral responsibility that may well be there.

I appreciate that the Member is not asking me to step outside the legal responsibilities that I or Executive colleagues have.  However, looking at the news over the weekend, if the Member's party — the Green Party — had its way, perhaps it would add the extra stipulation that anybody who denies the existence of climate change should not be paid any money, whether moral or legal.

Photo of Daithí McKay Daithí McKay Sinn Féin

Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle.  Obviously, Minister, in the opinion of many of the workers concerned, there has been a lot of toing and froing in this case for far too long.  The Minister has touched on this already:  how has he sought the support of the Executive for a financial resolution in this case?  In the coming weeks and months, what plans does he have to bring further cases to the table?

Photo of Simon Hamilton Simon Hamilton DUP

I am not sure that I agree with the language of "toing and froing", but I accept that there is perhaps a frustration.  I sense that frustration from talking to some members of staff affected by the issue.  I certainly see it in correspondence that I receive from them, as well as from talking face to face with them.  At this stage, I have sought to engage directly with the Minister of Justice, who obviously has responsibility for the greater volume of staff, to seek a solution that he and I can agree on.  The next natural step after that is to go to the Executive to seek agreement and then hopefully deal with the issue as a result.  I am sure that the Member appreciates that, given the circumstances, Executive and cross-party approval is essential.  In that respect, I hope that, if and when the Minister of Justice and I bring forward a solution to recognise the moral responsibility, it will get full support from all parties represented on the Executive, including the Member's party.

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

Is the Minister, like me, astounded by the brazen effrontery of the question from the Sinn Féin Member?  He calls for additional money to be spent on equal pay settlements for those in the PSNI, and, at the same time, that party is squandering £5 million a month that could be used to make payment, but it prefers to give it back to the Government at Westminster. [Interruption.]

Photo of Simon Hamilton Simon Hamilton DUP

I thank the Member for his very pertinent question.  He is absolutely right.  It is not the first time in the past week and I am sure that it will not be the last time today that Members opposite will press me to make finance available for all sorts of projects in their constituencies or across Northern Ireland.  However, the final leg of a resolution to the issue of equal pay for staff working in the justice family, if we can devise a solution, will be the need to find some money to pay for it. 

I know where there is £15 million that could not only be used to fund this issue but could be given to colleagues in the Executive like the Health Minister, to relieve the pressures that the health service faces, or the Minister of Education, to relieve pressures in the education budget.  Right across the system, all Ministers face pressures; they speak to me regularly and bring issues to the House.  Members know that departmental budgets are under pressure, but £15 million is being squandered and handed back to Westminster this year.  That will rise to £105 million next year, and a total of £1 billion over the next five years.  That is money that we can ill afford to lose, yet it is being handed back and not being put to any good use.

Photo of Alban Maginness Alban Maginness Social Democratic and Labour Party

I thank the Minister for his answers.  I do not want to quibble with the Minister.  He said that it was not an equal pay issue in the legal sense, and one can accept that.  However, it is certainly an equal pay issue for those who are negatively affected.  Will the Minister clarify the position that he reached with the Minister of Justice, if he did, indeed, reach a position with him, on how to bring this to a happy conclusion?

Photo of Simon Hamilton Simon Hamilton DUP

I would have thought that a learned gentleman like the Member opposite would have appreciated that it is not a legal issue.  Strictly speaking, there is no liability in a legal sense for the Executive to deal with. 

My discussions with the Justice Minister have not reached a conclusion and are ongoing.  I am happy to continue to discuss it directly with him, although officials from both Departments continue to engage to find some way in which the moral argument could be recognised.  I am happy to continue to engage with the Minister of Justice and for engagement to take place between officials from both Departments.  In fact, I am happy to engage with anybody, and, later this afternoon, I will engage with NIPSA on the issue.  They also have a responsibility, having contributed to the raising of expectations on the matter over the past number of months by organising something of a campaign that called on me and other Ministers to solve the problem, as they see it.  They also have a responsibility and a duty to come forward with ideas on how it might be resolved, and I look forward to hearing that from them later this afternoon.

Photo of Michael Copeland Michael Copeland UUP

I thank the Minister for his answers.  I know that it is a difficult problem.  Will he confirm whether the money required to settle this non-legal moral issue, which essentially it is, has been identified?  Have any sums towards that been included in the current budgetary arrangements?  If so, will they be ring-fenced for the purpose for which they were intended?

Photo of Simon Hamilton Simon Hamilton DUP

I welcome the Member's view that resolving the issue is neither a simple nor straightforward matter.  I hope that an understanding across the House that it is not simple or straightforward will result in some patience and tolerance among Members, as well as the members of staff who are affected. 

No ring-fenced money has been put aside to deal with the issue.  Money was set aside for it in the past, should it have materialised that the Executive had a legal responsibility to settle it.  That money is no longer in place.  It is for the Executive to look at where money for resolving it might come from, if and when they decide to move forward with a solution.  Our job in finding that money is not made any easier — in fact, it is made considerably more difficult — when we see the squandering of £5 million a month through not progressing with welfare reform.