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The Business Committee has agreed to allow up to one hour and 30 minutes for the debate. An amendment has been selected and published on the Marshalled List. The amendment has been tabled by those who tabled the motion. The motion and the amendment will be proposed together and wound up on together, with 10 minutes to propose and 10 minutes to make a winding-up speech.
I beg to move
That this Assembly notes the likelihood that the Office for National Statistics will reclassify Northern Ireland’s 22 housing associations from independent social businesses to public bodies; that this may limit their ability to access private finance to build new homes; that the £1 billion of private debt already on their books could be added to the Executive’s balance sheet, taking the Executive’s total borrowing to levels that would reduce drastically their ability to borrow money for other initiatives across the Executive Departments; and calls on the Minister for Communities to prepare to bring forward urgent legislation to reverse the reclassification of Northern Ireland housing associations so that they can remain classified as independent social businesses.
I beg to move the following amendment:
Leave out all after "notes" and insert "the decision by the Office for National Statistics to reclassify Northern Ireland’s 22 housing associations from independent social businesses to public bodies; recognises that this will have a significant impact on housing associations and their ability to provide new social and shared ownership homes; further notes that this decision will add nearly £1 billion of housing association debt to the Northern Ireland Executive’s balance sheet, seriously impacting on the Executive’s ability to borrow money for other initiatives across the Executive Departments; and calls on the Minister for Communities and Minister of Finance to expedite the steps necessary to reverse this reclassification; and agree quickly an interim derogation arrangement with HM Treasury to enable the sector to continue to function normally, to engage closely with the Scottish and Welsh Governments to agree a joined-up approach, and to outline a clear and detailed timeline for specific action, including bringing forward legislation, within the time frame that any HM Treasury derogation allows, to ensure that Northern Ireland’s housing associations can remain classified as independent social businesses.".
As Members will be aware, events have moved on somewhat since the motion was originally tabled, so an amendment is necessary to take account of the changed circumstances. The original motion was tabled in advance of the decision by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) to reclassify Northern Ireland's housing associations as public bodies, which was announced on Thursday 29 September. What, on the face of it, might appear to be a relatively unimportant and technical change in accounting rules would actually have very serious implications indeed. This is a problem that needs to be rectified quickly, and we will give our help and support to the Executive, within reason, to help with the solution. We welcome the fact that the Executive have vowed to seek a reversal of the ONS decision to reclassify NI housing associations, including amending legislation where appropriate.
Our motion and amendment were tabled because we have two main areas of concern. The first is that housing associations could find it difficult to raise funding and, as a result, there would be a serious effect on their ability to build badly-needed social housing. Given that we are already in the midst of a housing crisis, anything that might contribute to uncertainty and jeopardise the social housing building programme should be avoided at all costs. Approximately 8,000 social housing starts are planned in the next four years, and these would obviously be under threat if there was any question over whether or not local housing associations were able to continue to borrow in the same manner as they can at present and raise much-needed private finances. There would also be major implications for the co-ownership scheme affecting roughly 700 to 800 homes each year. This scheme is funded via the financial transactions capital (FTC) money from the Treasury, and one of the primary conditions is that it can be lent only to private bodies.
The second concern is that, as a result of this reclassification, the approximately £1 billion worth of borrowing currently on local housing associations' books would be transferred to the Executive's balance sheet. This would obviously have a potentially devastating effect on the Executive's finances.
As I stated, our original motion was tabled prior to both the ONS announcement that Northern Ireland housing associations would be reclassified as public bodies and the statements by the Minister for Communities and the Minister of Finance. As a result, my party, working with its SDLP Opposition colleagues, has brought forward the amendment. The amendment takes account of the changed circumstances, and we are confident that it will command support across the House.
The ONS did not just pronounce on the reclassification of Northern Ireland housing associations as public bodies. It also reclassified their counterparts in Scotland and Wales. We are of the view that, as Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales have all been set exactly the same challenge at exactly the same time, if the Executive are serious about being focused on delivery, we need to act at least as swiftly as the Scottish and the Welsh. Stormont has often been accused of inertia and being slow to act. This simply cannot be allowed to happen here. ONS has said:
"We will assess at the impact of these classification decisions and will update the affected statistics at the earliest opportunity."
We have concerns as to what the implications might be for Northern Ireland should there be any delay. We need to see a coordinated approach by the Minister for Communities and the Minister of Finance to the very real dangers that we face. We need to get an appropriate derogation agreed with the Treasury, and then we need to ensure that the derogation is of a sufficient length of time. The legislative process in the House can seem rather torturous. It should go without saying that we need to ensure that we get the relevant legislation through the House without delay and certainly well within the time frame of the derogation.
Even if legislation were being drafted today, we could face a very tight timetable to get a Treasury derogation, given that it can take 18 to 24 months for legislation to pass through the House so that all the required stages receive full scrutiny. We want to see joined-up, concerted action between the devolved Administrations in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales. The three devolved Administrations need to agree a joint endeavour on the matter to deal with the Treasury on the derogation and to get a deal on the interim arrangements. In short, we need an appropriate derogation with a realistic time frame.
We therefore need a commitment from the Minister for Communities and the Minister of Finance that we will get the legislation through the House not just in a timely manner but at least as quickly as the Administrations in Edinburgh and Cardiff. That is a very important point, because, as the ONS has ruled on housing associations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland at the same time, it is more than logical to assume that it will reconsider their status at the same time. As stated earlier, it said that it would assess the impact of the classification decisions and update the affected statistics at the earliest opportunity. There is a real danger that Northern Ireland could get left behind and the derogation could run out. We want to avoid that at all costs, given the serious difficulties that it would cause for housing associations' ability to deliver new-build housing and for the borrowing ability of the Executive.
Given the most recent figures, from June 2016, of 37,347 households on the housing waiting list, 22,986 deemed to be in housing stress and 15,747 deemed to be statutorily homeless, it is imperative that we act swiftly. I therefore call on either the Minister for Communities or the Minister of Finance to set out a clear timeline for what action they intend to take. The Opposition are ready and willing to work with the relevant Ministers to the benefit of Northern Ireland.
As someone who represents South Belfast, I am painfully aware of the shortages in social housing. All Members who represent Belfast constituencies — not only Belfast, of course, but beyond — have found that there is a need for more social housing. The previous Executive met their target on social housing, and this Executive have set an ambitious target of 8,000 houses, as the Member for East Belfast Mr Allen said.
I think that Members can be assured of the commitment of the Government to achieving a reversal in the Office for National Statistics' decision, not only because of the statements from the Minister on the issue but because of the statements from the Minister of Finance. The Minister of Finance and the Minister for Communities took the issue to the Northern Ireland Executive on the very afternoon that the decision was announced, in order to secure the agreement of the Executive to address it. There is a recognition at the heart of government of the need to secure the derogation. That has been evidenced by my colleague the Minister for Communities and by the Minister of Finance. Officials in the Department for Communities and the Department of Finance are working together to achieve an effective derogation that will allow the time that is needed for all the actions to ensure a successful reversal of the Office for National Statistics' decision.
It is important in the debate to note that Ministers in a devolved Government have no control over the Office for National Statistics. The ONS is the United Kingdom's largest independent producer of official statistics and is the recognised national statistical institution for the United Kingdom. Its responsibilities, as Members will know, include collecting and publishing statistics related to the economy, population and society at national, regional and local level. The Office for National Statistics independently determines classification decisions strictly in accordance with agreed rules set out in established systems. It is important to remember that when we approach the issue.
The Northern Ireland Executive are committed to delivering on their housing target, and we are committed to dealing with the issues that have been raised here. The one thing I would say, having read the motion, is that I welcome the fact that it has been acknowledged that the Executive are doing what has been called for. The motion calls for actions that are already being undertaken by the Executive. In an ordinary system — perhaps in a more parliamentary system — it is supposed to be the Opposition who lead the Government, but, in this instance, the Government are leading the Opposition. Read the content of what has been presented to the House: it calls on the Government to undertake actions that are already being undertaken. I do not want to add further discomfort for our friends at the bottom of the Chamber, but it might be worth considering more detailed discussions with Ministers before rushing in motions that demand actions that are already being carried out by those in positions of —
I thank the Member for giving way. He, of course, makes a valid point. Government ought to be ahead of the curve on the issue because it was predictable. Do you not agree that it might have been an opportunity for the Minister to make a statement to the House and clarify what exactly he was doing in the last 11 days so that Members could be fully informed?
I thank the lady for her point. There are few better informed in the House than her, and she makes her point well. It is important, however, to note that the actions that are being called for are being undertaken.
One issue that has been raised is, of course, the implications that the determination has on public spending and our capacity to borrow money. That has implications that go way beyond matters of housing, and I suspect that the universities in my constituency, in particular, will look closely at the content of the debate and the subsequent resolution of the issues that have been raised.
I think that we can be confident that the changes that the Department will bring forward will allow us to achieve a reversal of the ONS position. There are, of course, no certainties, but I believe that that is the reason why officials in the Department will closely examine the issue with the Office for National Statistics. We can be as sure as anything can be in life and confident that every effort will be made to ensure that the decision is reversed, and I believe that that is what everyone — Government and Opposition — wants to happen.
I will speak to the motion tabled in the name of the Ulster Unionists and to the amendment in the name of the Ulster Unionists and the SDLP. When I first read the motion, it seemed that the Ulster Unionists had not only jumped the gun in tabling the motion, which is rushed and out of date, but had asked for steps to be taken that the Minister of Finance and the Minister for Communities had been working towards. In fact, I have raised those issues with both Ministers and have been assured that all that could be done was being done in the run-up to the decision of the Office for National Statistics to reclassify housing associations across the North from independent social enterprises to public finance bodies.
The amendment is also now redundant, given the decision of the Executive last Thursday when they approved a joint paper from Ministers Ó Muilleoir and Givan to seek a reversal of the ONS decision to reclassify housing associations in the North, including amending legislation where appropriate. They said:
"The Executive is committed to providing suitable homes for all and we will now work together to find the best way forward to allow investment to continue."
The Minister of Finance added:
"Having a secure and stable social housing sector is a ... cornerstone of our civic society."
He went on to say:
"We need to take all measures necessary to ensure that the sector has [the ability] to invest and grow."
The decision by the Office for National Statistics, if left unaddressed by the Executive, would have changed the budgeting rules and could have resulted in an annual shortfall of £100 million for social and affordable housing.
That is why, he said:
"we plan to seek a derogation to prevent this".
That clearly shows that the Ministers and the Executive, who are clued-in to the difficulties —
No. I have only a couple of minutes.
That clearly shows that the Ministers and the Executive, who are clued-in to the difficulties of the decision the ONS has made, have been proactive in putting out the message that they will seek a derogation. It is also my understanding that the Minister of Finance has been in touch with his equivalents in Scotland and Wales to ensure there is joined-up thinking and that a solution to reclassification can be found. In a statement, the chief executive of NIFHA, Cameron Watt, in response to the Office for National Statistics' reclassification of housing associations, said that he "warmly welcomes" the decision of the Executive to seek a reversal of the decision and their commitment to amend legislation if appropriate. He went on to say that he was:
"delighted that the NI Executive has acted ... decisively to seek a reversal of the ONS decision", saying that it:
"is vitally important in sustaining this successful partnership."
He went on to say:
"We are grateful to Communities Minister ... and Finance Minister Máirtín Ó Muilleoir ... for their immediate and effective response to the ONS decision. Both Ministers have recognised the crucial role of housing associations in delivering much-needed homes."
The decision in October 2015 by the Office for National Statistics to reclassify housing associations in England from private financial corporations to public non-financial corporations sent shock waves through housing circles across the North, not least because of the impact of reclassification on housing associations here. Now that it has happened, it is crucial that we leave nothing to chance. It is important also to build the partnership Cameron Watt spoke of not only to move to obtain derogation but to plot out a strategy for housebuilding in the social housing sector. I understand what my colleague across the Chamber said about the commitment to 8,000 houses, but we should take that as a minimum rather than a maximum target. It needs to include developing ways to give the power of new build back to the Housing Executive. The fact that a housing provider is sitting on stock of 88,000 houses it cannot use to lever in much-needed finance is madness. Just imagine what a game changer that could be for new build as we work towards a solution to the reclassification problems. We also need to work to make the changes necessary to bring the Housing Executive back into play. We need to look at how we bring the thousands of empty homes back into use —
It is not only important but essential that the motion was brought to the House today. It is essential because of the profound financial, economic and societal impact of the reclassification by the Office for National Statistics of Northern Ireland's 22 housing associations from independent social businesses to public bodies on housing associations' ability to access finance to build critical and much-needed new homes and the potential to add £1 billion debt to the Executive's balance sheet, as the motion points out, with all the serious implications and consequences that will have for Executive investment in education, health and economic initiatives, among other things.
Yet, despite the significant ramifications of the reclassification, there has been little to no detail of what plans the Communities Minister and Finance Minister had in place in preparation for it — we knew in all likelihood it was coming down the track — and nothing, beyond headlines, of what actions the Ministers had actually taken since the reclassification was announced. In truth, the motion contains more detail than anything forthcoming to date from the Executive or either Minister. In fact, the Minister for Communities and his counterpart in the Department of Finance clearly did not deem the issue important enough to come before this democratic Chamber to make a statement on the matter, give some reassurance to the House and to the people who elected us, give reassurance to each of the 22 housing associations affected and, most importantly, give reassurance to the 37,000 people on the social housing waiting list and the 15,474 deemed homeless and desperately waiting and waiting for a home. Perhaps the Minister will share with us today the rationale for taking this approach. In fact, apart from a joint press release that talked in vague terms of an approved Executive paper seeking a non-detailed reversal of the ONS decision, including amending unspecified legislation and plans to seek a derogation, the House has been provided with no concrete detail of what both Ministers are doing. The Member for South Belfast referred to multiple statements from each Minister: I do not know where those statements are.
This leaves questions to which we seek answers. What level of deregulation will be implemented? Will it have empowerment of the tenant at its core? What consultation has taken place and will take place to ensure that Northern Ireland gets the right response? What discussions have both Ministers had with their counterparts in Scotland and Wales to deliver a joined-up approach and ensure that Northern Ireland is not left behind? What is the Minister's clear and detailed timeline for specific action? What amended legislation is being proposed? At what stage is that legislation? When will it be enacted? Will it be within the time frame that any Treasury derogation allows? If it falls outside the derogation period granted, what safeguards will both Ministers provide? How advanced are derogation negotiations with the Treasury?
I tried to obtain some of that information through a question for written answer tabled on 26 September, but, interestingly, the answer has been embargoed until today. Perhaps the Minister can explain why the embargo was put in place. Hopefully, today, the Minister will provide answers to these questions and others posed by Members across the Chamber or, at least, follow them up in writing if it is not possible to provide definitive answers today.
Before I conclude, I would like to touch on another point. I firmly believe that with change comes great opportunity. We have here a real opportunity not to freely deregulate but to ensure that we deliver sensible, modernised regulation with empowerment of the tenant at its core. Within this, there is also the opportunity, I would argue, to revisit the recommendation of the PricewaterhouseCoopers strategic review of the Northern Ireland Housing Executive, which was supported by the Housing Executive and widely across the housing sector, to establish an independent regulator of social housing.
Prior to the move to reclassify housing associations by the Office for National Statistics, good regulation and effective regulatory infrastructures have been a popular theme in policy development over the last two decades. We are often asked to look —
— to Scotland for best practice. On this, I urge the Minister to look to Scotland with regard to the independence of the regulator and to ensure that, in moving swiftly to address budgetary pressures, he does not store up a series of problems for the longer term.
I welcome the opportunity to speak on the motion and the amendment. Obviously, as others have said, the context has now moved on because the expected decision by the Office for National Statistics to reclassify the housing associations as public bodies has now been announced.
Mr Speaker, you know that, last week, I raised this matter as a point of order because I am of the belief that the announcement is so significant that it required a ministerial statement to the House rather than simply a press release. Whilst the move was expected, its impact and the Executive's response and preparedness to address it are matters of public and political importance and ones that should have been brought to the Chamber. It is all very well to criticise people for tabling motions to bring Ministers to the House on this: Ministers could opt to come to the House of their own volition and give the information to reassure the public. I therefore welcome the opportunity that has been provided by the motion to seek that clarity, but I would like Ministers to make the effort to do that of their own volition rather than deliver lectures to the rest of us about how we should go about our work. <BR/>A highly significant change, it will not only have ramifications for important economic and social rights to housing but will impact on the wider financial situation in Departments. Housing associations have always been somewhat different from the Housing Executive in how they have approached these matters. Until now, they have been able to operate as industrial and provident societies. That means that they could benefit from both government funding and private finance to allow them to build more homes and perform essential upkeep of their current stock, should they so wish.
It is commonly through commercial banks, the Housing Finance Corporation and, more recently, the European Investment Bank.
The Housing Executive provides around 90,000 homes, and housing associations make up around 40,000 properties, so, all in all, we are talking about 100,000 individuals and families across Northern Ireland. It is also important to remember that many of those are families that are vulnerable, facing hardship and struggling to find employment. The ONS decision impacts on all of them in terms of access to funding for maintenance and upgrades available for their properties. In addition, it also impacts directly on the 40,000 people on the waiting lists for suitable housing and who are in housing stress, as the ability to leverage private funds is crucial in allowing housing associations to develop new stock. It is inconceivable that the Executive could afford to make up the shortfall, even in the interim, without a serious negative impact on the plans and budgets of other Departments.
In June, for example, the European Investment Bank gave £280 million towards social housing in Northern Ireland; that amount of money could not have been sourced if these rules had been in place. It was rightly welcomed at the time, but it is important, if we are to get the construction of 4,700 new social homes over the next five years, alongside the improvement of existing stock, that further opportunities like that are not now put at risk. Therefore, it is important that housing associations are clearly advised about certainty in their funding opportunities. The Minister briefed the Committee and advised that he reckons that, over the next 30 years, about £6·5 billion will need to be injected into housing if accommodation is to meet the significant demand for both social and affordable housing. However, without the additional leverage that we get from housing associations, that simply will not be possible.
In addition, the existing borrowing of housing associations has now essentially been converted into public borrowing — a move that has wide-ranging implications for the cost and accessibility of borrowing for the Executive. During his briefing with the Committee, the Minister indicated that the Department was alert to the possibility of reclassification and that Ministers were ready for the challenge, which we welcome. When similar ONS rulings were made in regard to England, Scotland and Wales, Ministers had a case to present to the Treasury regarding emergency legislation to restructure housing associations in light of the judgement and to meet the requirements for their governance arrangements and allow them to be revisited in due course.
That allowed a temporary derogation to be offered by the Treasury. I ask the Minister whether such emergency legislation has been developed by his Department and what the time frame for tabling it in the Assembly will be. What, if any, reassurance has he had from Treasury that such legislation that he has proposed, and other proposals that he has developed, will meet its requirements for a temporary derogation? Within what time frame does he expect such a derogation to be secured, and how long does he expect it to last? In respect of seeking a reversal of the ONS decision —
I support the motion in the way that it is coming forward. I think that the Executive have made a sensible decision in asking for a derogation in relation to this matter. The ONS report that was submitted, on the back of what it is bringing forward, will create and would have created a major problem, both financially for the Executive and in the opportunity for further borrowing for capital projects that could be of great benefit. I do think that some of the housing associations are not without blame, because I do not believe that they have necessarily delivered in the past. I do not think that they have always been successful in delivering everything that was supposed to have been done by them. There has been a certain amount of — I will not use the word "culling" — consolidation of housing associations in that a number of them have come together and pooled resources.
I appreciate that we are talking about £1 billion of debt associated with these housing associations. There is a massive asset and they are quite asset rich, so, on the back of that, we have to realise that the days of the Housing Executive as it stands are probably numbered. There is the difficulty of onward maintenance and delivery of that maintenance within the housing stock.
I, too, representing the south Antrim area, know those people who come to my door. Quite a heavy load of the office work —
I am grateful to the Member for giving way. He is, obviously, very selective and wise in who he gives way to.
The Member will have heard from various sources a demand for more information in terms of the detail. The Office for National Statistics has not even published the detail of its ruling yet.
Thank you. I appreciate the Member's intervention and the information that we do not have the detail in that report.
The Housing Executive is having some difficulty. In fact, it is wanting to engage in a transfer of assets to housing associations over the next number of years of properties requiring investment, upgrade and improvement. The Housing Executive says that the mechanism is no longer there for it to be able to fund that through the current process, and, as a consequence, it has no alternative but to allow housing associations to do that.
On the back of that, they do have the model —
If you go back historically, it was long before the DUP took control of those Departments when such a rule existed in relation to the funding mechanism for the Housing Executive and how it has accessed the funding. So, putting that message forward is a ruse. It is totally wrong and that does not tie in with any decision by a DUP Minister.
As it stands, the housing associations do have the mechanism to draw down the money to deliver the social housing in the areas that we need it. I appreciate and welcome the Executive's early intervention — within hours of receiving the ONS report — in dealing with this matter, and not waiting until they could just get a sound bite and try to make themselves seem relevant.
This is one of the areas where in opposition is where you will be, and that is exactly where you should stay.
I welcome the opportunity to speak in this debate. Other Members have pointed out that this motion is retrospectively debating an issue that has already happened and that, when the ONS acted to reclassify housing associations, the Minister for Communities and the Minister of Finance brought a paper to the Executive immediately seeking that derogation.
The point has already been made here as well that the difficulty we have is that there is a shortage in social housing, not just in Belfast or Derry but right across the North. I am currently representing a wide range of applicants, from families to single men, to access a home in my constituency. The big issue is that there are not enough units — enough homes — and there is not enough social housing. The nub of the issue is that the body charged with the provision of housing — the Housing Executive — is no longer in a position to build units. My colleague Fra McCann has covered that. I believe that this is something that we will want to rectify during this mandate. Until this situation is rectified, we will still be playing catch-up.
There are differences of opinion on how many units of social housing we need across the mandate. We have not taken into consideration that there are hundreds of adults living at home with ageing parents because there is not enough supported housing or independent living for them. I am talking about adults who are learning-disabled or have more complex needs, and we do not have adequate housing for them.
As a result, there are ageing parents who are deeply concerned about how their child is going to manage when they are no longer able to look after them. We have to take a proper look at the figures and ensure that those people are dealt with when we are considering the number of housing units needed. While today's debate has been lively enough, there is a fairly high level of consensus around the Chamber. The SDLP amendment is something that we can support, and we will be seeking to do that. I make the point, however, that what is laid out in the amendment is work that is already happening. We are talking about something that has happened, that is happening and that the Minister —
This is an important issue. Housing is at the very heart of what I got involved in politics for. As Fra said, today is World Mental Health Day and World Homeless Day. A proper home and a roof over your head is not a privilege but a human right, and everybody should be able to enjoy that right. We should do more to build more houses, and I will support the Minister in his endeavours to do that. It is essential, however, that we establish new housing units right across the North, as this is not just a Belfast problem.
This is a debate that never needed to take place. When we look at the Opposition Benches today, we can see that the Opposition now agree that it should never have taken place. Of the parties that are co-signatories to the amendment, the Ulster Unionists can manage five Members and the SDLP one. Even they realise that this is a bit of a non-event.
Hold on a moment.
We have heard you parroting off all afternoon. What you want to say must be very important. Well, there is the Speaker up there, so go up and get your name down. For goodness' sake, you are up and down there like a jack-in-the-box. Some of your colleagues will give way. They will be up in a few minutes telling a great story about a non-event.
It is unfortunate that the Opposition on the first occasion that they decide that maybe there is something we can unite on here then unite around nothing. What they are asking to be done is already being done. I found it absolutely amazing that Mrs Long said that the Minister should have been telling us all. I suspect that Mrs Long is not much different from me, in that she walks past the Minister's door maybe a dozen times a day. It would not be hard for her to call in and ask, "Can you tell me about this? I am so anxious about this particular issue".
I thank the Member for giving way. To be clear, it is not that I should personally be told. That is largely irrelevant. It is that the House should be told, as statements were made in the Chamber in Scotland, Wales and England when similar measures were taken.
Thank you, Mr Speaker.
There is no one in the House, particularly among those of us who have served for some years on councils and elsewhere, who is not very aware of the importance of social-sector housing. We are also very aware of the waiting lists that exist, but we are also waiting for some blue-sky thinking from those who seem to have all the answers on how to deal with a chronic waiting list in Northern Ireland. It is not a simple one. There is not one Member in the House — not one going right around — who is not anxious about this particular issue. Those who brought the motion to the House today have not done anything to push the issue forward. Maybe what they are really doing is endorsing what the Executive and the Minister are already doing. If there is something positive to take from it, I suppose that we can take that.
Yes. From statements made by the Minister, I know that much, if not all, of the information, is already available. I know that you would be a good researcher, and you or your staff could research all of that information; or, I suspect that, if you contact the Department, it might be able to assist you and send you all the information that you want. As one who has gone through it, I can tell you that the Department's research department is very effective and will assist you. I do not say that to you belligerently; I hope that my tone comes across.
The Opposition need to realise that, if they stopped setting up straw men and knocking them down, maybe we could get things done in this place. Someone mentioned the amount of time that it takes for legislation to go through. I know, as someone who pioneered private legislation in the past, that it took something in the region of three years from start to finish. I do not underestimate the journey that legislation has to take, but the Opposition could have done a greater service by not pushing a motion such as the one that is before us today. It is a motion on something that the Executive have already applied themselves to and the Minister is already working on. He has pushed it down the road, and he, too, sees it as important. If anything good has come out of today's debate, it is that the decision that the Minister took some time ago has been reinforced. What we are saying to you, Minister, is, "You are doing the right thing. Just get on with it".
It is a rather sad event in a debating chamber when none of the Government Back-Benchers are prepared to give way to allow debate. I am lucky that I had my name down to speak, but I could have interacted and, hopefully, contributed to the discussion and debate had those Members allowed it, but, obviously, they did not feel confident enough in themselves to do so.
I support the motion tabled by my colleagues Andy Allen, Jenny Palmer and Philip Smith, and, indeed, the amendment in the name of my colleagues and the SDLP, which has supported the motion as well. It is important that this area is urgently addressed, and I will highlight why I have a degree of concern because of past inaction. It needs to be in the public domain, and there needs to be pressure on movement in this area because there are concerns from the past.
The decision by the Office for National Statistics to reclassify Northern Ireland's housing associations should not have been a problem. A year ago, when it did so in England, what happened? Earlier this year, the Housing and Planning Act 2016 addressed the issue so that English housing associations could be reclassified again as private bodies. Nobody should be surprised by what has happened. Given that knowledge, I am concerned by the cost that might fall to the Executive or our housing associations as a result of the reclassification. Will there be delays? I have not yet heard when the legislation will come forward, so I hope that the Minister will address that when he gets to his feet later. The Finance Minister has indicated that this will cost an ongoing £100 million a year. Is there a charge this year? On top of that, of course, is the issue that my colleague Andy Allen highlighted, of access to the financial transaction capital, which is also very important for housing associations, particularly for the co-ownership scheme that allows many people who might otherwise be homeless and in need of social housing, to find a home of their own.
We need to address this with a degree of urgency. It was quickly addressed in England, and Scotland's First Minister has already said that a Bill will be introduced. When I listen to the Government Back-Benchers in the Chamber, I am confused: are they all supporting the motion as amended? I picked up a degree of discontent.
The issue is that new legislation will be required. That is very obvious when you see what had to happen in England and what has been planned elsewhere. That has been not coming out very clearly in what has been said to date. To think that you can just ask for derogation is living in cloud cuckoo land. It had to be amended in other parts of the UK and therefore would likely have to be amended here as well.
The other area of concern I had was when I heard Mr McCann speak. His solution was to give the powers back to the Housing Executive. Can the Minister advise, when he gets to his feet, whether that would solve our problem, or would it have additional costs still being incurred where we would not be able to build as many social houses? I would like to see clarity from the Government Benches — the DUP and Sinn Féin Benches — about that. Is that what the plan is? Are we going to simply put the ability to build houses back into the Housing Executive and suffer huge financial costs and be able to build fewer homes? It would be helpful if the Minister would clarify that.
The other area I have a degree of concern about is other aspects of our public sector in Northern Ireland. While researching this issue for the debate, I looked at the FE colleges. There was a similar assessment done in 2010 for FE colleges that is applicable to Northern Ireland as well. In England, they brought the Education Act 2011 to address the issue so that they could remain independent, avoid costs and be included in public-sector expenditure. My understanding is that that is not the case in Northern Ireland. In Northern Ireland, our FE colleges continue to be included, and that limits what they can do. It limits what the Executive can do with their limited borrowing. Bear in mind that that is some five years ago, so I do not want this issue to be still trundling on for five years. As I indicated, very obvious delays happened in the past, and I seek reassurance from the Minister that we will not face similar delays with this issue. When we delay the ability to build new houses, disadvantaged members of our community do not get homes. Families in need do not get a roof over their head. It is vital that there are not undue delays. It is also vital that we do not incur financial penalties as a result of indecision from our Government.
I will pick up from Mr Beggs on further education to say that there is no clamour in the FE sector for a reclassification away from being a non-departmental public body. The situation for FE in Northern Ireland is much healthier than in England where there have been quite significant funding cuts, which have been cut out from a lot of the narrative on investment in skills and education. Consideration was given to a potential public consultation on changing the governance for FE to allow ONS to reclassify it away from NDPBs. In light of our own difficulties with budgets and the fact that the Executive put in place end-year flexibility that allowed surpluses to be transferred from one year to another, there is now consensus that the status quo is the best way forward. So that is not an appropriate line to go down.
I want to make a number of brief comments on this situation. The key issue of debate that has emerged in the Chamber today is on process and how the Opposition are somehow out of order in bringing up something that the Executive, in their infinite wisdom, are on top of. Almost building upon the theme of last week's business, we are again seeing the problems in openness and transparency in what the Executive are doing. It is almost as though we have a privilege in sometimes being told what the Executive are actually up to. We should have open and transparent government where decisions are explained, questions are answered on time and Ministers are proactive in bringing information to the Assembly rather than putting the onus on everyone else to go around and find out.
It is not just a matter of us receiving the information as poor MLAs in the Opposition parties; this is something that actually affects the public of Northern Ireland, who have an interest in hearing what is being said as well. That is the case in particular for the housing associations and our wider policy objectives of being able to make sure the resources available in Northern Ireland can be stretched to their maximum outcome. Obviously, the reclassification potential will severely curtail that in many respects.
A lot of this could have been avoided if the Minister had been proactive in bringing a statement to the Assembly. That, in turn, allows MLAs, on behalf of their constituents, to pose questions to the Minister. I hope that we can avoid this situation in future. It is an important issue that goes to the heart of the resources available to us and what we can do to make a difference.
Thank you. It is not silly in the slightest. It goes to the heart of the debate. There is, as there should be, a duty on Ministers in the ministerial code — they should follow through on it — to be open around decisions. There is clearly precedent in other jurisdictions that, where there are matters of major public interest, a Minister is proactive in bringing information forward and having scrutiny. When I was the Minister, I did it routinely, as did others.
I thank the Member for giving way. There seems to be much kerfuffle in the corner because people dared to amend the motion. Does the Member agree that that is largely to do with timing and when the wording of motions has to be set down, which is much further in advance of what would be expected in any other Chamber in these islands?
In concurring with my colleague, I also recall many instances on which the DUP and Sinn Féin, as the two parties of government, did exactly the same thing with motions that had to be tabled where the circumstances had moved on after the original tabling of the motion. It also shows that —
For better or worse, this is the only opportunity that the Assembly has had to discuss the issues. If we had what should have been the process in the Chamber of a ministerial statement, we could have done this in a much more structured way, akin to what is happening in Cardiff and Edinburgh, which have shown the way forward in that regard. Lest the current Minister thinks that we are picking on him, although this is the current example, it is a trend across the board. He is not the only one who is falling into the situation of not having the proper mechanisms of accountability. We are having the debate today, and we are able to raise the issues of process and the substance.
My final point is that there are issues in other parts of government where the way that ONS works and how we treat parts of the public sector allow or constrain the ability to borrow and raise money. I encourage the Executive to have a wider look across the piece in that regard. In doing so, we may find, particularly in these very straitened economic times, that there are resources available to us without having to raise revenue directly from the hard-pressed householders across Northern Ireland.
When I looked ahead to the debate, I anticipated quite a boring debate. This is a crucial issue that speaks to millions of pounds of public spending and potentially having to rewrite budgets if we do not get the derogation that has been talked about. It is a vital issue but a fairly technical one. It is fairly dull issue on which, as is clear from the fact that the Executive parties are supporting a motion and amendment from the official Opposition, there is consensus. We are having a row about something that we agree on. It speaks to an Executive who are insecure about the idea of an Opposition —
— and debate.
It is not unreasonable that we should seek to speak on something whose impact would be, as I say, over £100 million on our annual block grant.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. The issue has not come to the Assembly Floor except through questions for oral answer, which I have raised, and we ran out of time before one was even discussed. So, to the best of my knowledge, and apologies if others have asked questions, one response and supplementary from the Finance Minister is all that we have had to debate an issue that massively impacts on public spending. Today should be boring, it should be informative, but it has got caught up in heat, and that heat has been generated by an Executive that seem to be playing opposition for opposition's sake.
To get to the issue —
I thank the Member for his question. The point is this: how can we know what the Government are doing if no statement has been made to the House? As Ms Mallon pointed out, there has been one public statement on the issue that lacked detail. This is a very complex issue; we are talking about the deregulation of our housing associations; we are talking about a derogation from Treasury and negotiations for such; and we are talking about an ONS reclassification. As I said, it is all very technical and should be all very boring, but we need detail. That is why the debate is taking place today. I do not think that that is unreasonable. Had there not been a motion, we would have been told that we were not on top of our brief. It is one of the biggest things that is happening in governance in Northern Ireland, and we are not even raising it. So, I think that this is an Executive playing opposition for opposition's sake.
To get to the issue, if we can take it as read — I am yet to be completely assured that we will get our derogation and that we will have a deregulation Bill of housing associations — I would like to know the specifics of that because I think that there is both fear and opportunity in this, and what I look for from the Minister is to allay the fears and to ask him to seize the opportunities. Will he outline in any legislation that may come forward to the House, what impact it may have on strategic planning for house building programmes and how much control we can realistically expect to retain regarding stock levels? Will he also give detail, as we seek a reversal of the decision and a derogation, on the status of public finances and what discussions he has had with the Treasury on that point?
I said that there was opportunity because I think that there is. One of the consequences of the deregulation of housing associations is that they would be brought out of the right-to-buy scheme. That is something that I would welcome, and I would like the Minister's views on that. We have a significantly reduced social housing stock. If we go back to the 70s, we had 155,000 Housing Executive houses; we are now down to 88,000, plus the 40,000 housing association houses. That is not all down to the right to buy, but it has been one aspect of it. Given the figures that have been outlined by others in the debate about stress on our housing waiting lists, that is one thing that should be looked at.
There is further opportunity because, as we look to the governance of our housing associations, we can look again at the governance of the Housing Executive. I am one of those who would like to see an amendment of the rules to allow the Housing Executive to build social homes again —
It is clear from the comments made in the Chamber and from the statistics that we have a housing crisis. Some 43,000 people are on the housing waiting list. That includes our homeless, people with disabilities who need tailored accommodation, people who are being intimidated, people who need to move elsewhere to be closer to family, and people who have been stuck in hostels for years.
The issue of housing waiting lists, in my constituency and across the North, is fundamentally linked to economic class. Working-class people do not have the ability to get an extra few thousand pounds to purchase a house. Some, who have been able to save over the years, are able to get a mortgage, but it is only through strict saving that they are able to do that, and this is not an option for everyone. Public housing should exist as a right for everyone.
As has been mentioned, there are 87,107 housing units managed by the Housing Executive. A number almost double that is managed by housing associations. In the motion and the amendment, there is no mention of the Housing Executive. I think that it is essential that the Housing Executive be mentioned in this debate.
For years, there have been calls to allow the Housing Executive to borrow. It has more than enough assets to borrow, and this is something that needs to be addressed and looked at seriously. The Executive have continually lobbied Westminster for corporation tax to be lowered. I ask whether they have once put pressure on the Treasury to allow the Housing Executive to borrow so that it can build.
The main issue in the motion is that the housing associations should be allowed to borrow and that this ONS reclassification will not allow them to do so. It is our view that housing associations — public bodies — should be allowed to borrow, and the Housing Executive needs to address that. If we could take action to allow the Housing Executive to borrow, we could fund a crash course of housebuilding. We could alleviate problems, get rid of the issue of housing waiting lists and get rid of the housing crisis.