The Business Committee has agreed to allow up to one hour for the debate. The proposer of the motion will have 10 minutes to propose and 10 minutes to make a winding-up speech. One amendment has been selected and published on the Marshalled List. The proposer will have 10 minutes to propose the amendment and five minutes to make a winding-up speech. All other Members will have five minutes.
I beg to move
That this Assembly expresses its concern that, according to the Department for Communities, around 376,000 or 21% of people in Northern Ireland live in relative income poverty before housing costs; notes that, in June 2015, the High Court found that the Executive had breached a legal duty by failing to adopt an identifiable strategy setting out how they proposed to tackle poverty, social exclusion and patterns of deprivation based on objective need; further notes that the Programme for Government consultation document published in October 2016 refers to a new social strategy in relation to these matters; and calls on the Minister for Communities to publish an overarching strategy and long-term plan, including budget allocations, which outlines specific targets and timelines to reduce poverty and deprivation and tackle social exclusion and ensures the application of resources based on neutral criteria that measure deprivation irrespective of community background or other affiliation.
It is with sadness that I propose the motion, which has, as its genesis, the unacceptable and shameful fact that one in five people living here are living in poverty; that over 125,000 of our pensioners live on low incomes, with over 18,000 of them forced to spend their senior and final years living in severe poverty; and that according to the Department for Communities' own statistics, more than a quarter of our children — that means a staggering 122,000 — are living in relative poverty after housing costs.
It means that one fifth of our population, at every stage in their lives, are living in poverty. Babies are being born into a life of poverty, and the only exit from poverty is at the point of death. I am only too familiar with that injustice in North Belfast, where many people come to my constituency office and share with me their struggles to make ends meet. They are forced to rely on the generosities of charities and food banks. Many of them are living with their children in hostels for indefinite periods, and so many, many more are living in substandard accommodation, literally choosing between heating their homes and eating. All of this is having a devastating impact on their physical and mental health, because a life in poverty is one that cripples your educational and employment opportunities and it literally steals years from your life.
The facts speak for themselves. If you live in one of the most deprived areas in Northern Ireland, you are more likely to experience the horror of infant mortality, as infant mortality rates are 16% higher in the most deprived areas than in the least. Suicide rates are three times higher, self-harm admission rates are four times higher and twice as many people experience mental ill health in our most deprived areas than in the least deprived areas. For men and women, if you live in one of our most deprived areas, you face fewer years of good health and a shorter life expectancy.
If this reality does not shock us all into action, what will? Certainly, the new Programme for Government; the Children's Services Co-operation Act, for which Mr Steven Agnew deserves great credit; the draft children and young people's strategy; and the requirement for an anti-poverty strategy, albeit following the essential legal challenge last year, provide a new impetus for a concerted Executive action on poverty, and child poverty in particular, which remains consistently high and consistently higher than poverty rates for working-age adults and pensioners. However, these cannot be parallel processes. If we are to seriously tackle poverty, there must be a coordinated and interconnected approach within an overarching strategy.
The first and most fundamental requirement to achieve this outcome is for the overarching anti-poverty strategy to include a proper and agreed definition of poverty that is consistent with international standards on socio-economic rights and reflects material deprivation and an income that falls below an adequate standard of living.
This definition, and, as a direct result, the long-term plan and allocation of resources, must, as the motion points out, be tied to neutral criteria that measure deprivation irrespective of community background or other affiliation. This definition exists. It is exactly the definition provided by Mr Justice Treacy in his ruling last year, when the Committee on the Administration of Justice, the human rights NGO, with the support of the Public Interest Litigation Support service, had to bring a judicial review to force the Northern Ireland Executive to adopt an anti-poverty strategy. Given the importance of his ruling, I hope you will indulge me if I read out just a part:
"The concept of 'objective need' is obviously central to the statutory provision, the intention of which is to remove or reduce the scope for discrimination by tying the allocation of resources to neutral criteria that measure deprivation irrespective of community background or other affiliation."
However, you would be forgiven for thinking that this had never happened, because the Programme for Government, and the amendment tabled by the DUP, delete and dismiss this definition and legal ruling. Perhaps the DUP will share with us its rationale for that deletion. A question for Sinn Féin today is whether it continues to support the DUP in this deletion and dismissive approach.
The truth is that you cannot address poverty without clear targets. It is because of the deletion of Mr Justice Treacy's ruling and the lack of detail in targets, timelines and budgets that the SDLP cannot support the DUP amendment. We need targets. If we are to get serious about tackling poverty, we must have targets. This is not just my view; it is the evidenced truth to which all research and experience point.
We are continually asked by the DUP and Sinn Féin, "So, what would you do?". Let me take the rest of my time to delineate some of the critical interventions we believe are required if we are to prevent another generation from being consigned to poverty.
You cannot and you will not lift individual families out of poverty without an enhancement of household income. It is as simple as that. Yet the reality faced by our poorest and most vulnerable is one of cuts to their income when they are already struggling to make ends meet. This is thanks to an Executive that have handed their fate to a Tory Government who, rather than seeing the human impact, see nothing but austerity.
We need to have benefit levels set to a minimum standard sufficient to meet the income needs of families. We need to ensure that when decisions are taken on benefit sanctions, it is very clear that we measure the impact that they will have on the children in those families. That does not happen at the moment.
Other targets that should be included in a robust, overarching anti-poverty strategy include strengthening employment rights, given that 45% of those living in poverty are in work. It must contain plans to keep people in work and help those who are out of work, including our disabled, to find work. Social clauses in procurement have an important role to play. The provision of high-quality, affordable childcare is critical because of not only the evident benefits to the child but the employment and financial benefits that it brings to their parents and, through an increased tax base, to the wider economy. Yet, we still await the childcare strategy. In the meantime, excellent childcare facilities like that provided by the women's centre childcare fund, which also helps to empower mothers in areas of high deprivation, are facing the very real prospect of having to close their doors and turn away those mothers in need.
If we are to successfully tackle child poverty, we need to have coordinated early intervention support to families in crisis, including those affected by bereavement, family breakdown, illness and substance misuse. We need integrated early years support to help ensure that children living in poverty can reach their developmental goals before they start school. We need to reduce the costs of education. We need to reduce educational inequalities so that children in poverty achieve as well as their peers and have an equal chance of a future without poverty. We need to address homelessness for families with children by providing additional resources for housing.
The SDLP and the Ulster Unionists met today with the anti-poverty sector, and I want to thank all those organisations — there were many — that came to meet us to discuss what needs to happen if we are to seriously tackle poverty. It is fitting if I end with a comment that very much found consensus in the room. It was very simple but striking:
"It is not rocket science. All the research is there. It is about implementing what has been demonstrated to work."
I beg to move the following amendment:
Leave out all after "Assembly" and insert "notes the latest edition of the 'Northern Ireland Poverty Bulletin' detailing the levels of poverty across Northern Ireland; further notes that section 28E of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 was the subject of a judicial review in June 2015; and welcomes the Executive’s commitment, as outlined in the recent Programme for Government consultation document, to publish a new social strategy that aims to improve the lives of those in poverty through a range of specific interventions that will tackle poverty, social exclusion and deprivation on the basis of the objective need."
I would like to start with a quote from Seth Godin, an American entrepreneur. He said:
"Poverty is an iron ceiling, a ceiling four feet off the ground, a ceiling that forces those who live with poverty to spend their days hunched over, on the edge of fear and humiliation".
That is absolutely right. It is right that we, as elected representatives, understand and appreciate the moral as well as the political imperative that is placed upon us, as the public's representatives, to do all in our power to tackle poverty and need in our society.
I want to respond to one point that was made by my friend Nichola Mallon from North Belfast. I do not put my faith in any Tory Government to look after the people of Northern Ireland. I put my faith in these institutions and in all of us, as elected representatives of the people of Northern Ireland, to do the very best for the people who sent us here. I say to the SDLP and the Ulster Unionists that it is a shame that they lacked the faith in themselves to put their hand to the wheel, join us in government and make a contribution in government to tackling the problems that she mentioned in her speech.
The Programme for Government (PFG) is operating in a new way from previous Programmes for Government. The draft framework was published and that gave people an opportunity to have their say on what they think should be in the final PFG. The final PFG has been put out for consultation and that is reflective, I believe, of the different approach — the outcomes-based approach — that we have considered in the House. I think that people welcome that approach and welcome not only the fact that the Government have focused on outcomes, which are vital when dealing with issues around poverty, but that there has been an increased opportunity for people throughout the country to have their say on what they would like to see in the Programme for Government.
In 2014-15, the average weekly household income increased by 3% from the previous year to £420 per week or £21,900 per year. The percentage of people in Northern Ireland in absolute poverty decreased by 1% in the previous year. There has been a decrease in the percentage of persons of pensioner age in relative poverty in 2014-15 from the height of 30% in 2008-09.
Those are positive developments that, I think, everyone around the House would welcome as such. We must never be complacent, however, and should recognise the scale of the problem we face. Some 20% of individuals in Northern Ireland live in absolute poverty before housing costs. That includes 23% of children, 18% of pensioners and 19% of the working population.
I have been a public representative since 2005. I do not underestimate for one second the scale of the problem. I know, for example, as a representative of South Belfast — other representatives of South Belfast can attest to this — that, in our constituency, there are islands of deprivation surrounded by seas of plenty. They can sometimes be missed. Taughmonagh, for example, is included in the Upper Malone ward when it comes to the Noble indices of multiple deprivation. There are real problems in all our communities, and I believe that everyone in the House, whether in government or in opposition, is determined to tackle them.
It is important that the figures are accurate. It is not appropriate to compare Northern Ireland poverty figures with those for the rest of the UK on a before-housing-cost basis, due to the different ways in which water charges are collected in Northern Ireland. The Members who tabled the motion understand that, and I hope that they will reflect on it.
Fuel poverty is an enormous problem: 42% of households live in fuel poverty. That is one of the areas that I would like the Government to focus on when the PFG is published. It cannot be right in this day and age that pensioners who have worked all their life, paid their National Insurance and made a contribution to society should be forced into a position in which they have to choose between eating or heating their home. That is wrong in an advanced industrialised society such as the United Kingdom.
The previous contributor mentioned the need for a multifaceted approach to tackling poverty, and I absolutely agree. That is why it is important that, going forward, the Government continue to have a strong focus on job creation. Job creation is one prong in the battle to defeat poverty. The 'Households Below Average Income' report showed that the risk of working-age adults being in relative poverty is starkly higher for those not in work. Those not in work have a 59% chance as against a 13% chance of falling into poverty. Obviously, one of the focuses going forward has to be on job creation and transforming the Northern Ireland economy into an outward-looking economy that can attract jobs and investment for all our people to enjoy and benefit from, regardless of their background, as the motion states.
It is important to note that, between 2013 and 2015, the Government have enabled over 9,000 people to avail themselves of £30 million of benefits that otherwise would not have gone to them through the benefit uptake team that the Government operate. That is important. Members from all parties will have constituents who come to them unaware of the benefits that they are entitled to. Not only does that money help the families who are entitled to it but it helps the economy because they spend the money in local shops and boost it in that way. It is right that government helps people to access money to which they are entitled.
Nobody in the House is content that any of our citizens, least of all the children or pensioners of Northern Ireland, should be left in poverty. I came into politics to make life better for people; I believe that that is the case for all Members around here. I believe that we are all motivated by a desire to do good for our constituents, make their lives better and improve their standing. It is for that reason and that reason alone that I am content to move the amendment.
I suppose I am not really surprised at the tone in which the debate was opened. I do not think there is anybody in the Assembly who does not have concerns about poverty and deprivation. I want to say that, but, while we are involved in politics in this institution all day long, I think there is an element of playing politics with this issue. I also think the motion falls short, to be quite frank. It falls short on the figures, because it is all done on the measurement before housing costs. I listened to Nichola Mallon, and I am sure other speakers from the SDLP will say the same; I do not know what the Ulster Unionists will say. It is as though those parties were never in the Executive and poverty has just been occurring since May 2016. I do not believe in taking the approach of looking at before housing costs. It effectively misses out on some 9,000 people who live in poverty and income poverty. That is worthy of consideration. If we are really about tackling poverty and deprivation, you can find those 9,000 among the people who are behind the statistics; they are the people I and others have referred to as the top 10% of the most deprived.
I found one thing regrettable about the opening of the debate. Sinn Féin did not hitch its wagon to any Tories; it never has and never will. I want to make that completely clear. Christopher did that for his party, as is his prerogative, and I will do it for ours. We were collectively adamant about ensuring that the mitigation packages that were brought in as part of Tory welfare reform were about trying to offset the worst impacts of poverty on people, but we will not talk about that, sure. We will also not talk about the impact of partition; we will not talk about that either.
One thing I think we can all agree on is that the notion of people's experience of poverty is particularly acute when you look at access to employment, childcare, benefits and facilities. The premise on which the motion was moved was the Executive fulfilling their duty — section 28E, I think it is referred to — to bring forward an anti-poverty strategy. Everyone knows our position on this; it has been very clear. We support the fact that there should be and will be an anti-poverty strategy in the social strategy.
Christopher moved the DUP amendment. I would like to see it talk about patterns of deprivation as well. Perhaps the Minister in his summing up could refer to that. It is very clear that, as part of the consultation we are in now, particularly on the Programme for Government, a social strategy and what an anti-poverty strategy looks like need to be addressed. We also have to recognise there are some levers that impact on poverty and deprivation that are not within the remit of the Executive. For example, it is shown that one of the greatest impacts on poverty in particular — I am sure many of us have spoken on this previously and will today and for ever more — especially on the working poor, is tax and how benefit policies impact here. You have only to look at the report from the Institute for Fiscal Studies entitled 'Child and Working-Age Poverty in Northern Ireland from 2010 to 2020', which sets out the rising levels of poverty here. That is directly correlated to the British Government's approach to tax and benefits policies.
The Executive have already stated that they will bring forward a social strategy. That will be in line with their legal responsibilities as a result of the outcome of the judicial review. Like many others, I will look forward to not just the Department for Communities but all Departments ensuring that their resources are targeted on objective need.
We on the official Opposition Benches take no pleasure in bringing this motion before the House. The facts are incredible: 376,000 people in Northern Ireland, which is a staggering 21% of us, live in relative poverty. That figure is larger than any settlement in Northern Ireland bar Belfast; it is nearly five Bangors, around seven Omaghs and more than triple Lisburn.
The two parties in the Executive have been lead parties of government for almost 10 years. They may try to pass the buck, as we have already heard from the two Members who spoke previously. They can and do try to blame others for their failings. They will blame the Ulster Unionists and the SDLP. They will blame the Conservative Government at Westminster. They will blame the Dublin Government for poaching our jobs and investment. One day they will blame the EU for interfering, and the next day they will blame the impact of uncertainty over Brexit. The only thing that they do not accept is any responsibility themselves. The DUP and Sinn Féin are in government as a partnership; they are two sides of the same coin. They need to learn the lesson that with power comes responsibility. They have had the power for nine years; it is surely time that they took some responsibility. Sooner or later, the realisation will dawn on them that there really is nobody else to blame.
What have they delivered in the decade in which they have been in charge? Look at the most deprived areas of Northern Ireland. Time and time again, the same names appear. For how long will we tolerate those names standing on the most-deprived lists? Even the High Court ruled that they had breached a legal duty by failing to adopt an identifiable strategy setting out how they proposed to tackle poverty, social exclusion and patterns of deprivation based on objective need. We need an integrated strategy to protect the vulnerable; one that looks at welfare, education, housing, health, justice, training and employment, plus the arts, leisure and culture. We must put people at the heart of the intervention strategy. I believe that we could learn some lessons from the Dutch model, which targets government spending at those most in need and seeks to move them out of poverty. We need to end the current reality in which families find themselves in a revolving door of poverty.
The most vulnerable need a voice in this debate. There has to be a genuine will to achieve real change. Instead, the supposed flagship is the social investment fund. It was to be the silver bullet; their big idea to tackle poverty and deprivation. As the last few days have shown, it has fallen far short of those aims. In terms of governance —
No, I will not. I am busy.
First, they could not give £80 million away. Then, when they managed to spend some of it, it turned out that they were handing millions of pounds of public money to people who have attracted almost daily negative publicity. There has clearly been a major failing over the lack of transparency and openness in terms of which groups could apply for funding. Some groups and organisations that have the skills and capacity to deliver were excluded. There has also been a major failing in terms of how costs such as management fees were paid out.
In my constituency — I know that the Minister is waiting for this — the Resurgam Trust is living proof that the strategic investment fund can do great work. From my own experience, I cannot speak highly enough of the work that it has done. Sadly, however — this is key — Resurgam appears to be the silver lining in a very grey cloud.
In closing, the Executive need to get serious about eliminating poverty, and the first step is taking ownership of the problem. We need a strategy and a long-term plan. It has to be detailed and effective to reduce poverty and deprivation and tackle social exclusion, and, most of all, it has to deliver.
I welcome the opportunity to speak on today's motion, which is calling for action and clarity from the Minister on what he intends to do to tackle poverty and deprivation in Northern Ireland. From the outset, I want to make it clear that we will be opposing the amendment, as it is simply a case of the Minister's colleagues trying to take the approach of the ostrich and burying their head in the sand and pretending that these issues will be dealt with by the Executive's current approach.
The data and figures reveal that there is a significant number of people in Northern Ireland living in vulnerability. Moreover, history does not particularly inspire faith that this issue is going to be alleviated any time soon. I wish that it were possible that we could simply agree on a motion, between all of the parties, in order to actually tackle the issue rather than engage in this kind of fractious debate.
The figures that we have in front of us reveal around 376,000 individuals, that is 21% of our population, living in relative income poverty before housing costs. That is an increase of 1% on last year's figures, or an increase of nearly 20,000 people living in relative income poverty since last year. We need to take that seriously and there has been some debate, and rightly so, in the Chamber already about how poverty should be measured and which measures should be applied. There is, of course, a range of measures that can be taken on poverty. However, the more important debate tonight is about what we are going to do to tackle poverty. That is where the crux of the matter lies.
The Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency (NISRA) highlighted, in its June 2016 'Northern Ireland Poverty Bulletin', that during the period of 2014-15, a quarter of children were living in poverty. That should cause us significant concern. Whilst I agree with the Member for South Belfast about poverty amongst older people, we should not neglect the fact that poverty, particularly amongst children, has a long-term impact as well as an immediate one. That poverty will impact on their current health, well-being and educational attainment in the present. However, it has been shown repeatedly that it will also have long-term effects on life expectancy and employment opportunities. Therefore, it is hugely important that we tackle the issue of child poverty in particular.
Section 28E of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 places a statutory duty on the Executive to adopt a strategy to tackle poverty, social exclusion and patterns of deprivation. This was then reiterated at St Andrews and, since that time, year after year, we have been told that the Programme for Government, reports, programmes and so on will actually tackle the issue.
To be clear, for those Members who have raised the issue of this year's Programme for Government process, we have not criticised the process that has been adopted by the Executive, on this occasion, in going for outcomes-based measures. We have been supportive of the process. However, we are free to criticise the programme, the content of that programme and, indeed, the lack of content of that programme. The change process does not justify why we would not continue to do what it calls for in the motion, which is to develop a strategy.
As noted in the amendment, the Executive was indeed subject to a judicial review in 2015. However, it should be noted what the court actually said. It noted that we had used the basic template of the 2008 'Lifetime Opportunities' report as proof that it had a strategy to tackle poverty and deprivation. Mr Justice Treacy quite rightly ruled that the Executive was attempting to present an unfinalised and inchoate strategy to tackle a vital and important issue. I think that that needs to come to an end, and it needs to come to an end extremely quickly. As a result of inaction, we are where we are today, where 25% of children, 35% of single mothers and 21% of working-age adults now live in relative income poverty.
Welfare reform changes — some will dismiss the impact of the UK Government, but it should be recognised — have a significant impact on the Executive's ability to tackle poverty. So we need, all the more, an urgent and robust strategy in place to actually assist those who are most vulnerable and economically marginalised and to deal with social exclusion and deprivation. I want to see an action plan, a proper strategy, backed up by detailed targets, goals and budgetary allocations. I am sure that there is no one in the Chamber who would not wish to play a constructive role, working with the Executive and not against it, to deliver a fair and more prosperous society for everyone.
I believe that the application of resources based on neutral criteria is the right way to go and does not prevent us tackling pockets of deprivation. I endorse the motion and call on the Minister to bring forward his strategy as a matter of urgency so that we can assist him with his work.
I will just have to speak very quickly. I am absolutely and genuinely passionate about helping people break free from poverty. It is something that I have had a genuine interest in for some considerable years, but not just as an issue. I have worked at it and tried to bring about a change in the way in which government does policy in order to bring about the positive changes that we want to see.
The issue is this: why do we want to tackle poverty? We want to tackle poverty because it has bad outcomes for people in health and education and has negative impacts on the happiness and healthiness of their lifespan. I have only three minutes, so I will touch very briefly on a number of points raised in the debate. First, I want to speak briefly about the court case that was taken by CAJ. In my view, the challenge to the then OFMDFM at the time under section 28E of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 was based on CAJ's misunderstanding of the concept of objective need. It is very important for us to consider that.
In fact, CAJ had a concern that Delivering Social Change funds widened the criteria from simply 10% on spatial deprivation. I had been very critical of the approach of using spatial deprivation as the only criterion for determining objective need, and I want to turn very briefly to that point. There is an obligation on government to distribute funds and services on the basis of need. We all accept that. Of course, that need should be objective. However, there has traditionally been an ignorance or misunderstanding of what it means.
Government distributes services in a number of ways. Universal services are targeted at families and at family and individual needs and on the basis of spatial deprivation, based on NISRA's multiple deprivation spatial indexes. The exact methodology deployed depends on what the objective or outcome is. It is right that the health service target the urgency of the need of the individual: that is objective need. It is right that all children who have an educational need get education universally free at the point of delivery: that is educational need and it is objective need. It is right that those in poverty and unemployment get access to the same benefits in the same circumstances right across Northern Ireland: that is objective need. It is the objective need of the individual.
What it is not is arbitrarily drawing a line under those areas in the top 10% for spatial poverty evidenced by the multiple deprivation areas and excluding all those above the line. A postcode lottery criterion does not work, save in circumstances in which spatial poverty is proven to compound the negative outcomes or in which a necessary cluster of initiative clientele requires geographical targeting.
I thank those Members who brought forward the motion for giving us an opportunity to engage in debate on what is a very important issue. It is fair to say that we all share the same objectives when it comes to tackling poverty and wanting to help people who need that help. Where we maybe differ is on the means and process by which we want to take that forward.
I take Mrs Long's point about wishing to have a motion on which everyone in the Assembly can unite. Maybe that is something that the Opposition can consider if they wish to engage, certainly with me, on motions that they want to bring forward. I am happy to engage with them, and if we are able to find agreed positions, we can have agreed motions on important issues such as this. That is something that I will actively consider.
The point is well made about the ability to have a fuller debate about this issue at the end of Opposition day business. It is an offer that I will make to the Opposition parties, because we can agree on how we tackle a lot of these issues. However, the Opposition may not want to go that far in engaging with Ministers and Departments to try to get motions that avoid some of the party politics that inevitably goes on. I understand that, as we try to get one over on each other, but, when it comes to an issue like this, it may be better to find some common ground.
I move to the substance of the debate, and if I leave out some particulars that Members highlighted I will visit Hansard and come back with more detail. The amendment is more worthy of the Assembly's support than the motion. I appeal to the Opposition parties to endorse the amendment so that we can have universal agreement in the House on the issue.
The most recent poverty figures available are for 2014-15 and were published in the 'Northern Ireland Poverty Bulletin'. They showed that 395,100 people in Northern Ireland are living in relative poverty before housing costs; that is 22% of the population. The motion under-represents the scale of the challenge that we have to deal with. It is worth noting that, over the last decade and despite significant investment, the overall number of those in poverty remains the same. For example, the proportion of the population in relative poverty today is exactly the same as when Alex Attwood was the Social Development Minister in 2010.
That is why the approach that we are taking in the Executive's Programme for Government can make a difference. This is where I part company with Naomi Long, as she indicated that the Executive were continuing to do things as they had been done before. However, that is not the case: we are moving to an outcomes-based approach.
We either continue to do the same things in the same way and get the same outcome, or we change the way in which the Government do business; that is why the Programme for Government is being taken forward in a different way. Whilst I recognise that there has been criticism, we need to look at the way in which we addressed things in the past and ask ourselves why the difference that I believe we all want to make has not been made. Hence the change.
It is designed to help to deliver improved well-being for all our citizens. However, Members will be aware that we have moved away from the approach used in the past that used a range of actions and targets that we simply ticked as we went along. That approach failed to reduce the numbers in poverty up until now, so, clearly, we need to do something different.
Part of the different approach will involve the publication of our first ever social strategy. That will, in effect, become the Executive’s strategy for promoting opportunity for everyone and tackling poverty and social exclusion. I plan to bring it to the Executive in the coming weeks. I suspect that it will address many of the issues that Members raised here today, and, I believe, it will go further.
For example, it will identify those in poverty and outline specific interventions to support them. It will also identify those at greatest risk of social exclusion, and again, through specific interventions, look to further support them. Of course, we will do that based on objective need because I am well aware of the outcome of the judicial review last year. Members can be assured that I will address the issues that arose from that judgement.
I have been encouraged —
I thank the Minister for giving way. In the context of his comments, it is also looking at the patterns of deprivation outlined in the judicial review of last year. As the Minister said, as part of the consultation on the Programme for Government we will use debates like these and other opportunities for Members to come forward with alternatives that have not been expressed thus far.
If I can address this point, I will be happy to give way. We will go out for consultation, and that will give Members and the Committee an opportunity to drill down into more detail that will be available to address this. The Member said that poverty, social exclusion and the patterns of deprivation are all inextricably linked, and many of the actions will have a cross-cutting effect that will be in the social strategy. We recognise that some individuals and groups have different needs and face different challenges. To base the strategy on objective need, we will need to focus action where it is most needed.
Let me make some progress, and, if I have time, I will certainly give way to the Member.
I am encouraged by the recent work that the Joseph Rowntree Foundation has carried out. It suggests that our new approach to addressing poverty cannot be income-related alone. A broader definition must consider the whole person and not just what is or is not in their pocket. The Programme for Government is based on a similar whole-of-government approach that looks at multiple aspects of people's lives, reaching simply beyond income measures. Whilst we will be clear about how we measure poverty, we need to recognise, in seeking to address it, that there cannot be a one-size-fits-all approach. We also need to be realistic about what we can do as a devolved Administration. There is no silver bullet for the issue, and our opportunity to intervene in many cases will be limited. However, we as an Executive have already shown that we can and will intervene, when required, to protect those in greatest need, and our welfare reform mitigation schemes are just one example of the difference that we can make.
I turn to Member's contributions, and I will give way to Mr Attwood in a moment. Mr Stalford raised an issue about fuel poverty. Again, the affordable warmth scheme targets households most at risk of fuel poverty. It provides a range of heating and insulation measures that improve energy efficiency in households that have an annual gross income of less than £20,000. The new targeted scheme replaced the warm homes scheme from April 2015.
Jenny Palmer, my colleague from Lagan Valley, highlighted a number of the issues around that. Let me say that I welcome her comments. I know that she was at the Resurgam Trust annual general meeting last week, as was Trevor Lunn from Alliance and the Alliance councillors. Unsurprisingly, given the good work that Resurgam carries out, all of them — I think Trevor Lunn had to leave early — were more than willing to get photographed with the individuals involved with the Resurgam Trust. So it is something of note that the Ulster Unionist Party, through Jenny Palmer, is now making it clear that the social investment fund does good work, that that is recognised and that there are excellent examples of that. I hope that she will be able to prevail in her party in respect of the way in which she has spoken about what is excellent work. We will see a new facility being opened in the Old Warren that has been funded solely from the social investment fund. I give way to Mr Attwood.
There is one issue that I struggle with. Given that you seem to accept objective need and Justice Treacy's ruling in July last year, why have you and the DUP — this question is also to Sinn Féin — not accepted what the judge explicitly said? He said:
"the concept of 'objective need'" in statutory provision is to remove or
"reduce ... the scope for discrimination ... by tying the application of resources to neutral criteria that measure deprivation irrespective of community background or other affiliation."
Why not say today that that will be part of the social strategy? Say it: yes or no.
I support the amendment. This is a very important topic, and I must speak in favourable terms on the actions of the Executive as demonstrated in the recent Programme for Government. It is worth pointing out that the signatories to the motion were members of the last Executive, so it is important to point out that the figures quoted in the motion relate to the time when their parties were in the Executive. Nevertheless, this is a very important issue that needs to be tackled, and I am confident that the Minister is committed to doing so.
The scale of poverty in Northern Ireland is much the same as it has been for in excess of 10 years. It is worth pointing it out that Northern Ireland is no worse off than England, where the majority of our nation's population live. Wales comes out the worst, and Scotland does better than the rest.
I appreciate the Member giving way. We have had a reasonable debate for a reasonable length of time. Does the Member agree with me that it is totally disappointing and wrong that the Chairman of the Committee, the co-leader of the Opposition, could not find it within himself to be present for a debate on poverty?
Thank you, Mr Speaker. I thank my colleague for raising that point. I was thinking the very same thing while we were debating the subject.
In my constituency of East Londonderry, as of August 2013, 23% of children were deemed to be living in low-income families. East Londonderry ranked fifth highest of the 18 Northern Ireland constituencies. This is, therefore, an issue that I am keen to see tackled, as I believe that no child should be left behind.
Poverty is primarily based on income levels, which are dependent on the availability of jobs, coupled with the level of skills and qualifications held by the local population, age and how healthy our population is — for example, having a disability can obviously impact on someone's ability to work and their life chances. Unfortunately, we have something of a postcode lottery, as income can depend on where you live and the number as well as the type of jobs that are available locally. East Londonderry has been hit by job losses, as has everywhere in Northern Ireland during the economic downturn. That, of course, has an impact on the standard and cost of living, especially as the price of essential goods is rising.
One way to help to reduce poverty is promoting benefit uptake, and I am pleased that, between 2013 and 2015, benefit uptake has increased due to the work of the Department, with an additional £30 million generated for 9,000 people. I encourage everyone to check their entitlement to benefits.
The Executive placed tackling poverty and social exclusion at the top of their agenda. Both are mentioned throughout the Programme for Government, and, perhaps, those on the Opposition Benches should look at it for themselves.
We have heard some conversation around the Chamber about the court case. Does the Member agree with me that the court case recognised the "plethora" — I think that that is a direct quote — of anti-poverty initiatives and actions taken by the Executive in the last mandate under the last Programme for Government to tackle poverty, not just income poverty but educational, health and other associated poverty? The court case recognised that, and the case was lost simply on the dictionary definition of strategy, not on the basis of the definition of objective need. It recognised the valuable work that the Executive had already carried out.
I certainly agree with my colleague. She is far more qualified to speak on behalf of the judiciary than I am.
The key means of tackling the issue is job creation. That is why our Executive have been active in promoting Northern Ireland abroad as a place to do business. However, the issue of ensuring fairness and equality in the distribution of the new jobs has been identified by the Executive.
I look forward to the publication of the first ever social strategy for Northern Ireland in the coming weeks. It will clearly set out how the Executive will tackle the issues that impact on poverty. It is worth pointing it out that a special edition of the 'Oxford Review of Economic Policy' published in 2013 looked at the record of new Labour in tackling poverty. It concluded that, while it put additional resources into tackling the issue, how you spend money is more important than how much you spend. Governments need an effective means of establishing what works and the patience to see whether policies bear fruit in the long run. I believe that the new social strategy will do that. I support the motion and the amendment.
We have discussed poverty, but, as some Members have mentioned, you cannot do that in isolation without talking about the creation of jobs and good jobs — well-paid jobs — at that. We should be talking not just about poverty but about productivity and, indeed, prosperity. I think that the problem for the Government with prosperity is defined in their Budget document, which refers to the prosperity gap between Northern Ireland and Great Britain as measured by gross value added. The document makes it clear that our GVA per head has:
"remained consistently at around 75 to 80 per cent of the UK average".
In other words, if one of our citizens has 75p to 80p in their pocket, a citizen in GB has the full pound. Indeed, the gap closed to its narrowest in 2007, the very year that the DUP and Sinn Féin took over the heart of our Executive Government.
As your friend the Minister of Education made clear earlier, we have heard enough from you. I welcome the earlier intervention from the Member from South Belfast. It was that bizarre mix of Sinn Féin Ourselves Alone and the Dee Stittesque, "I do not trust Her Majesty's Government".
Nichola Mallon made clear the rather shocking statistics with regard to poverty, not least suicides and mental health in her constituency. I know that the parties of the Government like to say to the parties of the Opposition, "What are your ideas?". On mental health, I have been shouting loud and long that we need to do more. Last week, I was in London, and I took the opportunity to take the issue to the Prime Minister, Mrs May, who, heretofore, was unaware that, per capita, we may have the worst rates of poor mental health and well-being in the world. One of the significant reasons why our rates are so bad is that it is a legacy issue of our Troubles. Her Majesty's Government have set a precedent in the Stormont House Agreement of providing funding for legacy issues, with £150 million for truth, acknowledgement and justice. So, the precedent is set. It is not covered by the block grant, there are no Barnett consequentials, and I have asked Mrs May to consider intervening to help with mental health, which impacts on poverty.
Ms Mallon gave us the stats, and I notice that the DUP amendment tries to airbrush statistics out of the equation. It would rather note the latest edition of the poverty bulletin than express concern, as we do, that 376,000 people, or 21% of our population, live in relative income poverty before housing costs.
I know that the Minister says that we will do things differently in this mandate, particularly in terms of outcome-based accountability. We have had two documents, and the second one is currently out to consultation, but we must end eventually at the point where there are delivery plans, and they must take on the shape of strategies, otherwise, I believe, the Government will end up back in the High Court.
Justice Treacy was very clear about defining a strategy. He quoted the 'Oxford English Dictionary', stating:
"The Oxford English Dictionary defines a 'strategy' as a 'plan of action designed to achieve a long term or overall aim'."
He said that it has:
"to guide, to set a course. It must therefore be implicit in the idea of a strategy that that strategy must be identifiable, it must be complete, it must have a start, a middle and an end, it must aim to be effective, its effectiveness must be capable of measurement and the actions which are taken in attempting to implement that strategy must be referable back to that overarching strategy."
In other words, stakeholders must be able to lift the strategy and measure the effectiveness of the delivery of government with regard to these issues.
I understand that the Minister and the Executive will publish a social strategy. I believe that it will come towards the end of this calendar year or early in the next, but I also notice that NISRA, only today, opened a consultation on multiple deprivation measures. It wanted to know if we should stick with the seven that we have, namely income; employment; health and disability; education, skills and training; access to services; living environment; and crime and disorder.
I would be very happy to give way to the Minister if he could explain to me whether the publication of the social strategy will await the conclusion of the report on the consultation by NISRA, because the consultation is open until 15 January. So, will we get the results of that before you publish your strategy, or will we have disjointed government where we will publish a social strategy when the measurements that NISRA will apply may well change? Would the Minister care to address that issue?
Obviously, we are at an advanced stage in respect of the social strategy, but the social strategy will go out for consultation. Therefore, if further information becomes available, that will feed into it. The Member seems to be labouring on a range of points to do with recognising need and poverty. I know that that need exists. I do not need to go and stay in someone's Housing Executive house to get a grasp of the needs that there are in our community.
I am grateful to the Minister. I am not entirely clear when we will get the publication of the social strategy, but we shall await the outcome of the consultation on both the social strategy and the NISRA research.
I note, by the way, that the Minister says that we should work together and his door is always open. The last time that I asked for a five-minute meeting with the Minister, he was too busy to see me, and it was an issue to do with tackling deprivation in an area of multiple deprivation in Belfast, but so be it.
On the social investment fund, I wish that some members of the Government and the Government parties would realise that life is not binary; it is not black and white. You do not have to be entirely pro the social investment fund or entirely against the social investment fund. What you can be is totally against poverty in our country. Jenny Palmer summed it up very well by taking those raw statistics and telling us that it is the equivalent of five Bangors, seven Omaghs or three Lisburns.
I fear that the result will be the result. I fear that, when we table motions, Executive parties simply wish to attack the Opposition for attacking the Opposition's sake. Mr McCartney seems to regret that we have only an hour for the debate, but I say to Mr McCartney that the time allocated for Opposition days is set by the Business Committee, on which you and the DUP have the majority of votes. We would very happily have a five-hour, a five-and-a-half-hour or a six-hour Opposition day. We had three debates today, and this happens to be the last. We were outvoted — you have the democratic mandate to do so — but I suggest that, having won the vote at the Business Committee, it is a bit rich to come back and criticise us for not having enough time. We are using all the time that is available to us.
In conclusion, we will not support the amendment, which tries to airbrush some important issues, not just the statistics but the definitions brought forward by Justice Treacy in his High Court ruling in June last year. I know that the Minister wants everybody to coalesce around a single vote. I encourage him and the Government parties to coalesce around the motion. I think that that is a reasonable request.
Question put, That the amendment be made. The Assembly divided:
Mr Anderson, Ms Archibald, Mr Boylan, Ms Boyle, Mr M Bradley, Ms P Bradley, Mr K Buchanan, Mr T Buchanan, Ms Bunting, Mrs Cameron, Mr Clarke, Ms Dillon, Mr Douglas, Mr Dunne, Mr Easton, Ms Fearon, Mr Frew, Mr Girvan, Mr Givan, Mr Hazzard, Mr Humphrey, Mr Irwin, Mr Kearney, Mr Kelly, Mrs Little Pengelly, Ms Lockhart, Mr Logan, Mr Lynch, Mr Lyons, Mr McAleer, Ms J McCann, Mr McCartney, Mr McElduff, Mr McGuigan, Miss McIlveen, Mr McMullan, Mr McQuillan, Mr Maskey, Mr Middleton, Mr Milne, Lord Morrow, Mr Murphy, Ms Ní Chuilín, Mr Ó Muilleoir, Mr O'Dowd, Mrs O'Neill, Mr Poots, Mr Robinson, Mr Ross, Ms Ruane, Ms Seeley, Mr Sheehan, Mr Stalford, Mr Storey, Mr Weir, Mr Wells
Tellers for the Ayes: Mr McQuillan, Mr Robinson
Mr Agnew, Mr Aiken, Ms Armstrong, Mr Attwood, Ms Bailey, Mrs Barton, Mr Beattie, Mr Beggs, Ms S Bradley, Ms Bradshaw, Mr Butler, Mr Carroll, Mr Chambers, Mrs Dobson, Mr Durkan, Ms Hanna, Mr Kennedy, Mrs Long, Mr Lyttle, Mr E McCann, Mr McGlone, Mr McGrath, Mr McKee, Mr McNulty, Mr McPhillips, Ms Mallon, Mr Nesbitt, Mrs Overend, Mrs Palmer, Mr Smith, Mr Swann
Tellers for the Noes: Ms Mallon, Mr Nesbitt
Question accordingly agreed to.
Main Question, as amended, put and agreed to. Resolved:
That this Assembly notes the latest edition of the 'Northern Ireland Poverty Bulletin' detailing the levels of poverty across Northern Ireland; further notes that section 28E of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 was the subject of a judicial review in June 2015; and welcomes the Executive’s commitment, as outlined in the recent Programme for Government consultation document, to publish a new social strategy that aims to improve the lives of those in poverty through a range of specific interventions that will tackle poverty, social exclusion and deprivation on the basis of the objective need.
Adjourned at 7.45 pm.