Housing Benefit (Welfare Supplementary Payment) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2017

Executive Committee Business – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 12:15 pm on 16th January 2017.

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Photo of Paul Givan Paul Givan DUP 12:15 pm, 16th January 2017

I beg to move.

That the draft Housing Benefit (Welfare Supplementary Payment) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2017 be approved.

These draft regulations are needed to provide my Department with the powers to make payments to ensure that 34,000 households do not suffer financially when the social sector size criteria, otherwise known as the bedroom tax, is applied in Northern Ireland on 20 February. While it has not been possible to bring the draft regulations to either the Executive or the Committee for Communities in advance of bringing them to the Assembly today, it has been suggested by some MLAs that my Department already has the powers, under the Budget Act or section 59 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998, and there is no need for me to come to the Assembly to seek approval of the draft regulations.

Members of the House are well aware of the complexity of social security legislation. Indeed, in the past number of months, the House has voted on four separate sets of regulations to give my Department the necessary powers to protect those people who have been impacted by the changes to the welfare system. This reflects the long-established approach to social welfare, which is based on a solid foundation whereby legislation and regulations specify the terms and conditions on which social welfare payments are made and administered.

It strikes me as extraordinary that some MLAs are suggesting that we should try to operate a social security system and make mitigation payments on the basis of the general powers provided for under the Budget Act or section 59 of the Northern Ireland Act, rather than the legislative powers set down in the Welfare Reform (Northern Ireland) Order 2015, which was agreed by the Executive. Indeed, in recent days, my permanent secretary has provided me with detailed legal advice from the Attorney General, which clearly states that neither the Budget Act nor section 59 provide any legal basis for the type of scheme set out in the draft regulations. This advice clearly states that these only provide the Department with the power to spend money; they do not provide the legal framework for the application of that money. Members can see from the draft set of regulations that the general provisions in the Budget Act would not give my Department the powers necessary to make decisions in the different scenarios set out in the regulations.

That nails everything that the Finance Minister has been doing. Whilst he is engaged in a Twitter battle, the public can see who the twit is as he has gone along, making it up on social media, in respect of how this is being issued.

Photo of Barry McElduff Barry McElduff Sinn Féin

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I ask the Speaker to rule on the use of inappropriate language like "twit", which the Member has just said. I ask him to rule on temperate language.

Photo of Robin Newton Robin Newton Speaker

I ask that all Members moderate their language and that we show respect around the Chamber on any matter as we go through today.

Photo of Paul Givan Paul Givan DUP

We all know too well what Sinn Féin's agenda is when it comes to respect. Equality: the Trojan Horse to break the unionists. They know what Gerry Adams said thereafter about the unionist population. Mr Speaker, we will not be lectured about respect by the Members opposite, and we will continue to maintain our positions that are principled and based on sound values. We will not allow the twisting of what equality really is all about. Unionists know exactly what Sinn Féin's agenda is when it comes to equality.

The regulations that I am bringing to the Assembly today are being brought in under article 137A of the Welfare Reform (Northern Ireland) Order 2015 and will make provision for welfare supplementary payment to ensure that claimants are not financially disadvantaged by the changes to housing benefit introduced under article 75 of the Order.

The social sector size criteria will change how housing benefit is calculated for working-age claimants who have a tenancy in a Housing Executive or housing association property. Pensioners will not be affected by this change. The change to housing benefit will bring restrictions to entitlement to housing benefit where a claimant is under-occupying a property. Accordingly, those claimants who occupy a property that is larger than their household size warrants will see a reduction in their housing benefit payment.

Data provided by the Northern Ireland Housing Executive suggests that, as at May 2015, these changes could affect up to 33,916 households in receipt of housing benefit. The regulations will give my Department the powers to make welfare supplementary payments to current and future housing benefit claimants who qualify for a payment over the life of the Fresh Start Agreement until March 2020. The Executive will review the operation of the mitigation scheme in 2018-19.

The Department will identify housing benefit claimants who are eligible for mitigation, and claimants will automatically receive their welfare supplementary payment. Claimants will not have to apply for a welfare supplementary payment. The welfare supplementary payment will be calculated to ensure the claimant does not incur any financial disadvantage as a result of the application of the size criteria to their housing benefit entitlement.

Welfare supplementary payments will cease where the claimant is no longer entitled to housing benefit or where the social sector size criteria no longer applies to them. If the claimant undergoes a change of circumstances that alters the application of the SSSC to their housing benefit entitlement, their welfare supplementary payment will increase or decrease to reflect the change. Welfare supplementary payments will also increase in accordance with rent increases in the social rented sector, and claimants will receive their welfare supplementary payment every four weeks in arrears throughout the mitigation period until March 2020.

If a claimant is receiving a welfare supplementary payment and they transfer to another property in the social rented sector in which they under-occupy at a lower level, they will continue to receive a welfare supplementary payment at that reduced level. If a claimant is receiving welfare supplementary payment and they transfer to another property in the social rented sector where they continue to under-occupy to the same or a greater extent than in their previous property, they will no longer receive a welfare supplementary payment.

Claimants will retain their mitigation payment if they transfer to another property in the social rented sector under one of the management transfer scheme categories. This scheme makes a claimant a priority to be moved and includes claimants who need to move because of domestic violence or who need to move to an adapted home due to disability or long-term illness.

In the majority of situations, the supplementary payment will be made directly to the landlord. In situations where the claimant normally receives their housing benefit directly, they will also receive their welfare supplementary payment directly.

I can also confirm that these welfare supplementary payments will be disregarded when considering a person’s entitlement to social security benefits or working tax credits and that they will not be taxable.

I appreciate that some Members may have concerns that the regulations provide for welfare supplementary payments to be stopped in cases where an individual decides to leave their current tenancy and move to a new house where they under-occupy at the same level or an increased level. As Minister with responsibility for housing as well as social welfare, I have to balance my responsibilities to manage the social housing stock whilst protecting individuals impacted upon by the new arrangements for housing benefit when they are making decisions on whether to move house. It is important that Members are aware that these provisions do not apply to tenants who have to move house because of domestic violence, intimidation or a range of other circumstances set out in the managed transfer list.

However, I am conscious of concerns of Members, and, in response to those concerns, I am, today, committing to publish, on a six-monthly basis, the number of households that may have their mitigations stopped as a consequence of provisions in regulation 2. If these numbers are considered to be excessive, I am also committing to go back to the Executive for them to consider a review of the regulations, if required. I hope that that commitment will allay Members' concerns and enable them to support the regulations to ensure that 34,000 householders will receive the financial support that they will require come February.

Let me be clear: whilst all of the debate has been going on because of the actions that Sinn Féin has taken, I have been very clear that the most vulnerable should not be used during this election campaign. That is why I have engaged, since the actions of Sinn Féin, to seek a resolution through the extraordinary measures that I am having to take today in the absence of an Executive.

Irrespective of the political campaign that will now take place during this election, we must not allow the most vulnerable in our society to pay the price because of the actions of Sinn Féin. It was not just Sinn Féin that wanted the election; People Before Profit said, "Let's have a riot at the ballot box". The consequences of that approach put 34,000 people at risk to the bedroom tax because 20 February is when the bedroom tax comes in in Northern Ireland. That date is in primary legislation; it cannot be changed, but we have the ability through a mitigation process, which we in this party wanted, to protect people from the bedroom tax. Today, by voting for these regulations, not one person will be faced with the bedroom tax. That is the responsible thing for MLAs to do, given the crisis that these institutions now find themselves in on this the last day of sittings of this Assembly. I trust that there will be a return to these institutions after the negotiations that clearly will now need to take place because of the actions of Sinn Féin. At that point, MLAs will be able to revisit it.

Photo of Paul Givan Paul Givan DUP

I will not give way. Let me be clear: we are taking this action today in these unprecedented circumstances in order to protect the most vulnerable. Sinn Féin, shamefully, wanted to use the most vulnerable as part of this process. Whilst I deal with the bedroom tax, there will be people, unfortunately, on waiting lists needing surgery and people in the voluntary and community sector for whom there will be consequences because of there not being a Budget because of the Finance Minister's failure —

Photo of Andy Allen Andy Allen UUP

On a point of order, Mr Speaker.

Photo of Paul Givan Paul Givan DUP

I have taken this action on the bedroom tax, but let us make no mistake about it —

Photo of Paul Givan Paul Givan DUP

— their actions mean that people will suffer.

Photo of Robin Newton Robin Newton Speaker

Minister, I have received a point of order from Mr Andy Allen.

Photo of Andy Allen Andy Allen UUP

I ask that the Minister comes back to the regulations before us and not proceed with party politicking in referring to other matters that have no direct relation to these regulations.

Photo of Robin Newton Robin Newton Speaker

That is not a point of order, Mr Allen. Apologies to the Minister, but just before he continues, he referred to this being the last day of the Assembly. This is not the last day of the Assembly: business is scheduled for tomorrow.

Photo of Paul Givan Paul Givan DUP

OK. I am sure that that detail will be well received. This is where we are today: we dealt with the bedroom tax as part of the mitigation measures brought forward by this Executive, which was a demonstration of how the Executive worked in achieving key issues for the people whom we represent. For two and a half years, Sinn Féin refused in respect of welfare reform. In two and a half years, Sinn Féin cost the public purse £174 million in penalties from the Treasury — money that was lost in public services in two and a half years. What did we do when those issues were raised? We worked through them, despite the reckless activities of Sinn Féin that cost £174 million. We worked through those difficulties. We came forward with a mitigation package, within which was the bedroom tax, of half a billion pounds to protect the most vulnerable. Is it not ironic that Sinn Féin brings —

Photo of Naomi Long Naomi Long Alliance

On a point of order, Mr Speaker.

Photo of Paul Givan Paul Givan DUP

— the institutions down over the bedroom tax, which I am now seeking to deal with?

Photo of Naomi Long Naomi Long Alliance

I realise that the Minister mentioned that there is an election campaign, but he is speaking here as a Minister and not as a candidate. Would it be possible for him to return to the detail of the legislation rather than simply attacking his opponents?

Photo of Robin Newton Robin Newton Speaker

I understand the point that the Member is making, but it is not a point of order.

Photo of Naomi Long Naomi Long Alliance

It is. It is straying from the —

Photo of Paul Givan Paul Givan DUP

All the points that I make — every single point — relate entirely to the regulations on the bedroom tax. I understand why others do not now want the truth to be told because they are worried about the election. We will go out and fight the election and put our cause to the people.

Let me conclude, Mr Speaker. I am taking these actions, despite the politicking of Sinn Féin, to protect the most vulnerable. I appeal to Members: this is the only way that we can stop the bedroom tax being introduced, because of the reckless activity of Sinn Féin, to protect those 34,000 people. Let us move on to the political campaign, which has now clearly started. We will fight those issues on the doorsteps. The most vulnerable should not be used by Sinn Féin as part of its party political agenda.

Photo of Andy Allen Andy Allen UUP 12:30 pm, 16th January 2017

Like many people, I watched with mixed emotions the events that brought us to the scenario in which a regulation has to be brought before the Assembly without having gone through the proper mechanisms: being brought before the Executive and scrutinised by the Committee. I realise that the Finance Minister and Minister for Communities would rather resort to party politicking and using some of the most vulnerable as an opportunity for one-upmanship. Whilst they were going on social media — Twitter — and 'The View', trying to get one up on each other, I was liaising and dealing with constituents who had major concerns and fears that they would have to choose between heating their home, feeding themselves or paying the bedroom tax.

It is also important to point out and contextualise why we need the bedroom tax. It is because successive DUP Ministers did not — I repeat, did not — build enough social housing to be able to meet the needs of those who wished to downsize. I deal daily with constituents who have attempted to downsize. The housing selection scheme makes no provision for them to do so. Yes, they will perhaps receive underoccupancy points, but they will not receive enough points to compete with waiting lists continually spiralling out of control. It is important to point out that, whilst the DUP tries continually to say that it is protecting the most vulnerable, it has done nothing: it has not built enough social housing over the years. That is fact — it is clear fact. The Minister came to the House and said that he would build 9,600 houses. We hope to see that.

The Ulster Unionist Party firmly supports the regulations because it believes that the most vulnerable should be protected. Whilst the Minister was, again, politicking on social media, we were liaising through other channels. We did not have to go out and politic: we were liaising with Westminster and the Housing Executive to ensure that the most vulnerable would not be impacted by the bedroom tax. We did not go out and politic —

Photo of Alex Maskey Alex Maskey Sinn Féin

I thank the Member for giving way. He is very eloquently talking about the need for a bedroom tax. Can he explain, then, why his party voted against the mitigation package, which included the bedroom tax subsidies?

Photo of Andy Allen Andy Allen UUP

I thank the Member for his intervention. It is important to remember that we are in the here and now. I am clearly stating that we support the regulations that are before us. We support the mitigation for the most vulnerable. No one needs to explain to me the impact that this will have because, as I outlined, I have liaised and dealt with many constituents who highlighted their concerns and fears. Whilst the rest of us have no fear of going to the electorate and putting ourselves forward, the DUP and Sinn Féin will, no doubt, continue politicking about some of the most vulnerable, and this is when Sinn Féin members cannot even make themselves available for a Committee meeting to scrutinise welfare reform and hear from individuals about the potential closure of jobs and benefits offices. We support the regulations.

Photo of Carál Ní Chuilín Carál Ní Chuilín Sinn Féin

It is quite obvious that a lot of defence tactics are going on, particularly from the Minister and his party. He is right — I will agree with him on this — that had Sinn Féin not stood firm to ensure that the most vulnerable were protected and protected properly, irrespective of legislation coming from Westminster, we would all, collectively, have been in a much different position. We stood by our convictions and, to the best of our ability, got a deal to protect the most vulnerable. In relation to fines, not one penny came out of the pockets of the claimants whom we all talk about. Yes, money came out of the block grant, but let us be clear about why: while people, when looking over one shoulder, were waxing lyrical about the need to ensure that the block grant was protected, they failed to look over their other shoulder. Then —

Photo of Ross Hussey Ross Hussey UUP

Will the Member give way?

Photo of Ross Hussey Ross Hussey UUP

I accept what the Member is saying, and she is waxing lyrical herself. Perhaps she can explain why elected Sinn Féin Members of Parliament elected did not go to Westminster to fight the legislation there?

Photo of Carál Ní Chuilín Carál Ní Chuilín Sinn Féin

Our position on abstentionism from Westminster has always been out. When the elections are on, we have always put our case to the public, and on the basis of an abstentionist approach, the public have returned us. If you are questioning the public's ability to make a rational decision on a vote, you do that. At a time when you were making silly points, with respect, your party was hitching itself to the Tories to implement cuts here and right across, irrespective, with no mitigation packages and no protections — absolutely nothing. I am accepting what the Member is saying with a very, very small pinch of salt.

On protecting people, I am glad to see a review built into this legislation — these regulations that are coming forward — particularly on the change of circumstances. Without a review, it would have been perhaps ridiculous, because you would see the potential for people who were downsizing property and actually saving the public purse money to be penalised down the road. So that makes a lot of sense.

I am also happy that there will be processes, perhaps through social landlords, to ensure issues for other circumstances. The Minister outlined management transfers and all the issues relating to that. There are also people who fall between some of those categories through no fault of their own, and that needs to be taken into consideration.

I am quite proud — I will take no lectures from Paul Givan or any member of his party — of our stance on our protections for welfare reform.

Photo of Fra McCann Fra McCann Sinn Féin

It was not that long ago, when the second element of welfare reform was coming in front of the House, that a DUP Minister at a meeting in Belfast stood up and said that he could not expect us to be treated any differently from the people in Manchester, London or Liverpool. He was talking about that in relation to the mitigation measures and the bedroom tax.

Photo of Carál Ní Chuilín Carál Ní Chuilín Sinn Féin

For me, that says it all, and that is why we wanted to ensure that we stood firm to make sure that these mitigation packages happened. We will not be taking any lectures on that. We will not be treating people with disrespect. We will not be treating them with arrogance either, and we want to make sure that all these regulations and any that come after, and particularly their implementation, are open and transparent. The thing is that people all have fears, and some of the straplines out there are saying that people who were on benefits are going to be impacted, but these regulations will now ensure that all the scaremongering out there will cease.

Photo of Naomi Long Naomi Long Alliance

The Member just said that these regulations will ensure that people are protected. Is she conceding that what we were told via the media by her colleague Máirtín Ó Muilleoir that they were protected simply by dint of existing legislation is not correct?

Photo of Carál Ní Chuilín Carál Ní Chuilín Sinn Féin

No. To be honest Naomi, you are making a political point.

Photo of Naomi Long Naomi Long Alliance

It is a political Chamber.

Photo of Carál Ní Chuilín Carál Ní Chuilín Sinn Féin

OK, it is a political Chamber, and you are a politician and so am I, but the regulations are here, and unless we insisted — we insisted — that due diligence and the exercising of responsibilities for ministerial duties happened, we would not even be sitting here and we would have found a way to ensure people are not penalised. It is really easy for everybody to get on and dance to someone else's tune. I think we are all genuine about making sure that people who are in difficult circumstances financially are not further disadvantaged. I think that is where the Member is coming from.

Photo of Naomi Long Naomi Long Alliance

There is absolutely no question that that is where everyone in the Chamber is coming from, but this is a serious point. The Minister of Finance said there was no need for these regulations to be brought and that the flow of money would continue. That is an assurance that applies not only to these regulations but to a whole host of other moneys he has provided the same assurance about. Was he right or was he wrong?

Photo of Carál Ní Chuilín Carál Ní Chuilín Sinn Féin

No. He was not wrong, Naomi. The money is there at our insistence, with our due diligence in the Executive making sure it is there and with people at their desk doing their job. I am not getting into a whole back and forward, as much as we could do that all day. I am accepting that the Member is coming from a position where she wanted to ensure that the people who were listening to scaremongering on the radio were protected, and I believe they are today. I believe they are, with the insistence of our party and the support of other people who eventually came to our position, so on that basis, I am happy to support these regulations.

Photo of Nichola Mallon Nichola Mallon Social Democratic and Labour Party

We are here to debate regulations for which, in all honesty, there is lack of the detail and time that is deserved, given the importance of the issue. This has been handled shambolically. Listening to the tone of debate, it was clear that, very sadly, the Minister has opted to use his contribution more as a pre-election pitch than to deal with the issues in front of us. That I find deeply disappointing.

Let us be clear: we would not be in this position if, as the SDLP had argued, mitigation of the bedroom tax was not put into legislation. We feared that this mishandling might happen and that it might fall victim to party politicking, either in the Chamber or across the water. That is why we signed a petition of concern. We had hoped, and we were told at the time, that others were going to put forward a petition of concern for exactly the same reasons. That verbal commitment was never followed up by substantial action, and so we find ourselves in this position.

Fresh Start was heralded with much fanfare. In fact, the mitigation of the bedroom tax was specifically singled out as a shining example of how the Executive were delivering for some of our most vulnerable citizens. I have to say that I have listened to statements and watched incidences unfold over several weeks and months. The political brinkmanship that has been played with our most vulnerable over the mitigation of the bedroom tax is something that I find profoundly obscene, and I do not use that term lightly.

Photo of Nichola Mallon Nichola Mallon Social Democratic and Labour Party

In a minute, Christopher. The Minister publicly stated that there was very little, to nothing, that he could do to bring forward the mitigation measures to protect our most vulnerable from the bedroom tax. He said that without knowing, categorically, that that was the truth. Why, in my humble opinion, do I believe he did that? It was because he wanted to put pressure on his partners in government to prevent them from calling an election. What his comments did was to terrify 34,000 vulnerable citizens in my constituency and in that of each and every Member across this Chamber. People could not sleep at night —

Photo of Nichola Mallon Nichola Mallon Social Democratic and Labour Party

In a minute, Alex. People could not sleep at night because they were being told that they were facing the prospect of being slapped with the bedroom tax. That is what the Minister for Communities — the Minister responsible for protecting our most vulnerable — did. I give way to Mr Stalford and then to Mr Maskey.

Photo of Christopher Stalford Christopher Stalford DUP

I am grateful to the Member for giving way. The Member is absolutely right that, at the core of this issue, are 34,000 people who potentially face having the bedroom tax imposed upon them. Would she agree that, in that context, it was right that the Minister sought advice from the Attorney General, whilst the Sinn Féin Minister at the heart of this issue simply published a note that he received from his permanent secretary? In fact, it was the Minister for Communities who sought the definitive legal position before making it public.

Photo of Nichola Mallon Nichola Mallon Social Democratic and Labour Party

Mr Stalford, what I believe should have happened is that, acting responsibly as Ministers, they should have sought legal advice; they should have come to a considered and guaranteed position before they went to the airwaves to terrify the most vulnerable across our society. I find it deeply disappointing that both Ministers engaged in a battle over the airwaves when they should, despite the party politicking and electioneering that is going on, have stepped aside and, in private, had the conversations that were required of two Ministers to bring certainty to the people who needed it most.

Photo of Alex Maskey Alex Maskey Sinn Féin

Thank you, Ms Mallon, for giving way. Could the Member not reflect on, and perhaps explain to, the 30,000-odd people who, you rightly say, would be very worried at the prospect of having to pay the bedroom tax, how on earth she can say that when, at the same time, had her party had its way last year, the bedroom tax would not be mitigated? Your party voted against a £500 million mitigation package. Your party, and your party, Mr Nesbitt, voted against that £500 million package. So, square that one.

Photo of Nichola Mallon Nichola Mallon Social Democratic and Labour Party 12:45 pm, 16th January 2017

I will square it clearly and succinctly: if it had not been put in the legislation, it would not have been happening.

Anyway, I will draw my remarks to a conclusion. Some things are too important to play party politics with. The lives of the vulnerable are one of those things, and, sadly, people have played politics, particularly in the past number of weeks. The 34,000 people who have been treated like this will be listening to the tone of this debate: is it any wonder that people do not have faith in politics here?

Photo of Colum Eastwood Colum Eastwood Social Democratic and Labour Party

I thank the Member for giving way. Does she agree that we are in a situation in which we are heading into an election, we do not know what will happen at the far end of that election and there is a real possibility that the powers could be back, as they rest with the Tory Government in London? We will have these regulations in primary legislation. As the Minister says, it is now in primary legislation for the bedroom tax, and that cannot be changed. Those are the Minister's words. Are people not concerned that, if we go into a situation of collapse and suspension, the Tory Government will bring in the bedroom tax or some other draconian form of legislation in Northern Ireland and it will not matter what we have done around mitigation, because it will be too late at that point?

Photo of Nichola Mallon Nichola Mallon Social Democratic and Labour Party

I thank the Member for his intervention. Sadly, that is the very real case, but I look forward to hearing Members from other political parties provide the answer to Mr Eastwood's question.

Photo of Naomi Long Naomi Long Alliance

Before I make my remarks on the regulations before us, I want to make it clear that the only interest in our mind in coming to the issue is to ensure that, for those who are uncertain and are concerned by what they have seen in the media over the past number of days, with two Ministers who are in the same Government disputing each other's position on this and raising concerns in the minds of vulnerable people about their future, that is put to bed and they can go forward with some degree of certainty and reassurance. We see people in our constituency offices who are struggling to make ends meet. They come to us genuinely afraid for their future, because they know that they would not find suitable accommodation to live in, were the bedroom tax to be introduced, and, more than that, would not be able to pay the bills in the interim, were they not covered by the mitigation measures in legislation here. When you see those people come to your office with those concerns, it is absolutely beyond me how you can continue to bluster around the issue, as though it is an issue only of party politics between two competing forces in here. It is scandalous.

I am still concerned, because we have not had an opportunity to scrutinise properly the regulations before us. The Committee has not had an opportunity to hear the Minister in detail, to hear the legal advice that he has received and to scrutinise that advice in a robust and proper way. That is due in part to the collapse of the institutions, but the Minister has been rather tardy in bringing the regulations forward. The deadline, regardless of the collapse of the institutions, is 20 February. We knew that this needed to be done from when we were elected last May. There was every opportunity for due process and scrutiny to take place, but it seems that everything in this place has to be subject to last-minute rush and back-of-the-envelope calculations. Perhaps we would not be where we are today if that culture were to end. It seems that the Minister has been too busy treating his Department as his personal fiefdom and running round finding lost cash down the back of magic sofas over recent days to be able to direct his attention to the business of his Department. There is a serious disconnect between the concerns that his Department has responsibility for and the interest that he has shown over the past eight months in those responsibilities. I think that the public will see that clearly in how late we are in coming to such a serious issue.

I am also concerned by what Carál Ní Chuilín said here today. It raises serious issues about what weight we can give to what the Finance Minister has said on the air waves and in personal reassurances to those of us who raised concerns about access to funding during this period.

It is our understanding that there is the power in the current regulations for civil servants to deal with an emergency Budget that is 75% of what it was last year. You can imagine the impact that that could have. What is not clear is whether accruing resources are subject to the same access. Those accruing resources cover issues like pensions, which are a matter for —

Photo of Robin Newton Robin Newton Speaker

Can I ask the Member to come back to the regulations?

Photo of Naomi Long Naomi Long Alliance

Well, Mr Speaker, you would have more authority in doing so had you done the same with your party colleague Paul Givan when I pointed that he had wandered somewhat further from the matter under discussion than I have on this occasion.

I will point out, Mr Speaker, that my concern is about protecting the same vulnerable people whom we are here to protect — those in receipt of benefits and those who need those accruing resources in order to survive, many of whom will be on pensions and may find themselves in difficulties if it is not resolved. We have a situation now where there is no clarity on that issue and no trust and confidence, frankly, in the word being given by either Minister, because we have not been able to properly scrutinise this. I have to say that, for those living with this fear and without reassurance, this is a sorry state of affairs, involving people who are supposed to be responsible Ministers and will continue to draw their salary over the next number of weeks but who have behaved irresponsibly over the last week in ramping up tensions on these issues —

Photo of Naomi Long Naomi Long Alliance

No, I will not give way.

They have ramped up tensions on these issues over the last week on the air waves and have failed, in what they have said today, to create any more confidence.

We will support the regulations. We do so with significant reservations, having not been in a position to scrutinise them properly, but we believe that it is the only way that we as a party can do our utmost to ensure that no one can hold us accountable for this fiasco.

Photo of Christopher Stalford Christopher Stalford DUP

I support the regulations, obviously. One of the reasons I got involved in politics is —

Photo of Máirtín Ó Muilleoir Máirtín Ó Muilleoir Sinn Féin

Will the Member give way before he gets into his flow, please?

Photo of Christopher Stalford Christopher Stalford DUP

No.

One of the reasons I got involved in politics is that I come from a working-class community. I was born in Annadale and reared at the bottom of the Ravenhill Road. I can see communities that are in need, and I want to make a difference to help them. It is wrong that people should be fearful for their future. It is wrong that 34,000 people in Northern Ireland should have been facing the real prospect of the implementation of this tax on them. Mitigations were first negotiated way back by Nelson McCausland, when he was at DSD. Working constructively with others, we managed to put those mitigations in place. That was the right thing to do. It was right that Northern Ireland should have a tailored solution that protected vulnerable people from the introduction of the bedroom tax.

I listened to Carál Ní Chuilín's contribution. In it, she made a defence of Sinn Féin's policy of abstentionism — abstaining from going to Westminster. We have now moved from abstaining from being in Westminster to abstaining from exercising any power or control in Northern Ireland, because —

Photo of Carál Ní Chuilín Carál Ní Chuilín Sinn Féin

To distance ourselves from arrogance, from alleged corruption, from disrespect.

Photo of Christopher Stalford Christopher Stalford DUP

Please do not heckle me from a sedentary position.

Photo of Carál Ní Chuilín Carál Ní Chuilín Sinn Féin

To distance ourselves from you, as far as possible.

Photo of Christopher Stalford Christopher Stalford DUP

I did not do that to you. Show some manners and decorum.

Photo of Robin Newton Robin Newton Speaker

I ask the Member —

Photo of Carál Ní Chuilín Carál Ní Chuilín Sinn Féin

I have plenty of manners.

Photo of Robin Newton Robin Newton Speaker

I ask the Member —

Photo of Christopher Stalford Christopher Stalford DUP

Well, then, exercise them.

The fact is that they do not go to Westminster, and now they have decided that they do not want to go to the Executive in Stormont. The power to protect the most vulnerable people in Northern Ireland will be undermined by not having a functioning Government here in order to put in place measures such as the mitigations of the bedroom tax. Devolution can be used for the benefit of the people, particularly vulnerable people. It is unfortunate, therefore, that others have decided that they want to abstain from using the power available to them. That is their choice — we live in a democracy, and they are free to do so — but let us also not forget that, because of their posturing over welfare reform, £174 million in two years was lost to the people of Northern Ireland. That money could have been spent —

Photo of Steven Agnew Steven Agnew Green

I thank the Member for giving way. Will he clarify his point? The money was not lost to the people of Northern Ireland; it was lost to our block grant but instead it was paid directly to the people of Northern Ireland.

Photo of Christopher Stalford Christopher Stalford DUP

Well, the block grant pays for the public services that are provided for the people of Northern Ireland, so there was less money to go on the essential public services that we are here to deliver. That happened because Sinn Féin, for its own reasons, decided that it would behave in the way that it did. For someone to stand up from its Benches and say that they are proud of that is remarkable. For someone representing Belfast North, one of the most deprived constituencies in Northern Ireland, to stand up and say they are proud of it simply defies belief.

I welcome the fact that the measures are being introduced, but I also want to address the point that was made by Mr Eastwood. It was an accurate point. Those of us who will be returned do not know what we will be elected to. We do not know what these elections will be. It is likely that we will not have devolution. It is likely that, at least for an extended period, we are being elected to some sort of talks process. Mr Eastwood was right: that means that the people of Northern Ireland will be at the mercy of a Tory Government and their direct rule Ministers. Anyone who thinks that it will simply be a case of collapsing the institutions and then, with the flick of a switch, getting them back up again is deluding themselves. That means that measures such as this — a Northern Ireland-tailored solution to protect our constituents — will not be put in place. We will be entirely at the whim of Home Counties Tories who do not give two figs about the budgetary implications of the cuts that they want to push through. If people are happy with that, that is up to them. They have made their decision, but let us not pretend that, by doing so, they are standing up for their constituents. They are leaving them at the mercy of a Tory Government.

Photo of Andy Allen Andy Allen UUP

Will the Member give way?

Photo of Andy Allen Andy Allen UUP

Does the Member agree that, whilst it is welcome that the regulations safeguard some 34,000 people, it is imperative that, whatever institutions we come back to post election, a longer-term strategy is looked at with a view to building enough one, two and three-bedroom houses and exploring mitigation post 2020?

Photo of Christopher Stalford Christopher Stalford DUP

I absolutely agree with that: it is essential that we build more social houses. That is why I welcome the fact that, in the draft Programme for Government, there was a commitment to build more social houses than we have ever built. Of course, we will not have a Government, so whether that target will be achieved is up in the air, and whether a direct rule regime of people from the Home Counties and the south-east of England will be prepared to see that through and delivered is up in the air. I absolutely agree with the Member about the need to build more social homes.

I welcome the fact that the Minister has brought the measures forward, and I hope that all parties will support them. It is essential that we use devolution to protect the people of Northern Ireland and the most vulnerable in our society. Those who have decided that they wish to cast devolution aside are leaving the most vulnerable in our society at the mercy of people who do not care about them.

Photo of Mike Nesbitt Mike Nesbitt UUP

I am sorry, Mr Speaker; I did not hear you. It was not my intention to speak, but I want to say a few words, having listened carefully to the contributions to date. I know that we appear to be in our last days or maybe even the last day, according to the Minister, and so, with an election looming, I suppose that maintaining a tone that would be well received by the public is challenging.

I want to say a few words about the Ulster Unionist position. We always hear — we have it thrown in our faces — about seven years of Conservative rule and austerity. We have had it today from the two outgoing parties of Stormont Castle. Where are they taking us with no Budget? Where are they taking the vulnerable of Northern Ireland, with no Budget and no Executive?

The Ulster Unionist Party absolutely had our position on welfare reform and tried to negotiate with the other parties around the table, not least at Stormont Castle/Stormont House. One thing we were sure about was that the bedroom tax was not a good tax in principle and was a bad tax for Northern Ireland. When Michael Copeland was our spokesman, he demonstrated huge empathy with the vulnerable, as his successor, Andy Allen, has done, and let us remember that Andy faces his own challenges in life.

Photo of Alex Maskey Alex Maskey Sinn Féin

For the benefit of the House, would the Member like to recall that, when the Social Development Committee was considering many of these matters, I had to go to him as the leader on behalf of Michael Copeland? Michael Copeland was fighting the good fight in the Committee, but your party, under your leadership, did not support him. I had to go and ask you, on behalf of the Ulster Unionist Party, to give some support to Michael Copeland, who wanted to support people against the bedroom tax and other welfare cuts, but your party would not support him.

Photo of Mike Nesbitt Mike Nesbitt UUP

That is the point I was coming to. You were not asking about the bedroom tax in isolation; you were lumping it in with other proposals. As I have made clear in these opening remarks, we had disagreements on other aspects of welfare.

Photo of Alex Maskey Alex Maskey Sinn Féin

Other protections.

Photo of Mike Nesbitt Mike Nesbitt UUP

You call them "protections". It is politics. We have disagreements, and we try to reach a position. When we cannot reach a unanimous position, the parties of government — the two parties in the castle — make the call, and God help the vulnerable.

There are people on benefits who should not be on benefits. I am not talking about fraud; I am talking about mental health and well-being. I have campaigned on this for four or five years. All the parties now say that they agree, but what have they done? What have they done? They have done nothing.

Here is our position on the bedroom tax: we do not have the housing stock to say to somebody in a multi-bedroom property, "You pay the penalty that is the bedroom tax, or you move". There is nowhere to move to because we do not have the stock. The reason why we think that it is a bad idea in principle is that, if you are building a new social housing unit, putting on a second bedroom is a marginal cost, and those units should be used by one, two, three or four families or one, two, three or four generations over that home's lifetime. For flexibility's sake, it makes sense to build multi-bedroom properties rather than having this huge focus, because somebody has said, politically, that it is a good idea, on single-bedroom properties.

We will support the regulations, which is consistent with our view on this specific element of welfare reform.

Photo of George Robinson George Robinson DUP

I welcome the regulations, as they ensure that the most vulnerable in society will have the protection that was promised to them. The welfare reform mitigation group did an excellent job of highlighting where greater help was required. That was especially so for housing benefit or, as it is popularly known, bedroom tax.

It is important that we all note that the party that has created the political instability today could have cost the people who require the greatest help this essential benefit, the total cost of which will be around £91 million. I also note that it is a DUP Minister who has ensured that the legislation is brought today so that no one is adversely impacted on by the bedroom tax.

My constituency has high deprivation. I am well aware of how devastating the changes to housing benefit would have been had Minister Givan not taken the action that he has taken to protect Northern Ireland and the most vulnerable. Many people will be relieved that the Minister has taken this brave step. I hope that all Members will support the Housing Benefit (Welfare Supplementary Payment) Regulations 2017, even those who have jeopardised their very existence.

Photo of Stewart Dickson Stewart Dickson Alliance

I want to speak briefly as a former member of the Committee that dealt with a great deal of the work around the introduction of these mitigation measures. I welcome the fact that we have the opportunity to mitigate the bedroom tax. However, for me, as this institution perhaps draws to a close and moves into a very uncertain future, one of the abiding memories will be a plague on both your houses, because the reality is that neither the Minister nor his combative colleague in the Finance Ministry, who have been arguing over this matter on the airwaves, have covered themselves in glory. What they have done is cause a great deal of anxiety and concern among those who faced into having this tax applied to them, because of the disruption and, as others said, the inability of social housing to provide appropriate accommodation.

I very much welcome these mitigation regulations. I welcome them because they need to do what they are required to do, which is to ensure that some of the most vulnerable people in our community have the appropriate benefits and money to live on without any fear of or concern about where this is taking them. However, the regulations come to the House with a very large health warning. They come, yes, with the advice and guidance of civil servants, and I have a great deal of admiration for the work that they have done in bringing them forward. However, they also come with the substantial health warning that they come to the House without the scrutiny of a Committee. As I understand it, and unless the Minister can tell us otherwise, they also come without the scrutiny of the Examiner of Statutory Rules. That is a very risky situation. However, it is also my understanding — this is why we will support the regulations — that, if anything goes awry, and I hope that it does not, with the regulations being brought into force, the responsibility for any fault lies solely and squarely with the Minister.

Photo of Steven Agnew Steven Agnew Green

I have to say that I hate to see politicians using the most vulnerable for their own political ends. The sham fight that took place between the Finance Minister and the Communities Minister over the bedroom tax was nothing short of a disgrace. Thirty-four thousand people have seen them toy with their financial security for their own political ends, particularly after Christmas, when people are already struggling, facing debt and financial insecurity —

Photo of Steven Agnew Steven Agnew Green

I will finish the point and then give way. To exacerbate that by playing out a fight about their incomes in the media reflects badly on us all.

Photo of Mark Durkan Mark Durkan Social Democratic and Labour Party

I thank the Member for giving way. I certainly concur that the actions and words of both Ministers have heightened confusion and concern among many more people than the 34,000 who will, thankfully, now be protected. A lot of people out there, such as pensioners, are not included in that 34,000 because they are exempt, but they do not yet realise that they are exempt. The chaos and distress that this has caused have been understated. Does the Member agree with me — I think that I know the answer to this — that the best way to avoid the confusion and worry that this has caused would have been for the Assembly to remove clause 69 in its entirety from the Welfare Reform Bill? On both occasions that my party attempted to do so, 10 February 2016 and 24 February 2016, the only support was from the Member himself.

Photo of Steven Agnew Steven Agnew Green

I thank the Member for his point, because it is a point I was going to come to. The Green Party is committed to doing what is right to protect the most vulnerable, which is why we have consistently opposed all legislation that proposed to introduce the bedroom tax in Northern Ireland. We are the only party, along with the SDLP, that consistently did so. We had the opportunity through this Assembly to bring forward bespoke legislation for Northern Ireland. We had the opportunity to say, "We will not legislate for the bedroom tax in Northern Ireland". Unfortunately, whilst others may wring their hands today and purport their opposition to the bedroom tax, when it came to opposing it in the House and preventing such legislation coming forward to the Northern Ireland Assembly, there were only two parties, the SDLP and the Green Party, that stood up to say no to the bedroom tax.

Photo of Naomi Long Naomi Long Alliance

I thank the Member for giving way, and I apologise to Carál Ní Chuilín for not giving way to her earlier, which I ought to have done. Will the Member not agree with me that one of the reasons we are in the fix we are in today is because the renewable heat incentive (RHI) scheme, which is worth a billion pounds over 20 years, broke parity with Westminster without being properly budgeted and therefore plunged us into the crisis we are in, with £20 million a year of costs? Had we done what you are suggesting, where one element of welfare, disability living allowance (DLA), on its own has exceeded a billion pounds per year, and broken parity, we would have bankrupted Northern Ireland almost overnight. These mitigation measures were the best way of addressing the problem.

Photo of Steven Agnew Steven Agnew Green

I thank the Member for her intervention, and I accept that she was not in the Assembly when we were debating the —

Photo of Naomi Long Naomi Long Alliance

That is right; I was at Westminster.

Photo of Steven Agnew Steven Agnew Green

She was not here when we were debating welfare reform in the Northern Ireland Assembly. I brought forward 23 amendments to that legislation. I did not, at the outset, say no to all and any welfare reform. What I did do was seek, through reasonable amendments, to make things better in Northern Ireland. I did not do that through a system of copying and pasting the Tory regulations, which her party supported, and introducing them in Northern Ireland legislation; instead, I said, "Let's have bespoke legislation for Northern Ireland", because it is not right to put the legislation into place first and mitigate after. What is right is to get the legislation right first and not have to mitigate. It was not no to any legislation and no to any reform; it was about better legislation for Northern Ireland that was better for the people of Northern Ireland. In ceding power back to Westminster on this issue, we wasted the opportunity to provide a better deal here.

Whilst I welcome the mitigation measures, ultimately they provide security only for the next four years and leave many people unsure what will happen post 2020. It also means we arrive at a situation where we are having to effectively pass emergency legislation to ensure those people are protected, even in the short term.

Photo of Fra McCann Fra McCann Sinn Féin

I accept that, through the whole debate on welfare reform, you, like our party, were to the fore in trying to push us through as quickly as possible to protect people. People constantly refer to these four years, but my understanding is that one Assembly cannot commit another Assembly to a package, and there was always a built-in review that allows you to pick it up so the thing could be continued. Do you accept that?

Photo of Steven Agnew Steven Agnew Green

I accept the Member's point that there is the possibility after four years of renewing mitigation measures. What there is not is the certainty, and that certainty would have been provided by not legislating for the bedroom tax.

Photo of Christopher Stalford Christopher Stalford DUP

I am grateful to the Member for giving way. Whilst Mr McCann is right to say that one Assembly cannot bind another, will the Member agree with me that one Assembly most certainly cannot bind a direct rule regime presided over by a Conservative Government?

Photo of Steven Agnew Steven Agnew Green

I agree once again with the Member. I hope it does not come to that. It was regrettable that we ceded power back to Westminster on welfare reform. I suggest we should not cede any more power by failing the people of Northern Ireland by failing to find a political solution to our current impasse.

My concern — it comes back to the point of what happens post-2020 — is that it was always the intention of the DUP to phase in the bedroom tax. The DUP's purported opposition came late in the day, and, as I said, it was prepared to pass the legislation in this House. Minister Mervyn Storey, at Consideration Stage of the Welfare Reform Bill, said that:

"the Executive have agreed to create a separate fund... that will mitigate the impact of this measure"

— referring to the bedroom tax —

"by protecting existing and future tenants from any reduction in their housing benefit unless there is a significant change in their personal circumstances or they are offered suitable alternative accommodation." [Official Report (Hansard), Bound Volume 101, p489, col 2].

It was the intention of the then Minister still to apply the bedroom tax where people had a change in circumstances or they were offered alternative accommodation. It was not complete opposition; it was not a case of no bedroom tax ever. That is my concern: beyond 2020, the bedroom tax will be introduced to Northern Ireland, as was legislated for by Westminster. It was mitigated for four years, but there is uncertainty beyond that.

I welcome the legislation today to provide temporary protection for those who are vulnerable to the provisions of the bedroom tax. However, the question remains how long this will be mitigated and why we wasted the opportunity to pass bespoke Northern Ireland legislation that would have said no definitively to the bedroom tax. The Green Party continues to oppose welfare cuts and will continue to take every opportunity to do so.

Photo of Eamonn McCann Eamonn McCann People Before Profit Alliance 1:15 pm, 16th January 2017

Mr Agnew made a most salient point when he said that, after four years — he put it more strongly than anybody else — the bedroom tax will be alive and well and imposed on the people of the North. By that stage, of course, more than 34,000 people might be affected by it; how do we know? The one part where I disagreed with Mr Agnew was where he said that, after four years, we would have to legislate again. No, we will not, Steven. As things are — if there is no legislation to cover the period after 2020 — the bedroom tax will automatically be imposed. Let us be absolutely clear about that.

People say that we got rid of the bedroom tax. I am not terribly interested in the argument, increasingly heated, between the two biggest parties about who is responsible for getting rid, as they claim — wrongly — of the bedroom tax. I was roundly abused by a member of the DUP over the weekend because I would not give them full credit for having, as they put it, "got rid of the bedroom tax". We have not got rid of the bedroom tax. The bedroom tax is here. The difference to the previous situation is that the Executive — the state — are paying the bedroom tax for the 34,000 people whom we mentioned. However, the bedroom tax is here. The difference will come after the year 2020. How will it be paid then and by whom? So, can we give over with this stuff about who got rid of the bedroom tax? None of you got rid of the bedroom tax. When I say all this —

Photo of Mark Durkan Mark Durkan Social Democratic and Labour Party

I thank the Member for giving way and certainly concur with his verdict that the bedroom tax has not gone away, you know. He refers to the £500 million, and other parties bragged about the fact that they secured £500 million for these mitigations, but this £500 million is not new. Does the Member concur with me that this money is coming from other public services?

Photo of Eamonn McCann Eamonn McCann People Before Profit Alliance

Absolutely. That is not a matter of politics; it is matter of arithmetic. He is absolutely correct.

I draw attention to a point relating to the fact that these mitigations will apply in the interim, until we have to come back to the issue in 2019 or 2020.

At the top of page 2 of the regulations distributed yesterday, it states:

"(2) But a person's entitlement to a welfare supplementary payment ceases, even though the person continues to be entitled to housing benefit, if— (a) the person moves to a dwelling the landlord of which is either the Housing Executive or a registered housing association, and (b) the number of bedrooms in that dwelling exceeds the permitted number of bedrooms by at least the same number as the number of bedrooms in the dwelling from which the person moved exceeded the permitted number immediately before the move."

That is a wee bit tangled, as legal documents tend to be. A very small number of people will be affected. The types of people who will be affected by it, and the circumstances in which this will arise, are, for example —

Photo of Alex Maskey Alex Maskey Sinn Féin

I thank Mr McCann for giving way. He is in full flow, and it is important that he make the relevant points that he wants to make.

I go back to the origins of this. For the record, the Executive, for all the faults and failings that people, including us, have identified, made the political choice to make available from the block grant, because we could not get it out of the Tories in London, and spend over £500 million over a four-year period, after which there will be a full review of the efficacy of any of the supplementary payments. We made that £500 million-plus available over four years. We gave it over to an independent panel that was led by Professor Eileen Evason and included eminent members of the wider community, voluntary and professional sectors. Those people identified the best way of protecting the most vulnerable from that pool of money of over £500 million.

The Member talks about the 34,000 people. Other parties here have lamented the situation over the past number of weeks, but they voted against the money to pay for the mitigation measures. Whatever they argue, they voted against the £500 million-plus of benefits that we put forward to subsidise against British Tory cuts being imposed by London. When other parties in the House objected to and voted against the £500 million-plus package, not one of their Members offered, proposed or suggested an extra single pound to come out of any other part of the Budget to go towards further mitigations. We would have welcomed and supported that. At least acknowledge that the Executive paid for this out of the Budget. The civic sector and —

Photo of Alex Maskey Alex Maskey Sinn Féin

— all the political parties —

Photo of Alex Maskey Alex Maskey Sinn Féin

— could not force the British Government to backtrack, but —

Photo of Alex Maskey Alex Maskey Sinn Féin

— this party and the other party across the House, whether we liked it or not —

Photo of Alex Maskey Alex Maskey Sinn Féin

— made £500 million available for —

Photo of Alex Maskey Alex Maskey Sinn Féin

— welfare protection.

Photo of Robin Newton Robin Newton Speaker

When the Member asks for and is granted an intervention, it should be short.

Photo of Eamonn McCann Eamonn McCann People Before Profit Alliance

I am sorry, but I am not going to get involved in a complex and heated row between Alex's party and others. I was not here when all of that happened —

Photo of Alex Maskey Alex Maskey Sinn Féin

At least acknowledge that the money was made available.

Photo of Eamonn McCann Eamonn McCann People Before Profit Alliance

I have acknowledged that. It is on that basis that we will not oppose the measure. As you said, it provides some mitigation. My point is additional to that: it is about the circumstances. I was not able to take in very easily the provision that I read out, but that is the language in the document. The sorts of people whom it will apply to are, for example, a single mother with three children who, when the relationship breaks up, wants to move house to somewhere nearer her own family — maybe nearer to her mum. She will be vulnerable — to use the word that everybody else has used — to this.

Photo of Christopher Stalford Christopher Stalford DUP

I am grateful to the Member for giving way. He is being very generous with his time. Having been subjected to that little sermon from Mr Maskey about the mitigations that we put in, does the Member agree that it then defies belief that you would remove the one mechanism — namely the Northern Ireland Executive — whereby you were able to put in mitigations to protect people?

Photo of Eamonn McCann Eamonn McCann People Before Profit Alliance

Again, that is an argument between the DUP and Sinn Féin. I will let a Member from Sinn Féin respond to that.

It is worth commenting that, if there is an intervention from Sinn Féin or the DUP, it is against the other major party. There has been finger-pointing and denunciation by one of the other. Harsh words have been spoken by each. Neither party can deny that that has been the tone of this discussion so far.

How distant seem the days when Arlene Foster and Martin McGuinness were co-authoring documents in the local press, telling us how wonderfully well everything was going and how destructive the people who suggested there were fundamental problems with this place were. And now, just three months since that article was released, we have the spectacle that we had this morning. People talk about the dysfunctionality. What they are referring to is the fact that we have two parties with different ideologies who basically hate one another and what one another stands for lashed together in an Executive. They are locked together in a loveless embrace from which they cannot escape. That is why we have had all this chaos over recent times; it has not just been to do with the particular circumstances in which things broke down over the RHI scheme.

One of the solutions, which was mentioned before, although I forget by whom, that would provide proper mitigation and a real solution would be if we had a sufficient number of social houses in Northern Ireland. If we had a crash programme of building social housing, through direct state intervention in the economy and the housing market, we could solve the problem or at least move very quickly towards the solution to the problem. Where would we get the money for that? Why not get rid of the stupid idea of abolishing corporation tax, which will cost hundred of millions of pounds with no guarantee whatsoever — no guarantee — that one job — one job — will be created as a result? Could we put that money into a crash programme for building social housing? I hesitate to mention the 490 million quid that has gone up in smoke, but that would have helped too, as would other moneys that are used for purposes the social relevance of which is far from clear to me.

If the state built houses like that, there would be a number of effects. It would reduce the housing benefit bill substantially, at a saving to the public purse. It would also have another effect. If you had that sort of programme of house building — I have made this point in the House before, but I will make it again because it is absolutely key to what we are talking about, including the cost of housing for ordinary people and how they can be helped to afford it — think about it for a minute, fellow Members. What do you need to build houses? You need land and bricks and so on, but you also need a lot of workers to put the houses together. You need bricklayers, you need carpenters, you need plumbers, you need painters, you need electricians, you need roofers, you need glaziers; you need a range of people with those old and traditional skills that we are losing. Putting them to work, bringing apprentices in and so forth would have a significant effect on the economic well-being of this area and of many citizens here.

Photo of Carál Ní Chuilín Carál Ní Chuilín Sinn Féin

I thank the Member for giving way. I completely agree with everything that he is saying, particularly around protections and public procurement programmes. I wonder why his party colleague stood outside Casement Park when £80 million of investment was going into the most deprived area, with all those protections for local people. Is it OK for us to build social houses but not dreams for people in the GAA?

Photo of Eamonn McCann Eamonn McCann People Before Profit Alliance

Come on, Carál, that is a different issue, as you know, coming from the area.

Photo of Eamonn McCann Eamonn McCann People Before Profit Alliance

You know that the issue had to do with the acceptability of the proportions of the stadium and the way that it was proposed.

Photo of Carál Ní Chuilín Carál Ní Chuilín Sinn Féin

You are supporting it now.

Photo of Eamonn McCann Eamonn McCann People Before Profit Alliance

I am certainly not supporting the scale it was when it was introduced, but I am not from there. You know an awful lot more about it than I do, and I suspect that Gerry Carroll knows as much as you, as do local people, so I will leave it to them in the interests of democracy. The positions that we take up in relation to the Casement refurbishment are not directly relevant to what we are saying today. People are not disqualified from taking one attitude or the other to the matter before us today, depending on where they stood in relation to Casement Park.

This will be my final point. I was struck by the number of Members who have spoken about their concerns for the most vulnerable. We use the phrase, "this will affect the most vulnerable", all the time. Of course, there is a certain kindness in that. It is difficult to object to the language, except in this sense. These people are referred to all the time as if they are helpless, as if they are people to whom we have to go and bail them out, take them by the hand and lead them towards the promised land. They are regarded as spectators at politics. "We have to help the most vulnerable and not hit them." I do not see them as the most vulnerable. I see the people who you are referring to as the basis for challenging the divided nature of our politics and the divided nature of this House that has given rise to the present hiatus. I hope to be able to say more about this, before this day is out, in relation to two of the other items that are coming before us.

Mainly what we mean when we say "vulnerable people" is people who are being oppressed by poverty. We are talking about people who do not have an adequate means of living. That is what it is. It is poverty that is the problem. It is lack of resources in individual families. That is what is going wrong when we consider that problem. I say to people in that position: yes, listen to the debates here; yes, read all the documents and so on. It is good to understand the detail on these things, but, if you want real change, organise yourselves to demand real change. The only time that we have had progressive change of any substantial nature in this country — in this part of the world — is when people got together and fought together and campaigned together for it.

Photo of Robin Newton Robin Newton Speaker 1:30 pm, 16th January 2017

Mr McCann, I have been very liberal. I understand that the debate is taking place today in particular political circumstances, but I ask Members, all Members, to return to the scope of the debate around the regulations.

Photo of Eamonn McCann Eamonn McCann People Before Profit Alliance

I am nearly finished. I do think, Mr Speaker, that, on this issue and some of the other matters before us, it is impossible to understand the issues that arise in relation to these things without seeing them in the overall context of economic policy generally and the funds made available, whether from Westminster or from Stormont.

I will say this to end. There is an awful lot of agreement here as well as bickering and finger-pointing. Everybody agrees that we must support the most vulnerable, while there are arguments about how we reached the present situation with regard to the bedroom tax. Everybody seems agreed. I do not think that there is anybody who has failed to say that they want to look after the most vulnerable and even that they entered politics precisely for the reason of defending the least well off and so forth. We are all brothers and sisters. I sometimes got the impression that we all want to storm the citadels of capitalism even though there is some disagreement about who has the right to lead the charge. I say that the people who should lead the charge are the people most affected by it, and I call on people outside the House in this situation that we are moving into, however it is.

I will deal with one other thing before I finish. The regulations last for four years, and I think that it was Alex who said that that is all that we can do because that is the end of the mandate and so forth. That is my point exactly. I want everybody to understand this. Can we please have nobody else talking about us having got rid of the bedroom tax? We have not got rid of the bedroom tax. The bedroom tax is here. That is the fact of the matter, and we could have a more sensible and objective debate if everybody accepted that and moved on the basis of that. Let us try to do that, Mr Speaker. As I said, I direct my remarks mainly at people outside here. I direct my remarks to the people directly affected by these matters. As we move forward in the debate and in the circumstances that we all find ourselves, I am sure, Mr Speaker, that you will be happy to chair and inform. I hope that I have not attacked anybody personally or unfairly in political terms. We need to proceed like that on an understanding and an acceptance that the bedroom tax is already here.

Photo of Jonathan Bell Jonathan Bell DUP

They say that a society can rightly be judged by how it looks after its most vulnerable members. I will not use any time allocated to me in the House to attack any fellow MLA. I think that there has been enough of that. I will attack the principle of those who would abuse social justice. Everyone in the House should, if we use the law of physics, realise that, in engineering terms, a chain is only as strong as its weakest link. We will then know that there are many people in our society, often through no fault of their own, who find themselves in a position of disadvantage and where they have families that they are responsible for and who have housing needs, which is one of the most basic of all human rights.

In earlier debates in the House, when we looked at the number of social houses being predicted by the Housing Executive and others of 8,800, we were right to say, "Let us try to do better". We did that and sought 9,600 social houses. Is that number adequate? There will always be an infinite demand on the public service to be met by a finite level of public resource. When we look at social justice, we have to look at the money that has been allocated to us and our stewardship of it.

Later today, we will look at one of the gravest financial scandals — the renewable heat incentive — which is proposed to cost the taxpayer £1·2 thousand million. We will turn to that issue. I have not spoken on it since I made one programme; I will speak to it again later today.

The regulations before us have to look at how we give merit to people to mitigate the disadvantage that they endure. We cannot spend the same pound twice. It is not the time for Alice-in-Wonderland politics and pretending that there is money out there that we do not have. All that does is to lead the most vulnerable people into a sense of false hope that something can be done, when everyone in the House knows that it cannot be done.

I pay tribute to Professor Eileen Evason and her team and those who had the vision to look at what devolution could do for Northern Ireland. Professor Evason is one of the foremost experts in the British Isles on welfare policy, and, on our behalf, she examined how we could help the most vulnerable in our society. We all wanted to do more but were determined never to make the perfect the enemy of the possible. Let me say that again: we were determined never to make the perfect the enemy of the possible. All of us wanted to do more but were not going to let that want stop us from doing anything at all.

The regulations have been very carefully crafted. I have watched civil servants, some of whom are in the House today, in Committee and at other times, when I had the privilege of sitting in the Northern Ireland Executive, work through the detail of what could be done, long into the night and the early hours of the morning. That is why I welcome the regulations because they are the best possible answer from Northern Ireland to the people who are oppressed. That is a strong word but it is the right word: there are people out there who are oppressed by poverty.

Like Christopher Stalford, I grew up in working-class Belfast. We know what it was like in those days to be given a different colour dinner ticket than the next person. That is because society decided that there was a need to give help to families. With social housing and regulations that can help people, there is no alternative but to go with these regulations. In so doing, we will give the very best to the most oppressed people. It should hurt and anger all of us, as I believe it angers God, when people are socially oppressed by poverty, have difficulty finding a house for their families and dealing with the very basic need of shelter. I like the fact that the measures are merited and targeted. I like the fact that, in every way that I have looked at this, due to the expertise in our Civil Service, we will today, from all sides of the House, deliver for the most vulnerable people the best that we can in the circumstances.

I started by saying that we must always stand by the most vulnerable. I can see no better way to do that than to do what is now proposed.

Photo of Paul Givan Paul Givan DUP

My sense is that, despite all that has gone on today — the content of the speeches — Members will support these regulations. I think that the public will appreciate that, despite all that has gone on, parties can set aside the party politicking that everyone has engaged in. People say that I engaged in party politics — of course I did as have Sinn Féin and every other party. Given the day that it is, that is not surprising. However, despite all that, we will pass regulations that will protect individuals from the financial reality of the consequences of the bedroom tax being introduced. I was very clear that I was not prepared to use the bedroom tax during any political campaign in the way in which it would have been had we not taken measures today. I spent night and day engaging with my officials on solutions to try to get round the fact that there is no Executive for me to bring regulations to.

I regret the fact that the Finance Minister engaged publicly on all this. On Thursday, when I had identified the way forward, I rang the Finance Minister. I spoke to him personally. I said that I had identified a way forward and that the regulations, the approach that we are taking today, would be the way forward. He indicated to me that he would take it to his Department and come back to me. His response? He published his permanent secretary's advice on social media. That is indicative of the way in which Sinn Féin has been handling these issues over the last week. The very clear agenda, which is much bigger than bedroom tax and much bigger than RHI, is its objective, which Barry McElduff summed up very well in his tweet about his "comrade" Martin and how he stands with him on his resignation, to achieve a united Ireland.

Unionists know what Sinn Féin is doing. Unionists know now exactly what the republican agenda is. I am not prepared to allow bedroom tax to be used during the campaign that will happen —

Photo of Paul Givan Paul Givan DUP

I can confirm what the Member for Foyle said earlier: the bedroom tax is coming into Northern Ireland. Sinn Féin agreed to it. Sinn Féin agreed to the introduction of the bedroom tax. Subsequently, we agreed to mitigate the consequences of the bedroom tax being introduced. As Alex Maskey outlined, it was an example of how this Executive were able to deal with issues that are important to our people. However, it is factually correct that the bedroom tax is being brought into Northern Ireland, and Sinn Féin agreed to it. We then agreed in the Executive to mitigate it. Other parties voted against that. That is the factual position.

Photo of Paul Givan Paul Givan DUP

Let me make some progress, and I will then give way.

In respect of other comments that Members made, I share the concern that Naomi Long and Stewart Dickson raised about the lack of scrutiny of these regulations. I agree: there has not been the normal scrutiny that we, as an institution, should be giving these regulations, and there is an element of risk associated with that. I, as Minister, will not say that there is no element of risk. I engaged with the Office of Legislative Counsel to get the regulations drafted, but the points about scrutiny are well made. However, given the circumstances, I believe that it is right for me to lay the regulations and for MLAs to vote on them.

Photo of Naomi Long Naomi Long Alliance

I thank the Minister for giving way. On that point, does the Minister agree with me that, if and when the Assembly is re-established, it would be wise for the Communities Committee to examine properly these regulations retrospectively because, if there are any issues with them, that risk could be mitigated at the earliest possible point?

Photo of Paul Givan Paul Givan DUP 1:45 pm, 16th January 2017

I agree to that. Should the Examiner of Statutory Rules, as has happened with regulations, identify that there could be issues, that is something that, obviously, the Assembly would need to deal with. People need to be honest in the debate. I need to be, I will be and I always am. The regulations are the best option in the circumstances we face, but they are by no means the most appropriate option in a normal functioning democracy for taking legislation through and giving it the scrutiny it requires.

Given the response made by Sinn Féin, I regret the way in which the Finance Minister engaged on this. Ultimately, I was right, and he was wrong. He was wrong in the advice he gave. Therefore, his credibility has been shot to pieces, as he has gone out repeatedly on a range of issues making promises. The approach that I am taking and that Members will vote on shoots his credibility through the floor. He has been wrong on a range of issues, and, rather than trying, as I have done in the unprecedented circumstances, to deal with bedroom tax — my Executive colleague Mr Hamilton is trying to deal with RHI, and we are bringing regulations forward — he should have been engaging in getting a Budget through as an emergency procedure. But, again, more important to Sinn Féin is the republican agenda that goes to the core of what its tactics have been and what this election is all about.

Photo of Mark Durkan Mark Durkan Social Democratic and Labour Party

I thank the Minister for giving way. We have gone a bit further than when I wanted to get in.

The Minister made a point — it is a point that has been made by his party colleagues and his estranged partners in government — about every other party in the Chamber voting against a £500 million mitigation fund. What parties voted against was the Fresh Start Agreement, which was foisted on the other Executive parties at the time, I have to say, 25 minutes or half an hour before an Executive meeting. This element of Fresh Start is very good — brilliant. Who would oppose mitigation of these draconian measures? However, we were not in a position to cherry-pick bits of it, and the other bits of it have well and truly unravelled. It is evident to everyone in here, everyone out there and everyone across the world that Fresh Start was a false dawn. Look where we are now.

Photo of Paul Givan Paul Givan DUP

I will not repeat the points, because today will be an incredibly long day; I have no doubt about that. I have put on record the factual position about the bedroom tax, which is coming and will be here, and the mitigation that the Executive rightly brought in and that other parties voted against because they were opposed to the agreement that allowed the mitigation measures to flow from it. We have been working on a range of mitigation measures. One of them that has not been brought forward — again, the plan was to introduce it — is the working tax allowance, for example, for low-paid workers. Without an Assembly, we will not be able to introduce a scheme that would allow approximately £100 million that was proposed by Eileen Evason to be spent out of that half a billion pound block.

The stakes are incredibly high for these institutions, and I do not underestimate the challenges in dealing with those mitigation measures in the future. Let us be under no illusion: the stakes are high for the very future of this Assembly. I believe wholeheartedly in devolution. People said we were not able to make it work, and we did for the past 10 years. This party, by introducing a range of measures, was able to make this place work, but Sinn Féin, for other reasons, because it does not see its agenda being advanced, now believes it can use other issues to weaken unionism. I trust the people of Northern Ireland. I never fear going to the electorate, and I believe it knows exactly the agenda being pursued by Sinn Féin. This party wants this place to work. We want devolution to succeed. I do not want to have direct rule, but I am very clear that we are going into a period of negotiations. Sinn Féin wants weak unionists: I trust the people to elect the right unionists.

Question put and agreed to. Resolved:

That the draft Housing Benefit (Welfare Supplementary Payment) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2017 be approved.

Photo of Robin Newton Robin Newton Speaker

The next item of business in the Order Paper is Question Time. I therefore propose, by leave of the Assembly, to suspend the sitting until 2.00 pm. The sitting is suspended.

Photo of Christopher Stalford Christopher Stalford DUP

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Has any indication been made to you or your office of the intention of the Minister of Finance and the Minister of Health to attend Question Time to answer questions about their Departments?

Photo of Robin Newton Robin Newton Speaker

I took a point of order on that from a Member first thing this morning. I have had no indication that the two Ministers will not attend. It is not actually a matter for the Speaker's Office in any case.

Photo of Robin Swann Robin Swann UUP

Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker.

Photo of Robin Newton Robin Newton Speaker

I am sorry: I took the point of order from Mr Stalford because it was right on the suspension. We are now suspended.

The sitting was suspended at 1.51 pm and resumed at 2.00 pm.

(Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr McGlone] in the Chair)