I beg to move
That the draft Welfare Supplementary Payment (Amendment) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2017 be approved.
The regulations are being brought in under article 137 of the Welfare Reform (Northern Ireland) Order 2015 and will amend existing regulations for the payment of welfare supplementary payments introduced during 2016. The Executive considered and approved the draft regulations at their 29 September 2016 meeting, and they had been scheduled for scrutiny by the Communities Committee on 12 January this year. However, the Committee did not meet on that date.
The regulations have been developed following publication of the welfare reform mitigations working group proposals on how the Executive should help those who are financially disadvantaged as a consequence of the changes to the welfare system. I thank Professor Evason and her colleagues on the working group for bringing forward these recommendations, which were subsequently endorsed by the Executive on 21 January last year.
Members will recall that, last year, the following mitigation regulations were approved by the Assembly: the Welfare Supplementary Payments Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2016; the Welfare Supplementary Payment (Loss of Disability-Related Premiums) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2016; the Welfare Supplementary Payment (Loss of Carer Payments) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2016; and the Welfare Supplementary Payment (Loss of Disability Living Allowance) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2016. Those regulations gave my Department the powers to make payments to households adversely financially impacted by the benefit cap, those affected by time-limiting of contributory employment and support allowance (ESA) and those affected by the introduction of personal independence payment (PIP).
The regulations for debate today are further amendments to the existing welfare supplementary payment regulations and cover various circumstances that could arise and for which provision was not made in the original regulations. Members will be aware that officials were asked by the Executive to ensure that the mitigating measures were put in place when the Westminster Government reforms were introduced. The regulations give my Department powers to cover circumstances not addressed in the original regulations and will not make any substantive change to the administration of the existing scheme.
The amendment regulations make the following provisions: to require the reporting of a change in certain circumstances; to set the effective date for a change of circumstances; to continue, reduce or cease welfare supplementary payments in certain circumstances; to deal with couples; to disregard sanctions; to allow welfare supplementary payments to be made to a landlord's agent or a person nominated to receive payments on a claimant's behalf; to allow information sharing with the Northern Ireland Housing Executive and Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs; to set a priority order for the payment of welfare supplementary payments for carers; to align welfare supplementary payments with housing benefit and to amend the definition of limited capability for work credit; and to effect the recovery of overpayments of welfare supplementary payments from future welfare supplementary payments by deduction from benefits, by deduction from earnings or via the courts. The regulations will help to ensure that mitigation payments are made under the appropriate legislation and that my Department makes regular and accurate mitigation payments to claimants impacted on by the changes to the welfare system.
I support the regulations, but the Minister will not be surprised that, because the regulations refer to the appeals process, I wish to take the opportunity to emphasise a point on which I have been in correspondence with his Department. It is about the fact that, to access a mitigation package, the necessary gateway is to go through the tribunals process and appeal a benefit decision. The Department has recognised that there will be a huge spike. I obtained figures from the Department that testify to the fact that the appeals forecast for this year is just under 12,000. That rises to almost 33,000 next year, in 2018-19 it rises to over 41,000, and it goes on. The Minister recognised that and increased investment in the physical infrastructure of tribunals, but there remains a gap around advice workers who are specifically trained to assist people through the tribunals process. In Belfast alone, 30,000 people will go through the appeals process this year, so I urge the Minister to look again at the issue and, if possible, bring forward ring-fenced funding to ensure that people who have specific training in the tribunals process are there to help to navigate our most vulnerable citizens through a very daunting and complex process.
This is the second example in the course of the day of the potential for devolution to be used in a positive and constructive way to aid those in most need. I welcome the fact that the Minister has brought the measures forward. I am glad to support them, and I urge all parties to do likewise. It is important, even in probably the last hour and a half of devolution, that we can use the institutions in this way. I am glad that the Minister has outlined the detail that he has to the House.
I, too, welcome the regulations. Like Nichola Mallon, particularly in relation to giving independent advice on benefits entitlement, I urge the Minister to follow Belfast City Council's example not just in respect of independent advice services for north Belfast but in respect of similar services across the North. When new regulations come in, it is incumbent on the Department to ensure that, where there are changes in circumstances, particularly to the way in which benefits are brought in, there is help and support. I also urge the Minister and his Department to make sure that there is a greater focus on error rather than just the primary focus on fraud.
I noted that the Minister said that this was in keeping with the regulations on personal independence payments. Yet, PIPs were introduced, as will other benefits, without regulations. It goes back to the comment that he made earlier about my party colleague, Máirtín Ó Muilleoir.
Máirtín was right: those things were brought in without regulations. The Minister — I will not go as far as saying the Attorney General also — is tripping himself up. Maybe he could find 50 grand down the back of his sofa for the advice services. Maybe if they were provided in Orange halls, they would have a better opportunity of getting supported.
I want a better and greater focus on entitlement for people who are entitled to benefits. I want to make sure that he and his Department — I have absolutely no difficulty in saying this — place a greater emphasis on error in the Department, particularly when new transitional arrangements are being made and that claimants living in poverty are not penalised for inefficiencies as the regulations roll out.
I am glad to see the regulations, however, because if they help make it clearer for people how to get access to benefits, all the better. However, I urge the Minister to give additional support, particularly to the advice sector.
The Alliance Party is content to support the regulations, although with similar caveats to those that we attached in the previous debate on the bedroom tax. It is bitterly disappointing that two flawed parties in the same Government are presenting these regulations to us today: one, perhaps with the exception of the bedroom tax, that is more keen to back its Tory mates at Westminster; the other that is just dodging its responsibilities on welfare reform by not going to Westminster at all.
I want to concentrate on the situation that many advice services and charities will find themselves in over the next few months. Not only will they be incredibly burdened by the need to support some of the most vulnerable claimants through the torturous process of claim, appeal and tribunals but they themselves, as charities and organisations that support the vulnerable, will wonder where the next penny is coming from for them when it comes to the Budget for Northern Ireland and the failure of the two Government parties to provide a Budget.
That, in turn, will have the most severe of knock-on effects on those organisations that depend on our Budget and the arm's-length bodies and others that hand out resources to them. I think of organisations like Citizens Advice, Disability Action and many other voluntary and community organisations across the Province, which will be struggling and wondering where their resources are going to come from to deal with some of their most vulnerable clients when the regulations come into force. We support the regulations.
Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. When I picked this date to deliver my maiden speech, I could not have predicted the circumstances under which it is being made and the political fiasco that is happening.
I was elected by the people of South Belfast to represent them. South Belfast should be held up as a model for the rest of Northern Ireland, because it is the most diverse community that we have. That is represented in the six seats being held by five parties. Maybe the next election will bring a total balance of five from five. Who knows?
I am a long-time resident of south Belfast. When Lagan College, Northern Ireland's first integrated school, opened its doors in south Belfast, I am pleased to say that my sister and I were two of the first 28 pupils to attend the school. My children have been through that school. It is one of the most oversubscribed schools in Northern Ireland, yet it is still a bit disappointing to see that integrated schooling is not the norm or an opportunity that is available for the majority of children in Northern Ireland.
On the doorsteps during the last election campaign, I invited people to start to vote for something rather than against something. There is a long history of voters in Northern Ireland voting tactically. They tend to vote for something in order to keep something else out, and they then end up with something that they did not want in the first place. I was really honoured that, by going out with a message and giving something else as an alternative, I was returned in the fourth seat.
I pledged to the people of South Belfast that I would work hard on equality issues and for human rights compliant legislation, particularly for women. Women in Northern Ireland suffer from a lack of legislative protections in many areas. We know fine well that we have a lack of women in public life in Northern Ireland and that the numbers have been seen to decrease since the institutions and the peace process began. In my previous job, I worked for an organisation that helps those who have been sexually abused or raped. Its figures show that a quarter of women and children in Northern Ireland should expect to be sexually abused at some stage in their lives. I have worked long and hard with Women's Aid in Northern Ireland. Its statistics show that a quarter of our population will suffer some form of domestic abuse at some stage in their life — usually in their own home, a place of safety for many.
When you put the statistics together, it starts to tell a story. Here in Northern Ireland, a woman is more likely to face a pregnancy as a result of rape than to ever face her abuser in a court of law. Through this House, we continue to afford her no reproductive rights or choice when she faces that situation. On the small legal application of reproductive rights and the right to choose a termination, we have Marie Stopes and the Family Planning Association, both situated in south Belfast. People trying to access those services constantly have to negotiate through protestors who continue a concerted campaign of hate and harassment, yet our laws seem unable to do much to stop it.
Despite all the other jurisdictions across the UK — Scotland, England and Wales — and of course Ireland making moves and introducing equal marriage, so many in this House still refuse to acknowledge that LGBT people here in Northern Ireland are still not seen as equals in the eyes of our laws. I was pleased to be given a place on the Justice Committee. I am very glad to see the Minister, the Department and the Committee making strident moves to try to tackle some of this inequality. We were working on stalking legislation. We were working on Northern Ireland's first ever laws to address domestic violence. I was also working on a private Member's Bill to try to bring the campaign of intimidation outside reproductive health centres to an end. These are all wasted opportunities now, but I will stay and continue to keep my promises to the people of Northern Ireland to do all that I can for a community that I am very proud to represent.
South Belfast has an image of being a very affluent and leafy suburb, but we need to remember that south Belfast also has some of the most socially and economically deprived wards in Northern Ireland. It has a high percentage of people who are in receipt of state benefits due to unemployment, disability, caring responsibilities or simply our low-wage economy. We see from figures published recently that south Belfast claimants already suffer disproportionately from benefit sanctions. In response to this motion, I would like to say that, before the Executive give themselves powers to roll out these new welfare reforms and remove supports from our most vulnerable, they should perhaps take a look at themselves, put their own house in order and address some of their own financial fiascos.
It says here that no one here will be impacted by the benefit cap. This is not true. Fewer people will be impacted than otherwise would have been the case. Nevertheless, we should not make absolute statements when the facts do not justify them. One of the key facts about all this is that, as child benefit and child tax credit regulations are lifted from across the water, it will mean that people who have more than two children will be penalised. This is what 'The Guardian' has called the two-child policy. It will operate here. Remember, Northern Ireland is the area on these islands that has the highest proportion of families with three or more children. That particular cut and that particular provision will impact more on Northern Ireland than anywhere else.
Paragraph 7 or article 7 — whatever it is — of this document, under "Financial Implications", states:
"Welfare Supplementary Payments in respect of Benefit Cap are based on providing protection for existing claimants for up to four years so that they do not experience financial disadvantage as a result of the Benefit Cap."
I draw attention to the phrase "existing claimants". That very clearly makes this mitigation available to existing claimants. The fact that it does not simply say "claimants" leads me to believe that what we are entering here and the logic of the wording of this provision is that we will have a two-tier system that depends on whether you are claiming now before it comes in or whether you start claiming afterwards. That is socially divisive and illogical, and it should be removed. If we have time to do that in this mandate, we would set out to do it.
I want to underline a point that was made by Nichola Mallon and others to do with representation at tribunals and appeals. I do not know how many Members — probably lots of them — have been involved in this type of representation, whether it is industrial tribunals in relation to problems at work or appeals against assessments by private companies like Atos of whether you are fit to go to work. If you are alive at all and can breathe, Atos will sometimes tell you that you are fit to go to work as a coal miner or something else. There are a lot of appeals there and a lot of appeals in relation to matters that are more directly relevant to the issue that we are discussing at the moment. Anybody who has been involved in that sort of representation or who has talked to people seeking representation, whether through the trade union movement or elsewhere — I have done loads of representations, more through the trade union movement than through my capacity as an MLA — will know that proper representation makes an absolutely enormous difference to people. In case after case after case, it makes the difference between winning an appeal and getting some sort of justice and not winning it at all and having to live with the outcome. Do you want to come in, Mark?
I thank the Member very much for giving way. The Member has eloquently and accurately pointed out that these mitigations, as welcome as they are, will not render everyone, every household and every family here in Northern Ireland immune to welfare cuts. Will the Member agree with me that this was made inevitable by the legislative consent motion that was passed in the Assembly and handed welfare powers to the Tories?
Anybody passing control of this area of public policy to the Tories was very naive if they did not regard it as inevitable coming from the Tories. Of course that is the case. This did not happen by accident. It did not happen without the cooperation or connivance of parties in the House. It does disadvantage new claimants here, and we should stop saying that these mitigations apply and that nobody will be impacted by the benefit cap. Not true. That has not been achieved, and the reason why it has not been achieved is that the issue did not have a sufficiently high political priority in the Assembly. It is a bit redundant now to say that this should be revisited and so forth, but I will say that the levels of social injustice indicated in this two-tier system of mitigation reflect the reality of our society over a whole range of policies and a whole range of ways of winning a living in our society.
The collapse of the Assembly because of RHI reflects something more fundamental. People keep talking about the dysfunctional nature of the Sinn Féin-DUP Government. It is more than that and deeper: it is the dysfunctional nature of a system that is based entirely on trying to reconcile orange and green politics. It is necessary under our political system that people identify themselves as either orange or green to have any real impact. We, the Green Party and the Alliance Party do not count in crucial votes; people registered as "other" are just dismissed. We literally do not count — we are not taken into account — when dealing with this issue and a whole range of others. If we want to make a real difference — if we think that there is any possibility of another Assembly mandate becoming a reality — people who define themselves as "other" should be given the same privileges as the orange and green sides. In other words, let us imagine that the Alliance Party, the Green Party and People Before Profit returned with 50% of the seats. How would the Assembly operate? How would petitions of concern operate?
I do not think that I have strayed as far from the subject as some. Some did not touch on the subject at all. At least I mentioned it before going on to extrapolate from it.
Where was I? What is wrong with our politics on this matter and others is this: the agreement and the whole structure of the Assembly and Executive require people to think in terms of orange and green. The whole nature of the agreement and the arrangements are designed to compartmentalise all of Northern Ireland society into green and orange camps and to privilege that. The whole basis of our politics is to try to get those two tribes and their representatives to work together. What we need is an increase in the non-tribal MLA element in the Assembly and elsewhere. That requires prioritising different issues and different matters. That is what People Before Profit will be doing. We base our politics on what is happening below — on the street, in factories, offices, schools and colleges. We will still prioritise that. We will be active, Assembly or no Assembly, in preaching the divine gospel of discontent in Northern Ireland. We believe that we will make advances and achieve more through the mobilisation of ordinary people to pursue their own interests, whether there is an Assembly at the end of the week or not.
I will deal with some of the issues that have been raised. Just to pick up on where we left off, I do not think that anybody in the unionist community believes for one moment that People Before Profit is anything but green through and through. He can preach all he likes about orange and green. The history of People Before Profit is very clear: its politics are green to the core.
"Flowers are red young man Green leaves are green There's no need to see flowers any other way Than the way they always have been seen. But the little boy said ... There are so many colours in the rainbow So many colours in the morning sun So many colours in the flower and I see every one."
What the Minister needs to do is to develop some sort of perspective, maybe through a form of 3D glasses or an adaptation of them, to see the world and Northern Ireland in terms other than orange and green.
That was a lovely song from Bernadette Devlin's former election agent.
The regulations enable the Department to implement accurate and timely mitigation payments to assessed claimants impacted on by welfare reform. The measures mean that claimants will be given time to adjust to the impact of welfare reform by providing financial support for up to four years. The measures are unique to Northern Ireland and demonstrate our determination to protect the most vulnerable, putting us ahead of the rest of the United Kingdom in our efforts to do so.
Members raised a range of issues, and I will do my best to address some of them. Nichola Mallon raised a point about her correspondence with me about Belfast Citywide. I have tasked my officials with exploring that issue. Some £2 million was made available for independent advice on welfare reform. An issue has arisen around Belfast Citywide, and I have asked my officials to see whether that can be looked into.
I move on to other issues that Members raised. Clare Bailey made her maiden speech eight months into the job. She outlined what some realise is on the ballot paper. I want to be very clear in dealing specifically with the points that Clare Bailey raised. When we talk about abortion, I will always protect life and act to defend life. When we talk about marriage, I am very clear that I will always stand with the definition of marriage as being between one man and one woman. That does not make me anti-anybody; it puts me squarely behind where I believe our values, as a society, should be. I will not change my position. Sinn Féin talks about LGBT rights as one of the reasons for what it is doing. There will be no compromise on my part when it comes to dealing with abortion and marriage. I will always protect life.
No, I will not give way.
The Member also raised a point to do with those who are sexually abused. I agree that that is an appalling thing to happen to people. Only last week, I had a meeting with Survivors and Victims of Institutional Abuse (SAVIA) about the report that is due to be released. The pain that came through in their voices because of what is happening, with Sinn Féin walking away from the Executive, was palpable. Sinn Féin needs to be held to account for that, too. It has put party over people. That is what is happening.
Carál Ní Chuilín's attack on me was just a continuation of the attempt to assassinate my character that has been led by Gerry Adams and taken on by Máirtín Ó Muilleoir, who made some outrageous comments on the radio about me as an individual. I will stand with my record for the public to decide on. I will not be pigeonholed by those sitting opposite me as to how I conduct myself on behalf of the people whom I represent. Let us remember that Carál Ní Chuilín stripped money from the musical instrument scheme — she stopped it. Did we collapse the institutions? No, we did not. Carál Ní Chuilín jumped on officials in her Department when it came to safety concerns at Casement Park. Officials came forward because they wanted to ensure that there was no repetition at Casement of the Hillsborough disaster. What was Sinn Féin's response through Carál Ní Chuilín? It was to jump on those officials. I will not take lectures from Sinn Féin on these issues, particularly on sectarianism. What did Carál Ní Chuilín do when Sandy Row and other clubs came forward to speak about sectarianism and bigotry in the Irish boxing association? She denied it. This is a party that now has the temerity to accuse others on issues of respect, equality and sectarianism. I do not think so.
I refer Members to what happened to Mordecai and the plot that Haman went about to build the gallows to get Mordecai. We know the republican plot; you are building the gallows. History shows what happened in that story. We are prepared; we will go to the country.