Increased Financial Burden on Workers, Families and Pensioners

Private Members' Business – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 3:45 pm on 14th September 2021.

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Photo of Caoimhe Archibald Caoimhe Archibald Sinn Féin 3:45 pm, 14th September 2021

I beg to move

That this Assembly is firmly committed to a fair economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic; recognises the damage to our health and social care (HSC) as a result of a legacy of British Government austerity; further recognises the need to rebuild our health and social care services as we emerge from this pandemic; expresses its deep concern that the British Government intend to tax the least-well-off through increases in National Insurance contributions and reduced increases in pension; and calls on the British Government to remove the burden for funding health and social care from ordinary workers, families and pensioners and to place this, instead, on the many companies and individuals who have made huge profits during or from the pandemic.

Photo of Alex Maskey Alex Maskey Sinn Féin

The Business Committee has agreed to allow up to one and a half hours for the debate. The proposer of the motion will have 10 minutes to propose and 10 minutes in which to make a winding-up speech. All other Members who wish to speak will have five minutes.

Photo of Caoimhe Archibald Caoimhe Archibald Sinn Féin

I am glad to have the opportunity to bring the motion before the House today. Hopefully, it will gain unanimous support across the Chamber and send a message that the Assembly opposes the measures announced by the British Government last week, which put the burden of paying for the pandemic on lower- and middle-income workers, families and pensioners.

I have no doubt that everyone recognises the need to adequately fund our health and social care services and their transformation to ensure that people can receive the care they need when they need it and that those who are most vulnerable are looked after. We also have to recognise that a decade of British Government austerity has deeply damaged our public services. The removal of over £1·5 billion from our block grant damaged the Executive's ability to properly fund our public services, including health and social care services. Delivering on the necessary transformation of our health services will require investment, not cuts.

The British Government's response to the pandemic, spending billions of pounds supporting jobs and public services, betrays once and for all that austerity was always a policy choice and never a necessity. Now, of course, the former champions of austerity, including the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Bank and other financial institutions, have recognised that it does not work and are on the same page about financial stimulus being required to drive recovery. Now is not the time for punitive taxes on low-paid workers; now is the time for government investment to stimulate economic recovery. This Tory Government, however, are cynically using the current crisis to introduce these taxes on an emotive issue such as social care, wrecking their own manifesto pledges in doing so, although, from any rational person's perspective, no pledge from Boris Johnson or his Tory cronies is worth the paper that it is written on or the ink that it takes to report what he says.

The 1·25% increase in National Insurance contributions (NICs) means that, from next April, you will pay 13·25% on income below £50,000, with no increase on the higher-level rate for the proportion of income over £50,000, meaning that the impact of the increase will be felt worse by those on lower incomes. Let us face it: that includes many of our front-line key workers, such as our carers, our nurses, our retail workers and our utility workers. Those who led from the front to get us through the pandemic will now shoulder the burden of bad fiscal and spending decisions by consecutive British Tory Governments, and the DUP and the UUP have both played a role in supporting those Tories over that time, the DUP most recently through its confidence-and-supply arrangement.

The increase in National Insurance contributions will also hit smaller businesses, which, of course, make up the vast majority of businesses here. The head of the Federation of Small Businesses (FSB) in Britain has described the increase as "anti-jobs, anti-small business, anti-start-up". It is not what our businesses need coming out of the past 18 months. It is not what the economy needs as we try to deliver a recovery, and it is certainly not the "Build back better" that we have all heard so much talk about.

The increase in National Insurance contributions will be replaced after a year by the health and social care levy at the same rate, so our young people — those just entering the workplace and those who are working towards buying their own home and starting a family — will foot the bill for bad government decisions for decades. The tax increases come at the same time as the British Government are ploughing ahead with the cut to universal credit that will also hit lower-income workers and families at a time when the cost of living, in particular the cost of electricity and heating our homes, is soaring. What did Thérèse Coffey, the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, suggest that workers do to cover the cost of the cut in universal credit? Apparently, they should work a few extra hours. Talk about being out of touch.

Contrast the target of those tax increases with the other end of the financial spectrum. Over the course of the pandemic, the number of billionaires in Britain jumped by 24%, and their combined wealth increased by 22%, up over £106 billion, which is about nine years' worth of Executive Budgets. What have the British Government proposed as progressive measures to ensure that those who are most able to afford it pay their fair share? A big fat zero. Nothing. Last year, I proposed that the British Government should introduce a windfall tax on companies that were benefiting from the pandemic, and, in fact, there was talk in advance of the Budget in March that there were some murmurings that the British Chancellor was looking at an online sales tax aimed at the likes of Amazon, ASOS and Deliveroo, all of which had seen sales soar during the pandemic. There was also talk of an excessive profits tax. Neither of those things materialised. One can only assume that they were for the optics, or else such suggestions were slapped down by big companies. Meanwhile, Amazon, which saw its sales increase by about £1 billion over the year, paid just £3·8 million more in tax. The British Chancellor announced an increase in corporation tax in March, but he gave businesses a reprieve by not introducing that increase until 2023, in order to give them some time to recover. Workers have been afforded no such luxury.

Paying for the pandemic now rests on the shoulders of workers, and those who are lowest paid are carrying a disproportionate share of the burden. No such measures are imposed on wealth, and there are no attempts to tighten tax loopholes. Boris Johnson and this British Government make their policy decisions with their millionaire and billionaire friends in mind and with one and a half eyes on their investment portfolios. The Executive's limitations when it comes to revenue raising means that those decisions directly influence our Budgets and our ability to fund our priorities. That is why the Finance Minister has put in place the fiscal commission, an important initiative that, I hope, will pave the way for the devolution of greater fiscal powers. However, the reality is that, while we are tied to the British Government's budgetary cycles and rules, we remain limited in how we can fund the needs of people here.

Over recent months, I have heard and seen commentary from some who like to limit discussion and debate on Irish unity or assume some sort of moral high ground. They say such things as, "We need to deal with the real issues facing people". By that, they mean seeing a GP, the cost of school uniforms, university fees or access to mental health services. We need to deal with those issues, but, for me, those issues are fundamentally why I advocate Irish unity and constitutional change. We need to have the ability to make our own decisions about what is best for the people of this island, what to fund and how to fund it for ourselves and not to be at the whim of a Tory Chancellor or British Government who make decisions with neither interest in nor knowledge of what is best for people here. We have an alternative, and we can do better for all whom we represent by ending the British Government's role in our affairs and by debating, discussing and shaping a new and united Ireland together. I urge Members to support the motion.

Photo of Paul Frew Paul Frew DUP

It is important that we debate the issues; they are important to our people. Inevitably, when decisions are taken by Governments, especially in what could be termed "emergency sessions", it is the working people and the most vulnerable who pick up the tab and carry the can. The Tory Party has certainly lost the run of itself and can no longer be construed as being conservative in nature.

I can support and agree with many aspects of the motion. We need:

"a fair economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic" and the lockdown measures that were implemented by not only the Westminster Government but this House. Those measures hurt businesses and business people. They were able to put their staff on furlough, but, in many cases, they could not obtain any grant funding or support.

I also support the aspect of the motion that:

"further recognises the need to rebuild our health and social care services as we emerge from this pandemic; expresses its deep concern that the British Government intend to tax the least well-off through increases in National Insurance contributions and reduced increases in pension".

I agree with that because the problem with the health and social care levy is not that it tries to find a practical way forward — we need a practical way forward — but that it represents regressive and unfair taxation. It applies a flat rate increase in National Insurance contributions to everyone but ultimately grants the rewards to those who are better off. It benefits those who have the most assets. Those who have more wealth in financial assets, rather than in their main home, will continue to be worse off. The levy will support those who can benefit immediately and will disproportionately hit young people, because state and private pensions will not be counted when calculating it. The working pensioners who have held low-paid jobs to support their retirement savings will be disadvantaged, and it will place additional costs on employers at a time when the focus should be on recovery and renewal. That is what the Tory Government should look at; that is what we should encourage them to do. We should do everything that we can to endeavour to mitigate the worst excesses of those decisions and to ensure that our working people, their families and the most vulnerable in this society are looked after and protected as best we can.

Make no mistake about it: the COVID emergency that we have just come through and the lockdown measures that have been applied by the House have brought pain, and more pain is coming. Pain costs, and, when pain costs, try shifting the onus and burden from working families — just try. I have yet to see the party opposite or, for that matter, any other party shift the burden from the working people. They are the very people whom we need to protect. They are the people who will grow the economy and put bread on the table for their young people.

I ain't seen anything yet. That disturbs me, because I want to see an effective Assembly and Executive.

The party opposite that tabled the motion does well to do so, but its Members sit here and lecture the British Government. They have the opportunity to go to Westminster and vote against some of those very measures, and they will not. The Member opposite talks about a united Ireland, but all I hear from Sinn Féin about the Republic of Ireland are utterances about the debacles that go on and the basket case that it is. You cannot have it both ways. You cannot ride two horses and get away with it. Even though you try to be populist in everything that you do, somewhere along the line, the rubber will hit the road and people will see through your populist policies. It is a bit of a straw man argument to propose motions here but not go to Westminster to fight against the measures.

Photo of Sinead McLaughlin Sinead McLaughlin Social Democratic and Labour Party

I support the motion. Who in their right mind would not? We used to hear the British Government Ministers say, "We are all in this together". It is no wonder that they seem to have stopped saying that, as it is clearly not true.

Loading extra National Insurance contributions on to our low-paid workers is unfair and unjust. A low-paid worker who earns about £200 a week pays National Insurance contributions at about 12%, yet a chief executive who earns £1,000 or even £2,000 a week pays National Insurance on their salary at about 2%. National Insurance is a tax where the rate comes down the more that you earn. It is a prime example of an unfair tax. If the British Government wanted to generate additional revenues to pay for the National Health Service and social care, one solution is clear and very obvious: they should charge National Insurance to the highest paid at the same rate as the lowest paid. How novel is that?

Another option is to increase the tax on unearned investment income. That, of course, would not suit the Conservative Party donors. In reality, the main purpose of the British Government's rise in National Insurance payments is to protect the assets of wealthy Conservative Party supporters, particularly those around the South of England, from using what they earn and have in their bank accounts to pay for social care in their old age.

Our poorest citizens here are about to be hit by an extraordinary amount of pain with the proposed cut to universal credit. I appeal to Minister Hargey to listen to my constituency colleague Mark Durkan and to fund the continuation of the £20 uplift through her devolved welfare powers.

Another phrase that we do not hear very much any longer is "build back better". We know why that is too. That ambition has gone. We can see government investment in our future economy falling instead of rising. When the United States and the European Union are planning massive — I mean massive — injections of cash into their infrastructure, the British Government are scaling back their aspirations. We will not be hearing any more of the absolute nonsense about the Boris bridge or the Boris tunnel, because it ain't happening.

Yet, just as there is a clear solution on how to increase revenue for health and social care, there is a clear solution to providing a better future. The British Government and the Departments in the North of Ireland must invest in that future. That means that the Minister of Finance must release the funds needed to renew our infrastructure, and it means that the Minister for the Economy and the Minister for Communities must invest in our energy future by putting much more money into home insulation and energy efficiency, cutting our energy use and investing in a diverse supply of renewable energy. That can protect our citizens from the fuel poverty that is about to get worse this winter, with the shocking and eye-watering rise in gas, electricity and oil prices. Those are not coming: they are here, and our people will have to pay them.

It is essential that we focus on the future. The climate change protest at Stormont yesterday should remind us all of that. Please let us have no more threats from the DUP about the collapse of these institutions, which should never have been collapsed by Sinn Féin. Instead, let us get steely. Let us really get into delivery mode, reform and investment. We need to get our own programme for reforming healthcare delivery and addressing the already emerging climate crisis, which is likely to worsen the health outcomes for the constituents whom we serve. Let us get back to our job.

Photo of Steve Aiken Steve Aiken UUP

I thank my friend the Chairperson of the Economy Committee for tabling the motion. We in the House all agree that we need to see a fair economic recovery from the COVID pandemic. Indeed, we can also clearly see the benefits of being part of the United Kingdom, with over £3·6 billion to date in additional support being provided directly and hypothecated since the crisis began. It is noteworthy that the support that we have received for being part of our nation far outstrips that which we could have expected if we were not part of our United Kingdom. That said — this is recognised by all fair-minded people in Northern Ireland — we also have to deal with the horrendous waiting lists that our National Health Service faces and the challenge in how we pay for our social care services. That means that we have to raise additional moneys on a United Kingdom basis. That will probably cost £36 billion or more. The questions are these: where does that additional funding come from, and how can it be raised in as fair a way as possible?

There are further questions about the removal of the additional £20 for universal credit, the significant impact of rising fuel and energy costs and the very real issue of a rise in fuel poverty, particularly among those who will be most impacted by the proposed increases in National Insurance contributions. The UUP is no friend to many of Boris Johnson's ill-thought-out plans, and we must, indeed, add our opposition to the proposal to raise National Insurance contributions. It is noteworthy that Paul Johnson, head of the Institute for Fiscal Studies, as well as our Independent Fiscal Commission have argued that funding social care just from National Insurance would be very inequitable. It would hit those of working age while protecting pensioners, even though it is for something designed to benefit people well over pension age. Even somebody as august as the Archbishop of Canterbury stated that Boris Johnson's plans to increase National Insurance contributions to raise around £12 billion for the National Health Service and social care could pose a "serious problem" for low-income workers and that to privilege wealthy pensioners over the poorest young people was "not a people-centred policy".

We know that National Insurance causes lots of problems. We know that individuals do not have to pay National Insurance after they reach state pension age, so the burden lies on younger people. We know that lower earners pay more for a National Insurance rise than an income tax rise. We know that as National Insurance is levied from earnings and not from unearned income, those in work would have to contribute more. For example, those who get income from renting out property, owning a business or having investments would not have to contribute. Incomes from pensions would also not be covered. That could lead to a 21-year-old earning £50,000 paying £404, whereas a 66-year-old pensioner with an income of £50,000 would not have to pay anything. It would also deepen the gap between employees and the self-employed.

Given that the change is inequitable, what do we need to do to raise much-needed funds for our health and social care services? How should we do that, given that £36 billion over the next three years is a conservative estimate of the level of funding required for our nation? The move should have been towards raising additional funds through modest increases in income tax, thereby spreading the tax burden across those who can best afford it. We also should have looked critically at an examination of a one-off windfall tax on online retailers, the pharma and healthcare sectors and other sectors that have shown excessive profits during the pandemic. There is a precedent, and we should follow it.

We should also be calling clearly for the rescinding of the cut in universal credit and looking at how we might help those facing severe fuel poverty.

Given that, with an 80-seat majority, the Conservative Government have already pushed the measures through, it is difficult to see how we can further challenge them. As Sinn Féin, of course, refuses to represent its constituents in Parliament, it is left to the other parties to do so. What we can and must do is to make sure that the Barnett consequential that is raised for health and social care is used precisely for that. We cannot be seen to fritter away the increase of around £400 million a year on anything but health. That would be a dereliction of care to the most vulnerable. We must ensure that that does not happen. I call on all our parties here to commit to making sure that the additional £400 million is, and remains, ring-fenced for the use of our most vulnerable and our health service.

Photo of Kellie Armstrong Kellie Armstrong Alliance

I thank Dr Archibald for tabling the motion on a very important issue. On behalf of Alliance, I confirm from the outset that we will support it. I will discuss the impact of the tax increase. Later, my colleague, the Alliance health spokesperson, Paula Bradshaw MLA, will go into more detail about the health and social care system. As the motion states, the people most impacted by the Government's changes to National Insurance and pensions will be the least well off.

I will speak to National Insurance first. The HM Revenue and Customs policy paper on the health and social care levy confirms that the people most likely to be affected are employers, employees and the self-employed who are liable to pay National Insurance contributions, and individuals who would be liable to pay National Insurance contributions were it not for the pension age restrictions. That means that anyone who pays Class 1, 1A, 1B or 4 will be affected by the increase. Employees who earn more than £184 a week and are under state pension age will be affected, as will employers who pay Class 1A and 1B contributions directly on their employees' expenses or benefits and self-employed people who earn profits of £9,569 or more a year.

The Government were disingenuous when they affirmed that the increase would be 1·25 percentage points. They did not make it clear that that does not equate to a 1·25% increase but, instead, means that employers will see their contributions go up by 1·25 percentage points from 13·8% to 15·3% of wages. Across the UK from next April, for every £1,000 in a typical wage slip, a further £12·50 will be removed from employees before they get their pay. The HMRC report confirms that individuals' actual losses may have an impact on people's family formation, stability or breakdown, as individuals who are just about managing financially see their incomes reduced.

Turning to pensions, the Government's decision to stall the triple-lock protection for one year shows how they will use their majority to do what they want. The triple lock was supposed to be protected and maintained under this Government. Is it protected? No, it is not. The Government have confirmed a one-year suspension of the triple lock for annual state pension increases. The triple lock is a formula used to guarantee that pensioners' incomes rise by either September's rate of inflation, earnings growth or a minimum of 2·5%, whichever is larger. However, the Government confirmed that the average earnings component would be disregarded in 2022-23, as it was last year, and that the rise will be replaced temporarily by a double lock, linked to either inflation or 2·5%. We know that pensioners were on track to get a record boost, but the Government's announcement means that they will not have it. That is an actual detriment to someone's pension.

Why is this an issue? Clearly, the Government, with their majority, can do what they want. They have broken electoral promises to protect the triple lock. The Institute of Fiscal Studies has said that more tax hikes could be on the cards. This must not degenerate into an issue of wealthy older people versus poor younger people, however. As the Archbishop of Canterbury stated:

"If we — as it were — privilege the wealthy older against the poorest younger, that will not work. That's not a people-centred policy. The policy needs to be centred on people and care for the poorest, as well as ensuring that we have an embedded system that will work and is acceptable to all."

As others have said, this comes at a time when energy costs are soaring and are expected to continue to rise. There is the impact of the end of furlough and the expected increase in the number of people having to apply for universal credit and having to suffer for at least five weeks before benefits are paid. The cost of living is higher than pre-Brexit and pre-COVID times. Families are hammered by increasing childcare costs, and do not get me started on school uniforms. The prices are astronomical, yet the Assembly has not made any progress to stop schools — the schools that we fund — from putting families into poverty over the sake of a jumper and a blazer.

There is the end of the £20 per week COVID uplift, which will hit families the most. This is important to note: a third of people on universal credit are in work, a third are looking for work and a third cannot work due to sickness, disability or terminal illness. It is simply not those who are not in work who are impacted; it is the working poor — people already struggling financially. This is at a time when business is trying to recover from COVID and to deal with the fallout caused by Brexit.

We heard from Carál Ní Chuilín, in the question that she had answered by the Health Minister, that pensioners are faced with independent nursing home costs rising to up to £822 per week.

Photo of Kellie Armstrong Kellie Armstrong Alliance

Pensioners are being hit by this, too.

Photo of Alex Maskey Alex Maskey Sinn Féin

Thank you. Members, as this is Pádraig Delargy's first opportunity to speak as a private Member, I remind the House that it is convention that a maiden speech is made without interruption.

Photo of Pádraig Delargy Pádraig Delargy Sinn Féin

Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I want to begin by saying how honoured I am to be addressing this debate on behalf of the constituents of Foyle. As a newly selected Sinn Féin MLA, I am determined to be a voice for the people of Foyle — a voice to demand first-class health services, particularly in regard to mental health; more affordable social housing; and job creation.

I will use my role as an MLA to encourage young people to play an active part in their communities and to help to create opportunities and futures for them. Today's debate underlines the importance of that work, because what future is there for our young people when any part of it remains under the influence of the British Government?

The Tory Administration have repeatedly demonstrated their disdain for the people who live here. They ignored our wishes on Brexit, forcing it upon us against our will. Now, they are forcing ordinary workers, families and pensioners here to pay the price of the pandemic by hiking National Insurance contributions and reducing pension increases.

Of course, increased investment is needed in our health and social care systems, and I want to take this opportunity to thank the incredible staff within that system who continue to put themselves on the front line in the battle against COVID. What the Tories do not tell you is that our health and social services were already decimated by vicious austerity cuts that they ruthlessly imposed. If they want to invest in health and social care, they should start by restoring the millions that they have plundered from our block grant. They should start by investing in health rather than in imperialist military adventures. They should start by taxing the wealthy, the big businesses and the billionaires who have done very well out of the pandemic. They are the people who should be shouldering that burden, not ordinary workers, families and pensioners.

While the rich have gotten richer under Boris Johnson, the number of children on free school meals has increased by 300,000 to 1·74 million. Inequality, deprivation and the number of children going hungry is increasing as a direct result of the policies being implemented by this Tory Government. As a young Derry man and as a teacher, I see the impact of that every day. I challenge anyone in the Chamber to tell me that hardworking families in Derry should pick up the tab for the British Government, that Creggan should bail out the Cabinet, that Ballymagroarty should bail out Boris or that the Bogside should bail out billionaires.

All of us in the Chamber have a responsibility and a duty to ask ourselves, "Is that what we want for our children?". We do have a choice. I want to see a new Ireland, based on equality and fairness. In the interim, I want to see us taking control of our own economic destiny by transferring fiscal powers. We can do better ourselves: better for our workers, better for our families, better for our pensioners and better for our young people. I support the motion.

Photo of Diane Dodds Diane Dodds DUP

I rise to voice my concerns at the flawed, unjust and unacceptable proposals that are being pursued by the Government, and my grave concern about the unacceptable proposals that are being made by those who tabled the motion.

As a party, we have been consistent and unwavering in our desire to protect the most vulnerable in our society before, during and as we emerge from the pandemic. No one denies the need to deal with waiting lists and to invest in our health and social care, but the health and social care levy is a regressive and unfair form of taxation that disproportionately hits young people and punishes working families at a time when they can least afford it. Over the past few weeks, we have seen the squeeze on incomes continue, not just with the tax hikes from the Conservative Government but with the huge rise in energy bills, which will be very difficult for many families to contend with. That is why we used our votes in the House of Commons to oppose the levy.

The Government's decision to break the triple-lock guarantee for state pensioners is also an act of bad faith of the highest degree and sets a really dangerous precedent. The United Kingdom already has one of the least generous state pensions of any major country, and pensioner poverty is on the rise. The Northern Ireland Poverty Bulletin indicated that approximately 43,000 pensioners live in poverty and that, of that number, 34,000 live in absolute poverty. The DUP opposes any move to reduce the income of our older people. That is why we, as a party, made maintaining the triple lock a precondition of the confidence and supply agreement. That was done to protect pensioners throughout the United Kingdom.

We will also continue to oppose the removal of the £20 uplift in universal credit, which is due to come in this October. That, coupled with the end of the furlough scheme and potential rises in unemployment, will push many families to an unsustainable position. We call on the Government to rethink their approach and ensure that the most vulnerable in our society are protected at these most difficult of times.

Whilst my party has consistently stood up for working families, our pensioners and the most vulnerable in our society, the party that tabled the motion has let them down. When all other Northern Ireland MPs united to oppose the rise in National Insurance contributions, where was the party that tabled today's motion? Absent, neglecting its electorate and its duty to the most vulnerable in Northern Ireland. When the Government announced that they were cutting the universal credit uplift, where was the party that tabled today's motion? Absent. When Boris Johnson moves to break the triple lock on pensions, where will the party that tabled today's motion be? Absent. That is a huge dereliction of duty.

Not content to neglect the most vulnerable and the squeeze on family income, this motion also proposes to punish those companies that will lead our economic recovery from the pandemic. Sinn Féin wants to follow in the footsteps of the British Conservative Party by offering us a different unjust tax regime. The redirection of the full burden of new taxation to businesses and entrepreneurs, as proposed by Sinn Féin, would serve only to further strain our economy, restrict job creation, deny economic innovation and, ultimately, punish workers and working families. All of that would be done at a time when we should be striving to attract inward investment, help the expansion of indigenous companies and encourage innovation and entrepreneurship to grow and rebuild our economy. The DUP is committed to delivering a fair and balanced recovery, one that protects the most vulnerable in our society and ensures that everyone pays what is fair and proportionate to their circumstances.

Photo of Alex Maskey Alex Maskey Sinn Féin

As this is Stephen Dunne's first opportunity to speak as a private Member, I remind the House again that it is the convention that a maiden speech is made without interruption.

Photo of Stephen Dunne Stephen Dunne DUP

Thank you, Mr Speaker. I count it a great honour to stand here today as a Member of the Northern Ireland Assembly for North Down following the very sad and untimely passing of my late father, Gordon Dunne MBE, in June this year.

Gordon served in this House for 10 years, having been first elected in May 2011, and I know that he counted it a great privilege to serve the people of North Down in this place. Since he first entered elected politics as a councillor in 1981, he always sought to represent his constituents diligently and with the utmost dedication to improving their lives and, ultimately, trying to make a positive difference. I know that many from across the House and beyond built up a respectful and trusted relationship with him during his years in the House, particularly those he got to know best, often in Committees. I take this opportunity to express my thanks to all the people from across the House, across the local community and right across Northern Ireland who expressed condolences and sent genuine and heartfelt messages of support to our family in recent months and weeks.

North Down is a wonderful constituency, and I intend to build on the work and legacy that has been laid down over many years by those who have gone before me. I will do my very best to provide service and deliver for local people across my constituency — in Bangor, Holywood, Donaghadee, Millisle and everywhere in between. As in every other constituency, there are many challenges and needs locally, and I know from being a councillor over the last eight years that there is much work to do for the people whom we are so privileged to represent.

As my colleagues have stated, today's motion rightly highlights the need for a key focus on our economic recovery as we try to emerge from the global pandemic, which has been an incredibly challenging time for everyone across Northern Ireland. The news today from our Economy Minister, in launching the £100 Spend Local card, is an example of a positive, proactive measure that can bring a much-needed economic stimulus directly to local businesses. It is also designed to positively impact behavioural change and get people to spend and shop locally in person, once again supporting employment and greater economic activity on our road to economic recovery, which is mentioned in the motion.

Every sector has faced a very challenging time over the past 18 months, and our excellent health and social care sector continues to face many challenges in dealing with the health impacts of the pandemic along with the additional demands that the incoming autumn/winter period will undoubtedly present to our health service. Taken together with the end of the furlough scheme next month, the removal of the uplift in universal credit, rising energy costs and changes to TV licensing, there is a real risk that this recent levy on National Insurance contributions will create a perfect storm that leaves older people, vulnerable households, young people and working families really struggling to survive and having to make very difficult decisions. That is of great regret.

The decision by the Government to remove the triple-lock guarantee on state pensions also sets a very dangerous precedent that further policies that sideline the interests and needs of our older people can be introduced at such a critical and challenging time. This health and social care levy applies a flat-rate increase to everyone regardless of circumstances, and it will disproportionately hit our younger people, as state and private pensions will not be counted when calculating the levy. It will also target our working pensioners in lower-paid jobs, many of whom have made significant sacrifices to make ends meet over such a difficult time.

We recognise that there is a cost in having a modern, fit for purpose health and social care system and that there is a need for significant investment that is focused ultimately on improved health outcomes. However, we must be clear that redirecting the full burden of new taxation to successful businesses and entrepreneurs would be totally counterproductive and could only result in greater costs ultimately being passed on to consumers and pose a real risk to low-paid jobs. We need to encourage business, innovation and entrepreneurs at a time when growth is so greatly needed on our road to recovery so that we can create employment and prosperity. I look forward to the work ahead.

Photo of Matthew O'Toole Matthew O'Toole Social Democratic and Labour Party 4:30 pm, 14th September 2021

Before I make my remarks, I acknowledge the Member who spoke previously and his father, who was clearly universally held in affection and esteem across the Assembly. I welcome the Member and echo the words of many others in paying tribute to his father. I did not serve on a Committee with him, but he was clearly a gentleman, was very well thought of and is sorely missed by everyone here. I also welcome Pádraig Delargy to the Assembly. I am quickly becoming one of the older Members of the Assembly, but that is fine.

As my colleague Sinead McLaughlin said, we will support the motion. It would be hard to oppose it. It is important first to reflect on the context that we are in, which is that the COVID-19 pandemic has been the biggest disruption to our lives in peacetime in any of our lifetimes. Large parts of the economy were shut down last year, large parts of the economy continue to be shut down and people have been plunged not just into health insecurity — with thousands of lives, not just here but around the world, being lost — but into severe financial vulnerability. That continues to be the case and will be even more the case in the weeks ahead, when, as mentioned, the furlough scheme comes to an end and the cost of living increases bite across people's lives, including and particularly utility bill increases, about which we heard more today.

Photo of Kellie Armstrong Kellie Armstrong Alliance

I thank the Member for giving way. Very quickly, does the Member agree that the Government, in placing them in further financial stress with the increases in National Insurance and what is happening with their pensions, will make people more stressed and sicker, which will force more people towards our health service, at a time when it does not need more patients being added to its lists?

Photo of Alex Maskey Alex Maskey Sinn Féin

The Member has an additional minute.

Photo of Matthew O'Toole Matthew O'Toole Social Democratic and Labour Party

Thank you very much, Mr Speaker, and thanks to the Member who intervened for getting me the additional minute. She is exactly right: the point about what is happening with the ending of the universal credit uplift, the additional taxation on low-paid workers through National Insurance contributions and, indeed, the other cost of living increases that will bite is that they will make, certain health inequalities, mental health problems, at a bare minimum, and anxieties that have been created over the past 18 months much, much worse. I am sure that MLAs across the Chamber already see that in their constituency caseload. I am also sure that Advice NI and other agencies will see a lot more of that in the weeks and months ahead. That is not just a tragedy; it is unacceptable, and it is a moral indictment of the Conservative Government in London that they are doing that.

It is a moral indictment because it is a choice. Why is it a choice? It is a choice because the Treasury and Boris Johnson have decided that they will not continue with what are called the "fiscal stabilisers" or "levers", which, we are told, including by some Members opposite, are great and show the fiscal strength of the United Kingdom. By all means, significant fiscal steps have been taken by the Treasury. The UK Government deciding to tighten fiscal policy now is an outlier in international terms. They do not need to do that. It is not being done anywhere else in Europe or in the United States. Congress has just passed and President Joe Biden has just signed an enormous stimulus package in the US, but the UK Government have made the decision to tighten. Neither the IMF nor any other major international economic institution is telling Governments to do that. The UK Government have decided to tighten fiscal policy at precisely the worst moment for workers and the economy here and, indeed, in Britain. That is a choice. It was a choice that the Government also made at the beginning of the previous decade, but it is a choice that they do not have to make. Let us be absolutely clear: the burden will be borne by those who can least afford it.

Mr Aiken mentioned the £36 billion: I presume that he was referring to the £12 billion a year that has been scored by the Treasury through the health and social care levy. Again, that is a choice. The UK Government chose to impose taxation that is regressive and disproportionately falls on the lowest paid. For all those reasons, what the UK Government are doing is scandalous, and we will continue to oppose it. I would be remiss if I did not point out that my party takes its seats at Westminster. Although we are only two seats, we take them for the people of South Belfast, which is my constituency, and for the people of Foyle, which is my colleague's constituency, and we vote against those scandalous rises.

I say to colleagues, whose motion I agree with, that I agree in many ways that we need more powers in this place. Ultimately, I agree, of course, that a different constitutional set-up would allow us, on this island, to make different decisions. With the best will in the world, that will not happen this winter, and, literally, we will not be able to protect citizens and the people whom we serve in the weeks and months ahead. While I agree that, yes, the best end point for us on this island is a different arrangement that allows us to target our priorities and raise money to change people's lives in a different way, I also have to say that, in the weeks and months ahead, we will see people in real and severe stress. The people who have the power in this place to help to change that are, among others, the Finance Minister and the Communities Minister. Yes, I agree with the motion, but it is just a motion. I would like the Finance Minister, the Communities Minister and other Ministers across the Executive to agree a package of help, where we can, for people who will face the immoral challenge of the universal credit uplift going and real, severe stress in the weeks ahead. Yes, let us pass motions and call out the squalid, immoral choices that are being made in London —

Photo of Alex Maskey Alex Maskey Sinn Féin

The Member's time is up.

Photo of Matthew O'Toole Matthew O'Toole Social Democratic and Labour Party

— but let us not forget that we have choices here. We need to do what we can —.

Photo of Alex Maskey Alex Maskey Sinn Féin

The Member's time is up.

Photo of Matthew O'Toole Matthew O'Toole Social Democratic and Labour Party

Even if it is not enough, we need to do what we can to support people here.

Photo of Alan Chambers Alan Chambers UUP

I have no difficulty fully supporting elements of this private Members' motion. Equally, however, I feel that I need to question certain assertions. The motion claims that damage has been done to our health and social care system as a result of the legacy of British Government austerity. Of course, our health service has been damaged, and there is an obvious need, which we can all see and appreciate, for us to rebuild our health and social care services in order to tackle the historical and unacceptable waiting lists for initial consultations and subsequent treatment.

The wording of a portion of the motion sounds as though it is coming from a party that is either in denial or attempting to rewrite history. The reasons for much of the damage that has been inflicted on our health service are closer to home than in the corridors of Westminster. Over the past decade, the big decisions around health that created a pattern of underfunding lacked foresight or planning. Those decisions were made in this Chamber, and they were made under the leadership of a number of Health Ministers from parties here, including the party of the motion's proposers.

It has been widely accepted that multi-year Budgets would make a huge contribution to rebuilding our health service. How can any Minister make plans for reform and rebuilding if they do not have guaranteed, ring-fenced multi-year funding? The fact that recent Finance Ministers struggled to set a Budget has not been helpful in putting together a sustainable recovery plan for our health service. Neither was the three-year absence of an Assembly or Executive helpful while the Bengoa plan gathered dust. The uncertainty that has arisen in recent days over the future of the Assembly has also put a huge question mark over long-term recovery plans.

I agree with my colleague Dr Aiken, who referred to the additional funding that has come to Northern Ireland from the UK Government: it has been a very welcome lifeline for everyone here, especially our hard-pressed businesses. Extra Barnett consequentials funding will come soon, and, hopefully, all parties represented in the Executive will ensure that the totality of that money is ring-fenced for the recovery of our health service.

My party wishes to register its deep concern that Her Majesty's Government intends to disproportionately tax the least well-off through increases in National Insurance contributions and the removal of the pension triple lock. We call on the Government to give a commitment that the additional burdens created for ordinary workers, families and pensioners by those changes, which are to fund health and social care, will be reviewed frequently with the intention of relieving them as soon as possible.

Photo of Paula Bradshaw Paula Bradshaw Alliance

As my colleague said, the Alliance Party will support the motion, although there are some gaps in it. First, we totally share the view that, while it is not unreasonable for the UK Government to face financial reality by seeking to raise moneys specifically for health and social care after the pandemic, that should not be done through a pernicious raid on National Insurance, which, as has been stated, amounts, essentially, to a workers' tax. In fact, when it is all worked back, we see that less than £3 billion is being allocated to social care reform across the UK. Frankly, that is a piddling amount across a population that is approaching 70 million.

There are two aspects to the matter. First, if money must be raised, that must be done fairly. Secondly, once that money is raised, it must be spent on the declared purpose. We also have to face up to the reality that, since 2007, the DUP- and Sinn Féin-led Executive have failed to properly embrace the need to reform and fund the health and social care system. I welcome the Health Minister's announcement today that he will soon go out to consultation on the full package for the reform of social care.

In the last decade, health funding has risen by less in Northern Ireland than it has in England. That reduced rise in spending has been directed by DUP and Sinn Féin Finance Ministers. In the first part of the last decade, it was common for an uplift in funding to health in England to arrive in Northern Ireland through Barnett consequentials and to not be allocated fully, or, in one case, even partly, to health here. Even after the 2008 financial crash, there has been an unwillingness to look seriously at issues such as free prescriptions, which, in practice, benefit those who are better off, because those who are less well off get them for free anyway.

Devolution means self-government, and self-government means taking responsibility for allocating spending and raising revenue fairly and appropriately. We need to be careful about who we include in the companies and individuals mentioned. Many local businesses took significant risks to shift their production and services to help people during the pandemic by, for example, producing PPE and monitors or whatever else was necessary. They were entitled to do that, and they are also entitled to some reward for the risks that they took and the hard work that they put in. Many local businesses should be so proud of what they did.

In closing, we must remember that we are not obliged to follow England in how we spend the money that will be added to the Northern Ireland Budget as a consequential. We have specific needs not just for rebuilding, as noted in the motion, but for a comprehensive transformation of health and social care that will deliver a more patient-centred, specialist approach and ensure that we can maintain a system that is truly world class and free at the point of access. It is easy and, in my view, essential, to criticise the pernicious workers' tax as the means and a lack of allocation to actual social care reform as a consequence. However, we also have to do the hard bit and assess how we will swiftly proceed to grasp this opportunity for a comprehensive reform of our system.

In supporting the motion, I emphasise that this is a call for us to get on with the job and transform our health and social care system without delay. Thank you.

Photo of Gerry Carroll Gerry Carroll People Before Profit Alliance

Although I will speak in favour of the motion, there are some glaring contradictions in what the Member and her party propose and what their Executive colleagues are pursuing, but I will come to those later.

There is no doubt that, if it were not for the actions of workers, our society would truly have collapsed during the COVID pandemic. There is often sneering or dismissal when you talk about the role of working-class people, but, if you think about it for a second, this point has to be underlined and emphasised: where would vulnerable people be if it were not for the delivery drivers for supermarkets who dropped off food when people could not leave their houses? When they could not see their families, where would the people who needed a care package during the pandemic be if it was not for the brave and often underpaid care workers going into homes and donning PPE? That is without mentioning care home workers or the role of public-sector workers in processing benefits and doing many things during the pandemic or, obviously, NHS workers in keeping people alive in ICU and consoling the loved ones of those who died from COVID. The list goes on.

This is where we get to the problems with implementation and action. Unless there is a dramatic change of direction, it seems that the Executive are pressing ahead with pay cuts for health workers and public-sector workers in our communities. As people said, electricity and gas prices are shooting up astronomically, yet health workers are being offered only 3%. That is in line with Tory policy in that it does not keep up with inflation and falls way below either the 12·5% or 15% rise or the £2,000 or £3,000 direct payment that healthcare workers and their unions are calling for.

All of us clapped health workers, but the Executive will not pay them what they are owed or are worth. The offer should be withdrawn. Money was not a problem before and was found. Money should be found for health workers for all the work that they have done in the past year and a half.

To be clear, there is no "fair economic recovery", to which the motion refers, if those who carried us through the pandemic are treated in such a disgraceful and disdainful way. It may not come next week or even next year, but I think that there will be an uproar of anger against the continuation of neoliberal, unimaginative policies that do not provide people with the ability to afford to live a dignified and decent life.

Photo of Kellie Armstrong Kellie Armstrong Alliance

Does the Member agree that, as part of our reform, we certainly need to consider those members of staff who have worked so valiantly throughout the pandemic, and always do? Are we investing more in buildings than we are in our resources, who are our people?

Photo of Alex Maskey Alex Maskey Sinn Féin

The Member has an additional minute.

Photo of Gerry Carroll Gerry Carroll People Before Profit Alliance

Thank you.

That is a good question. We are definitely not investing enough in our staff. That is certain. However, I get nervous when I hear that question being posed. I am not saying that the Member is suggesting this, but it could lead to the closure of services when we need to protect them. On one level, we hear, "Defend the NHS", which I am for, but we also hear, "Reform". When I hear "Reform", I get nervous because it means a reduction in services. The Member may not be arguing that, but that is how I interpret it in most cases.

If that were not bad enough, it gets more sickening and obscene: at a time when the Tories and the Executive are implementing pay cuts and freezes, and, as Members referred to, when there is the implementation of National Insurance increases and universal credit cuts, the wealthy are having a picnic and popping champagne. The super-wealthy have increased their lot during COVID in such an outlandish way. Household wealth in Britain, for example, has surged by £900 billion during COVID. That is sickening stuff. There are at least an extra 24 billionaires in the UK compared with before COVID. Where is the action from Executive Ministers to even raise the flag about that issue? Where is the plan to change the debate? Where is the plan from Ministers in the Executive to put a mountain of pressure on the Tories to implement a COVID wealth tax? I have listened carefully throughout the past year, but I have not heard it. It is ironic to hear the DUP, in particular, talk about poverty and to almost talk about inequality when its whole economic approach has always been to pull the carpet of support from under vulnerable or working people. Where is the new party leader talking about poverty eradication? I have listened, but I have not heard it.

I am happy to support the motion, but it would be remiss of me not to call out the obvious contradictions today.

Photo of Alex Maskey Alex Maskey Sinn Féin

I call John O'Dowd to wind on the motion. The Member has 10 minutes.

Photo of John O'Dowd John O'Dowd Sinn Féin

Thank you, a Cheann Comhairle. I thank everybody who contributed to the debate. It has been a good debate. It is unsurprising that, in a political forum, there are differences of opinion and maybe wee jibes. I might get into a few wee jibes myself before the end of my contribution. I think that, overall, we have a united voice from the Chamber that the proposal from the Tory Government to fund social care by a 1·5% increase in National Insurance is wrong. That is a very clear message that can come out of the Chamber this evening.

We agree that those who can afford to pay should pay. There may be a difference of opinion about the level that somebody can afford and who they should be, but I think that there is general agreement on that. There may be a divergence of views on taxing big business. I have no objection to taxing big business, but the motion is quite clear; it:

"calls on the British government to remove the burden for funding health and social care from ordinary workers, families and pensioners and to place this, instead, on the many companies and individuals who have made huge profits during ... the pandemic."

I do not think that anybody can realistically argue against that. I think that, when the motion is broken down, there is agreement across the Chamber.

What do we do next? Some voiced concern about or opposition to Sinn Féin's position of not attending Westminster. That may be a political jibe. It may be a genuine belief that, if we had been there, we could have prevented the Tories from introducing this tax. However, that is not the case.

That goes back to the comments made by my party colleague Caoimhe Archibald. We have to start thinking about a new beginning or how we, as a society, collectively, govern ourselves. The central part of governance is taxation and fiscal powers. I welcome the fact that Conor Murphy has set up the Fiscal Commission to look at what fiscal powers we should start to seek to have devolved. Ultimately, in my opinion, they should all be brought here. That is going to present a huge challenge to the Assembly because, then, we will have to decide who is taxed, how much and when.

Photo of Steve Aiken Steve Aiken UUP

Will the Member give way?

Photo of John O'Dowd John O'Dowd Sinn Féin

In one moment.

Instead of standing in Westminster, being constantly defeated by the Tories and their allies, we could set the agenda here, in this Chamber. Would that not make a very interesting debate? It would be a new chapter in our society, in the devolution and evolution of our politics. I give way to Mr Aiken.

Photo of Steve Aiken Steve Aiken UUP

Thank you very much indeed. The Member may not be aware that Paul Johnson, who is looking at the Fiscal Commission issues and the rest of it, recently said that one of the most significant issues we have in Northern Ireland is that we do not know how effectively we are spending the money that we have at the moment. Do you not think it more important that we get our own Budgets right first, before we even consider asking for additional powers?

Photo of John O'Dowd John O'Dowd Sinn Féin

If I were you, Mr Aiken, I would take that as a personal criticism. You are the Chair of the Finance Committee, and it is your job to make sure that we are spending our money properly. You and Mr Johnson may want to sit down, have a cup of coffee and talk that one through, because the role of our Committees is to scrutinise how we spend our budgets. I jest somewhat.

Of course every penny we spend must be accounted for and pay dividends for the public we serve. I do not dismiss that in any way. However, for us as an Assembly to move forward, we have to have fiscal powers to create that change, momentum or step change. It would not only bring change to society, it would also change politics. It would be a huge step forward for politics here.

Something that we have to be very cautious of, in wider society and among those who attend Westminster, is that Boris Johnson says that he is going to use the funds raised from this tax to fund social care. Apparently, that is going to go into legislation. However, Boris Johnson is a confirmed liar and he has shown that he is prepared to break promises: pledges in his manifesto, deals with his former colleagues in the DUP, deals with the European Union and anyone else. Why should we believe that the significant amount of money that they claim will be raised from taxing low-paid workers, families and pensioners will eventually end up going to social care? This is the great danger: those who are most impoverished now will pay significant amounts towards what they believe to be their futures and their families' futures, only to find out that it is squandered and spent — or maybe not spent — or used elsewhere? That is a danger, and it is another reason why our Executive should ensure that we are the ones who scrutinise, raise those taxes and move forward, on behalf of the citizens we serve.

I will move on from this, for the moment, to the criticism of Sinn Féin not being in Westminster. Mrs Dodds said that we were absent. You are going to be absent in a few weeks. In a few, short weeks, according to your leader, you, the DUP Ministers and the DUP First Minister will be absent. What then? There will be no power in Belfast and no power in Westminster. What then for the citizens you serve? When it comes to abstentionism, we told the electorate what we were going to do. You did not tell the electorate what you are about to do. That is something for you to think about.

As to the change needed in our health service, I fully agree that our health service needs reformed. Strategic changes need to be made to it. I have said this in the Chamber before: I am a former Education Minister, and I led strategic change through the Department of Education. I closed and amalgamated schools when it was necessary, and I can assure you that no one welcomed that in their constituencies. There is the challenge for us as MLAs. "Not in my back yard" will not work when that comes. If we are up for that, there is another challenge for us moving forward.

I will bring my remarks to a close. I just want to check my notes. The burden placed on workers, families and pensioners has been noted. The National Insurance increase and the fuel and heating increases that they face over the winter will be astronomical, and there is universal support in the Chamber that those things should not happen.

Other nations are doing it differently. Across Europe, they are doing it differently. Even at the very start of the austerity measures and the collapse of the world economy in 2008, the United States — a capitalist institution — invested. They spent trillions of dollars supporting their economy, but the Tories made a conscious decision to cut public services and public spending because that is what the Tories are about. That is at the core of the Tories.

I was a bit surprised by Mr Frew's comments earlier when he said that this Tory party is no longer conservative. That might be a whole other debate, but that is what Tories do. The challenge for us is this: what can we do different? I believe that we can do different. Despite our differences, we can do different.

In my opinion, the future is a united Ireland where we all work together. As Mr O'Toole said, that is not going to happen this winter. It is not, but we need to start thinking now about what fiscal powers we use, what difference we make, how we work together and how we move towards that direction, because, let us be clear about this: the Tories will always do this. They will always do it, regardless of whether you are in Westminster with them or not. Whether you are unionist, nationalist, republican or an unbeliever, they will always do this, so let us collectively do something different.

Photo of Alex Maskey Alex Maskey Sinn Féin

I thank all Members for their contributions.

Question put and agreed to. Resolved:

That this Assembly is firmly committed to a fair economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic; recognises the damage to our health and social care (HSC) as a result of a legacy of British Government austerity; further recognises the need to rebuild our health and social care services as we emerge from this pandemic; expresses its deep concern that the British Government intend to tax the least-well-off through increases in National Insurance contributions and reduced increases in pension; and calls on the British Government to remove the burden for funding health and social care from ordinary workers, families and pensioners and to place this, instead, on the many companies and individuals who have made huge profits during or from the pandemic.

Photo of Alex Maskey Alex Maskey Sinn Féin

Members, please take your ease before we move on to the final item.

(Mr Principal Deputy Speaker [Mr Stalford] in the Chair)

Motion made: That the Assembly do now adjourn. — [Mr Principal Deputy Speaker.]