Members will have a copy of the Marshalled List of amendments detailing the order for consideration. The amendments have been grouped for debate in the provisional grouping of amendments selected list. There is a single group of eight amendments, which deals with the end date for qualifying payments. I remind Members who intend to speak that, during the debate on the single group of amendments, they should address all the amendments in the group on which they wish to comment. Once the debate is completed, any further amendments in the group will be formally moved as we go through the Bill and the Question on each will be put without further debate. The Questions on stand part will be taken at the appropriate points in the Bill. If that is clear, we will proceed.
Clause 1 (End date for qualifying for particular payments)
We now come to the group of amendments for debate. With amendment No 1, it will be convenient to debate amendment Nos 2 to 8. In the group, amendment No 2 is mutually exclusive to amendment No 1; amendment Nos 3 and 4 are mutually exclusive to amendment Nos 1 and 2; amendment No 6 is mutually exclusive to amendment No 3; and amendment No 8 is mutually exclusive to amendment No 1.
Leave out clause 1 and insert—<BR/>
“Remove end date for qualifying for particular payments
(2) In Article 137A (payments to persons affected by social sector size criteria in calculation of universal credit or housing benefit)—
(a) in paragraph (2)(a), delete ‘a period which falls within the mitigation period’ and insert ‘any time from the 2nd January 2017’,
(b) in paragraph (3)(a), delete ‘a period which falls within the mitigation period’ and insert ‘any time from the 2nd January 2017’,
(c) in paragraph (4)(a) delete ‘and’
(d) delete paragraph (4)(b).”
The following amendments stood on the Marshalled List:
No 2: In page 1, line 5, leave out from “in paragraph (4)(b)” to “2025” in line 6 and insert—
“leave out paragraph (4)(b) and insert—
‘(b) will be monitored and a report, as set out at section 3 of the Welfare Supplementary Payments (Amendment) Act (Northern Ireland) 2022, published by 31st March 2025’.” — [Ms Armstrong.]
No 3: In page 1, line 6, leave out “31st March 2025” and insert “31st March 2030”. — [Mr Durkan.]
No 4: In page 1, line 6, at end insert—
“(3) The Department may, by regulation, make provision to extend the date in paragraph (4)(b) at any time following commencement.” — [Mr Allen.]
No 5: In clause 3, page 2, line 24, leave out sub-paragraph (i). — [Ms Ferguson.]
No 6: In clause 3, page 2, line 24, leave out from “change” to “period” in line 26 and insert—
“introduce an end date for the mitigation period”. — [Ms Armstrong.]
No 7: In clause 3, page 2, line 34, leave out from first “the” to end of line 35 and insert “31st March 2025.” — [Ms Ferguson.]
No 8: In clause 3, page 2, line 34, leave out from second “of” to “period” in line 35 and insert “paragraph (4)(b) of that Order”. — [Ms Armstrong.]
I will speak in favour of amendment Nos 1, 5 and 7.
The purpose of amendment No 1 is to remove the end date from the Bill. Members will be aware that I expressed my concern about the inclusion of an end date during the previous debate on the matter and again earlier today, when I spoke on the motion to close the loopholes.
The stated end date is March 2025: that is only three years away. Do we honestly feel that families should have to continue to worry about the bedroom tax? Energy costs are soaring, and that is predicted to continue over the next three years. The cost of living continues to rise. We are still trying to work through the challenges of the pandemic. People do not need this hanging over their heads. Many of those things may be out of our control but, where we can provide support for people, this is the time to do it. People do not need any more uncertainty. We must change it for the better.
The Tory policy that we know as the bedroom tax is unfair and unjust. In previous discussions, many of my colleagues have spoken about the number of one- and two-bedroom properties here that would allow people to live where they want to live and to go to work, attend school or undertake caring responsibilities: those properties barely even exist here. People in the North would fall foul of the tax. It is important that we focus on the health and well-being of our people and our families, not on how many bedrooms they have in their home.
As Members know, the Executive agreed in 2015 that the mitigation was required. That was the right thing to do. Some 36,000 people are protected because of the mitigation and, hopefully, with the loopholes being closed today, even more will benefit. I welcome that a consensus on continuing the mitigation remains, but it is not right or necessary to create another cliff-edge scenario.
I understand the Minister's position in taking forward the Bill in its current form. She has been more than clear, since she came into post, that her intention is to effectively bin the bedroom tax. However, as we are all aware, that requires Executive support. With the ongoing delay, it was not sustainable. People needed and deserved assurance that the payments would continue. However, we are where we are now. Given the time constraints, I fully support the Minister's decision to proceed with the Bill with an end date included. However, here and now, there is an opportunity, through amendment No 1, to give people on low incomes the security of knowing that they will continue to be protected from this Tory tax.
From the amendments submitted by other Members, it seems that they also have issues with the end date, though they offer different alternatives as to what it could be. The SDLP alternative, in particular, is a bit bizarre. It proposes an end date of 2030, which, as Members are well aware, would bring us to another cliff edge. I urge all Members to unite behind amendment No 1, which will remove the end date for all. It will give security to the people who depend on this support.
I will speak very briefly on amendment Nos 5 and 7, which, in short, retain the requirement for a review in 12 months, leading up to March 2025. Of course, it is always important to monitor and review all aspects of mitigations. It is via that mechanism that changes and improvements can continue to be identified and addressed.
I urge all Members to support amendment Nos 1, 5 and 7.
I welcome the opportunity to speak on the amendments at Consideration Stage. I think that I am right in saying that I am the only Member in the Chamber — I am certainly the only member of our Committee — who sat through the initial Welfare Reform Bill, as drafted, when it landed on the old Committee for Social Development. I remember the many hours, days and nights spent in the Chamber discussing the Welfare Reform Bill. I remember that, when that Bill landed on the table of the Committee for Social Development, I was horrified at some of the decisions that we were being asked to look at and agree.
I remember speaking in that Committee on many occasions about how I felt that we were taking a step backwards, particularly with single payments, by taking money, especially child benefit, away from a female and paying it into the wallet instead of the purse. I thought, "We are going back in time here". That Bill was like a baby to me during that Assembly term, because it was the one Bill that I scrutinised from the very beginning until the very end. It was therefore precious to me.
I also remember that, when we saw the welfare reform mitigations, I lobbied Nelson McCausland, my party's Minister for Social Development at the time. I lobbied him greatly, because I put myself in the position of those people. I was a single parent from when my second child was very young, so I knew what it was like to struggle financially and to have to decide between heating my home and feeding my children. I remember all those struggles, so I was very clear that I wanted to see mitigations put in place. I was also very aware that I represent North Belfast, a constituency with really high deprivation, where people do struggle. We know that those struggles will only continue and increase, especially through fuel poverty. I absolutely get that.
I remember another thing: the many church halls, community centres and everywhere else that I went to back in 2015 to listen to people and hear about their experiences. I also remember that only two other Members ever attended those events with me: Mickey Brady and Fra McCann. The three of us were like lambs to the slaughter at times, and sometimes it was very upsetting, so I am glad that we got to where we got to with the welfare mitigations. Other Members will talk about the mitigations and say how awful welfare reform in general is, and doing it was absolutely awful, but there was no other show in town. There was nothing. Nothing was costed by any other party in the Assembly to show how we should take forward welfare reform, or welfare benefits in general. We were left with it, and we are where we are.
I also know about the cliff edge. I sat in many hustings and debates with Members from various parties across the Assembly during the 2016 and 2017 elections and then while the Assembly was down. We sat and listened to the people who were affected directly by the cliff edge explain to us how it would affect them. I therefore understand, 100%, that we do not want to face another cliff edge. We do not want to put those people in jeopardy.
It has been and will be said in the Chamber that there will be uncertainty after the next Assembly election. I hope that that is not the case. I believe, with all my heart, that the best place in which to make legislation for Northern Ireland is this Chamber, because we are the people who know, at first hand, what the effects are on our constituents of anything that we discuss. If anything can show us that the Assembly works, it is the welfare mitigations that were delivered by the parties that worked together, went over to Westminster and had the conversations to bring about what we have today. That shows just how well the Assembly works.
We have got to the stage that we have today. My party wanted to see an end date put on the mitigations for various reasons, including the fact that we do not know who will hold the Department for Communities portfolio in the next mandate. We do not know which Member from which party it will be. We will absolutely not divide the House on the matter today, however, because it is far too important. We are dealing with people's lives. I feel so passionately about the entire subject, but I want to make sure that whoever takes on the portfolio in the next mandate has their feet held to the fire.
We cannot let the mitigations continue for ever and a day. I am not saying that because I think that we should stop them. I do not think that we should, because we do not have the housing or anything else in place to allow us take them away. Things need to happen, however. A review needs to take place, and we certainly need the results of the current review in order to see what else we can do, whether we are doing things right and whether we can put anything else in place. As time goes on, the House will have really serious decisions to make about how we can add further to welfare mitigations. Those are difficult decisions to make when we are trying to balance finances and work out whether to take finances from the Department of Health, the Department of Education or anywhere else. We have to pay for all these mitigations.
I have always been very aware of the fiscal responsibility that we have in the Assembly. As I said, that is certainly something to look at in the next mandate. I want those guarantees, and I know that one of the amendments stipulates that a report has to be done prior to 2025. I welcome that, because that will be debated again by whoever comes back here after the next election; they will debate how we go forward with welfare reform and the mitigations.
Welfare reform was like my baby; I felt so passionately about it. I come from a working-class background and a working-class family. I know what it is like to have hard times, I know what it is like to do without and I know what it is like to struggle. I know my constituents and the struggles that they have. I would say that 70% of my workload in North Belfast is around housing and housing stress: people who cannot get the housing that they need. We need these mitigations to cover the bedroom tax until we have that housing in place.
I get it and I agree with it. Even if the will of the House had been to leave 2025 as the end date, it would have gone beyond that: there is no doubt that the mitigations would not have stopped then. We need to compel whoever the next Minister is to look at a whole raft of mitigations, because we may need to add to them or to do things differently.
In return for not splitting the House, I ask that a date is put down. Maybe that will come forward at the Further Consideration Stage. We will not divide the House. I support the people who are in receipt of the mitigations, and my party supports them. Thank you for your indulgence, Mr Deputy Speaker. I look forward to the rest of the debate.
I recognise the urgency of the matter before us today and the incalculable harm — the increased household poverty and the financial impact — that not extending mitigation payments would undoubtedly cause. As has been highlighted at previous stages of the Bill, the unique position that the North finds itself in, with our growing housing crisis, low-wage economy and high numbers of people living with a disability, means that welfare reform would have hit harder here than anywhere else in the UK, had we not moved collectively to mitigate it when and how we did. As Ms Bradley said, that is clear evidence of the value of these institutions and the need for them to be up and running and working for people.
The repercussions have still been pretty severe, and the consequences of not extending the mitigations do not bear thinking about. I have spoken at length on how this policy change has come to pass and on the inherently flawed system that is welfare reform. I will spare you most of that verbiage today. However, I will say that the number of proposed amendments to the legislation before us is indisputable recognition or acknowledgement that the Bill is not perfect. The Minister would be the first to agree with that.
Turning briefly to the amendments, we support amendment No 1, which was moved by Ms Ferguson. We submitted our own amendment, which had a similar desired effect and essentially looked at either leaving the end date in clause 1 open-ended or abolishing it altogether. Indeed, the Minister has expressed her desire to scrap the end date for mitigations. My amendment was not accepted, but I am glad that Ms Ferguson's amendment and amendment No 2, which have a similar effect, were accepted. In tabling those amendments, Sinn Féin and Alliance are acknowledging the unsatisfactory nature of the process, which requires constant renewal. In essence, we are righting a wrong and retrospectively mending the damage that was inflicted on people when parties here voted for the then Welfare Reform Bill.
I listened carefully to the Chair of the Committee. Having served with her in the early days of the Social Development Committee — I got along to a few of the events that she mentioned with her, Fra and Mickey before I escaped to another role — I know how much effort she puts into protecting people and her steadfastness in doing so.
Those reparatory attempts now stand as a realisation of how limited the guarantees that people were given at that time really were. The housing crisis that I touched on earlier means that households that would have been subject to bedroom tax are trapped in a catch-22 situation; they are unable to downsize due to the lack of suitable housing stock across the North. Therefore, extending those mitigations from January 2017 onwards was the only logical and fair conclusion. There will, sadly, remain the opportunity for the mitigations to be stopped, removed or truncated at the whim of or, more than likely, in the absence of an Executive here in the future.
Ms Ferguson referred to my amendment, which sought to extend the end date to 2030. It is important to note that that was submitted as an insurance policy or safety net in the event that any amendment to do away with the end date was not accepted. Mine was not accepted, but yours was, and I am delighted that it was. I am genuinely pleased to be in a position in which I hope that we do not have to move my amendment. I will be supporting yours.
The Bill will, undoubtedly, help those who need it. I welcome that the pleas from the Cliff Edge Coalition and others have been heard and noted in the amendments today. I lament that it has taken so long for us to reach this point and that prioritising the needs of vulnerable households was not treated with greater urgency. Nevertheless, we are very happy to support the Bill.
Unlike the Member for North Belfast, I was not involved in the long and protracted conversations about welfare reform at that time — I first entered the Assembly in September 2015 — but, as a constituency MLA who sees at first hand, as do many other Members, the effects of welfare reform on many of my constituents, I place on record my thanks to the Members who came together on this. I know that it was difficult. There were many disagreements, and many long hours were spent trying to come up with the mitigation package that we ended up with.
I will not rehearse all of the arguments around the housing crisis that Northern Ireland faces. It is well documented and noted. We need a change in how we deliver housing, including in relation to one- and two-bed properties in order to support families and households to be able to downsize if they so wish. They should not be forced to downsize where they do not wish to do so. We need to continue to build sustainable communities, as the Minister has said before, in that regard.
We tabled amendment No 4, which would have given a future Minister the power, through regulation, subject to the affirmative resolution of the House, to change the end date as necessary or appropriate, but we cannot ignore the uncertainty around these institutions when considering the amendments. Therefore, we will support amendment Nos 1, 5 and 7. Had we not had the uncertainty around these institutions, or the fanfare as to whether we will have institutions post-election, we would have been pressing Members to support amendment No 4 to provide that agility to a future Minister.
It is right, proper and important that the review mechanism is in place. I commend the Members who have put forward amendments. During our various discussions at Committee, these issues were raised many times, and the passion and enthusiasm of each member was notable. Nobody denied that we needed to extend the mitigations. The disagreement was about the period of time for which the mitigations should be extended. I am on record as having tried to come up with a plan to end the deadlock that we had at the Executive by suggesting a period of 10 years, but we are all cognisant of the fact that the mitigations will need to be in place for decades. That is the fundamental reality. I have not spoken to anyone, either outside the House or in it, who believes that we will not need the bedroom tax mitigations for many years to come. It is right and proper that we support amendment Nos 1, 5 and 7.
Today, we have variations of the same theme with the amendments that have been proposed. I think that we can all say that there has been a move away from a cut-off date to the welfare reform mitigations in Northern Ireland. Those mitigations have protected people in Northern Ireland from some of the worst impacts of welfare reform. We see, across the rest of the United Kingdom, that people in other areas wish that they had the same mitigation powers that we have and the same mitigations in place.
During Second Stage, I raised the Alliance Party's concern about a cut-off date for welfare reform mitigations. During that debate, I said that I would propose an amendment, and amendment No 2 has been presented to deal with that. It is in three parts that are listed as Nos 2, 6 and 8. The key amendment for me is my amendment No 2. I have proposed that, instead of a cut-off date, the legislation requires that there be a review of welfare mitigations and a report published by 31 March 2025. That will provide the Department with an opportunity to review welfare mitigations and provide a report in advance of the next, hopefully, three-year Budget. The date of 2025 is key, because it is the end of this three-year Budget, so it would bring that forward. The review is not necessarily to cut it off, but could bring forward improvements and new mitigation options to allow recommendations from the independent welfare mitigation review advisory panel to be brought forward. Of course, it could remove mitigations, should DWP update its policies and bring forward solutions to poverty and actually pay for the mitigations that we are currently taking out of our core budgets here in Northern Ireland.
I have provided the House with an option to enable updates to our mitigations package rather than having a cliff-edge cut-off. Alliance is committed to alleviating and removing poverty in Northern Ireland, but we are also pragmatic, and we understand that the Bill has significant financial implications. That is why I proposed the amendments that provide an alternative to a cliff edge, but also give the opportunity to amend future mitigations based on a review and published report. Given the number of amendments that have been presented today that all seek to move away from a cut-off date, the House will decide. I have looked at the Sinn Féin amendment. We have ones where we are almost exactly there. I did not put forward an amendment to take out the end date, because I thought that it would not be within competence and would not be allowed. However, we are seeking the same thing.
Perhaps, in her summation, the proposer of amendment No 1 will just clarify for me 100% that her other amendments, Nos 5 and 7 — is that right? — will actually allow the review that we need, which will allow the House to sit down and consider what we need — what we might need to improve, what is actually helping people, and maybe what needs to be set aside — so that we can move away from just the bedroom tax and benefit cap and start to talk about things that are helping people in Northern Ireland.
In Northern Ireland, we spend an awful lot of money trying to put right some of the worst impacts of welfare reform. I think that we are all on the same page here: there is no fight today. Perhaps the Member can just outline whether we are absolutely sure that we have that. We can, of course, come back at Further Consideration Stage with the Minister and look at whether we need to tighten up something under clause 3:
"Monitoring and reporting as to statutory arrangements", to allow us the flexibility that others in the House have talked about. However, we are all on the same page. We need to protect people here in Northern Ireland. We have done it already today. It has been one of those days in the House when we have actually had some really good legislation. We have had the organ donation Bill. Dáithí was out there yelling and screaming; it was lovely to hear in this place. We have had some really good things, such as the school starting age Bill and welfare reform extensions. We can bring this forward. I think that we will be able to do what the Minister would like us to do, which is wipe out the awful bedroom tax. However, we need to be able to review. To be honest, I am almost there with you, Ms Ferguson, and may be minded to vote with you, just as long as you can give me some clarification that clause 3 will allow the review that I talk about in my amendments.
Thanks to everybody who has taken the time to contribute, and to all those on the Committee who have supported me in trying to bring forward those mitigations as quickly as possible.
As was said, from the very start, I did not want an end date. That is clear, and I am thankful that, hopefully, at the end of this session, we will avoid those cliff edges.
I have always said that there has been a commitment from me and the Department to carry out a review. Kellie raised that when speaking to the amendments. I have been willing to do that since I first put the proposals to the Executive in January 2020; indeed, we are currently reviewing the mitigations. That is ongoing, and that will be presented to the Department before the end of the mandate. Les Allamby, former human rights commissioner, is chairing that review and working with those who come from the sectors that represent people on the ground. That was a commitment in 'New Decade, New Approach' (NDNA) for the restoration of the Executive, and I wanted to make sure that that was done. Amendment No 7 will commit to a review being done before the end of the mandate in 2025.
I agree with some comments that have been made that the review is about additional mitigations and protections. Other Members have reflected that we should not penalise families financially and put them in predicaments. We have seen the impacts of the bedroom tax in England. Families have been forced to leave their homes, communities, towns and cities to look for housing elsewhere. Given the conversation here tonight, I am hopeful that we can say to those who would be impacted — more than 36,000 people — that we will not make those decisions and will work as a House to protect them.
I want to reiterate that I am glad about how the debate is going. I am glad about the amendments, and I hope that we will agree to amendment No 1. As long as I am Minister, I will commit to doing that review and looking at future needs and mitigations.
First and foremost, I thank all Members for their support tonight for my amendments. Just to reiterate, my clear intention with the amendments is that there will be a detailed review. As Kellie mentioned, in short, it is always important to monitor and review all aspects of legislation. We must review everything so that we can constantly evolve, change and improve. I reiterate that.
In response to Paula, I will say that, like Andy, I was not here five or six years ago, but I was working in the heart of the community when the Tory Government brought that forward. I listened to the Member say how horrified she was and how passionately she followed through with her commitment to ensure that the mitigations were there for those she represents and for all other constituents. It was fought for by her and by Sinn Féin to ensure that the mitigation packages were there to support our most vulnerable people at that time and to continue to support people. I thank her for reminding us all.We all need to be reminded of that. It was hard fought, but it was a good win with regard to implementing the mitigations and continuing the mitigations.
It was not last year or the year before; it was nearly six years ago. People have had this hanging over their head for a long time wondering whether we are going to take more money out of their pocket. As we have heard, people are going through so much at the minute, with the cost-of living crisis and energy costs. This is about trying to keep money in people's pockets so that they can feed their families and heat their homes. That is why it is critical. Hopefully, we agree the amendments and today is a good day.
Mark mentioned that we have unique circumstances in the North, and, as Andy mentioned, our housing needs are not like elsewhere. It will not take a decade; it will take decades. I have been a Member of the Assembly only for the last three or four months, but I am excited about the future of social housing and the new types of housing that the Department, the Minister and the Committee have been working on.
Will the Member agree that our current housing selection scheme is not fit for purpose? While I appreciate that amendments have been tabled, the selection scheme does not currently afford those who wish to downsize the ability to do so.
Yes. I agree with the Member, and it is pertinent that the common selection scheme be reviewed. We must constantly review housing schemes as things have been stale for the past 10, 20 or 30 years. We must evolve and change, and housing is critical. We all know that having a home provides security and safety for individuals and families in order for them to survive and thrive in their communities and to access jobs. As Kellie mentioned, it is not just a little tweak; it is about constant review in order to improve and change. Yes, I very much agree with Andy.
I thank the Cliff Edge Coalition and the 130 plus organisations that it represents, which have tirelessly concentrated on welfare mitigations and brought presentations to the Committee. I was keen to meet the Cliff Edge Coalition to discuss welfare reform mitigations. The coalition has lobbied hard, and it is a good day for it. I am sure that its members are watching the debate tonight and are delighted that Members from across the parties are very much in agreement about the amendments and making improvements.
It is great that we can bring certainty to the people and families who have had this issue hanging over their heads for such a long time. We can protect those families from Tory cuts once and for all.
Amendment agreed to.
I will not call amendment No 3 as it is mutually exclusive to amendment Nos 1 and 2, one of which has been made.
I will not call amendment No 4 as it is mutually exclusive to amendment Nos 1 and 2, one of which has been made.
Clause 1, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Clause 2 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Clause 3 (Monitoring and reporting as to statutory arrangements)
Amendment No 5 made:
In clause 3, page 2, line 24, leave out sub-paragraph (i). — [Ms Ferguson.]
Amendment No 6 not moved.
Amendment No 7 made:
In clause 3, page 2, line 34, leave out from first “the” to end of line 35 and insert “31st March 2025.” — [Ms Ferguson.]
Members, I propose, by leave of the Assembly, to suspend the sitting until 6.50 pm.
The sitting was suspended at 6.17 pm and resumed at 6.52 pm.
(Mr Speaker in the Chair)