Northern Ireland Assembly
Monday 9 October 2000 (continued)
The whole purpose of the child support changes is to try to stop those people who are trying to get out of the system. We have people trying to avoid their responsibility to support their children. This is one way of addressing that.
If a person were making an effort to fulfil his commitment to his children, there would be no need to take that step. The important words are "if, but only if". In other words, there will always be an opportunity for a person to address the issue, make himself accountable and make the correct payment towards his children. That option should be contained in this legislation. It is not a matter of taking a licence from somebody in a willy- nilly way.
Some fathers have been pursued by the CSA and threatened with hellfire and damnation even though they have been paying a large amount of money to their wives. On the other hand, there are parents who have made a straight financial contribution towards their children quite apart from the CSA, but find themselves unable to meet the new commitments set by the CSA when it steps in.
The system is blatantly unfair to those parents who want, and intend, to pay for their children but who find that the CSA's system often constitutes one of the worst purges there has ever been. A great problem has been the time that it takes to sort out an enquiry. I suggest to the Minister that he should try to shorten the time taken for enquiries. A four-week period is a fair length of time in which to complete an enquiry, but that is not the time being taken at present. I have spoken to the Minister on the matter, and he has said that the commitment to staff and finances is there.
One case, sorted out last Friday, took 20 weeks, and that was an absolute nightmare for the father involved. He is a parent who wants to pay for his children and who made an agreement to do so before the CSA came on the scene. But when the CSA got involved, he had to wait for 20 weeks before the matter was sorted out. He was almost persecuted and worried sick about the whole procedure.
There are parents who dearly love their children and whose only crime was to fall out with their partners. Every day they worry about making CSA payments and its inability to sort their cases out quickly. We need a system that is faster and more positive.
I welcome the Minister's comments on access to Inland Revenue records, which will be especially helpful. It will make those who try to avoid making payments for their children more responsible.
I would ask the Minister to look at the threshold for an appraisal of the circumstances. A reduction from £10 to £5 would be more appropriate, thereby making sure that an enquiry could be pursued and changes made if necessary. Although the financial change may sometimes be small, it can certainly help a claimant. This is referred to on pages 7 and 8 of the Bill under the heading "Agreement to a variation".
I would like the Minister to look at the distance that a person travels to work. Nowadays people travel further distances to work. The threshold for the fuel allowance is so high that, unfortunately, many people do not qualify for this relief. The route that a person travels to work is measured as the crow flies. It would be more appropriate to use the bus routes as measurements, thereby ensuring that a better evaluation of the distance a person travels to work was made.
I realise that the Minister is trying to address these issues, but some of them are quite complicated. We have an opportunity to reach a happy medium between the legal requirement to deliver on CSA payments and the existence of a system that does not persecute the parents. Sometimes the overzealousness of an official can push a parent to the point that he quits his job. I know this has happened, and in some cases people have been driven to contemplating suicide.
Parents must pay for their children, and we want to make sure that that happens. The Minister has tried here to get a balance, and it has been difficult to achieve. We want to ensure that a parent pays for his children, but we also want to ensure that the system is such that it does not persecute him either.
I have listened to all the points made during the debate. Most have been thoughtful, if not always positive, and sometimes there has been a degree of confusion. However, I will try to address that in my winding-up remarks.
Members concentrated for the most part on the child support aspect of the Bill. The problems with child support are well documented, and it is important that everything possible is done to resolve them. The provisions in the Bill are aimed at doing just that. If Members have concerns about individual cases, they can write to me about them.
I am aware of the concerns regarding the introduction of a percentage assessment. It has been said that those who are well off will be required to pay a lot of money because of it. I want to make it clear that the figures of 15%, 20% and 25% for one, two and three or more children apply only to net incomes of above £200 and below £2,000 per week. There was only one oblique reference made to that. Anyone earning between £100 and £200 per week will pay a lesser percentage, and those earning up to £100 per week will make only a token payment. These are net incomes.
There is an upper limit of £2,000 per week, and there is also a percentage limit. The limit of 25% of net income is less than that which can be reached under the present system. Under the current system the limit can hit 30% of net income. That must be taken on board.
It is not possible to produce a genuine assessment of losers and gainers. Given that there have been such problems with the current system, it is impossible genuinely to assess changes in people's behaviour. The Bill is endeavouring to redress the problems of the existing system by learning from the errors of the past. While it is impossible to attain perfection, I am confident that it will be a system that will meet public demands, is fair and transparent and can be operated by the Child Support Agency.
It is necessary for the old and new systems to operate together initially - albeit for as short a time as possible. There must be two systems; there cannot be a "big bang". It will not be possible to switch off the old system on Friday, put the existing caseload on the new system the following Monday, accept new cases from that date and expect the system to work effectively. That will not happen, and it is irresponsible to suggest otherwise. The overlap will be for as short a time as possible. The important thing is to ensure that everything works.
New information technology is required, and it will take some time for it to be up and running. The delay is unavoidable, but the system with the new formula cannot be implemented before it is certain that it will work. There is no benefit from rushing it. This is the last chance for the Child Support Agency - it has to be right this time.
It has been said that the new system will lead to high deduction rates. I hope I have made it clear that there is a percentage limit of 25%, not a cash limit. That is fair. However, that will not destroy private arrangements. Partners or parents who want to make private arrangements are free to do so as long as they do not involve the benefits system. That was the bottom line for the institution of the Child Support Agency in the first place. The new formula is fair. It can be made to work with the existing system and with new information technology.
There is concern about the driving licence provisions. Those provisions will be an alternative to a prison sentence if the courts do not want to impose one. In most instances, especially in cases of debt, prison sentences are a ludicrous sanction. The driving licence provisions will offer the courts an alternative sanction; they will not weaken the measure. It is hoped that the threat of losing their licences will cause motorists to pay their dues - that is all they are being asked to do.
I must make it clear that all children in a relationship will be covered by the child support system. If the payment is necessarily split with, for example, a requirement to pay 20% for the children of two parents, 10% will go to each. It has also been suggested that mothers should be able to choose to pursue maintenance. It is right that, where income support is being paid, parents with care should co-operate wherever possible in seeking maintenance for their children. They will have to opt out rather than opt in, but they will be informed of that when they make their initial claim for income support.
I wish to make some points about pensions. The state pension will benefit many people, including the long- term disabled, who have never had such provision in the past. People are living longer and, if the system is not changed, one in three pensioners will retire straight on to a means test. Arrangements must be put in place now to prevent this. Waiting until it happens is not the answer. It is necessary to operate a twin-track policy to cover today's pensioners and the pensioners of tomorrow. The same policy will not work for both as the cost implications make that impossible. This does not mean that there is apartheid in pensions. It is true that high earners have no difficulty achieving a decent pension and that modest earners may or may not be able to be in occupational pension schemes. Those who are not in occupational pension schemes will want to choose another option, and that is provided for by low-cost stakeholder pensions. For low earners it is not tenable to expect carers, disabled people with broken work records and people with long- term low incomes to organise funded pensions. That is not possible.
(Mr Speaker in the Chair)
With the introduction of a state second pension, the pension that these people will receive, compared to the existing state earnings related pension, will be doubled - in some cases more than doubled. SERPS was good when it was introduced, but the world has changed since then. As SERPS is earnings related it does not, by definition, help the long-term low paid. For the average male retiring today SERPS provides about £40 a week. Twenty years ago people complained that they would have to wait a long time for that sum. That time has passed, but it takes time to build up a pension pot. Members will agree that it is important to direct available cash to where the need is greatest, and that is what the second state pension will do.
There is concern about the community order provisions. Anyone who complies with such an order will have nothing to fear from these provisions. They will only apply to people who breach the terms of their sentences. The remedy is therefore in the hands of the offenders. The provisions of this Bill are aimed at encouraging people to comply with their obligations to society and at providing assistance to those in the community who need it most.
I hope that the Assembly will forgive my confusion regarding those Members who expressed concern about the accelerated passage. None of that concern was expressed on the day that we asked to go down that route. If Members felt then as they feel today they should have said something about it then. All we needed was one person to get to his or her feet and object. That would have ensured that the Bill could not have proceeded with accelerated passage.
I am puzzled about why Members are so confused. They must have had more important things to do and so were not present. The fact that they feel there are more important things than being here to stop a Bill going down the accelerated passage route is acceptable to me. That is entirely a matter for them, but their lamentations are a little belated.
Will the Minister give way?
Time is not on my side, and the Member has had her opportunity. She had her opportunity last week and did not take it. However, I will give way if she is brief.
I thank the Minister for giving way. There is an issue that we will need to look at. This matter arose on Tuesday afternoon, and unfortunately on Tuesday afternoons Committees are sitting. The Higher and Further Education, Training and Employment Committee sat in order to meet the deadline on student finance. We noticed that we did not have an annunciator in the room. To avoid a recurrence, it has been proposed that an annunciator be available where a Committee must meet at the same time as the House is sitting.
I did make the point when I was addressing this issue that some of us could not be here but have that concern. Because of a lack of business that day, that issue was taken ahead of its timing on the agenda.
I am sure that the Member does not hold me accountable for organising the business of the Assembly. If there is not an annunciator in a room, or if there is some other failing in the Assembly, no doubt Ms McWilliams will take that up with the appropriate authorities. However, it would have taken, I think, about 30 seconds to do the business that she refers to. I regret that she was so busy that she could not afford 30 seconds to come to the Chamber. It was on the Order Paper too.
I want to deal with some of the points that Mr Cobain, the Chairperson of the Social Development Committee, raised. He asked why the Committee did not have an opportunity to scrutinise the Bill. The accelerated passage procedure must have the leave of the Assembly, and in this case it was necessary to enable parity to be maintained - that cannot be overemphasised. Also, the Social Development Committee did have advance warning through a detailed presentation by my predecessor, Mr Nigel Dodds, so it is not strictly true to say that it did not have an opportunity for scrutiny. There were plenty of opportunities, or at least one anyway, and more than one.
Patricia Lewsley mentioned fair Government for older people. I am aware of the pilot schemes in Great Britain. These will be taken into account in the development of any policies. We will, of course, look at these very carefully and try to learn as much as we possibly can. She also raised the matter of an increase in tax allowance for occupational pensions. I understand the Member's point. Tax matters are, of course, outside the jurisdiction of the Assembly.
Another point that Patricia Lewsley raised was that the success of the minimum income guarantee campaign should be built on. That campaign is ongoing, and my Department is alive to the need to do all that it can to answer those who are entitled to claim benefit. The Member also said that there are delays in maintenance assessment. Under the new system, much more of the Child Support Agency's time will be spent on the proper enforcement of maintenance arrangements once they are reached. Once the new formula is in place and the agency is running at full speed, maintenance assessments will be made in four to six weeks instead of the current six months. By anybody's standards that will be a considerable improvement.
Patricia Lewsley also made a point about the delivery and management of all benefits. I am very much aware of the need to ensure that the benefits system meets the demands made upon it. This is a matter which I keep under constant review with the Social Security Agency.
Sue Ramsey asked if I could give an assurance that DNA samples will be destroyed after use. The honest answer is that I cannot give that assurance at this moment, but I will have an in-depth study done on the matter and write to the Member. Sue Ramsey also asked if I could give an assurance about payments to parents with care. No, I cannot give such an assurance. Each case will be looked at individually, so it would be quite untruthful to state otherwise.
Dr Paisley said that there is a need to make sure that people are aware of their benefit entitlements. The Social Security Agency is continually doing everything possible to advise people of their benefit entitlements, and it co-operates with the voluntary sector to get the message across to needy groups. I also listened attentively to the point that he made about the wife opening the husband's mail, and I am sure that did come as a very big shock. I appreciate that such a thing would cause great consternation in any family if it happened.
Mr Ford referred to clauses 65 and 66 and to the Family Law Bill. I will have to write to the Member about that, for I am unaware of the relationship. I will come back to him with a more detailed answer. He also raised clauses 53 and 57 and the breaching of community sentences. This is intended to match rights with responsibilities. An offender can avoid sanction by complying with the terms of the probation order or community service order.
Mr Ford also raised a very important point that needs to be dealt with clearly: the matter of parity. The overriding point is that any difference in cost would have to be met out of the Northern Ireland block. Some Members will recall that there was a debate here last week about an additional £5 for pensioners. Some said that the Assembly could not do that, but the truthful answer is that it could do that but would have to find the money. I say to Mr Ford that we could do this, but we would be breaking parity and the difference would have to be met out of the Northern Ireland block.
Monica McWilliams mentioned clause 16 and the removal of driving licences. I would like to take a moment or two to elaborate on that point. The child support system is not working at the moment. That has to change. A study has been made of what other countries do to get non-resident parents to pay maintenance. Some confiscate driving licences and others confiscate the passports of persistent non-payers. Other countries have found that the threat of removing a driving licence can be very effective in encouraging increased compliance. The availability of this sanction alone will not make non-resident parents think twice about trying to evade their responsibilities, but it will be up to the courts to decide whether a licence should be taken away or not. All of that will be considered before that final decision is taken. I imagine that one of the things that would be paramount in their thinking is how much an individual depends upon a driving licence for his work.
Ms McWilliams also mentioned accelerated passage. Maybe she will accept the answer that I gave earlier. Anyone could have stopped that by standing up in the Assembly. She had some reservations about pilot schemes too. The purpose of the pilot scheme is to determine whether the proposal is effective. Evaluation will take place. The power to do something must be in legislation before it can be used.
The Member raised the role of Social Security Advisory Committee. The Social Security Advisory Committee has no role in primary legislation, either in Great Britain or in Northern Ireland. The arena for consideration of these proposals is Parliament at Westminster or the Assembly. Ms McWilliams asked if the Minister could assure the house that the benefits of dependants would not be sanctioned for breach of community sentences. I can give that assurance today.
Mr ONeill raised a point about seasonal workers whose income is irregular and whose earnings fluctuate. The Department can take into account earning patterns over a longer period when making its assessment. The Member also raised the appointment of an appeals tribunal chairman. Appointments are a matter for the Lord Chancellor's Department.
He asked that information be so presented to the public as to be understandable. Social security, child benefit and pension legislation is complex. The Social Security Agency and the Child Support Agency try to use plain English, but plain English often comes at the expense of brevity.
The Member for Strangford (Mr Shannon) mentioned absent parents who move house. Absent parents are encouraged to pay by direct debit or standing order making it easier to deal with changes of address.
Mr Shannon and the Member for South Belfast (Ms McWilliams) mentioned the position of taxi drivers. A court has to consider whether a person needs a licence to earn a living. The person must be present in court where he will have an opportunity to state his case. Mr Shannon also mentioned travelling to work. Under the new simplified system which works on flat rates, there will be no mileage allowance.
That covers most of the points. If others need to be dealt with in more detail I will come back to Members after we have read Hansard.
Question put and agreed to.
That the Second Stage of the Child Support, Pensions and Social Security Bill (NIA Bill 1/00) be agreed.
Mr P Robinson:
I beg to move
That this Assembly has no confidence in the First Minister.
First, it might be useful to say something about procedure. The censure motion is a standard feature of parliamentary democracy. 'Erskine May' refers to it as an "established convention".
'Erskine May' refers to the regularity with which it has been employed in the House of Commons and to its legitimacy. Such a motion represents a challenge that must be faced up to immediately and fully by the Government. It was something of a surprise, therefore, that when this standard procedure was adopted in the Assembly, it received the reaction that it did from some sources.
I note that the poor scriptwriter used by the Chief Whip of the Ulster Unionist Party has, again, been repetitive: almost every answer to the questions arising from the DUP motion suggests that it is a stunt. That is interesting, because that stunt has been played out in the Waterfront Hall week after week. On many occasions the expression of "no confidence" inside the higher echelons of the Ulster Unionist Party has been overwhelming. I note that the Ulster Unionist Party Whip said exactly the same thing when we proposed a motion to exclude Sinn Féin from Government, even though the Leader of the Ulster Unionist Party had given that commitment to the public and even though it was recorded in Hansard that he had said at the previous Assembly sitting that he would do that. It was called a stunt, because the Democratic Unionist Party was doing it. Once again his poor scriptwriter has come up with the same response.
However, I expect a full debate with a lot of participation from the Members from the Ulster Unionist Party, because their Leader deserves the support of his Colleagues - according to their Chief Whip. Member after Member will be standing up from the Benches of the Ulster Unionist Party to list the merits of their Leader - according to their Chief Whip.
I was somewhat surprised to hear a Member who is not present today say that he would be opposed to discussing this motion because it might lead to a Unionist cat fight. Was he watching the ding-dong between Jeffrey Donaldson and David Trimble almost every day last week? Did he consider that to be a cat fight? Did he tune in to 'Hearts and Minds' at the end of last week and watch Willie Ross and Michael "the Mortician" McGimpsey slug it out on television? Was he present at the Ulster Unionist conference on Saturday, listening to the catcalls, the booing, the hissing and the heckling? I would have thought that a dignified debate in the Assembly would be less of a cat fight than some of the events he himself has taken part in. Another Member, who I think is also absent today, said that she would not support the motion, effectively because it was not the business of the Democratic Unionist Party to say whether or not it supported the Leader of the Ulster Unionist Party. Well, of course it is not. What the Leader of the Ulster Unionist Party says and does is a matter for the Ulster Unionist Party. The motion, however, is not about the leadership of the Ulster Unionist Party; it is about the First Minister of the Northern Ireland Assembly.
I consider that his stewardship of his position as First Minister is a matter for the Assembly. He is answerable to the Assembly and, ultimately, to the people of Northern Ireland. After all, it is our Province that he is destroying. It is our liberties that he is undermining. It is our democracy that he has endangered. Therefore it is appropriate that the Assembly consider this issue. Indeed, there could be no more appropriate body to consider it.
In that context, we have to look at what a confidence motion means. Confidence is about trust: whether we can trust the word of the First Minister; whether we can trust him to keep his promises; whether we can trust the First Minister to achieve the aims that he has stated he wants to achieve; whether we can trust him to provide wise leadership; and whether we can trust him to exercise sound judgement. I will be examining his record under each of those headings to determine whether, indeed, he can be trusted and whether the Assembly should have confidence in him.
I start with the subject of policing, because the First Minister considered the subject so important that he devoted some space to it in his ''News Letter' article on Saturday and some time during the course of his remarks at his party conference. Indeed, it is a subject on which he has been attempting to rewrite history for many months. Let us look first at what he said about policing before Patten had actually reported. He said that the police had nothing to fear from a commission of inquiry. Had they nothing to fear? We can judge whether he obtained his stated aims, whether he kept his promises, in this case to the rank and file of the Royal Ulster Constabulary, what leadership he provided and how sound his judgement was.
The first thing is that it was the First Minister who provided Patten with his remit. He is the architect of the Belfast Agreement and he subscribed to the terms of that agreement. The remit is clear in the Belfast Agreement. It indicates that there will be a new policing service. It cannot, therefore, have come as any surprise to him when he read those aspects of the report that sought to set up a new policing service.
As the remit that he gave Patten dealt with the composition, recruitment, training, culture, ethos and symbols of the RUC, the First Minister could hardly be surprised at the proposals that came from Patten. In terms of structure - and he has made much of his unhappiness with some of the local police boards - the remit that he gave Patten was that the police service should be delivered in constructive and inclusive partnerships with the community at all levels. It is very clear that each aspect of the Patten Report came directly from the remit given to Patten.
I do not like the Patten Report. I am opposed to it. I am justified in being opposed to it because I opposed the remit that Patten was given in the Belfast Agreement. However, it is utter hypocrisy for those who supported the Belfast Agreement, and who agreed to giving Patten this remit, to complain when Patten carries that remit out. They cannot even complain about the person of Chris Patten, because they applauded his appointment. They said that the commission that was set up could not have been better. Having approved the terms of reference, applauded the appointment of Chris Patten and extolled the virtues of the commission, it ill becomes them now to say that they are unhappy with the result.
Is it any wonder, therefore, that when the First Minister referred to the police in his address on Saturday, when he said "We know who to blame", the voices of his party members came back: "Yes, you."? For he is the guilty man. He is the person responsible for the destruction of the RUC that we are now seeing. I noted that in his article in the 'News Letter' he had the audacity to say that Patten breached the terms of reference he was given by the agreement. In his speech on Saturday he said
"Patten asked 'What did we expect when we signed the Agreement?' I'll tell him what we expected. We expected his report to be acceptable to the greater number of people in Northern Ireland. It wasn't."
Why did he expect that Patten's report would be acceptable to the greater number of people in Northern Ireland? I did not expect it to be. His one excuse has consistently been that the remit required the report to have widespread acceptance. But it does not, and either - I do not know whether I am allowed to suggest that he was either a fool or a knave, but certainly one of those must be true - he knew the remit he had given to Patten, in which case he would be a knave, or he did not know, in which case he would be a fool. The remit given to Patten does not require the proposals brought forward by the Commission to be acceptable to both sections of the community. Nowhere in the remit does it say any such thing. If the Member is rushing for a copy of the Patten Commission's Report I will read to him the section which he has sought misinterpret or he cannot understand. It says
"The proposals on policing should be designed to ensure that policing arrangements including composition, recruitment, training, culture, ethos and symbols are such that in a new approach Northern Ireland has a policing service that can enjoy widespread support from, and is seen as an integral part of, the community as a whole."
Some people are saying "There you are now - it shows their lack of capacity to understand what they read and hear." I will test them on it, and we will see whose interpretation is accurate. Nowhere does it say that the proposals have to be acceptable to widespread sections of our community. It says that the police service arising from the proposals has to be acceptable.
Let me illustrate the difference. Will any member of the Ulster Unionist Party stand up and say "I will not support the Police Service after these proposals go through"? Is there one of them? They have been chiding the SDLP for years and saying "We know you do not like the police set-up in Northern Ireland. We know you do not like its symbols. We know you do not like many of the arrangements, the composition of the force, but as responsible elected representatives you have to give your support to the instrument of law enforcement in Northern Ireland." That is what they expected from the SDLP; that is what I expected from the SDLP. I suspect that there is not one of them in a post-Patten era who will stand up and say "This new Police Service is not going to have my support." Of course they could say they do not support the proposals, but when implemented they will give support to the new Police Service.
That is the reality. That is the difference. The Leader of the Ulster Unionist Party has sought deliberately to misinterpret that by saying that the proposals required widespread support when they did not. Because of the First Minister's ineptness and incompetence, Patten carried out the remit that he had been given and then the Ulster Unionists turned on him. No wonder a frustrated Chris Patten said "What on earth did they expect." They are responsible for the destruction of the Royal Ulster Constabulary, and they know it. The community has no confidence in them because of their role in giving Patten his remit.
I want to examine the issue of decommissioning. I know it hurts them when this subject is under discussion but, nonetheless, it has to be dealt with; it is a key issue. For evidence that paper and ink refuse nothing, I read Mr Trimble's comments on decommissioning in the Belfast 'News Letter'. He said
"the Ulster Unionist Party has never abandoned its pledge on this matter to the Unionist people."
Well, let us see. The first significant pledge made by the Leader of the Ulster Unionist Party was in a feature article in the 'Belfast Telegraph' on Friday 7 June 1996. Members will remember that at that time we were about to enter a talks process. The Government were angling to have the representatives of Sinn Féin/IRA present. The Leader of the Ulster Unionist Party came out thumping his chest. The heading says it all:
"I'll stop talks if decommissioning of all arms doesn't start right away".
The requirement was there from the very beginning. I see the First Minister shifting around in his seat. I am not surprised; it would be difficult for him to sit still with such condemnation being heaped upon him. He was going to stop the talks from proceeding if the decommissioning of all weapons did not start straight away. He says in this article
"But our position is quite clear."
Well, at least for that day.
"The issue must be tackled at the beginning with clear commitments given which will be honoured by actual decommissioning beginning in a short period thereafter."
He then defines decommissioning:
"According to the Communique of February 28, the opening session includes the issues of Mitchell, the agenda and the procedures. I would not be surprised if, without any timewasting on anybody's part, the opening session takes several weeks. If towards the end of that session, paramilitary parties have not established their good faith by beginning decommissioning, we will insist that they be excluded from further participation in the negotiations, and we will not allow them to proceed to substantive negotiations."
The Ulster Unionist Leader, who has never abandoned his pledges on decommissioning, made it clear that, in order for Sinn Féin/IRA - and I assume he meant others as well - to participate in the talks, it was necessary for them to have begun decommissioning. He broke that pledge. He entered substantive negotiations; he continued and ended those negotiations, without any decommissioning from beginning to end.
Then there was the Assembly election. Proudly, the First Minister released his election manifesto. Once more, he gave a commitment - a pledge - to the people, as far as decommissioning was concerned:
"Before any terrorist organisation,"
I can understand some people not wanting to hear their election manifesto, but it might be good if they were to listen to what they actually stood on when they went to the people and asked for their support.
I thank the hon Member for giving way. At the outset, he was at pains to lay down his terms of reference, those being that this motion is one of no confidence in the First Minister. So far, he has dealt with matters that do not fall within the responsibility of the First Minister, the Executive or the Assembly. I ask the Member if the terms of reference are accurate. Is he not dealing with the First Minister's role as Leader of the Ulster Unionist Party rather than with the motion itself? He himself laid down the terms of reference and I wonder when he is going to deal with them.
Mr P Robinson:
Such bogus interventions are always an indicator of how generous I should be in giving way to people.
Everybody recognises that he should be responsible for the promises he made to the electorate of Northern Ireland during the Assembly election which brought him to this place and, subsequently, to become First Minister. I am surprised at how protective the Deputy First Minister is of his Colleague, given that most of the time he is not even on the same page as the First Minister on issues such as these.
However, he has given me an opportunity to read from the beginning again the First Minister's election manifesto, that brought him - [Interruption] No. Well, if it is relevant, yes.
It is very relevant.
Is it not the case that the Ulster Unionist Party's manifesto was not produced by or on behalf of the First Minister, but was written on behalf of the Ulster Unionist Party? When will the Member deal with this motion in terms of the First Minister's responsibility to the Assembly?
Mr P Robinson:
That will be the last intervention. I can understand why the First Minister would want to disassociate himself from his party's manifesto. However, it stretches credulity a little far to separate the First Minister from the election manifesto that he published, that he peddled and on which he was elected. The connection is there for everybody to see, and given the line of argument from the Deputy First Minister, I suspect that he may have been in the company of the First Minister for too long.
The manifesto said this:
"Before any terrorist organisation and/or its political wing can benefit from the proposals contained in the Agreement on the release of terrorist prisoners and the holding of ministerial office in the Assembly, the commitment to exclusively peaceful and non- violent means must be established. The Ulster Unionist Party will, therefore, be using various criteria that are objective, meaningful and verifiable in order to judge:
that there is a clear and unequivocal commitment that cease-fires are complete and permanent.
that the 'war' is over and violence ended;
that targeting, training, weapons procurement -
does that ring a bell with the First Minister in light of the phone calls he has been making to the USA on the subject? -
and so-called paramilitary beatings cease forthwith;
that there is progressive abandonment and dismantling of paramilitary structures;
that use of proxy organisations for paramilitary purposes cannot be tolerated;
that disarmament must be completed in two years,
and that the fate of the'"Disappeared' will be made known immediately."
The manifesto goes on, but it is abundantly clear that the Ulster Unionist party was committed, through its Leader, the First Minister, to the principle that there would be no entry into Government until actual decommissioning had taken place. Further to that, it also required the actual dismantling of the terror machine. If anybody was in any doubt, he received a personal letter from the First Minister during the election, saying
"the Ulster Unionist Party will not sit in the Government of Northern Ireland with un-reconstructed terrorists. This issue must be comprehensively addressed to our satisfaction. Paramilitary organisations must decide that the war is over, dismantle, disarm and stop the beatings".
Yet the Leader of the Ulster Unionist Party tells us in the Belfast 'News Letter' that
"the Ulster Unionist Party has never abandoned its pledge".
In a debate in the Assembly on 15 December 1998 the First Minister replied to the Member for North Down, Mr McCartney. He said
"If the issue of forming an Executive should arise without there having been a credible beginning to decommissioning, as required by the agreement, we would have to table a motion for the exclusion from office of those who had not begun the process of decommissioning".
Yet we are led to believe that the Leader of the Ulster Unionist Party has never broke his pledges on decommissioning.
On 17 May he said
"there must be a credible and verifiable start to a process of decommissioning, before Sinn Féin can participate in government.
The Ulster Unionist Party will not change its position on this matter now, during or after the European election. This issue goes right to the heart of the Agreement and to the commitments to peace and democracy that Government Ministers must abide by".
Yet the Ulster Unionist Party has never broken its pledges on decommissioning.
On 28 June he again said
"No Recognisable, quantifiable, decommissioning before any Executive is established remains the only way in which democrats can safely see that the war is indeed over".
It has not happened, but they are in the Government, their commitment broken again.
I have read a transcript of a television interview he had with John Humphrys, who suggested that the First Minister
"could, for instance, say 'Let's find a way whereby we can set up an executive in Northern Ireland before the IRA actually begins a process of physically getting rid of any weapons'."
Mr Trimble responded
"Well, what would be the point of doing that. What would be the point of bringing about a situation where people are in Government by day and involved in terrorism by night. Wouldn't that be an appalling state of affairs? Isn't that likely to lead to a complete collapse of confidence in this process if you're going to undermine and destroy the integrity of it? I can't see the point of even thinking in those terms. I've made it clear all the way through this that words are not enough, and they are not enough; they are not going to carry credibility".
John Humphrys laboured the point:
"Right, but what you're not saying this morning in this rather ugly abbreviation that is used occasionally, you're not saying categorically 'No guns, no government'."
Mr Trimble responded
"Oh I am, I am. I would regard what you've said as being precisely that. There's no question of people being involved in the administration without decommissioning. That has to happen."
Yet the Ulster Unionist Party has kept its pledges on decommissioning.
I made reference earlier to events over the last number of days following an Ulster Television programme which revealed that rather than decommissioning, the IRA is supplementing its arms stockpiles. Rather than getting rid of guns, it is bringing them in. What was the response? Does the leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, our First Minister, rush to the Assembly and say "This is preposterous and unacceptable. Here we have a party in government. One of its Ministers is a member of the IRA Army Council that has sanctioned the bringing of guns into Northern Ireland. I cannot tolerate this situation."? Is that what he says? No, it is not. He attempts to get it covered over. According to newspaper reports, he was the first to get in touch with Sandy Berger to see if the matter could be resolved. Then the American pressure started on Ulster Television to pull the programme. Instead of facing up to the issue and recognising the folly into which he had entered, the First Minister's answer was to sweep it under the carpet.
This is the heart of the issue. Some might say the guns are silent, but there have been occasions when the Provisional IRA's guns were not so silent. It is accumulating more weapons. What for? If it is committed to exclusively peaceful and democratic means, why is it supplementing its stockpiles of weapons? It is very clear that it has no intention of decommissioning. The people realise it, and we realise it in this House. How sad that it has not dawned on the First Minister that he has been suckered once again into believing the words of Sinn Féin/IRA.
The next issue is the release of prisoners. The commitment of the First Minister was that the RUC would not be disbanded and that only prisoners linked to paramilitary groups observing a ceasefire would be released - and then only on licence. The requirement to decommission before taking Executive posts would be underpinned by legislation, thus giving it the force of law. Prisoners were not to be released until violence had ended and decommissioning had taken place. Now, however, they are on our streets and re-engaging in racketeering and terrorist activity. They are back to their old haunts and in their old organisations, all with the permission of the First Minister, who, in effect, turned the keys to release them from their prison cells.
I could spend some time dealing with the First Minister's commitments on all-Ireland institutions and how he said they would be made accountable to the Assembly. However, on the very first occasion that my Friend Dr Paisley attempted to make them so accountable, he was told - and I do not question the Speaker's ruling on this matter, for he had no alternative - that he was out of order and that the Assembly could not ask such questions. No vote could be taken on those issues. These bodies, set up with full Executive authority, are accountable to themselves, not to the Assembly.
I note that, over the last few days, the First Minister's claims are becoming even wilder. He has told us that the Republic's claim has been removed, that the Anglo-Irish Agreement is gone, that there is no Maryfield Secretariat and that Unionists are now on the inside. What he does not tell us is that, as far as the Republic's claim is concerned, one need not claim something one already has. If one is effectively operating joint sovereignty, one need not claim that one has any authority in Northern Ireland, for one is exercising it every day. That is why the First Minister, as soon as he gets in trouble, hotfoots it to Dublin to speak to Bertie Ahern. That is why one of the few people to express confidence in the First Minister over the last few days has been the said Mr Ahern. The only three of whom I can think are a has-been the former Prime Minister, John Major, the Secretary of State, Peter Mandelson, and the Dublin Prime Minister, Bertie Ahern.
Is the hon Member aware that John Major publicly stated that the Belfast Agreement was his framework with knobs on, while the Unionist document explaining the agreement says that they have destroyed the framework?
Mr P Robinson:
Indeed. No wonder the former Prime Minister is one of the few cheerleaders for the First Minister of the Northern Ireland Assembly.
Rev Dr Ian Paisley:
The Agriculture Committee had a high-ranking civil servant from the Department of Agriculture giving evidence about the LEADER + programme. He was asked whether, after the Assembly had decided what it wanted to do and voted on it, that was the final decision. He said that the decision had to go to the joint council, which can change it. I asked if we could see the proposals made by the South of Ireland representatives on LEADER +; he said "No". So that body can overrule everything, although we were told that it really had no power. Now, the leader of the Unionist Party is suggesting that he might pull back a little from this body.
Mr P Robinson:
The point is well made. Each time the First Minister runs off for succour from Dublin he emphasises the role that he has given them in the affairs of Northern Ireland. He tells us that the Anglo-Irish Agreement is gone, but he does not tell us that something far worse has been put in its place. He tells us that there is no Maryfield Secretariat, but does not bother to say that it has just moved its address to the centre of Belfast. He says that Unionists are on the inside but does not tell us that they are subject to a Nationalist and Republican veto on all that they do.
It is no wonder that, in this confused state, the First Minister tells readers of the 'The Daily Telegraph' that he did not sign up to this agreement. It seems to have taken him several years to discover that he did not sign up to it; as a letter writer recently asked, "If he did not, who did?" He did sign up to all of this. After the South Antrim by-election he sought to blame the media, the SDLP and Alliance, the candidate, the weather and even the electorate. So, on this issue, he tries to pass the buck again: "This is not the agreement that I signed." That is why people cannot have confidence in the First Minister - he does not even know what he signed up to. The First Minister has an interpretation of the Belfast Agreement that nobody else shares. In his own wee world, he still believes that his interpretation is the only possible one. He talks about "constructive ambiguity" - an admission that he signed a document that could be read in any number of different ways, was open to any number of different interpretations and, therefore, was open to many different forms of implementation. He signed up to an agreement without knowing what the outcome would be. Now he says "I did not sign up to this agreement". He did, and he has no excuse. Over and over again, in elected bodies and, indeed, in public, he was told precisely what the effect of the agreement would be. There was no shortage of people, from all of the parties on the Unionist side, telling him exactly what would be the outcome. But this trainspotter would not listen to advice from anybody. He was not prepared to take counsel from anyone; he knew it all. He had the correct interpretation of the agreement and knew what the outcome was going to be. Now, when we are proved right, he puts up his hands and says "I did not sign up to this agreement."
Order. The Member will be aware that the Business Committee allowed three hours for the debate. I understand that he may have a lot to say, but the Clerks advise me that many other Members also feel that they have a good deal to contribute. If he could draw his remarks to a close, it would facilitate me in ensuring that as many other Members as possible are able to speak.
Mr P Robinson:
I shall attempt to bring my remarks to a conclusion reasonably soon.
I also noted in 'The Daily Telegraph' that he had the shamefaced affrontery to face the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom and accuse him of surrendering to terrorists. What was the trigger - if that is not a pun - that caused the First Minister to make these remarks? There was a package announced fairly recently, part of which amounted - although the Secretary of State does not like the terms being used - to providing an amnesty for on-the-run terrorists. In addition, some army bases were dismantled. The First Minister makes direct references to these matters and accuses the Prime Minister of surrendering to terrorism for making those concessions. Nobody on these Benches would disagree that this is a further surrender to terrorism.
How does the First Minister remove from himself the same accusation of surrendering to terrorism when he lets their prisoners out, when he puts their frontmen into government, when he destroys the police force that is protecting society and when he gives them their goal of setting up all-Ireland executive bodies? If that is not surrendering to terrorism, then nothing is. He should therefore remember that when he next decides to try to pass the buck to the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom he is more guilty than Tony Blair, for he, living here, professing his Unionism, should have known better.
The hon Member refers to terrorism and what took place during the height of the troubles, but what active service did he give against terrorism during those years? Is this all lip-service today instead of active service? Can he also tell the Assembly what success he had with his foray into Clontibret some years ago? How beneficial was it? Did he underpin the Eire Exchequer to a great extent?
Mr P Robinson:
It actually cost about £0·5 million, but I do not suppose the facts will make much difference today.
Mr Foster should know that Mr Robinson was in Clontibret.
Mr P Robinson:
The Member obviously cannot keep track of events; the Minister already made that remark. Perhaps if the Member reads Hansard, he will see for himself.
Will the Member please draw his remarks to a close. He has been on his feet now for 46 minutes, albeit with some interruptions.
Rev Dr Ian Paisley:
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. The Business Committee is dominated not by the Democratic Unionist Party but by other Members of this House. If they want to limit the time for debate, that is their business. Mr Robinson is quite right, within the Standing Orders to have his say. If the Business Committee had wanted a six-hour debate, it could have had it. If, it had wanted the sitting to run on until tomorrow, it could have done that, but it wanted to guillotine this debate, and so Mr Robinson needs to be told from the Chair that he can go on all day, and you, Mr Speaker, can do nothing about it.
The Member is incorrect on two grounds. First, he will well know that, under Standing Orders, it is for the Business Committee to decide what will be debated, whether it will be debated and for how long, and it has ruled. Secondly, it is for the Speaker to decide whether a Member may continue speaking, or whether, in the view of the Chair, he has become repetitious or is taking too long - [Interruption] Order. The Member may be permitting too many other Members to intervene, thus lengthening - [Interruption] Order.
The interventions came from a number of Members, including members of his own party. As Speaker, I must ensure that the argument is balanced, as would anyone else in the Chair.
Please continue, Mr Robinson, but please bring your remarks to a close.
Rev Dr Ian Paisley:
On a further point of order, Mr Speaker. If you intend to facilitate the First Minister, who wants to get the debate over before lunch, that is between you and him. We have a right to be heard. Do you want to silence us? That is all right because this is not a democratic Assembly anyway.
Dr Paisley needs to be careful that he does not put himself out of order in his remarks about the Speaker. It is my responsibility to ensure that a range of Members have the opportunity to speak. There are three hours for debate, and 46 minutes have been taken by one Member. Please bring your remarks to a close, Mr Robinson.
Mr P Robinson:
I am bringing my remarks to a close, Mr Speaker. If I am accused of anything, it should be generosity in giving way to other Members.
If there is one Member of the Assembly who outdoes the First Minister in making U-turns, it is the Minister of the Environment, Mr Foster. Members might like to look back to Hansard from December 1998. The Member who is now Minister of the Environment - I will let somebody else deal with this in greater detail later, rather than take further time - made it abundantly clear then that he would never sit in an Executive with Sinn Féin/IRA unless decommissioning had taken place. He was so adamant that he was almost ready to stake his life on it. Everybody has seen his acrobatics and his about- turning on that matter. It is no wonder that he is treated with contempt in his constituency.
We have a First Minister in whom most of the other Ministers in the Executive have expressed a lack of confidence at one time or another. Here is a First Minister who has proved on many occasions that his party lacks confidence in him. Here is a First Minister in whom a majority of his Members of Parliament have no confidence. The First Minister has no confidence in himself. He and the Minister of the Environment are attempting to get the local government elections put out of the way so that he does not have to face the electorate. He has no confidence in the outcome of that election. It is hardly surprising that we on these Benches have no confidence in him either.
The First Minister has done greater damage to the Union, democracy and the liberties of people in Northern Ireland than any other figure in history. He has ushered corruption into the heart of government in Northern Ireland. He has sought to conceal his betrayal and evade the consequences. History will record the judgement of each Assembly Member today on his stewardship. At the end of the debate Members can show their disapproval of his tenure as First Minister. They can tell the First Minister what people up and down this country are saying: "We have no confidence in you".
The First Minister (Mr Trimble):
I hope to make my remarks before it is necessary to go for lunch, although, as you rightly hinted, Mr Speaker, it did appear that the opening speech was more in the nature of a filibuster than a serious contribution to debate. Indeed, one wonders what the object of the exercise really is.
There is one thing which I should say right at the outset: what we have heard today demonstrates quite clearly the wisdom expressed by my Whip when he described this as a stunt. It is simply a stunt. It is a stunt which is patently and obviously choreographed with other events. That is clear from the timing of the announcement of this motion, what was said the next day and what happened the day after that. This is no coincidence, as they say, but there is another purpose behind this stunt, which is perhaps more significant. It is another attempt to mislead and deceive people. It is an attempt to mislead and deceive the supporters of the DUP, to try to persuade them that the Democratic Unionist Party is in some way opposed to this agreement, the Assembly and the Executive. They should ask some of the people who sit close to them about this matter, and they might like to go back to Portavogie and ask the people there as well.
The other thing I want to say by way of introduction is that Mr Robinson would be well advised, once he has calmed down and is in a more stable frame of mind, to read through his speech and ask himself if he is really proud of some of the appallingly stupid statements that he made. There was a suggestion that joint sovereignty is actually functioning in Northern Ireland today. That is the statement of someone who is not in contact with reality. I notice that at one point he suggested that Deputy First Minister was suffering from folie à deux because of his association with me. While it is possible that the Deputy First Minister and I have rubbed off a bit on each other, it is absolutely clear from the comments of Mr P Robinson that his prolonged association over decades with the people around him has rubbed off on his mind and his ability to think straight.
There is one small point of detail that I want to pick up - I think that he has been misled by the print media here - and that was the reference to telephone calls after the recent UTV programme that arose from the Miami gun-running. I want to make it quite clear to him that I made no calls to the US Administration.
Some of his staff did it.
Mr C Wilson:
Will the First Minister give way please?
The First Minister:
No, I will reply to the sedentary interruption from Mr Dodds, who suggested that, rather than make the call myself, I had one of my minions - I did not know I had any - make the call for me. That is also untrue. I hope that Mr Dodds is relieved to have the truth pointed out to him.
Mr C Wilson:
I find this hard to understand or believe. I have it on very good authority - no less than that of the American Consul General in Belfast, Ms Fort - that it was a call from Mr Trimble to Mr Sandy Berger's office in the United States that instigated American interest in the programme. They had no prior notion that such a programme was being made, let alone any knowledge of its content. Mr Trimble was in a position to know as he had been interviewed by Mr Trevor Birney. Mr Trimble made a call to Mr Sandy Berger in the United States, and if he disagrees with that statement he should take the matter up with the American Consul General in Belfast, who also seems to be under some illusion on this matter.
The First Minister:
I said what I did because I was aware from the print media that some people evidently believed what Mr Cedric Wilson has just said.