Northern Ireland Assembly
Monday 16 October 2000
The Assembly met at 10.30 am (Mr Speaker in the Chair).
Members observed two minutes’ silence.
It is my sad duty to report to the Assembly the death of the First Minister of Scotland, the Rt Hon Donald Dewar. A motion of condolence has been tabled in the name of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister.
That a message of condolence be sent to the family of the late Rt Hon Donald Dewar MP MSP, as follows:
"We, the Members of the Northern Ireland Assembly, extend our deepest sympathy on their grievous loss to the family of the Rt Hon Donald Dewar MP MSP and to the Presiding Officer of the Scottish Parliament on the death of the First Minister of Scotland, and wish to record our recognition of his devoted service to his country." —[The First Minister and the Deputy First Minister]
The First Minister (Mr Trimble):
The very bleakness of the weather this morning will, for many of us, reflect our spirits as we contemplate the sad and untimely death of Scotland’s First Minister, the Rt Hon Donald Dewar MP MSP. The most that we can do on this sad occasion is to try to find, in words, some dignified way of honouring Donald Dewar’s memory. Formally, we will be conveying a message of condolence to his family, and to the Presiding Officer of the Scottish Parliament. But many of us will also want to take some time to reflect on the friend that we knew.
The last time I met Donald was at the Joint Ministerial Council meeting in Edinburgh at the beginning of September, and he appeared to have made a full recovery from his heart operation. Consequently, his sudden, unexpected death brings with it a particularly keen sense of loss.
Like a number of other Colleagues here, I knew Donald Dewar both as a fellow parliamentarian and personally. That he held high office throughout a long and varied political career without making a single enemy stands as an eloquent testament to the man that was Donald Dewar. As many of us know, his life was not without personal disappointment and some sadness. Nevertheless, he bore these difficulties, including his recent illness, with great personal dignity and equanimity.
He was widely respected for the natural modesty with which he disguised his immense intellectual and personal abilities and also for the great personal wit and good humour that he displayed. I recollect many occasions on which he summed up complicated debates at the Dispatch Box in the House of Commons, without a note, very sharp and keen in his comments with a full and complete grasp of the matters he was dealing with.
Donald’s great political achievement was to carry through the proposals for a Scottish Parliament, which he steered on to the statute book and then presided over as its First Minister. He deeply believed that the creation of the Scottish Parliament would be a worthy expression of Scottish national identity within a United Kingdom framework, and he was able to see that dream become a reality. It was undoubtedly the crowning achievement of his life.
In the untimely and sudden death of Donald Dewar many of us will feel that we have lost a friend and, institutionally, someone who would have co-operated closely with ourselves and other Administrations. We can do no more than to take some measure of satisfaction that our lives have been enriched by knowing him and that his achievements will live on after him and be a real inspiration to us all.
The Deputy First Minister (Mr Mallon):
I wish to associate myself with the remarks of the First Minister. I was deeply saddened at the death last Wednesday of Scotland’s First Minister, Donald Dewar. I wish to extend my sympathy to his family. My thoughts are with them at this very sad time.
Donald was a towering figure in every way in political life, particularly at Westminster in the course of his long and distinguished career there, and most recently as Scotland’s First Minister in the long-awaited democratically elected Parliament. He had campaigned passionately and tirelessly for devolution. It was fitting that he should be the First Minister of Scotland’s Parliament.
He was immensely proud of what had been achieved for Scotland through devolution. Last July, at the opening of the Scottish Parliament, he said
"I count myself lucky indeed to be playing my part in the hard work of turning a vision into a reality".
It is sad to think now that he will not be there to continue his work as First Minister. I got to know Donald well through our time together at Westminster. He was a parliamentarian of the highest order. My memories of him will be of a man who was universally respected, a down-to-earth politician, yet a learned person with a deep and passionate devotion that he brought to those whom he served and to everything that he did.
He had a unique blend of integrity, sharp intellect, humanity and vision, coupled with a very keen sense of humour. He will be sorely missed, but his legacy will live on in the Scottish Parliament, and his place in history is secure as the architect of that achievement.
"The people know that they have lost a friend."
Those were the words of Donald Dewar at the funeral in 1994 at Cluny Church in Edinburgh of his colleague John Smith. In repeating those words today of Donald Dewar, I can pay him no higher tribute.
Mr P Robinson:
I support the sending of condolences to the family of the late Donald Dewar. I also wish to associate my party colleagues and myself with the tributes made by the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister. I knew Donald Dewar for many years, and he carried out all his political business in a straight-talking and straightforward manner. Many politicians who attain high office seem to drift above the rest of their political colleagues, but those of us who knew Donald Dewar recognised that he never lost his common touch. He was very much a man of the people.
I got to know him particularly well when he was the Labour Party’s Chief Whip. I had considerable contact with him at that time, and I greatly respected his sincerity and his determination. That determination was evident in the vigour with which he took forward the project of devolution for the Scottish people. It was also evident in the way he made his own health a lower priority than his duties as First Minister for Scotland.
I express the condolences of all my Colleagues to his constituents, his party, the people of Scotland, his friends and, most of all, his family.
Go raibh maith agat, a Chathaoirligh. On behalf of Sinn Féin, I would like to associate myself with the comments that have been made. Mr Dewar was First Minister of the Scottish Parliament — a Parliament that he did much to create. He died, aged 63, with the satisfaction of having achieved an outstanding personal ambition. His premature death has deprived the people of Scotland of a great leader, but his place in Scottish history has been assured by that achievement. As Scottish First Minister, he obviously faced problems, but he described the experience as the most worthwhile of his political life. He relished the challenge, despite his health problems.
I met Mr Dewar on three occasions, so I cannot claim to have known him very well. He was described as a witty pessimist, and I cannot help but think that with that characteristic he might have had something to offer this Assembly. He was well known as someone who listened to the opinions of others. He could argue his own point of view but was always willing to admit publicly that others had made a good point. That broad- mindedness is an example to us all.
On behalf of Sinn Féin, I extend condolences to his immediate family, his colleagues and the people of Scotland. Go raibh míle maith agat.
On behalf of the Alliance Party, I identify myself with the remarks that have been made. I met Donald Dewar on several occasions and always found him to be a very strong advocate of moderation. He was a Scotsman in the truest sense of the word. It was significant that, after the 1997 general election, he gave up the opportunity of a senior Cabinet post in order to concentrate on Scottish affairs. He realised the benefits of devolution for Scotland, and he also recognised the benefits of regionalism and subsidiarity.
In recent days I have read several obituaries saying that Donald was a shy man. Maybe he was, but at least he got things done and he gave the people of Scotland their Parliament. On behalf of the Alliance Party, I extend sympathy to his family, especially to his son Ian and his daughter Marion, and to the people of Scotland, who will remember him as the person who gave them back their Parliament.
I associate myself with all the comments that have been made. My party and I have been shocked by the death of a man who might well be described as a beacon of integrity. At a time when politicians do not have a good name, Donald Dewar was a shining light. As the First Minister has said, Mr Dewar went through his political career without making enemies.
I am also conscious of the loss to his family, friends, colleagues and the people of Scotland. When they look back at his achievements in the course of what was, by today’s standards, a short life, they will see the lasting testimony in bright lights. The building blocks of devolution have been put in place in Scotland, and politics has been brought closer to the people. Those are the dreams that Donald Dewar lived for.
We can say wonderful things about the man, and he absolutely deserves them. But what will we say about each other in the future? If there is integrity in politics, it is epitomised by the likes of Donald Dewar. We could do worse than emulate him as we push on with our devolution.
I want to associate the Women’s Coalition with the message of condolence from the First and Deputy First Ministers. Everything that has been said about Donald Dewar has left those of us in politics questioning ourselves. He led the way, and he was regarded in Scotland as a remarkable man for doing so. It is particularly sad that his death should come so soon after that of another great Scotsman, John Smith. His death is a loss not only to Scotland and its parliamentarians, but to Westminster. We have much in common with the Scottish parliamentarians, and our hearts go out to them. It was amazing to watch them in grief; clearly, he meant a great deal to each of them personally.
The director of the Northern Ireland Voluntary Trust recently visited Donald Dewar to speak about the work in the communities in Northern Ireland. He was so moved by what Avila Kilmurray told him about what had been done here over the years that he offered, in a personal capacity, to host a meeting for the trust in Scotland in order to enable them to further their work in Northern Ireland. That speaks volumes about what he would have liked to do for the people of Northern Ireland.
We extend our condolences to the people and parliamentarians of Scotland and to his family, in particular his son and daughter. We express our heartfelt grief to those who will miss him most, his immediate family.
Question put, and agreed to nemine contradicente.
That a message of condolence be sent to the family of the late Rt Hon Donald Dewar MP MSP, as follows:
"We, the Members of the Northern Ireland Assembly, extend our deepest sympathy on their grievous loss to the family of the Rt Hon Donald Dewar MP MSP and to the Presiding Officer of the Scottish Parliament on the death of the First Minister of Scotland, and wish to record our recognition of his devoted service to his country."
As a mark of respect to the memory of the late Donald Dewar, the Assembly will be adjourned for one hour.
Adjourned at 10.50 am.
(Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr McClelland] in the Chair)
Mr A Maginness:
On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. I intended to raise this point at the beginning of business, but I did not want to interrupt the message of condolence and the speeches about Mr Dewar.
His Holiness the Dalai Lama is visiting Northern Ireland this week. Considering the outstanding contribution that he has made to world peace and peaceful understanding, will the Business Committee consider, as a matter of urgency, extending an invitation to His Holiness to attend the Assembly and, if appropriate, address it. If the Business Committee is not in a position to do this, will it invite him to visit the Assembly during his itinerary to Northern Ireland?
Mr Deputy Speaker:
That is not a point of order. However, if the Member so wishes, he can refer the matter to his party Whip who could raise it with the Business Committee. It is not a matter for the Assembly to decide.
The Minister of Finance and Personnel (Mr Durkan): I beg leave to lay before the Assembly a Bill (NIA 6/00) to make provision about Government resources and accounts; and for connected purposes.
Bill passed First Stage and ordered to be printed.
Mr Deputy Speaker:
The next business is the Second Stage of the Health and Personal Social Services Bill. I call the Minister Ms Bairbre de Brún.
On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. Can you confirm that due to the non-attendance of the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety this business now falls? If it does not fall, what happens to it? It is on the Order Paper as the next item of business. I would be grateful for clarification.
Mr Deputy Speaker:
The business now falls, and it will go back to the Business Committee for a decision as to when it will return to the House.
Further to that point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. Members who have a strong interest in this piece of legislation and are ready to make a contribution on it will be very concerned. In view of the unexplained absence of the Minister, Members no longer have an opportunity to make their contributions, and the Assembly cannot progress the business set down in the Order Paper. That is shameful, and it highlights the attitude of Sinn Féin/IRA Ministers to the House.
Mr Deputy Speaker:
It will go to the Business Committee which will decide when it will come before the House again.
I am sure that there is a good reason for the Minister’s absence. Is it in order to ask for a 10-minute suspension?
Mr Deputy Speaker:
That is out of order.
On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. I disagree with the Member. The motion should fall. The Minister has no vision and no strategy. She has only reviews. Her absence is blatant ignorance.
Mr Deputy Speaker:
That is not a point of order.
The Minister of Finance and Personnel (Mr Durkan): I beg to move
That the Second Stage of the Defective Premises (Landlord’s Liability) Bill (NIA 5/00) be agreed.
This Bill will provide a modest extension of a landlord’s liability for a failure to repair defective premises. It implements the recommendations of the Law Reform Advisory Committee contained in its report on the subject, which was published in 1998. The committee, in that report, noted that its objective in this reform was to remove a gap in the law with regard to injuries which occur on dangerous premises and, in particular, to remove the perceived immunity which a landlord of such property currently enjoys. It is a general rule of negligence that a person must act with reasonable care to ensure that his acts and omissions do not cause injury to those who may foreseeably be affected by such acts or omissions.
In relation to the occupation of land and buildings, a principle has arisen which provides that an occupier of premises must observe a common duty of care. In other words, an occupier must take such care as is reasonable to see that his or her visitors will be reasonably safe in using the premises.
One major exception to this principle of care is to be found in relation to tenanted property. A landlord of dangerous property remains favoured by an historical immunity dating from a decision in an early twentieth century House of Lords case, Cavalier vs Pope. While the law has developed to a certain extent in this area, the last relevant reforming legislation was section 4 of the Occupiers’ Liability Act (Northern Ireland) 1957. In its report, the committee felt that the landlord was still unduly favoured by the current position. In 1972, the legislature in England and Wales acted on the anomaly by the introduction of section 4 of the Defective Premises Act 1972, which extended the responsibility of a landlord to cover those
"who might reasonably be expected to be affected by defects in the state of the premises."
It focused on the contractual obligations owed by landlords to their tenants and materially widened the ambit of their liability. While the rest of the Defective Premises Act was mirrored in the provisions of the Defective Premises (Northern Ireland) Order 1975, the section relating to a landlord’s liability was not included. Ministers omitted this because of the high number of bomb-damage properties and derelict buildings at what was a time of severe troubles in the early to mid 1970s. To impose an extra burden on a landlord then was considered to be too onerous.
However, the Law Reform Advisory Committee, in its report, expressed the view that that rationale no longer had the force that it had had in the 1970s. Circumstances have changed, and the threat to property from terrorist bombing is no longer of the same degree as it was then. Housing conditions have improved considerably. There has been redevelopment in poorer areas, principally undertaken by the Northern Ireland Housing Executive, and there is the continued availability of grants to improve housing. Those were among the factors that led the committee to recommend a change in the law.
I now turn to the main features of the Bill. I have shown how section 4 of the Defective Premises Act 1972 extended a landlord’s liability to include those who might reasonably be expected to be affected by defects in the premises. The committee was content with this wording and commended it in its report. The draft Bill therefore contains a similar provision in clause 1(2). This provision will replace the limited statutory claim available under the Occupiers’ Liability (Northern Ireland) Act 1957 and will, in effect, extend the ambit of the landlord’s liability.
This new duty of care owed by the landlord will apply if he or she knows of the defect or if he or she ought to have known of it in all the circumstances. In some ways, it is devised to ensure that rogue landlords take precautions to keep their properties in good repair. The duty is extended further by the removal of the requirement of an obligation to repair by providing that the landlord is under a duty, either where he has undertaken to do repairs or where he has a right, express or implied, to carry out maintenance and repairs.
The committee was, however, conscious of the fact that there remain in this jurisdiction differences in rent law which do not lend themselves well to a carte blanche change. Several consultees — in particular, the Northern Ireland Housing Executive — expressed concerns that liability imposed on certain tenancies would be onerous. The committee, on balance, accepted those concerns, and the Bill reflects its recommendation that landlords holding restricted or regulated tenancies should be exempted from the proposed changes. A further exemption is afforded to owners of ground rents and nominal rents. Such landlords do not maintain the same degree of economic interest or control over their property as in the usual landlord-tenant relationship, and accordingly they are excluded from the proposed liability.
Members will note that the legislation is to take effect one year after it receives Royal Assent. That is designed to allow those landlords whose premises may require work to be carried out a generous amount of time in which to do it. It will also give other landlords time to carry out any necessary inspections and to prepare for the new legal framework. While for the majority of landlords such work will be minimal, I warn those who may have let their property fall into an unsatisfactory state to do something about it.
This is a short piece of law reform that should only have a limited effect on current practice and procedures. The majority of landlords keep their properties in good repair and already owe certain duties and responsibilities to their tenants that this proposed legislation will not affect. Such landlords have no reason to fear from the reforms as outlined. However, landlords who do not keep such a diligent eye on their properties and who allow them to lapse into a state which could potentially cause injury or damage will have to take note of this legislation. If it helps them to focus on their responsibilities and ensures a safe environment for their tenants and others, it will have served its purpose. Accordingly I commend the Bill to the Assembly. I will try to answer such points as are raised by Members when I wind up at the end of the debate.
The Chairperson of the Finance and Personnel Committee (Mr Molloy): A LeasCheann Comhairle, I welcome the Bill. As the Minister said, it is a short measure, dealing with the liability of landlords. It is important because of changes in the use of houses that had been family homes, many of which have now been turned into flats for students and others. Landlords should live up to their responsibilities towards their tenants. The Bill will go some way towards making the necessary changes.
In the time before the legislation comes into operation we should have some means of inspecting properties to ensure that they live up to fire safety and health standards. After the Bill is passed, we should ensure that speedy action can be taken to bring properties up to standard.
Generally speaking, I welcome the Bill. It will certainly help those of us who live in areas in which there is urban dereliction.
There is one thing, however, that I would like to take up with the Minister. Dereliction may occur because of a dispute over ownership of the property or because there has been a family feud and no one can say who really owns a property. There is often a long legal wrangle. In the interim, not only do the premises fall derelict but they are open to the abuses that are common in urban areas. Tenants who are not proper tenants may abuse a property that they have simply usurped. Responsibility for making the property safe still falls to the local district council. Will the Bill include powers to deal with dereliction if the title deed owner or landlord cannot be identified? It is an area of great concern to local councils, and that is why I raise the issue, although I am generally happy to support the Bill.
I welcome the Bill, particularly as I represent a constituency in which there is so much property for lease and for rent. It will extend the rights of individuals, with particular reference to lawful visitors and neighbours, as well as occupiers.
I note one point. The Explanatory Memorandum refers to human rights issues and says that the Bill
"interferes with possession and peaceful enjoyment of property as guaranteed by Article 1 of the First Protocol to the European Convention on Human Rights."
However, it is also argued that the extension of landlords’ liability is a legitimate aim and would be to the benefit of the community at large, and the terms of the Bill agree with that latter argument. When the Bill goes to Committee Stage I would like some attention to be paid to the implications of that.
(Mr Speaker in the Chair)
It will also have an impact on targeting social need. At the moment, the Bill says it has no adverse impact. Does that mean it may have a positive impact or will it have no impact whatsoever? It is a simple question. Since it seems to be such a useful introduction to people’s rights, particularly in relation to property in deprived areas, I imagine that the Committee will want to pay some attention to that.
Ms McWilliams raised the question of conformity with the European Convention on Human Rights. I need to speak about that.
As the House will know, one of the responsibilities of the Speaker’s Office is to ensure that Bills coming to First Stage conform with the European Convention on Human Rights and are within the competence of the Assembly. There are circumstances where differing rights interfere with each other and the matter is then one of the balance of public interest. Where, in my judgement, the balance of public interest is that the Bill should be brought forward in the form in which the Minister proposes that information would be contained in the Explanatory and Financial Memorandum. The Assembly would then be able to make a judgement on the balance of public interest because it could introduce an amendment at Consideration Stage. Where a Bill may be a changed by amendment and there is a balance of public interest which, in my judgement, is being served by the proposed legislation, I will allow it to proceed to Second Stage. We will have to make a further judgement before it reaches the Final Stage.
This will be the situation where there is a genuine balance and, in my view, the benefit to the public is in the Assembly’s being able to make a judgement on that balance. Where this is reasonable, I will permit the measure to go forward.
I mention the matter now because this is the first time that the issue has been raised in this way. It seems to me that the Assembly needs to be in a position to consider such matters thoughtfully.
The Deputy Chairperson of the Finance and Personnel Committee (Mr Leslie): I welcome the intention of the Bill, though I note that there are several areas where the wording, and what I would imagine is the intention, seems to be at variance with the explanatory memorandum. Clause 1 refers to
"all persons who might reasonably be affected by defects in the state of the premises".
That seems to be a wide definition. It is reasonable for a landlord to be liable for persons who are rightfully and lawfully on the premises, but I do not think that he should be liable for those who are not, and the explanatory memorandum implies that that would be the case. That clause will require some attention in Committee to ensure that it is not placing too large a burden on the landlord.
I also note that it is intended that this liability should not apply to the owners of ground rents. I think that that is appropriate as the ground rent owner is at some distance from the premises on the whole and would not normally expect to have any liability of that kind.
I note that what constitutes a ground rent owner is narrowly defined in the Bill. It refers to a tenancy under a lease where the rent payable is a yearly amount of less than £1. From work done on the Ground Rents Bill it has become evident that that should be "£1 or less", as a great many ground rents are in the sum of £1. The definition does not appear to cover those.
Quite a number of ground rents are of more than £1, and I am not sure that it is fair that such a ground rent owner should find himself within the scope of this Bill. That item need not prove fatal to the Bill, but it will certainly require attention during the Committee stage.
I thank all Members who have commented on the general principle of this Bill. Everybody has welcomed it, or has welcomed its stated intent and purposes. Members appreciate that the aim of the Bill — the provision for tenants of property free from potentially dangerous defects — is worthy of support. In my opening remarks, I said that the Bill was a modest piece of legislation. However, it should focus the attention of that minority of landlords who do not take all the necessary steps to ensure the safety of their properties.
Mr Francie Molloy, Chairperson of the Committee for Finance and Personnel, welcomed the Bill but raised several points in relation to student lets and student property. The proposed changes can really be beneficial only to student properties. However, I should say this is not a wholesale reform of landlord/tenant law. It is a relatively modest extension of the liability that already exists. Any landlord who keeps his property in a good state of repair has nothing whatsoever to be concerned about in relation to these proposals. A landlord already owes a duty of care to his tenants, including student tenants. In effect, this legislation bolsters that duty.
Mr Molloy also raised the question of fire and safety. There is separate legislation covering those requirements and standards. The Bill does not have a direct bearing on those issues. However, property defects that could possibly constitute safety risks might be addressed as a result of the Bill, so obviously it does no harm. It does not diminish any of the legal effects or intents in that regard.
Mr Gibson raised the issue of dereliction and the problems that councils have. Unfortunately this legislation does not assist with that problem. It relates to landlord liability. It deals with a clear landlord-tenant relationship where people know who the landlord and the tenant are. To that extent, it does not touch on that problem identified by Mr Gibson. However, I note the fact that he welcomes the effect and intent of the legislation per se.
Ms McWilliams gave a general welcome to the Bill, and I appreciate that. However, she made a point about human-rights issues. I am sure that when Francie Molloy and his Committee further consider this Bill they will make a point of satisfying themselves on the question of its possible interference with rights. The Bill could, on its face, be deemed to interfere with possession and peaceful enjoyment of property as guaranteed by Article 1 of Protocol 1 of the European Convention on Human Rights. However, I believe that the Bill complies with the convention, not least because the extension of landlord’s liability would be for the general good of the community at large. In your own remarks, Mr Speaker, you made the point that it is for the Assembly to consider the balance between those particular points, arguments and considerations. I have no doubt that the Finance and Personnel Committee will take that up.
As for targeting social need, the point is that, in policy terms, this clearly does not in any way work against the commitments and principles of the Executive and the obligations of all Departments in this matter. The Bill does not directly target social need in itself, but it should enable people who are in the particular social need of being tenants in defective premises to have some form of legal redress. The Bill contains no targeting social need considerations that are to be directly pursued or executed by given Government Departments.
James Leslie raised some points in relation to possible variations between language in the Bill and language in the memorandum. Obviously, the Assembly will be considering and voting on the language in the Bill. As I said that language was chosen following the recommendation of the Law Reform Advisory Committee, and it reflects similar legislation across the water that was not adopted here because of the troubles and the high number of bomb-damaged properties back in the 1970s. On the basis of experience across the water, some of the possible fears or misgivings that Mr Leslie identified certainly have not come to pass with the legislation as it has been experienced in England and Wales.
Mr Leslie also queries whether the wording should give rights to people who might be on the premises illegally. Will this Bill give extra rights to trespassers? In theory that is possible. However, in practice a trespasser is already owed a duty of care by the tenant under the Occupiers’ Liability (Northern Ireland) Order 1987. In addition, the standard is that of someone who might reasonably be expected to be affected by defects, and a trespasser would have to show in court that they satisfied that criterion.
Mr Leslie also mentioned the need for consistency in the treatment of ground rent in this and other Bills. The Committee and I will endeavour to make sure that there is as much consistency as possible and necessary between different pieces of legislation.
I look forward to further consideration of the measure, both in the House and in Committee.
Question put and agreed to.
That the Second Stage of the Defective Premises (Landlord’s Liability) Bill (NIA Bill 5/00) be agreed.
The First Minister has sought leave to make a personal statement to the Assembly. Before calling the First Minister, I remind the House of the requirements and arrangements for a personal statement. A Member may request permission from the Speaker to make a personal statement, and the Speaker must see the detailed terms of the statement. The statement is not a question, it is not debatable, and questions can not be asked regarding it. There is one exception: another Member who is involved may remark on whether he or she accepts the statement. Any such remark must be on the terms of the statement and on whether that Member is prepared to accept it.
The First Minister (Mr Trimble):
I would like to make a personal statement to correct the record of this House regarding a statement I made during a debate on Monday 9 October. In that debate, I responded to a remark made from a sedentary position regarding the circumstances surrounding a telephone call that I had received. The call was from the National Security Adviser to the President of the United States and took place on Thursday 28 September. It had been suggested, earlier in the debate, that I had initiated the call with Mr Berger. At that time, I consulted my officials and, on the basis of what I had been told, informed the House that neither I nor my staff had placed a call with Mr Berger. I was informed at the end of the week that an official in my office did telephone an official of the National Security Council on the afternoon of Thursday 28 September. That phone call was to ascertain what knowledge, if any, the US administration had regarding the subject matter of the UTV programme to be broadcast that evening. Later that afternoon, I did receive a telephone call from Mr Berger.
I take this opportunity to place on record the correct sequence of events. I regret that I may have inadvertently misled the House on this matter.
Having consulted Hansard, I call Mr Dodds, who is the Member concerned in the reference to comment from a sedentary position.
I am glad that the First Minister has taken the opportunity to confirm the truth of my comments in the House during that debate. I am disappointed that, at the time, he rejected what I said. He now asks the House to accept that he was not aware of this at the time. We will leave that for Members to judge, in the light of his previous statements and pledges to this House — which have turned out to be false.
This is a significant statement. It is obvious to everyone that those at high levels in the American Government would have been unaware of the contents of a programme broadcast by a regional television authority unless it had been drawn to their attention. It is now clear that it was the First Minister’s staff who placed the call. They alerted officials to the fact that there was a programme coming out that would undermine everything that the First Minister and the pro-agreement parties have said about Sinn Féin/IRA’s commitment to decommissioning.
The appropriate response would have been to come to the House and move for the exclusion of Sinn Féin/IRA from the Government of Northern Ireland, not to urge the American authorities to try to get the programme changed. The fact that the First Minister chose to go for cover-up, rather than exclusion, is the greatest testimony to his attitude to Sinn Féin/IRA decommissioning and to democracy in this House. [Interruption]
The First Minister:
Mr Speaker, you indicated that some limited comment might be made on the statement. I ask you whether, in the course of such comment, it is in order to make statements that are untrue.
The First Minister has made a statement to correct the record, and it seems to me that he has done so at the earliest possible opportunity.
The Minister for Social Development (Mr Morrow):
I beg to move
That the Second Stage of the Street Trading Bill (NIA 2/00) be agreed.
This Bill replaces the provisions of the Street Trading (Regulation) Act (Northern Ireland) 1929, which relate to the licensing of street trading and which enable district councils to regulate street trading in their district. That legislation was designed to cater for the type of street trading prevalent in the early twentieth century. Over the past 70 years there have been significant changes in the manner of trading: hot-food and ice cream vans, roadside sales, car boot sales, moveable stalls et cetera were rare or unheard of in 1929.
There has also been a marked increase in the level of street trading, including market trading. The most significant change in recent years has been the alarming rise in illegal street trading, namely trading without a licence, particularly in the run-up to Christmas. While the current legislation provides for fines for that kind of trading, district councils have not found it to be an effective deterrent.
(Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr McClelland] in the Chair)
The introduction of the Bill is the culmination of a wide-ranging review of the existing legislation, carried out in consultation with as wide a range of interested groups as possible, including district councils, the police and street traders. [Interruption]
Mr Deputy Speaker:
Order. Owing to the number of private conversations that are going on in the Chamber, it is extremely difficult for some of us to hear the Minister speaking.
The Bill contains a number of fairly detailed provisions. I would like to take a few minutes to provide Members with an overview of the main measures included. Unlike the 1929 Act, the Bill makes it clear that all street trading, other than certain specified exemptions, will require a licence. Under current legislation, only those trading from a stationary position are required to have a licence, the interpretation of which has caused district councils a good deal of difficulty.
Under the Bill, district councils will firmly designate the streets where they will allow street traders to operate from a stationary position. In this way, the system will become more open and understandable. Prospective traders will know where trading is to be permitted. In addition, residents, or those owning businesses in the area in question, will have an opportunity to make representations to the council about the proposal that trading be permitted in the area. Traders classed as mobile by a council will still require a licence but may, at the council’s discretion, be permitted to operate in non-designated streets.
The Bill sets out much more clearly the responsibilities of district councils in administering the scheme and in keeping applicants and licence-holders fully informed. It will ensure that opportunities are provided for representations to be made about proposed decisions, and extends the time limits within which appeals may be made.
District councils will have discretion in a number of aspects of the licensing procedure. A council will be able to decide the duration of the licence to be issued, up to a maximum of three years. In addition, the fee to be charged for a licence will no longer be set centrally but will be determined by each district council and set at a level sufficient for it to recover its full costs in administering the scheme. A provision has also been included to allow district councils to grant temporary licences to permit trading for a limited period at special events, such as fairs and festivals.
Councils will have discretion to deal with certain offences by issuing a fixed penalty notice to the offender. It is hoped that this will result in a saving of time and the administration costs of taking cases to court. Under the terms of the Bill, an authorised council officer or police officer will have the power to seize goods and stalls from vendors trading without a licence. A court which convicts an unlicensed trader will have the power to order the forfeiture of the items seized. Councils find that existing legislation provides no effective deterrent to combat the activities of unlicensed traders.
The Bill also seeks to protect the rights of individuals. District councils will be permitted to seize goods for evidence purposes only, and if proceedings do not result, the items may have to be returned to the trader. Under the proposed legislation, if a court finds that an unlawful seizure of goods has been made, the owner can seek compensation.
The Bill aims to provide a modern and effective framework for the regulation of street trading in the Province. Street trading, if properly regulated, can add colour and vibrancy to the centres of our towns and cities. The main aim is to support a licensing system to avoid nuisance, interference and inconvenience to persons and vehicles through open, fair and workable legislation which provides district councils with a high degree of flexibility.
I hope that I have provided Members with some assessment of the measures contained in the Bill, which I commend to the Assembly.
The Deputy Chairperson of the Social Development Committee (Ms Gildernew): Go raibh maith agat. As the Deputy Chairperson of the Social Development Committee, I welcome the introduction of the Street Trading Bill. Committee members will be considering the contents of the Bill in detail, so I will be brief.
The current street trading legislation, which dates back to 1929, must be updated to provide proper regulation. Unlicensed street traders have grown in number in recent years and the current legislation has proved to be ineffective to control their activities. Licensed and controlled street traders have a role to play in our towns and cities. Many towns benefit from the visitors attracted to properly managed markets. Internationally renowned markets in such cities as Dublin, London and Sydney are tourist attractions in themselves. Almost every European city has a market, which can serve as a meeting place for tourists while drawing people to the towns or city centres and enhancing them.
Markets in areas such as Enniskillen, Dungannon and Aughnacloy may not be so famous, but they attract shoppers, which provides a spin-off benefit for the town’s permanent retailers. In this age of out-of-town shopping, any feature that attracts people to town centres is welcome. Markets add vibrancy, colour and fabric to town centres and must therefore be developed, rather than hampered or hamstrung.
Nevertheless, many rate-paying retailers object to unlicensed street traders who pay nothing. They often set up business in inappropriate locations where they can be a nuisance to the public and retailers. We must have equitable legislation which permits street trading but creates the level playing field needed to create a mutually beneficial working relationship between street traders and retailers. The Committee will look in detail at all the issues covered by the Bill. Their findings will be reported to the Assembly prior to the Consideration Stage. Go raibh míle maith agat.
Mr A Maginness:
In general, I welcome the Bill. It is long overdue, and I congratulate the Minister for bringing it to the House. I agree that street trading brings colour and vibrancy to our streets but, if not properly regulated, it is also a considerable nuisance. The Bill focuses on and attempts to remedy that type of mischief.
I am speaking as a Member of this House but also as a member of Belfast City Council. The council has noted the considerable annoyance, inconvenience and nuisance caused by unregulated street trading and has been to the forefront of lobbying the Government over the years to try to remedy the situation. The Bill will provide a remedy, as it will update a rather archaic Act of Parliament, the Street Trading (Regulation) Act (Northern Ireland) 1929 and bring the regulations into line with modern practice. Enforcement has proven problematic. The council found that traders evaded the law by ignoring those who approached them, or by relying on the cumbersome and bureaucratic procedures contained within the 1929 Act. Therefore illegal street traders regularly got off without any penalty. This Bill will mean that traders will have to be properly licensed; that the licence will have to be carried with the trader; that those with him must be under his control; and that they will have to trade in designated areas. That system is as welcome as it is overdue.
The powers contained within the Bill are central to dealing with illegality. In particular, seizing of goods has been very difficult in the past, but the power to seize them is vital if we are to eradicate the scourge and mischief of illegal and unregulated street trading.
The Bill also provides for goods to be forfeited when someone is convicted of illegal street trading. That is very important. It is the greatest deterrent to illegal traders, and I congratulate the Department and the Minister for including that power in the Bill. The power must, of course, be exercised in a balanced and a fair way, and it will do nothing to prevent a bona fide street trader from carrying out his trade properly under licence. However, when a trader violates that licence by contradicting its terms, such as trading outside the proper area — and this applies too to those who trade without a licence — goods can be seized and even forfeited. That power alone will drive illegal traders out of our city streets and towns. Councils have long been hoping for this, and so I welcome the Bill. The obligation on every trader to carry on his person a strictly binding licence, complete with his photograph, will bring greater discipline to street trading throughout Northern Ireland.
I worry about the passage of the Bill — I hope that it will be passed fairly quickly, but the timetable is governed by the rules of the House. However, let us hope that the terms of the Bill can be enacted and come into effect before Christmas. I hope so, because it is at Christmas time that illegal and unregulated street trading proliferates, especially in town and city centres. I hope the Minister can ensure that the legislation is enacted before the start of the Christmas season and so prevent the mischief that has characterised recent Christmases. I hope too that the House will broadly support the view that the legislation should be enacted as soon as possible.
I welcome the introduction of legislation to regulate street trading. District councils will be able to set fees to recover costs, and so on. The attractive element of the matter is that proper street trading can help to recreate a critical mass of custom in town centres. However, the Minister will be aware that one of the main concerns of permanent traders is the rates disparity. Would it be within the competence of local councils to include comparative figures for fees to redress the balance between the permanent traders and the street traders?
I am delighted that the Bill has reached this stage in a relatively short time. When I held the position that Mr Morrow now occupies, I had the pleasure of bringing the legislative provisions in detail to the Committee for Social Development. When I took office as Minister, one of my priorities was to cut through the delays on street trading to get the legislation onto the statute book as quickly as possible. Mr Maginness mentioned the need to try to get the various stages through the House as quickly as possible, and I echo that. We should try to have legislation passed and powers in place before the onset of the Christmas period when, especially in Belfast city centre, there are problems with street traders.
I want to congratulate the Minister for the way in which he has proceeded with this Bill. He and other Members have been determined to achieve results. The current legislation is out of date. It is 70 years since it was revised, and today’s street trading practices are very different from what they were decades ago. As it stands, the legislation is totally ineffective. It does not give council officers the necessary powers to deal with the problem. I welcome the fact that we intend to introduce a power to seize goods that is the only remedy that will make a difference to the problem of illegal street trading.
I have had many complaints from mothers with young children in prams, from people with disabilities and from the elderly, who are all concerned about the way in which street traders operate on the footpaths in Belfast city centre. I have also had complaints from consumers who have bought goods from these stalls — goods which turned out to be totally different from what they were supposed to be and for which those consumers have no effective comeback or redress. Belfast City Council — other Members of the House are also members of the council — is very keen to get this legislation in place. Other councils are also affected, but it is a particular problem in Belfast.
I am not saying that all street trading is bad per se. There is no doubt that street trading brings a certain amount of colour and vibrancy to cities and towns both in this country and abroad. The problem comes when it is unregulated. Then, it creates the worst possible impression and image, and street traders act illegally by selling goods that are not of a proper standard. That brings the environment and ethos of the city of Belfast into the depths. The Bill will go a long way towards recovering that position.
Some of the legislation that has been tabled in the Assembly heretofore has been necessary, some of it has been technical, and some of it has dealt with important issues. This is an issue on which the Assembly, if it passes the Bill, will be seen to have made a real difference to people’s lives and to how they go about their business in Belfast city centre in the run-up to Christmas.
I commend the Bill and hope that it will receive a speedy passage.
Mr S Wilson:
I wish to echo the words of Mr Alban Maginness, who, praised the Minister for bringing forward the Bill. I am sure that the House will notice the seamless way in which the decision made by the previous Minister has been carried through by the present Minister. Despite all the criticisms of the Democratic Unionist Party's policy regarding the rotation of Ministers, there has been no disadvantage to the people of Northern Ireland. In fact, direct rule Ministers pondered this legislation for five years. Despite what our opponents have said about the way the Department for Social Development has been handled, the Bill has been brought forward in a fraction of the time by the Ministers appointed by the Democratic Unionist Party. I make that point because I am glad to see that even our opponents have praised us for doing the work that we said we would do: while opposing the worst aspects of the agreement, we work at representing the people of Northern Ireland.
My second point relates to the absence of the Chairperson of the Committee responsible for bringing this legislation forward. I have noted his comments over the past week about the performance of the Minister for Social Development. In meetings of Belfast City Council, and on other occasions, I have heard him talk about the need for the Bill, and yet we are discussing it -
The Chairperson of the Committee has an urgent dental appointment.
Mr S Wilson:
He certainly did not look too swollen when I saw him at nine o'clock this morning. What is really important is not the teeth of the Chairperson but the teeth of the legislation, which gets to grips with the issue of street trading.
It is significant that the Chairperson has found an adequate deputy in the Sinn Féin Deputy Chairperson. Given the relationship between himself and Sinn Féin to which the First Minister admitted this morning, it is not unusual to find Ulster Unionists asking Sinn Féin to deputise for them when it comes to speaking on certain matters.
The Minister might clarify certain issues for me. Like other Members, I accept that street trading can add vibrancy to town centres. Indeed, we ought to seek such trading in a properly regulated form. However, there are a number of other issues arising from the Bill. The issues may be adequately covered, but perhaps we should strengthen the legislation.
Car boot sales are regarded as street trading and many constituents and constituency organisations benefit from them. I notice that the Bill deals with trading under the auspices of charitable organisations. However, it points out that trading must not be for individual profit. In many car boot sales, individuals profit while organisations make money from selling pitches. Does the Bill cover that aspect, or do we need to be more specific? I am sure that organisations such as churches, scout groups, residents' associations, and community groups would not be very happy if the work that they do to raise funds through car boot sales were covered by this legislation. Perhaps the Minister could clarify that point.
Mr Dodds mentioned my next concern. People trading on the street quite often break employment regulations and those relating to the standard of goods offered. Clause 9 of the Bill covers discretionary grounds for refusing an application. In Belfast, we see situations in which a street trader takes out a number of licences and has people under the age of 16 running stalls for him. I understand that there may be occasions - perhaps at family stalls - when parents go for something to eat, leaving a child in charge for a short period. We must make allowance for that. Under the discretionary grounds for refusing an application, should there not be a provision whereby a person's habitual use of child labour might constitute grounds for the refusal of a future licence? There is also the question of those who have been found guilty of selling goods that do not meet health and safety or consumer protection standards. Are those not also grounds for refusal?
Alban Maginness raised my last issue - the forfeiture or seizure of goods. That is the bite in the Bill. My attention was drawn to the wording of the relevant clause, which may simply fulfil the legal requirements. Where an authorising officer has reasonable grounds for suspecting thata person has committed an offence, he may seize an article or things being offered which may be used as evidence. Perhaps the Minister could clarify whether the officer is required to seize everything offered, for it is then that the legislation would have teeth. If he is simply required to seize a sample to show what has been on offer, the trader can be back on the ground the next day.
Would it be a reasonable defence against such legislation for someone to say in court that he had been put out of his legitimate business after having all his goods seized rather than an exemplary item for legal use? If the legislation is to have real teeth, then the officer must be able to seize all the goods. Perhaps the Minister could clarify whether that is the Bill's import.
I am aware that many of these issues will be raised in Committee, and I know that the Social Development Committee intends to look closely at the Bill. However, those are some of the issues that I should like to see flagged up for a response from the Minister.