Northern Ireland Assembly Flax Flower Logo

Northern Ireland Assembly

Monday 16 October 2000 (continued)

Mr Campbell:

Yes, I am prepared to look at these measures. In recent weeks I visited Omagh District Council, where the location of a waste-water treatment works and its vehicle access are being considered in the light of the potential difficulties for local residents and visitors. I also visited Killyleagh, in County Down, where a similar difficulty has arisen. I am very conscious of those considerations, and I will look at anything that will alleviate the perceived difficulties of people living near a treatment works. I will take Ms Morrice's concerns on board and write to her.

The Environment

Beach Cleanliness



Mr McCarthy

asked the Minister of the Environment if he will detail plans to bring beach cleanliness in Northern Ireland into line with the requirements of European Union Directives.

(AQO 152/00)

Mr Foster:

There are no EU Directives dealing explicitly with beach cleanliness. Responsibility for the cleanliness of public beaches lies with the district councils. However, my Department is responsible, through the Environment and Heritage Service, for monitoring the water quality at 16 beaches in Northern Ireland that fall within the scope of the European Community's Bathing Water Directive. It then reports these results to the European Commission. All 16 beaches met the mandatory standards in the 1999 bathing season.

Eight of these beaches were awarded a European blue flag based on their 1999 performance. The Blue Flag criteria include beach cleanliness. I will shortly be able to make an announcement on how Northern Ireland's 16 bathing waters performed in the 2000 bathing season against the standards of the Bathing Water Directive.

Mr McCarthy:

Of course we all want to see more blue flags. Can the Minister assure the House that his Department will bring forward proposals to ensure that all our beaches are brought up to a reasonable standard? All too often, when we need beaches to be cleaned, we find that no one Department has overall responsibility. In some cases a council, the National Trust, a Crown estate or even local landowners claim ownership, but rather than clean up the beaches concerned, they simply pass the buck. Can the Minister give us some encouragement?

Mr Foster:

We all want to see our coastal waters and beaches clean and tidy - that is a common objective. The Bathing Water Directive applies to waters which are used by a significant number of bathers. The main beaches were selected and identified to the European Commission. The annual survey for beach cleanliness, arranged by the Marine Conservation Society, involves examining the Northern Ireland coastline for litter. While the survey reveals that Northern Ireland could do better, the publicity it attracts ensures that this information is in the public domain and can be acted upon. Any concerns about the cleanliness or facilities of individual public beaches should be referred to the responsible district council. We are willing to participate, but the responsibility for clean beaches lies with district councils.

Mr McClarty:

Is the Minister aware that in my constituency of East Londonderry there are four blue flag beaches, one of which is under threat because of the flow of sewage into the sea and thence to that beach? Will the Minister give an assurance that he will take steps to rectify this?

Mr Foster:

I agree that the situation described is unacceptable. Under the terms of the EU Urban Waste Water Directive, discharges to the sea from sewage treatment works in areas such as Portstewart will require secondary treatment by 31 December 2000 to prevent such problems. My Department's Environment and Heritage Service agency is currently awaiting details of the proposals from the Department for Regional Development's Water Service for a secondary treatment works to serve the Coleraine, Castlerock, Portrush and Portstewart areas.

Abandoned Quarries



Mr McMenamin

asked the Minister of the Environment if he will detail his policy on the refurbishment of abandoned quarries, and if he will make a statement.

(AQO 145/00)

Mr Foster:

All quarries operating after 1973 require planning permission and have planning conditions attached for site restoration. Some quarries also have agreements to restore abandoned workings, under article 40, as a condition of the planning permission. In some circumstances my Department may be able to take enforcement action to have the sites restored in keeping with the planning permission granted.

Mr McMenamin:

I welcome the letter I received from the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development last week about the proposed restoration of the Ballyheather sandpit in my constituency of West Tyrone. I petition the Minister to assure me that his Department will consider introducing a policy to restore all sandpits which have been left derelict for years throughout Northern Ireland. As well as desecrating fauna and flora, these derelict sites cause major dust problems to local residents and resemble a scene from the moon, full of craters and ridges.

Mr Foster:

May I emphasise again that, prior to 1973, quarrying in Northern Ireland was largely free from planning control. As a result, my Department has no powers to bring about the restoration of quarries abandoned before that date.

However, quarries operating after 1973 must do so with planning consent from my Department, including conditions for their restoration. We have no control over pre-1973 quarries.

Mr Armstrong:

Does the Minister have records of quarry operations and their locations?

Mr Foster:

We have a responsibility, and we do have records of the location of every quarry throughout the Province. However, there are some holes and gaps in these. If they were pre-1973, we will not have a full list.

Planning (Countryside)



Mr Paisley Jnr

asked the Minister of the Environment if he will relax stringent planning regulations in the countryside.

(AQO 170/00)

Mr Foster:

Every planning application in the countryside is considered on its individual merits. I have had a personal involvement because I was a district councillor in Fermanagh for some 20 years. In 1999/2000, 86% of applications for new houses in the countryside were approved, a figure that represents more than 4,000 new dwellings. Any review of countryside planning policy is a matter for the Department for Regional Development, and my Department will help that Department in any such review.

Mr Paisley Jnr:

I thank the Minister for his answer. Can he explain to the House what policies he intends to adopt on the relaxation of planning controls in green-belt areas and in areas of outstanding natural beauty to help farmers with diversification projects to enable them to realise full potential of their farm land? What consultation has there been involving his Department, the Department for Regional Development and the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development to ensure that these planning restrictions, and any cross-cutting implications, are examined thoroughly? Will the Minister put a scheme in place for "rural proofing" all planning matters so that farmers can get the optimum benefit from their land?

Mr Foster:

This is an important issue that I have a lot of sympathy with. Within green belts countryside- policy areas and those requiring access to protected routes, retiring farmers can get planning permission if they meet certain criteria set out in the planning strategy for rural Northern Ireland. The main criteria are: the applicant last worked mainly as a farmer; the applicant has reached retirement age or is retiring due to ill health; the retirement dwelling is on a farm holding which must be viable and capable of supporting a farmer in full-time employment; the farm holding is being sold as a going concern and the existing farmhouse will continue to be used as the main farmhouse. Beyond these criteria - and we look at them regularly - planning permission will generally be granted where a site can absorb a new dwelling without any adverse impact on the surrounding countryside. I am aware of people's concerns and I know it is a difficult time for the farming community. However, there has to be a balance and, as I have already said, 4,000 new dwellings were approved in the countryside in 1999-2000.

Mr Savage:

Can the Minister give me an assurance that priority in planning decisions will be given to those people who have lived in rural areas for generations, and does he accept that if we are to sustain the rural community we must give priority and pay particular attention to the needs of that community?

Mr Foster:

We are sympathetic to the difficulties of the farming community. It is a difficult situation. Perhaps I missed an opportunity with Mr Paisley's question to say that we do liaise with the respective Departments on planning issues. The designations referred to have to be controlled strictly and supervised carefully.

However, we recognise that there will be circumstances in which new dwellings are justified for residential development.

3.45 pm

Responsibility for strategic planning policy was passed to the Department for Regional Development on devolution, and although my Department will assist the Department for Regional Development in any review of strategic rural policy, the onus does not rest with us. I support the current policy of the Department for Regional Development to achieve a balance between protecting the countryside and maintaining a vibrant rural community.

Mr Dallat:

Will the Minister use his vast experience in rural matters to encourage a greater inter-agency approach among the different Departments? Sometimes the Planning Service agrees with something while the Roads Service objects, or LEDU is involved and is in conflict with the Planning Service. I am sure that the Minister understands precisely what I mean. Will he assure the House that he will encourage more co-operation on this serious issue which affects so many people in Northern Ireland?

Mr Foster:

I accept that this is a serious issue for the rural community. I can assure the House that we co-operate, co-ordinate and liaise with all Departments, and we examine all situations to see what we can do, but we are involved in a fine balancing act.

As a poacher turned gamekeeper, I realise that this is not particularly easy. We follow planning policies, and assessments are carried out in considerable depth. Nothing is decided without much forethought. We do what we can and where we can, but we must also consider the protection of the countryside.

Mr Shannon:

I recognise that the Minister was a councillor for many years. Nevertheless, changes to the planning regulations are necessary. Specifically, will the Minister consider a change in the regulations for children wishing to restart farm businesses which failed through the ill health of one or both of their parents? I know of a specific case where 15 to 20 years passed between the owner's retirement because of ill health and his son or daughter's decision to take over. There is a need for the present regulations to be relaxed or even for a change in policy.

Mr Foster:

We have every sympathy with the situation that the Member has presented to us, but, as I said earlier, on devolution responsibility for strategic planning policy was passed to the Department for Regional Development. Responsibility for the review of strategic rural policy therefore rests with that Department, although my Department will liaise with it in any future discussions.

Many issues are important and dear to the farming community, and my sympathies are with it, but there is a fine balancing act to be considered.

Mr McHugh:

A Cheann Comhairle. Does the Minister intend to liaise with the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development and other Departments when looking at the present inter-departmental regulations that control those who set up small rural diversification businesses? I am particularly concerned about the rules governing the primary production element of enterprises, which inhibit small businesses from moving to diversification under the LEADER or INTERREG programmes.

Mr Foster:

The Member comes from the same part of the country as I do, and we have similar thoughts on many development matters. However, the Department's current policy cannot be varied. We work by policies; we make decisions according to them; and we cannot readily depart from them.

I have every sympathy with the idea of trying to achieve and maintain a vibrant rural community. I appreciate the point, and consideration has certainly been given to such issues. We shall definitely look into this matter, but I cannot make any rash promises that things will simply happen in the way we would all like to see things happen whenever we ask a question.

Listed Buildings



Mr Neeson

asked the Minister of the Environment if he has plans to introduce spot-listing powers to allow for the accelerated listing of buildings in danger of being demolished.

(AQO 155/00)

Mr Foster:

Proposals to introduce powers enabling my Department to serve building preservation notices, which would offer similar protection to that provided by spot-listing procedures in Great Britain, were included in a consultation paper published in March 1999. I have secured a place in the current legislative programme for a Planning (Amendment) Bill, and I shall look at the inclusion of provisions relating to building preservation notices. Those provisions would enable my Department to serve building preservation notices which would have immediate effect, offering the same protection as if a building were listed. However, the proposals raise a number of difficult issues that require careful consideration, and these are being examined.

Mr Neeson:

I welcome the initiative taken by the Department. Does the Minister agree with me that, had such legislation been in force, Ardmara, a very fine building in Bangor, would not have been destroyed? Does he agree that there are some very fine examples of the restoration and renovation of significant buildings in Belfast? I am thinking of the Corn Exchange in Corporation Street and the Customs House. Will the Minister do all he can to ensure that the necessary powers are initiated, applying to inner-city Belfast and throughout Northern Ireland?

Mr Foster:

I am very much aware of the concern about the destruction and demolition of buildings of special interest. I am also aware of the prolonged nature of the current listing process, which makes the immediate protection of buildings at risk very difficult. The need to provide a mechanism to offer emergency protection to buildings considered to be at risk from demolition is acknowledged. I am considering the inclusion of possible provisions in the proposed Planning (Amendment) Bill.

Dr Adamson:

Can the Minister give us an assurance that, in spot listing, as with other listing powers, he will have careful regard not only to the architectural value of a building, but also to its cultural significance? I am thinking of the homes of prominent literary or even political figures.

Mr Foster:

I am extremely conscious of the situation and concerns, as I related earlier. I said that the intention would be to introduce building preservation notices, which would be served by my Department and would offer the same protection as if a building were listed.

Spot listing is a two-stage process. In Great Britain, local authorities carry it out, with subsequent confirmation being made at national level. In Northern Ireland, the current administrative structures mean that it is likely that my Department would have responsibility both for serving a building preservation notice and for subsequent confirmation. I am endeavouring to point out that matters are not quite so easy. Any decision not to confirm a spot listing would create possible grounds for compensation. It has been suggested that it would be difficult for my Department to perform both roles effectively, since it would become judge and jury. There may also be issues relating to the human rights of owners.

However, we know there are many zealous people concerned with the character of very fine buildings, not merely in the city of Belfast, but throughout the community. We have gathered that, and that is the reason we recently had five conservation areas designated in the city.

Ms Morrice:

I am very interested in the Minister's reference to building preservation notices. In the Women's Coalition we have called for what we described as a millennium preservation order to protect any building older than 100 years from demolition. I should like to have more details of these building preservation notices.

I would like to know several things. First, what criteria will govern the buildings that they preserve? Secondly, what penalties will be imposed on those who defy the notices? Thirdly, do they cover non-building aspects, such as trees?

Mr Foster:

We are still considering the different criteria and what the punishment might be for people breaking the regulation. Trees, at present, do not come into it, but that is something that we are also considering. I do not have the exact detail on all the aspects and criteria, but I assure the Member that I will send this to her when it is compiled.

Mr Hussey:

I thank the Minister for his original answer. The Minister will be aware that listing does not always guarantee the saving of a building that is of high cultural and heritage value to the community. Neglect can sometimes mean that these buildings disappear. Does the Minister agree that the current moratorium on financial aid for listed buildings is a hindrance? Also, is the Minister aware of the deplorable state of the Stables Buildings in Sion Mills? If action is not taken soon this part of the culture and heritage of that small community will disappear.

Mr Foster:

The built heritage section of the Environment and Heritage Service is very much involved with historic buildings and their upkeep. I assure Mr Hussey that we are concerned that we had to impose a moratorium on grant aid for listed buildings. We have been trying to get some moneys for this department because we lost out over a number of years of direct rule. We had commitments worth up to £4 million in respect of grant aid for historic buildings, and the annual budget is some £1·7 million. We are very proud of our built heritage - we do not want to lose it.

We have been dealing with the Department of Finance and have tried - and failed recently - to get more moneys for the Environment and Heritage Service. I assure Members that we will continue to pursue this. People should understand that there are financial difficulties. The issue is a lack of resources and not a lack of will.

(Mr Speaker in the Chair)

Out-of-Town Shopping Centres



Mr Beggs

asked the Minister of the Environment if he will give consideration to introducing multi-stage planning criteria, as used elsewhere in the United Kingdom, to assess the need for additional out-of-town shopping centres.

AQO 156/00

Mr Foster:

My Department currently exercises its planning responsibilities for retail development in accordance with the provisions set out in Planning Policy Statement 5 - Retailing and Town Centres (PPS 5). Any review of current planning policy in this area would be for the Department for Regional Development, though my Department will provide all possible professional assistance in any such review.

Mr Beggs:

Does the Minister agree that the more stringent sequential planning system outlined in the Planning Policy Guidance Note 6 (PPG06), which is applied in other parts of the United Kingdom, would simplify the planning system in Northern Ireland by enabling the early elimination of some out-of-town planning applications, such as D5? Does he agree that by encouraging fuller town centre redevelopment he would be giving increased confidence to town centre shops, thus preventing the "doughnut" effect, which is affecting our towns and cities?

Mr Foster:

PPS 5 includes a sequential approach to major retail applications, though this is not directly comparable to PPG06. PPS 5 is designed to take a more flexible and balanced approach than PPG06 - protecting town centres while at the same time recognising the need for competition and innovation in a changing retail market.

4.00 pm

Under this approach, preference is given to locations for development in a preferred sequence that reflects the type of retailing involved. For comparison or mixed retailing, this starts with town centre locations through edge-of-centre locations to out-of-centre locations. A sequential approach is being taken at this particular time. That approach has led to the elimination of proposals for out-of-centre retailing. The system set out in PPG06 could be considered in any review of retail planning policy by the Department for Regional Development.

Mr Dallat:

In view of the fact that three separate questions have been put down today from three different political parties on the whole issue of retailing, does the Minister accept that this is a major issue which requires a great deal of discussion? This is despite the best efforts of the DUP to rubbish it two weeks ago.

Mr Foster:

I take on board what the Member has said. We do give this matter very deep consideration. It is a continual consideration in our Department and we will pursue the matter. Where there are cross-cutting issues we will dovetail with other Departments.

Mr S Wilson:

I heard what the Minister said about the Department's concerns regarding out-of-town shopping centres. However, I am amazed that the Department still continues to pursue the D5 application. I just wonder why - when he expresses his concern about out-of-town shopping centres - the Minister still feels that it is important for his Department to pursue the application for D5, despite the fact we have had two court rulings against the Department on this matter,

Mr Foster:

I want to assure Mr Wilson that the Department does not make decisions lightly. My Department will at all times preserve its integrity when assessing applications. I know that Mr Wilson has a substantive question on this matter. However, with your approval, Mr Speaker, I will give a detailed response to his supplementary question.

In respect of D5, I am aware that the applicants have lodged an appeal. In addition I understand that the respondents have cross-appealed. My Department will not be appealing the recent legal decision to quash the planning permission. However, we will be appealing against the court's interpretation of the "complements" test used by my Department in assessing major retail proposals in out-of-centre locations. The planning application remains live pending the outcome of the appeal. Since the case is sub judice I cannot say more at this stage.




Mrs E Bell

asked the Minister of the Environment what criteria are being introduced to control the increased in planning applications for apartments and developments, particularly in seaside towns.

(AQO 166/00)

Mr Foster:

My Department cannot control the number of new applications submitted for proposed apartment-type developments, nor can it decline to determine a properly completed application submitted for consideration. Certainly, I am aware of growing concerns about this issue. I will be consulting on planning guidance on proposals for small-scale housing within existing urban areas. Future changes to the wider planning policy relating to apartment developments are a matter for the Department for Regional Development, although my Department will provide all possible assistance at any review of the relevant policy.

Mrs E Bell:

I thank the Minister for his answer. Planning applications seem to be demolition led. In my own constituency - and I am talking about Donaghadee through to Holywood - demolition regularly results in the erection of a large number of apartments that are totally out of keeping with the tradition and character of the area. Can he assure the House and myself that these will be reduced so that the long-term residents, who have great concerns about this, will not be ignored?

Mr Speaker:

Several Members want to put supplementary questions, but the time is up. Any reply to the last one will have to be in writing.

Child Support, Pensions and Social Security Bill: 
Consideration Stage


Mr Speaker:

The Child Support, Pensions and Social Security Bill was granted accelerated passage on 3 October. As Members will note from the Marshalled List, one amendment has been tabled, and notice to oppose the "stand part" has been signalled for six clauses. The form of the Marshalled List has been changed since the Consideration Stage of the Bill on allowances to make it easier for Members to participate. We have only one amendment at this stage. Proposals to leave out a clause will now be debated, and Members may vote against the Question. Members may indicate in advance their intention to oppose the Question that a clause stand part, which makes possible a debate at that juncture.

Amendments will normally be numbered in sequence, though there is only one in this case. In the past, amendments were numbered according to when they were tabled in the Bill Office. An amendment retained its number no matter what part of a Bill it referred to. From now on, amendments on the Marshalled List will appear in the order in which they will be taken in debate on the Bill. If the Order Paper, the Marshalled List or the annunciator indicates that amendment number 4 is being dealt with, a Member will know that amendment 3 has just been considered and that amendment 5 is about to be considered. Under the previous arrangement, an amendment's number bore no relation to the order in which it was considered. That is not relevant to this Bill, since there is only one amendment, but it will apply to later Bills where there may be dozens or sometimes even hundreds of amendments. This will help Members to keep track of the debate, from inside and outside the Chamber, particularly if a Consideration Stage lasts for a number of days. Some Members' distress at this prospect is immediately apparent.

I propose, by leave of the Assembly, to take the Bill's 69 clauses and nine schedules in the parts or sections indicated in the measure. There is no time limit for debate, and Members may speak more than once at Consideration Stage. I see the Minister's mouth fall. However, I propose to call Members only once during a "stand part" debate on a particular clause or on an amendment. If a Member wishes to intervene again he may do so in the usual way - by requesting the Floor from the Member who is speaking. Since some movement is necessary in these circumstances, and as there is no time limit, interventions should usually be accepted. However, if, in the view of the Speaker, a Member abuses the capacity for intervention, the Speaker will address that. If Members are clear about this, we will move forward. If they are unsure, all will become clear as we proceed.

Mr Tierney:

Since there is no time limit, will we suspend at 6 o'clock tonight and, if necessary, continue tomorrow, or will we run after six?

Mr Speaker:

We must end at 6.00 pm because Standing Orders require us to do so. If we are in the middle of a vote at that point we will continue until the end of the vote and then resume tomorrow. We are likely to begin tomorrow with a statement on the Budget, followed by questions. The resumption of the Consideration Stage will follow that.

Clauses 1 to 15 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 16 (Disqualification from driving)

Question proposed That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Mr Ford:

Mr Speaker, I hope I will follow the instructions that you gave at the start of this debate. First, I want to make a couple of points which were not covered during the Second Reading, because the Minister did not accept my intervention - I am sure he will do much better today.

Those of us who spoke during the Second Reading made our concerns about clause 16 and clauses 53 onwards clear. We did not wish to breach parity in regard to benefits paid, but we were concerned about mindlessly adopting parity on certain other issues. It is obvious that there are no financial costs, so the Minister's suggestion that if parity were breached we should expect to bear the cost is a trifle irrelevant. He referred to the previous week's pensions motion, which was passed unanimously - including DUP support. I want to remind the House and the Minister that that motion was a call to the Westminster Government on behalf of pensioners across the UK. It was simply that we sought to maintain parity of the benefits paid, because there is parity of National Insurance contributions and income tax.

A provision in this clause allows the courts to disqualify those in breach of child support payments from driving for up to two years. There is also the possibility that the matter could return to the courts and the disqualification could further extended. If a person found guilty of drunken driving - an offence which is entirely related to the possession of a driving licence - is unlikely to lose their licence for more than one year, then there is a serious question over whether that is an appropriate penalty for something which is completely different.

None of us are experts on the implementation of the European Convention on Human Rights, but we must ask if it has implications here. There is the prospect of a man in court - and it is normally a man in these circumstances - saying "I was a safe driver, but they took away my driving licence for something unrelated. As a result I suffered difficulties in my life as an ordinary citizen."

We must consider what implications that might have across Northern Ireland, particularly when the region is significantly more rural than the UK as a whole. We have just had questions on regional development, so we know that possession of a car is almost becoming a human right in rural areas, because public transport is completely inadequate. The loss of a driving licence in those circumstances must be regarded as a serious penalty, and disproportionate to the crime, or the misdemeanour - there is some doubt as to whether defaulting on a child support payment is a crime or not.

Another major issue is that a driving licence is often a virtual requirement for a job. Those jobs that require the ability to drive may or may not be considered by the courts. Many other people require a driving licence to get to a normal place of work. Is it not a little illogical, when we are discussing the difficulties of extracting child support payments from fathers, to create a further barrier to employment by disqualifying them from driving? It is an absolute nonsense. It may be the sort of knee-jerk response that appeals to the Government and the editor of the Daily Mail, but let us have a little bit of wit. Let us consider in this Assembly what will work and will not.

Mr Paisley Jnr:

I appreciate some of the points that the Member is making. Can he explain what he would consider to be an appropriate sanction on people who continually refuse to pay benefit to the most needy in our society, namely young people and children who are being denied a benefit that their parents ought to be paying to them?

Mr Ford:

It is not part of my case to suggest that defaulters should not have sanctions applied to them. The issue is - [Interruption] If the Member wants me to give way, he should let me finish my sentence. The issue is what is an appropriate and workable sanction. It is clear that withdrawing a driving licence is not appropriate, workable or beneficial in any way to the children concerned. Does the Member wish me to give way now?

4.15 pm

Mr Shannon:

What is?

Mr Speaker:

Order. This is going to descend into complete chaos, unless Members who have not yet spoken but so wish indicate a desire to do so. By intervening Members do have a further opportunity to speak, but if they do so all the time, the proceedings will degenerate into chaos. If Members wish to speak, that is absolutely fine, but they should indicate to the Chair that they wish to do so.

Mr Ford:

Speaking as the father of four children, two of whom, fortunately, have their own driving licences, I agree with the person who said that a father's principal function nowadays is to provide a magic carpet - the ability to get his children from A to B. That is particularly so in cases where the parents are separated and the father is living away from the children, so his only opportunity to see them is at weekends or on occasional evenings. There is generally a presumption that an outing has to be arranged and that the children have to be taken somewhere.

If that is the only contact between a father and his children, do we really wish to take away his driving licence and remove that contact? I have no doubt that the Minister will say - for he hinted at it at the Second Reading - that the issue is not whether we should be taking away driving licences but whether people should learn to behave themselves. We might even be told that those who are good boys and comply with the law will be at no risk from this, and, therefore, we should happily let this go through.

Unfortunately, however, there are circumstances in which child support payments go wrong, and I am sure that there will be further occasions when they will go wrong. There are occasions when people fall foul of the regulations through no fault of their own. If we were to apply this kind of draconian penalty - the possibility of losing a driving licence for two years and then for a subsequent two years, and for dear knows how much longer - rather than employing a method which would encourage contact and the payment of support, we are going to end up in a situation in which the Minister's statement will be little more than that of a hostage-taker who says "Behave yourself or the kids will get hurt."

We should throw out this clause. It is not required for parity of benefits; it is a disgracefully illiberal clause, and I urge the House to throw it out.

Mr ONeill:

One of the difficulties of an accelerated passage is that even if a Committee were responsible for such legislation, it does not get the opportunity to tease out all of the implications of some of the clauses.

I am opposed to the inclusion of this clause in the legislation, although not because of the reasons that Mr Ford mentioned. In my view this clause would create a law that would be an alternative to a prison sentence. It would give the judge the option of exercising this punitive sanction rather than sending the person to jail.

One could see the argument that if someone were to vote against this clause, they would be voting for the judge to send the man - for it usually is a man - to jail. On considering that, one could understand to some extent the reasoning behind it. One could see that arguments about accessibility and other things that might affect that person would be of no great importance if that person were to be subsequently jailed.

However, that is not the reason why I want to speak against this. I want to speak against it because it is almost like a draconian extension of punitive arrangements for courts to use, and we should be keeping away from that. It has also not been properly tested here in Northern Ireland. There are people who make the argument about parity - there should be parity on this and parity on that. For example, holding a driving licence allows one to vote in Northern Ireland, but that is not the case in the rest of the United Kingdom. Has this been tested in Northern Ireland?

What are the implications of this here with regard to a person's right to vote and his democratic opportunity to vote? Are we interfering with these? Where would such sequence of thought lead? Should we start removing other means of identification such as passports? We are on a road here which might be more reminiscent of what one would have seen some years ago behind the Iron Curtain - a draconian system of control.

This is not the direction to take. There are already sufficient powers in the justice system to allow these people to be brought to book. The courts in particular do not wield them powerfully enough. Instead of having a penal sentence, the new article 37A(1)(b) states that the court may

"make a disqualification order but suspend its operation".

Therefore the order will be hanging over the individual. But here, as in the normal course of court activity, there are suspended sentences and other measures that judges may use to ensure that people honour their obligations.

By removing something that is regarded as an individual's right we are abusing a civil right. On that principle I am opposed to the inclusion of the clause.

Ms Gildernew:

Go raibh maith agat a Chathaoirligh. Under previous child support legislation, if the parent with care was receiving benefits and the absent parent was paying money to the Child Support Agency, that money did not go to the parent with care or towards a better standard of living for the children. Instead it went towards paying off the benefits of the parent with care. It is important to make the legislation and the system fair so that the absent parent who pays child support sees the benefit going to his children. The system should be simplified so that the parent with care and the children concerned are protected and benefit from the payments. If children benefit from child support, their fathers are more likely to pay it so fewer absent parents will renege on their responsibilities.

I concur with everything that previous Members have said about the draconian measure contained in this Bill. It is a breach of human rights to take away someone's driving licence as a punitive measure, and I oppose the inclusion of this clause for that reason.

Mr S Wilson:

The purpose of the new child support measure is to clear up the mess with existing legislation. In my experience, many people got into difficulties with their payments because of the complexity of the regulations. Sometimes it took six to nine months to assess a case, by which time massive arrears had built up. Another reason was that people could not understand how the final figure was arrived at. When the chief executive of the Child Support Agency attended the Committee session, even he said that the method of calculation was complex and that sometimes up to 100 variables have to be taken into consideration. This has all led to people feeling that they have been wrongly treated or getting into arrears through no fault of theirs.

It must be remembered that the system has now been simplifed so that a standard amount of 15% of the absent parent's income for the first child, and 5% for each subsequent child, is payable. There will no longer be a long time spent on trying to find out what a father owes.

Therefore, it is not particularly likely that anyone will get into debt as a result of the complexity of the system. By and large, those who are not paying will fall into the category of those who have decided not to pay. If this legislation is to mean anything, it has to protect those who have been left to look after children and who cannot get any money from the absent parent.

Mr Ford said that he was not opposed to parity of benefit. However, those who propose the exclusion of clause 16 are saying to parents in Northern Ireland who are left looking after children that they will not get the same access to payment as would be the case in the rest of the United Kingdom. The parents who are left looking after the children would be short changed. If we remove the sanctions from the Bill, we will be giving parity of benefit, without parity of implementation. That is not fair.

Mr Ford:

Does the Member not accept that a measure that is likely to reduce the level of contact between fathers and their children would be equally disadvantageous for those children?

Mr S Wilson:

That is an important point. We must look at the qualifications in the clause. I have already made the point that the system will be less complex, so it is likely that those who are not paying will have decided wilfully not to pay. In most cases, judging by my constituency caseload, those people do not want to have contact with their children anyway. The provisions in the clause are ringed with qualifications. The Bill states

"The Department may apply".

So the Department will have to make an assessment before it applies to a court. Even then, a driving licence will not automatically be removed. The court can take into consideration whether the driving licence is needed to earn a living and also take income into consideration. The court must ask whether the absent parent has been unable to pay because he does not have the money, or because of wilful refusal or culpable neglect.

There are sufficient qualifications to guard against the possible problems that have been identified by the person who proposed that the clause be removed. We all want a fairer system of support for children and one that is enforceable. There is no point in making it easier for absent parents to pay and then removing any sanction on the minority who will not make their contribution, even if the system has been made easier. We would be doing a disservice to the parents who are left looking after the children.

There is also the question of human rights. First, this is UK legislation, so I assume that the human rights aspect has already been examined. Secondly, we are not unique in Europe in implementing such sanctions. As far as I am aware, in no other country where this kind of sanction is imposed has it been the subject of a human-rights case.

4.30 pm

It is one thing to say that we are concerned about the human rights of people - and believe it will be a very small minority because of the reasons I gave earlier - who refuse to make the contribution. What about the rights of the parent left looking after the children, and what about the children who require that support? Are they not also entitled to some protection? Are they not entitled to have their rights honoured?

I believe that, given the qualifications which surround this matter - and I have gone through the various parts of the clauses - we are going to be dealing with a small minority of people. The penalty will not be automatic. The Department may decide the fact and when the case goes to court, the court will still be able to look at mitigating circumstances. Given the simplicity of the arrangements, we will now have a system in which it should be easier for the absent parent to avoid getting into arrears and into a position where they cannot pay. The simplicity of the arrangements should ensure that they do not feel aggrieved because they cannot understand the system by which they have been assessed.

The only conclusion we can come to is that we are going to be dealing with a very small minority of people who do not want to pay, and those people ought to have sanctions imposed on them. This is a reasonable sanction.

Ms McWilliams:

I will not go over ground that has already been covered by other Members who have been opposing this particular clause, except that once again I raise an enormous concern, particularly from those working with abused women. They know from experience that when something as punitive as this happens, the partner has abuse or indeed violence revisited on them because we blame that absent partner for having led to this in the first place.

It is one thing indeed to raise financial penalties - and I note the concerns about not being able to go above the 25% limit. Therefore, the Department and the agency are thinking of other ways of enforcing penalties on those who refuse to pay.

We should be concerned about that because, as Mr Wilson said, there are a number of individuals who continue to refuse to pay support. They tend to be extremely belligerent individuals and I am concerned that given such a punitive method of attempting to make them pay - and we do not even know if it will work - they may blame the partner who they already blame considerably for having enforced payments on them in the first place. This is particularly so if they feel they have made some private arrangements with that individual in relation to the house.

I have just noticed the Rowntree findings from a large study which has just been carried out on how parents cope financially on marriage breakdown. The results actually show that formal child maintenance was relatively infrequent, and much more commonly a non-resident parent provided some support for the child through a voluntary arrangement, even where the carer was receiving social security benefits.

Of course, we know that over and over again the dispute ends up over what they feel they have already given or donated. Often, it is a voluntary arrangement. However, we are talking about a mandatory arrangement that they may not feel obliged to pay. I raise that as an enormous concern.

I also take the point that we are leaving it to judges to decide whether the liable person is earning a living and is dependent on a driving licence. That leaves huge discretion and enormous questions to be asked, and these are not tightened up in this legislation. Indeed, it will be left to the court to decide whether a person needs to use a driving licence to get to work. It will have to decide if driving is a fundamental part of a person's work. It will have to decide if a person living in a rural area and dependent on public transport, as opposed to living in an urban area, would be unable to keep their job as a consequence of losing their licence.

Mr Weir:

Does the Member acknowledge that judges make this type of decision every day in a wide range of driving cases, except in those where there is a mandatory punishment, for example, in drink-driving cases? Judges will always have to weigh up - for example, in cases of reckless driving or careless driving - issues such as the need for the person to have a licence. It is something they are used to deciding, and I do not particularly see a problem with having that level of discretion.

Ms McWilliams:

I agree, but I have spoken to judges about this, and they feel that when legislation is being introduced, the tighter it can be made the better it is for them. They have made that point over and over again. They do not want to be left in a situation where they have a huge list of individuals and no definition as to what measure should be used against whom. I have concerns that many people would be leaving the courts with less confidence in them rather than more; perhaps because another case was treated differently, even though the job was similar.

At a time when the Department is introducing driving licences and driving training as a means of gaining employment, we may simultaneously be working against that by taking driving licences away from people.

I note that the explanatory notes and, indeed, much of the legislation argue that the Secretary of State gives consent, but it seems to me that the criminal justice system remains a reserved matter, and it is not outlined here that the Secretary of State has given consent to this particular part of the Bill. I would like to have some further clarification as to whether, given that criminal justice is a reserved matter, it can be covered in a piece of legislation like this. Obviously, we are supposed to be maintaining parity with the rest of the UK, and the Bill has been written with similar circumstances in mind, but here is one circumstance in which we differ from the rest of the UK.

Finally, I want to raise a concern. Should the Committee have looked at this, or did it not get the opportunity because of accelerated passage? Was the case examiner of the Child Support Agency for Great Britain - who also covers the Northern Ireland Child Support Agency - asked for views on any of this?

I note that, in her most recent report, she says that she is pleased to see that a number of things are now taking place, and that the delays, errors and poor communications, which were the major problems associated with child support, seemed to be being tightened up. I argue that, most of all, we need to get the communications right. Dr Paisley raised this issue last week when he said that due to poor communications, individuals are being held liable when they ought not to be. It seems to me that with the introduction of such a huge penalty, it would be very important to get that piece of communication right.

The examiner points out that in the last year - and this is very sad to note - the statistics in this report do not cover Northern Ireland. We know what has happened in England, Wales and Scotland, is broken down by region. Having looked at all the graphs and statistics, I found, unfortunately, that Northern Ireland is not mentioned, even though this report is meant to include it.

The report points out that complaints have increased, not as a percentage, but in absolute numbers, and that over 704 complaints have been accepted. Many were rejected, but 704, which is a substantial number, were accepted by the independent case examiner, and I have no doubt that many of those complaints would raise enormous concerns about the agency's work in terms of having specified who was liable for what.

I think that this is extremely punitive. We ought to be thinking of other ways to approach enforcement in Northern Ireland, and I do not think that a piece of legislation on social security should be asking that such matters be referred to the court for discretion.

Mr Paisley Jnr:

This could be a very emotive debate, and, indeed, some people have been emotive in some of the things that they have said. However, it is important to be emotive for the right reasons, and the right reason to be emotive, I believe, is to ensure that the most vulnerable in society, not the person who wants to avoid paying what he or she should be paying, get what they are entitled to - and that is the children.

This legislation and, indeed, this clause, will allow the most vulnerable in society to have their chance at getting something which everyone else across the rest of the United Kingdom will be entitled to. If we do not give them this chance, we could be making them victims. It is essential that we guard against that. Members who have spoken before me have raised specific points that I would like to deal with. Mr Ford kindly gave way to me and I asked him to suggest a workable sanction. He replied that the removal of a driving licence would not be workable. On the contrary, it is the one thing that probably would work, because it could be monitored. Controls could be exercised by the courts and by Government agencies, because they can monitor who has a driving licence and whether the licence is being used legally or illegally. I suggest to him that this is the only workable option.

Mr Ford:

The Member has made an interesting point. I think that the provision in clause 17 for financial penalty payments would be likely to be more successful than removing driving licences. Perhaps the Member is unaware that even in North Antrim people have been known to drive without licences, thereby driving without insurance. Surely he does not wish to add to that problem?

Mr Paisley Jnr:

That is interesting but the point of removing a driving licence is that the person has already defaulted on making payments. To suggest that we try to get him to make more payments when he would not pay in the first place is what is unworkable about this.

I suggest that this is a very workable option. Both Mr Ford and Mr ONeill indicated that it is a draconian measure; I suggest to them that it is not. Indeed, if they are concerned about it they should look more closely at the clause. My Colleague, Mr S Wilson, explained how it would operate. I refer them to the words in article 36A(3) -

"whether there has been wilful refusal or culpable neglect" -

and to the phrase in clause 53

"without reasonable excuse".

The sanction cannot be regarded as draconian because it would only be used in very particular circumstances such as when a person who has been brought to court is unable to produce a reasonable excuse for his failure to make payments. On that basis I think that they ought to be concerned.

To refer again to article 36A(3), the aim is to protect children who have been neglected. Let us focus on that. We are not dealing with someone who has missed a couple of payments in a 12-month period. We are dealing with someone who wilfully neglects his children, wilfully takes money that is theirs and thus wilfully removes food from their fridge and from their kitchen table and clothes from their back. Under any other set of circumstances, that wilful neglect would result in absolute condemnation from across the House. Here we have an opportunity to protect children from such wilful neglect, and we are backing away from it. I suggest to the House that we seize the opportunity to guard and protect those children.

Mr Ervine:

As far as I am aware, in the Criminal Justice Review no party suggested that a paedophile should have his driving licence removed for wilful damage to a child or that a mother or father who neglects or is brutal to a child should have their driving licence removed. Does the Member believe that perhaps we should look at those circumstances in the future?

Mr P Robinson:

They would be put in prison.

Mr Paisley Jnr:

The Member has raised an interesting point. My Colleague is indicating that paedophiles face an ultimate sanction, which is prison, and I will come to that in a moment. The Criminal Justice Bill is up for review, and the Secretary of State is considering options. I am sure the Member and other parties will also have proposals to make when that issue is before the House.

However, for the moment let us focus on the wilful neglect of children who ought to be receiving money from a parent. I again advise the House to seize the opportunity and use this good means to ensure that those payments are made.


<< Prev / Next >>