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Northern Ireland Assembly

Tuesday 17 October 2000 (continued)

Mr Paisley Jnr:

I too would like to congratulate the Minister on his presentation. I am pleased that he does not have a drink problem, and I understand that that water will not help him to work an economic miracle here today.

I would like him to comment on his comprehensive statement, for there are some gaps. Other Members have drawn attention to this, but is it significant that we have seen the price tag without seeing the entire commodity that we are being asked to buy - the Government's programme? Could it be that the Executive is not working as smoothly as he has suggested to the House? Are there still problems, and is the fact that we have got this back to front today an indication of those problems?

Can the Minister assure the House that all the policies he has presented have been rural proofed and that due regard has been paid to the farming community? Can he assure us that, as stated in paragraph nine, he will argue for a fairer allocation of funding to Northern Ireland? If he is suggesting that Northern Ireland is being short changed, I put it to him that he has a duty to ask for our full allocation. What will he be doing about that issue?

I also urge him to ensure that the social inclusion fund, which he mentions in paragraph 13, is proportionately distributed to the two communities in Northern Ireland.

Will he tell us the total to be allocated to the beef quality scheme, mentioned in paragraph 15? Finally, can he confirm that his Executive programme fund, mentioned in paragraph 17, is, in fact, a war chest amounting to some £300 million over a two-year period? Does he agree that he should allocate this money immediately it becomes available to ensure that all Departments have their greatest needs met?

Mr Durkan:

I thank Mr Paisley for those questions. He said that this is back to front. The Assembly is getting a draft Budget statement today. The Programme for Government will be available next week. The Assembly does not have to take any decisions today. We will be able to take this draft statement and, through the Committees, come to some Budget decisions in December, when I will present a further Budget statement after reflection by the Executive Committee. Nothing has been taken out of turn. All that work will continue in the context of people having the Programme for Government proposals available and being able to appraise them.

I have said that the Executive is well seized of the whole question of the Barnett formula and the sort of case we need to make there. It is not a case that is going to be made overnight. It is not just a matter of "Barnett-storming" the Treasury and expecting to get a result. There are a variety of issues involved, not least in relation to other interests elsewhere. It is not just a matter for myself as Minister of Finance. They have a representational function, on behalf of the Executive, in these institutions. The First Minister and the Deputy First Minister have already been active on this issue. They scored some early, albeit marginal, success in that regard in the allocation that we got from the Treasury in the spending review statement in July.

The precise detail of the Executive programme funds has to be developed by the Executive Committee, not least in light of the comments that might come from the Assembly and the Committees. I made clear in my statement that the management of those funds and the allocations under them will have particular regard to the priorities identified in the Executive's Programme for Government. They are, after all, Executive programme funds. They will also have full regard to our equality and targeting social need commitments. That applies to all the funds, not just to the social inclusion or community regeneration fund.

It is certainly not a war chest. It starts modestly this year, with just £16 million. We need to start to drive in a wedge that makes a difference between the patterns we have inherited and the priorities that we want to pursue for the future. The Executive programme funds are a key tool in that regard.

It would not be appropriate to allocate all these things in advance. We want these funds to work in ways that improve the sort of strategic interventions that are made, not just by individual Departments but by various Departments working together. It would be wrong to fix a particular timetable for making decisions on those funds if by pursuing that timetable we were to work against ensuring best use.

The Deputy Chairperson of the Enterprise, Trade and Investment Committee (Mr Neeson):

Does the Minister accept that economic development and job creation are vital in ensuring stability in this society? Can he assure me that the budget for economic development will not be the soft touch that it has been in the past? Can he tell me whether the main recommendations of 'Strategy 2010' were considered by the Executive, particularly the proposal to create a single development agency? Does he agree that one of the major incentives for inward investment is tax concessions? The Assembly is greatly disadvantaged by not having tax-varying powers.

Mr Durkan:

The Executive recognises the importance of economic development for the whole community. While the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment has a strong primary role in economic development, many other Departments make a direct contribution to economic development in different ways. The Budget, and the Programme for Government when it is produced, will want to promote that strongly.

The funds allocated in the Executive programme for new directions and for infrastructure show our strong commitment to economic development. We will not treat any budget line as a soft touch. In my statement I explained why some of the relative increases for the Department of Trade and Investment do not appear to match the increases elsewhere. That is to do with the rundown of European funding.


Mr Speaker:

I must ask the Minister to draw his remarks to a close.

Mr Durkan:

The relevant Minister continues to work on the review of agencies and structures, and such issues would be better reflected in the Programme for Government than in the Budget.

Mr Speaker:

A substantial number of Members wanted to ask questions, but the time is up. In the case of a substantial presentation such as the Budget, that is a matter of particular regret. There will, of course, be further opportunities, but perhaps we should consider the amount of time allocated.

Mr Hussey:

Mr Speaker, can you confirm that the appropriate Assembly body and its officials are considering curtailment of the Hallowe'en recess and delay of the Christmas recess to allow for proper scrutiny of the Budget?

Mr Speaker:

That is not a point of order, as the Member knows.

Mr Hussey:

It is an important point.

Mr Speaker:

It may be important, but it is not a point of order.

I propose to suspend the sitting now and resume at 1.30 pm. Were we to resume the Consideration Stage of the Child Support, Pensions and Social Security Bill right away we would have to interrupt it in less than half an hour for lunch. That would be fair neither to Members who wish to discuss the Bill nor to the Minister.

The sitting was suspended at 12.03 pm.

On resuming (Madam Deputy Speaker [Ms Morrice] in the Chair) -

Child Support, Pensions and Social Security Bill: 
Consideration Stage


Debate resumed.

1.30 pm

Mr P Robinson:

On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. Can you help to remove some of the confusion surrounding our proceedings last night on this Bill? For those poor people in Northern Ireland who rely entirely on the Belfast 'News Letter' for their information, this morning's copy had a heading "Non-payers' driving ban thrown out". This indicates that the Assembly rejected a proposal by the Minister to impose driving bans on those who default on child support payments. Will you make it clear that when the House divided and the Ayes had it, that related to the Question that the clause stand part of the Bill, and not to any amendment?

Madam Deputy Speaker:

That is not a point of order. I do, however, accept that the reporting was incorrect and that the Member's point is valid.

Clauses 17 to 52 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 53 (Loss of benefit for breach of community order)

Question proposed That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Mr Ford:

Madam Deputy Speaker, I am glad that although Mr Robinson may have been correct on the votes last night, he was unable to railroad you on this clause.

When we had the Second Reading debate I asked, with regard to clause 53, a question about what would happen to a young lad who had been placed on probation because he had stolen the handbag of an old lady living down the street and who, after potentially losing his benefit for a breach of probation, went out and, fairly inevitably, stole a handbag from an old lady living in the next street. I hope that the Minister has had an opportunity to find the answer to that question, as he did not answer it in his winding-up speech last week. I, and others concerned with the criminal justice system, would like to hear the answer.

I quote from the National Association of Probation Officers (NAPO) in their response to the equivalent Bill as it was going through Westminster:

"It is extremely difficult to envisage that the withdrawal of benefits from those who breach orders will enhance public protection or reduce crime."

The Minister and his colleagues may not wish to take the word of a dangerous liberal like me on such matters, but NAPO and, indeed, the Northern Ireland Probation Board have equally - [Interruption]

Mr P Robinson:

Right-wing organisations.

Madam Deputy Speaker:


Mr Ford:

NAPO and the Northern Ireland Probation Board have joined in the objections and have expressed the same concern that there is no suggestion that this clause, if enacted, would enhance public protection or reduce crime. In those circumstances it is incumbent upon those proposing that this clause be included to explain how that will happen. However, they have not endeavoured to explain how it will happen. In fairness, the Minister made it clear last week that he does not intend to introduce this particular power until he has seen the results of experiments in England and Wales - the so-called pilot schemes.

There is, of course, the question of the European Convention on Human Rights, which may or may not apply here.

If there is a requirement to have pilot schemes run in any part of the UK before this matter is to be introduced here, then it is incumbent upon the Minister to tell this House why on earth we should have it in our legislation at all. If it were shown that this particular form of punishment worked in England, Wales or Scotland, then we would obviously have to take the Minister's view seriously. However, what he is telling us is that a measure which is so doubtful in value that the Westminster Government are piloting it but do not propose to introduce it on a widespread basis is to stand as part of our legislation. Even by his own definition yesterday it is not a question of parity. He is saying that we will have it floating around but we will not implement it. What is the point of introducing this group of clauses, starting with clause 53? It is an extremely dubious measure. The professionals have expressed doubts about it.

It is, to some extent, the other side of the coin of what we debated last night. Last night we debated introducing penalties covering an unrelated aspect of criminal justice into social security legislation. Now we are debating introducing penalties involving social security into a part of the criminal justice scheme. There is no evidence that there will be any likelihood of its working. This is admitted by the Minister. It was also admitted by the Westminster Government when this was introduced across the water. There is every likelihood that it will add to the problems. It will create further difficulties and will add to the burden of petty crime from which ordinary citizens suffer.

The various DUP Ministers put in a great deal of effort when they made their winding-up speeches yesterday. We had the real Minister, the previous Minister, the would-be-still-a Minister, the perhaps-would- be-the-next Minister. They all had a fair go at me.

I am happy to express my opposition to this point. Mr Robinson clearly thinks he is still a Minister who can denigrate the rest of us. Rather than denigrate me, let him justify this clause and explain how anyone in Northern Ireland will benefit when another old lady has her handbag pinched. By the Minister's own admission, this clause has not yet been proved to be workable. Let it be brought into our legislation only when there is clear proof from across the water that it is workable, beneficial and of help to our citizens rather than a hindrance.

Ms Lewsley:

I oppose the clause. This Bill has been debated over the last few weeks, and nobody in this Chamber disagrees that stronger deterrents are needed against people who do not abide by the sanctions imposed on them. However, at yesterday's sitting, Members from the other side of the House repeatedly emphasised the issue of hardship to children. This clause can only create such hardship, seeking to impose, as it does, a loss of benefits on those who breach a community service order.

Mr Ford referred to the young man who steals a handbag from the lady next door and who steals one from the lady in the next street the following week. The case is not so simple. Not only would the benefits claimant be penalised, but the claimant's partner and children would be affected the most. While £12 per week may not seem a great deal to many Members, such a sum means much more to the many benefits claimants who are already in a poverty trap.

Yesterday's debate surrounded the removal of driving licences - perhaps it would be better if, in these cases, driving licences and not benefits were taken away.

Ms McWilliams:

The overlap between clause 16 and clause 53 is interesting. One concerns a civil order which has implications for criminal justice, while today we have criminal justice legislation with implications for a piece of social legislation. Perhaps, since we have a devolved Administration, an interdepartmental Committee could examine such Bills in their entirety. They would not then have to be passed from the Northern Ireland Assembly to the Northern Ireland Office, which has responsibility for the probation service and the courts.

I would like to have a report from such a scrutiny Committee on the implications and costs of such a policy change. I am very concerned about the costs involved. If the Minister can not reveal the setting up and administrative costs that this will entail today, can he inform me in writing?

I am also extremely concerned that this policy will increase the likelihood of homelessness and destitution. The clause does not suggest that all benefits should be withdrawn. It allows for this to happen, but it also allows for a reduction of benefits.

I thank the Minister for clarifying the implications for dependants. He has reassured me that dependants will be protected and that it is the individual offender who will be penalised. Nonetheless, I am sure that there will be indirect implications for an offender's family and the community.

Can the Minister clarify the situation on pilot schemes? There was a great deal of confusion on this issue yesterday. In response to my question the Minister said that he was opposed to a pilot scheme in Northern Ireland to introduce the abolition of the driving licence as a penalty for people who do not pay child support.

1.45 pm

The point needs to be made again. I asked him how we can know if it will work, and clearly, without having it piloted, the answer is that we do not know, despite the fact that many Members got on their feet to say that it would be a great advance on what we currently have. We do not know that either. This clause suggests that it will not be introduced in Northern Ireland until it is piloted in seven regions of England and Wales. The Assembly heard last week that it needs empowering legislation to introduce this measure. If that is the case, we will not be introducing it in Northern Ireland. Why, then, do we need it in the Bill?

If this power is only to be piloted in England and Wales, let the empowering legislation exist in England and Wales. We do not need it in Northern Ireland. It is clear that we could delete this clause without having to listen endlessly to how terrible it would be for Northern Ireland if we broke parity. Let me remind the House that this is not the first time that exceptions have been made for Northern Ireland. For many years the probation service has operated differently in Northern Ireland because of the circumstances here. I have no doubt that it was extremely alarmed about the information it was expected to provide about offenders' behaviour when the Department was researching the next clause. One begins to question standards of confidentiality and the ethics of departmental responsibility. If a Department can simply ask for such information to be passed on to it, there are privacy implications under the Human Rights Act.

I sincerely hope that this measure will not be introduced, and I am opposing its introduction at this stage. And if, at the conclusion of the pilot schemes in England and Wales, it is decided that the measure should be extended to Northern Ireland, the probation service will be extremely concerned.

Mr Ervine:

There is a touch of déjà vu about this, although maybe it will be a bit different - perhaps the Ulster Unionists will speak today. Yesterday the largest party in the Assembly, representing the interests of the electoral majority, sat silent throughout the process. Of course, the Democratic Unionist Party is somewhat trapped. Knowing some of its members, I am sure they are rather uncomfortable with this legislation. Nevertheless, it is on the agenda, and they have to defend their Minister, who begins to make Margaret Thatcher look like a shrinking violet: "Why not just cut out the middle man and do these people in? Bread and water. Nothing is bad enough."

Yesterday we debated and brought in draconian measures without realising their implications and the consequences that lie ahead of us. My colleague David Ford gave the example of someone in economic difficulty who quite wrongly decides that the way out is through crime and then finds himself on a community service order with his benefit stopped. Would that person go on to commit less or more crime? The answer to that should be fairly clear. Circumstance does not make it right, but it is logical for that individual. Many of these people, the underclass in some respects, have little sense of association. They are alienated, disaffected and, indeed, very apathetic about how society functions for them.

We confirm them as victims in their own minds by treating them harshly, as this legislation shows. I can see absolutely no merit in further punitive action against people in this situation. While they do wrong and society has the right to deal with them, it is nevertheless ludicrous to heap further financial burdens on them. This can only exacerbate the potential for further criminal activity.

It is absolutely ludicrous. It has been thrown in supposedly to give us options, and the Minister may tell us later, as he told us yesterday, that it will only be done as a last resort. He does not have the right to say that. This legislation will not be interpreted by the Minister. It will be interpreted by a judge in a court of law. It is not said in this legislation, or in the legislation we dealt with yesterday, that it is only to be used as a last resort. We are being told, in a political, whitewashing way, that it will be all right, that it will not affect many people and that when a judge makes such a determination, he will only do so as a last resort. We will not make the determination. When the legislation is passed and is dealt with by a court of law, only the judge will determine whether to use this sanction as a first option, a second option, a third option or a last option. The language of the legislation is not tight enough.

My Colleague Monica McWilliams asked why we need to pass this legislation when it is about to be tested. We are being railroaded, having it stuffed down our throats. For two days in a row we Assembly Members are about to put our names to bad law. If we are here only to rubber-stamp the authority of the four large parties or, as happened yesterday, two of the large parties, maybe we are wasting our time. Our job is to scrutinise and to challenge what we hear from the Minister, and he is about to say in response that this is about the real victims.

We heard yesterday that we did not care about the children because we challenged aspects of the Child Support Bill. Of course we care about children. Of course we care about the victims of those who are on community service orders. Moral piety is unreasonable when it comes from the Minister to the Members of this House, and I caution the Minister that it is not wise to go down that track. We all care. We all have constituents who suffer - those we discussed yesterday and the victims of those who end up with community service orders. Remember that people with community service orders are alienated, disaffected and apathetic. Rather than the simple, punitive action of this legislation, perhaps we should be offering more ways of reducing their feelings of alienation and disaffection and giving them some sense of belonging in society. I oppose this - and I have more opposition in mind for later on.

The issues of parity that the Democratic Unionist Party is so determined to retain do not cross all boundaries, and there is no greater à la carte United Kingdom party than the party to whom the Minister gives his allegiance. We hear its members parrot "parity", and there will be times when we will remind them of what they have said about parity, and those times may not be long in coming. I reaffirm our opposition and say clearly that this is a tragedy. There are members of the Democratic Unionist Party and the Ulster Unionist Party who, if they were not expected to support the Government that they are part of, would be opposing this legislation.

Ms McWilliams:

On the issue of parity - and the DUP might care to look back over its records on the matter of parity on this and other pieces of legislation - one can not touch social security. That would have dire consequences for the people of Northern Ireland, for we get more out than we pay in.

Does the Member remember how the DUP complained when the exceptional fuel payment for Northern Ireland was removed, under the provisions of social security legislation? Its reasoning was that the income provided under social security provisions - supplementary benefit, as it was called then - did not go as far as it would have done elsewhere in the United Kingdom because we had exceptional fuel prices. Therefore it was seen to be right that the Government should pay extra to people in Northern Ireland, taking into account what they were paying out. When that was abolished, the DUP, and indeed other Members, said that it was not fair to the people of Northern Ireland. That was all about social security legislation.

Ms Gildernew:

Go raibh maith agat a Cheann Comhaírle. I am not going to repeat what other Members have said, but I will say that I also remember Members on the Benches opposite talking very recently about fuel prices. They spoke of the need for special arrangements, given the price of diesel and petrol in the Twenty-six Counties. They were looking for measures to alleviate that problem. Parity does not always come into the equation.

Do the Members opposite really look at legislation and take a view about whether it is good, bad or indifferent, or do they just go along with it because it has been made in Westminster? If a Bill said that it was OK to put your hand in the fire, would the DUP and UUP be queuing up to do that as well?

I am also opposed to aspects of the Bill that we have discussed yesterday and today. I do not see any merit in stopping people's benefits. Contrary to what has been said, the Bill will impact greatly on the families who suffer most. We cannot support the Bill for that reason. Go raibh maith agat.

Mr S Wilson:

I want to take up a couple of the points about the stance of the DUP and the Minister on this clause. The parity issue came up yesterday as well, and I thought that my Colleague Mr Peter Robinson explained the whole question of parity, and our stance on it, very clearly. We seek parity when it is to the benefit of the people of Northern Ireland. Where we can tailor legislation to fit the particular circumstances of Northern Ireland, or improve on legislation for the people of Northern Ireland, we are quite happy to consider something different. That position has been made very clear, and to simply say that if we want parity in that, we must have parity on everything is nonsensical. Through a local regional Administration we are seeking the ability to tailor things to the needs of the people of Northern Ireland. Maybe I have not explained this as eloquently as my Colleague did yesterday, but I hope that I have reinforced the point.

In certain circles Mr Ervine is known as "the Bishop Eames of the paramilitaries". When I listen to his moralising I feel that description is justified.

Mr Ervine:

You do not genuflect very much.

Mr S Wilson:

I do not intend to genuflect at all. Mr Ervine said that we should remember that we are dealing with disaffected people who feel that society has excluded them and that they are on the margins of society.

I wonder whether he gives the same lectures to the people he eulogised at his party conference on Saturday. He also asked why the Minister did not just cut out the middlemen and hang them all.

2.00 pm

Mr Ervine:

The Member should not believe all that he reads in the papers; he was not at the party conference. The least said, soonest mended. It is somewhat unfair to have a wallop in this way.

Mr S Wilson:

Here is another quote. [Interruption] I am only quoting Mr Ervine's own words:

"Why doesn't the Minister just cut out the middlemen and hang them?"

Or did you say "put them in prison"? I cannot remember.

Madam Deputy Speaker:

Order. The Member will address his remarks through the Chair.

Mr S Wilson:

I am sorry. Perhaps you can inform me whether it was "hang them" or "put them in prison".

Mr Ervine has spoken eloquently about these disaffected people. However, there are people in east and north Belfast, and other parts of Northern Ireland, who go out, on a nightly basis, and drag these disaffected youngsters up an entry and beat the daylights out of them. I wonder if he gives them the same lectures about treating disaffected young people in a proper manner.

It is easy to stand in the Assembly and talk about how we should treat carefully these people on the margins of society, but the middleman is very often cut out on a nightly basis by people who proclaim themselves to be judge, jury and executioner for those youngsters who are involved in anti-social behaviour.

Mr Ervine:

I concur absolutely with the Member about the treatment that is dished out by people who cut out the middleman, as he has described it. It is shameful, it is wrong, and it is immoral. In answer to his question, yes, I do tell those with whom I have conversations exactly that, and I will continue to do so.

It might be worth the Member's while to give some consideration to - or perhaps we might ask the Minister whether he can tell us - the ages of the people who usually receive community service orders.

Mr S Wilson:

I do not believe that age is an important point. The important point is that the cutting-out of the middleman is a frequent occurrence in our society. Whether Mr Ervine tells us that he condemns that and that it is morally wrong, we have been given a lecture today by someone who, to his credit, does not pretend that there is no association between himself and those who carry out those attacks.

The problem of breaches of community service orders comes when someone has failed, without reasonable excuse, to comply with the conditions of the order. Those people who have been placed on a community service order are usually placed there because they have offended against society.

It is fine for the likes of Mr Ford, and the other 'Guardian' readers in the House, to talk about the rights of those people. However, some people have to live with the consequences of the actions of others who have no regard for society, no regard for the elderly in society and no regard for people's property in society. It is not easy to see people placed on community service orders and then for a minority of them to snub their noses - most do not - at society again and say that they are not going to comply.

It offends the sensitivities of ordinary decent people in society, who are their victims, to see them walk away without further punishment. It might be OK for the liberal classes, who can escape to their middle-class suburbs away from the desert of the inner city. However, I guarantee that if you had to live with some of the elderly people in the inner city areas like the Newtownards Road and the Ravenhill Road who, day and daily, have to put up with that, you would not be concentrating on the rights of those who breach the orders. You would be concentrating on how you could protect those who are affected by their behaviour.

Mr Ford:

I am not sure if Mr Wilson was in the Chamber when we started this debate - I have a feeling that he was not. I plead guilty to reading 'The Guardian'. I feel no particular shame for that, so I am guilty on that charge.

On the specific issue of whose rights we are talking about, had the Member been in his place he would have heard that I was specifically talking about the suffering that was inflicted on the old lady in the next street who also had her handbag stolen. I was not pleading for the rights of the offenders. I was talking about the effects on society and, specifically, the elderly victims. If the Member is going to attack what I said, it would be pleasant if he had been here to listen, rather than make an assumption about what I ought to have said.

Mr S Wilson:

I am glad that I have at least roused one of the "Guardianistas" to defend himself.

I am talking about the rights of the people who are the victims. It does not matter what walk of life you come from, whether it is children in the home, youngsters in the school or criminals in society. The one thing you can be sure of is that if there is no deterrent or sanction then they will feel free to go and behave as they wish. The threat of the withdrawal of benefit may not have the effect of influencing all on community orders, but it will have a deterring effect on the vast majority. The majority will comply with the orders, take their punishment and repay society through the order that has been placed on them by the court.

It is significant that many of the parties in support of the agreement are now lined up against all of the sanctions imposed in this Bill. Their record is that they did not want any sanctions imposed on anyone. Terrorists were to be rewarded in a plethora of ways. Now we find that people who do not comply with community orders are not to have sanctions imposed. It is a whole ethos of reward, without making people face up to their responsibilities. That is not the kind of breach of parity that we should be aiming for. That leaves us with a poorer society and leaves the vulnerable and victims in society feeling even sorer when they see the perpetrators of wrongdoing being allowed off scot-free.

The Minister for Social Development (Mr Morrow):

With your permission, Madam Deputy Speaker, I will speak on clauses 53 to 57 together, as they are interdependent.

Ms McWilliams:

On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. As Members only spoke to clause 53, they would like the opportunity to speak to other clauses before the Minister responds.

Madam Deputy Speaker:

Members will have the opportunity to speak to each clause and amendment as we go through the Bill.

Ms McWilliams:

On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. If that is the case, perhaps the Minister would be wise to respond just on clause 53 at this stage. Will he return to the other clauses after we have spoken?

Madam Deputy Speaker:

The Minister will respond on clauses as Members raise issues about them, following this statement.

Mr Morrow:

It was always my intention to respond to the other clauses as Members raise matters about them.

As happened yesterday - and as has happened again today - some Members have talked about things that they feel are in the Bill. I do not see them in the Bill. Members have, on some occasions, let their imaginations run away with them.

May I say what the Bill does not do? It does not propose to hang anybody. I want to make that very clear. I hope that this assurance will help everybody - and particularly Mr Ervine - to relax a little more. No one will be hanged as a result of this Bill. These clauses will allow payments of certain social security benefits or training allowances to be reduced or withdrawn when a recipient fails to meet the terms of a probation order, a community service order, or a combination order.

I believe strongly that a person's right to support from the state depends on his meeting his responsibilities to society. This principle is fundamental to the reform of welfare, which is about improving state support through the New Deal for young people, working families' tax credit, and giving more help to lone parents and disabled people who want to work.

In exchange for that, it is important that those on benefits do what they can to help themselves. There is a link between community sentences and benefits. Community penalties involve an element of discipline: attending interviews with probation officers, participating in programmes designed to stop re-offending, or doing unpaid work for the community. This experience reinforces skills often needed in a working environment.

Ms McWilliams:

I would like clarification. This clause refers to income support, jobseeker's allowance and training allowances. Those are the only measures that the clause speaks to, and yet the Minister has introduced the working family tax credit. Will this clause also be extended to working families' tax credit?

Mr Morrow:

The answer is "No". I am sure the Member will recall that I did say that I was dealing with the clauses together. I will respond to individual points made by Members.

It is important to ensure that offenders receiving benefits complete their sentences. That will enable them to draw a line under their offending and move on to make a full contribution to society. The bottom line is that if an offender is not willing to meet the terms of a probation order, a community service order, or a combination order, he cannot expect the rest of society - the decent, hard-working men and women in the street or the old-age pensioners about whom we expressed such concern in a recent debate - to carry on supporting him while he laughs up his sleeve at them.

Mr Ford expressed considerable concern about the old lady who loses her handbag. Under existing provisions, social security benefits remain in payment even though offenders thumb their noses at their responsibilities to society. It cannot be right that a person who fails to meet his wider responsibilities to society still receives the same benefit from the state as someone who complies in full.

Just stop and think about this for a moment. This à la carte approach is not acceptable. It is not acceptable by anybody's standards.

2.15 pm

The Department of Social Security has proposed piloting the corresponding provisions of the Child Support, Pensions and Social Security Act 2000 in a small number of areas in England and Wales. This will establish the detailed procedures necessary. For these pilot studies the period of benefit withdrawal or reduction will be set at four weeks. A sanction will apply to those people living in the designated areas who are aged between 18 and 59 and who are receiving income support, jobseeker's allowance or certain training allowances. The results of these exercises will be fully evaluated and will inform decisions about the national roll-out of the scheme in Great Britain. I can categorically assure the House that the Northern Ireland provisions will not be implemented unless and until full implementation takes places in Great Britain.

While the benefit sanctions are aimed to impress on the offender the implications of his actions, they are not meant to leave anybody destitute. Benefits for dependants will not be sanctioned. I repeat: benefits for dependants will not be sanctioned. Hardship payments will be made available, subject to individual circumstances. This mirrors the system that currently applies to cases where employment sanctions have been imposed. I strongly recommend the Assembly to accept clauses 53 to 57.

(Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr McClelland] in the Chair)

Mr Ford:

In his remarks about pilot schemes in Great Britain, the Minister has entirely repeated the point that was made earlier from this side of the House. So far he has no evidence that the scheme will work, yet he insists that this legislation must stand part of the Northern Ireland law book. Perhaps he could explain why this is so essential when he has no evidence - although his party Colleague Mr Wilson claimed to have some better knowledge than those who drafted this legislation across the water. Why is it so necessary to have powers which, as yet, are not justified in any part of the United Kingdom?

Mr Morrow:

I have listened to the Member. I am putting his question at the bottom of the list, and I will answer it. However, I want to refer to something he mentioned earlier. Mr Ford stated that I had not given him a full answer yesterday in relation to the old lady who had her handbag snatched. I did say yesterday that if, when we had a look at Hansard, we felt that there was any matter that was not fully and properly addressed, then we would return to it and address it fully. I can give Mr Ford a categorical assurance that this will happen. If he still feels that the example of the old lady who lost her handbag was not properly addressed, then I assure him that it will be. A full answer will be given, right down to the very colour of the handbag that was stolen, if we can do that.

A number of points were raised today. Some were relevant and some were not of any relevance whatsoever. Some were pulled from the sky to cover Members' inability to support this Bill in its totality. Mr Ford mentioned the position of a young offender who steals while on probation and has his benefit sanctioned.

I emphasise that reoffending is a matter for the courts. I hope that Mr Ford takes that point fully. In regard to the pilot scheme, which was touched upon by a Member, if the decision in Great Britain is not to proceed, then the provision in Northern Ireland will remain dormant. That is the case for all parity legislation. The provision must be there to allow it to be introduced if the decision is to proceed. That is what parity is all about.

Mr Ford also raised the point about the necessity of having the clause if it is not going to be used. If we delay the insertion of the clause into the legislation, then we will not be able to maintain parity. The clause must be a part of the original legislation to ensure that this is a piece of parity legislation.

Ms McWilliams:

The clause says, and the explanatory memorandum explains, that if, at any stage, the House wants a further extension of measures, this can be provided through regulations subject to the affirmative procedure. Why can that not be done in this instance? The clause states that something can be introduced at a later stage under further regulations, which will no doubt come before this House.

Mr Morrow:

I thought I had made it clear. Some may think that I overemphasise the word "parity". I do not believe that it can be emphasised enough. A Member said earlier that responsibility comes with privilege. Are we going to allow some people to flout their responsibilities without accepting them? That is not the way forward, and that is why I am so emphatic that this Bill is implemented in Northern Ireland in its entirety.

Ms Lewsley spoke about protecting partners and dependants. Only the benefit of the offender will be sanctioned. I trust that clarifies the point for the Member.

Ms McWilliams made the point that the scheme will be piloted in England and Wales but not in Northern Ireland. That is true. However, it would be difficult to pilot the scheme in Northern Ireland because in comparison to England the population is too small. In fact, to achieve a proper sample, all of Northern Ireland would have to be piloted, and that is not logical.

Ms McWilliams:

In case the Minister has misunderstood me, let me explain that I was not suggesting that the scheme be piloted in Northern Ireland, whether there are adequate sample numbers or not. I am suggesting that this clause is not introduced in Northern Ireland. If it turns out to be the case - and I doubt it - that the conclusion of the pilot schemes is that such a punitive measure works, then we can revisit the issue and introduce an additional regulation. Why introduce the clause at this stage if the empowering legislation is only required for the pilot schemes in England and Wales? If the Minister returns to the House and informs us that the pilot schemes were a great success in England and Wales, then the Assembly will listen to that. However, at present he does not know the answer to the question. Why does he not accept the point that the best way forward is to accept the amendment, delete the clause and proceed with the rest of the Bill?

Mr Morrow:

Ms McWilliams is right: I do not know. That is why I am putting it in. I want the legislation in its totality at this stage. She must accept that. Members can drop their heads and laugh if they so wish, but I ask the House to remember what this Bill is for. Some Members appear to have forgotten.

Mr Ervine:

It is about saving money.

Mr Morrow:

No, it is about directing money to those who are entitled to it, and who deserve it. That is what it is about.

Regarding the point Monica McWilliams made about homelessness, housing benefit will not be sanctioned.

With regard to David Ervine's points, the court, and not the Department, would indicate that a person had breached the order. The offender could avoid benefit sanction by complying with the terms of the order. I hope that the Member understands that. At the time the order was being imposed, the court would explain to the offender what the consequences would be for someone on benefit. The Social Security Agency could sanction benefit only when the court had made such a determination. The court would have the primacy in such a case, and I recognise that some Members seem to have a difficulty with that, but they have not told us of a better arena in which to establish this. Where else could this be done?

Mr Ervine:

I thought that I had explained my point well. I accept that a judge would make the determination, but he would be making his determination on what he sees, and therefore we would lose control. It would be gone, and once this became part of law it would remain part of law. Not only would it remain part of law, but it would also become established practice in other areas of the justice system. A precedent would have been created, and benefit would be used as a punitive factor in many other areas. That is the biggest fear of the vast majority of Members who are against this.

Mr Morrow:

I disagree emphatically. I do not know whether the Member is adopting this stance deliberately or unintentionally, but can he understand why such a person is in court? Does he fully understand that by the time a person reaches court, he has, on umpteen occasions, been given the opportunity to make good his default? That person is in court because he has spurned every opportunity and kicked them to the side. Only then will he find himself before a court. I cannot emphasise that point strongly enough, and I hope that the Member grasps that.

Mr Ervine then said that a sanction would not come into effect until the benefit office had been notified that a court had determined that a person had, without reasonable excuse, again failed to comply with the order. I have gone over that point on at least four occasions, and I fail to see why some Members still cannot get to grips with that particular point.

Another point raised by Mr Ervine was in relation to parity. We are dealing here only with social security. Others have tried to drag in other issues that are not for discussion today. There is a long-standing policy on parity, and, as Minister, I am bound by section 87 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998, which requires me, in conjunction with the Secretary of State, to operate single systems of social security, pensions and child support. I do not have any option. We are, after all, part of the United Kingdom.

Mr Ervine then asked a series of questions in an interjection to Sammy Wilson. He mentioned community sentences orders, and he asked for some figures. I can give him figures now. Ninety-three per cent of people on such orders are male. In the under-18 age group, there are 15%, in the 18-to-25 age group 48%, and in the over-25 age group 37%. Seventy per cent of them are single, 7% married, 17% cohabiting, 4% widowed and 2% separated.

Mr Ervine also said that he could not see the merit in having these measures included and that we were merely about to rubber-stamp the law in Great Britain.

Mr Ervine says that he cares about children. Let him show that he cares. His actions will speak much louder than words on this particular issue. I would prefer that people did not tell me how to live, rather than they lived it themselves and then showed me. Mr Ervine may want to take that point on board.

2.30 pm

Mr Ervine:


Mr Morrow:


Monica McWilliams mentioned the working families' tax credit. That benefit is administered by the Inland Revenue on a UK-wide basis and is not part of my responsibilities. I trust that that clarifies that point.

As for Mr Ford's interjection, if this legislation is not on the statute book we will not be able to introduce it at the same time as it is introduced in the rest of the United Kingdom. Does anybody feel that there is any merit in our falling behind on benefit legislation? Does anybody think that that is to anybody's advantage? I cannot see it.

Ms McWilliams:

Does the Minister accept my point? It is unfair that Members are made to feel that they have misunderstood the legislation. I assure the Minister that we understand it very clearly. We do not find it a laughing matter; we are treating it very seriously. The Minister felt that some Members were laughing at some of the things that were being said. Let the record show that the issue is being treated with an enormous amount of seriousness.

Some Members feel that this debate is going on longer than it should, but it should go on for as long as it takes for people to realise that what we put into legislation today stays on the statute book. If the measures are not to be introduced to Northern Ireland now, and since the statute allows them to be introduced at a later stage, would it not be sensible, given the concerns that have been raised, to leave it to a later time to introduce them, and then only if they are seen to work?

Mr Morrow:

I do not recall saying that people were laughing. If I did say it, I was referring to Mr Ervine, who dropped his head in his hands and laughed. I did not say that other Members were laughing. I accept that the people who are putting forward points are sincere, but I hope that they in turn accept that I am emphatically in favour of the Bill and deserve the same courtesy.

Monica McWilliams questioned the need for the inclusion of this clause in the Bill. The clause must be in the Bill if we are to remain on parity with the rest of the United Kingdom. Following the piloting of the Bill in the rest of the United Kingdom, it may have to be changed. If Northern Ireland did not have the clause and it were not being changed in the rest of the United Kingdom we would have to come back to the Assembly and seek to have it included.

Ms McWilliams:


Mr Morrow:

With due respect, that is where Ms McWilliams and I differ. I want the clause included because I feel that it should be there.

Mr Ford:

I am at a loss. The Minister tells us that we must have this clause in case the pilots are successful in Great Britain. Everybody knows that it would take an endless amount of time for regulations to be drawn up in Great Britain. Those regulations would then have to be brought across here to be introduced in a different form. There would be plenty of time for us to consider new primary legislation to deal with the matter while that process is going on, assuming that the evidence in Great Britain proves that this measure that the Minister is so keen on would be successful.

Mr Morrow:

I have heard nothing to convince me that it should not be in. We will have to agree to differ. Ms McWilliams said that this provision must be in. I say to her that the provision must be in primary legislation - in a Bill. That is why we do not break parity, and why we do not leave things out at this stage. Some Members may feel that matters have not been adequately dealt with. I will read Hansard and, if I feel that that is the case, I undertake to get back to Members who have raised issues, and I will ensure that full and more definitive replies are given.

Question put That the clause stand part of the Bill.

The Assembly divided: Ayes 41; Noes 32.


Ian Adamson, Fraser Agnew, Pauline Armitage, Billy Armstrong, Roy Beggs, Billy Bell, Tom Benson, Paul Berry, Esmond Birnie, Gregory Campbell, Mervyn Carrick, Joan Carson, Wilson Clyde, Robert Coulter, Ivan Davis, Nigel Dodds, Sam Foster, Oliver Gibson, William Hay, David Hilditch, Roger Hutchinson, Gardiner Kane, Danny Kennedy, James Leslie, David McClarty, William McCrea, Alan McFarland, Maurice Morrow, Ian Paisley Jnr, Ian R K Paisley, Edwin Poots, Ken Robinson, Mark Robinson, Peter Robinson, George Savage, Jim Shannon, Denis Watson, Peter Weir, Jim Wells, Jim Wilson, Sammy Wilson. [Tellers: Gardiner Kane and David McClarty]


Alex Attwood, Eileen Bell, P J Bradley, Joe Byrne, Seamus Close, John Dallat, Arthur Doherty, David Ervine, John Fee, David Ford, Tommy Gallagher, Michelle Gildernew, Joe Hendron, Billy Hutchinson, Patricia Lewsley, Alban Maginness, Alex Maskey, Kieran McCarthy, Alasdair McDonnell, Barry McElduff, Gerry McHugh, Mitchel McLaughlin, Eugene McMenamin, Pat McNamee, Monica McWilliams, Francie Molloy, Conor Murphy, Sean Neeson, Mary Nelis, Dara O'Hagan, Sue Ramsey, John Tierney. [Tellers: Billy Hutchinson and Kieran McCarthy]

Question accordingly agreed to.

Clause 53 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 54 (Loss of joint-claim jobseeker's allowance)

Question proposed That the clause stand part of the Bill.

2.45 pm

Ms McWilliams:

I thank the Minister for clarification on some of the points raised earlier, and also for the statistics that he introduced, which pointed to 70% of those claimants -

Mr Deputy Speaker:

Order. If Members wish to leave the Chamber, they should do so quietly. Such noise is very discourteous when a Member is speaking.

Ms McWilliams:

Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker, for restoring order.

This clause is speaking to the loss of the joint-claim jobseeker's allowance. I think it needs some explanation. I can understand, since we have now voted for this sanction to be introduced, why it is so important to make sure that partners and dependants do not suffer as a consequence. Although we will be returning to this at the Further Consideration Stage, particularly in relation to piloting, I would like further clarification on the hardship payments which the Minister spoke of earlier. Is there not a contradiction, if it is the case, in a jobseeker's allowance being partially or totally withdrawn for a time and a hardship payment being introduced as a consequence? I would like the Minister to explain why the funding is taken off the individual in the first place if there is hardship. That is an extremely important point. I also note that in the initial stages this is to apply to couples aged 18 to 24 and then will be further extended, but it does not say at what time it will be extended to older couples.

I would like to make the point that too much of this debate centred on the old lady with the handbag. Some of these individuals, albeit possibly a very small proportion, are over 50 years of age, and there are many reasons why they are on community service orders. I would not like Members to think that all those on probation orders, or community service orders, and who breached those orders, were on them simply for mugging or burglary. There are many reasons why they have been diverted from custody and why those orders have been handed out. It is important to remember - and research supports this point - that women are often handed these orders for less offensive behaviour than men, and I am concerned that if an additional penalty were added to that the system would become more punitive.

The Minister is heavily dependent on departmental officials' notes, but I want to remind him that we on this side of the House were clear that housing benefit was not to be affected. Irrespective of whether a person receives housing benefits, if his income is reduced - and this applies specifically if the jobseeker's allowance is taken separately - there will obviously be occasions when he needs extra funding for domestic purposes and responsibilities. That is the point I was making. If money is taken away, that will clearly affect income, particularly if the couple are still living together or cohabiting. It will detract from the family. I know that the money will not come from the unoffending partner or, indeed, from the dependants, assuming that there is someone older in the house who is on a training allowance in his or her own right. In my house - and undoubtedly in the Minister's as well - money is pooled. We talk about "household income". This system will take money away from couples, thus leaving them poorer, although that was probably not the intention.

Mr Wells:

I have been listening closely to this debate, and the point that the hon Member has failed to address is that a person who is in this position can solve this problem instantly by obeying the court order. He has the power to reinstate his social security payments. All he has to do is accept the court's ruling and say "Yes. I have been given ample warning. I have committed an offence, and to ensure that my benefits continue, I will obey the court order." What is wrong with asking someone to take responsibility for his own actions?


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