Northern Ireland Assembly
Monday 18 June 2001 (continued)
The Chairperson of the Committee for Higher and Further Education, Training and Employment (Dr Birnie):
Although some people might think that the Bill has a kind of rose-by-any-other-name aspect to it, I am pleased to support the amendments. The Committee always supported the principle of the name change and has been assured that the cost implications will be contained to under £15,000. The Committee accepts the inadequacy of the existing, unwieldy title and its unfortunate associated acronym.
However, the Committee was not convinced by the option of "Department for Learning and Employment" contained in the original Bill. The amended title, "Department for Employment and Learning", is better. It avoids any potential for the acronym DOLE. It also avoids the usage of the cumbersome "f" used by the Department for Education and Employment in London (DFEE), which has become a casualty of the latest restructuring of Government in Whitehall. The amendment leads to the acceptable and easily remembered shorthand of DEL.
The Committee recommended amendment number one. There was unanimous agreement on that. One Member recorded a preference that the word "training" be retained in the title.
The working together of the Committee and the Minister on the amendments demonstrates consensus politics in action. The Committee supports the amendments. We suggest that it would be advantageous if all stages of the Bill could be completed by the summer recess. That would allow the Department and the Committee, under the new names, to progress with the real work in hand.
I thank the Minister and his officials for their meaningful and helpful input to the Committee Stage of the Bill. I also thank the Deputy Chairman for progressing the Bill through the Committee Stage in my absence. I support the amendments.
I support the Minister and the amendments. I also want to put on record the good work carried out by the Committee Chairperson and by the Deputy Chairperson, Mervyn Carrick. That was important in reaching an accommodation with the Minister before the matter came to the Floor of the House. We all agree that the old title was clumsy. It was difficult for everyone in the Assembly and in the Department.
The Department is responsible for so many issues in such a varied portfolio that it was always going to be difficult to shorten the name. At various stages in the Committee some members thought that the training aspect should be reflected in the new title. It was difficult to shorten the name and still try to cover the Department's entire remit. The old title had five words, and now we are down to three.
The Committee and the Minister have managed to reach an accommodation on this matter. I welcome that.
I thank the Members who have spoken and, in particular, I thank the Chairperson of the Committee and Assembly Member William Hay for their support.
Members will appreciate that the amendments before them have, in effect, the same purpose as the Bill itself. My officials and I deliberated at great length over what the new name of the Department should be. We identified a number of options, including "the Department of Learning and Employment". This was rejected because it resulted in the acronym DOLE, which the Chairperson of the Committee has already mentioned. "The Department of Advanced Learning and Employment" was another option. That highlighted our involvement with higher education but did not adequately reflect our training and basic skills provision. This process continued for a number of months with various options being identified and then rejected for one reason or another. The new title proposed by these amendments effectively and equitably represents each of the key areas of the Department.
The Department's staff are drawn from the Training and Employment Agency, which is an agency of the former Department of Economic Development, and the higher and further education divisions of the former Department of Education.
The new name portrays the image of a cohesive Department, as opposed to one made up of separate parts. It creates a shorter, more manageable title and, I trust Members will agree, a more marketable acronym.
On costs, I am happy to repeat the assurances that I gave during the Second Stage of the Bill. The main costs of the change are associated with stationery and signage. They are unlikely to exceed £15,000. The Department has purposely ordered only small stocks of stationery, and a large proportion of the Department still uses Training and Employment Agency stationery. The cost of changing the Department's seal is around £150, and the signage currently in the Department's headquarters costs around £200. I am aware of the Committee's concerns on this issue, which arise from the costs of rebranding the jobcentres following the introduction of New Deal.
I want to assure Members that I have no plans, and there is no need, to rebrand jobcentres as a result of this change.
With regard to the amendments, I am happy that the Committee for Higher and Further Education, Training and Employment and I are in agreement, and I thank the members of the Committee for their time and effort during the Committee Stage of the Bill.
Question That amendment 1 be made put and agreed to.
Amendment No 2 made: Clause 1, page 1, line 9 leave out "Learning and Employment" and insert
"Employment and Learning" - [Minister of Higher and Further Education, Training and Employment]
Amendment No 3 made: Clause 1, page 1, line 13 leave out "Learning and Employment" and insert
"Employment and Learning" - [Minister of Higher and Further Education, Training and Employment]
Amendment No 4 made: Clause 1, page 1, line 15, leave out "Learning and Employment" and insert
"Employment and Learning"- [Minister of Higher and Further Education, Training and Employment]
Clause 1, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Amendment No 5 made: In the long title, leave out "Learning and Employment" and insert
"Employment and Learning". - [Minister of Higher and Further Education, Training and Employment]
Long title, as amended, agreed to.
That concludes the Consideration Stage. The Bill stands referred to the Speaker.
The Chairperson of the Committee for Agriculture and Rural Development (Rev Dr Ian Paisley):
When the Committee for Agriculture and Rural Development met on 15 June I was asked to make a statement on its behalf. Following the Committee for Enterprise, Trade and Investment's request for comments on the proposals in the Bill, we considered how these matters might affect agricultural producers and the fishing industry in particular. The Committee was most concerned about a number of aspects.
Everyone knows the dire straits that farmers and fishermen are in these days. Many are facing financial ruin because of BSE, foot-and-mouth disease and cod closures, among other things. Members do not need me to tell them that. It has been voiced over and over again at length in this Chamber and elsewhere. On top of all these problems comes a Bill implementing yet another EC Directive that will leave food producers, farmers and fishermen wide open to be sued by consumers who feel that they had been affected by food that was defective in some way. The ramifications of a successful claim against the producers do not bear thinking about. The potential cost of extra insurance and other measures to protect themselves is yet another straw to break the camel's back.
The Committee was most disappointed to see that those who will be directly affected by this Bill have not been consulted. I can imagine what their response would have been. It seems that when Brussels issues a decree, it must be implemented without question. Not only have those affected not been consulted, but they were not told about the Bill's provisions and the implications and potential consequences for them.
The Committee sought and received an assurance from the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development that everyone involved in agricultural production and the fishing industry would be made aware of possible repercussions and any additional costs that would arise. Therefore, I am pleased that in its report on the Bill, the Committee for Enterprise, Trade and Investment has taken on board my Committee's concerns about the additional costs and ramifications of successful claims. The report comments on the lack of consultation and the need to inform those affected. I trust that the Minister in charge of this Bill will urge his Colleague to take appropriate action.
The Minister of Finance and Personnel (Mr Durkan):
I appreciate and accept the concerns that the Member has raised on behalf of the Committee for Agriculture and Rural Development. I thank members of that Committee for giving consideration to this issue. In particular, I thank the members of the Committee for Enterprise, Trade and Investment for their scrutiny of this short Bill.
We must recognise that the timing of this Bill is far from ideal, as it comes in the wake of the foot-and- mouth disease crisis and in the context of the various pressures on fisheries. However, as the Member will realise, we have no option but to implement the European Directive that is the subject of this Bill. The Executive has had no choice in policy on this matter. However, evidence from other countries that already have this provision in force reveals no significant increase in costs to farmers or other affected groups. Nor is there any evidence of an avalanche of claims resulting from increased liability.
Consultation revealed that the vast majority of farmers already carry adequate cover for product liability. Therefore, this extension should not cause many of them any onerous additional burden. I can assure Dr Paisley that, before the Bill was introduced, my officials wrote to many interested parties in Northern Ireland alerting them to the need for this legislation. One response was received, and it was positive. There is a realisation that measures such as these, which are designed to restore public confidence in food safety, are of long-term benefit to producers as well as consumers.
I can give the Assembly the assurance that Dr Paisley's Committee and the Committee for Enterprise, Trade and Investment have sought. My Department, in conjunction with colleagues in the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, will ensure that those who could be affected by this Directive are made aware of the consequences and advised to take out any additional insurance cover that may be necessary.
Clause 1 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Clauses 2 and 3 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Long title agreed to.
That concludes the Consideration Stage of the Product Liability (Amendment) Bill. The Bill stands referred to the Speaker.
No amendments to the Bill have been tabled. I therefore propose, by leave of the House, to group the 46 clauses, followed by the four schedules and the long title. Hearing no objection, I put the questions to the House.
Clauses 1 to 46 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Schedules 1 to 4 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Long title agreed to.
That concludes the Further Consideration Stage of the Trustee Bill. The Bill stands referred to the Speaker.
The Minister for Social Development (Mr Morrow):
I beg to move
That in accordance with Standing Order 40(2), the Assembly grants accelerated passage to the Social Security Fraud Bill.
The Social Security Fraud Bill is an important piece of legislation that will make provision for Northern Ireland corresponding to provision made for Great Britain by the Social Security Fraud Act 2001. In Northern Ireland alone, an estimated £73 million per annum of public money is lost due to benefit fraud. By anybody's standards, that is a large amount of money.
First, the Bill will help to reduce that loss through prevention and earlier detection, using new powers to acquire and disclose information. Secondly, it will reduce loss through deterrence, through the powers to restrict payments to persistent benefit offenders and the swift, effective punishment of collusive employers.
Social security Bills are, by definition, exceptional. The unique position of social security, child support and pensions is specifically recognised in the very Act that set up the Assembly, and from which its legislative competence is drawn.
Under section 87 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998, I, as the Minister responsible for social security in Northern Ireland, am under a duty to consult with the Secretary of State with a view to maintaining single systems of social security, pensions and child support for the United Kingdom. That section recognises the long-established principle of parity in social security between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. People in Northern Ireland pay the same rates of income tax and National Insurance contributions as those in Great Britain. They are entitled to enjoy the same rights and benefits as people in Great Britain.
The cost of paying benefits in Northern Ireland is very heavily subsidised by Great Britain. For example, in 1998-99, the Northern Ireland insurance fund needed a transfer of £123 million from Great Britain just to meet its benefit obligations. In the same period, expenditure on non-contributory income-related benefits, which are demand-led and financed from taxation revenue, amounted to almost £2 billion.
This funding is predicated on the maintenance of parity, which I hope all parties in the House are aware of and fully understand. However, parity is a double-edged sword. Rights to benefits must be matched by obligations to society. If it is right that we should enjoy the same rights and benefits as people in Great Britain, it is equally right that we should play our part in tackling the problem of benefit fraud.
In line with section 87 of the 1998 Act, I have already consulted the Secretary of State and agreed that I should bring the necessary legislation before the Assembly. Parity covers not only the content of the legislation, but also the timing of its implementation. To ensure that certain proposals in the Bill are implemented at the same time as in Great Britain, the necessary powers must be available as soon as possible.
Ministers in Great Britain are eager to commence several provisions of the Social Security Fraud Act 2001 as a matter of urgency, particularly the section dealing with failure to notify changes of circumstances, which closes a loophole in the existing legislation. It is currently difficult to prosecute fraudulent claimants who have been paid by automated credit transfer (ACT) and who fail to declare a change of circumstances. That is because, unlike payment by giro or order book, such clamaints need not sign a declaration that there has been no change of circumstances before receiving their benefit payment.
Clause 15 of the Bill would rectify this situation. The ability to prosecute fraud where the claimant is paid by ACT will be severely compromised until that provision is introduced. Ministers in Great Britain have delayed implementing their Act to allow the Assembly time to consider the Bill. Failure to grant accelerated passage will probably delay the Bill until the end of this year or the beginning of next. That will leave the loophole for ACT payees open. Ministers in Great Britain will probably be unable to delay implementation of their Act until then. This will lead to a break in parity, which is clearly unacceptable. It will lead to a situation where in certain circumstances fraudsters could be prosecuted in Great Britain but not in Northern Ireland.
It will also be difficult to expect the Great Britain National Insurance fund to continue to bail us out if we delay taking the necessary steps to close the loophole as a matter of urgency. Therefore I am seeking the leave of the Assembly to use the accelerated passage procedure set out in Standing Order 40(2) to bring Northern Ireland law on these matters into line with Great Britain with the minimum of delay.
The granting of leave for the accelerated passage procedure means that there will be no formal Committee Stage. I have already met with the Social Development Committee to outline the provisions of the Bill and to discuss some issues arising from it. I have taken on board the Committee's comments on the use of information powers, and I have arranged for a draft code of practice that will govern the use of powers to be made available to the Committee. I have also arranged for the draft code of practice to be made available for Members in the Library. The draft code will also be published for public consultation. Members will have the opportunity to make their views known at Second Stage and Consideration Stage.
As Members will appreciate, social security Bills are a regular feature of the Assembly's legislative programme. A decision on whether to seek leave to use the accelerated passage procedure will be taken on an individual Bill basis, bearing in mind the duty placed on me under section 87 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 to seek to maintain single social security, child support and pensions systems. The fact that we are attempting to use the accelerated passage procedure today in no way prohibits Members present from raising issues with regard to the Bill. It simply means that the Bill will not have a Committee Stage.
Mr G Kelly:
Go raibh maith agat a Cheann Comhairle. Sinn Féin is opposed to social security fraud. We are particularly opposed to the organised social security fraud that is costing £73 million. As the Minister said, £73 million is a massive amount of money to be dealing with. We could be using that money in other ways.
Members have the right to be able to scrutinise the Bill and to put forward effective amendments. The Minister has not given a good argument for accelerated passage, which is a bad method of putting any Bill through the Assembly. There are particular problems in the Bill, and every Member should have the opportunity to scrutinise it.
It could affect people's human rights and invade their privacy. Following investigation there is no comeback for innocent people to right the wrongs done to them. The Minister mentioned that there is an obligation from a parity perspective. However, there is no rush to bring this legislation forward. The Minister said that delay here would delay the implementation of the equivalent Act in Britain, and if that is the case then they will go ahead in Britain. He also said that there would be a code of practice. A code of practice is no substitute for good legislation, and we have seen that many times in the past. I oppose the use of the accelerated passage procedure, and I hope that others will do likewise.
Mr B Hutchinson:
I want to raise the issue of accelerated passage. I understand what the Minister has said, and I agree with him on what needs to be done. My difficulty with this Bill and Standing Order 40(2) is that I am not sure that parity is mentioned. Either we decide that parity means accelerated passage or we do not. Such decisions must be made in all matters.
My understanding is that if this Bill were to go through the Committee Stage, the House could be asked to carry it over to the next sitting in September in time for its commencement. I am informed by people at Westminster that the commencement date is not expected until spring 2002, yet the Minister told me that it is expected to start in autumn 2001. I accept that, but there seems to be a difference of opinion.
We are setting a very dangerous precedent. Not long ago Michelle Gildernew commented that she was against setting the precedent of accelerated passage in the Assembly. At the time I said nothing, because I felt that what had to be said had been said. I am, however, concerned that Ministers are being allowed to accelerate whatever they want through the House.
On this occasion I am not as concerned as my Colleague, Mr Kelly, about what is in the Bill. No matter what we do, because of parity, the Minister cannot change what has been set down at Westminster. But how we allow Ministers and Departments to conduct business is a point of principle.
I understand that Westminster had six months with the Bill and that the Department for Social Development was told about it in January 2001. It did not, however, come before the House. Long before the Easter recess I asked the Chairperson and the Clerk of the Committee for Social Development if any legislation was to be dealt with between Easter and now, and nothing was forthcoming. Other Committee members know that the question was asked. My concern is therefore about how the Executive deal with business. They must deal with it better than they have so far, and they need to get that message.
The question for me is parity. Do we agree that parity deserves accelerated passage? The Committee or whoever is responsible for deciding should make that decision. It will be difficult for the Minister - whether it be Maurice Morrow or some other member of the DUP - because in fairness that Department will have most to do with parity in dealing with social security.
This is not a question of the Minister's ability or about the content of the Bill. I accept all that he has said today. My argument is about our setting precedents which enable other Ministers to use acceleration for other reasons. We need to make very sure that this is not an abuse of power.
We face the issue of liaison between the Department for Social Development and the Department of Social Security in London and, on a wider scale, between the Executive and the Cabinet. I have heard no argument from the Minister on why the Assembly should be forced into rushing an accelerated passage procedure on this Bill through because they failed to get their act together.
Billy Hutchinson said that the Department was aware of this Bill in January. The English Bill was going through its process in Parliament at Westminster in January and February. If that was so, I see no reason for producing a Bill on the Floor of the House today and saying that it must go through in the few weeks before the summer recess and that if it does not, that will be the fault of Members who wish to scrutinise legislation properly. Talk that a code of practice might somehow be the solution to bad legislation is so spurious as to be unacceptable. Perhaps the Minister could tell us whether he has a Northern Ireland code of practice or if he has merely adapted the GB code of practice, as has happened with the Bill itself.
We seem to be rehashing the arguments that we had about the Child Support, Pensions and Social Security Bill. We have never discussed the fundamental principle of how far we are bound by every clause, comma and full stop of Westminster legislation if there is to be parity in social security provision. Whilst we may have parity in social security in the rates of benefits paid, it is quite clear that parity of taxation does not exist in the United Kingdom. There is no parity of effect in social security payments either; the costs that claimants incur vary widely, yet there is a blanket allocation of the payment in pounds sterling per week.
We must start to discuss some of these issues, and not merely when a Minister decides that accelerated passage is needed for a certain matter. It was presumed that if we were to have a single social security system for the United Kingdom, that would have been a reserved matter. However, it is not. I am not aware that anyone in the House has argued that it should be. If it is not to be a reserved matter, the Assembly should give proper scrutiny to every aspect of its legislative programme. By proper scrutiny I mean no accelerated passage, and detailed scrutiny of every piece of legislation. If that results in a Minister's having to try to negotiate with a Minister in London about the fine-tuning of a Bill as it goes through its Consideration Stage, so be it.
As long as we have the legislative duty here, we should use it. We should not merely run away saying "This is parity. Let's do nothing".
The Chairperson of the Social Development Committee (Mr Cobain):
The Committee for Social Development had a long discussion about the Bill, and it did not have any objections. The Minister attended those meetings and answered specific questions. Therefore I want to make it absolutely clear that there is no dispute about the Bill. Accelerated passage is a different matter altogether.
We will face the issue of accelerated passage on a number of occasions because of the social security Bills and the relationship between this Assembly and Westminster. I am sure that the Minister will request accelerated passage on a number of important issues such as payments. I do not think that any Member will object to accelerated passage for payments, because people in Northern Ireland would be disadvantaged without it.
Let me highlight a number of issues relating to the Bill. Mr Kelly wanted to know how the Bill will be implemented. The Minister explained to the Committee that objections and concerns about the implementation of the Bill should be raised when the code of practice - which Members can study today - comes before the House.
The Committee has a number of concerns about the implementation of the Bill. Clearly there are human rights implications. The handover of power to the Department allows it to investigate a range of personal issues such as individual bank accounts. In some cases the Department will be able to delve into the personal arrangements of innocent people. That concerns me deeply. However, that debate will begin with consideration of the code of practice.
As far as possible, we should try to divorce these two issues. The Committee approves of the Bill. The issue of accelerated passage which has caused concern to a number of Members must be dealt with in a wider political forum. Parity is of enormous importance to claimants in the area of social security, and accelerated passage will not be stopped when it comes to paying claimants. The Minister responded as best he could to the Committee's questions, and the majority of the Committee is satisfied with the Bill as it stands.
Accelerated passage is the most important issue today. By using this mechanism we would create a precedent that could cause damage in future circumstances.
I support what the Chairman of the Committee said with regard to how the Committee examined the legislation before it. He is right in saying that we did not register any objections, but we did ask some very serious questions, and those were tabled to the Minister. Those were dealt with and, in fairness to him, he did promise us the code of practice, which will be subject to further examination by the Committee and by this House in the fullness of time.
On the question of infringement of human rights, which is something that I am particularly interested in and asked a direct question or two on, I received answers that are, I suppose, protected by this code of practice. I took the step of consulting a human rights legal expert, who assured me that on a preliminary reading of the proposed legislation he could not see where there would be an infringement of human rights. While a more definitive view could be sought on that matter, and I may reserve judgement on it, I was quite satisfied because I recognised his authority in that area. While the legislation does appear to be strong in some respects, unfortunately it may be necessary when we are dealing with this loophole.
Two things have frustrated me for many years as a public representative fighting people's social security benefit cases. One is the amount of money that goes unclaimed each year and that should be given to those who are entitled to it. The second is the amount that is lost through fraud. I do not think that anybody could possibly stand over that and allow it to happen. I am afraid that the interpretation that might be put on our refusal to accept this request for accelerated passage might be that we were standing over a recognised loophole and allowing it to continue. That concerns me, because it annoys me to think of the abuse as well as the unclaimed amounts.
The Committee did get a fair chance at that preliminary stage. We will have opportunities at the Second and further Stages to examine the matter even further. I hope that a more definitive legal opinion may be available to me by then. At the moment, I hope that Members will agree to accept the Minister's recommendation.
Rev Dr Ian Paisley:
The issue before this Assembly today is not one in regard to the content of this Bill. It is very important to keep that in mind. I myself am not a supporter of the acceleration procedures. There is a better way of doing business than that. On this issue we have to be absolutely honest, as was pointed out by Mr Cobain. He said that we will accelerate payments, but we are not prepared to accelerate legislation to stop fraud. Where do we stand in this Assembly?
Mr ONeill talked about his frustration when he has been representing people. I have had the same frustration when I have looked at the vast amount of money that is lost to the system through fraud. We must have a proper scrutiny of this today, because there is the code of conduct to be looked at, and there is another debate coming. People outside this House expect us, as the guardians of public money, to want to do something that should be done. After all, if we did not have devolution - and I happen to be a devolutionist - this provision would already be in force.
Let us take the pragmatic step of saying "Yes, we might not agree with putting business before the House in this way, but we need this procedure when it comes to making social benefit payments. We need it now to safeguard the public purse so that the money can be made available and more of it kept for the purpose for which it was raised". That is the issue before us. If there was something radically wrong with the Bill, people here would not accept it, but as there is nothing wrong with it, as the Committee procedure has shown, the time has come for us to speed up the process and to deal with this running sore.
I have listened carefully to all of the contributions. I would be bitterly disappointed if the Assembly were to decide that this is the time to take a stand on legislation and, in particular, parity legislation. It would be a tragedy if the Assembly, which was allegedly brought into being to speed legislation up and to bring Government nearer to the people, were to be the very instrument that held the process up. Several Members have voiced their concerns, and I in no way disparage those concerns. Some Members also recognised that we addressed all of the issues that were raised at the Committee as honestly and squarely as we could.
I want to deal with the issues that Members have raised today to see if I can further allay their fears and concerns. I hope that I can. Several Members mentioned the issue of human rights. The Bill does comply with human rights legislation. Mr ONeill has gone the second mile; he was concerned about this aspect, and he double- checked the facts. He has been satisfied, from another source, that the Bill complies with human rights legislation. Some Members raised the matter of the code of practice. The Committee raised this issue and put much emphasis upon it. The Committee was satisfied that the code of practice that we were introducing would go a long way towards ensuring that everything was done fairly and that every step that could be taken was being taken.
Mr Billy Hutchinson, Rev Dr Ian Paisley and others had concerns about the accelerated passage. This is not an attempt to abuse procedure - this is purely an attempt to keep up with parity legislation. I can understand why Members would want to object to the use of accelerated passage for anything other than parity legislation. If I were sitting on the Back Benches I would feel the same way. This is not an attempt to ride roughshod over the elected representatives in the House - the aim is keep up with parity legislation. Mr Hutchinson also made the point that much of the legislation that comes from my Department is parity legislation. He is right. My Department, probably more than any of the other 10 Departments that are answerable to the Assembly, deals with parity legislation. It follows therefore that I will be on my feet more often to ask for accelerated passage, purely in an attempt to enable us to stay in step with Great Britain.
Mr Ford also raised the issue of the code of practice. I have dealt with that, and I hope I have satisfied him as I think we did the Social Development Committee by the assurance that the code of practice is not something that has been cobbled together. It is a code of practice that the Social Development Committee is totally satisfied will meet the requirements.
Is the Minister speaking about a Northern Ireland code of practice and not an adapted Great Britain code of practice?
By and large, it is a code of practice for the rest of Great Britain. I assure the Member that it will also be unique to Northern Ireland.
The Chairperson of the Social Development Committee, Fred Cobain, has struck the right chord on all issues. He chaired the meetings that my officials and I attended, and he has made a very useful contribution. He has hit all the right buttons today, and he acknowledges the reason why we must opt for accelerated passage. I cannot gainsay or add to anything that he has said, and I thank him for his useful and positive contribution.
I have dealt as best I can with Mr ONeill's concerns. The Bill is compliant with the Human Rights Act, and he has already satisfied himself on that point.
Mr Ford asked if it would not be possible to introduce this Bill before the Great Britain Bill receives Royal Assent. The answer is no. A more detailed answer is that, as with all social security Bills, amendments were tabled at every stage of its process through Parliament. Given the need for parity, it is better to introduce a Bill that reflects the Great Britain Act than to introduce a Bill at an early stage and ask the Assembly to work its way through corresponding amendments in order to achieve a corresponding Act. That would be an unnecessary use of the Assembly's valuable time.
Dr Paisley said that in principle he is not an enthusiastic supporter of accelerated passage. Nevertheless, having been a parliamentarian for many years, he recognises the need for social security legislation to be kept on a par with the rest of the UK. That is a very valid point.
He also made the point that we in the Assembly are custodians of the public purse. Every year we lose approximately £73 million through fraud. Something has to be done about that, and today we are making an attempt to close the loopholes that fraudsters are jumping through.
Dr Paisley and Éamonn ONeill made the point that they have felt frustrated in their roles as representatives of their constituencies. When this legislation is passed, some of their frustrations will not exist any more. We will have gone a long way towards ensuring that legislation exists to trap those who abuse the system. We want to get funding and give social security benefits to those who deserve and need them. We also want to deprive those who are jumping in and out through the legislation loopholes and who are keeping money back from those entitled to it. I commend the Bill to the House.
I remind Members that Standing Order 40(2) requires the Member in charge of the Bill to seek leave of the Assembly to proceed with accelerated passage. The motion can be carried only if the house is unanimous.
Question put and (in the absence of unanimity) negatived.
The sitting was suspended at 1.40 pm.
On resuming (Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr McClelland] in the Chair) -
Unoccupied Property reserved for
asked the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment to detail, by constituency, the rent paid to private landlords for property reserved for job creation but which remained unoccupied in each of the last five years.
The Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment (Sir Reg Empey):
Foyle is the only constituency in Northern Ireland where rent has been paid to private landlords for buildings reserved for IDB projects. IDB pays rent totalling £90,000 per annum for the two buildings at Campsie business park, which, despite all efforts to find tenants, to date remain unoccupied.
Can the Minister assure the House that every effort will be made to ensure that suitable tenants are found for those two premises at Campsie and that the £90,000 paid in rent is not wasted?
Sir Reg Empey:
Estate agents have been appointed to market the sites - IDB came to the same conclusion as the Member. They have been attempting to find possible tenants and have also put the sites on the market. Negotiations are ongoing at present with a potential occupant. I cannot say anything further, save that I am very conscious of the point the Member makes. We are pursuing it as vigorously as we can to ensure that this liability is terminated.
Provision of Industrial Land
asked the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment to outline his plans to provide additional serviced industrial land in Newry and Armagh.
Sir Reg Empey:
IDB currently has sufficient serviced industrial land in Newry and Armagh to meet short-term to medium-term needs. As development of the new area plan proceeds, IDB will work closely with the Planning Service and district councils to identify suitable new land for industry in both Newry and Armagh.
I thank the Minister for his response. He has pre-empted my supplementary. Will the Minister make every effort during the review of the district plans for Newry and Mourne and Armagh city and district to ensure that some sympathetic consideration is given to providing industrial land in rural parts - places like Crossmaglen, Keady, Middletown and Armagh city itself? Will he do whatever he can to ensure that we attract investors to those areas?
Sir Reg Empey:
I was at Edenaveys industrial estate in Armagh some months ago, where the local economic development group had a sod-cutting ceremony. I am familiar with a number of the difficulties. The planning process for Newry is further advanced than that for Armagh city and district, as the Member will be aware. It has been the practice in recent years for IDB to focus its activities on main urban areas, whereas enterprise agencies, backed by LEDU and the International Fund for Ireland, focus more on the more outlying areas to which he refers. It is a question of balance, but I am satisfied at present that in that constituency there is adequate serviced land, although this will be continuously kept under review. I am also conscious that the Member has, on a number of occasions, pointed out to me his dissatisfaction with the degree of progress in Armagh city itself. IDB has taken these points on board.