Northern Ireland Assembly
Monday 19 June 2000 (continued)
I shall be very brief. I was sorry that the Minister did not give way. It is normal procedure in another place for a Minister to give way when moving a Second Reading motion. This is something that the House needs to address.
I should first like to raise the question of deciding how much money should be paid for buying out a ground rent. How will the Minister make this decision from year to year? Of course, the amount a lessee pays to buy out a ground rent fluctuates between a multiple of 6, 8, 10, or sometimes 12, depending on bank interest rates at the time. The lease holder will obviously want a return on the capital he receives from the sale of the equivalent of what the annual ground rent had previously been. I want to know how that factor is going to be decided.
Secondly, there are many people who want to buy out their ground rents. Sinn Féin has mentioned the Shaftesbury Estates, but ignored the Roman Catholic Church in Dublin, which owns many ground rents in Northern Ireland, including most of Ogle Street in Armagh City. The Representative Churches Body of the Church of Ireland similarly controls many ground rents here. Many large institutions own ground rents in Northern Ireland, and this has strangled people here.
Thirdly, many of these ground rents are old and may be only £3 per year. You could possibly buy one out for £30, but the solicitors could charge £200 to transfer ownership. That would dissuade anyone from buying out his ground rent. How is this going to be overcome?
I thank all Members who have taken part in the debate. Many useful comments have been made about the general principle of the Bill. Members have appreciated that, while this is a complex and technical piece of legislation, it will make all our lives simpler in the long term by removing the outdated system of ground rents on residential property in Northern Ireland. This is a cogent and comprehensive piece of legislation which properly balances the interests of rentpayers and rent owners, while also furthering the policy aim of simplifying land ownership.
The success of the scheme will obviously depend on its practical operation. The legislation provides a workable scheme through which the conveyancing process will be simplified. There has been long and extensive consultation on the policy behind it. This has involved the Law Society, the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors and many experienced conveyancers in Northern Ireland. Other Government agencies have confirmed that the scheme is workable. This is the scheme that people want and need.
I will try to deal with some of the points that have been raised by Members. Francie Molloy asked why the Bill is confined purely to residential property. As I said earlier, it is cogent legislation. We felt it was important to concentrate on dealing with the issue of residential property. It was decided to exclude property that was wholly commercial on the basis of representations that were received from many interested bodies. It was thought that there were good reasons for retaining long leases on commercial property. However, provisions of the Property Order already in force prohibit the creation of fee farm grants in relation to commercial property. In the long term this will help simplify the conveyancing of commercial property.
The major issue that the Bill seeks to address is the problem with those residential properties which are subject to a ground rent. The Bill is already complicated in trying to do that, and it would be far more complicated if we tried to include non-residential properties.
James Leslie questioned the use of the figure 9 as a multiplier to calculate the redemption payable to the rent owner. Mr Taylor too referred to this. I admit it has been difficult to judge exactly which multiplier would result in fair compensation on rent owners, without placing an undue financial burden on rentpayers, who will be required to redeem the ground rent once the compulsory redemption process is brought into force.
The Valuation and Lands Agency has advised that a multiplier of 9 is a good reflection of the purchase price currently being paid when a ground rent is redeemed. We also consulted the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors on this issue, and it estimated a figure of between 8 and 10.
I like the way that the Minister stresses the word "currently". Does that mean that this multiplier factor will change from one period to another, depending upon how interest rates vary in the United Kingdom?
As I indicated earlier, I have no plans to vary the multiplier or differentiate the multipliers that would be used in respect of different properties. It is a matter that I will keep under review for a variety of reasons. The Member has raised the question of interest rates, but that may not be the only reason for keeping the multiplier under review.
Rev Dr Ian Paisley:
Is the Minister saying that he retains that power and can, as information comes to him, make a change?
Yes, I will have the power under the Bill to set different multipliers for different levels of ground as well. I do not intend to use that power at present, as I have said. I want to see how a multiplier of 9 operates during the early stages of the redemption scheme, when only voluntary redemption will actually be involved.
I want to take up Mr Taylor's point about whether or not the multiplier will be high enough to enable the investment of the capital redemption money to generate the same level of income as the existing collection of ground rents does. The answer to that will obviously depend on what investment decisions are taken by rent owners once they are in possession of the redemption money, and that is largely outside my control. However, for the rent owners that are charities - and some are - new legislation which I shall bring before the Assembly in the next session will significantly widen the range of investments available to them and should yield a larger investment income than if the investment were confined to Government stock.
Mr Leslie asked whether the Department had consulted with mortgage lenders, and other Members asked how broad the consultation had been so far. There has been long and extensive consultation with all the interested parties in the development of this ground rent redemption scheme. The relevant professional bodies, such as the Law Society, the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors and others, were consulted and have been intimately involved in the formulation of the policy to which this Bill will give effect. The scheme commands widespread support among experienced conveyancers. More than 20 organisations and individuals have commented on it in detail, including a number of estate agents involved in the collection of a large number of ground rents.
Mr Leslie also asked about the money being paid into the Consolidated Fund. The reason is that there is no other place for the money to go. If no one claims entitlement to money in the Consolidated Fund, it has to stay there. I do not agree, however, that the Government benefit from the money. All money in the Consolidated Fund, insofar as it is not already earmarked for specific purposes, is available for expenditure on public services.
Mr Leslie also asked about the rate of interest to be paid by the Department of Finance and Personnel, and I will write to him with the details of this. Mr Leslie, and Mr Morrow as well, asked about the position on nominal or peppercorn ground rents. We have decided to exclude nominal or peppercorn rents from the redemption scheme. On consideration it seemed to us that requiring people who pay, say, 50p a year ground rent to operate this redemption scheme, involving an application to the Land Registry and paying the necessary fees, and so on, would not be very sensible. This new definition reflects the original thinking of the land law working group, and it has the support of the professions. We are, however, considering an alternative mechanism for sweeping up these nominal rents, and such a mechanism may be the subject of an amendment at Consideration Stage.
Mr Morrow also asked about the costs involved in the redemption scheme. Under this scheme the costs will lie with each party: the rent owner will pay his costs, and the rentpayer likewise. There is a provision, however, in clause 4, for the person buying out the ground rent to have to pay the Land Registry a sum of money by way of a contribution to the rent owner's costs in claiming the redemption money. As the people benefiting from this scheme are the rentpayers, we thought that this was only fair.
Mr Close and Mr Leslie asked about the implications for the Land Registry. There will, of course, be an impact on the resources of the Land Registry. In time, however, the redemption of the ground rents will simplify the conveyancing process, and the Land Registry is content that it can operate the scheme well. I hope that detailed consideration of the sort that Members have already shown of this Bill - [Interruption]
I want to repeat briefly my question regarding legal fees. If, for example, there were a ground rent of just £3 per annum, using the Minister's factor of 9 one would have to pay about £27 to buy it out. What incentive will there be to do this if solicitors are still going to charge £200 or £300?
I ask the Member to look at the Bill again to see that we are talking about a fairly simple procedure - not one that should be subject to complicated or costly legal procedures. That is one of the reasons for working with the Land Registry, going for quite a simple scheme. It has been discussed with, among others, the Law Society, and it is seen as being reasonably straightforward. Clearly, as I pointed out in earlier answers in relation to, for instance, the question of nominal or peppercorn ground rents, we have to make sure that we do not have a scheme that, of itself, discourages the participation of people who could usefully and sensibly benefit from it. We believe that there will be a balance between the fees, in terms of the Land Registry and the redemption multiplier, and that the incentives will be there to operate the scheme properly - initially for the voluntary scheme, and, at a later stage, for a compulsory scheme relating to house sales.
Today's questions show that this is a complicated matter, and there is no easy way of simplifying residential property law in this regard. Ground rent has been a long-standing bugbear, and the various measures which have been examined before have come up against operational difficulties and complications. Certainly, all the parties which were involved in previous efforts and those who have been consulted on this believe that this is the most workable scheme proposed to date.
Mr S Wilson:
Mr Morrow asked a question about header rents, which I think are probably unique to Belfast. These cause great difficulty, because very often one individual is left to do the job of the estate agent and collect all the rents. If the person holding the header rent agrees to buy it out, will that exempt him from having to collect the other rents as he does at present?
The aim of the Bill is to create a situation where we no longer have ground rents - either being paid or being collected. We would have to look at the nature of all property holdings to ensure that the scheme was applicable in that regard. It is not the intention of the Bill to leave any part of Northern Ireland in an anomalous situation with ground rents still being retained, be that under a header agreement or anything else. If particular problems exist in relation to the Belfast area and certain properties, we will give those matters more detailed consideration.
We would regard the Bill as incomplete if identifiable residential properties were left with outstanding ground rent liabilities. I am happy to write to both Members on this matter. I hope that we can develop this point further in the Committee and at the Consideration Stage of the Bill.
In conclusion, I welcome Members' recognition of the complexity of what we are doing here. We are trying to come up with a simple, understandable and usable system. We do not want fees or multipliers to be so low that there is no incentive or so high that the scheme is prohibitive. We feel that we have achieved the right balance. Other considerations may emerge over time. The Bill provides for certain matters to be kept under review by leaving the power to vary the multiplier with the Minister of Finance and Personnel.
I am glad that so many Members have welcomed the Bill's intent and purpose. The legislation will benefit from that goodwill and from the insight that Members have already brought to bear, as we take it through its further stages.
Question put and agreed.
That the Second Stage of the Ground Rents Bill (NIA 6/99) be agreed.
(Mr Speaker in the Chair)
As there are no proposed amendments to this Bill, there may not be any debate. It is a finance Bill, so the clauses must be passed by cross-community support. For the convenience of the Assembly, I propose that when the Questions are put, I will gather the voices, and if it appears to me that there is support for the proposition on all sides and no indication against, I will take that as cross-community support without dividing the House. However, if there is a challenge on any Question, the House will divide in order to demonstrate whether there is cross-community support, in the way that it has done previously.
I propose, by leave of the Assembly, to group the five clauses of the Bill.
Clauses 1 to 5 ordered, nemine contradicente, to stand part of the Bill.
I propose to deal with the two schedules in the same way, putting them together if the Assembly gives leave.
Schedules 1 and 2 agreed to nemine contradicente.
Long title agreed to.
That concludes the Consideration Stage of the Appropriation Bill, which therefore stands referred to the Speaker to judge questions of competence, after which it will be placed on the list of future business.
There will be a series of amendments to this Bill. However, the debate will be suspended from 2.30 pm to 4.00 pm for Question Time. We shall also be taking a lunch break at some point.
I remind Members, though perhaps I ought not to, that there is no guillotine on a Consideration Stage. Members may speak more than once, and no doubt some will do so at some length. If the Consideration Stage has not been completed by 6.00 pm we will have to interrupt the proceedings, in accordance with Standing Orders, and resume them tomorrow at 10.30 am.
Rev Dr Ian Paisley:
Mr Speaker, I did not catch what you said about the break for lunch. What time is proposed?
I ought to give Members an hour. We shall therefore continue until about 1.30 pm. That gives us just over an hour now.
Clause 1 (Resettlement allowance for members)
Amendment (No 7) proposed: In page 1, line 13, leave out "Act (Northern Ireland) 2000" and insert
"Determination 2000, made by the Secretary of State under section 48 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 by virtue of paragraph 9 of the schedule to the Northern Ireland Act 2000". - [Mr Fee]
The following amendment (No 8) stood on the Marshalled List: In clause 3, page 3, line 3, leave out "Act (Northern Ireland) 2000" and insert
"Determination 2000, made by the Secretary of State under section 48 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 by virtue of paragraph 9 of the schedule to the Northern Ireland Act 2000". - [Mr Fee]
Members will have a copy of the Marshalled List and I have ensured that there are some extra copies in the Lobby, as well as in the Printed Paper Office. The list gives the detailed order of consideration and voting on the amendments, clauses, schedule and long title of the Bill. The amendments have been grouped in my provisional grouping of the selected amendments list. Members may not be familiar with this, and if any Member does not have a copy, there are also copies in the Lobby. This is simply to facilitate sensible debate, as best I can, on the issues that are raised.
When a Member proposes the lead amendment in a group, the debate ought to encompass all the amendments in that group. The mover of an amendment will be the first to speak and will be called to make the winding-up speech after the debate on that amendment. Where the mover of an amendment, which is the lead amendment in that group, is not the Member in charge, the Member in charge will be called, of course, to speak before the mover's winding-up speech. I will, however, at the end of the debate on that group, put only the Question on the lead amendment. The Question will then be put on the remaining amendments on that group as they fall later on in the Marshalled List. For these amendments, I will ask the Member to move them formally - normally without debate. However, it is not out of order for a Member to speak to an amendment when it has been formally moved. If that happens, that will, of course, open up a debate, and then the mover of the amendment will be given an opportunity to make a winding-up speech subsequently. That possibility is there. I prevail on Members not to use it excessively, because it makes little point of putting the amendments into groups. However, I am aware that today, and on days when Members are learning the ropes, it may be of value for the consequences of particular amendments being taken or not being taken to be brought to the attention of the House.
Rev Dr Ian Paisley:
On that point, Sir, can these amendments be withdrawn only by the leave of the House?
I thank Dr Paisley for that point. When we come to the first amendment in a group, it must be moved so that it and the other amendments in the group may be spoken to.
Once it has been moved it is in the possession of the House and can only be removed by leave of the House. If another Member objected to that amendment's being withdrawn, the House would divide upon the Question. However, later amendments in that group may be debated without having been moved. When an amendment comes forward, I will ask the Member responsible for it whether it is moved or not moved. The Member may then say "Not moved", and the only person who has a right to insist that it be moved is a Member who had also put his name to it in the first place. Some amendments are in the names of more than one Member, so that is not a matter for the leave of the House. Rather it is a matter for the leave of those other Members who put their names to the amendment in the beginning.
This is a somewhat new procedure for the Assembly. Some Members are familiar with it from other places, but many Members are not. I am perfectly content to take questions of procedure as we go along, because it is a little complex.
Mr P Robinson:
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. If I have understood you correctly, you are being more generous than the Speaker would be in another place, where, with a group of amendments, usually the lead amendment only is put to a vote. It would be very rare for the Speaker to allow any of the further amendments in that group to be put to a vote.
This grouping of amendments is one that I put together to facilitate the debate. It does not have standing in any other sense. Had I been of a different mind, I could have grouped them together in a political sense, but that would have been quite out of line for me, as Speaker, to do. This does not have the vote of the House, so we must allow a degree of flexibility to enable me to assist the House in this debate. The House, in the end, is the governor of what happens, and that is why I am following this path. It does give a degree of latitude that I do not think inappropriate, particularly since the Consideration Stage, as our Standing Orders now have it, is the only opportunity for amendments to be proposed and voted upon.
In other places there are not only two Chambers but a number of occasions for amendments to be put, debated and voted upon. We have to proceed with particular care because we have only one opportunity to ensure good legislation. If we do not use it carefully, we could make a situation worse.
Rev Dr Ian Paisley:
On a point of clarification, Mr Speaker. It does remain the right of a person whose amendment is numbered under this list, if he so wants, to move that amendment. Is that correct?
That is absolutely the case. Amendments are given a unique number when they are tabled, and numbered in the order in which they were tabled with the Bill Office. This number remains with them until the Bill completes its Consideration Stage. The amendment numbers reflect the order of tabling in the Bill Office, but they do not reflect their order or position for consideration. Their position for consideration is as on the Marshalled List, which takes us through the Bill. As I said, Members may speak more than once.
We will take the debate on the amendments; we will then take the lead amendment; we will then take the clause as amended or not amended, as the case may be, and subsequent clauses until we come to a further amendment and so on; and then, at the end, we will take any schedules and the long title of the Bill.
Mr P Robinson:
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. There is a bit of difficulty with so many amendment sheets going round, but I notice that amendment 3 says "Leave out clause 3." Have you accepted that as a valid amendment? Should it not simply be a case of voting against the motion that the clause stand part?
I have accepted it as a valid amendment. If it were not down as an amendment, there could not properly be debate on it. Otherwise one would facilitate debate on every clause as it came forward rather than simply having Members voting for or against. In most cases they are likely to vote for. If a Member wishes to debate whether a clause should stand part, an amendment ought to be put down. There is a further good reason for this. If a Member tables an amendment to the effect that a clause should not stand part, the removal of that clause is likely to have consequences for the Bill. Some might be technical consequences; some might be content consequences; and some might be consequences for the long title of the Bill. If one did not require that an amendment be put down that, in this case, clause 3 should not stand part, any consequential amendments tabled would not make sense, for one would not know that there was going to be a question of a clause's not standing part.
That is why it is a necessary for us to proceed in this way. I appreciate that everyone is coming to grips with procedures that are necessarily new because of the fewer Consideration Stages.
Mr P Robinson:
If this amendment were not passed, it would still be possible to vote against the motion that the clause stand part.
It would not be possible to debate the matter unless an amendment had been put down on it. It would be possible, if one were minded - perhaps I should not suggest such a thing - to wreck a Bill. One could find oneself voting for consequential amendments, the amendment that the clause not stand part having been passed. One could vote through a technical amendment which would in effect make nonsense of the Bill. The Member who raised the question is, I suspect, quite familiar with such devices. We will therefore proceed with amendment 7.
I would also like to speak also to amendment 8. These are two technical amendments which result directly from the Secretary of State's actions during suspension when he gave a Determination on pension provision for Assembly Members. In effect this means that we will not proceed with the Pensions Bill and, therefore, that the references to the Pensions Bill in the Allowances to Members of the Assembly and Office Holders Bill must be amended accordingly.
Both these amendments have that effect, and I ask Members to support both.
Sinn Féin will support amendments 7 and 8 since they are technical and legal requirements. However, we shall be voting against clause 1, for it is not appropriate to make such a resettlement grant to people who contest elections and are not re-elected. There is even less of a case for making such grants to people who choose not to stand for re-election.
Is amendment 7 moved or not moved?
Amendment agreed to.
Clause 1, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Clause 2 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Clause 3 (Allowances to persons ceasing to hold certain offices)
Amendment (No 9) proposed: In page 2, line 31, after "1999", insert
"( ) on the date on which he so ceases, has held a qualifying office (whether or not the same one) for a continuous period of at least six months ending on that date;". - [Mr Fee]
The following amendments stood on the Marshalled List:
(No 1): In page 2, line 33, leave out "three" and insert "six". - [Chairman, Finance and Personnel Committee]
(No 4): In page 2, after line 39, insert
"( ) No allowance shall be payable under this section where a person has held a qualifying office for a period of less than twelve months." - [Mr Leslie]
(No 10): In page 2, after line 39, insert
"( ) No allowance shall be payable under this section where a person has ceased to hold a qualifying office by virtue of the coming into force of section 1 of the Northern Ireland Act 2000." - [Mr Fee]
(No 11): In page 2, after line 39, insert
"( ) In reckoning for the purposes of this section -
(a) the period of six months mentioned in subsection (1), there shall be disregarded-
(i) any period during which section 1 of the Northern Ireland Act 2000 is in force; and
(ii) any period not exceeding six weeks which falls between two periods of tenure of a qualifying office;
(b) the period mentioned in subsection (1)(b) or paragraph (a)(ii), there shall be disregarded any period during which the Assembly is dissolved." - [Mr Fee]
(No 14: amendment to amendment 11): In line 3, leave out "six" and insert "twelve". - [Mr Leslie]
(No 15): In page 2, after line 39, insert
"( ) No allowance shall be payable under this section where a person has been excluded from holding a qualifying office following a resolution of the Assembly under section 30(1) or 30(2) of the Northern Ireland Act 1998." - [Mr Leslie]M
(No 2): In page 3, after line 3, add
"( ) In reckoning the period of six weeks referred to in subsection (1)(b), no account shall be taken of any time during which the Assembly is dissolved." - [The Chairman of the Finance and Personnel Committee]
It may be helpful to Members if I recap briefly on the purpose of this Bill and the developments which have taken place since it was originally placed before the Assembly late last year.
The Bill provides for the payment of allowances to Members who leave the Assembly, to help with their adjustment to non-Assembly life and to wind up their Assembly affairs. It also allows for the payment of an allowance to those who step down from office holder posts, and who may or may not continue as Members of the Assembly, to assist them in adjusting to no longer being in receipt of the office holder element of their salary. These allowances are available to Members of the Westminster Parliament, and the Senior Salaries Review Body (SSRB) has recommended that they may be made available in the three devolved Administrations.
The Assembly, when in shadow form, took the view that, as a matter of principle, we should follow SSRB recommendations on salaries, allowances and pensions. The Assembly Commission, which I represent in this matter, has therefore felt obliged to bring forward this Bill in line with the previously expressed wishes of the Assembly.
Clause 1 and the schedule provide for the payment of an allowance of at least six months' salary to a Member who does not stand for re-election at a general election or who is not re-elected.
Clause 2 provides for an allowance at a similar level to a Member who is obliged to retire from the Assembly on ill-health grounds.
Clause 3 provides for the payment of an allowance to an office holder when he or she ceases to hold a qualifying office.
Clause 4 provides for the payment of a winding-up allowance of up to one third of the office costs allowance to meet actual expenditure by Members on winding up their Assembly affairs on leaving the Assembly.
Clause 5 provides for all the allowances to be paid by the Assembly Commission.
At this point I wish to express my appreciation of the work of the Finance and Personnel Committee, which was more than diligent in its scrutiny of the detailed provisions of the Bill. It has been as a result of the Committee's work that a number of amendments have been put forward to tighten up the provisions of the Bill in relation to clause 3 which provides for the payment of an allowance to office holders when they cease to hold a qualifying office. The Commission has been more than happy to accept amendments which improve the drafting of the Bill and which, in particular, address differences in local circumstances in Northern Ireland from the situation at Westminster.
The Assembly Commission feels strongly, however, that it would be wrong to depart from the principles of the SSRB's recommendations in the area of salaries, allowances or pensions. By following SSRB consistently we have an open and transparent method of fixing our remuneration and allowances package as recommended by an independent panel of experts. This gives us a sound basis on which to justify this package to our constituents and the wider public. Once we depart in one area from SSRB recommendations we lose the whole basis and justification for following the remainder.
The amendments before us this afternoon fall into two categories. First, we have just dealt with a number of technical amendments concerning the determination by the Secretary of State. Secondly, we have a number of amendments that deal specifically with clause 3 on the payment of allowances to office holders when they cease to hold a qualifying office. In my comments on amendment 9, I will also be referring to amendments 11, 13, 14, 15, 10, 1, 2 and 4.
As originally drafted, clause 3 provides for the payment of an allowance to a Member, who must be under 65 years of age, who ceases to be an office holder and who does not become an office holder again within three weeks. The amount of the allowance is equivalent to three months of the salary the office holder was getting in excess of a Member's basic salary. It is designed to assist Members adjust to the reduction in salary which loss of office entails. We now accept that the drafting of this clause needs to be tightened up for a number of reasons.
First, we agree that an office holder should have to serve a minimum period in office before becoming eligible for the allowance on ceasing to hold the office. At present, theoretically, an office holder could leave office after serving for only one day and yet be eligible for the allowance on leaving. Our feeling is that this qualifying period should be set at six months, after which it would be reasonable to compensate an office holder for the reduction in salary on leaving office.
Secondly, we agree - and the Member mentioned parity with Westminster, and precisely the same scheme is recommended by the Senior Salaries Review Body for Westminster, for the Northern Ireland Assembly, for the Scottish Parliament and for the National Assembly of Wales - that the minimum period a former office holder must remain out of office before the allowance becomes payable should be increased from three weeks to six weeks, and that periods during which the Assembly is dissolved should not count towards the six-week period.
Thirdly, provision needs to be made to ensure that payment of the allowance is not triggered by suspension of the devolved Government. On this basis I ask Members to support the amendments being put down on behalf of the Assembly Commission. Those include amendments 1 and 2, tabled by the Chairman of the Finance and Personnel Committee, which deal with the points I have mentioned.
Amendment 9 introduces the condition that an office holder must have at least six months' continuous service in one or more qualifying offices to be eligible for an allowance on leaving office under clause 3 of the Bill. Without that amendment, an allowance would become payable on a person's leaving office regardless of how long or short a period he had served as an office holder.
Amendment 11 introduces a number of consequential amendments as a result of the introduction of the qualifying period. Any period of suspension of devolved Government is to be disregarded when calculating the qualifying period. Where there is an interruption in a period of continuous service as an office holder, providing the interruption is six weeks or less, the period either side of the interruption will be considered as continuous. Any period during which the Assembly is dissolved will not count when calculating any period of interruption between two qualifying periods as an office holder. The amendment also restates the provisions of amendment 2 to ensure that any period during which the Assembly is dissolved does not count towards the period during which an office holder must remain out of office, before becoming eligible for an allowance.
Mr Leslie has tabled two amendments to amendments 9 and 11. The purpose, and the effect, of his amendments would be to increase the qualifying period of service from six months to twelve months. The Assembly Commission feels that this may penalise Members who will serve in public office for perhaps periods of up to ten months, or even for the proverbial 364 days. They would not qualify for an allowance under Mr Leslie's amendments. However, the principle of all these amendments is the same, that is, to introduce a qualifying period of service before an office holder becomes eligible for an allowance on ceasing to hold that office.
A number of other amendments, which are grouped together with amendment 9. Effectively we will be supporting amendments 15 and 10, the purpose of which are to prevent payment of allowances being triggered either as a result of the suspension of the Assembly or indeed by the exclusion of an office holder from office as a result of a decision, or a motion, of this Assembly.
Finally, on this particular group of amendments, I would point out that should the Assembly decide to support Mr Leslie's amendments, I feel that amendment 4 becomes redundant.
(Amendment (No 13) to amendment 9 proposed): In line 3, leave out "six" and insert "twelve". - [Mr Leslie]
As the House will be aware, the Bill first came to Committee in January but was subsequently interrupted by the suspension. During its passage in Committee, some concerns were expressed and amendments which were proposed have come through in the past couple of weeks.
Essentially, the debate in Committee revolved round two matters. First, there was the principle of accepting the recommendations of the Senior Salaries Review Body. The Assembly, sitting in shadow form in February 1999, unanimously agreed to accept the principle of the SSRB's recommendations. That proposal, was put to the Assembly by the Commission and was accepted in advance of knowing what those recommendations would be. The key point was that the Assembly should not be seen to be setting its own pay and allowances. It was thought to be much better for such decisions to be in independent hands, so that comments on them would be a matter for a third party and not for the Assembly.
The important thing is that there is no cherry-picking of the allowances proposed by the third party - in this case, the Senior Salaries Review Body. However, considerable disquiet was raised by some Members about some of the allowances that had not been anticipated. On the whole, the allowances proposed would be in line with good employment practice; after all, in politics when you lose a job there is no notice period and the recommendations made by the Senior Salaries Review Body reflect that absence of notice.
Is the qualification test that has been set sufficient? Without altering the intent of the Senior Salaries Review Body, the House could impose on itself a threshold in order for Members to qualify for certain allowances. That is the intention of the amendments in the name of Mr Fee and myself. The issue between us is how high that threshold should be. It could be argued in a great many ways. I contemplated tabling amendments stipulating periods from six months to 24 months; I was uncertain as to the right period. However, following discussions in my party and with others, I felt there was consensus around a 12-month qualifying period. That is what I now propose to the House.
The Assembly might like to bear in mind - this also relates to clause 1 - that Members need some motivation to retire. It would be unfortunate if, in future years - [Interruption]
Mr Paisley Jnr:
You should lead by example.
Mr Speaker, I look longingly towards retirement, but at the age of 42 I shall have to do a little more work before I can afford to retire. However, I do not think that I would have any difficulty finding more highly paid remuneration than this should I choose to do so.
To return to my point, it would be unfortunate if, in the future, it were written of Members that they appeared to be hanging on to office or their jobs because of the financial consequences of ceasing to do so. Paying an allowance - one quarter of an office holder's allowance is scarcely a king's ransom - forms some sort of recognition of the extra responsibilities borne by office holders.
Mr Paisley Jnr:
Why does the Member not do the House the courtesy of telling us what he really means? He really means that he wants to exclude the DUP from having access to this, but he wants Sinn Féin, the Ulster Unionist Party and the SDLP to be able to do so. That is the real basis of his proposal. Why will he not be honest with us and tell us the reason?
If the Member had read the minutes of the deliberations of the Finance and Personnel Committee when we were considering this Bill, he would have found that I and other members of the Committee, including Mr Close, whom I am sure will be speaking later, raised this matter. We were thinking about this completely independently of anything the Member's party may or may not do. We actively discussed it in January and February of this year, so the Member's comments are not relevant.
Finally, amendment 15 standing in my name is designed to address the situation where an office holder loses the confidence of the House for any of the reasons laid down in the legislation and loses office for that reason. In those circumstances it would not be appropriate for the allowances to be payable. That concludes my remarks on these amendments at this stage.
As we proceed to the debate, may I remind Members that this is the first occasion on which we have had a Consideration Stage and that this is an opportunity to address any of the substantial number of amendments.
The Chairman of the Finance and Personnel Committee (Mr Molloy): A ArdCheann Comhairle, go raibh maith agat. As Chairman of the Finance and Personnel Committee I am pleased to speak on this Bill. The Bill was referred to the Committee for scrutiny. The Committee met in public to examine the Bill and reported to the Assembly on 8 February. I thank Mr John Fee, the sponsor of the Bill, and his officials for their helpful advice to the Committee and the Assembly Commission. Mr Fee was able to reassure the Committee that it did not contravene equal opportunities or discrimination legislation.
I also thank Mr Fee for endorsing the amendments put forward by the Committee, and I speak in favour of amendment 11. The Committee examined each of the clauses in turn and agreed that clauses 1, 2 and 4 should stand unamended as part of the Bill. I have many reservations about these clauses, but as Chairman of the Committee, I must speak on its behalf.
Although I speak of the need to amend clause 3, I must also advise the Assembly that the Committee concluded that the allowance provided for by clause 3 to Members and office holders should not form part of the Bill. I shall, therefore, shortly be advising the Assembly to omit that clause entirely, but clause 3 must first be amended as proposed in amendments 1 and 2 to correct some inherent defects. The clause, in its original form, entitles office holders such as Ministers, Presiding Officers and others specified in Standing Orders to a payment equivalent to three months' pay. This would be paid in cases where they ceased to hold office in the Assembly and did not hold office again for three weeks.
The Committee identified a serious deficiency in clause 3 and asked the Commission to reconsider the clause. The Commission did so and agreed that clause 3 should be amended. As presently worded, the three-week period would start as soon as the Assembly was dissolved. Persons could be paid this allowance and then accept another paid office as soon as a new Assembly were elected and office holders appointed. This could be within four weeks of dissolution.
The Committee recommends that the fixed period of three weeks referred to in clause 3 (1b) should be increased to six weeks. No account should be taken of any period during which the Assembly was dissolved when calculating the time. This will ensure that the fixed period for calculating an office holder's entitlement to this only begins once a new Assembly has been elected.
The amendments put forward are to improve the Bill and not simply to cherry-pick the Senior Salaries Review Body's recommendations. It would be entirely different if the Assembly were setting its own salaries and allowances. It is not the same as when we talk about denying ourselves allowances or salaries. On behalf of the Committee I recommend that the Assembly vote in favour of these amendments to clause 3. Chathaoirligh, that concludes my remarks on amendments 1 and 2.
When Mr Fee introduced this issue he mentioned that a series of amendments had been suggested to clause 3. I commented last week in the Commission that each political party, and each member involved in this issue, would have a particular view on clause 3 - which is the main bone of contention in this Bill. There were originally a variety of approaches to this scheme, but it appeared that Members were generally content to allow the Senior Salaries Review Body to make the recommendations in the absence of knowledge about the outcome. Mr Paisley suggested that clause 3 was related to the fact that there may soon be a change of ministerial positions - Mr Leslie, of course, rejected this idea. Since the DUP has made it clear that, under certain conditions, there will be changes to ministerial office holders, there have been a number of amendments referring to time periods which coincide with the time when we might hold ministerial positions. It is disingenuous for anyone to argue that clause 3, and the suggested amendments, are not related to the fact that some Members will only be Ministers or office holders for a limited time.
Let no one be in any doubt that the DUP Members in the House today will be voting against clause 3 in its entirety. The issue should be whether to accept in full the recommendations of the SSRB. Owing to recent political changes the Members on this side of the House want people to be absolutely clear that our view is that we should not benefit one jot or tittle from holding office in this Assembly, as derived from clause 3. That is our position, and it is a position, we think, of integrity and of principle.
Rev Dr Ian Paisley:
Does the Member not also find it very strange that these dates take no account of any suspension of the Assembly? The allowances still go on. If, because of the activities of one party, say IRA/Sinn Féin does something and the Assembly is suspended again, the allowances will still build up their value. Because of the stand that we have taken they think that they must do something about it. Well, we invite them to do something about it: say goodbye to clause 3, and then no one will benefit. How about that for a test of their integrity?
It is somewhat invidious that there could be a variety of circumstances under which some Members stand to gain. The clearest message from the House today would be a simple decision to delete clause 3, thus avoiding any accusation of benefit whatsoever. It would avoid too the business of the periods (six months, 12 months, three months - several have been mentioned), which would also leave us open to accusations of political expediency. My party supports the deletion of clause 3.
I am absolutely delighted. I am over the moon that on this occasion the Democratic Unionist Party is going to take a principled stand against clause 3. The evidence will show that that is exactly the line that I have been taking from day one when this Bill came before the Finance and Personnel Committee. On that occasion we were told that in principle we had accepted the SSRB recommendations. Most of the parties were represented on the SSRB and, having accepted its principles, how dared we try to change any of the clauses of this Bill? We stuck to our guns on that issue. We demonstrated that there are times when you have to be a little bit extreme in your view to achieve, through the democratic process, that which is in the best interests of the people of Northern Ireland. The point has already been well made.
Look at the number of lines in clause 3, about 15 or 16 lines, and look at the number of lines of amendments to clause 3. I am prepared to support the issues that are coming up under 9, 13, 1, and 11, et cetera, without prejudice to my position on clause 3 - namely that it should be thrown out in its entirety. We will come to that in the debate on amendments 3, 5 and 6.
Nevertheless, it is important to point out that the whole clause is such a mishmash that the only proper thing to do with it is kick it out. I want to assure Members, certainly those who share my perspective, who feel that there was some political motivation or party-political motivation behind the stand that I have taken on this, that such a view is totally without foundation. I take the view that we, as Members of the Assembly, were elected to the Assembly as equals and that, with regard to any payments for holding office or whatever, we should all be treated as equals. I am conscious of the fact, and no Member of the House should ever lose track of this, that we are responsible to the general public for the expenditure of taxpayers' money. We should not follow blindly SSRB recommendations that are all right for England, Scotland, Wales or whatever. We have a responsibility to the taxpayers of Northern Ireland.
They must be uppermost in our mind. We must never lose sight of that point. We did it some months ago, just shortly after taking our seats, when one of the first things that we approved was an increase in salary. Listen to what the general public said about that. They did not like it. The "I am all right, Jack"/"I am all right, Jill" syndrome is all wrong to the electorate to whom we are accountable.
I will speak about my objections to clause 3 in more detail when the appropriate time comes. Without prejudice at this stage, I think that the amendments improve the mishmash of clause 3 as originally drawn up. Therefore, while not wishing to count my chickens before they are hatched, I am confident that clause 3 will be kicked out by the House. But just in case that does not happen, I am prepared to support the amendments.
I will not go into every amendment now, because, like one or two other Members, my party will be voting against clause 3 in its entirety for a number of reasons.
Mr Fee made a fair point earlier when he said that we should not depart from the recommendations of the SSRB, but his own amendment to move the qualifying period from three weeks to six months is doing just that. I draw Members' attention to the remarks made by Mr Jim Hamilton from the Department of Finance and Personnel when he gave evidence to the Committee. He made the point that to move the qualifying period from three weeks to, say, six months would more or less render it redundant. Therefore, I think it is a bad amendment.
My party wants to have clause 3 deleted, but if that does not happen we will, of course, seek to improve the Bill as best we can. That is why we will be supporting, as Seamus Close said, some of the amendments without prejudice to our view on clause 3 in its entirety.
I made the point in January of this year at a Committee meeting that a party could replicate the allowances by rotating these posts among a number of its Members, and wanted to make sure that that did not happen. I am glad that the DUP has also adopted this position. That is good.
The SSRB recommendations, in our view, did not take into account the fact that two thirds of Assembly Members will be office holders, which is not the case in the other institutions, including Westminster. While it was important to have an independent judgement made by a body like the SSRB, we cannot slavishly follow all of its recommendations, because some of them are not appropriate. As I have said, it is not appropriate to have two thirds of Members qualifying for these allowances. Also, since office holders will already have received a salary increase, to give them an allowance when they leave their post will be like giving them a double bumper, so to speak. That is not appropriate. We will be supporting some of these amendments, purely to improve the Bill as much as possible, without prejudice to our vote later on to delete clause 3 in its entirety.
I support some of the sentiments on the principle of clause 3 that have already been expressed by some Members who have already spoken. The population of Northern Ireland views with a great deal of disgust the fact that, for the short periods that the Assembly has been sitting, it has concerned itself, to a very large degree, with the emoluments, salaries, pensions and, now, departure allowances of Members. Anyone I have spoken to sees what is happening here as the clearest possible illustration of what one newspaper described as the "snouts in the trough" syndrome.
As has been said already Assembly Members are not only receiving their salaries, which have been raised to something like £38,000 or £39,000 per year, but are also in receipt of an office allowance of £35,000 or so per year.
Only a limited number are manifestly, expressly and publicly using that allowance for the purpose for which it is paid. On top of that, those who hold office are receiving large sums. The First and the Deputy First Ministers are in receipt of a total salary of approximately £100,000. Other Ministers receive around £34,000 on top of their £39,000 basic salary. This largesse is being distributed throughout most of the offices. Over 50% of Members enjoy some perk in addition to their basic salary. All of them are, as it were, on the strength. This is not an ordinary democracy with a Government from a majority party and an Opposition. The largesse is distributed across all the major parties, particularly those in a position to appoint Ministers and dictate Committee membership. That really is jobs for the boys and, in some cases, the girls. It is undermining the public credit and integrity of the Assembly.
We are now faced with clause 3. This will provide for additional payments to all the office holders, so that they can be eased into positions in public or private life commensurate with the salaries and emoluments they have earned here. The public questions how many of those who receive these vast increases earned or would earn anything comparable either in their previous employment or in any employment they could properly expect to enjoy in the future on the basis of their past experience and professional or business records. I oppose clause 3 in the most fundamental way.
Some of the amendments intend to limit the worst excesses of that clause. Insofar as they do that, they are entitled to a degree of support. The fundamental position of my party and myself is that, as Members from other parties have said, clause 3 is a disgrace. It is no excuse to say that the Senior Salaries Review Body recommended that salaries should be set on the basis of some mystical parity with other elected bodies. It is for Members here, regardless of what some other body may do or what legitimacy some other body may offer, to decide whether it is justified in voting, out of the public purse, emoluments and benefits of this kind. I submit that it is not. If Members continue in this, they will undermine public support. They will be seen as a bunch of elected people feathering their own nests, snorting and snuffling in the biggest trough they can find.
You forgot about your MP's salary.
A fraction of what I used to earn. [Interruption]
Mr S Wilson:
I support the comments of my Colleague Mr Gregory Campbell. The DUP completely opposes clause 3. It is significant that the one thing that gets the SDLP and the Ulster Unionist Party worked up into a frenzy is the issue of pensions payable, as they thought, to members of this party who were part of the system of rotating ministerial office.
I notice we do not have any amendments, questions or statements about Sinn Féin Ministers refusing to fly flags and abusing their office. There is no frenzy or lather worked up as far as that is concerned, but when it comes to what they think is an attempt by the DUP to obtain ministerial position for financial gain, they get worked up into a frenzy.
It probably says more about the mindset of the Members who tabled these amendments that that was how they thought when they heard of the DUP's plan to oppose this agreement. They think in terms of money, but we think in terms of principle and standing up for our election manifesto.
Look at the arguments that have been made - and there have not been too many - in defence of clause 3. Mr Fee said that the proposals of the SSRB, which I understand recommended the timescales that are presently in the Bill, should be implemented because they gave transparency. However, when it comes to this issue, suddenly the SSRB recommendations are not all that sacrosanct, and transparency does not matter. We have to ask whether that is the real reason for the amendments. Mr Leslie made the most bizarre point when he said "We need to encourage people to retire."
I am not going to read from this newspaper, for I got told off earlier; I am just going to show it -
Order. The Member is aware that to do so is out of order.
Mr S Wilson:
If one goes by the headline in a certain newspaper this morning - a newspaper that I have no love for - there is going to be no difficulty in finding ways of getting Ulster Unionist Party members to retire because the electorate is going to show them the retirement door. Their own party is saying it - not the DUP. They do not need clause 3 as a retirement plan. If they just call elections they will get all the retirement plans they need. Those are the only two arguments that I have heard so far in defence of clause 3.
I welcome the fact that other parties have followed us. I particularly welcome Mr Close. I think he has become too close to the two parties he sits between - the PUP and Sinn Féin - because he is now going to stick to his guns as well.
Clause 3 would be misinterpreted by the general public. I suspect that there are people who, because of their attempts to make and gain some political capital out of the campaign which we have committed ourselves to in opposing this agreement, may well regret the fact that they have raised this question in the House today. I suspect they may lose the vote on Clause 3. I am sure that was not the intention of those who have clung on to office, who have thrown principle aside and buried their manifestos. Some of them have done so in pursuit of position and all that it brings. Voting against clause 3 will indicate that Members of the Assembly take a principled stand. It will also be a bad blow for those who were ill advised enough to raise the matter.