Northern Ireland Assembly
Monday 19 June 2000 (continued)
Mrs E Bell:
I certainly would.
Mr B Hutchinson:
May I ask the Minister for Regional Development if the Union flag or the Ulster flag were to cause an obstruction - I cannot remember the exact words he used - would he remove it.
Mr P Robinson:
The requirement relates to a danger to road users. It would be ludicrous if the Department were to ignore a danger to road users when it has a duty of care. It might put a flag further up a flagpole or lamp post. It certainly would not be in the position of leaving a danger to road users. I think that would be understood by the local community.
and Strabane Bypasses
asked the Minister for Regional Development what are the completion dates for stage 3 of the Omagh bypass, the Newtownstewart bypass and the Strabane bypass and to confirm that funding is not dependent upon the sale of Belfast harbour, and if he will make a statement.
Mr P Robinson:
Subject to successful completion of the necessary statutory procedures and the availability of funds, the schemes are scheduled to be completed by the summer of 2002.
The Chancellor's 1998 investment package for Northern Ireland provided additional funding for programmes including roads, schools and housing. These additional funds included an amount of £70 million from the expected proceeds from the sale of the port of Belfast. If the sale does not proceed, it is possible that there will be an impact on the roads programme. This will be a matter for consideration by Ministers at the appropriate time.
The development of these schemes will ease the flow of through traffic on the Londonderry to Ballygawley route and provide benefits to local communities through the removal of traffic from town centres.
I thank the Minister. By 2002 we will be looking for a much-improved trans-European route. Would he meet again with the sub-regional district councils of Strabane, Omagh, Cookstown, Dungannon and Enniskillen, since they supplied many documents relating to 'Shaping our Future'? His visit to ICBAN was appreciated, and since £20 million is involved on our side of the border, would he ensure that that £20 million is spent on our side of the border and is not devalued into punts?
Mr P Robinson:
Of course, I am happy to meet district councils and deputations from district councils. Indeed, I have probably met deputations and been to district councils in about two thirds of the Province already. I would be happy to meet with them. I also welcome the interest that councils west of the Bann have shown in terms of the regional strategic framework. That framework sets out the importance of Londonderry as the second city and recognises the importance of having proper road corridors to and from Londonderry. There are also very clear indicators in the framework of the importance of roads going in a southerly direction as well.
For all of those reasons, I think that if the framework is adopted, people on the main road corridors can look forward to considerable improvement on their roads. That should help in terms of the access to local communities and by having significant value in terms of the economic regeneration in those areas.
The time for questions to this Minister is up.
asked the Minister of the Environment if he will introduce legislation to facilitate demands for the provision of enterprise parks in the vicinity of rural towns and villages.
The Minister of the Environment (Mr Foster): Proposals for enterprise parks in the vicinity of rural towns and villages would come from the private or the community sector. My Department deals with such proposals in accordance with normal planning procedures. Whenever possible, my Department would consider such proposals in the interests of economic regeneration of the rural community sympathetically.
I thank the Minister for his answer. I would ask those employed in drawing up area plans to take note of his views. Does the Minister agree that his Department will have to liase with other Departments such as Enterprise, Trade and Investment, the Department for Regional Development and the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development if a proper rural strategy is to be put in place?
Lead responsibility for rural planning strategy now rests with the Department for Regional Development, although my Department is responsible for taking account of that strategy in its development planning and development control activities. The strategy has not, as it were, a monopoly on any Department. I agree with the Member's point that other Departments have important responsibilities in relation to rural areas as well. I also agree that discussion and co-operation between the relevant Departments is an important element of devising and implementing any future strategy.
I welcome the statements from the Minister. Small towns and villages have been allowed to expand and develop, yet no thought or consideration has been put into the planning of leisure and recreation facilities. Will the Department of the Environment look favourably on positive proposals coming forward and help relax planning controls?
The area plan process provides for the identification of zones to be set aside for commercial and industrial purposes. There is no need for new legislation to provide for enterprise parks. Our planning policy provides for them. We know what our planning policies are, and we use them when assessing any particular application.
asked the Minister of the Environment if he will undertake to introduce legislation to curtail the trend towards demolition of houses to make room for apartment developments in South Belfast and elsewhere, and if he will make a statement.
I am considering making more use of conservation area designations. This would prevent uncontrolled demolition in areas such as South Belfast. This, of course, would be subject to consultation with the Historic Buildings Council and district councils.
I welcome the Minister's comments. I understand that there is an effort to reinforce planning legislation through these conservation areas to ensure that the wanton destruction of good quality homes in neighbourhoods does not continue. Is it possible to ensure that we begin to evolve a comprehensive plan that will develop the city to the north and east rather than to the south and west where it is overspilling continuously and will any funds be made available? I know from personal experience of the built heritage section of the Department that funds are very scant, and any useful move will require funding.
Funding is a problem at this time. We are all aware that my Department is under-resourced in many ways. We have a commitment for grant aid to the value of £4 million for help with the built heritage but an annual allocation of only about £1·7 million to deal with it. So there is a moratorium at present. I am aware of the concern among many Members representing various parts of Northern Ireland, and South Belfast in particular, that the Planning Service appears not to respond to property speculation in their areas. The present-day issues are these: the population is increasing; people tend to set up house at a younger age than before; and, while high-density housing has a contribution to make, some apartment developments are seen to have had a detrimental effect on the character of their areas. These are, I agree, complex issues and I hope to be able to address some of them in the near future.
Does the Minister agree, in the light of the fact that apartment development leads to a higher population density and use of cars, that there needs to be much closer co-operation between the Planning Service and the Roads Service when applications for development are being considered?
I agree. It is absolutely necessary to co-operate with different Departments. As I said earlier, no one Department has a monopoly on provision. We work together. We need to work together, and we need to discuss these issues because there are problems. Of that there is no doubt. We will certainly be working together to try to alleviate the problems referred to.
Mr S Wilson:
In the light of the comments that Mr Foster has made to the last two Members who spoke, will he explain the impact that this is likely to have on the target which his Department has set for providing at least 40% to 50% of the new homes required for the Greater Belfast area on brownfield sites within the city boundary?
As I said in an earlier answer, these issues are complex, and I hope to be able to address some of them in the very near future. I accept the hon Member's point, but there are difficulties galore. My Department will take each area into consideration to ensure that we provide where we can and that difficult situations are assessed to take into consideration the points made.
Does the Minister agree that important parts of our built environment and heritage are being demolished because of a lack of legislation in this area? Has the Minister any intention of doing something in the meantime, such as spot listing, to ensure that our heritage is not destroyed in this way?
Yes. Plans are afoot at this time to control the issues to which the Member referred. At one time we identified areas of townscape character, and a guidance note was published for each development. However, the areas of townscape character designation do not provide protection from demolition in the same way that a statutorily designated conservation area does. Unauthorised demolition in a conservation area is a criminal offence. The Department is now considering greater use of conservation-area designations to protect buildings from demolition. In addition, it is considering introducing legislation which would bring demolition within the meaning of development for the purposes of requiring planning permission. Currently, demolition does not, in most instances, require planning permission, so we are taking steps to alleviate that.
I welcome the Minister's response to Alasdair McDonnell and Jane Morrice on the virtues of preserving older buildings. Is the Minister aware of the recent death of Mr Hyndman Milliken, a constituent of mine, who played a major part in the renovation of the historic building we are in today?
Yes. I was indeed saddened to learn of the recent passing of Mr Milliken, and I am sure I speak on behalf of all Members when I express our sympathy to his wife and family circle. I know he spent many long hours on the gold and silver gilding work in this Chamber during the recent refurbishment of the Building. The craftmanship which we see around us on the window and door moulding and the ceiling is testament to his skill and ability. It is, indeed, a lasting tribute, and we regret his passing, which is a real loss both to his wife and family circle and to society in general.
Road Safety Officers
asked the Minister of the Environment how many road safety officers there are in Northern Ireland and how this figure compares per capita with the other regions in the United Kingdom.
At present, 11 road safety education officers are employed by the Department in Northern Ireland. This represents a ratio of one road safety education officer per 154,000 people. This compares unfavourably to the ratio of one officer per 90,000 people in Great Britain. A regional breakdown for Great Britain is not available.
Considering the number of road traffic-calming measures that have already been taken in Northern Ireland, and those ongoing - many of them in large built-up communities - can the Minister tell us if his Department has any plans to increase the number of road safety officers and provide a more comprehensive education programme for our schools?
We are all aware that road safety education officers provide extremely valuable practical support for teachers in schools across Northern Ireland. I am currently seeking additional resources to increase the number of road safety education officers to 18, in line with the per-capita average for Great Britain. I appreciate the support of the Assembly Environment Committee in trying to secure these additional resources.
Rev Dr William McCrea:
Does the Minister acknowledge that when the Environment Committee was dealing with matters for extra funding, they targeted this as the number-one priority in view of the many accidents and deaths on our roads? Does he agree that many of the present number of road safety education officers are totally exhausted and that there is an urgent need to increase their number? Will he ensure that the £0·215 million necessary to employ an adequate numbers of these officers is activated immediately?
Yes, indeed. As part of wider public expenditure cuts, the number of road safety education officers in Northern Ireland was reduced progressively from 16 in 1991 to 11 in 1998. We are currently seeking additional resources to increase this figure. These officers are of great value to the community in general. It is something which is foremost in our minds. It may not be the absolute priority, but it certainly runs neck and neck with planning, which is a big problem so far as we are concerned. I agree with the hon Member that the number of road tragedies is appalling at this time. I might add that 80 road deaths to date this year compared to 54 at the end of May last year is not acceptable at all.
I welcome the additional number of road safety education officers and the Minister's own personal commitment to improvements in road safety. Can we expect him to bring before the House, at an early stage, a comprehensive plan for dealing with the overall problem of carnage on the roads which, over the last three decades, has claimed more lives than the troubles?
Yes indeed, it is very much foremost in our minds. In conjunction with other groupings and the RUC we will be bringing out a road safety plan in the early autumn. This is a very important issue; something we have not overlooked; something which is vitally important to all because it affects people right across the community. The present death rate is totally and entirely unacceptable, and we cannot sit back and do nothing about it. However, no matter what resources we put in to improving the condition of the roads, the vital issue is the person behind the wheel. We must get the message across to these individuals. The figures are appalling.
Mr A Doherty
asked the Minister of the Environment to confirm that, in order to ensure the establishment of an integrated network of waste disposal installations, he will take account of and promote the work being undertaken by cross-border bodies such as the North-West Region Group, the Irish Central Border Area Network, the East Ireland Border Committee and others.
I am happy to provide this information. My Department has already supported the work of the North-West Region Cross-Border Group by providing grant aid through the European structural funds towards the development of a waste-management strategy. Any cross-border co-operation must, of course, take account of the waste-management strategy for Northern Ireland and the United Kingdom management plan for the export and import of wastes. The United Kingdom management plan is currently under review. I will ensure that Northern Ireland's geography and the scope for cross-border initiatives are given due consideration in the review. The scope for improved waste management is also one of the issues identified for cross-border co-operation through the North/South Ministerial Council.
Mr A Doherty
I thank the Minister for his reply. It is reassuring that he appreciates the contribution that the bodies referred to have already made, and are continuing to make, to the development and implementation of an effective waste-management strategy. In fact, in a number of ways, we are ahead of the game and very conscious of the need for partnership between all key sectors - something which is stressed quite often in the strategy document. I was prompted to ask this question because the waste-management strategy, excellent in many other ways, makes scarcely any reference to the relationships which must be developed between Northern Ireland partnerships and their relevant counterparts in the Republic of Ireland. The closest level of regional co-operation is essential, and for this reason I take comfort from the fact that the strategy gives district councils
"flexibility to form partnerships in accordance with their specific circumstances".
Order. I urge the Member to put his question.
Mr A Doherty:
Owing to a lack information on the management strategy I felt that a slight preamble was necessary.
The Member's explanation is intriguing, but it is still out of order.
Mr A Doherty:
I would be very happy to affirm a one-word answer from the Minister so long as it is a positive one. Can I be assured that the undertakings given in the waste-management document will be honoured with regard to cross-border co-operation on this important matter?
I confirm that there is no hesitation about cross-border groupings within the two different jurisdictions. The grouping together of councils in border areas allows sensible co-operation to take place, meets EU requirements on waste management and enables economies of scale to be achieved.
I confirm that the waste plans required under the Waste and Contaminated Land (Northern Ireland) Order 1997 can be developed for cross-border groupings of councils, provided that they meet the requirements of the Northern Ireland waste-management strategy, which is a requirement of the European Landfill directive. The costs of waste management arise not from new waste-management strategy but from European directives on landfill sites.
The Member got more than the one word answer that he was looking for.
Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Will the Minister tell us his plans for the cross-border element of waste management, recycling and the effects of pollution? Is there, or will there be, genuine co-operation and joint structures in place to deal with these issues on an all-island basis?
I have just said that there is no hesitation whatsoever about cross-border co-operation within the two separate jurisdictions. I confirm again that the waste plans required under the Waste and Contaminated Land (Northern Ireland) Order 1997 can be developed for cross-border groupings of councils, provided that they meet the requirements of the Northern Ireland waste-management strategy that we have issued.
I am sure that the Minister, with his background, is well aware of the heavy costs involved when dealing with waste disposal. Does the Minister agree that a greater percentage of landfill tax should be retained in Northern Ireland, rather than allowing it to go back to the central Exchequer, provided that it is spent on proper waste disposal facilities? Will he lobby for that proposal?
I certainly welcome the hon Member's suggestion. We could use the finances, but that is beyond our remit, and we have no control over such matters.
Mallusk Landfill Site
asked the Minister of the Environment to confirm his intention to hold a public inquiry in relation to planning application number U/1995/0046 by UK Waste Ltd for an extension of the landfill site at Cottonmount Quarry, Mallusk.
asked the Minister of the Environment how many objections, representations and queries the Department has received regarding the proposed landfill site at Mallusk, Co Antrim, and if he will make a statement.
Rev Dr William McCrea
asked the Minister of the Environment if he will undertake to reverse the decision of the Planning Service to approve the landfill site at Mallusk, and if he will make a statement.
Mr Speaker, with your permission, I shall take questions 5, 11 and 16 together.
Mr S Wilson:
Is this a snub?
Not really - you get them often, but not this time.
The planning application is currently awaiting my decision. I recently met objectors and Newtownabbey Borough Council, and I hope to meet the applicant company soon. About 100 objections were raised against the proposal. Before reaching a conclusion about the way forward, I shall visit the site. It would therefore be inappropriate for me to make a statement now.
Rev Dr William McCrea:
Bearing in mind that -
Apologies to Mr Dalton. He may ask a supplementary question before Dr McCrea's contribution.
On this occasion, I take precedence over Mr McCrea. Will the Minister confirm that it is in his Department's power to call a public inquiry, such as the one to which I referred earlier? Will he undertake to give me in writing a legal opinion that his Department has such power? If he decides that it is not his decision -
Order. I have to advise the Member and the House that it is not in order to ask for a legal opinion to be provided by a Minister. That is not a valid question to ask.
Will the Minister undertake to ask his Department to say whether such a public inquiry would be possible? If not, will the Minister undertake to issue a new notice of opinion, so that the applicant can call a public appeals commission hearing on the matter, which can then be dealt with by a third party body?
There is provision to call for a public inquiry to take place, if necessary. I am aware of the calls for such an inquiry but, at present, I wish to reserve my position on the matter. As I said earlier, I have met different people, including hon Members, the Campaign against Landfill at Mallusk (CALM) and Newtownabbey Borough Council. I intend meeting the applicant, UK Waste Management Ltd shortly, and I shall consider carefully all representations received. I shall also visit the site before reaching a final decision.
Rev Dr William McCrea:
The residents of Mallusk have been campaigning under the name of CALM for an in-depth public inquiry on the proposed landfill site that will expose all the facts and myths to public scrutiny. Surely that is not much for any community to ask, considering the agony they have experienced with the vermin, smell and other problems. This is a modest and simple request that the Minister could direct to his Department and announce to the Assembly. If he will not accept an inquiry, will he overturn the opinion of his Department and refuse to approve this development?
A final decision has not yet been reached on this application. I have met the people from CALM, and we had a very affable meeting. I accepted and considered what they had to say, and we will continue to assess the matter. No hasty decision will be made, but I am not going to give a commitment to a public inquiry into the matter now.
Mr J Wilson:
I am sure that, by now, the Minister is aware that the only people supporting the planning application are the site owners. Is he aware of the force of the argument against this site? Those against the application include the entire community at Mallusk, all elected representatives in the House and the councillors. Can he assure us that this will be an important consideration when he and his Department make up their minds about the future of the dumping site at Mallusk?
I am fully aware of the people's great concern, and that will not be ignored. However, my Department has to look at the bigger picture. As I have said, we are still looking at this application, and as yet no decision has been made. Every representation that has been made to me and my Department will be carefully considered.
Local Government Elections
Mr Paisley Jnr
asked the Minister of the Environment to assure the Assembly that local government elections planned for next year will proceed unhindered, and if he will make a statement.
This is not a matter for my Department. It is, as I understand it, an excepted matter.
Where a Minister can rightly make such a response, there is no provision for asking a supplementary question.
Mr Paisley Jnr:
Is the Minister running away from answering a question about the failure of his party to call an election on this issue?
Order. What the Minister has said is entirely correct, and as a result there can be no supplementary questions. It may well be the case, given that reply, that the Business Office cannot accept further questions on that issue.
Mr Paisley Jnr:
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. If the matter is an excepted one, why was the question accepted? The questions were printed over a week ago, so surely there was plenty of time for Members to be informed of this in advance rather than having to wait to have the question dismissed by the Minister in such an offhand way.
The Member should understand that that would have deprived him of the opportunity of making the very point that he has made. Questions are put down; they are published immediately; and the Marshalled List is published at a later stage.
asked the Minister of the Environment what steps he will take to ensure that major planning applications with an obvious economic development benefit in job creation and urban regeneration will be expedited swiftly through planning procedures.
I acknowledge the Member's concern. The planning system is critical to the proper regulation of economic and social development. The Planning Service has established specialist teams to help speed up the processing of all major development proposals. It is currently allocating additional resources in order to determine planning applications more quickly. I will continue to draw attention to the resource requirements of the Planning Service in the context of the overall Northern Ireland budget.
I thank the Minister for his reply. In the past, he has acknowledged on a number of occasions that there are major delays in the planning process because of staff shortages in his Department. Does he agree that it is a disgrace that schemes with major potential benefits for economic development - such as the Belfast International Airport scheme, which is with his Department at the moment - are being lost because of terrible delays in implementing plans and getting any kind of decision from his Department?
I am aware of this problem. Within the Department we are seeking ways and means of processing applications more quickly. However, for the Member's information, these things are not particularly easy. Planning is a long-drawn-out process because of the statutory constraints process, the complexities of the development proposals, the requirements for consultation, the extent of public representations received, and the need or otherwise for a public inquiry, as in the planning applications for landfill referred to earlier. Major development proposals with economic benefits often have significant environmental impact, which has to be properly considered before decisions can be taken.
It is now four o'clock. The overrun will have been caused by a series of quite legitimate points of order. Lest the precedent give advantage to the Minister who comes third in the list for questioning, I shall continue to allow the full 30 minutes of questions.
asked the Minister of the Environment if he will initiate a review of beaches to ensure that visitors to our coastal resorts will find them attractive and safe.
My Department, through its Environment and Heritage Service, is responsible for monitoring and reporting to the European Commission on the quality of bathing water at the 16 beaches in Northern Ireland that fall within the scope of the European directive on bathing water quality (76/160/EEC). I am pleased to say that all 16 met the mandatory standards in the 1999 bathing season. In addition, eight of those beaches, as well as three marinas, have qualified this year for a European blue flag. In administering the blue-flag scheme, the Tidy Northern Ireland group includes other criteria such as facilities, cleanliness and safety. In addition, the Marine Conservation Society arranges an annual survey of beaches around the British Isles, including beaches not eligible for blue-flag status. Based on these results, I am satisfied that visitors will find Northern Ireland's beaches to be generally attractive and safe.
I thank the Minister for his reply. As we approach the holiday season and the weather improves, does he agree that we should have a blitz on our beaches to ensure that there is no litter, broken glass or tin cans? Go to any of our beaches and this is the type of thing I am particularly concerned about with young children.
Any concerns about the cleanliness or facilities of individual public beaches should be referred to the relevant district council. Having said that, I would be happy to have my Department investigate any beach at which the quality of bathing water is of concern or where there are litter problems.
We have now come to the end of the time for questions. Is Mr Poots - [Interruption] I am afraid so, but you did get a question in earlier on, if I remember correctly. The time for questions is up. [Interruption] Indeed, but not even the Minister could respond at that speed.
Debate resumed on Clause 3.
Some time ago, when I introduced the first Bill to be passed by the Assembly, I said that I was supping from a poisoned chalice. That poison is getting more virulent by the day.
The debate this morning was on amendment 9. The amendment was meant to allay concerns about the content and effect of clause 3.
We had some detailed and robust exchanges with the Finance and Personnel Committee - on a number of occasions they were held in public - and the Committee expressed very clearly its concerns about the flaws in clause 3. We very much appreciate the work of the Committee's Chairman and members.
It seems abundantly clear that there continues to be, on all sides of this Assembly, a deep, fundamental distaste for clause 3, so I propose to remind Members why it is there and leave it to your good judgement as to what you want to do with it.
Members will recall that under paragraph 40, clause 4 of the Northern Ireland Act of 1998 the Assembly Commission was charged with the task of ensuring that the Assembly was provided with the property, staff and services required for the Assembly's purposes. That was the legislation passed in 1998.
In February 1999 this Assembly, in shadow form, unanimously endorsed the principle that we should abide by the recommendations of the Senior Salaries Review Body (SSRB), warts and all, sight unseen. That was recommended to the Assembly by Mr Peter Robinson, and it was accepted unanimously. Subsequently, in March 1999, Command Paper 4188 was published with the recommendations of the Senior Salaries Review Body. Clause 3, which the Assembly Commission felt duty-bound to bring forward to the Assembly for its decision, reflects paragraph 97, recommendation 27, of the review body's report:
"It recommends that those in receipt of an additional salary in respect of any office held in the Scottish Parliament, the National Assembly for Wales or the Northern Ireland Assembly, who cease to hold that office, be entitled to a severance payment calculated in the same way as that available to Ministers and office holders in the Westminster Parliament."
I repeat those words because this morning there were charges that we had, in some way, departed from SSRB. We have not, yet there were severe charges laid against the Commission by Members of the Westminster Parliament, who have never raised any objections to this particular recommendation in another House. Therefore, in defence of the Assembly Commission, I say that we have diligently, to the letter of what we were charged to do under the Act, and in accordance with SSRB, brought forward these proposals for deliberation by the Assembly.
I said in Committee, when Seamus Close raised concerns about clause 3, that I could not personally respond to him in any great detail because I shared his concerns. I, and the Commission, still do. Nonetheless, we have brought Members a recommendation; it is for deliberation, and it is up to them whether they wish to pursue it. I would like to think that we have left Members with an understanding that the Assembly Commission will continue to do, as far as it can, its duty to bring forward proposals, schemes and legislation where necessary for Members' deliberation even though those proposals, schemes, and so on may be difficult, unpopular and detailed. I think one can tell from my point of view that we are becoming increasingly agnostic on this clause, so for the purposes of ending this particular part of the debate, I want to give notice - I may be duty-bound to move amendment 9 - that I will not be moving any further amendments to this clause.
We must take the amendment to amendment 9 first - that is, amendment 13 standing in the name of Mr Leslie. Moved or not moved?
Amendment 9: moved or not moved?
When an amendment has become the property of the Assembly by being debated, its withdrawal requires the leave of the Assembly. Does the Member have the leave of the Assembly? He has begged leave to withdraw the amendment.
Rev Dr Ian Paisley:
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Will the Assembly have an opportunity to vote on clause 3?
Yes. Even if all the amendments in this group fall, there is still an amendment that clause 3 not stand part, and there can be a debate on that if the House wishes. This is purely a question of the amendments that were down under this grouping, and the lead amendment was amendment 9.
Mr Fee has begged leave of the Assembly to withdraw amendment 9. Is leave given?
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
I will need to go through the rest of the amendments formally, even though Mr Fee has given notice that he will not be pressing them. We will come to the rest of the amendments when we vote on this, and he has given indication that he will not move them. We will therefore move to the motion that clause 3 stand part and the amendment in the name of Mr Molloy and Colleagues.
A Cheann Comhairle. As I said earlier, the Finance and Personnel Committee has concluded that the allowance to Members should be amended, omitting clause 3. The Committee was content that a person who ceases to be a Member should receive an adequate allowance to help them adjust to non-Assembly life, although I had many reservations about that on a personal basis. The Committee was also content that Members should receive financial assistance for help with outstanding costs. This, of course, would have to be properly monitored. It relates to cost and not a lump sum as in clause 4.
However, the Committee was concerned about the aim of clause 3. This would entitle office holders such as Ministers, Presiding Officers and other officers specified in the Standing Orders to the equivalent of three months' pay, and it would be paid when they ceased to hold office. The re-elected Assembly would then take that up over a set period. The Committee concluded that a Member should not be entitled to an allowance just because he had lost his official position, especially when the Member could also receive allowances on leaving the Assembly. The Committee therefore decided that clause 3 should be deleted from the Bill. On behalf of the Committee I recommend that the Assembly should vote against the motion that clause 3 stand part of the Bill. A Cheann Comhairle that concludes my remarks.
I find myself in rather strange company given the reference at the start of this to - [Laughter] I should point out that I am not talking about the persons sitting on either side of me. I am referring to other Colleagues who were moving this amendment at the beginning of this debate. We must realise that we are not debating either this Bill or clause 3 in a vacuum. We are debating them against the background of growing public concern over the perceived wastage of money since the creation of the Assembly. There is a feeling that Assembly Members are like pigs getting their snouts into the trough. This has been fuelled to some extent by concerns over the growth in the number of Departments, and the additional expenditure involved was seen as unnecessary. There was an unfortunate impression given in the early days of the Assembly when one of our first items of business was a large pay rise for Members. That has created a great deal of public concern, and Members should be aware of that. When we are dealing with financial matters that concern the Assembly and its internal workings, we need to do that with an added sensitivity to that public perception. Where there is an opportunity for us to find some way to prune expenditure and to show that money is not being given out unnecessarily, we should take it.
When the Committee looked at the Bill, it did not have any problems with the other items contained in it. It was seen to be perfectly reasonable as a resettlement grant for Members who had lost their seats or indeed a retirement or winding-up allowance. These were all seen to be in the natural course of events.
However, there was a great deal of controversy about clause 3. There are allowances for Members who simply lose their seats - indeed, if a Minister were to lose his seat, he would obtain the same allowances as any other Member. However, clause 3, in effect, puts in an additional allowance for office holders who are removed from their post to become Back-Benchers once again. This seems to me and to many others as being, in effect, like a golden handshake.
When we are dealing with the public purse, however small the amount concerned, we need to be very careful. The Assembly should resist the paying of some additional allowance to office holders - simply because they have been in some way demoted. I find no logical reason for clause 3. There is no logical reason why we should be voting for this extra money. It has been said that we are following the example of the SSRB. While that should act as an example to us, we should not treat it as such holy script that we follow every single word of it. We must apply some common sense to this matter. Common sense clearly dictates that this is an unnecessary allowance, and one that will simply further the impression of the Assembly and Assembly Members as being self-gratifying, as people in it just for their own ends.
We need to look at the example that the Assembly is setting and to support the amendment to get rid of clause 3. The Bill without clause 3 would be perfectly adequate for the purposes for which it was intended, and I urge all Members to oppose clause 3 and the golden handshakes.
I get the sense that clause 3 is now holed below the waterline. I sincerely trust that that having happened, all Members will now clamber aboard the Good Ship Principle and be prepared to stand up and face the taxpayers - the voters who put them here.
When I first raised this issue in the Committee on 20 January, I said that the more I listened to the reasoning behind clause 3, the more I found myself disliking it, and the less able I felt I was to justify it. When you strip it all away, there really is no justification for that clause. When the question was posed more directly as to the purpose of clause 3, we were told, quite clearly and specifically, that it was to cushion the reduction in a large salary. To cushion the reduction in a large salary? I do not have a problem with a Minister or an office holder having the salary to which he or she is entitled. We, collectively as an Assembly, want them to be seen to be doing that job and doing it to the best of their ability, and, therefore, attracting a commensurate salary. I do not have a problem with that. But in what other walk of life do you receive a cushioning of your salary - for example, if you are reduced a grade in the Civil Service? I do not think so. If you lose your job you can get a severance pay, but this is about cushioning a salary.
I pay tribute to the sponsor of the Bill, who, when he appeared in front of the Committee, made it absolutely plain, as he has done so again today, that he did have difficulties with it, that the argument was that the standing by the SSRB recommendations was in many respects the best "protection", I think was the word used by others, for the Assembly.
When we look at the use of the word "protection", who or what are we trying to protect ourselves from? Is saying that you need protection not some sort of a defensive mechanism? I want to be able to stand in front of the electorate, without the need for any defensive mechanisms, knowing that I can justify - that is the key word - whatever legislation I have voted for in relation to financial matters. Every Member, be he office holder or non-office holder, should be able to go out and hold his head high by way of justifying that which he supports.
There is no justification - none whatsoever - for the existence of clause 3, and I urge, once again, Members who have now come aboard the Good Ship Principle to stand by their principles and go out and face the taxpayer saying "We did not slavishly follow the recommendations of any outside organisation when we could not justify the expenditure of your money". The best way to demonstrate that is to ensure that clause 3 is thrown out.
Go raibh maith agat, Mr Speaker. I am not going to go all over the arguments again; I simply want to make two points. First, I would like clarification from yourself. Mr Fee did not move a number of the amendments, but I presume that he was acting on behalf of the Commission. I am curious to know how he was able to decide not to move those amendments, because my party Colleague was not aware of any Commission decision to not move the amendments. I am happy that the amendments were not moved, and I want to stress that I am not making a personal attack on Mr Fee - indeed, the minutes of the meetings in January and February will show that I made the point that the Commission has a difficult job. The question, purely for my own reference, is by what authority he withdrew them?
Secondly, Mr Fee said that there was no departure from the SSRB recommendations. In fact, there are, from his own amendments. Again, I am happy with those amendments, in recognition of the arguments that we made.
For the benefit of Hansard, I ask the Member to come to the podium. It will be impossible to record his words unless he approaches a microphone.
As I understand the precise procedure - and I could be acting under misapprehension - the Bill that I sponsored has the status of a private Member's Bill. Therefore the Member is quite right: I took the decision without reference back to the Commission.
I am glad to hear that the majority of Members are opposed to clause 3 standing part of the Bill - for all of the reasons clearly outlined in the minutes of the meetings going back into January and February - on the basis that it would be improper to give people an increase in salary for being an office holder, and then give them a handshake when they leave that position. I am happy that most Members conclude that that would not be an appropriate piece of legislation.
I pointed out earlier what I regarded as being a series of inadequacies in the drafting of clause 3, and Mr Fee and I sought to correct those with our series of amendments. However, it has become clear in the course of the debate that the House has turned its face against this clause and, rather than go through the process of forcing each amendment to the vote, we have decided not to press them to the vote. The consequence of that is that clause 3, as it stands in the Bill, is, in my opinion, very inadequate - not least because it did not take cognisance of a period of dissolution and could have accidentally triggered the payment of allowances even when it was not intended to do so. With those amendments not going forward, it is appropriate to support this amendment so that the clause does not stand part of the Bill.
I would take this opportunity to correct one or two exaggerated claims about the size of these allowances that I have heard in the media. One quarter of a ministerial stipend comes to about £8,000. I have heard larger figures quoted, and I hope people can be accurate about these things in the future. A Chairman's extra stipend is £10,000. The allowance payable under clause 3 would be £2,500. These are not excessive sums of money.
I repeat my earlier point that people lose office without notice. People in the private sector would definitely receive notice and, quite possibly, compensation related to the length of time for which the office had been held.
A number of interesting sentiments have been expressed in the debate. We heard very little from the DUP about its intention, expressed a few weeks ago, to amass a war chest. The methodology by which it might have done that is clearly not going to be available to it through this clause in any event. I wonder if we had pushed through the amendment, which I believe would have had sufficient support in the House, and opposed Mr Molloy's amendment, which we are debating at the moment, would the parties to my right have fully whipped their vote to ensure that Mr Molloy's amendment went through. Unfortunately, we are not going to be in a position to find out.
Finally, if in future, when commentators invite the House to amend any further recommendations made by the Senior Salaries Review Body, I will not be leading the riposte. I will look to others who have identified themselves in the course of the debate. I will support the amendment.
A lot of what I intended to say has already been said. The Chairman and members of the Finance and Personnel Committee will remember that I could not bring myself to support the inclusion of clause 3 and that, in fact, I abstained. I now find myself in the situation where I must express my support for the motion before the House. We entered this Chamber on an equal basis. Nobody was above anybody else - yourself included, Sir. We came in on a level footing and when we leave we should also leave on a level footing.
Mr P Robinson:
I suppose, together with others, I should probably have commenced by declaring an interest. However, to the extent that I am speaking against what that perceived interest might be, I am sure I will be forgiven.
First, it is worth pointing out that I do not hold a ministerial salary. As part of an agreement reached by my party, ministerial salaries and all the financial benefits of office are put into what the previous Member referred to as the war chest, which is for the defeat of the First Minister's team at the earliest possible opportunity, if he does not run scared and try to get elections cancelled. The basis of the proposition was that we would never intend to take from public sources any funds by way of severance pay. It has never been in the party's mind and it simply would not have happened. We would have declined such funding. Nonetheless, the issue of principle does arise. I really do not know what Mr Leslie was talking about when he said that we will not know. We will know. We will be voting as to whether clause 3 stands part or not.
As things stand at the moment, the reality is that if this Bill were to be passed, severance pay would be given to Ministers when they went out of office. We will be voting against that. There is one very clear reason why that should be so. The only people who find themselves in an awkward position through no fault of their own, are the Assembly Commission members, who have to carry out, to the letter of the law, the vote of the Assembly, a vote which everybody would recognise as sensible in terms of giving guidance to the Commission with regard to where Members stand in relation to pay and allowances.
This is very different. If an Assembly Member were to lose his position in the Assembly then effectively he would be unemployed. I can see that in those circumstances there might be a justification for making some funds available as an equivalent to a redundancy payment for that person to find an alternative job - something that would not be easy for many Assembly Members. That is not because of any lack of ability on their part, rather it is because their faces may not fit easily into a number of organisations after they have become so publicly well known, or notorious.
This is not the position as far as office holders are concerned. If they lose the position that they are holding in the Assembly or in the Government, they fall back to being Assembly Members, with all of the rights and entitlements of every other Assembly Member. There is no hardship involved. I do not think, therefore, that it is hard to justify not giving them this additional benefit. In general, we should be cautious. We have a guiding principle set down from the earliest days about the SSRB report. That should be regarded as something of a ceiling rather than a requirement on every occasion, and we are still entitled as an Assembly to look sensibly at the operation of each aspect. I believe that in this case there is absolute justification for voting against clause 3 standing part.
It would be useful, Mr Speaker, if you were to advise us on the mechanism being used. As I understand it, the amendment that we are presently dealing with has been put down by a number of Members, if you like, as a mechanism to allow us to debate the issue, which we would not otherwise have had the opportunity to do. I am not sure whether they intend to withdraw that amendment and allow the full vote to take place on the clause stand part. Whichever they do, am I right in assuming that if their amendment does not succeed, it would be a case of the clause being put by way of a clause stand part and that we can vote against it at that stage?
I should perhaps give a word of explanation about the procedure to address the point that Mr Robinson makes. Following this debate dealing with all of the issues that relate to clause 3, I will move through each of the amendments that have been put. Two have been put in the name of Mr Molloy, as Chairman of the relevant Committee, a number in the name of Mr Leslie and a number in the name of Mr Fee. I will move through each of those and ask if they are moved or not moved. From what has been said, one would expect that they would simply respond: "Not moved".
Amendment 3, standing in the name of Mr Molloy, Mr Weir, Mr Close and Mr Maskey, has in fact already been moved. If the Member in the lead wished to withdraw it and the other Members agreed, it could be withdrawn by leave of the Assembly. We would then vote on clause 3 stand part, and Members would vote as they choose. If the amendment were pressed at that stage and were successful then there would be no clause 3 to vote upon. It would have been removed so there would be no subsequent vote.
If, however, the amendment were not carried the vote would be that clause stand part and Members could then vote against that. Slightly peculiarly there could be one vote or two votes. There could indeed be only one vote if the Member decided, and the other Members agreed, to take leave of the Assembly to withdraw it. So it would be a matter of paying acute attention to precisely how it proceeds.
We would then proceed to amendment 12 which deals with clause 4. Then there are two other amendments which are consequential amendments in the event of clause 3 not standing part of the Bill at that stage.
I now ask Mr Molloy if he wishes to respond at this stage in respect of amendment 3.
A Cheann Comhairle, thank you very much. The question at issue is whether it is appropriate to pay such allowances to Members simply because they had a privileged position in the Assembly, and it is my view and that of the Committee of Finance and Personnel, that this allowance should not form part of the scheme. I have listened to Members' comments, and I welcome the fact that other Members have come to share the Committee's view. From the outset, it was fairly widely held among us.
As Mr Maskey pointed out earlier, the Assembly is different from Westminster in that over 50% of its Members are office holders and as such would be entitled to allowances if they lost or changed their positions. I should like to remind Mr Sammy Wilson that these amendments were put forward on 10 February 2000, a long time before he thought up his scheme of rotating Ministers, so they are not in reaction to anyone else's actions. I welcome the conversion to our Committee's position, which I also recommend as the position of my party.
A number of Members referred to the SSRB report and said that we should not deviate from it. However, if we did not have the opportunity to amend, clearly there would be no purpose in having a Committee Stage. The whole idea behind it is that people can suggest amendments and changes on which Members of the Assembly have the right to vote.
A number of points were made by Mr Weir about wider public opinion, which, it is clear, is against these unnecessary allowances. Mr Close said that the SSRB report was no justification for paying these allowances, and if people need to have some justification, that speaks for itself. Mr Maskey said that there was no need for office holders to have a golden handshake when they leave their positions, for they would be continuing as Assembly Members and getting allowances. Mr Leslie spoke about clause 3, and he is in support of our amendment, since he is opposed to clause 3's being part of the Bill and I welcome that.
I recommend that we have a vote in support of removing clause 3 from the Bill.
We shall now proceed to the amendments relating to clause 3. I move perhaps slightly outside the Speaker's normal remit to remind you that amendment 8 was the subject of the first debate, not of the second.
Is amendment 1, standing in the name of Chairman of the Finance and Personnel Committee, moved or not moved?
Is amendment 11 moved or not moved?
Is amendment 14 moved or not moved?
Is amendment 10 moved or not moved?
Are amendments 4 and 15 moved or not moved?
Is amendment 8 moved or not moved?
The Member may wish to reconsider that. Amendment 8 is a technical consequential amendment, which may need to be passed. I am moving outside what the Speaker would normally do, but we are all learning.
Sorry for my confusion.
Amendment (No 8) made: 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]
Is amendment 2 moved or not moved?
Amendment No 3, whose effect would be that clause 3 would not stand part of the Bill: moved or not moved?
Amendment made: Leave out Clause 3, as amended. - [Mr Maskey]
The clause having been removed, there is no requirement to make a decision about whether it stand part.
Clause 4 (Winding up allowance)
Amendment 12 is a further technical amendment to address the fact that the Pensions Bill will not be proceeded with as the Secretary of State introduced a pension scheme for Members by way of a determination while devolved government was suspended. The Pensions Bill contained a provision to make the Assembly Commission a rule-making authority. This provision is still required to allow the Commission to vary the limit on the amount of the winding-up allowances contained in clause 4 in line with changes to the office cost allowances. The winding-up allowance is set at one third of the office cost allowance.
Amendment (No 12) made: In page 3, after line 17, insert
"( ) The Commission shall be a rule-making authority for the purposes of the Statutory Rules (Northern Ireland) Order 1979 (NI12) and accordingly in Part I of the Schedule to that Order after the entry relating to the Foyle, Carlingford and Irish Lights Commission there shall be inserted -
'The Northern Ireland Assembly Commission'." - [Mr John Fee]
Clause 4, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Clause 5 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Clause 6 (Short title)
Amendment (No 5) made: In page 3, line 23, leave out "and Office Holders". - [Mr Molloy]
Clause 6, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Schedule agreed to.
Amendment (No 6) made: In page 1, long title, leave out from "Assembly" to end. - [Mr Molloy]
Long Title, as amended, agreed to:
This concludes the Consideration Stage of the Bill. It stands referred to the Speaker for a decision upon competence and will return at an appropriate time.
That the following Members are appointed as the Trustees of the Assembly Members' Pension Scheme: Mr John Dallat, Mr John Kelly, Mr David McClarty, Mr Denis Watson and Mr Jim Wells. - [Rev Robert Coulter]
The sitting was suspended at 4.45 pm.