Northern Ireland Assembly
Tuesday 20 February 2001
The Assembly met at 10.30 am (Mr Speaker in the Chair).
Members observed two minutes’ silence.
During a debate on a motion on arrangements for obtaining from the Civic Forum its views on social, economic and cultural matters, moved by the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister on 6 February, a point of order was raised by Mr Peter Robinson as to whether the First Minister had misled the House.
The Deputy Speaker asked Mr Robinson to make available to my office papers to which he had referred. Subsequently, on 12 February, the First Minister raised a further point of order in response to the allegations made by Mr Robinson, and I indicated that he should supply to me the papers which, he ventured, showed that he had not misled the Assembly. I undertook to study both sets of papers and provide a response.
I have received both sets of papers and have given the matter careful consideration. It appears that a meeting of some kind took place under the auspices of the Civic Forum on 20 December in the morning, which considered and, indeed, suggested an amendment to a motion on the relationship between the Assembly and the Forum. The management committee of the Forum, meeting that same afternoon, agreed that that motion — amended, as it seems, that morning — should go forward to the Assembly.
It is clear from Mr Robinson’s comments and the correspondence that he has provided that the burden of his argument is that the meeting on the morning of 20 December was not competent to make decisions for the Forum as a whole. It is also clear that he is judging the conduct of the Civic Forum’s business against the standards and procedures followed by this Assembly and other public bodies with which he is familiar.
From my reading of the papers, it would appear that the Civic Forum does not operate in quite that way. For example, in the minute of the meeting of the management committee held on 20 December at 2.15 pm it is recorded that it was agreed that a quorum of 50% should be applied to plenary sessions and that decisions should be made only when a quorum was present.
Laying aside any other unusual features of this decision, it would seem that the management committee considered itself entitled to set down standing orders for the Civic Forum without reference to the body as a whole, or it could be that the minute is inaccurate or incomplete. If the former is the case, then a sub-group other than the plenary has much more substantial competence in respect of the body as a whole than would be customary. That could explain how the meeting of the morning of 20 December 2000, despite not being called a plenary, could speak for the Civic Forum as a whole. If, however, the minute is substantially inaccurate, and there is some evidence of inaccuracies in the documentation, it then becomes difficult to judge the question put to me on a perusal of the papers of the Forum.
To summarise, the First Minister advised the Assembly that the Civic Forum had considered the terms of the motion and had amended it. It appears that both the management committee and another meeting of less certain composition did, indeed, consider and amend the proposed motion. The First Minister advised that the date of the meeting was 20 December 2000. That also seems correct. From the evidence supplied to me by both Members, it appears that the procedures of the Forum’s meetings are different from the more formal arrangements that one would normally expect of a public body. I cannot see, on this basis, how one could rule that the First Minister had misled the House. Indeed, his actions were to the contrary.
Mr P Robinson:
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Before the First Minister apologises to the Assembly, as is being requested by his Back-Benchers, have you looked at the e-mail from the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister of 19 December, which makes it clear that it is a meeting of a group? How can one explain away an e-mail that refers to the meeting as a group? If you are correct that the quorum for a meeting of the Civic Forum is 50% — 30 members — this meeting, by the admission of the First Minister and his colleagues, was one of 20 people. Therefore, it did not meet the quorum and could not speak on behalf of the Civic Forum.
So far as the question of the quorum is concerned, the decision, according to the minute, was arrived at subsequent to that meeting and would not refer back.
There is an old adage that as one lives, one judges one’s neighbours. Usually, that is meant in a rather negative sense. The Member has given a more positive meaning to this matter: he has an expectation that the Civic Forum will operate the kinds of procedures and standards with which he may be familiar here.
Mr P Robinson:
That applies to any public body.
That may be so. However, I have judged whether it would be appropriate for me, as Speaker, to enter into the question of how the Civic Forum conducts its business. I have taken the view that it would be improper for me to add to any confusion that may exist that this Assembly and its Speaker have any responsibility for, or any authority with regard to, the running of the Civic Forum.
The First Minister (Mr Trimble):
Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. It is absolutely clear that the statements I made to the House were precisely accurate. Furthermore, it is clear, as you have said, that it is not proper for this House to sit in judgement of the Civic Forum and its procedures. It is also clear that if anyone has been misled, it is Mr Robinson.
Mr P Robinson:
I have been misled by Mr Trimble.
The First Minister:
It is Mr Robinson who has been misled by those who supplied him with partial information. I would have hoped that he would be capable of learning from his mistakes and have the decency to apologise for his quite improper behaviour.
Order. I am not clear what the point of order is. If it is that it is not possible for this Assembly to raise questions about the Civic Forum, there may be a question as to whether the Forum, if it is to be an accountable body — and that is not wholly clear to me — is to be accountable to the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister. If there is any question about issues being raised in the Assembly, the Committee of the Centre scrutinises the affairs of the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister. That would be a proper place for the question of accountability of the Civic Forum to be raised and whether the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister has any accountablity. I am by no means sure, in these somewhat muddy waters, that that is necessarily the case.
Mr P Robinson:
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Before the kindergarten tantrum of the First Minister, it was fairly clear that he does not consider the Committee of the Centre to be pertinent in this respect. The motion that he brought to the Assembly was not submitted to the Committee of the Centre. I assume from your ruling that you do not think that the Speaker is competent to answer questions about the propriety of the arrangements for the Civic Forum. However, is it not proper for the Speaker to indicate that they are shambolic? The Civic Forum has become nothing more than the lapdog of the First Minister, whose office is even responsible for putting out the notices of its meetings. What degree of independence can there be from a body that is in the pocket of the First Minister?
Order. I have made it clear that I have no desire that there should be any confusion in the minds of Members or the public as to whether the Speaker has any authority in relation to, or bears any responsibility for, the procedures and standards of the Civic Forum. It is best for me to leave the ruling as I have made it. Other Members have made their comments, and we will leave them at that.
Rev Dr Ian Paisley:
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I want to raise a matter that took place in the House on Tuesday 13 February in my absence. It was referred to me yesterday when I came to the House. Mrs Nelis, in a statement, said
"For example, I could talk about the thousands of Catholics who were forced to move south in 1969 as a result of pogroms by the RUC and the B-Specials. Some of them, for all we know, may be sitting in this Chamber. However, we do know that the founder of the DUP, Dr Paisley, was a prime mover in the lead-up to the pogroms in 1969 and certainly all pogroms since."
This is a very serious accusation — that I organised the persecution and massacre of Roman Catholics. I am very glad that these matters were looked into by a public, sworn inquiry — the Scarman inquiry. I have a copy of the report in my hand. Judge Scarman had this to say:
"[Dr Paisley] neither plotted nor organised the disorders under review, and there is no evidence that he was a party to any of the acts of violence investigated by us."
He also said that my role was no different from that of the political leaders on the other side of the sectarian divide. That gives the lie to the accusation that was thrown out in this House. However, I know that the Republicans do not want to see me in this House because on three occasions they attempted to kill me. When I was on the Albert Bridge with my son, they fired on the car in which I was travelling, and it was only by a miracle that the bullet did not penetrate the armoured vehicle. A group of gunmen also visited my church prayer meeting. Fortunately I was not —
On a point of order, Mr Speaker.
It is not normal to take points of order during personal statements.
Rev Dr Ian Paisley:
They wanted to make an attempt on my life. Fortunately, I was not present. Then on the day that Rev Robert Bradford died, an IRA den was discovered opposite my house. They intended to murder me in my garden on the same day that Rev Robert Bradford was murdered. Those happen to be facts, and I am very glad that I am alive today to be able to make a statement in this House.
I remind the House that if a Member intends to make remarks about a Colleague, it is normal to inform him. That is standard procedure in other Parliaments. It may be too much to expect Members here to advise individuals of such an intention, but it could be done through the Speaker’s Office. It is unfortunate if points are made about other Members, particularly in their absence without due warning having been given. I understand that such remarks are sometimes made in the heat of a debate, rather than during a planned speech, but it is generally best if we can proceed in an orderly fashion.
The First Minister (Mr Trimble):
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I understand your point about the desirability of giving notice to an individual about whom one intends to make a personal reference — that is quite right. It may not, however, be desirable for you and your Office to interpose. It would be easier if notes to convey such information were posted on the notice board, and it would have been appropriate if that had been done in this case.
Mr P Robinson:
You may correspond with the Provos, but we do not.
I am grateful to the First Minister for his concern — I understand what he has said. I am not sure that notes on a notice board would be the best way of dealing with this, but my Office and I will continue to give the best possible service.
We will move on to the Second Stage of the Budget Bill — [Interruption].
On a point of order, Mr Speaker, though perhaps it could be said that I am seeking clarification. Since I am very often slammed and damned in my presence, and certainly in my absence, is it now perfectly legitimate for me to trawl through every Hansard and ask for a right of reply?
Well, Mr Ervine is a merciful and gracious man. I trust that he will not take the opportunity to trawl through Hansard, however fascinating the Official Report of this House may be, so that he can respond in that way. However, he is correct in saying that he and other Members about whom allegations have been made in the House are entitled to request an opportunity to make a statement, as Dr Paisley did this morning and as other Members have done on other occasions. Despite what has been said, if a Member intends to make such references, it helps if he advises the Speaker’s Office in advance, as Dr Paisley quite properly did.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I appreciate that Members who consider themselves to have been defamed have a right to reply. However, is it appropriate for a Member to quote, in his defence, from the report of a discredited British inquiry, such as the Scarman Report?
As ever, Mr Maskey has made an ingenious point of order. It is, of course, perfectly in order for a Member to quote, in his defence, anything he feels to be appropriate, as Dr Paisley did.
Mr P Robinson:
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. To what extent can Members expect the protection of the Speaker in these situations? An accusation was made against Dr Paisley to the effect that he had committed a criminal act and that he was responsible for the murder of individuals. On a previous occasion, when an accusation was made in the House by a Member from this side against members of the Provisional Sinn Féin/IRA movement, you ruled on the issue. In fact, you even put the Member out of the Chamber. To what extent should the Speaker, whoever it was at the time, have ruled against the comments made about Dr Paisley?
I will look at that question. It is not one that I have addressed, since I was not in the Chair at the time. If it seems to me that it would be appropriate, in this case, for action to be taken, I will respond. If not, I shall simply leave the matter there. However, I will look into it as the Member has put this question to me.
The Minister of Finance and Personnel (Mr Durkan): I beg to move
That the Second Stage of the Budget Bill [NIA 10/00] be agreed.
In moving this motion I wish to make some helpful points. The debate follows on from the Bill’s First Stage yesterday and the Supply motions for the 2000-01 spring Supplementary Estimates and the 2001-02 Vote on Account, which were also considered and approved.
The Bill has been given accelerated passage because of the change to Standing Order 40 agreed on February 12. That procedure was made conditional on confirmation from the Chairperson of the Finance and Personnel Committee that the Committee is satisfied that there has been appropriate consultation on the public expenditure proposals contained in the Bill. That condition has been met, and the confirmation was given in a letter dated February 16 from the Chairperson of the Committee to the Speaker.
Once again, I express my appreciation to the Finance and Personnel Committee for the attention that it has given and continues to give to matters of public expenditure and to related procedural issues.
The purpose of the Budget Bill is to give legislative effect to the resource estimates approved through the Supply resolutions passed yesterday. Given the wide-ranging and valuable debate, I do not intend to detain the House with unnecessary repetition of the detail implicit in the spending authorisation contained in the Bill. I gave much of that detail when I spoke yesterday. However, for the benefit of the Assembly I wish to summarise very briefly the main features of the Bill in accordance with the nature of the Second Stage debate envisaged under Standing Order 30.
The Bill authorises the issuing of £195,599,000 from the Northern Ireland Consolidated Fund in respect of the spring Supplementary Estimates for 2000-01 and appropriates this sum to specific services as set out in schedule 1.
Yesterday, Members received copies of the detailed spring Supplementary Estimates booklet and the Vote on Account statement.
The Vote on Account provided for in the Bill for 2001-02 is to allow funds to continue to flow to public services for the early months of the incoming financial year until the Main Estimates can be presented to and considered by the Assembly. For the Vote on Account, the Budget Bill seeks the issue from the Consolidated Fund of the sum of £3806,414,000 and its appropriation to services as in schedule 2. In addition, it seeks the Assembly’s authorisation for the use of resources amounting to £4305,870,000 as set out in schedule 3.
(Mr Deputy Speaker [Sir John Gorman] in the Chair)
The concept of authorising resources is new and will be fully covered by amendments to the Government Resources and Accounts Bill, which will begin its Further Consideration Stage later today. The necessary elements are being put in place to ensure clear, unambiguous and firm control by the Assembly over the use of resources by Departments and public bodies when the change to full resource budgeting takes effect from 1 April this year. At the same time, it is important to ensure that expenditure and resource use authorised under separate statutory provision can proceed in addition to that, subject to the limit set in the Bill. That is the purpose of clause 4(2).
The change to resource budgeting represents a milestone in the development of better management and information systems about the true costs and impact of policies, with the aim of promoting better design policies and improved value for money in the future. Resource budgeting is the basis upon which Northern Ireland and other devolved territories will be required to develop and support their bids for resources under the Barnett rules.
I was most interested and, indeed, encouraged by the many views expressed by Members during yesterday’s useful debate. As I said yesterday, having had such a debate, there is little more that I can now add to the substance of the Budget Bill. I will, however, endeavour to respond to any points raised by Members.
As an Assembly, we are quickly coming to grips with our responsibilities to authorise and control public expenditure. The fact that we are doing so at a time of transition to a new accounting concept sets an additional challenge. However, this is a challenge that we gladly embrace, since the approval and control of resources epitomise the responsibilities we have accepted as public representatives.
In welcoming the Second Stage of the Budget Bill, it is worth repeating its historic nature. As has already been said, this is the first Budget by Northern Ireland people for Northern Ireland people in more than a quarter of a century. It is worth dwelling on the change that that represents.
The allocations of money are not an end in themselves; they are a means to an end. What is significant are the services and results that they will buy. The Executive need to work in conjunction with the scrutiny Committees to prove that devolution makes a positive difference. We are witnessing the beginnings of such a positive difference with, for example, free public transport for the elderly and the projected enhanced student support. This Budget represents the beginnings of a collective achievement by the Executive. In order to achieve further good results — in other words to get good value for money — this Budget offers at least two novel features, namely the public service agreements and the Executive’s programme funds. These, of course, will be subjected to scrutiny both in Committee and in the House in the near future.
A subject that seems to be of perennial interest in these debates, and that needs some enlightenment, is the regional rate and the principles of regional taxation. It seems that the level of business rates in Northern Ireland is broadly in line with that in Great Britain. My party is pleased that the Minister has been able to reduce the projected percentage increase in the business or commercial rate.
Anomalies remain in the ratings of individual business properties in various parts of the Province. For example, in Belfast there is evidence that properties on relatively depressed arterial routes carry the same rating burden as properties in prime locations in the city centre. That hardly seems equitable and should be the subject of speedy review. There is the linked issue of the base for commercial rates, which I will return to in a few minutes. I am glad that there is the prospect of a review of the ratings base. However, there are strong grounds for arguing that vacant properties should be subject to rates.
Domestic rates present a very different picture to business rates. The Northern Ireland Economic Council (NIEC) recently argued that policy formed for the Province must be based on sound evidence. That is a good piece of advice on which many parties in the Chamber should reflect. Some parties’ comments about the domestic rating situation have been less than frank, perhaps because they are overly excited at the prospect of a forthcoming general election.
Here are some of the relevant facts: in the year 2000-01, the total regional and district rates in Northern Ireland averaged £386. I base those figures on work carried out by the Assembly’s research and information department. That compares to an average council tax for England, in the same year, of £697. There is a considerable difference. However, we must remember that in England and Wales, householders pay a quite considerable, additional amount of money. In 1999-2000, they paid £248 on average to the private water companies for water rates. The total bill in England and Wales, equivalent to the combination of our district and regional rate, is around £950, whereas here it is under £400.
It is true that average incomes are lower in Northern Ireland. However, the average income for a property owner in Northern Ireland is around 90% of the England and Wales average. However, our average rates bill totals about 40% of that of England and Wales.
Given that, and that the projected increase in domestic rates is to be 7% in Northern Ireland — the same as this year’s projected council tax rate in England and Wales — it is hard to argue in principle against that percentage increase, however politically attractive it may be. No doubt, some Members will do so because of the anticipated election.
Does the Member accept that the cost of electricity, fuel, clothing, and so on, is substantially higher in Northern Ireland than in Great Britain and that that must be taken into consideration?
I thank the Member for his point. He has been one of the main crusaders on the issue, but I continue to believe that the statistical evidence suggests that his crusade against the domestic rates increase is a misguided one. It is true that some categories of domestic expenditure in the Province are lower than in England and Wales, but not in every case. Average mortgage payments, for example, are lower here.
We must also bear in mind the Barnett formula. Our Executive will find it hard to argue for an increase in public spending in Northern Ireland — based on claims of higher needs — if at the same time we have a rates bill that is much less, on average, than that in England and Wales. Moreover, we are also trying to have a lower percentage increase in those rates.
Let me turn to the issue of whether we should change the base of local property taxation. I get the impression from some parties in the Chamber that they feel that a base in terms of assessed rental property values is an unfair one. It has been argued, for example, that families of different sizes or incomes living in the same house size and location are being treated unfairly because they end up paying the same domestic rates bill.
All that that argument is really saying is that the regional rate is not an income tax, which is simply a statement of the obvious. I wonder whether some of the parties who have opposed the 7% increase in the domestic regional rate are really arguing for a poll tax, which would get around this apparent — and I stress "apparent" — anomaly. I see that Mr Close is shaking his head. Perhaps they are arguing for a supplement to income tax — that people in Northern Ireland should pay a higher rate of income tax than other parts of the United Kingdom. Well, if that is what they — [Interruption].
Does the Member accept that because of the way that the housing benefit system operates in relation to rate relief, it really is a form of poll tax? The number of people who live in a house becomes part of the housing benefit assessment.
I do not think that that is relevant to the point I am making.
If parties want to change the system of property taxation from the current assessed rental values, they must be very clear whether they want to base it on a poll tax standard or a change in the standard rate of income tax. We will need to think very carefully whether that is the road that we want to go down.
I favour keeping the tax base as wide as possible. Indeed, that is the position of the Ulster Unionist Party. A tax on property — in some form — should be included so that the rate of tax can be kept as low as possible.
Should we have what is, in effect, a separate or regional form of taxation in Northern Ireland? It can be claimed — and I must concede that there is some force in the arguments put forward — that the regional rate has become a sort of regional tax by default. Should we continue with that situation or should we attempt to move to a different form of regional taxation? The economic theory is that if we were to have a specific regional tax it might make all of us — and the Executive in particular — more responsible in our spending decisions. If the House and the Executive wished to present the case for an increase in public spending, we would also be answerable to the electorate for raising the revenues.
I suppose that, in theory, there is something attractive in that situation. It would certainly make Assembly Members and members of the Executive think twice about suggesting increases in public spending willy-nilly. However, that is very much a theoretical argument, and it is not clear how it would work in practice. I note that, although the Scottish Parliament has the power to increase income tax above the standard UK rate by 3p in the pound, that power has not yet been used. I do not think that it is likely to be used in the foreseeable future. As I said earlier, if Members want Northern Ireland to have an income tax rate higher than that in the rest of the United Kingdom, they must bear in mind the disincentive effects that it would impose.
That would be a further disincentive, over and above some of the points that Mr Close made in his intervention about our higher energy charges, for example. The whole issue of whether there should be regional discretion on taxation is one which this House will have to return.
My party and I welcome this Budget. As we consider tax levels and types of taxes, we should bear in mind that this House will be failing all the people of Northern Ireland if it does not spend as much time seeking to devise policies to increase the total amount of wealth in the Northern Ireland economy as it spends debating policies that seek to redistribute wealth.
As Dr Birnie said, this is the first Budget that we have seen from a Northern Ireland Government for many years. The introduction of resource-based Estimates means that we can move away from cash Estimates alone, towards expenditure on resource and cash bases. The most important thing is that the Budget will now be administered by local Ministers, which will help to reassure the Northern Irish public that local issues will actually be addressed.
Departments now have the opportunity to redirect or prioritise many aspects of their expenditure, and there is the opportunity for innovation and, in particular, for Departments to become proactive rather than reactive with their budgets. Value for money is essential in order to promote optimum return from the limited resources available, which will involve allocating funds to particular areas of need and social deprivation.
The Assembly is at a crossroads, and we must address the years of underfunding of direct rule. We must set realistic targets to redress the balance and to target social need.
The additional moneys available through the Budget to schools will, I hope, ensure that the Minister of Education can prioritise the issue of mobile classrooms, and in particular the conditions in which many of our children are being taught. In addition, there is the possibility that the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety will ring-fence money, particularly for mental health.
Those issues, along with many more, will be a testament to our intention, as a new Government, to begin the process of change. Part of the uniqueness of the devolved Government is interdepartmental working. A good example of that is the promotion of interdepartmental co-ordination to deal with the issues affecting people with disabilities. That is one of the most positive measures to build a stronger, more concerted way to alleviate current difficulties, and to promote social inclusion for one of the most disadvantaged sections of our population.
Our aim should be to provide better access to services and facilities for the disabled, thus bringing them into line with the rest of society. With this combined effort across Departments, there will also be improved access to cultural and leisure facilities for people with disabilities. That will promote access to both social and work activities, which can only be seen as a very positive move towards inclusion for the future.
The targets defined in the Programme for Government must be regularly reviewed and examined to enable us to turn them into realistically achievable objectives. We cannot do that without adequate funding in the first place. The new facility to borrow on account will enable the Departments to ensure continuity in the provision and delivery of services. I support the motion.
In this Bill, the Minister of Finance and Personnel, once again, is apparently in a very generous mood. Unfortunately, he does not seem to know to whom he should be most generous. I am sure that that is part of his main problem, which raises a fundamental point: upon what basis is the Minister making his decisions? How will we know whether he has all the information that he requires in order to make those decisions? What criteria will he use for deciding the rules for disbursement? Such fundamental issues will form the basis upon which he can show his generosity. I hope that he will clear those issues up.
There is anger about the above-inflation increase to the regional rate. If more money has been found, we should go back to the drawing board on that wild and ludicrous rise. There will be an outcry throughout the country when the rates bills start coming in. I will tell my constituents that the Executive are to blame.
This is not the first time that we have heard the announcement of further moneys. The Department seems to be unsure about how much money there is in the kitty at any given time, so we get frequent piecemeal announcements. The Northern Ireland Audit Office should go over the finances and tell us exactly what is available. There is a general impression that not only is there a lot of money, but there would be even more were the Minister to look in the right places. If that is the case, I have no doubt that the Minister of Finance and Personnel will be out on the highways and byways searching for the money.
We do not want a repeat of the fiasco of the trust deficits. Some trusts, such as the Royal Victoria Hospital, have a culture of overspending. The Minister should take a close look at that. There is a perception in the community and in the Health Service that some trusts just spend and spend and that no one monitors the situation. That is a sad reflection on the Health Service. Health professionals tell me that they feel that there is a mentality that the only thing that matters is the survival of the Royal Victoria Hospital, even if that would mean the closure of the entire Health Service.
The Republic of Ireland’s financial scandals, which have led to the setting up of numerous tribunals, may pale into insignificance in comparison to the evident wanton disregard of this Executive. It is essential, therefore, that the Minister knows what is happening. Has he approached the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister about a reduction in the number of quangos? Huge savings could be legitimately made if that were done, but the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister have said nothing on that matter. What is the Minister’s policy to reduce bureaucracy in order to make savings and, thus, reduce the need to raise the regional rate?
There is anger in the community about the lack of funding for the Health Service. The Minister made a welcome statement last week about tackling the trust deficits. However, more needs to be done, and more money must be invested in the Health Service, so that everyone in Northern Ireland and the Health Service can deal with the community’s problems.