Northern Ireland Assembly Flax Flower Logo

Northern Ireland Assembly

Monday 19 November 2001


Royal Assent

Assembly Business: Standing Orders

Tax Credits

Assembly: Ad Hoc Committee on the Proposal for a Draft Justice
(Northern Ireland) Bill and the Criminal Justice Review Implementation Plan

Oral Answers

Department of Education

Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety

Department of Finance and Personnel


The Assembly met at noon (Mr Speaker in the Chair).

Members observed two minutes' silence.

Royal Assent


Mr Speaker:

I wish to advise the House that Royal Assent has been signified to the Social Security Fraud Act. The Act became law on 15 November 2001.


Assembly Business: Standing Orders


Mr Speaker:

At its sitting on Tuesday 6 November 2001, the Assembly agreed an amendment to Standing Order 3(8), which refers to Members' designation; it was to take effect until the commencement of a review under strand one of the Belfast Agreement. I have been advised in writing by the Secretary of State that that review commenced today. Therefore, with effect from today, Standing Order 3(8) reverts to the previous version, which was agreed by the Assembly on Friday 2 November 2001.


Tax Credits


The Minister for Social Development (Mr Dodds):

I beg to move

That this Assembly endorses the principle of including in the Tax Credits Bill provision for the transfer of responsibility for policy and administration of Child Benefit and Guardians' Allowance to the Inland Revenue and social security legislative changes consequential upon the establishment of new Tax Credits, and agrees that the Bill should be considered by the United Kingdom Government.

I seek the Assembly's endorsement of the transfer of responsibility for child benefit to the Inland Revenue as part of the tax credit reforms aimed at relieving child poverty and encouraging people into work. Bringing together responsibility for child benefit and tax credits, so that they are administered by one source, will create a more streamlined and transparent system of support for children. The new system will be more accessible and more easily understood by claimants.

I seek the House's agreement that this and other social security legislative changes that are consequential upon the establishment of new tax credits should be considered by the United Kingdom Government and carried in the Westminster Bill. It seems sensible that one instrument in one place should carry all the necessary amendments that affect the introduction of tax credits. Prior to today's debate every Member received a memorandum explaining the background to tax credits. With regard to social security, there has always been parity with Great Britain. That is how it should be. I am happy to respond to Members' questions as they arise.

In the 2000 Budget the Chancellor of the Exchequer announced the Government's intention to introduce new payable tax credits for families with children and for those in low-paid work. Those new tax credits will be available from 2003 and will be administered by the Inland Revenue. They will replace - and in some cases extend - the support currently available under working families' tax credit, disabled person's tax credit, the child elements of income support, income-based jobseeker's allowance and children's tax credit. A consultation exercise that included Northern Ireland was initiated in July 2001 and finished on 12 October. The document 'New Tax Credits - Supporting Families, Making Work Pay, Tackling Poverty' was widely distributed. It indicated that discussions were taking place with Northern Ireland Ministers to consider the impact of the proposed changes on Northern Ireland's social security provision. No significant comments were forthcoming from Northern Ireland regarding that consultation process.

The Westminster legislation introducing tax credits will apply to the United Kingdom and will make consequential changes to social security benefits in Great Britain. The main changes requiring primary legislation are the removal of children's and disabled children's premiums in income support and jobseeker's allowance and the removal of child dependency increases from certain other benefits. Those will be replaced by a new system of support for families with children in tax credits for new cases from April 2003. To meet that timetable, the Government propose to introduce legislation at Westminster shortly.

Regarding Northern Ireland, the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions wrote to the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister to confirm that tax credits would be introduced in 2003. It was proposed to transfer responsibility for policy and administration of child benefit in Great Britain to the Inland Revenue. The Secretary of State has offered to include the necessary consequential Northern Ireland legislative changes in the Westminster Bill, subject to the agreement of the Assembly.

The transfer would affect 150 staff in the Social Security Agency. They would transfer from the Northern Ireland Civil Service to the Inland Revenue. Similar transfers that have taken place in Northern Ireland suggest that the terms and conditions of service are similar and have not proved contentious. A transfer of 229 staff has already taken place. Negotiations with the Northern Ireland Public Service Alliance will continue. The Department of Work and Pensions has indicated that, should the transfer take place, there will be no reduction in staff, and staff will not be transferred out of Northern Ireland. Assurances given to staff of the contributions unit and family credit unit at the Social Security Agency at the time of their transfer in 1999 to the Inland Revenue have been honoured. The Inland Revenue had to recruit additional staff to administer working families' tax credit. There is a firm expectation that additional staff will be needed to deal with the new tax credits.

If the motion is not passed, the retention of child benefit administration within Northern Ireland's social security system would probably entail significant costs by allowing the two systems to diverge in the long term. It would entail the considerable resource input of new information technology systems, which Northern Ireland would have to procure or, subject to the Department of Work and Pensions' agreement, it would have to pay for that Department to maintain separate computer systems for Northern Ireland-only claims.

It is difficult to quantify the time and costs involved in the consultation, negotiation and installation of a new computer system based in Northern Ireland, or the charges that the Department for Work and Pensions may levy to continue running the existing system to maintain Northern Ireland-only claims. It would require detailed negotiation; however, the costs are likely to be significant. Those costs plus the administrative costs involved would have to be met from within the Northern Ireland block. The Treasury may also raise concerns about funding social security costs that do not have equivalents in Great Britain.

The transfer of responsibility for the administration of child benefit to the Inland Revenue would impact on recipients and staff. However, child benefit will continue as a universal benefit, which is not means-tested, and which is payable subject to similar conditions. Therefore there will be no differential impact on recipients. Experience from similar transfers has shown that there should be no differential impact on staff as regards equality, because terms and conditions of service are similar and have not proved to be contentious.

The Executive noted the Chancellor's proposal to establish new tax credits; accepted the offer to carry consequential Northern Ireland social security legislation in the Westminster Bill; and agreed, subject to Assembly approval, to the transfer of responsibility for child benefit to the Inland Revenue. I commend the motion to the House.

The Chairperson of the Committee for Social Development (Mr Cobain):

The crux of the matter is our role in scrutinising legislation - legislation that affects the citizens of Northern Ireland. We need to pay a great deal of attention to the precise terms of the motion.

An official from the Department for Social Development appeared before the Social Development Committee on 27 September 2001 to advise us on the steps taken in regard to the document 'New Tax Credits - Supporting Families, Making Work Pay, Tackling Poverty'. I stress that I chose deliberately the term "advise us". It is fair to say that the Committee did not feel that it was consulted; that is always the problem with so-called parity legislation. The Committee for Social Development encounters that problem frequently.

Social security matters are devolved to the Assembly, but Westminster drives the law, often as part of tax and benefit reforms. I am not clear as to why it is considered necessary to devolve social security matters in the first place. However, they are devolved matters, and that is the dilemma we face.

The Inland Revenue published the consultation document on tax credits in July 2001. The proposals for the tax credit regime were first outlined in the 1999 Budget and were reaffirmed in the Chancellor's 2000 Budget statement. It is clear from the consultation document that the Chancellor and the Government intended that the proposals should apply throughout the UK. However, the Department did not engage with the Committee for Social Development until the end of September, and then it was simply to tell us what they planned to do.

Members always insist on parity, especially when it is to ensure that people in Northern Ireland are not disadvantaged. Some people might say that choosing the Westminster route secures the parity arrangement that we seem to prefer. The Committee was told that Alistair Darling had offered the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister the opportunity to have Northern Ireland included in the forthcoming Bill.

The document entitled 'Memorandum by the Minister for Social Development on the Proposed Transfer of Responsibility for Policy and Administration of Child Benefit and Guardian's Allowance to the Inland Revenue and Social Security Changes Consequential on the Introduction of Child Tax Credits' refers to the consultation that took place with Northern Ireland Ministers. I quote from paragraph 6, which concerns the Inland Revenue's consultation document

". discussions were taking place with Northern Ireland Ministers to consider the impact of the proposed changes on Northern Ireland social security provision".

12.15 pm

Did that constitute consultation? Why were the discussions restricted to Ministers? Why was the Committee for Social Development not consulted?

If we follow the parity argument in this case - that arrangements for tax credits should apply here - how do we arrange for that to come about? On the face of it, a single Bill taken through Westminster might well satisfy our needs if we felt that we were being consulted about it.

It may be worth reminding the House that the Northern Ireland version of the Social Security Fraud Bill was brought before us not so long ago. The Minister requested accelerated passage for that Bill, but it was denied. It was denied because Members insisted on exercising their right, under the Assembly rules, to conduct the Committee Stage to scrutinise the law affecting our citizens. If we agree to the motion today, will we deny ourselves the right to scrutinise tax credits law? It is possible that we may do more than that. We may signal our acceptance that social security matters, which are currently devolved, should return to Westminster. That may set a precedent on which we find ourselves divided. It is a major issue of constitutional importance. I would be interested to hear whether the Minister considers that the motion, if passed, would have a consequential effect on the Northern Ireland Act 1998.

In dealing with tax credits in the debate today, we are examining matters of principle - the principles of parity and scrutiny. Is our present scrutiny of social security matters worth a penny candle? How effective is it, especially if one starts from the principle of maintaining parity? The tax credits law will be scrutinised at Westminster. If the House agrees to the motion, our real problem would be that the Assembly has no procedures in place to allow us to feed our views into the consideration and scrutiny that will take place at Westminster. How can that happen? If it is an oversight, it is an unfortunate one. It does our electorate a great disservice.

Wherever the fault lies, the House deserves to know how the Minister expects Northern Ireland's views on this important piece of legislation to be represented. The principles of if, how, and to what extent we can make an effective contribution to the scrutiny of law that is generated and processed in Westminster, but which affects us in Northern Ireland, are important. Those issues are likely to arise time and again, particularly in relation to social security matters, and in other fields. If the House agrees to accept the Westminster route, it is important that urgent action be taken and that arrangements be made to ensure that our views are listened to there. We need guarantees on that today.

If the Westminster Bill proceeds without including Northern Ireland, where will that leave us? We will be back to the parity issue. The Minister has made it clear that we would need to introduce our own systems to match those in Great Britain. We will have to bear the cost of doing that, and that could be significant. We have no way of financing those systems, so the money will have to be found from within the Northern Ireland block grant. The bottom line is that our citizens will be less well-off.

I am conscious that members of the Committee and other Members wish to speak. I expect that they will touch on issues such as job security and the employment implications for those involved in the administration and payment of benefits. I am sure that they will highlight their concerns about the detail of the proposed legislation and the effects that it will have on people here. It is important that those points be made, but is it enough that they are simply made here today? I think not. They need to be made in a debate during which the law is being scrutinised, wherever that may take place. If we fail to ensure that that happens, we will fail the people in the Province.

When the Social Development Committee discussed the tax credits issue, it was decided that I should not express on behalf of the Committee any view on the transfer of a devolved matter back to Westminster - a procedural question. That is a matter for this House.

Mr Gallagher:

My view is more clear-cut than that which was expressed on behalf of the Social Development Committee by its Chairperson.

The Minister has concerns about the possible divergence that might arise between the system here and that in Westminster. Nevertheless, because of my concerns, I ask the Minister not to move this motion today. It is being put through too hastily. I get the impression that we are reacting to what the Government in Westminster are telling us; there is a sense that we should be moving on. Our first responsibility is to the people in Northern Ireland who will experience changes, not least the 150 workers who will be affected if the motion is passed. Many members of the public would also experience changes.

The key issues that have not been addressed are staffing, accessibility and the cross-border matters that frequently arise, as Members who represent border areas know.

We are told that 150 staff will transfer. The memorandum states that nothing contentious has arisen as a result of an earlier transfer to allow for new family credit arrangements, but that took place just two years ago. That time span is too short. The 150 workers whose future promotion opportunities may be affected would like more thought to be given to the arrangements that will be in place for them in five or 10 years' time. We have not been given the answers to those fundamental questions. Negotiations with the trade unions are incomplete, and we should not pass this motion until those negotiations have been concluded.

Many parents have enquiries about accessibility. They want a front office arrangement, whereby they can come in off the street to ask questions or make complaints. Those arrangements have not been clarified. What will happen under the Inland Revenue? Will the important child benefit system be located in a back room of some Inland Revenue office? Accessibility is a central issue, and we need more information.

Many cross-border workers are already experiencing difficulties. The system is complicated, and if we transfer responsibility for tax credits to the Inland Revenue, it will become more complicated - it will then be completely beyond our control. At this stage, we do not have enough information about these key issues. We need wider and more detailed consultation. I ask the Minister to reconsider the motion. Then, when that consultation has been completed, the Minister can come back to the Assembly with another Bill.

Mr M Robinson:

I support the motion. I am in no doubt that the administration should be transferred to the Inland Revenue for the reasons I am about to give.

This debate has come about as a result of the announcement by the Chancellor of the Exchequer that the Government intend to introduce new tax credits for families with children and those in low-paid work. New tax credits, which will be available from 2003, will provide more support for the most vulnerable in society and thus tackle child poverty and social exclusion.

The main aim of the scheme, however, is to make work pay. For many years, reliance on the benefit system has sometimes proved a better financial option than seeking employment. Nobody should be better off unemployed. The scheme aims to make employment a more attractive and viable option and will give people an opportunity to escape the cycle of deprivation. It also reinforces the Government's commitment to combating poverty, particularly where it affects children.

The new tax credits will not detract from the current system, but will instead build on its strengths. It will, therefore, fulfil an important role in the world of benefits. This is to be a programme of reform intended to rationalise and consolidate the existing system of support. In doing so, it will make it easier to understand and more transparent, responsive and accessible.

The scheme is particularly aimed at families with children and those in low-paid work, and it will bring all associated benefits under one umbrella, cutting down on pointless bureaucracy and red tape. The new system will introduce uniformity, with a common framework for assessment and payment, which will ensure that the people of Northern Ireland will be able to benefit from United Kingdom legislation. The change that we are debating today is not change to the form of support, but rather a change of policy. We are advocating that our legislation should mirror that in Westminster, making it a uniform system.

I will move to an examination of the financial implications of this transfer of responsibility. If we in Northern Ireland were to take sole responsibility for the new system, it would require finance that would become a burden on the public purse. Management of the scheme here would require a complete overhaul of the computer network to bring the system into line with that in the rest of the United Kingdom. We have been assured that the transfer will have no negative impact on the current system, or on the recipients. The staff concerned will be working for the Inland Revenue rather than the Northern Ireland Civil Service. They have been assured that there will be no job losses, and their terms and conditions of employment will be largely similar.

It is envisaged that the transfer of the system will make the scheme much more accessible to users and, as a result, more effective, efficient and responsive to their needs. The new system will run on an annual cycle, which will ensure continuity and cut out pointless stops and starts midway through the year. This will remove any uncertainty about the level of support that a family is entitled to. It is also envisaged that the system will allow support to be finely targeted so that the most needy and vulnerable will be able to benefit from the resources available.

One of the major aims of the new scheme is to promote equality. Unfortunately, the most needy in society are usually the most excluded and often face financial barriers in the labour market.

The new tax credits scheme will promote inclusion rather than exclusion, and will extend support to those who were previously denied it.

I support the transfer of responsibility for policy- making and administration of child benefit in Northern Ireland to the Inland Revenue.

12.30 pm

The Deputy Chairperson of the Committee for Social Development (Ms Gildernew):

Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I am concerned about the motion and about the way in which the Committee for Social Development was consulted. Whom does the Minister think the motion will benefit? It will not make access to benefit any easier.

The SDLP has already mentioned the effect on jobs in the Six Counties, and I know that the Northern Ireland Public Service Alliance (NIPSA) is strongly opposed to the motion. As elected representatives, Members deal with people who have difficulty obtaining their benefits. It will be difficult for Members - and for the public - to move away from dealing with local social security offices to dealing with the Inland Revenue, when they are trying to sort out entitlement to benefits.

I am surprised that the DUP wants to take powers away from the Assembly, given that it is so keen on devolved government. I thought that it would prefer the Assembly to be accessible and accountable. Rev Ian Paisley, for instance, has worked well with the Agriculture Committee and has obviously found such accountability to be of great benefit to the people he deals with.

One of the issues relating to the Tax Credits Bill is whether benefits should go to the main carer. When it was first raised, that issue was extremely contentious, as it could mean that money is transferred from the mother's purse to the father's pocket. It will continue to be a contentious matter. We are not debating that today, but it would be in the interest of Members to be able to scrutinise the Bill.

If the motion is passed, Members will be passing powers back to Westminster and affording the Assembly no chance of scrutinising or changing the Bill. It will mean that the Assembly will have no input into the legislation, and that will have a huge impact on our constituents. Passing on that responsibility could be viewed as political cowardice, at worst, or political laziness, at best. The Assembly should not transfer powers back to Westminster on matters in which it can make a difference.

The SDLP asked that the motion not be tabled today. However, it has been tabled, so Members should vote against it to prevent further disadvantage to the most needy and vulnerable in society. Go raibh maith agat.

Mr B Hutchinson:

The PUP is concerned about the procedure that the House is going through. I urge the Minister to reconsider the motion. Members have had this discussion before. We have this debate every time that parity legislation comes before the House. Members must try to get round the notion of parity.

The Assembly debated a request for accelerated passage for the Social Security Fraud Bill. The Bill was not given accelerated passage, and the Minister had to come back to the House. One of the problems pointed out by Members was that Westminster had been working on the issue for six months before the Assembly even found out about it. The Chairperson of the Committee for Social Development, Mr Cobain, said something similar this morning. He said that Alistair Darling was supposed to have contacted our Ministers. Members of the Scottish Parliament were also asked for their feelings on the issue. It is a procedural matter, which creates a lot of difficulties. If Members do not support the motion, we will have to find the money from the Northern Ireland block. All those things pose problems for the Assembly.

Mrs E Bell:

Does the Member agree that one of the potential problems with the transfer to the Inland Revenue is that Northern Ireland would not, automatically or immediately, receive annual uprating in line with Great Britain and that the vulnerable section of our community discussed today would be further disadvantaged?

Mr B Hutchinson:

That is the point I am making about the annual block. This also has implications for people who are already employed, for changes in their employment and for job losses. All of those points are important.

However, I want to focus on the procedural matter between here and Westminster. This debate is about the return to Westminster of responsibility for matters that were transferred to Northern Ireland. Either we have a devolved Government and a legislative Assembly that will continue to try to make things better for people in Northern Ireland, or we do not; we have to get this right.

If a responsibility has been devolved, there is no reason for Westminster to take it back. We need to focus upon that very point. We will get lost with arguments about whether it is the right place or not. We have to decide whether we want to continue to accept parity. We need a proper discussion about parity, when the House can be informed and we can play a proper scrutiny role - that will be the litmus test.

However, Standing Order 40 does not mention legislative parity. We must continue to look at that in order to find a way forward. I support the remarks made by the Chairperson of the Committee for Social Development. As members of that Committee, we face this regularly, owing to the number of pieces of parity legislation that come to us. Why did they give us all this parity with social security matters in the first place if they want to take it back again? As an Assembly we have to focus on existing procedures and on how we deal with parity. This must change; the House must be notified early in the process; and we need access to Westminster to enable us to start scrutinising at an early stage and not at the last minute. I urge the Minister to reconsider this and to find a different way of proceeding.

Mr Hussey:

I accept what the Minister has told us about the significant costs that could be involved if we allow the two systems to diverge. However, like some others in the House - and I would like some answers in the Minister's conclusion - I am concerned about paragraph 20 of his presentation, which deals with the movement of staff from the Northern Ireland Civil Service to the Imperial or Home Civil Service.

My concerns centre on the fact that many young people join the Civil Service on the basis that they will be able to transfer around Northern Ireland within the Civil Service. Many people from western parts of Northern Ireland move to Belfast for training and employment initially, hoping to move back to their home areas eventually.

I ask the Minister to respond clearly to the fear that this may involve the curtailment of transfer and promotion opportunities for staff. I note that negotiations with NIPSA continue, and I hope that if the transfer comes about, staff will be allowed to choose whether to remain a part of the Northern Ireland Civil Service or to transfer to the Home Civil Service.

Mr Fee:

I have severe problems with the motion. It is not clear what the outcome will be if the Assembly takes a decision on the matter. The motion says

"That this Assembly endorses the principle."

Are we endorsing the principle that pieces of serious public policy will revert to Westminster? If we support the motion, we are establishing a principle. I do not support that principle - I support devolution, and we should operate it properly.

The motion goes on to propose that the administration of child benefit and guardians' allowance be transferred to the Inland Revenue. I do not have a problem with ensuring that our administration is efficient and cost effective. Already, we efficiently administer working families' tax credit, disabled person's tax credit, jobseeker's allowance and the child-related elements of income support. I have a serious problem with transferring responsibility for child benefit and guardians' allowance policy. The Assembly already supports the appointment of a children's commissioner. Will we really transfer responsibility for policy in the enormous area of child welfare to the taxman? Is the Inland Revenue the right body to have responsibility for policy on those issues? I have a problem with that, and I will not be supporting the motion.

The motion also asks us to give responsibility to the Inland Revenue for rafts of unspecified, consequential changes in social security legislation. It would be madness for us to give such responsibility back to Westminster. I have not seen the legislation, and I cannot endorse that. If we say it is all right for Westminster to legislate and that we do not want to see the script, the Bills or the Orders, that subverts the role of the Assembly Committees, particularly that of the Committee for Social Development. This is a complete abdication of the responsibility of the Assembly and its Committees.

Two other issues concern me. We have heard hints of a massive cost implication if we do not go along with the motion. Figures of around £5 million have been whispered. I can see no reason why the administrative element should not proceed, with the Inland Revenue footing the bill as it has in other cases.

Mr Dodds:

I thank the Member for giving way. I will respond to these points, but the Member is living in fantasy land if he thinks that the Inland Revenue will cough up money to maintain and develop a new and separate computer system for Northern Ireland when it is offering to include us in its own system. Either we provide a new computer and IT system and the necessary administration, or the Inland Revenue will charge us for it. We must not indulge in fantasy politics.

Mr Fee:

The Minister has eloquently illustrated my next point. There is no reason for not bringing in and administering an Inland Revenue system for Northern Ireland. The Inland Revenue wants policy and legislative authority over social security issues here, and I do not believe that we should allow that. The Treasury will put up the money on its terms - if we cede authority. The Treasury is pushing us around, and we should resist.

Have we all lost our ambition for this place? Are we giving away any prospect of gaining tax-varying powers for the Assembly in the future? I do not know about other Members, but I will not give up trying on that.

12.45 pm

Mr Shannon:

I support the motion proposed by the Minister, but I want to make several comments. It is vital that our legislation be brought into line with that in the rest of the United Kingdom. Continuity of the system is vital, as is equality for all. We have concerns about several points, some of which have already been expressed; staffing is one of them. The transfer of 150 staff from the Social Security Agency to the Inland Revenue has raised concerns about job transfer. Can the Minister tell us what stage the discussions are at? Have the outstanding issues been dealt with, and does he believe that staff will be happy to settle for the changes in their security? Will more staff be needed to deal with the new children's tax credit as well as the new changes?

Concern has been expressed that the changeover could cause delays in the payment of child benefit. Can the Minister confirm that manual payments will be made to cover short-term delays in payment, should they arise? We want to ensure that there will be no delays for those who need the money most.

Point 6 of the Minister's statement said

"No significant comments were received from Northern Ireland."

That shows that some of the people who expressed concern this morning said nothing during the consultation process, and it is a bit late in the day for them to do that now. Why did they not do so earlier? The consultation paper was widely distributed, so perhaps they will address that point.

The Minister has described the legislation that is required, and the reason for it, but further points must be made, notably about consultation. Can the Minister confirm that the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister fully scrutinised the proposed legislation? If so, when did that scrutiny allow discussion with the parties and other groups in the Assembly?

Most important is the matter of money. Can the Minister clearly detail why he must have this legislation immediately? If there is any delay whatsoever in implementing the legislation, what will the financial implications be? When people consider them, they will realise how necessary the legislation is.

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

Mr ONeill:

We have already begun to consider some of the difficulties that members of the Committee for Social Development faced when dealing with this. The Chairperson was correct to say that the outcome of the deliberations was inconclusive. We were neither for nor against the move - we simply could not agree. It is not surprising that there is a divergence of views in the Chamber. However, as Members are aware, a significant issue is at stake. Child benefit is a devolved matter. We have control over it. If responsibility for the policy and administration of child benefit is transferred to the Inland Revenue since taxation is a reserved matter, we will have handed back a devolved responsibility.

It is interesting to see Nigel Dodds, in his role as Minister, advocating that we do that. He has been the champion of devolved responsibilities in the past, yet he now says that we do not want responsibility for child benefit, which should return to Westminster.

The Minister and Jim Shannon use arguments about financial costs and time implications to blackmail the Assembly into supporting the motion. As my Colleague, John Fee, pointed out, this is a difficult motion to be certain about - even its structure leaves a lot to be desired. The Minister requests that we support the motion. He says that if we do not, the additional cost to the Budget could possibly be £5 million, and that if we do not make the decision today, we could be left behind. We should not allow ourselves to be blackmailed by anybody, because that would negate what we are supposed to be doing.

Let us look at the Minister's arguments. This is not the first occasion when the time factor has been used to push things forward. In those instances, the Assembly has democratically decided to take its time and to ensure that it has all the facts in order to make a correct decision. We should not be too impressed by that argument.

Though figures were mentioned, we have yet to see a proper analysis of the possible costs. We do not know how much it will cost, nor how much of that cost will be picked up by the Inland Revenue. We have not been informed of the benefits to accessibility, openness and transparency, jobs or the protection of promotion prospects within the Civil Service. Neither have we seen an analysis of the benefits of the introduction of new technology into the present system - that is bound to be beneficial. If we had those analyses, we might be able to weigh up the pros and cons of the argument and come to a correct decision.

Michelle Gildernew remarked on the SDLP attitude. My party is asking the Minister not to move the motion today, which is his privilege. If he does not move the motion, the Committee can have a period of further deliberation and consultation. If the Minister insists on moving the motion, against the concerns of a number of Members and parties, we will vote against it. That is our clear position on the issue.

As a social democratic party, the SDLP argues that the Assembly should have full responsibility for all social issues. Transferral of responsibility to the Inland Revenue, with its reputed lack of transparency, does not bring us forward into open and transparent devolved Government, but backward. We have major concerns about moving in that direction.

Mr Morrow:

I support the motion. I am a little perturbed by some of Mr ONeill's comments. I am not saying that they were in any way insincere, but they were difficult to understand.

Several Members have questioned the issue of parity: should we or should we not? I agree that blindly following parity is the wrong principle on which to support the motion. However, where it is proven and demonstrated to be to the distinct advantage of the people of Northern Ireland, we can have no hesitation in saying that parity is the way forward. Those issues where parity may not be to our advantage are obviously a different matter.

Everyone in the Assembly has the right to vote against the motion, but with that right comes responsibility. The sum of money is approximately £5 million. Where do we find £5 million? Can we tell the Exchequer in London that we have deviated from parity and taken a different line on the issue, and that they should put up £5 million? Anyone who thinks that that would work does not live in the real world. The Exchequer would say that we made the decision to deviate onto another road, and that we can therefore pay for it.

During my time as Minister for Social Development, the Alliance Party proposed a very good motion to increase pensions by £5. No one in the House had any problem with that idea, but it would have had to be paid for from our own pocket. The first question was, therefore, "Where do we find the £50 million to pay for that?". At that stage, cold reality took over.

Some Members have played up the potential for job losses. I have read the Minister's memorandum, and I am satisfied that the opposite will be the case. Jobs will be created. Paragraph 13 states that

"The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, Alistair Darling, has indicated that should the transfer take place there will be no reduction in staff requirements nor will any staff be transferred out of Northern Ireland. Assurances given in 1999 at the time of the transfer of staff in the Social Security Agency Contributions Unit and Family Credit Unit to the Inland Revenue have been honoured."

Those who talk of potential job losses are ducking and diving. That issue is a red herring. It does not exist. There will be no loss of jobs. Jobs will be created.

We have a responsibility to support the motion. This is not the time to prove a point, political or otherwise, to the cost of the people of Northern Ireland. The tab will be picked up by them alone, not by the Assembly. The Minister will undoubtedly clarify points of genuine concern at the end of the debate.

I exhort Members to vote for the motion and to support the Minister's endeavours.


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