Northern Ireland Assembly
Tuesday 18 June 2002
The Assembly met at 10.30 am (Mr Speaker in the Chair).
Members observed two minutes’ silence.
The Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment (Sir Reg Empey):
I beg to move
That the Second Stage of the Insolvency Bill (NIA 14/01) be agreed.
As I said in relation to two earlier Bills, my Department is focused on updating our company and insolvency laws with a series of legislative measures designed to keep the legal framework for business in Northern Ireland at the forefront of best international practice.
The Insolvency Bill is the latest important measure that I am bringing to this session of the Assembly. It will ensure that small companies here can use the same company rescue procedures as their competitors in Great Britain, thus removing any potential disadvantages to local business.
It might be helpful for Members who are unfamiliar with company voluntary arrangements (CVAs) if I explain the current CVA procedures, their main drawbacks and the improvements that will be brought about by the Bill. The CVA procedure is a means for companies in financial difficulty to reach a legally-binding agreement with their creditors in satisfaction of their debts. A proposal will typically involve payment of a reduced sum to each creditor or payment over an extended period. There must be a majority vote of at least 75% in favour at separate meetings of a company’s creditors and members for a proposal to be approved. Once it has been approved, it becomes legally binding on everyone entitled to vote at the meetings, provided they were given notice that the vote was taking place.
However, the current procedure has several drawbacks. First, insolvency proceedings can be commenced while the proposals are being put together, thus thwarting the attempts to enter a voluntary arrangement. Secondly, not all creditors may be bound by the agreement. Finally, there has been a low uptake of the CVA procedure locally — about six cases a year.
If more successful rescues are to be achieved, change to the existing legislation is required. Measures that will enable companies to return to a sound financial footing will benefit everyone who could be adversely affected by a company’s getting into financial difficulties. Jobs saved, the dangers of cash flow problems for suppliers reduced and communities continuing to benefit from continuing spending power are very positive alternatives to outright closure.
The Bill aims to make company rescues more accessible to small companies here by extending to them the choice of availing of a short moratorium. Such a moratorium would give small companies in financial difficulties a breathing space free from creditor pressure to consult an appropriately qualified expert to see if a successful rescue package could be put together, and, if so, to prepare one for consideration at meetings of the company and its creditors.
The proposed new procedures will be available in addition to the existing CVA procedure that will continue to be used where a moratorium is unnecessary. Under current legislation, a moratorium is provided only for insolvent individuals. The proposed change will mean that small companies will no longer be at a competitive disadvantage.
To sum up, the intention of the Bill is to bring Northern Ireland into line with the system in Great Britain following amendments to the Insolvency Act 1986 made by the Insolvency Act 2000. In so doing, it will introduce the option of a short moratorium for small companies that will give them time, free from the threat of immediate creditor proceedings, to attempt to set up a voluntary arrangement. That is a significant step that provides a remedy against a voluntary arrangement’s being thwarted, for example, by a single creditor, to the detriment of the other company creditors, and it is legally binding on all creditors. These improvements will result in an increased uptake of the CVA procedures, and Northern Ireland will benefit as a consequence.
Finally, the provisions of the Insolvency Bill are important advances that have been generally welcomed by insolvency professionals. That reflects the Bill’s non-controversial nature, the fact that it is attempting to remedy drawbacks in the system and the fact that it is seen to be helping to create conditions in which otherwise viable businesses can continue to develop and expand.
Question put and agreed to.
That the Second Stage of the Insolvency Bill (NIA 14/01) be agreed.
The Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment (Sir Reg Empey):
I beg to move
That the Second Stage of the Company Directors Disqualification Bill (NIA 15/01) be agreed.
My Department is focused on updating our company insolvency laws with a series of legislative measures, and the Company Directors Disqualification Bill is the final measure that I am bringing to this session of the Assembly. It is an important measure that goes towards meeting my Department’s commitment to keep the legal framework for business here at the forefront of best international practice. The Bill will ensure that we have up-to-date law to deal with the problem of unfit directors, and it will provide a means of preventing such individuals from acting as directors for a period commensurate with the degree of their unfitness.
It might be helpful if I explain to Members the current position and the improvements that the new Bill will introduce. It is widely known that the status of limited liability affords a special privilege — namely, that directors of a company are not, in the main, liable for that company’s debts. Disqualification for unfitness is a means of protecting consumers, and the public generally, from those who would abuse the system of limited liability and also from those who, while not deliberately abusing it, have shown themselves unfit through incompetence.
Under the present system a person can only be disqualified from acting as a director for a limited liability company by means of a court order. That order is normally made by the High Court on the application of my Department in cases where the company has become insolvent and the insolvency practitioner in charge of the insolvency, or the official receiver in the case of compulsory liquidation, has submitted a report alleging unfit conduct.
The Bill seeks to introduce a new method of disqualification. It is disqualification by consent, without the involvement of the court, where there is evidence of unfitness on the part of a director and where that director is not disputing his or her unfitness. In such cases, the Department will be able to accept a statutorily-based undertaking from the director not to act as a director for a specific period. That undertaking will have the same basis in law as if it had been a disqualification order made by the court. Any breach of the undertaking will have the same effect as contravention of a court order: namely, it will be a criminal offence and can lead to personal liability for the debts of a company. Those sanctions would not apply under the current system were a director to offer an undertaking in lieu of the matter going to a hearing in court. In addition, an undertaking given under the new system will be entered in the register of disqualification orders and undertakings. Any undertaking given under the current system could not have been so entered.
The Bill also provides for details of all orders made and undertakings given in Northern Ireland to be sent to the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry for inclusion in a UK-wide register of disqualification orders and undertakings. That is important in ensuring that details of all disqualification orders and undertakings are disseminated as widely as possible in the interest of protecting the consumer and the public.
As well as the advantages that I have outlined, the new system will have three other significant advantages. First, there will be a saving for the director in legal costs, as there will no longer be an award of the Department’s costs against him. Secondly, there will be a saving in court time, as it will no longer be dealing with uncontested cases where the director has indicated his intention to accept that he will be found unfit, or where he is introducing evidence solely in mitigation with the intention of justifying a short period of disqualification. Thirdly, it will result in a speeding-up of processing time in uncontested or mitigation-only cases.
The provisions in the Bill will not, however, mean that a director will be put under pressure to accept disqualification rather than defend his reputation in court. Whether or not he accepts the Department’s allegations of unfitness, he may still choose to allow a court to adjudicate on the basis of the evidence. Equally, he may at any time after filing the proceedings in court, seek to make an undertaking. The Department may, in those circumstances, withdraw the proceedings with a consequent saving in costs to the director and in court time.
The intention of the Bill is to bring Northern Ireland into line with the system applying in Great Britain, following amendments to the Company Directors Disqualification Act 1986 made by the Insolvency Act 2000. In so doing, it introduces in particular the option of a voluntary disqualification by a legally enforceable undertaking. That represents a significant step forward, by simplifying the whole procedure; by the provision of undertakings to be entered in a public register to protect consumers and the public; and by saving the director his or her legal costs. Those represent important advances that are also generally welcomed by insolvency practitioners.
That, I believe, reflects the non-controversial nature of the Bill and the fact that it applies a common-sense approach to the practicalities of the disqualification procedure.
Question put and agreed to.
That the Second Stage of the Company Directors Disqualification Bill (NIA 15/01) be agreed.
The Minister of the Environment (Mr Nesbitt):
I beg to move
That the Second Stage of the Local Air Quality Management Bill (NIA 13/01) be agreed.
The purpose of the Bill is to transpose the EC Directive on ambient air quality assessment and management. In addition, the proposed Bill will satisfy the commitments in the Executive’s Programme for Government and ‘Investing for Health’. It is to be in place by May 2003. The Bill also aims to deliver Northern Ireland’s contribution to the targets in the air quality strategy for England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. That requires the establishment of a statutory scheme affecting the relevant parties.
The Bill, therefore, places a range of statutory requirements on district councils and relevant authorities that will be prescribed by forthcoming Regulations. Those statutory requirements are dictated by the responsibilities in the control of the various agencies and by what is required to satisfy the Directive and deliver compliance with the air quality strategy objectives.
The Bill requires that the Department draw up, on its own or in conjunction with other United Kingdom Administrations, an air quality strategy. It places a duty on district councils to conduct reviews and assessments of local air quality — a process that all 26 district councils are already voluntarily engaged in. The Bill provides for the declaration by district councils of air quality management areas and the establishment of action plans indicating the measures to be taken where there is a risk of air quality standards or objectives being exceeded.
The Bill also requires relevant authorities to provide information and produce proposals to secure necessary improvements in air quality relating to the activities under their control. It will allow the Department of the Environment to provide financial assistance for air quality review assessment or management activities.
Research has shown that poor air quality can exacerbate respiratory and heart conditions. For that reason, the production of the Bill is one of the Executive’s ‘Investing for Health’ targets, and recent research, which included Belfast, indicated that poorer air quality is frequently found in socially deprived areas. The Bill is, therefore, likely to most significantly improve air quality for those who live and work in socially deprived areas.
The Department of the Environment carried out a full public consultation in late 2001; approximately 500 organisations and individuals were consulted. They included the Committee for the Environment, MLAs, departmental statutory bodies, the relevant environmental bodies, district councils and other relevant organisations, including minority groups.
The Department is content that the majority of the issues raised are satisfactorily dealt with by the legislation. Of the remaining issues, four were rejected — they related to the promotion of fuel types, which is not within the remit of the Bill — but the suggestions regarding enhanced public access to information were incorporated. The Bill will bring environmental and health benefits to people in Northern Ireland.
Mr A Doherty:
I have difficulty in breathing, even when the air is pure. Therefore, I know better than many how important it is to stop poisoning the air, not only so that we can enjoy life but also so that we can go on living. The alarming increase in the number of old people dying from respiratory problems cannot be ignored, and even more frightening is the ever-increasing number of young people suffering from asthma. The millions of tonnes of toxic chemicals that are pumped into the air daily may not be the only cause of this, but it would be criminally irresponsible not to admit that they must be a factor, as well as being the major cause of global warming and climate change.
I approve of and support legislation that is aimed at improving and managing air quality. People have shown that, if left alone, they are not too interested in keeping the air clean, or are too greedy to do so.
The name of the Local Air Quality Management Bill is a bit of a joke, but not much of a laugh. There is no such thing as local air. Our air is everybody’s air and everybody’s air is our air. Events at Chernobyl and Sellafield have taught us that. We cannot build a peace wall 20 miles high to keep clean air in and dirty air out.
We must ensure that the air that we are responsible for is as clean as we can make it. The Bill makes district councils responsible for the air in their districts, which is OK if with that responsibility come the resources and powers to fulfil their duties effectively. I am worried about that.
Clauses 3, 4 and 5 empower district councils to carry out reviews, to make assessments, to designate areas, to make further assessments, to prepare reports and action plans, to revise their action plans and to send the Department and each relevant authority a copy of their finally determined plans. To what end? Clause 6 will give the Department reserve powers to turn on its head everything a council has done.
Time does not allow me to go into details, but they are set out in subsections (1) to (7). Subsection (7) is the sting in the tail, as it requires the district council to comply with any direction given to it under the legislation. That may seem a necessary safeguard to ensure compliance with international treaties and agreements, to ensure consistency of action and to deal with incompetent councils, if there are any. That is understandable, and it is even acceptable if carried out with some tact or finesse. However, there seems to be nothing in the legislation that allows for councils to appeal a decision or direction. In cross-cutting issues where two or more Departments have a difference of opinion about some requirements of the Bill, the relevant Ministers can put their heads together and reach a gentleperson’s agreement. I may be wrong, but councils seem to have no facility for arguing or defending their actions if they feel that their action plans are reasonable and workable in their circumstances, but the Department thinks differently. Will the Minister reassure me that I am wrong in that assumption?
I welcome the broad provisions of the Bill, but I would like to pose one or two questions to the Minister on matters that do not appear to have been dealt with in full. First, clause 2(6) appears to suggest that the Department of the Environment will have authority over other Departments. Perhaps the Minister could explain how that authority will be exercised, if the interpretation is that the Department of the Environment will have the right to tell other Departments and authorities what to do.
Clause 5(8) makes an interesting reference to a disagreement between a district council and a relevant authority, yet it does not spell out how that disagreement is defined. Reference is made earlier in clause 5 to the council’s contribution towards any action plan and submissions from other relevant authorities, but it does not say that the council has the right to vet the decisions of other authorities. I suspect that other Departments will be reluctant for councils to tell them what to do. However, it talks about registering a disagreement and the matter then being adjudicated by the Department of the Environment.
We might find that the combined activity of private motorists and the Department for Regional Development’s Roads Service is a major source of air pollution. Will the council be authorised to tell the Roads Service what to do, in that case? I doubt if that will be acceptable. Will the Department of the Environment then have the power to step in, or will we see some kind of back-room deal between two Ministers? A gentleperson’s agreement may be satisfactory, but if it is arrived at behind closed doors without the knowledge of the district council responsible for drawing up the action plan, that is not the transparent, open Government that we are supposed to be looking forward to. The Minister and his officials will have to address that in some detail now or at Committee Stage.
I was also fascinated by some of the definitions. In clause 19 I made the amazing discovery that "air" means ambient air, which is perhaps simple enough until a few definitions later we discover that "ambient air" means outdoor air in the troposphere.
That is news to me, since I was not sure that the entire troposphere came under the responsibility of the Northern Ireland Assembly. I presume that it refers to the part of the troposphere that is vertically above the land area of Northern Ireland.
There seems to be a contradiction in the concept of promoting air quality, yet excluding open-air workplaces. We all know the problems that can arise — for example, the nuisance that can be caused to neighbours by quarrying operations. Is the Minister saying that anything that arises from an industrial process such as quarrying does not affect air quality? That issue should be addressed in detail.
Since the House is so engrossed in the Bill, I do not wish to detain it for too long. Schedule 1 refers to consultation. It may be that that section of the Bill has been lifted from the equivalent Westminster legislation, but there is a particular issue in Northern Ireland that does not apply in Great Britain. There may be district councils, or perhaps county councils
"whose district is contiguous to the council’s district"
— in the words of schedule 1(2)(b) — but which are under another jurisdiction in the form of the Republic of Ireland.
Without going as far as Chernobyl, as Arthur Doherty did, if we are to do anything about tackling air quality we should at least look at whether there are North/South issues where air quality in the North can affect the Republic and vice versa. I trust that the Minister will be able to reassure us, and I promise him that we will have an interesting Committee Stage on that issue.
Two Members have spoken on the Bill, which is a little more than Sir Reg Empey had on the Bills that he sponsored this morning. It is similar to the number of Members who spoke on a Statutory Rule that I brought to the House yesterday, and it is 100% more than what Dr Farren had yesterday, so we are getting a light load on the Second Stage debates. Perhaps I am filibustering until I get my papers organised.
The Minister’s honesty is commendable.
I hope that it will be noted and underlined that my honesty pervades the Chamber, even when I am outside.
I thank the two Members who commented. My officials will scrutinise Hansard, and if I overlook any aspects in the detail of what was said, they will write to the Members accordingly. Mr Ford said that there would be "an interesting Committee Stage". I look forward to constructive intercourse between the Committee, the Department and myself, as has been the case in the Committee Stages of other Bills.
Mr Arthur Doherty referred to respiratory problems and local air. It is not only local air, it can be wider, which is a point that was made by Mr Ford when he referred to North/South issues and those aspects that we need to address, and district councils’ designation of areas for action plans.
Mr Doherty addressed a key point when he asked "To what end?" He said that the Department of the Environment will have the power to do what it wishes. His implication was that the Department would overturn those aspects negatively. I assure Mr Doherty that any direction that would come from the Department would be positive. It would be a direction to do those things that a council would be meant to be doing, if it were not doing them. That is important because we view this aspect of highlighting problems and areas of action plans as important. The environmental health departments of district councils are the key drivers of that aspect of air quality.
(Madam Deputy Speaker [Ms Morrice] in the Chair)
Mr Ford asked about authority over other Departments, and about that issue being addressed at Committee Stage. A requirement of the proposed legislation is that district councils will submit proposals for action plans, which have been mentioned. Departments are committed to air quality strategies. However, on a practical level, should any Department fail to fulfil its statutory duties, the matter will be resolved bilaterally between Ministers, or by the Executive in their final analysis. If a Department has failed to discharge its duty, the High Court — on the application of a relevant authority — could declare that to be unlawful as an act of omission. Relevant authorities will be prescribed in the forthcoming legislation.
Consultation on the North/South issue needs to be addressed, as Mr Ford indicated. The problem is not so much trans-boundary, but more localised. However, I accept that the strategy in which the Department is involved is a UK-wide strategy. Air quality is not localised. As always, co-operation will be needed to deliver on that strategy. As part of the first stage of the review and reassessment process, councils that are adjacent to the border have considered, neighbouring sources of air pollution across the border. In all cases, that review has shown that those sources have no significant effect on local air quality and, therefore, do not need to be considered much further.
I have covered the points raised by both Members. If any details have not been covered, Department of the Environment officials will scrupulously scrutinise Hansard, and those details will be provided. It is my firm belief that the Bill is necessary in order to transpose EU Directives, to satisfy the Executive’s Programme for Government, and to invest in better health and ambience for the environment. However, it will also benefit the entire Northern Ireland public. Therefore, I commend the Bill to the House.
Question put and agreed to.
That the Second Stage of the Local Air Quality Management Bill (NIA 13/01) be agreed.
Madam Deputy Speaker:
I advise the House that no amendments to the Bill have been tabled. Therefore, by leave of the Assembly, I propose to group together the six clauses of the Bill, followed by the three schedules, and the long title.
Clauses 1 to 6 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Schedules 1 to 3 agreed to.
Long title agreed to.
Madam Deputy Speaker:
That concludes Consideration Stage of the Budget (No. 2) Bill. The Bill stands referred to the Speaker.
The Chairperson of the Committee for Social Development (Mr Cobain):
I beg to move
That this Assembly approves the second report of the Committee for Social Development on their inquiry into Housing in Northern Ireland (Homelessness) (3/01/R) and calls on the Executive to consider the report and arrange for the implementation of the Committee’s recommendations at the earliest opportunity.
The report deals with the serious and, I regret to say, growing problem of homelessness. The latest figures available for the Committee’s inquiry relate to 2000-01, at which time 12,694 households presented as homeless. Within the past week, the Northern Ireland Housing Executive has released figures for 2001-02 that show a 10% increase on last year’s figure. That means that more than 14,000 households presented as homeless. That the trend continues upwards rather than downwards should concern everyone in the Assembly. We should also be alarmed at the increasing trend of young people who are presenting as homeless.
Homelessness is a serious social, economic, health and education issue. How can we, as locally elected representatives, stand over policies that patently fail to reverse the increasing trends of homelessness? We are always on the lookout for good news stories, and we can be proud of the many achievements that have come from the establishment and operation of a local Assembly. By the same token, we should be thoroughly ashamed that we are responsible for failing the vulnerable and needy in society.
There is no denying that the homeless fall into that category. I doubt whether anyone is more needy than the person without a home, yet the report shows that levels of homelessness are on the increase. As I have said, more and more young people are homeless. We must ask what we are doing about that. We talk about promoting social inclusion and claim to be targeting social need, but where are the actions behind those fine words and rhetoric?
The Committee is bringing an important issue to the House’s attention. Homelessness deserves to be on the political agenda. It is a complex problem that is not simply about bricks and mortar or a place to live; it is about providing support services, and identifying new solutions and models of good practice.
I thank my fellow Committee members for taking their responsibilities seriously while the inquiry was under way. The evidence of those efforts is contained in the report. On behalf of the Committee, I express our gratitude to everyone who submitted written and oral evidence. We are also grateful to staff in the Committee office for their services during the inquiry. Research and Library Service staff also warrant a mention for their comprehensive and helpful briefing papers. I also acknowledge the staff in Hansard for recording the oral evidence sessions and those responsible for the printing, publication and distribution of the report.
The real praise, however, is for those on the ground. The Northern Ireland Housing Executive, the health boards and trusts, the Probation Board for Northern Ireland, and the specialist organisations in the voluntary and community sector are all doing what they can to tackle homelessness.
I pay credit to them for that, but we must do more, and we must do it better. We must show political will and leadership. We all owe a duty of care to the vulnerable and the needy. We must show commitment, especially to a joined-up approach that is more geared to prevention. However, we must also put in place whatever resources are necessary to tackle the problem, so that we can provide for the homeless and reduce the number of people who find themselves homeless.
We have called for new housing legislation almost since we first set foot in the Chamber after power was devolved more than two years ago, but, as the mandate for the Assembly runs out, the housing Bill has still not been introduced.
We are promised that it will reach the House next week. It is my hope that the Bill will give us the platform and the tools to deal with such issues as homelessness. Although the Committee for Social Development has waited patiently for the legislation, its members have not sat on their hands. The report on the first phase of the inquiry into housing in Northern Ireland was published in November 2001.
The Committee did not stop there. The second phase, which was put together over the last six months, contains 22 recommendations. It reveals that homelessness is on the increase, identifies the absence of a proper preventative strategy and is a damning indictment of our promises to help the vulnerable and the needy. It highlights the need for improvements in the way we do things. Most importantly, it confirms that homelessness is not just about bricks and mortar. It is much more complex than that. Evidence of the critical need to provide a range of support services for the homeless was overwhelming. Being homeless can seriously damage health, and prevention is better than cure. Those are facts. If we are serious about tackling homelessness we must ensure that sufficient resources are available to provide the necessary support services, and that there is a workable strategy to reduce and prevent it. Homelessness will not go away unless and until something is done about it. We must match our fine words with actions and ensure that the money is available to fund those actions.
I am not privy to how the Executive reach their decisions; however, I call on the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety, the Minister of Education and the Minister for Employment and Learning, as those responsible for the health and well-being, and the education and training of our young people, to work with the Minister for Social Development to tackle the problem of homelessness in a more co-ordinated way. They must wake up to the fact that they too have a role to play.
My Colleagues on the Committee will deal with the report in detail and will draw attention to the main areas considered and the recommendations made. I shall, however, be surprised and disappointed if other Members do not speak in this debate. I hope that my Colleagues on the Committee for Health, Social Services and Public Safety, the Committee for Education and the Committee for Employment and Learning will rise to the challenge of ensuring an effective and co-ordinated interdepartmental and interagency approach. I hope that the relevant Ministers will be called to account and asked what commitments they are prepared to make and what actions they are prepared to take in tackling homelessness. All of us have a moral obligation to help those who are disadvantaged. Let us not lose sight of that.
The Committee for Social Development has at least done something by bringing the report to the Assembly’s attention. I commend it to all Members, but that is not the end of the process. I hope that the report will return housing to the political agenda, where it belongs. The Committee’s work throughout the inquiry places it in an informed position, and that work will stand it in good stead in the scrutiny of the housing Bill and the housing support services Bill.
I support the report and thank the Chairperson of the Committee for Social Development for leading the Committee through a very difficult and sometimes overwhelming exercise. The amount of evidence received from various sources was remarkable. The Committee is indebted to those who gave their time and expertise in assisting with the report’s compilation.
As the Committee Chairperson said, homelessness is a spiralling problem. All of us have noticed it growing incrementally, year-on-year, at an unacceptable rate.
The most recent figures, which the Chairperson announced this morning, show that this year there has been a 10% increase on last year’s huge increase of 15%. We must do something definite and dramatic to halt the increase, and much of the Committee’s work, which is contained in the recommendations, will help to do that.
Rural homelessness is one of the most difficult problems to deal with. Homelessness is increasing in rural areas, but, perhaps because of ill-placed pride or fear of ridicule, people will not reveal the true levels. Sensitive, direct policies are needed to deal with such issues. It is a difficult nut to crack, especially in rural areas where there is insufficient temporary accommodation. In urban areas, considerable steps are taken to provide temporary accommodation; that is not the case in rural areas.
Bed-and-breakfast accommodation is plentiful in Newcastle, and, in my experience, it is offered as the last resort for homeless people in rural areas. Homeless people come to my constituency office in Newcastle, and one pathetic case stands out in my memory. A single mother with three young children was living in bed-and-breakfast accommodation. They had breakfast in the morning and were then required to leave the premises and walk the streets of Newcastle until bedtime. That is unacceptable and uncivilised, but it is a solution in areas that cannot provide quality temporary accommodation for homeless people. The problem must be addressed.
Homelessness among young people is more poignant and takes many forms. Homelessness depends on individuals, families and their circumstances, so it cannot be generalised. That is especially true for young people. There are many areas to consider. For example, a Committee debate, which is reflected in recommendation 4, raised concerns about the deteriorating quality of family life and the need for a family to be a caring unit to sustain people in need.
We must protect the family unit. However, that argument has another side. Homelessness among young people is often caused by family break-up and disruption, and abuse in the home. It is a delicate area that has two distinct arguments, which the Committee has addressed in recommendations 3 to 8.
The Committee was unanimous about the need for interagency support for young people leaving care and for young people who are already in care. It is crucial that the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety address this matter. The Chairperson has already mentioned that homelessness among young people has many dimensions and that other Departments, including the Department of Education, have roles to play.
I have been a local representative and a councillor for several years, and I am used to hearing about young people who leave care and are allocated Housing Executive flats. The neighbours then start to complain about parties and antisocial behaviour in the flat. That is a big problem. Research shows that young people leaving care have often had no love and support. When they move into a flat, they have no coping skills. To replace the love that they have missed out on, they look for the attention of contemporaries, who can make them feel popular, by inviting them to parties. It is a substitute for something that they have never had. All kinds of antisocial behaviour can stem from such a situation.
Support must be available for those young people when they are in care, when they are preparing to leave care and after they have left care. The Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety has introduced the Children (Leaving Care) Bill, which will give a support mechanism that the Committee welcomes. However, more needs to be done to help those young people before they leave care. As an educationist, I know that certain aptitudes such as budgeting, hygiene and relationship skills can be taught. A life skills programme has existed for many years, so all those resources should be used to try to solve the problem.
I support the report as it is published, but I reserve judgement on one matter. I have misgivings about the concept of intentional homelessness which affects young people in particular, and whether young people who present themselves as homeless can be placed on a priority list. There was a pointed issue about the legislative position of the Housing Executive and its ability to deal with that. The Committee agreed to proceed rather than hold up the report, but with the proviso that I reserve judgement on that issue.
The legislative position covers certain matters. To be considered as priority, 16- or 17-year-olds must fit into one of six categories. They must be pregnant; have a dependent child or children; be at risk of sexual or financial exploitation; be vulnerable as a result of a mental or physical disability or for any other special reason; be subject to or at risk of violence; or be homeless as a result of an emergency such as a fire, flood or other disaster.
Those criteria define the Housing Executive’s legislative competencies to investigate the circumstances. However, most young people who are homeless do not fall into those categories and are not considered as priority. I am putting a marker down on this — Mr Cobain is smiling at me — and I will return to it when we are consulting on the Bill, when it will be important.
The Homelessness Act 2002 in England is a more modern Act than the Bill we are about to deal with. The housing magazine, the ‘Adviser’, of May/June 2002 stated that
"Not included in the 2002 Act, but contained in a draft order intended to come into effect when the body of the homeless reform is enacted, is an extension of the categories of priority need in s 189 of the 1996 Act. . Brought within the scope of this section are applicants who are: 16- and 17-years-old; care leavers aged between 18 and 21; vulnerable as a result of either being looked after, accommodated or fostered by a local authority, having been in the armed forces or in prison; vulnerable as a result of ceasing to occupy accommodation following violence or threats of violence."
That is an example of the more generous provision made in the Homelessness Act 2002 to cope with the problem, and we should follow that example to deal not just with the young homeless, but with every aspect of homelessness.
Mr M Robinson:
I welcome the fact that homelessness has moved up the agenda and is being debated here today. I acknowledge the many hours worked by the Committee staff and their successful compilation of the many documents and drafts involved in making the report. I also thank the agencies that took the time to make their written and oral submissions on the subject.
In our society, the sad and stark reality is that homelessness affects a sizeable number of people, and there is a higher rate of homelessness here than anywhere else in the UK. Housing Executive statistics for 2000-01 have revealed an increase of 15·5% in households presenting themselves as homeless. That is extremely worrying and confirms that homelessness should, and must, be taken seriously — we cannot simply tolerate it.
Poverty in society, coupled with the gradual erosion and breakdown of the family unit has forced many individuals, especially young people, into a state of dispossession and homelessness. Youth homelessness has increased by 15% in the last four years. Northern Ireland, undoubtedly, has an invisible community of dispossessed and poverty-stricken people who go unnoticed, and the sheer magnitude of the situation is illustrated by the following figures: there were 12,700 homeless households in Northern Ireland last year; families with children represented 41% of that total; 56% were placed temporarily in bed-and-breakfast accommodation; and the average length of stay there was 131 days.
Families and individuals who find themselves homeless are very often caught in a vicious circle of poverty and deprivation, and it becomes increasingly difficult to break out of that cycle. Being homeless is much more than not having a roof over your head. The impact of homelessness is appalling.
It leads to exclusion from society and creates barriers to access. For example, if someone has no job, he cannot get a bank account and, therefore, he cannot get credit. That can lead to exclusion from health services and education. Homeless people are one of the most vulnerable groups in society.
As a Member for South Belfast, many constituents who need help to secure permanent accommodation have contacted my office. I have dealt with homeless families who have had to move into bed-and-breakfast accommodation, often having to move out of the areas that they are familiar with. This has an extremely negative impact and often leads to instability in the families. Bed-and-breakfast accommodation should be a temporary measure, but, as I said, the average stay is 131 days. That is unacceptable and begs the question: how urgently is housing need met?
Legislation on homelessness came into effect in April 1989 in the form of the Housing (Northern Ireland) Order 1988. There is obviously a need for that legislation to be reviewed, and I welcome the Housing Executive’s review of its strategy on homelessness. The major strength of the current arrangement is that a statutory duty is placed on the Housing Executive to deal with those who are homeless. The Housing Executive has a fundamental role to play and in its review has consulted widely with other concerned organisations, such as the Simon Community and Shelter, which have been working to address those issues for many years.
One problem that has been identified is that the Housing Executive, the many voluntary agencies and the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety have had their own approaches and have worked independently. If the growing problem of homelessness is to be tackled effectively, a collective, inter-agency approach must be adopted. The Housing Executive has said that working alongside other agencies, both statutory and voluntary, is
"crucial to achieving success in planning and developing accommodation advice and support services, with the overall aim of finding flexible efficient solutions to homelessness."
This universal approach would prevent confusion and needless referrals and stop people getting lost in the system. It would also lead to a sharing of information, with relevant agencies having access to it. That would create a more effective and practical system and reduce needless and endless red tape. It would also enable service providers to seek accommodation best suited to the needs of the individual.
Homelessness requires much more than a 9.00 am-to 5.00 pm, Monday-to-Friday approach, which is why great importance has been placed on the development and co-ordination of a strong and effective out-of-hours service based on an integrated approach.
We must examine the causes of homelessness and introduce measures to reduce the current level, so we must also examine the availability of affordable housing. The Housing Executive must take account of the fact that there will always be some who cannot afford to buy a house and seek to strike a balance between the housing stock that it intends to sell and the building of social housing. In effect, the Housing Executive must ensure that it has properly examined the supply-and-demand chain. Fewer than 2,000 social housing units are being built by housing associations each year, while there is an annual loss of over 4,000 Housing Executive properties, so it is obvious that supply is falling short of demand, and urgent changes must be made to accommodate the demand for social housing. Demand for social housing must never be found wanting.
It is imperative that increased priority be given to dealing with homelessness and adequate funding allocated to bring about the required changes. We must not underestimate the role of voluntary organisations in supporting the most vulnerable in society, two of which, the Simon Community and Shelter, have worked in the most difficult circumstances for years.
I hope that as a result of today’s debate, positive action will be taken on funding to underpin the implementation process and, in the longer term, the programme delivery.