Northern Ireland Assembly Flax Flower Logo

Northern Ireland Assembly

Tuesday 10 September 2002


North/South Ministerial Council: Inland Waterways

Social Security Bill: Second Stage

Assembly Ombudsman for Northern Ireland (Assembly Standards) Bill:
Second Stage

Asperger’s Syndrome


Condition of A-Class Roads in West Tyrone

The Assembly met at 10.30 am (Mr Speaker in the Chair).

Members observed two minutes’ silence.


North/South Ministerial Council: Inland Waterways

Mr Speaker:

I have received notice from the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure that he wishes to make a statement on the North/South Ministerial Council sectoral meeting on inland waterways, held on 26 June 2002 in Belfast.

The Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure (Mr McGimpsey):

The fifth meeting of the North/South Ministerial Council in inland waterways sectoral format took place in Belfast on Wednesday 26 June 2002.

Following nomination by the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister, Ms Carmel Hanna and I represented the Northern Ireland Executive. Mr Éamon Ó Cuív TD, Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs represented the Irish Government. I am making this report on behalf of myself and Ms Hanna who has approved the report.

The meeting opened with a progress report from the chief executive of Waterways Ireland, Mr John Martin. The Council noted that Waterways Ireland’s budget for 2002 is £23·44 million, and that the Northern Ireland contribution is £3·92 million.

Mr Martin advised that major capital projects on the Grand Canal and the Royal Canal were progressing satisfactorily. The programme of work on the Shannon Navigation had been delayed as a result of planning appeals, but those have been resolved. Progress was also made on upgrading mooring facilities on the Lough Erne and Lower Bann Navigations.

Mr Martin reported that Waterways Ireland has had a series of meetings with user groups, including the Erne Charter Boat Association and the Irish Boat Rental Association. Consultants are currently preparing a marketing and promotions strategy for Waterways Ireland, and several open seminars are planned to give interested parties and the public an opportunity to express their views.

The Council noted that the relevant Departments, North and South, are considering the updated feasibility study on the Ulster Canal to determine the way forward. A public meeting, organised by the Inland Waterways Association of Ireland and the Ulster Waterways Group to raise public awareness of the potential for restoring the Ulster Canal, took place in Monaghan on 12 March 2002 and was attended by more than 200 people. Those attending indicated widespread support for the project.

The Council noted the progress made on the procurement of permanent office accommodation for Waterways Ireland’s headquarters in Enniskillen. Detailed proposals from developers for three separate waterside locations at Ardhowen, Sligo Road and The Brook were subjected to technical and economic appraisal, and it is hoped that the outcome will be announced shortly. Sites have also been identified for new office accommodation for the regional offices in Scarriff and Carrick-on-Shannon. The Dublin office has been established at refurbished premises at Ashtowngate on the Navan Road, and staff transferred there recently.

Mr Martin updated the Council on the current position on the recruitment of staff to Waterways Ireland. To date, 236 staff have been transferred to Waterways Ireland from former departments, which include the Rivers Agency in Northern Ireland. Following open competition, four directors have been appointed for operations, finance and personnel, technical services and marketing and communications, and six other heads of functions have been recruited. Competitions are in progress for other administrative staff, and a number of professional and technical posts have been advertised. The Council was pleased by the amount of interest in the positions advertised — almost 1,500 applications were received for 47 administrative posts. However, it was appreciated that that created a lot of work for staff in Waterways Ireland who have to process the applications.

The Council approved Waterways Ireland’s draft corporate and business plan for 2002-04, which sets out a comprehensive programme of work on a wide range of policy issues, systems development and the proposed works programme. In terms of organisational development, Waterways Ireland plans to set up a policy steering group, a communications unit and a steering group to implement its new targeting social need action plan. An internal audit section will also be established. The corporate plan includes proposals to review health and safety policies and procedures, an assessment of charging policies and a review of navigation by-laws for the waterways within Waterways Ireland’s remit.

The Council approved Waterways Ireland’s equality scheme for formal submission to the Equality Commission, and its New TSN action plan was also approved. The Council noted Waterways Ireland’s annual statement of accounts for 2000, which was examined and certified by the Comptroller and Auditor General for Northern Ireland and the Irish Comptroller and Auditor General. Those accounts will be published together with Waterways Ireland’s annual report for 2000. The Council agreed to meet again in autumn 2002.

The Deputy Chairperson of the Committee for Culture, Arts and Leisure (Mr J Kelly):

Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I welcome the Minister’s updating us on the work of the North/South Ministerial Council on this important issue. I am glad to know that progress has been made in several areas. However, it has been more than a year since the Minister advised the House that the updated feasibility study on the Ulster Canal was being considered by the relevant Departments in both jurisdictions. Given the level of public interest in that, can the Minister indicate the extent of the progress made?

Mr McGimpsey:

The feasibility study has been completed. In 2000 it was estimated that it would cost £89 million to restore the Ulster Canal, and that is before taking into account any work to protect the environment and heritage aspects of the canal’s course. The environmental impact statement will be made once we have made the decision to proceed, which we have not done as yet.

Our first task was the feasibility study, which showed a negative economic benefit, in so far as our Department of Finance and Personnel can test such a project. There are wider implications and wider social and economic benefits, which will all have to be considered. It is a large project, and it is actively being considered. However, I cannot say when I will be making the decision about this.

Mr J Wilson:

No specific mention is made in the report of any progress that Waterways Ireland has made on zoning designated areas for different user groups on Northern Ireland’s larger expanses of water, such as Lough Erne and Lough Neagh. I saw quite a horrific thing happen during the summer. Young children, babies and their parents were bathing in an area that was clearly identified for bathing only. Jet skis were roaring among them at great speed, turning and twirling around and creating such dangerous water movement that a local person had to restrain a jet-skier.

There are genuine user groups. I am not coming down on jet-skiers. There is a place for everyone — for cruising, for anglers, for commercial anglers and for water sports. However, they are all coming together. There is potential for a horrific accident. I hope that it does not happen. I hope that Waterways Ireland is tackling the problem. What progress has it made?

Mr McGimpsey:

With regard to zoning and navigational controls at Lough Erne, for example, there is clearly a need to upgrade the by-laws. Waterways Ireland is actively considering that and has discussed the matter with the chief executive of Fermanagh District Council. There has also been discussion with the various district councils along the navigational line of the Lower Bann. There is voluntary zoning on the Lower Bann, which appears to work reasonably well. However, no by-laws are in place. Waterways Ireland is aware that the matter needs to be dealt with and is seeking to do that.

Waterways Ireland’s approach is to try to accommodate all responsible user groups. Mr Wilson gave the example of a dangerous situation in which bathers were in water among jet-skiers. That must be dealt with. Perhaps voluntary zoning is not always appropriate. That is why the by-laws for Lough Erne are being examined. There are no by-laws for the Lower Bann, but their introduction is being considered. That will require widespread consultation.

Mr Bradley:

Northern Ireland’s contribution to the Waterways Ireland budget is just under £4 million, whereas the Republic of Ireland’s contribution is about £20 million. Can the Minister tell the Assembly how that ratio was arrived at?

Mr McGimpsey:

The authority on the northern side of the border pays 100% of capital costs in Northern Ireland, but nothing towards capital costs in the Irish Republic, and vice versa. By agreement, the Irish Republic pays 85% of non-capital costs, and Northern Ireland pays 15%.

The Department is discussing the provision of headquarters accommodation with its counterparts across the border. After a suitable breakdown of, for example, the offices at Scarriff, Carrick-on-Shannon and Enniskillen, it has been accepted that it is inappropriate for Northern Ireland to pay 100% of headquarters capital costs at Enniskillen; nor is it appropriate for the Irish Republic to pay 100% of capital costs for the offices at Scarriff and Carrick-on-Shannon, which are regional offices that have common usage. The agreement is, therefore, that, with the exception of office accommodation, Northern Ireland pays 15% of non-capital costs and 100% of capital costs on its side of the border.

10.45 am

Mr Shannon:

Over 200 people attended a meeting in Monaghan on 12 March. Can the Minister confirm that some of those were involved in tourism? It would be interesting to know that, because if people involved in tourism do not attend such meetings, they should. There is a tourism potential to be realised.

Secondly, 236 staff have been transferred to Waterways Ireland. Many of us feel that that is an excessive number. Can the Minister confirm the full remit, responsibility and workload that Waterways Ireland is tasked to do? Can he also confirm whether 236 staff will be the final number, or whether more staff will be employed?

Mr McGimpsey:

As far as the meeting in Monaghan and tourism representatives are concerned, water-based tourism is very much part of the thrust of Waterways Ireland. Water-based tourism is also very much part of the raison d’être for replenishing old canals that have fallen out of use, and, as I have said many times in the House, it has demonstrated large economic benefits in the Irish Republic, on the mainland and in Europe, where that activity is popular among tourists. Therefore, tourism plays a key role.

Waterways Ireland has set up a section specifically for marketing and communications, under a director who is looking to sell the product at all times. Indeed, through recent consultation between the two tourist boards and the various providers, a booklet called ‘Ireland’s Welcoming Waterways’, was produced. That is a preliminary project as they begin to sell the product. Tourism is very much a part of the picture as far as Waterways Ireland is concerned.

The anticipated complement of staff is 380; it currently stands at 300. For example, there are currently 50 staff in Enniskillen, with an anticipated complement of 70, which is the number of staff required. As far as the remit is concerned, I refer Mr Shannon to the corporate plan, the action plan and the various background documents to Waterways Ireland. However, it is essentially a navigation authority concerned with taking over navigable waters within the island and managing them for users, tourists and the local population.

Although replenishing canals in the Irish Republic is very advanced, virtually nothing has been done in Northern Ireland. Much of the work lies ahead, and I anticipate that much of it will be done in Northern Ireland, not least on the Lagan Navigation and the Ulster Canal.

Mr McHugh: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I take into account Jim Wilson’s points about users and the safety of lakes, although I do not want any groups excluded from either the upper or lower parts of Lough Erne or confined to areas where it is uneconomical for users to travel.

The Minister said that the Council noted progress on procurement of permanent office accommodation for Waterways Irelands headquarters in Enniskillen. What progress has been made? I would have expected a decision much sooner than now. Has real progress been made to allow a decision to be announced shortly, or is some sort of foot-dragging taking place on either side of the border?

Mr McGimpsey:

The process of providing offices in Enniskillen has been ongoing for a couple of years. A development brief for the premises, in which there was a great deal of interest, was issued. A robust process was required to ensure that the decision was the best possible one for the taxpayer and for Waterways Ireland.

We honed it down to three possible sites: Ardhowen, Sligo Road and The Brook. We are now at the next stage — a site has been chosen, and an economic appraisal has been completed. I am satisfied that the process has been robust. The selection has been completed, and we are clarifying the legal position. I will make an announcement when budgetary considerations can be addressed. I have to be certain that we are ready to spend the money when I make the announcement, and I anticipate being in a position to do that in the near future. It would be premature to make an announcement today. The process is completed, but we must be certain that we have the correct answer. We are now ensuring that that is the case.

Mr A Maginness:

I compliment the Minister on his comprehensive report and on the steady and sensible progress that has been made on this. I am interested in the potential of inland waterways to attract tourists. The report says that consultants are preparing a marketing and promotion strategy for Waterways Ireland. When will those reports be ready for publication and discussion by the Assembly?

Mr McGimpsey:

It is difficult to give a precise date by which the reports will be ready. A marketing and communication system has been set up within Waterways Ireland under the control of a director, who is specifically tasked with selling the product as a tourist attraction, and he is working closely with both tourist boards. The first brochure, ‘Ireland’s Welcoming Waterways’, has already been published. That is the beginning of the process, but I am not sure when it will be completed. I can find out and write to the Member with details of the precise date for publication. There has been great interest in this, not least from the providers of the cruising craft and so on and from the local authorities around Lough Erne, the Lower Bann, and the canals in the Irish Republic. We consider the matter to be important and urgent and have given it priority.

Mr Gibson:

The Minister said that the feasibility study on the Ulster Canal is being considered by the relevant Departments to determine the way forward. Is serious consideration now being given to a reconstruction project for the Ulster Canal and, if so, is there a vague timetable for its delivery?

Mr McGimpsey:

I attempted to relay the position on the Ulster Canal in an answer to a question asked by Mr John Kelly. The matter is being considered, and a feasibility study has been completed. We know the cost of the project, based on prices in 2000. We will have to find inventive ways to fund such a large capital project. The Ulster Canal and Lagan Navigation capital projects should proceed, resources allowing. It is not simply a matter of making a case in the Assembly and then receiving the money in a cheque from the centre. That would not be possible. We must look at other sources, such as public-private partnerships and possibly the reinvestment and reform initiative.

Those matters are being considered, and we take one step at a time. Old feasibility studies on the Ulster Canal have been examined, and environmental scoping has been brought up to date. The last scoping was carried out in 1998. I have been trying for the last couple of years to get close to a position of being able to make a proposal on the Ulster Canal, and we are coming to that point. Members will appreciate that it is a very large project and that we must step carefully.

Mrs Carson:

I thank the Minister for his report and I welcome it, especially given the employment of 50 people in Enniskillen, which is an unemployment black spot in my constituency. I welcome the upgrading of mooring facilities on Lough Erne, which are needed by tourists and boat owners.

In his comprehensive works programme, will the Minister include an audit of the water quality of the Erne system? I am concerned that there has been a visible growth in weeds along the supposedly navigable and deeper waters. Is the increased growth of eel weed in clear water due to the infestation of zebra mussels? The Republic of Ireland’s report on the water quality in its rivers shows that the headwaters of the Erne are the second most-polluted system in the Republic. Does the Minister have that report to hand?

Mr McGimpsey:

Although water quality is very important, Waterways Ireland has no responsibility for monitoring or policing water quality. That lies with another Department.

Zebra mussels were spread by boats and became widely established in the 1990s. No biological control for them has yet been identified. With regard to such matters as the Ulster Canal, that factor must be taken into account to ensure that the mussels are not carried further into our system.

In respect of Mrs Carson’s other concerns, I am not clear about the water quality of the headwaters in the Irish Republic. I can make enquiries if she wishes, but, strictly speaking, Waterways Ireland is an authority responsible for keeping waterways navigable, and water quality issues are outside its remit.


Social Security Bill: Second Stage

The Minister for Social Development (Mr Dodds): I beg to move

That the Second Stage of the Social Security Bill (NIA 3/02) be agreed.

This Bill makes provisions for Northern Ireland which correspond to the social security provisions made for Great Britain by the Employment Act 2002, which received Royal Assent on 8 July 2002. The Bill is, therefore, a parity measure.

In yesterday’s debate on accelerated passage for the Bill, I mentioned that there has always been parity between Great Britain and Northern Ireland in the area of social security. That is as it should be. People in Northern Ireland pay the same taxes and National Insurance contributions as people in Great Britain. They are, therefore, entitled to receive the same benefits. In addition, parity enables Northern Ireland to use the Great Britain computer systems. That is much more cost-effective than having to set up separate computer systems here, which would have to be funded from the Northern Ireland block.

Parity does not only cover the content of the legislation; it also covers the timing of its implementation. New provisions have always been introduced in Northern Ireland at the same time as they have been introduced in the rest of the United Kingdom, and that arrangement should continue.

11.00 am

Clauses 1 to 4 of the Bill cover statutory maternity pay and maternity allowance. The period for which statutory maternity pay and maternity allowance are payable is being extended from 18 to 26 weeks, and the standard rate is being increased from £75 to £100 a week, or to 90% of weekly earnings where they are less than £100 a week.

These are significant changes for working mothers. The increase in maternity benefits to £100 a week from April 2003 is the biggest in real terms since 1948. It comes on top of a substantial increase in April 2002 from £62·20 to £75 a week. Combined with the extension to the payment period, the new rate of pay means that compared with now, most women who receive statutory maternity pay will gain about £1,250.

Clause 3 introduces two important changes: it safeguards a woman’s entitlement to statutory maternity pay from 15 weeks before her baby is due and increases the period of notice that a woman must give to her employer from three to four weeks before starting her paid leave. If a woman decides to leave her employer in the 15 weeks before her baby is due, for a reason unconnected with her pregnancy, she may not receive statutory maternity pay. Clause 3 introduces changes that ensure that if an employee meets the conditions for statutory maternity pay and notifies her employer properly, she will receive maternity pay, even if, for any reason, her employment ends after that point.

Employees must provide three weeks’ notice before starting paid maternity leave. The period of notice has been extended to four weeks, which will give employers a longer period over which they can arrange cover for the absence of the pregnant employee. As now, clause 3 also provides a power to modify the entitlement in notice provisions in certain cases, such as premature birth.

Clause 4 increases the standard rate of maternity allowance so that it mirrors the new standard rate of statutory maternity pay. A woman will receive the standard rate of £100 a week, or 90% of her average weekly earnings if that is less than the standard rate.

Most pregnant working women receive statutory maternity pay from their employers, but maternity allowance is aimed at those employees, such as self-employed women, women with a more variable employment record, and women who are on low earnings, who cannot receive such pay. Working women have no choice but to take time off work to prepare for and recover from childbirth, and it is important that we help as many as we can during that time.

The Welfare Reform and Pensions (Northern Ireland) Order 1999 introduced the requirement for certain benefit claimants to attend work-focused interviews. Clause 5 of the Bill extends that requirement to the partners of recipients of social security benefits that include an amount for the partner. Benefit sanctions may be applied if the partner fails, without good cause, to take part in an interview. The work-focused interview will concentrate on job potential and provide the partner with access to help and information on work benefits and services such as childcare. However, any action that a partner may choose to take, beyond taking part in the interview, will be entirely voluntary.

Clause 6 makes further provision for the exchange of information between my Department, the Department for Employment and Learning, the Department for Work and Pensions and the Housing Executive. In particular, it allows for the exchange of employment and training information.

Clause 7 of the Bill amends article 17 of the Deregulation and Contracting Out (Northern Ireland) Order 1996. The substitution of paragraph (4) arises from the need to make the proposed carers Order, which will address the deregulation of carers’ allowances, correspond with an equivalent Order made in Great Britain under the Regulatory Reform Act 2001. Drafting of the carers Order highlighted a technical problem relating to the Assembly control of Orders made under article 17, and legal advice is that Assembly control cannot commence until paragraph (4) is amended.

The carers Order is significant because it will make several changes to invalid care allowance, including changing its name to carers’ allowance in April 2003. The Order will provide for carers aged 65 and over to claim the allowance for the first time and will extend the entitlement period for up to eight weeks after the death of the disabled person. In keeping with the long-standing principle of parity in social security matters, the provisions are required to be in place by 28 October so that claimants in Northern Ireland are not disadvantaged, particularly as the same provisions will apply in the rest of the country from that date.

The opportunity has also been taken to make consequential amendments to article 17(1) and 17(2) of the Deregulating and Contracting Out (Northern Ireland) Order 1996, to take account of the enactment of the Regulatory Reform Act 2001, the Social Security Fraud Act 2001 and the Child Support, Pensions and Social Security Act 2000.

Clause 8 and schedules 1 and 2 of the Bill make minor and consequential amendments and repeals that flow from the changes being made by clauses 1 to 6.

The Bill is an important step in the ongoing process of welfare reform, and I commend it to the Assembly.

Mrs Nelis:

Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I welcome those clauses of the Bill that facilitate an improvement in the provision of statutory maternity pay and maternity allowance by increasing the period of payment from 18 weeks to 26 weeks and by increasing the rate of maternity allowance. As the Minister stated, those provisions are contained in clauses 1 to 4 of the Bill. That will be good news for expectant working mothers and fathers.

However, the subsequent clauses, which the Minister has outlined, are more contentious — the potential impact of the Bill on partners could be described as the good news coming before the bad. The later clauses propose to change the Social Security Administration (Northern Ireland) Act 1992 so as to make provision for work-focused interviews for partners of benefit claimants by inserting a new section after section 2A entitled:

"Full entitlement to certain benefits conditional on work-focused interview for partners".

The partners of claimants who receive income support, jobseeker’s allowance, severe disablement allowance and invalid care allowance will be subject to that condition. Previous legislation, such as the Welfare Reform and Pensions (Northern Ireland) Order 1999, introduced a requirement for certain benefit claimants, including lone parents, to attend work-focused interviews. The provisions in this Bill propose to extend that requirement to partners of benefit claimants. If they fail to do so, the legislation will prescribe benefit sanctions. One can argue that there may be an advantage in encouraging partners who lack confidence or who believe that their role is to stay at home as the home keeper. Women in particular might derive some stimulus from work-focused interviews especially if the latter, according to the explanatory and financial memorandum, cover

"previous employment records, capacity to undertake work, the in-house financial support available and help in areas such as childcare, housing and training."

On the other hand, partners of claimants may feel that the requirements will eventually be enforced, and that is why they may see the Bill as contentious. They may be seeking work or taking up training even when they have family or other domestic responsibilities: there is also concern about the difficulties for claimants whose partners are claiming severe disablement allowance. The Bill does not recognise that many partners of claimants who stay at home are work-focused: work in the home requires many skills.

The other concern about these provisions is the impact that they may have on carers of children, the elderly or the sick. It needs to be made clear that such people will not be penalised by the provisions and that work-focused interviews will not be extended by subsequent legislation to include compulsory attendance at training or compulsory job seeking. The major difficulty for the Committee for Social Development is that the requirement for legislative parity means that once again there is insufficient time to fulfil a proper scrutiny role adequately.

We are not given sight of the passage of such Bills through Westminster. Are we expected to rubber-stamp those Bills which are given accelerated passage, without proper consultation or scrutiny? The Committee for Social Development and the Assembly deserve better. If we are to legislate on parity Bills, we should at least be given sight of the debate and amendments to such Bills, as they travel through Westminster.

We are not "as British as Finchley", and our constituents have different needs. Our social situation is widely diverse, with higher levels of unemployment and deprivation and more people on income support — 68% more than in England. We have a low-wage economy and serious health problems. It is time that the issue of parity in relation to social security matters, child support, pensions and all those needs are investigated in legal and in policy terms.

Mr Speaker:

I get a sense from what some Members have said that there is a lack of clarity about parity. There is no such legal thing as "parity legislation" – it merely describes a political decision to keep legislation here the same as in the rest of the United Kingdom. The term "parity legislation" has no legal standing whatever. There is no description or definition of it — it is purely a political decision. The Assembly is at liberty to take whatever course of action it chooses in relation to parity. The Minister made that clear when he pointed out that there were certain economic and political reasons why he supported that stance.

I wanted to make that clear, because when the term is used there is sometimes an impression that it has a legal standing and that the Assembly is not free to make its own decision in that regard. From a procedural point of view I point out that the Assembly can do more than it might imagine.

Mr M Robinson:

I acknowledge that the Minister has taken the time to ensure that the Committee for Social Development has been fully briefed on the legislation, in view of the fact that his Department would be asking for accelerated passage for the Social Security Bill to ensure that the principle of parity was adhered to, as the Chairman, Mr Cobain, outlined yesterday. Two weeks ago, the Committee reached the conclusion that the measures being proposed would be of benefit to many more applicants than was previously the case.

I therefore welcome the Second Stage of the Social Security Bill, which will, once fully implemented, provide benefits to some of the most needy and vulnerable in our society. In particular, I want to emphasise and, indeed, to welcome the changes made to maternity payments, which now include the provision for statutory maternity pay in relation to rate, period and entitlement. That is a major step forward in providing real and tangible assistance and benefits to working mothers.

The changes made in the invalid care allowance, including the change of its name to carers allowance, widens the scope of those who are eligible to claim, by allowing people over the age of 65 to benefit from the scheme. Once the Bill is implemented in full, more people than ever before will become eligible for this type of benefit.

The inclusion of the state pension credit Bill will ultimately benefit the most vulnerable and needy pensioners in our society. The Bill’s aim is to create a system that is easier to access and will therefore encourage pensioners to make a claim to which they are entitled. Once implemented, the changes will bring Northern Ireland into line with Great Britain and will allow pensioners in Northern Ireland to have access to the new state pension credit and thus a more generous income. This provides the opportunity for bringing more people into the realm of eligibility with regard to receiving benefits. With the passage of this Bill through the Assembly, the people of Northern Ireland will not lose out on any benefits to which they may be eligible.

11.15 am

Mr Dodds:

I appreciate the way in which the Bill has been handled over the past two days. I listened to Members’ points, and I wish to address a couple of those. The introduction of these benefits at the same time and at the same rates as in the rest of the country is good news for the people of Northern Ireland.

Mr Speaker, you made several comments about parity legislation, and you are right to point out that it makes sense to maintain parity for several political and economic reasons. There is now some statutory relevance and provision on this issue. Before 1998, there was no statutory basis for the application of the principle of parity. Section 87 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 gave legislative expression to aspects of that principle for the first time. It requires the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions and the Northern Ireland Minister to run single systems of social security, child support and pensions to the extent agreed between them.

It must be emphasised that parity has worked to the benefit of the people of Northern Ireland for many years. It means that people here who pay the same rates of income tax, National Insurance contributions and so on are entitled to the same benefits, at the same rates, at the same time as people elsewhere. That is right, and if it were not the case, our constituents would rightly accuse us of depriving them of something to which they are entitled.

Parity works to Northern Ireland’s advantage. For example, contributory benefits such as retirement pension and incapacity benefit are funded from National Insurance contributions. The amount raised through those contributions is, and has been for a long time, insufficient to meet the demand for such benefits, and the shortfall in the Northern Ireland National Insurance fund has to be made up by a transfer from the Great Britain fund. Non-contributory benefits are financed from taxation revenue. Expenditure is demand-led and is outside the managed block grant. If we interfere with that, we must bear in mind the consequences to the expenditure that will be required from the Northern Ireland block grant, and the expenditure that will be required to manage and implement any breach of parity with regard to computer systems and other matters. Anyone who examined that option in any detail would quickly see that it is to our benefit to continue to implement parity provisions.

Members raised several points about work-focused interviews. I must make it clear that this is simply the implementation of a principle for welfare reform. If a claimant has stated that they have a partner, that partner will be called to attend an interview. All that is required is that they discuss their personal circumstances. There is no requirement to find work. It is a means of exploring with the individual their needs and circumstances, and of giving them advice, support and help. It has been found to be very helpful. Not everyone will find work, but people can explore the opportunities for fulfilling their potential. That is all that is being asked of them, and that cannot be described as bad news. The Bill is good news for the people of Northern Ireland. It will bring benefits to those who are entitled to them.

Yesterday I said that I was grateful for the opportunity to speak to the Committee for Social Development about the Bill, and to give our reasons for seeking accelerated passage. Some time ago officials appeared before the Committee to discuss the content of the proposed legislation, and members were provided with a copy of the draft Bill. I have searched the records, and there has been no correspondence from some Members who spoke today — I refer to one Member in particular — about any aspect of the Bill. People who speak about scrutiny and consultation should take this matter seriously. If Members have points to make, they should make them, and we could then discuss those points and deal with them as we go through the Bill, rather than Members making spurious points about consultation at the end of the process when they have not bothered at any stage to make those points directly.

I am pleased with how the Bill has been debated. Mr ONeill made a useful point in yesterday’s debate, and I have made an undertaking with the Committee that officials will endeavour to keep members informed about the progress of legislation through Westminster. Members will be able to discuss issues and reflect on them, but they should remember that legislation may be changed at Westminster. It is sensible and correct that Members who are interested in issues should have the opportunity to be briefed. All Members can acquaint themselves with what is happening at Westminster. The information is in the public domain and is not a secret.

I thank the Assembly for its speedy and expeditious consideration of the Second Stage of the Social Security Bill.

Question put and agreed to.


That the Second Stage of the Social Security Bill (NIA 3/02) be agreed.


Assembly Ombudsman for Northern Ireland
(Assembly Standards) Bill: Second Stage

The Chairperson of the Committee on Standards and Privileges (Mr McClelland):

I beg to move

That the Second Stage of the Assembly Ombudsman for Northern Ireland (Assembly Standards) Bill (NIA 25/01) be agreed.

This is a historic piece of legislation because it is the first Committee Bill to be introduced to the Assembly.

The main purpose of the Assembly Ombudsman for Northern Ireland (Assembly Standards) Bill is to enable the Assembly Ombudsman for Northern Ireland to fulfil the role and functions of an Assembly commissioner for standards. The Committee on Standards and Privileges is responsible for the consideration of any matter that relates to the conduct of Members, including complaints about alleged breaches of the Assembly’s code of conduct and the guide to the rules relating to the conduct of Members.

In September 2000 the Committee embarked on its first inquiry into the possible appointment of an Assembly commissioner for standards. The key recommendation in the Committee’s report was that there should be an independent mechanism for the investigation of complaints against Members, and accordingly that an Assembly commissioner for standards should be appointed. It was envisaged that the commissioner would investigate complaints against Members and submit a report to the Committee on Standards and Privileges on any investigation undertaken. In turn, the Committee would submit a report to the Assembly on all complaints investigated, and could recommend the imposition of sanctions on Members. The Assembly, in plenary sitting, would be the final arbiter on each complaint and on the determination of sanctions.

The Assembly approved the report and its findings in April 2001.

After publication of its report, the Committee considered various methods of appointing a commissioner for standards and concluded that the Office of the Ombudsman for Northern Ireland was particularly well placed and equipped to discharge the functions of such a commissioner. The Committee was satisfied that the Ombudsman’s office had all the investigative infrastructure, skills and experience to investigate complaints against Members.

In taking this approach, the Committee was keen to maintain the independence of the commissioner by ensuring that neither the appointment nor the tenure of the commissioner would come within the authority of the Committee or of the Assembly itself. Our intention was that the independence of the commissioner for standards should be analogous to that of the Comptroller and Auditor General.

The approach developed by the Committee was also based on a belief that the independent investigation of complaints by the Assembly Ombudsman, who is appointed through the public appointments procedure, would promote additional transparency in the investigative process and thus secure greater public confidence in the work of the Committee on Standards and Privileges and the Assembly itself. For reasons of economy, efficiency and effectiveness, the Committee decided that this was the most attractive option by far.

The investigation of complaints against Members will be in addition to the Assembly Ombudsman’s present functions of investigating complaints against Departments and other public authorities that are referred to him by Members.

In carrying out his function of investigating Assembly standards, the Assembly Ombudsman is not subject to the direction or control of the Assembly. However, where the complaint relates to a Member’s conduct, he must have regard to any code of conduct or guidance agreed or approved by the Assembly. To give effect to the proposals to have complaints investigated by the Ombudsman, the Committee concluded that primary legislation would have to be introduced and that the most appropriate method of advancing the relevant primary legislation would be by means of a Bill sponsored by the Committee on Standards and Privileges.

The Committee went to consultation on its proposals through advertisement in the local press. No responses were received, and having to start its responsibility in this area, the Committee has taken the view that there appears to be no objection in principle to this approach. With that in mind, the Committee decided to proceed with the introduction of legislation.

As I stated at the outset, the Bill enables the Assembly Ombudsman to fulfil the roles and functions of an Assembly commissioner for standards. The primary function of the commissioner will be to carry out an investigation into matters relating to the conduct, interests and privileges of Members of the Northern Ireland Assembly at the request of the Committee and to submit a report on any investigation conducted. The commissioner will report to the Committee on his or her investigation but will not make any formal recommendation regarding the imposition of sanctions or penalties.

The Committee will subsequently report its findings on the complaint to the Assembly. The report will contain a recommendation on whether to impose sanctions on a Member. The full report, submitted by the commissioner to the Committee, will be appended to the Committee’s report to the Assembly. The Committee’s report may be the subject of debate in the Assembly, and the Member or Members complained about will have the opportunity to take part in that debate. The Assembly meeting in plenary, will ultimately decide whether to accept the Committee’s findings. The Assembly will also decide if any of the Committee’s recommendations on the imposition of sanctions on the Member should be accepted.

The Bill is necessary to enable the Assembly Ombudsman to fulfil the role of Assembly commissioner for standards. For these reasons, I commend the Bill to the Assembly.

Mr M Murphy:

Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. We welcome the introduction of investigatory powers for the Assembly Ombudsman. It is essential for the credibility of the Committee on Standards and Privileges that the investigation of Members who have allegedly breached the code of conduct be carried out by an independent person.

It is important that the Ombudsman should have adequate powers to guarantee independence and that due regard be given to his reports. Such a duty should be added to the Bill, and I look forward to seeing it passed. Go raibh maith agat.

11.30 am

Mr McClelland:

I have no further comment. I commend the Bill to the Assembly.

Question put and agreed to.


That the Second Stage of the Assembly Ombudsman for Northern Ireland (Assembly Standards) Bill (NIA 25/01) be agreed.

Mr Speaker:

The Bill now stands referred to the Committee of the Centre.


Asperger's Syndrome

Mr Fee:

I beg to move

That this Assembly calls on the Ministers of Education and Health, Social Services and Public Safety to instigate a comprehensive review of the services provided for people, adults and children, with Asperger's syndrome and the training of professionals specialising in the treatment of such individuals.

I am grateful for the opportunity to raise this important, complex and difficult issue. Mr Speaker, as a layman I speak with trepidation, in the full and certain knowledge that you and other Members may know infinitely more about this topic than I do. Nonetheless, this motion is more about raising awareness and keeping the matter to the fore with the relevant Ministers. I appreciate the fact that the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety is in the Chamber.

This matter is to do with fair play, equality and basic human and civil rights. There are people with Asperger's syndrome and autism of different forms, and they may not be getting the support, care and attention that they deserve and are entitled to.

Some Members have eyesight disorders, and they expect to get a speedy diagnosis of their problem, access to medical care and the glasses they need readily and easily. There is an induction loop system and other aids to support people with hearing difficulties who work in or visit this Building.

There are people with Asperger's syndrome whose needs are not visible and whose condition is not easy to diagnose, and when it is diagnosed it is not always clear what the best treatment is, so we must continuously update our knowledge of that syndrome, and of autistic spectrum disorder, and use best practice in treatment and education. We must ensure that the public have an understanding and awareness of the range of problems faced by those with Asperger's syndrome and their families.

The main characteristics of the syndrome are to do with how individuals communicate, understand the world around them and relate to their environment and to the people they live and come in contact with. Many people with Asperger's syndrome are just like the rest of us; they want to make friends and interact, but they find it very difficult to communicate. Non-verbal expressions and social rules and conventions are quite often beyond them. That creates a high level of anxiety and isolation, difficulties with communication and severe learning difficulties.

In those circumstances, their needs for care and attention, one-to-one education, and precision in the use of language and how one relates to the individual are much greater than ours. Therefore, we must find the mechanisms and supports that will allow sufferers of Asperger's syndrome to live their lives and participate in society to the full. We must protect them against the almost inevitable danger that is depression, which looms somewhere in the back of their minds and is often one of the most debilitating symptoms of the disorder.


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