Northern Ireland Assembly Flax Flower Logo

Northern Ireland Assembly

Monday 16 September 2002


Assembly Business: Withdrawal of Statement by Mr Roche

State Pension Credit Bill: First Stage

Limited Liability Partnerships Bill: Consideration Stage

Open-Ended Investment Companies Bill: Consideration Stage

Children (Leaving Care) Bill: Consideration Stage

Social Security Bill: Consideration Stage

State Pension Credit Bill: Accelerated Passage

Review of Opportunities for Public-Private Partnerships in Northern Ireland

Oral Answers to Questions

Department of Education

Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety

Department of Finance and Personnel

Review of Opportunities for Public-Private Partnerships in Northern Ireland

Change of Committee Membership

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

Members observed two minutes’ silence.

Assembly Business: Withdrawal of Statement by Mr Roche

Mr Speaker:

Mr Roche has requested, and has been granted, an opportunity to withdraw a remark that he made during the anti-sectarianism debate on Tuesday 10 September 2002.

Mr Roche:

In the debate on 10 September I referred to a named Member as a "convicted murderer". I now know that that statement was incorrect, and I withdraw the statement.

Mr Speaker:

I think that the statement referred to Mr Gerry Kelly. I ask Mr Kelly whether he wishes to accept the withdrawal.

Mr G Kelly:

I welcome the fact that the remark has been withdrawn. It is not the first time that Unionists have abused privilege. In the scheme of things, and considering the speed at which some Unionists are moving forward regarding dialogue, perhaps this is a small step forward.

Mr Speaker:

A good precedent has been established by other Members that, when a Member discovers that something that was said was incorrect, it is withdrawn on the Floor of the House. That is a good and proper way to behave.

State Pension Credit Bill: First Stage

The Minister for Social Development (Mr Dodds):

I beg leave to lay before the Assembly a Bill [NIA 4/02] to make provision for and in connection with a new social security benefit called state pension credit; and to amend section 43(1) of the Pension Schemes (Northern Ireland) Act 1993.

Bill passed First Stage and ordered to be printed.

Mr Speaker:

The Bill will be put on the list of pending business until a date for its Second Stage has been determined.

Limited Liability Partnerships Bill: Consideration Stage

Clauses 1 to 16 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Schedule agreed to.

Long title agreed to.

Mr Speaker:

That concludes the Consideration Stage of the Limited Liability Partnerships Bill. The Bill stands referred to the Speaker.

Open-Ended Investment Companies Bill: Consideration Stage

Clauses 1 to 5 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Long title agreed to.

Mr Speaker:

That concludes the Consideration Stage of the Open-Ended Investment Companies Bill. The Bill stands referred to the Speaker.

Children (Leaving Care) Bill: Consideration Stage

Mr Speaker:

Members will have a copy of the Marshalled List, which details the order for consideration. There are two groups of amendments for debate. The first group contains only one amendment, which is amendment No 1. The second group comprises the Committee’s opposition to clause 6 and amendment No 2 and amendment No 3, which are consequential to the opposition to clause 6. The amendments, therefore, will be called only if the Assembly agrees that clause 6 should not stand part of the Bill. The Questions on stand part will be taken at the appropriate points in the Bill. If that is clear, and there is no objection, we shall proceed. I propose to call clauses en bloc, to which there has been no signified objection.

Clauses 1 to 4 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 5 (Representations)

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

The Chairperson of the Committee for Health, Social Services and Public Safety (Dr Hendron):

I beg to move amendment No 1: In page 8, line 38, leave out "(if any)".

The Committee for Health, Social Services and Public Safety scrutinised the Children (Leaving Care) Bill during every Stage of the Bill. The Committee’s report details the scrutiny of the Bill. We took evidence from a wide range of key groups that work with young people leaving care. Clause 5 deals with representations made under the Children (Northern Ireland) Order 1995. It establishes arrangements for dealing with complaints about services provided under the Order. Each health and social services trust will be required to have procedures in place to hear complaints from young people who qualify for support arrangements under the Bill about the way in which the trust carries out its functions under Part IV of the Children (Northern Ireland) Order 1995. The Committee welcomed that requirement. It is a positive and much needed step that will give young people a stronger voice in their affairs.

Members recommended one minor amendment, which was that the phrase "(if any)" should be removed from clause 5. That amendment would give the Department authority to make Regulations under article 34 of the Children (Northern Ireland) Order 1995. It was agreed that the phrase was unnecessary.

The Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety (Ms de Brún): Éilíonn alt 5 go mbunódh iontaobhais sláinte agus seirbhísí sóisialta nósanna imeachta oiriúnacha le hionadaíocht agus gearáin a mheas maidir le hurscaoileadh a bhfeidhmeanna faoi alt 2 agus alt 4 den Bhille.

Beidh mionsonraí na nósanna imeachta ionadaíochta agus gearán leagtha amach i rialacháin arna ndéarnamh ag mo Roinn. Níl aon deacracht agam dá bhrí sin glacadh leis an leasú seo.

Clause 5 requires health and social services trusts to establish suitable procedures to consider representations and complaints about the discharge of their functions under clauses 2 and 4 of the Bill. The detail of those procedures will be set out in the Regulations made by my Department. Therefore, I accept the amendment.

Dr Hendron:

I am happy with the Minister’s comments.

Rev Dr Ian Paisley:

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I wish to speak on the amendment.

Mr Speaker:

I received no indication that the Member wished to speak on the matter. We have listened to the Minister’s response, and the Chairperson has wound up the debate.

Rev Dr Ian Paisley:

That is all right.

Mr Speaker:

However, if the Member wishes to speak in the second debate, I shall make a note of his name.

Rev Dr Ian Paisley:

I shall indicate my wish to speak at the appropriate time.

Amendment No 1 agreed to.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 5, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 6 (Exclusion from benefits)

Mr Speaker:

Amendments 2 and 3 are consequential on clause 6 not standing part of the Bill. Several Members have indicated that they wish to speak on their opposition to clause 6, and on the amendments. Therefore, we shall debate those matters together.

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

The following amendments stood on the Marshalled List:

No 2: In clause 9, page 10, line 14, leave out subsection (3). — [The Chairperson of the Committee for Health, Social Services and Public Safety (Dr Hendron).]

No 3: In clause 9, page 10, line 16, leave out "or subsection (3)". — [The Chairperson of the Committee for Health, Social Services and Public Safety (Dr Hendron).]

Dr Hendron:

Clause 6 will remove entitlement to jobseeker’s allowance, income support and housing benefit from care leavers who have not yet reached the age of 18. The intention is that the resources currently deployed by providing such benefits for that group be transferred from the Department for Social Development to the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety.

The transferred resources would be used by health trusts to provide support for 16- to 17-year-old care leavers. Around 220 young people are likely to be affected. The clause will place a duty on health trusts to act in place of the parent to safeguard and promote the welfare of young people by providing financial assistance, as well as by giving advice and support. The cost, although difficult to gauge, may be around £1 million to £2 million a year.

(Madam Deputy Speaker [Ms Morrice] in the Chair)

The Committee took evidence from leading voluntary bodies, and from health and social service trusts, both of which have direct daily involvement with young people aged 16 and 17 who have to leave care. Many witnesses registered serious concern about the policy and the likely impact of clause 6 on the young people who will be affected by having their right to jobseeker’s allowance, income support and housing benefit removed.

Barnardo’s stated that

"Access to benefits is a fundamental right for 16 and 17 year olds."

To remove that right will stigmatise those young people. It will make them different from their peers by denying them the same access to benefits.

The Housing Rights Service was also concerned that the blanket removal of the right of young people to claim benefits could impact negatively on those who have become estranged from social services and depend on financial support.

Organisations such as the Children’s Law Centre and the trade union NIPSA echoed those sentiments. They also stated that the proposed financial arrangements would change the ethos of the relationship between the young people and the trusts’ social workers.

Some trusts registered their concern about the impact of clause 6 on the relationship established between the young person and his or her social worker.

They said that young people would become dependent on their social worker or personal adviser for financial help, as well as for advice and support. Witnesses said that that might impose extra stress and pressure on that relationship.

12.15 pm

The Family Bar Association asked whether financial penalties would be imposed should the young person not co-operate with the needs assessment. It suggested that the level of control being passed to trusts under the new financial arrangements might raise human rights issues. In fact, several bodies raised that point.

Witnesses queried the consistency of the delivery of financial packages across different trusts, each of which would have a degree of freedom in developing specific support arrangements. Many organisations referred to their unhappy experiences of finding that sufficient funding had not been made available to fully support new statutory responsibilities under the Children (Northern Ireland) Order 1995. An important point is that the Order has been around for a few years, and there have been problems in financing its provisions.

Moreover, there was concern that, in moving from a needs-based social security system to a cash-limited social services system, budget considerations rather than individual need could become the basis for decision-making. Trusts would be made responsible for an area of work in which the expertise lies with the Social Security Agency. They would need to create a new administrative framework to manage the extra duties.

We do not doubt that the objective behind clause 6 is well meant. However, the young people involved have already lost the security and sense of belonging that being raised in a stable home environment brings to their peers. They already feel different and stigmatised, and clause 6 increases that feeling. To remove the clause from the Bill will leave 16- to 17-year-old children who leave care in the same position as regards their entitlement to social security benefits such as jobseeker’s allowance, income support, and housing benefit as any other 16- to 17-year-old young person who leaves the family home. Except for some changes to avoid duplication of financial responsibility between the Department for Social Development and the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety, the other provisions for young people leaving care will remain.

There is much good in the Children (Leaving Care) Bill, and I commend the Minister and her officials for introducing this important legislation. Witnesses who submitted evidence to the Committee eloquently argued for or against clause 6. However, having carefully considered the arguments, the Committee decided on balance, last June, to recommend opposition to clause 6. The decision was strengthened by the absence of a cast-iron guarantee from the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety that all resources transferred from the Department for Social Development would be defrayed exclusively for the support of care leavers — and that is a key point.

Members were acutely aware of the legacy of historical underinvestment in family and childcare services, especially during the Committee’s inquiry into residential and secure accommodation.

Since June, the Committee has continued to think long and hard about clause 6. Some Members have voiced worries that opposition to clause 6 may have an unwanted adverse impact on the financial position of the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety, as well as on the Northern Ireland block grant, if parity with England, Scotland and Wales were affected.

Clause 6 is important, and the Committee has taken great pride in making the best decision, which is in the best interests of those young people who are affected by the Bill. On 11 September 2002, the Committee agreed by a majority vote to continue to oppose clause 6: the Committee is divided. The ongoing consideration and divergence of views on the Bill reflects the hard work that all Committee members have continued to put in to determine the best course of action on the clause and the Bill.

A key word in this matter is "mandatory". I understand the arguments for retaining clause 6, and we have had discussions with senior officials from the Department. We have put this point strongly to officials, and have asked them whether they can give a guarantee. I understand that money has been ring-fenced under the English legislation. Bearing in mind the difficulties that were encountered in financing parts of the Children (Northern Ireland) Order 1995, and the stigma effect, which is also important, the Committee asked several times whether the Department could guarantee that funding that is to be transferred from the Department for Social Development to boards and trusts would benefit young people. The Committee did not get that guarantee. The word "mandatory" would have been key, had it been used. I wait with interest to hear what the Minister says.

Mrs I Robinson:

I shall try not to be repetitive. I welcome the Bill’s aims and objectives. However, it has caused the Health Committee many headaches. At its meeting on 11 September 2002, the Committee was divided on how it should proceed. Had other Committee members attended that meeting, the decision might have been different. The vote was four to three in favour of removing clause 6.

Before the recess, the Committee was inclined to oppose the inclusion of clause 6 in the Bill. It was concerned that clause 6 would remove the right of care leavers to social security benefits. It was suggested that a single financial package might simplify care leavers’ management of their affairs. The Committee was concerned that no guarantee was forthcoming from the Department that resources transferred from the Department for Social Development would be used exclusively for those leaving care.

However, my views and those of my Colleagues have changed since then. I am now absolutely convinced that clause 6 should be retained, mainly due to its financial implications. Without clause 6, funding that is required for care leavers might have to come from the devolved health budget. There are already an extraordinary number of worthy issues that make compelling demands for their portion of precious health funding. Therefore, we are in no position to be extravagant.

Traditionally, there has been parity between the social security systems in Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Since power was devolved in 1999, social security legislation in Northern Ireland has proceeded in step with Westminster. I fear that clause 6 will divorce the Province from Great Britain on social security, and will bring parity to an end. I hope that Colleagues — especially in the Ulster Unionist Party — will see the significance of retaining parity with the rest of the United Kingdom.

Without parity, there would be no transfer of social security funding. That would result in money having to come from the Northern Ireland Executive’s Budget. Who would suffer then? If the Health Department had to make up the shortfall, that would involve money that would otherwise have been spent on reducing waiting lists, purchasing medical equipment or boosting staffing levels. I am unsure as to how much money would be involved, but, presumably, it would pay for several heart operations or would provide extra acute beds for the Province.

Furthermore, the system in England and Wales has been working effectively. Why, when its health budget is so limited, would the Assembly choose to pay for something that would otherwise be funded through the Treasury?

Obviously, there are other advantages in retaining clause 6. For example, continuity of responsibility for those young people is desirable. To drop clause 6 would be to risk those vulnerable individuals losing contact with their trusts. There is a responsibility on trusts to ensure that care leavers receive their support swiftly and in its entirety. The money must pass down smoothly to young people. That must be a priority. Those individuals are in need; money for them must not be delayed or swallowed up by other projects. The Health Committee was united on that issue. I support the retention of clause 6 in the Bill.

Ms Ramsey:

Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. As other Members have said, the Committee considered the Bill in great depth, gathering both written and oral evidence. One of the main issues that jumped out at us was clause 6. A sizeable amount of evidence came from children’s organisations, including organisations that work directly with children in care and children on the verge of leaving care.

Clause 6 gave the Committee — and me — the greatest concerns. Like the Chairperson, I thank the officials, both from the Committee and from the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety, for their work in trying to find common ground on clause 6. It is unfortunate that no agreement could be reached, but I place my thanks on record. The Committee has seen more of its officials during the consideration of this Bill than of any other.

Clause 6 will remove the entitlement to jobseeker’s allowance, income support and housing benefit from care leavers who have not yet reached the age of 18. In an ideal society, young people should not be leaving care to go straight on to benefits. That is an issue that must be examined. That is what is happening to a percentage of young people, some of whom leave care with few or no educational qualifications.

The Committee took evidence from leading voluntary and community representatives, and also from trusts, which have a daily direct involvement with young people. Barnardo’s said that access to benefits was a fundamental right for 16- and 17-year-olds. To remove that right will stigmatise those young people. It makes them different to their peers by denying them the same access to benefits. Trusts also had their own concerns. I was struck by the concern that clause 6 would harm the relationship between social workers and young people by changing the nature of that relationship.

I understand and accept that people are entitled to change their minds, but, based on the evidence at the time, the Committee accepted that it would vote against accepting clause 6. [Interruption].

If I am allowed to continue, I shall explain that.

The Committee published a report, which I read carefully at the weekend. However, I am conscious that Committees can receive evidence after reports have been signed off. I am aware that some Committee members, based on the arguments that they have received, have pulled back. I accept that. It shows that, as a Committee, sometimes we may agree as a whole, and sometimes we may not. However, the majority of the Committee agreed and voted that the Committee would still support the removal of clause 6 from the Bill.

I am not for one minute going to speak for the Ulster Unionist Committee members. I am sure that they will tell us how they are going to vote. However, last Wednesday, the majority of the Committee agreed to vote against the inclusion of clause 6 in the Bill. That decision was based not on the benefits issue, but on the stigmatisation that young people will face should their right to benefit be removed, and on other issues that were highlighted to the Committee by leading children’s organisations. Therefore, I support the opposition to clause 6.

Ms McWilliams:

One reason why I support the removal of clause 6 from the Bill is a commendation of the Department for Social Development and a criticism of the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety. That might interest some Members who had thought not to support the removal of the clause.

In this country social security payments are still paid swiftly and fully. There would be no guarantee that that would continue to be the case if those changes were implemented.

12.30 pm

Last week, the Minister for Social Development introduced some good new legislation that extended disability benefits in Northern Ireland, especially disability living allowances for people aged over 65. The Minister regularly introduces new legislation regarding benefits that focuses on inclusion rather than exclusion. This Bill is rare in that its subtext is the exclusion from entitlement to benefits of one of the most vulnerable groups in society. I am concerned that if the amendment is not agreed to, Members will tell the House about the many young people in their constituencies who receive benefits and who do not know where their social worker is or to which health trust they belong. That is the message coming from young people in care. We must support the amendment and delete clause 6, not only to avoid stacking up enormous social problems for young people and help-providers but to avoid funding difficulties.

Iris Robinson argued that the money must come out of the block grant; that is correct. However, one way or another, it will come out of the block grant. It will come out of either the social security budget or the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety’s budget. I would be happier about it coming out of the budget of the Minister for Social Development, from which it may be paid more quickly, than it coming out of the budget of the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety.

The guarantee of preserved rights for the elderly must be borne in mind. Those benefits will now be paid from the budget of the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety rather than from the social security budget. However, will those benefits continue to be paid in two years’ time, when the transitional period has ended? The answer is perhaps not. There may not be enough money in the budget for those payments to be made to that group of residents in old people’s homes. That example applies to this situation too.

The Minister did not seek accelerated passage for the Bill. One would have thought that she would have done so given the benefits issue. The legislation has already been enacted in England, and evidence collected by the Committee for Health, Social Services and Public Safety suggests that it is not working well. It has not had the intended effect — quite the opposite. However, we have continued to pay the benefits out of the social security budget. Thus, parity has already gone, yet no crisis has arisen. Evidence to the Committee suggests that the best approach is to continue to pay those benefits from the social security budget. It is an example of Northern Ireland benefiting from moving in a different direction to England. And why not? After all, that is one of the benefits of being a devolved region. What is best for one region is not necessarily what is practised elsewhere.

A shift in payments from one budget to another would create a further layer of bureaucracy and considerable administration costs for the trusts. We are trying to do away with further bureaucracy. People’s rights should be assessed according to need, rather than on a discretionary basis by an office set up to administer the new form of benefit. Those workers would have to be paid accordingly. Thus, there would be high administrative costs for providing a small number of people with a service that is already provided for adequately under the social security system.

We have made some good changes to social security legislation, especially with regard to lone parents aged between 16 and 18. Changes are also being introduced to legislation that affects carers, which will take on board how their daily circumstances are affected by the fact that the elderly are living longer — an issue that had not been considered previously.

Why is exactly the same not done for these young people? My understanding is that they would receive their basic entitlement and could still rely on social services and their personal advisers for extra funds if necessary. In respect of value for money, efficiency or a needs-based analysis for the most vulnerable group in Northern Ireland, the arguments do not stack up. All the other parts of the legislation attempt to protect those young people, and if we cannot provide for a roof over their heads, for food on the table and for their quality of life, the whole Bill might as well go out the window.

Mrs Courtney:

I support the opposition to clause 6 of the Bill. For those who may not be familiar with the Bill, clause 6 deals with changes to social security legislation and the transfer of responsibility for children leaving care to health and social services trusts.

Evidence was taken from various statutory and voluntary bodies, all of which were concerned that the removal of entitlement to income-based social security benefits, and the transfer of financial support to health and social services trusts, would have a direct impact on care leavers. That concern included a lack of commitment from the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety that all resources due to be transferred from the Department for Social Development would be kept exclusively for the support of care leavers.

Clause 6, of course, will mean changes to the social services legislation, which is the responsibility of the Department for Social Development. On balance, however, the majority view was that the removal of clause 6 would be more beneficial to young people leaving care.

It was further noted that in England similar legislation was accompanied by a substantial addition to the budget, which was ring-fenced. That was achieved by giving additional resources from the special social services grant under the Quality Protects initiative. However, apart from £1·2 million from the social inclusion fund for 2001-02 and 2003-04 for pilot schemes, there is no specific commitment to the overall package of additional resources to assist in underpinning the implementation of the Bill.

Northern Ireland is the only part of the United Kingdom with devolved responsibility for social security, child support and pensions. For a considerable time, parity has applied to the relationship between the social security systems in Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and, since devolution, legislation has been enacted in parallel with Westminster. However, I understand that there is no legal definition of "parity" in the Northern Ireland Act 1998. Parity concerns equivalence and equality of treatment. For that reason I have consistently supported the removal of clause 6 from the Bill. Although I welcome the fact that officials put their views to the Committee, I support the opposition to the clause.

Mr S Wilson:

Until it is decided exactly how we deal with parity legislation, the Assembly will continually have to address this issue. We pretend that we have the luxury of departing, if we so desire, from legislative parity with the rest of the United Kingdom, especially in respect of social security legislation. Even the devolved Parliament in Scotland, with much wider powers than our own, did not take it upon itself to do that. Scotland realised that to break parity at any stage — especially while being a net recipient in respect of welfare expenditure — is a very dangerous position to adopt. The Social Development Committee has examined parity legislation, and we have been faced with the issues time and time again. People may like to flex their muscles and suggest being different, but, financially, we cannot afford to be different.

The Treasury would love it if we were to break parity, albeit in a small way. Given that we are the net recipients of over £3,000 million for social security, the consequences of breaching that parity are obvious. When considering clause 6, we must decide whether we can consider seriously doing that.

The Assembly spends about £1 million of the Budget on those who leave care. That expenditure is demand-led; it could be less than £1 million next year, or it could be more. As it is demand-led, the money does not, despite what Ms McWilliams thinks, come from the block grant. It is not part of the allocation that was devolved to Northern Ireland, so if Members decide that it is only £1 million and that, for reasons such as stigma, responsibility should stay with the Department for Social Development, they will find that that is the thin end of the wedge.

Ms McWilliams:

In response to Mr Wilson’s points, the Scottish Parliament has done an enormous amount of innovative work on the effects of student finance and free nursing care – both of which affect its block grant – on its social security budget. Of course funding for those who leave care does not affect our block grant — I was responding to Mrs Robinson’s comment that it may do so in the future — so whether the funding comes from the social security budget or from the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety, there must be a variation.

Mr S Wilson:

The point about free nursing care and student finance in Scotland is spurious, because those matters were not reserved, and Scotland had the freedom to change its policy on them. Northern Ireland has that freedom also. However, the measures in place for social security payments are different. If we start to breach parity, albeit in small ways, that will open the door for the Treasury to treat Northern Ireland differently, and Members will find that increasingly the burden will fall on the Assembly’s Budget.

A second aspect of the debate surprises me; perhaps it will be clarified later. It is my understanding that, although members of the SDLP and Sinn Féin have said that they support the amendment to clause 6, that is not the position that the Ministers from those parties have adopted. The Minister of Finance and Personnel does not want yet another drain on the Budget, which he says he works hard to balance every year, and for which he must find additional finance through measures such as rate increases. Do Members want to place yet another burden on him? It would be interesting if he were to come to the Chamber before the end of the debate and say whether his party Colleagues who support the amendment are rebels or are in line with his thinking.

The same applies to the Sinn Féin Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety who, I understand, was happy to allow her Department to absorb the expenditure. Perhaps the fact that her Colleagues who disagree with her did not hobble in this morning shows that she is not too worried about their decision to support the amendment, but it would be useful to hear her view.

Indications are that the Minister of Finance and Personnel does not want any greater demand on his resources, and the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety did not disagree with the inclusion of clause 6, unless she has since been persuaded otherwise by her Colleagues.


For all of those reasons, the House ought to support the Bill as it stands and to reject the amendment, because it has been ill thought out and is perhaps a knee-jerk reaction to extensive lobbying. Even if Members are heavily lobbied, it is important for the Assembly to weigh up these matters before deciding to unnecessarily increase a financial burden.

Lord Kilclooney:

Madam Deputy Speaker —

Madam Deputy Speaker:

Is the Member raising a point of order?

Lord Kilclooney:


Madam Deputy Speaker:

I was about to call the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety, but the Member has permission to speak.

Lord Kilclooney:

I have listened intently to the debate. Whether a devolved Administration should opt out of parity parameters is highly controversial; when it comes to the social fund and social services, I advise that we should not opt out. First, it greatly upsets the negotiations between the Department of Finance and Personnel and the United Kingdom Exchequer. Secondly, those of us who have been in politics for some time will recall that one of the great breaches in parity was the decision of a previous Northern Ireland Administration to change family allowance levels in Northern Ireland, making them different to those in Great Britain. That created a tremendous controversy. That was not worth trying, and I suggest that this is not worth trying either.

Ms de Brún:

Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Ar an chéad dul síos, aithním na hábhair imní a léiríodh faoin alt seo. Mar is eol do Chomhaltaí, cuireann alt 6 deireadh leis an teideal do liúntas ioncam-bhunaithe do dhaoine atá ag tóraíocht oibre, do thacaíocht ioncaim agus do shochar tithíochta i gcás na ndaoine óga sin a bheidh ag fáil tacaíochta ó na hiontaobhais faoi na socruithe nua sa Bhille um Fhágáil Cúraim go mbeidh siad 18 mbliana.

Cé go n-aithním na ábhair imní seo, creidim gur chóir alt 6 a choinneáil. Is é aidhm an Bhille go ndéanfaí riachtanais daoine óga atá ag fágáil cúraim a mheas agus freastal a dhéanamh orthu go hiomlánaíoch. Tá contúirt nach beag ann gur cur chuige neamhiomlán a bheadh mar thoradh ar dheireadh a chur le halt 6. Ní cosúil gur chun leasa daoine óga atá ag fágáil cúraim é a riachtanais tacaíochta airgeadais agus tithíochta a mheas ar leithligh óna riachtanais ar nithe eile mar oideachas agus oiliúint.

Is mian linn socruithe tacaíochta níos loighciúla a chur ar bun a dhéanfaidh freastal ar riachtanais phraiticiúla — lena n-áirítear airgead tirim — daoine óga chomh maith le cabhair eile. Chiallódh na socruithe nua, don chéad uair riamh, go bhfaigheadh daoine óga pacáiste iomlánaithe de thacaíocht mhothaitheach, phraiticiúil agus airgeadais, lena n-áirítear plean conaire pearsanta agus measúnú riachtanas lena chinntiú go bhfaigheann siad an chabhair chuí ar a mbealach chun an neamhspleáchais. Bhainfí den bheartas seo mura mbeadh tacaíocht airgeadais mar chuid den phacáiste cúraim.

Tuigim gur léirigh cuid Comhaltaí imní i rith Chéim an Choiste den Bhille an gcosnófaí na hacmhainní a d’aistreofaí ón Roinn Forbartha Sóisialta chuig mo Roinnse. Le deireadh a chur le haon amhras faoi sin, glacfaidh mé céimeanna lena chinntiú go gcosnófar na hacmhainní a aistreofar ón bhuiséad slándála sóisialta ionas gur féidir dul i mbannaí nach mbeidh daoine óga 16 bliana agus 17 mbliana atá ag fágáil cúraim faoi mhíbhuntáiste airgeadais ag na socruithe nua. Tá moladh agam acmhainní aistrithe a chosaint agus tá súil agam go n-áiteoidh seo ar Chomhaltaí gan cur i gcoinne alt 6.

Is é an aidhm atá ann nach bhfaigheadh aon duine óg pacáiste dá chóiríocht agus dá chothabháil — cé acu a dhíoltar sin leis go díreach nó a eagraíonn seirbhísí sóisialta é ar a shon — a bheadh níos lú ná mar a gheobhadh sé dá mbeadh sé i dteideal tacaíochta ioncaim nó liúntas do dhaoine atá ag tóraíocht oibre agus leas tithíochta a éileamh.

Clause 6 will remove entitlement to income-based jobseekers’s allowance, income support and housing benefit from young people who would be supported by trusts under the new arrangements made in the Children (Leaving Care) Bill until age 18. I recognise Members’ concerns regarding clause 6, but I believe that the clause should be retained.

The intention behind the Bill is that the needs of young care leavers should be assessed and met in a holistic fashion. There is a real danger that removing clause 6 would lead to a fragmented approach. To have young care leavers’ housing and financial support needs assessed separately from education and training needs would not be in their best interests. More coherent support arrangements need to be put in place to meet young people’s practical requirements, including cash as well as other assistance.

The new arrangements would mean that, for the first time, young people would receive an integrated package of emotional, practical and financial support, including a personal pathway plan and needs assessment to ensure that they have appropriate help on their road to independence. If financial support were not part of the package of care the policy would be undermined.

During the Bill’s Committee Stage, members expressed concern about whether the resources to be transferred from the Department for Social Development to my Department would be protected. To allay fears on that front, I will take steps to ensure that the resources transferred from the social security budget will be protected to guarantee that 16- and 17-year-old care leavers will not be financially disadvantaged by the new arrangements. The intention is that no young person should receive a package for their accommodation and maintenance, whether paid directly to them or handled on their behalf by social services, that amounts to less than they would have received had they been entitled to claim income support or jobseeker’s allowance and housing benefit. [Interruption].

Madam Deputy Speaker:

Order. There is a general hubbub, which should cease so that the Minister can be heard.

Ms de Brún:

The Bill's intention is to strengthen the bond between social services and the young person. I have listened to Members' points about changing the ethos of that relationship. The Department and I consider that the Bill's provisions will aid the development of that relationship, which will be the equivalent to that of a good parent.

No guarantee is being provided for the transferred resources in the equivalent legislation in England and Wales. The arrangements are purely administrative; and we wish to follow that model.

Dr Hendron:

The Minister mentioned a guarantee as regards the transfer of social security funding. I have written to her several times about funding for children in care being ring-fenced, and the Committee for Health, Social Services and Public Safety and Members will be concerned that that will be the case. Will the money coming from social security be ring-fenced? We will come to the issue of parity later, but I would appreciate an answer to my question.

Mr Dodds:

There is no guarantee of ring-fenced funding.

Madam Deputy Speaker:

Order, the Member will address his comments through the Chair.

Ms de Brún:

The process will be carried out through administrative arrangements in keeping with the procedures elsewhere. With regard to the costs of administration, the legislation is concerned with assessing and meeting need. That is more likely to be achieved effectively by a co-ordinated approach than by a fragmented one that would involve a range of agencies.

In the event that the Assembly does not agree that clause 6 stand part of the Bill, I will seek to table amendments at Further Consideration Stage to amend trusts' duties with regard to relevant children.

Clause 2 of the Bill inserts a new article 34C into the Children (Northern Ireland) Order 1995. The article sets out the duties of trusts towards relevant children. Paragraph 8 imposes a duty on trusts to safeguard and promote the welfare of those children. Trusts must provide relevant children with maintenance, suitable accommodation and such other support as may be prescribed in Regulations. If clause 6 is dropped, the provisions of article 34C(8) will duplicate the responsibility of the Department for Social Development for maintaining and accommodating young people.

In other words, primary responsibility for the maintenance and accommodation of such children will remain with the Department for Social Development. To ensure that there is no duplication of responsibility, I will have to consider removing the specific duties of trusts that are set out in article 34C(8) to maintain and accommodate relevant children.

Dr Hendron:

I thank the Committee Clerk, the Committee and departmental officials for their hard work. I listened carefully to everyone, including the Minister, and I respect what they said. I listened particularly carefully to Sammy Wilson and John Taylor on parity with Britain. Anyone who has read the recent needs and effectiveness document will know that, compared with England, there is a massive deficit in Northern Ireland's Health Service. I do not have the figure to hand, but I think that it is around 30%. Over the past few years, millions of pounds should have been invested in the Health Service in Northern Ireland, but it did not happen. We are a long way behind England in that respect, and people who wish to promote parity should realise that.

The legislation in England ring-fences funding from the social security budget for young people leaving care. Earlier I saw Peter Robinson shake his head and say that money could not be ring-fenced. It seems to be done in England, and I would like that to be explained.

It is important to note that, under the Children (Northern Ireland) Order 1995, the finance for young people in or leaving care has often been found wanting. Young people leaving care are the main concern of every member of the Committee, including those who wish to keep clause 6. Sammy Wilson did not even mention young people; his whole speech was about the issue of parity. I have no problem with the principle of parity, provided that it is genuine parity.

I thank Iris Robinson, Sue Ramsey, Monica McWilliams, Annie Courtney, Sammy Wilson, John Taylor and the Minister for their comments. If the Committee had been sure that the funding from social security benefits would go entirely to young people, that would have been a different kettle of fish. Everyone in the Committee took the time to speak to officials and ask about that matter again and again. Those Members who argue that we should have parity with England should face the truth on this issue. If funding can be ring-fenced in England, why can it not be done in Northern Ireland? I appreciate the difficulty that the Minister of Health faces, and her integrity is beyond question.

A Member made the point that removing clause 6 would make young people more dependent on the benefits system. However, allowing young people leaving care to have access to the social security system is not about making them dependent on it.

Trusts must ensure that those children have every opportunity for further education and access to jobs. In other words, they must ensure that those children are treated equally to their peers who come from a stable family background.

1.00 pm

To delete clause 6 would limit flexibility on how resources are deployed. However, if trusts are to act as good parents, the resources available to help young people leaving care should be used as necessary and should be based on their assessment of need and the pathway plans. The threat of limiting flexibility should not be used as an argument to retain clause 6. To remove the clause will prevent a holistic approach being taken and would fragment the service assessment. Assessment of need should be based on a young person's overall needs. How those needs are met will inevitably be through a variety of agencies, including the social security and further education systems.

Furthermore, to continue to make the social security system responsible for young people leaving care would send out the wrong message about our expectations of them. We do not wish to stigmatise young care leavers; we want to give them the same entitlement to benefit as any other 16- or 17-year-old.

Finally, I listened carefully to the arguments about parity. Nobody would have trouble with parity were it to be genuine parity. All those who helped draft the needs and effectiveness evaluation know that there is not parity between the Health Service here and that in England .


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