NORTHERN iRELAND ASSEMBLY
Tuesday 10 June 2008
Private Members’ Business:
The Assembly met at 10.30 am (Mr Speaker in the Chair).
Members observed two minutes’ silence
Mr Attwood: On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Is it in order that at no time in the past three months has a report been given to this Assembly by the Assembly Commission in respect of the fact that leave has been granted for a judicial review against the Commission by former members of Assembly staff? Why has the Commission not deemed it fit and proper to come to the House and give an explanation about how those circumstances arose?
I make this point of order in the week that is in it, when the judicial review against you, Mr Speaker, and against the Assembly Commission, is listed for hearing in the High Court in Belfast on Thursday of this week and Monday of next week. Can you explain how, given the authority of this Chamber, the Assembly Commission has not deemed it fit and proper to give any explanation about why it is facing legal proceedings?
Mr Poots: Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. I know that Mr Attwood has trained as a lawyer, but I am very surprised that he has brought this matter up today. Matters that are before the courts should be left in that jurisdiction and should not be talked about in a public forum such as this, prior to a case being heard. It would be wholly inappropriate for the Assembly to do what Mr Attwood is suggesting.
Mr Speaker: First, I will deal with Mr Attwood’s point of order. The Member is aware that any Member of this House can put down questions to the Commission, for oral or written answer, on any matter relating to the Commission. He also knows that the Commission is a corporate body, and his party has a Member who sits on that body. That is all that I will say on the matter. The Commission knows how to conduct its business.
Mr Attwood: Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. On the point raised by Mr Poots: it is often the practice in various organisations that, to the extent that it can be done without prejudicing legal proceedings, a body is informed about developments.
Only last week, the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure came to this Chamber and, consistent with due process and without prejudicing future proceedings, provided an insight into matters concerning the Northern Ireland Events Company. Based on that precedent, and regardless of whether Members might ask questions, it would be appropriate for the Commission to come to this House and provide relevant, non-prejudicial information.
I am concerned that on a matter of such significance, when it comes to a report to this House, the Commission is silent.
Mr Speaker: I hope that the Member respects the fact that I have given him some latitude. I repeat that the Commission operates as a corporate body. The issue is before the courts. I will leave it there and move on with today’s business.
Mr Speaker: I notify Members that I was informed yesterday that the resignations had been tendered to the First Minister and deputy First Minister, in accordance with section 18(9) of the Northern Ireland Act 1998, of the Rt Hon Peter Robinson, as Minister of Finance and Personnel; Mr Nigel Dodds, as Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment; Mrs Arlene Foster, as Minister of the Environment; and Mr Edwin Poots, as Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure. The resignations took effect on 9 June 2008.
I inform Members that the vacant ministerial offices have been filled in accordance with the requirements of section 18(10) of the 1998 Act. The nominating officer of the Democratic Unionist Party made the following nominations: Mr Nigel Dodds to hold the office of Minister of Finance and Personnel; Mrs Arlene Foster to hold the office of Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment; Mr Gregory Campbell to hold the office of Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure; and Mr Sammy Wilson to hold the office of Minister of the Environment.
Mr Dodds, Mrs Foster, Mr Campbell and Mr Wilson have affirmed the terms of the Pledge of Office, as set out in schedule 4 to the 1998 Act. The Clerk Assistant to the Assembly and I witnessed the affirmations.
I, therefore, confirm that Mr Dodds has taken up office as Minister of Finance and Personnel; Mrs Foster has taken up office as Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment; Mr Campbell has taken up office as Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure; and Mr Wilson has taken up office as Minister of the Environment.
Child Maintenance Bill
The Minister for Social Development (Ms Ritchie): I beg to move
That the Child Maintenance Bill proceed under the accelerated passage procedure, in accordance with Standing Order 40(4).
In proposing the motion, I comply with Standing Order 40(4), which requires me to explain the reason or reasons for using the accelerated passage procedure, the consequences of its not being granted, and any steps that I have taken to minimise its future use.
This important piece of legislation will allow Northern Ireland to correspond with provision in Westminster’s Child Maintenance and Other Payments Act 2008, which received Royal Assent on 5 June.
There is a long-standing principle of parity between Britain and Northern Ireland in the areas of social security, pensions and child support. That is recognised in section 87 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998, according to which I have a statutory duty to consult with the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, with a view to maintaining single systems of social security, pensions and child support for Britain and Northern Ireland. In order to maintain those single systems, if changes are made to child-support legislation in Britain, corresponding changes must be made to the Northern Ireland legislation, with minimal delay. I emphasise that: with minimal delay.
The Child Maintenance Bill aims to reform the child-support maintenance system and makes tackling child poverty the main priority by ensuring that more of the maintenance that is paid goes directly to children. Currently, child-support legislation compels a parent with care who is on benefits to claim child maintenance, unless she — I say “she” because the parent with care is usually a woman — can demonstrate that she has good cause not to do so. If the parent with care cannot show good cause, her benefit is reduced by £24·20 a week. The Bill will remove the compulsion to claim child maintenance and will also remove the provision that imposes a reduced-benefit decision when the parent with care cannot show good cause for opting out of applying for child maintenance.
Removing the requirement for parents with care who are on benefits to use the statutory scheme will enable parents to make their own arrangements to manage child maintenance in a way that is best for them and their children. It will also enable parents who are on benefits to make their own arrangements, in the same way as parents who are not on benefits can. It is more likely that child-maintenance arrangements will be complied with if the parents themselves have made them.
As part of the package to give parents more choice to make their own arrangements, an information and support service will be provided. The service will support parents to make and maintain voluntary arrangements. It will be available to both parents and will provide them with impartial, high-quality information to ensure that they can make informed choices about their child maintenance.
I recognise that there may be a risk that one parent will put pressure on the other to accept no or low maintenance arrangements. Therefore, in cases in which it is clear that the non-resident parent is unwilling to pay an appropriate amount of maintenance, or where a voluntary arrangement is unsuitable, the information and support service will help the parents to move to the statutory scheme. It is important to point out that, in order to protect vulnerable parents, both parents’ agreement is required before they can opt out of the statutory scheme.
In order to provide a stronger incentive for parents with care to seek maintenance, and for non-resident parents to pay, the amount of maintenance that parents with care who are on benefits can keep before it affects the level of benefit that they receive will be increased to £20 a week by the end of this year, and to £40 a week in 2010. That increase in the benefit disregard underlines our commitment to ensuring that child maintenance does more to reduce child poverty.
The Bill is on the side of children — I want to be on the side of children and to ensure that more money flows to the children who need it.
In accordance with Standing Order 40(4), I am seeking accelerated passage for the Bill because the Department for Work and Pensions plans to implement the proposal to break the link between child maintenance and the benefits system from July, which is just one month away. To ensure that the proposals in the Bill are implemented here at the same time as those in Britain, the Bill must pass all its Stages before the summer recess, which is just three weeks away. If it does not, parents with care will continue to have £24·20 a week deducted from their benefit and will be worse off than those in Britain until such time as the law is changed.
For the purposes of clarity, I will repeat that. To ensure that the proposals in the Bill are implemented at the same time as those in Britain, the Bill must pass all its Stages before the summer recess. Should it not do so, parents with care requirements or responsibilities in Northern Ireland will be worse off than those in Britain by £24·20. Do Members want that to happen? I leave them to think about that.
Members will agree that it is essential that parents with care in Northern Ireland benefit from the provisions in the Bill at the same time as parents with care in Britain. That is the responsibility that has been placed on me and Members of this House, and I hope that we are able to live up to it. If we are to maintain parity of timing with Great Britain, reduce child poverty and ensure that no child in Northern Ireland is deprived, the use of accelerated passage is unavoidable in this case.
I have discussed the provisions of the Bill with the Social Development Committee and, in accordance with Standing Order 40(3), explained the reasons for my request for accelerated passage. As I said during the debate on my request for accelerated passage for the Mesothelioma, etc., Bill, I have discussed the future handling of parity bills with the Committee for Social Development and the impact that the need to maintain parity of timing with Britain has on the legislative process. I have undertaken to ensure that the Committee receives, and is fully briefed on, Green Papers and White Papers that contain proposals for legislation. There is now a new or putative Chairperson of the Social Development Committee, and I will discuss some of those issues with him and the Deputy Chairperson in the coming days.
I will consider any future Bill on its own merit, and I intend to use the full procedure where possible. However, given the policy of parity on social security, child support and pensions, I expect that I will have to return to the Assembly to seek agreement on the use of the accelerated passage procedure for Bills that deal with those matters. The granting of the use of accelerated passage means that there will not be a formal Committee Stage. However, there will be an opportunity for Members to make their views known and to discuss fully the issues during the Bill’s passage through the Assembly.
This is a good-news Bill for Northern Ireland and the Assembly. The purpose of the Bill is to ensure that more money flows to children and that that money is received sooner — we are trying to improve the system, because we recognise that there were issues with the old one. We are introducing a disregard, which is a child-poverty measure. We are addressing non-resident parents in a more expeditious fashion. We are on the side of children. The Executive supported the accelerated passage of the Bill, because they recognised the issues with regard to parity and the need to ensure that no child would be financially deprived.
The Deputy Chairperson of the Committee for Social Development (Mr Hilditch): On 29 May 2008, Minister Ritchie attended a meeting of the Committee for Social Development to explain her reasons for requesting that the Child Maintenance Bill be granted accelerated passage. She also outlined the consequences should accelerated passage not be granted. I thank her for giving further explanation this morning.
Accelerated passage is not the Committee’s preferred method of progressing legislation; members would prefer to conduct detailed scrutiny, which we believe is a crucial element in the development of better policy. However, as outlined by the Minister, given that the Bill must pass through all its legislative stages before the summer recess in order to avoid a financial loss to parents with care in Northern Ireland who do not claim child maintenance, the Committee agreed to support the Minister’s request that the Bill be granted accelerated passage.
Ms Ní Chuilín: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. It is no secret that Sinn Féin had problems with the Bill’s being granted accelerated passage. However, we will support the motion, because we are also on the side of children and of people who try their best to reduce, if not eradicate, child poverty. No one could support lone parents losing £24·20 a week.
My understanding is that the Executive noted the Minister’s decision to use the accelerated passage procedure but that they were not asked for their support.
I understand the Minister’s position — much legislation is enacted in order to maintain parity. The difficulty that most Members have with legislation that comes to the House is the inability to scrutinise, which is difficult at the best of times but is particularly the case when accelerated passage is granted. When that happens, our ability to question, scrutinise and even recommend measures for consideration is limited.
Committee members’ other concern was over the inability to conduct an equality impact assessment, which would have enabled more consultation. However, I understand that, because of the timing of the legislation, any such consultation would have had to be conducted in December, which, like the summer months, is not a good time for people to contribute to consultations.
I accept the Minister’s commitment that the process will continue, because I am sure that she and her officials realise the importance of ensuring that people are given the opportunity to add to and improve legislation.
I am concerned that, because of the issue of parity, and because of the link with the Department for Work and Pensions in England and Wales, any consultation on legislation conducted there is applied to legislation here. That sidesteps, if not ignores at times, the unique aspect of section 75 and our ability to provide additional support mechanisms that ensure that people avail themselves of consultation opportunities to the full. I want clarification about that issue.
The publishing of Green Papers and White Papers is a good idea, because it allows for some scrutiny. However, the Committee should have the ability to conduct evidence sessions and request papers before it makes a decision on such legislation. The issue is about scrutiny.
The main thrust of the legislation is to ensure that children are protected, and to remove the onus from parents with care to chase non-resident parents for child maintenance. No one should have any difficulty in supporting parents on such issues. In saying that, it is important to note that there is a difference between people who will not pay and those who cannot pay.
My main query is about the Child Support Agency’s coming under the remit of the Department for Social Development. Will the agency now be able to collect outstanding arrears? It is all right to have the legislation, but does the ability to implement that legislation exist?
It is not just about making sure that those payments are made; it is about all the additional difficulties that we, through our constituency offices, face in respect of the Child Support Agency’s ability to recoup moneys owed by absent parents.
Sinn Féin will support accelerated passage, because the Bill will improve the lives of lone parents and children. However, we put a marker on the need to scrutinise legislation and on the need for equality impact assessment consultation. Consultation in England and Wales is not the same as that required here. We fought for, and won, additional mechanisms through section 75 and the equality impact assessment process. I uphold those rights to provide better consultation and scrutiny.
Mr A Maginness: I support the Minister’s application to have the Bill dealt with by way of accelerated passage. I welcome the change of heart of my Sinn Féin colleagues on the Committee for Social Development and in the Assembly in their decision to support accelerated passage.
The matter was aired extensively in Committee, which Mr Hilditch, the Deputy Chairperson, pointed out. At that stage, it was possible for Sinn Féin members to express their concerns without putting the matter to a division. It is unfortunate, therefore, that the issue was, in fact, put to a division, and that a question remained over whether the Bill would be granted accelerated passage by the Assembly this morning. This is an important piece of legislation, and if it is not passed before the summer recess, there will be important consequences for those whom it affects.
It is, of course, unsatisfactory and undesirable to not have a full Committee stage; everybody accepts that. However, there are exceptional circumstances. Yesterday, in the Assembly we discussed the Mesothelioma, etc., Bill, which was previously granted accelerated passage. There are certain circumstances under which accelerated passage is necessary. The procedure exists; however, it does not mean that legislation is not properly examined. Legislation is looked at in more depth in Committee, but it can be also looked at in depth in the Chamber. It is my firm understanding that the Executive approved accelerated passage; that is important to remember.
Ms Lo: All MLAs have reservations about granting accelerated passage to any Bill. However, as the Minister outlined at the beginning of the debate, we must do so in this instance to maintain parity of timing with Great Britain. Any delay would have serious consequences. It would disadvantage families and children in Northern Ireland, because they would lose out on receiving the same levels of child maintenance. It is important that we support the motion. The Alliance Party supports the motion.
Miss McIlveen: I support accelerated passage in this instance. It is important that this particular legislation, given its subject matter, is given effect at the earliest possible opportunity. Obviously, we do not like to see this method being used. In an ideal world, legislation would begin in the Assembly and proceed through all the legislative stages.
In this instance, however, it would be wrong to hold up this Bill, given that it will benefit the lives of children.
The Members across the Chamber who voted against this process in Committee are very much aware that the Chairperson of the Committee voiced concerns to the Minister and her officials about the number of times that accelerated passage has been requested. Moreover, on each of those occasions, they were aware of the need to maintain parity, be that in welfare reform, pensions or mesothelioma. This is no different, and it is interesting that, since they took their eyes off the ball during discussions in Committee about welfare reform, they have tried to take the moral high ground on any accelerated passage request.
I welcome the fact that Sinn Féin has changed its mind in respect of this piece of legislation. The consequences of not supporting accelerated passage were very clearly explained by the Minister, and I support the request for accelerated passage of the Child Maintenance Bill.
The Minister for Social Development: I thank the Deputy Chairperson of the Social Development Committee and other Members who contributed to the debate on accelerated passage for the Child Maintenance Bill.
There is a need to be more honest about the whole process of passing social security legislation through this House. I am very conscious that Members said that they were unable to scrutinise this piece of legislation line by line. That notwithstanding, my party leader, Mark Durkan, described the Counter-terrorism Bill, currently going through Westminster, as a digitally remastered version of the old Special Powers Act. Similarly, we must be candid with this House and remind ourselves that many of the social security Bills that come before us could be described as karaoke legislation. That is not because they are trivial, but because such Bills are localised presentations of legislation that has originated elsewhere, and there is virtually no scope to alter the original in any meaningful way.
Although it may grate with some Members of this House — including myself — Northern Ireland has signed up to a single system of social security for the UK, and has accepted the principle of parity under the Northern Ireland Act 1998. Under parity, Northern Ireland benefits enormously from UK Exchequer net transfers. We could not afford to set up our own alternative system. Even if we did, we could not afford anything like the benefits that we currently receive under the system of parity. Those are the facts.
All of the Members who contributed to the debate highlighted the problem of scrutiny. Cáral Ní Chuilín referred to it. Bill proposals can be discussed in Committee in advance of the Bill being put before the Assembly. Mr Maginness referred to that when he said that my officials attended a Committee meeting some weeks ago. I, too, attended some of those meetings, and the proposed Bill was further discussed at a Committee meeting last week.
In relation to the equality impact assessment, only two weeks of the consultation period from December 2007 to February 2008 occurred during the Christmas period. I will ensure that equality impact assessments are done for all future primary legislation. In respect of that piece of legislation, only two responses were received during the consultation period, namely, from Advice NI and Disability Action.
In respect of future consultation on parity legislation, I have already agreed — and I will meet the new Chairperson shortly — to involve the Committee fully during the consultation period on GB Green and White papers. That will ensure that the Committee is facilitated in making its informed comment on the potential legislation. I say “potential” legislation, because that legislation could change, or it might not be introduced at all. Everything that is done in respect of social security legislation is predicated on what happens at Westminster and Whitehall.
From past experience, social security, child support and pension Bills are likely to be a regular feature of future legislative programmes, and I will continue to consider any future Bill on its merits. I assure Members that, in this instance, I do not lightly seek accelerated passage.
I thank those Members who participated. The detail of the Bill will be discussed during its Second Stage, subject to the approval by the Assembly of accelerated passage. I look forward to the discussion.
Mr Speaker: Before we proceed to the Question, I remind Members that the motion requires cross-community support.
Question put and agreed to.
Resolved (with cross-community support):
That the Child Maintenance Bill [NIA 17/07] proceed under the accelerated passage procedure, in accordance with Standing Order 40(4).
The Minister for Social Development (Ms Ritchie): I beg to move
That the Second Stage of the Child Maintenance Bill [NIA 17/07] be agreed.
The Bill will make provision for Northern Ireland to correspond with child maintenance provisions made for Britain by the Child Maintenance and Other Payments Act 2008, which received Royal Assent on 5 June this year. It is, therefore, a parity measure.
As I said during the debate on accelerated passage of the Bill, parity covers not only the content of the legislation, but the timing of its implementation. New provisions have always been introduced here at the same time as they have been introduced in Britain, and that arrangement should continue.
The Child Maintenance Bill will make tackling child poverty the number-one priority for the child-maintenance system. The Bill breaks the link between child maintenance and the benefits system, and gives parents power to manage child maintenance in the way that best suits them and their children. It will ensure that non-resident parents live up to their responsibilities to support their children.
Part 1 of the Bill sets out the additional functions that, once it becomes law, will fall to the Department for Social Development. The Department will set out to raise awareness among parents of the importance of taking responsibility for child maintenance, and to make appropriate arrangements for securing that maintenance. Where parents cannot agree on how to support their children, the information and support service will be available to explain the options open to them, and the statutory maintenance scheme will be available as a fallback.
Part 2 of the Bill contains the bulk of the reforms to be implemented. The Bill promotes parental responsibility by removing the requirement for parents with care, on benefits, to claim child maintenance. That also includes the removal of the provision to impose a reduced-benefit decision where the parent with care cannot show good cause for opting out of applying for child maintenance.
The Bill will make significant changes to the way child maintenance is calculated; it will change from an assessment based on net weekly income to one based on gross weekly income. That will simplify the assessment process and allow the Department to obtain accurate details of a non-resident parent’s gross income from Revenue and Customs. The move from net to gross income means that no deductions will have been made for income tax or National Insurance, and new percentages are designed to reflect that change. The aim is to ensure that more fathers pay, rather than fathers pay more — there is a distinction.
When a child maintenance assessment has been made, it will last for one year. A one-year fixed-term award will lead to more certainty for both parents, and only substantial changes in income during the year will result in a re-assessment of the amount of maintenance due.
Annual reviews will keep maintenance liabilities up to date, and if a parent with care suspects that her former partner is manipulating his income to reduce his childcare liabilities, it will be easier for her to apply for a variation of maintenance.
The Bill will enable the Department to use deduction from earnings orders as the primary method of collection. At present, a deduction from earning order is used when a non-resident parent fails to pay maintenance, and it is an effective way of ensuring that maintenance is paid to families. If a non-resident parent is self-employed or avoids a deduction from earnings order by regularly changing his employer, the Department will have the power to collect maintenance regularly from his bank account, usually monthly, and money can be taken only from an account that is in credit.
The Bill will give the Department another similar enforcement tool in the form of a lump sum deduction order that will allow the Department to collect maintenance debt directly from a non-resident parent’s savings. When there is a risk that a non-resident parent who has failed to pay child maintenance may dispose of an asset with the intention of avoiding paying child maintenance, the Bill will allow the Department to apply to the court for a freezing order. If the asset has already been disposed of, the Department will be able to apply to the court for an order to set aside its disposal.
I have said already that the Bill aims to simplify the method of calculating the amount of child maintenance that is due. It also contains provisions that aim to speed up the process of getting hold of the maintenance that supports children. An administrative liability order is one method of accelerating the process. The Department will have the power to make liability orders administratively, and those will operate in the same way as the current court order. The liability order will be the first step towards an enforcement measure, and its use avoids the lengthy timescale that is involved in applying for a court order.
I recognise that the Bill’s enforcement powers may, on the face of it, seem extensive. However, they will be used only as a last resort when all other means of collecting money that is owed to children have failed. The Bill introduces two new enforcement measures to encourage non-resident parents to comply: the Department will be able to apply to a court, first, to have a non-resident parent disqualified from holding a passport or secondly, to impose a curfew order. Those measures can be considered only after the enforcement of a liability order has been attempted through the Enforcement of Judgments Office, and they are intended to function as a last resort when more direct forms of enforcement have been attempted but maintenance remains outstanding.
The Bill’s provisions include safeguards to prevent undue hardship as a consequence of imposing the enforcement measures. Such considerations include the need of non-residents to travel to earn a living or the adverse effect on the welfare of children of disqualifying a non-resident parent from holding a passport. At present, the Department has the power to apply to the court to have a non-resident parent disqualified from driving for up to two years, or committed to prison for up to six weeks, for failure to pay child support maintenance. The Bill makes some amendments to align those powers with those that apply to the two new enforcement measures. For example, the court will have to assess both the impact of its decision on the non-resident parent’s ability to earn a living and whether the non-resident parent has refused — as opposed to being unable — to pay maintenance.
I stress that the court-based enforcement measures are intended to function as a last resort; I want the House to be clear about that. If a non-resident parent makes a reasonable offer to pay less than the total amount that is owed and agrees final settlement of the entire amount of child maintenance that is owed to the parent with care, the Department will be able to negotiate and accept settlements between the two.
When the debt is due to the parent with care, that parent must give consent before the Department can accept the offer of the non-resident parent. A similar provision will allow the Department to write off debt in limited circumstances.
It will become a criminal offence for any parent to fail to notify the Department of a change of address. At present, there is no obligation to do so, but that measure will ensure that the Department will be able to take swifter enforcement action when compliance breaks down. Powers will be granted to the Department to seek recovery of child maintenance from the estate of a deceased non-resident parent where it is appropriate to do so. The Bill will remove the penalty of contempt of court when people disclose information that they have obtained in certain family proceedings to the Department without the permission of the court, and will remove the requirement to seek that permission from the court. In turn, that will remove the possibility of being found in contempt when such information has been disclosed to the Department with the intention of ensuring that a child maintenance calculation is fair and accurate.
It is proposed that the Department be able to provide credit reference agencies with information about all those persons who have a maintenance liability, including those who meet their obligations in full and on time. When a non-resident parent is the subject of a liability order, the information will be shared without his agreement. However, in the case of a non-resident parent who is fully compliant with his obligations to pay statutory child maintenance, his consent must be obtained before information relating to him can be supplied to credit reference agencies.
Part 3 of the Bill is a general section that deals with some technical matters, such as consequential amendments, repeals and transitional arrangements.
The Child Maintenance Bill makes tackling child poverty the main priority by ensuring that more of the maintenance paid goes directly to the children. That is the most important point in the legislation. The primary purpose of the Bill is to make the child maintenance system work for children. I recognise that that has not been the case in the past, and I know that Members will agree. It is widely acknowledged that one of the main reasons for that is that, despite the best efforts of the staff who administer the system, the current system is too complicated and attempts to take too many factors into account.
To ensure that the proposed system works, the statutory maintenance arrangement process will be streamlined in order to make it simpler, smoother and quicker. In that sense, it is a move that will benefit everyone. The move from net to gross income will make the statutory maintenance calculations more transparent for parents and will help the Department to determine the correct amount of payment due. That will mean that money will flow more quickly to more children.
The increase in the maintenance disregard will also result in more money flowing to the parent with care for the benefit of the children. That is the crucial issue, and it is the crux, the purpose and the objective of the Bill. The proposal to introduce new liability orders, which can be made administratively by the Department, will speed up the enforcement process and reduce the time taken to enforce the collection of arrears.
I assure the House that no responsible parent need be concerned about the strengthened enforcement measures. Those measures are aimed at those who refuse to pay as opposed to those who cannot pay child maintenance. I know that all Members want to ensure that all non-resident parents face up to their parenting responsibilities. It is not right for any child to live in poverty because a parent fails to provide adequate support.
Those are all proportionate measures. Currently, one in three non-resident parents fails to pay any of the money that is owed to his or her children. That affects around 12,600 children in Northern Ireland. It is both right and fair that the Department should use effective measures against those people who deny their children the support that is due to them.
In summary, therefore, the Department wants to ensure that money flows more quickly to children. The Bill is a child-poverty measure; it introduces a disregard and it deals with non-resident parents in a more expeditious fashion. The most important feature of the Bill is that it is on the side of children and parents with care. It is a good news Bill and a good news story for Northern Ireland. It will ensure that money will flow more quickly to children.
The Deputy Chairperson of the Committee for Social Development (Mr Hilditch): I thank the Minister for her explanation of the Bill’s background and policy provisions. I do not intend to cover the same ground, but to make a couple of important points about voluntary arrangements and enforcement provisions. The Committee fully supports the drive to get parents to make their own child-maintenance arrangements. However, I want to draw Members’ attention to a research report on the redesign of child maintenance that was produced in 2007 for the Department for Work and Pensions. That report showed quite clearly that there is a big difference in the views of parents with care and non-resident parents in respect of voluntary arrangements. Only 24% of parents with care had any confidence that voluntary arrangements would work for them, whereas 57% of non-resident parents thought that they would work. I am sure that I do not need to explain to the House the reasons behind the difference in opinions.
Non-payment in cases where voluntary arrangements have been made needs to be carefully monitored. The Department must ensure that parents with care know exactly what their rights are within the statutory maintenance system. It remains to be seen whether non-resident parents who do not pay under the statutory system will pay under a voluntary system. If the Assembly wants to focus on meeting children’s needs and is to tackle child poverty effectively, it must ensure that more parents take responsibility for paying for their children and that more children benefit from that.
There was much discussion in the Committee about enforcement provisions and related human rights issues. Some members expressed serious reservations about those provisions. Of course, concern was heightened by the possibility of the Bill not being subject to Committee scrutiny. The Department informed the Committee that it is content — based on the legal advice that it has received — that the Bill’s provisions are compatible with the rights that are defined in section 1 of the Human Rights Act 1998.
The Committee noted that several safeguards are in place to ensure that enforcement provisions are used only as a last resort. However, it seeks assurance from the Minister that only those people who will not pay, as opposed to those who cannot pay, will be subject to such provisions in the Bill.
Mr Brady: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. The Child Maintenance Bill certainly has some good features. The Minister has outlined its advantages for parents with care. Sinn Féin’s point of view is that there is absolutely no intention in the Bill to deprive anyone of maintenance or, indeed, of benefit. However, historically, the Child Support Agency has had several inherent difficulties. Recently, the Public Accounts Committee published a report on that agency, which outlined clearly its failure to deliver, and the inadequacies of its computer system.
The Minister has called the Child Maintenance Bill a “good news Bill”. However, the good news depends on how effectively it can deliver and on whether the Social Security Agency has the resources to deliver. In my constituency, many absent parents simply go across the border where they are outside the jurisdiction and cannot be forced to contribute maintenance to the parent with care. Unfortunately, that has been an ongoing problem since child support was introduced.
Effectiveness of delivery will be a big issue as regards the Child Maintenance Bill, and we can only hope that delivery will be effective. The Minister said that the computer system would be mainstreamed, but it remains to be seen whether that will improve its effectiveness.
The Bill includes some draconian measures, such as for instance the confiscation of passports. In my constituency, people often have two passports. Therefore, if one passport were taken from them they could still travel on the other passport. There are several difficulties, which the Bill will hopefully address in time. The Bill has some good points, and it is not the intention of Sinn Féin to deprive anyone of maintenance or benefit. Go raibh maith agat.
Mr A Maginness: Members will be able to go into more detail when the Bill is given its Consideration Stage next week. I generally welcome the Bill, which provides for important reform of the child maintenance system in this jurisdiction, and indeed elsewhere. It bases its proposals on the findings of the Henshaw Report, which was important in its examination of the whole regime of child maintenance.
Clearly, this is a complex piece of legislation. The current system of child support is complex and in need of serious reform. One welcomes the Bill because its sets out to carry out that reform. It does not provide perfect answers to the difficulties that children encounter due to the fact that a parent, usually their father, does not support them. There are many reasons why non-resident parents, particularly fathers, do not support their children; but they have a moral duty to do so. That is emphasised in the Bill and by the Minister for Social Development’s introductory comments on it. If the Bill achieves its purpose of bringing into the net 12,000 non-resident parents — mainly fathers — who do not maintain their children, it will be a job well done.
The Bill contains inducements to establish a fairer, better and more balanced system of obtaining maintenance from non-resident parents. It also introduces a number of sanctions, which, equally, are important. It creates a new structure in which it is more likely that parents who are not maintaining their children will be brought into the system.
Importantly, the Bill contains a mixture of inducements and sanctions, some of which have been mentioned. For example, Mr Brady mentioned the withdrawal of passports. In certain circumstances, the withdrawal of a passport is a necessary sanction that should be used, provided that that does not disrupt a person’s employment. The Bill contains provision to prevent that from happening. If a person deliberately avoids or evades paying maintenance for their child, it is right and proper that the state exercises some form of sanction against that person. We know already that the courts can imprison a person who defaults deliberately and on a prolonged basis, because it effectively amounts to contempt of court.
Such a sanction is right and proper, and it is important that we do away with the notion that we cannot impose sanctions on people who deliberately avoid their responsibilities. It is also right and proper for the courts and, in certain circumstances, the Department to have such powers.
There are new curfew powers, and, again, they are —
Mr F McCann: I understand perfectly what the Member is saying, and he should remember that similar matters arose in the Committee. Indeed, the European Commission or one of the human rights organisations expressed reservations about elements of the Bill.
The difficulty is that, although those measures might be permissible on paper, experience tells us that powers can be abused. We must ensure that those powers are not abused. We can argue about those matters, and that may prolong the Bill’s Committee Stage, which will be OK so long as we are assured that legislation will not be abused. Nevertheless, that does not affect our right to be concerned that such legislation might be used in other ways.
Mr A Maginness: I accept Mr McCann’s point, which is reasonable and with which I have great sympathy. Everyone in the House who adopts a sensible view would not wish for people to be oppressed where, because of circumstances that are beyond their control, they simply cannot fulfil their obligations.
In this instance, I am referring to situations in which people deliberately evade their responsibilities. In such circumstances, a range of sanctions are necessary, including curfews; driving licence restrictions, which, in certain circumstances, we already have; and, when there is wilful evasion, court-imposed custodial orders. So long as the sanctions are proportionate and observe human rights, it is right and proper that they be introduced. Nevertheless, Mr McCann was absolutely correct to mention oppression and the possible misuse of such a range of sanctions.
Unless there is good reason not to do so in particular cases, a deduction of earnings order will be the initial collection method. That is the simplest and most effective method with which to bring about a proper maintenance system for children, and it will introduce a measure of certainty for children who have been deprived of maintenance.
Furthermore, the Bill will introduce flexibility into the child-maintenance system. The previous system was hidebound by unnecessary restrictions and regulations, a lack of flexibility and the failure to recognise that a voluntary scheme is as good as a statutory or administrative scheme. The Bill will loosen up child-maintenance procedures, and, therefore, it is to be welcomed.
I could discuss other provisions of the Bill; however, it is appropriate to wait until its Consideration Stage to deal with them in more detail.
Ms Lo: The Alliance Party welcomes the fact that the Bill focuses on reducing child poverty. I hope that the reforms that it will introduce will also have a positive impact on the health and well-being of all our children and young people.
The Bill is also about fairness. People must meet their parental responsibilities to support and bring up their children. It is not simply about mums finding money through child benefits; it is also about showing children that their parents care, and want to provide, for them.
One in three non-resident parents fails to pay maintenance, and that is totally unacceptable. The fact that they have been allowed to get away with it for so long, and that the Child Support Agency seems to be powerless to pursue those parents, has caused much grief and frustration for families as well as agency staff. For so long, the agency has been seen as a lame duck that is unable to do anything for children and those parents who shoulder the big responsibility of caring for children. Many of those parents must manage on a shoestring, knowing that, although they are entitled to money from the non-resident parent, they will not get it.
I welcome the Bill’s new measures to obtain details of the income of the non-resident parent directly from HM Revenue and Customs rather than from the non-resident parent, as is the case at the moment. That arrangement has caused many wrangles, disputes and delays in getting the money to children. The new approach will provide more accurate information on parents’ incomes rather than depending on the parents’ co-operation in supplying details.
I agree with the Minister that the Bill must be child-focused; we must put our children first. We talk a great deal about child poverty, and Northern Ireland is one of the regions with the highest rate of child poverty. It is important that we address the issue across Departments by whatever means and through whatever legislation we can.
I also welcome the new powers to enforce arrears and collect money from bank accounts. That will make it much easier and quicker to get money from parents who have failed to meet their responsibilities.
The additional measures — the court measures and the range of sanctions — will give the agency much more power and clout. I understand that some of those measures may be considered quite draconian, but they will be used as a last resort. Sometimes a case may not even need to reach the courts: the measures can act as a deterrent by making parents aware that they will face serious consequences if they do not meet their responsibilities. It is important to give the agency those additional powers so that our children can benefit. In the end, we must think about the children and the mothers who are trying to make ends meet day in and day out, and who are not receiving the money that they need to meet their children’s needs and to bring them up fairly.
Miss McIlveen: It is a commonly acknowledged fact that the Child Support Agency (CSA) has failed many families. Since its inception, the agency has attracted widespread criticism, and it has been beset by backlogs and delays. An estimated £1 billion of debt has been written off, and it has been admitted that perhaps £1·3 billion is uncollectable in the United Kingdom. Such figures are unacceptable, and it is to be hoped that this legislation will succeed where previous legislation failed.
Last year, the Chairman of the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee said:
“The reform of the Child Support Agency has been one of the greatest public administration disasters of recent times.”
Change was, and is, needed. Although the CSA was able to help a lot of families, in a proportion of cases it has increased hardship for other families. According to the Institute for Public Policy Research, more than four in 10 poor children live in lone-parent households, but less than a quarter of those parents receive maintenance payments.
This Bill introduces a number of changes. An important change, which will remove a huge proportion of administrative work from the newly-established commission, is the removal of the requirement that parents with care who claim benefits are treated as having applied for child maintenance. Parents who are in receipt of benefit now have the choice of making their own arrangements. Furthermore, the Department will be able to accept a settlement made between the parties for part-payment of arrears as a full and final settlement. Previously, only full payment was acceptable.
In the past, there have been cases of non-resident parents ending up in jail for non-payment of arrears despite the protestations of the resident parent. This will encourage families to go through mediation rather than the court process. A recent National Audit Office report found that mediated settlements take around a quarter of the time and cost the taxpayer half as much as those that end up in the courts.
As the Minister has said, the Department will be responsible for investigating and gathering evidence when an application is made for variation. Previously, when the application was made by a parent with care, the applying parent had to supply the evidence, although they rarely possessed such information. It is often impossible for such parents to gather that information, and it is logical that the Department, given its greater powers, should carry out that investigative function.
As some Members have said, the Bill has the potential for speeding up the issuing of administrative liability orders by removing them from the court process and granting the Department the power to issue them directly. Those liability orders can then lead to the exercising of other new Departmental powers such as seizure of passports, curfew, and disqualification from driving.
The Bill also introduces important powers to the Department to collect arrears from non-resident parents, by way of regular payments or lump sums, from their bank or building society accounts. That is an important new power given that the attachment of earnings orders, which are the primary source of payment, are not appropriate for those who are self-employed or who regularly change employer. The Department, as we have discovered, will also be able to freeze bank and building society accounts where it is believed that a non-resident parent is attempting to dispose of or remove his or her assets, and apply to have a sale or gift of assets set aside if it can be shown that it was done to avoid paying child maintenance.
These powers ensure that those who can afford to pay arrears, but have ignored the demands to do so, meet their responsibilities. That, coupled with the existing power to make an attachment of earnings order, should result in a speedier resolution of cases, which is something with which we should all be content.
The Department will be given the power to recover arrears from the estate of a deceased non-resident parent. Previously, it was left to the resident parent to make a claim against the estate. In addition, maintenance arrears will be treated like any other debt in that the Department can make the information available to credit reference agencies. That should mean that those non-resident parents considering not meeting their maintenance responsibilities will think twice when they weigh the effect that that could have on their lives when applying for a telephone, a mortgage or car finance.
Such provisions for recovery of arrears and publicising debt seem draconian, considering the previous regime. However, that debt is money to be spent on vital items for that parent’s child or children. If those payments are not made, families are placed in hardship.
Many issues have been debated in this Chamber, such as fuel poverty, child poverty and rising prices, and the impact that those have on children. In many instances, those children have only one resident parent, and the non-resident parent is often not meeting his or her financial responsibilities. It is imperative that legislatures such as this put in place appropriate and robust measures so that children are not disadvantaged.
The legislation is a step in the right direction. I said at the outset that change was needed, and it is pleasing to note that problems have been identified and measures have been taken to address those problems. I support the motion.
Mr F McCann: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Much of what I intended to say has been covered. However, I wish to put on record that, although members of the Committee for Social Development had objections and observations about how the Bill was being handled, we fully supported its broad thrust and concept, and we recognised the impact that it would have on parents who rely on absent parents to pay maintenance for their children.
Human rights organisations raised concerns about various elements of the Bill. This is the fifth Bill to have been subject to the accelerated passage procedure, and the Committee raised similar concerns about those Bills, with the exception of the Mesothelioma, etc., Bill, because the Committee understood the urgency and importance of granting accelerated passage to that Bill and the impact that it would have on people. However, it remained the Committee’s right and duty to raise questions about possible problems that people may face when the Bill is implemented. Committee members continue to retain that right, because, when they vote against a Bill at Committee Stage, they do so because they have reservations about it. Furthermore, the Committee will continue to raise the whole question of the accelerated passage procedure.
The Minister for Social Development: I have listened carefully to all Members’ points during the debate, and I trust that I will be able to address their concerns and the fundamental purpose and objective of the Bill. I cannot stress enough that its purpose is to simplify the process and deal with the flow of money to children in a more expeditious manner, address child poverty and ensure that no child in Northern Ireland is deprived of money.
Members generally accepted the thrust and purpose of the Bill. The Deputy Chairperson of the Committee for Social Development, David Hilditch, referred to the issue of voluntary arrangements. Information and support services, which are an integral part of the Bill, will be available to help parents to decide what arrangements are best for them. Both parents have to opt out of the use of the statutory child maintenance system, and, if they are unhappy at any time, they can opt in again.
I assure Mr Hilditch that enforcement measures will be used against people who will not pay maintenance rather than those who do not have the capacity to pay. Anna Lo said that parents must meet their parental responsibilities to the children for whom they have caring responsibilities. That is a very simple concept to me.
Mickey Brady raised the issue of the Child Support Agency’s performance. I do not know how many times I have to tell the Committee and the House that I recognise the past deficiencies of the Child Support Agency. As a result of the Henshaw Review, I decided to move the Child Support Agency into the core of the Department for Social Development on 1 April 2008. The arrangements are designed to ensure that the system is smoother and simpler. I have instructed my officials to ensure that payments flow more quickly to children who are in need.
Enforcement is a measure that will be used as a last resort only, and the passports issue is only one possible measure. The courts must decide on the most appropriate measure in each case.
The Bill introduces reforms to ensure that more children benefit from maintenance. It will help parents make maintenance arrangements that suit their personal circumstances and pressurise those individuals who do not comply with their responsibilities.
I question, reluctantly, whether Sinn Féin has acted in good faith during the process. Although it did not comment at the appropriate time between December 2007 and February 2008, it condemned the Department’s equality impact assessment. It attacked the minutiae of the equality impact assessment hours before the Executive were to consider the legislation, but it subsequently relented at the Executive Committee and allowed the Bill to proceed. Furthermore, Sinn Féin voted against the Bill in the Committee for Social Development yet supported the motion for accelerated passage today.
I conclude that Sinn Féin’s points about the equality impact assessment and human rights do not indicate that it genuinely cares but are a smokescreen for old-fashioned mischief making. If Sinn Féin cared about the detail of social security legislation, it would join the rest of us, abandon its old-fashioned abstentionism and take its seats at Westminster, where it could exercise real influence over such matters during every stage of the Bill.
Finally, child maintenance makes an important contribution to tackling child poverty, and, when it is paid, makes a significant difference to families’ lives. Members must remember that the Bill’s central aim is to enhance children’s lives. Through the Bill, we want to ensure that measures are simpler, processes made more expeditious and money flows more quickly to children who need it — nobody in the House should want to deprive anybody of money.
Question put and agreed to.
That the Second Stage of the Child Maintenance Bill [NIA 17/07] be agreed.
Mr Speaker: That concludes the Second Stage of the Child Maintenance Bill.
Mr Speaker: I have been advised that the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment, Mrs Arlene Foster, will move the Second Stage of the Budget Bill on behalf of the Minister of Finance and Personnel, Mr Nigel Dodds.
The Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment (Mrs Foster): I beg to move
That the Second Stage of the Budget (No. 2) Bill [NIA 18/07] be agreed.
The debate follows yesterday’s First Stage, and the Supply resolutions for the 2008-09 Main Estimates and the 2006-07 excess vote, which the House considered and approved yesterday. Accelerated passage is necessary for logistical reasons and in order to secure Royal Assent in July 2008, which will ensure that Departments and other public bodies have legal authority to spend the cash and use the resources, without delay, for the remainder of 2008-09.
I am pleased to report that the Bill can be granted accelerated passage, because the Committee for Finance and Personnel has confirmed — in line with Standing Order 40 — that it is satisfied that it has been appropriately consulted on the public expenditure proposals outlined in the Bill. I understand that confirmation was given in a letter, dated 4 June 2008, from the Chairperson of the Committee for Finance and Personnel to the Speaker.
Once again, on behalf of the Executive and the Department, I welcome and appreciate the Committee’s assistance in this matter.
The Budget (No.2) Bill gives legislative effect to the 2008-09 Main Estimates and to the 2006-07 excess vote approved through the Supply resolutions that were passed yesterday. Copies of the Main Estimates volume, the Statement of Excess document, the Budget (No.2) Bill and the explanatory and financial memorandum have been made available to Members.
I do not intend to take up valuable debating time with unnecessary repetition of the details that I provided to Members yesterday. However, in accordance with the nature of a Second Stage debate envisaged under Standing Order 30, and for the benefit of Members, I wish to summarise briefly the main features of the Bill.
The purpose of the Budget (No.2) Bill is to authorise the issue of £7·2 billion from the Northern Ireland Consolidated Fund and the use of resources totalling £8·5 billion by Departments and certain other bodies as detailed in the Main Estimates for 2008-09. Those amounts are in addition to the Vote on Account passed by the Assembly in February 2008. The sums to be issued from the Consolidated Fund are to be appropriated by each Department or public body for services as set out in schedule 1 to the Bill, while the resources are to be used for the purposes specified in schedule 2 to the Bill. In addition, the Bill sets for 2008-09 the limit on the use of operating and non-operating accruing resources. Schedule 2 to the Bill specifies the purposes for which those resources may be used.
Clause 2 of the Bill authorises the temporary borrowing by the Department of Finance and Personnel of £3·6 billion; that is, approximately half the sum authorised by clause 1(1), for issue out of the Consolidated Fund. That is a normal safeguard against the possibility of a temporary deficiency arising in the Northern Ireland Consolidated Fund. Clause 5 of the Bill authorises the issue of £7·2 million from the Consolidated Fund to be appropriated for excess expenditure on the Health Service superannuation scheme in 2006-07. Finally, clause 6 removes from the statute book two Budget Orders, which are no longer operative.
The Budget (No.2) Bill reflects the detailed spending plans of Departments as set out in the 2008-09 Main Estimates. We have now embarked on the first-year plans of the Executive’s first Budget. The Main Estimates and the Budget (No.2) Bill are the beginning of the road, but they are certainly not the end of it. It is the responsibility of every Assembly Member to play a part in holding Ministers and Departments to account throughout 2008 and 2009 in order to achieve our goals on delivery and efficiency.
There is little more that I can usefully add on the substance of the Budget (No.2) Bill. However, I will be happy to try to deal with any points of principle that may arise.
The Chairperson of the Committee for Finance and Personnel (Mr McLaughlin): Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I wish to take this early opportunity to congratulate the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment on her appointment. We look forward to working with her in future on this very challenging brief, and wish her every success.
At its meetings on 28 May 2008 and 4 June 2008, the Committee for Finance and Personnel took evidence from senior Department of Finance and Personnel (DFP) officials on the Budget (No.2) Bill, the general principles of which are being debated today. The Bill authorises departmental spending in 2008 and 2009 on resources and associated cash requirements based on the first-year spending plans of the Executive’s Budget for 2008-2011, which was approved by the Assembly on 29 January 2008.
The Bill also includes provision for an excess cash requirement by the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety (DHSSPS) for the health and personal social services superannuation scheme for 2006-07. Assembly approval of the Budget (No.2) Bill provides the legal authority for the balance of resources and associated cash requirements as detailed in the Main Estimates, which were discussed substantially in the Assembly yesterday.
The Committee was briefed on the Executive’s draft Budget by the Minister of Finance and Personnel, and, on several occasions, by senior departmental officials. The Committee also sought submissions from other Statutory Committees prior to finalising a report on the draft Budget 2008-2011, which was published in December 2007. The Committee has received a formal response to that report from DFP, and was briefed by DFP officials on the Budget on 23 January 2008.
The excess vote for DHSSPS was the subject of a report by the Comptroller and Auditor General to the Public Accounts Committee, which recommended that the necessary sum should be provided by an excess vote in the Assembly. My Committee took steps to inform the Health Committee of the situation.
During briefings on the Budget Bill, officials informed my Committee of the reasons for differing figures in the Budget and the Estimates. Given that the same source data is used for both the Budget and the Estimates, my Committee questioned the officials, who provided the Committee with a helpful paper to demonstrate that the figures are reconcilable. The Committee was entirely satisfied with that explanation.
The Committee is well aware of the consequences for departmental spending and the potential effect on front-line services should this Bill not progress through the Assembly before the summer recess. In that context, the Committee is satisfied that there was appropriate consultation on the public-expenditure proposals contained in the Bill, in accordance with Standing Order 40. The Committee is content that the Bill may proceed by accelerated passage, as the Minister has acknowledged. As the Minister pointed out, I corresponded on the Committee’s behalf with the Speaker on 4 June to confirm that. Therefore, the Committee supports the Bill.
Mr Storey: I support the process by which the Bill is passing through the House, and I concur with the comments of the Chairperson of the Committee for Finance and Personnel.
Yesterday, we saw considerable grandstanding by Members who took the opportunity to use the debate to raise particular issues. I refer particularly to the comments of my colleague from North Antrim Mr O’Loan, who cited a list of issues. He will recall that I intervened to seek clarification — which, unfortunately, I did not get — on the SDLP’s approach to the entire budgetary process. The SDLP likes to have the luxury of being able to distance itself, when it suits, from the four-party mandatory coalition to which it signed up, and it tries to evade its responsibilities. The SDLP put its Minister in an invidious position when it forced her to vote in support of the Budget, while it took the more convenient route of voting against it.
I trust that, as we have progressed through the budgetary process in recent months, Members will have seen the way in which the House formulates the financial position and takes responsibility for what it, as an elected Assembly, must do. Therefore, it would be remiss of Members not to take those responsibilities seriously, but, equally, the House must not dismiss Members’ concerns about the major issues that it must deal with. It seems as though many believe that those issues can be resolved only by pounds, shillings and pence. Some seem to think that the world is set aright solely by the way in which we allocate money and that, unless we have the money, we cannot deliver a particular service.
I realise that funding is a very important element in the delivery of services. However, the Budget places on Ministers the responsibility to prioritise the way in which their Departments spend money. Yesterday, various Members rehearsed their arguments about the way in which particular Ministers have decided to allocate their moneys. We have only to look at the bid process to see the way in which Departments prioritise their issues. For example, the Minister of Education made 32 bids whereby she decided that certain issues had higher priority than others. Irish-medium education and the Irish language were given higher priorities than extended schools.
Then, in the in-year monitoring round, the Minister of Education decided to hand about £50 million back to DFP. That should focus attention on the importance of Ministers’ priorities in how they spend the money that they are given.
We must approve the Budget (No. 2) Bill to ensure that money is released from the Consolidated Fund. We should take lessons from what has been said about this entire process over the past days and months. That would put the focus on prioritising the issues that are of primary importance to the people who voted us into this House, ensure that we receive value for money, and deliver services on the ground in the way that people expect. I support the motion.
Mr Beggs: I, too, congratulate the Minister on her appointment, and I wish her well in her new post. I also congratulate her on stepping up to the mark and enabling the Budget (No. 2) Bill to proceed. One of the principles behind the Bill is the distribution of funding through the departmental silos. It would mean an end to cross-cutting funding, as previously occurred in the Executive programme fund for children and the children’s fund; the Bill does not make reference to such streams of funding.
However, there are dangers in putting funding through departmental silos. Cross-cutting funding programmes assist several Departments in fulfilling their responsibilities and achieving their objectives. If a Department bids for funds for a cross-cutting issue, it compares that against bids for which it has sole responsibility, and worthwhile projects that would benefit multiple Departments may be endangered.
The budgetary process has weaknesses and failings. There are issues that have to be addressed in order to ensure that budgeting arrangements are improved and worthwhile projects are not left behind. It is not sufficient simply to end the children’s fund and pass sole responsibility to Departments. There needs to be a further refinement mechanism in place to ensure that projects with benefits to several Departments are recognised.
If the principle of departmental silo funding is to be used, I suggest that OFMDFM and the junior Ministers — who have specific responsibility for children’s issues — should have a budgetary role to examine cross-cutting issues. A ministerial subcommittee on children could play an important role in determining departmental funding and addressing cross-cutting issues in the Budget.
It is unseemly for the Minister of Education to argue that, although she has responsibility for childcare issues, she has no responsibility for after-school clubs; I hope that such a situation does not develop again. If the Minister of Education does not does not have responsibility for after-school clubs, who does? If identifying who holds that responsibility is problematic, the OFMDFM Ministers should step in, plug the gap, and clarify the matter.
The use of departmental silos is dangerous and represents a weakness of the budgetary process. That weakness must be addressed to ensure that important cross-cutting funding projects are not lost in the future.
Mr O’Loan: I add my congratulations to the Minister on her appointment. I also congratulate her on the way in which she handled yesterday’s debate on a portfolio that was not her own.
Like the Minister, I am not going to repeat all that was said yesterday, but certain points do need to be placed on the record. I want to state clearly that this party has serious concerns around the Budget. I was surprised yesterday, therefore, to hear the previous Minister of Finance — now the First Minister — say that there had been no dissent on the Budget at Executive level or in this House. The SDLP very clearly expressed dissent and divided the House on that issue.
As I said yesterday, good government is not just about money — that money has to be spent well. We have serious concerns about the government that we are getting under the leadership of OFMDFM and the clear divisions that there are between the two parties in that Department.
I referred yesterday to the quality of good governance and the concerns that I have around that. Government is not just the political system — the Government play an important role in leading a wider system. The administrative side of that system and the political side must work in harmony, each having its own part to play and each determining what its role is within that system. I have real concerns around the manner in which certain parts of our political system are interacting with other parts of our administrative system.
There is a need for deep thinking within this Assembly about how we are going to get government that really does rise to the occasion and take us to a higher level of governance. That needs to be done, but I am not convinced that that is happening in a lot of our current activity. I refer specifically to the need for an independent environmental protection agency — an important issue in its own right — but I do not want it to escape from attention that I am making a broader and more general point.
I want to briefly state again the major concerns that I have around the Budget: efficiency savings, their delivery, and their effect on front-line services; education, and the absence from the Budget of provision for one of the biggest changes to our schooling system that we have seen in decades; the extended-schools system and after-school issues.
Only yesterday I was approached on behalf of one such scheme in the Millennium Centre in Loughgiel — a superb after-schools programme catering for 70 to 80 young people and taking them through activities including music, City of London University certificates and so on — that is potentially in jeopardy because the funding is not in place for it.
We must determine what is needed and evaluate existing schemes, but there is no point — as was said yesterday by a colleague of mine — in throwing money at something for a year or two and then walking away. If something is of value — and I think that the wisdom of the day is that after-schools programmes are of value — then we need to continue that funding. The Minister of Education is seeking extra funding in the June monitoring round, so clearly that money was not put into the Budget.
I referred to the problem around asset sales, the degree to which the Budget is predicated on those, and the major uncertainty around that. The provision of social housing is one of the targets that the Executive have adopted, and all parties have agreed that. It is vital that money is put in place for that.
The issue of fuel poverty is a greater one now than it was at the time of the Budget.
We can rightly use the word “crisis”. The Assembly must find a way to put more money into the warm homes scheme.
I referred to water charges, around which there is great uncertainty, as well as indications of a movement toward separate water bills, which will be a very contentious issue. We are entitled to ask the Minister whether, by supporting this Bill, Members will be endorsing water charges, separate water charges, and water charges for churches and charities. I would like to hear the Minister’s comments in relation to those points. I repeat those serious concerns around the Budget. I will be interested in hearing the comments of other Members as the debate continues, and I am particularly interested in hearing the response of the Minister in due course.
Dr Farry: I congratulate the Minister on her new appointment and pay tribute to her dexterity. She found herself in an almost unique situation in parliamentary terms in that she started one long debate yesterday as the Minister for the Environment, and concluded it as the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment, while covering the DFP brief. No doubt she will go down in history for that. We wish her well for the future.
The Alliance Party has made it clear that it is opposed to the Budget. We have made our opposition clear in numerous debates and in the formal vote on the adoption of the Budget several months ago. I hope that the House appreciates that we did not force a Division on the Supply resolutions and detain Members needlessly for another repetitive vote yesterday.
The motions and legislation being discussed today are the mechanisms for putting into place the Budget that has been adopted by three parties on the Floor of the Assembly and four parties in the Executive. That said; I detect a lukewarm reaction to the Budget across the House. Only the DUP seems truly enthusiastic about it, and that reflects the fact that its fingerprints are on it. The other parties seem to be more apprehensive and are not rigorous in their defence of it — notably Sinn Féin, which is, in effect, co-equal at the top of the Government. It is, however, for that party to justify its position in the debate. Back-Benchers from all parties — including the DUP — have been critical of different aspects of the Budget at different times, and there have been particular complaints about cuts in public services across Northern Ireland.
I will endeavour to avoid repeating the comments that my colleagues and I made yesterday in the Supply resolutions debate as best as I can. In keeping with the general principles of the Bill, I will focus on three broad failings of the Budget. First, it fails to address the reality — the very sad reality — of the divided society in Northern Ireland, which carries social and human costs. The most relevant costs in relation to the Budget are the economic and financial ones. The Budget has been presented as a recipe for the economic transformation of society. I stress that we cannot have that economic transformation unless we address the divisions within our society at the same time. We must acknowledge the negative sense that divisions create barriers to labour market mobility and deter investment.
Members should take note of the comments of the Mayor of New York, Michael Bloomberg, when he visited Belfast at the time of the US/NI investment conference several weeks ago. We should be talking about how a mixed, open and respectful society can be successful in attracting investors and creative, skilled people from overseas.
I will not repeat the comments that I made yesterday about the Deloitte report except to say that it is very much a work in progress. I have been trying to ascertain from Departments and Ministers how that report impacts on the work of their Departments and, in particular, on the budget allocations.
Most Ministers provided very narrow responses, with limited focus on their Department’s direct service delivery. On the whole, they missed the wider policy aspects of their work, the areas in which they spend money, and how economic and financial costs are created as a consequence. Their responses showed a lack of appreciation of the potential for minimising those costs through more creative use of public policy.
To give some examples: the Minister for Employment and Learning did not acknowledge the point about labour-market mobility; the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment — and perhaps the new incumbent will reflect upon this — did not refer to the barriers to investment presented by the so-called peace walls that scar the Northern Ireland landscape; the Minister of the Environment showed no awareness of how planning issues interact with those of shared space, the more efficient use of land and the delivery of public services. Only the Minister for Social Development rose above the narrow focus and recognised the potential of shared housing with regard to budgetary allocations. I give her credit for that. My wider point is that addressing the costs of division and pursuing a shared future, in addition to creating wider efficiency savings, are critical to a more balanced approach to public expenditure.
The second aspect that I am concerned about is the claim that the Budget will prioritise economic growth and economic change in society. There are grounds for questioning whether it will do what has been claimed. The best measure of our development as a society is our level of gross value added (GVA) convergence, and the Executive have set a target for GVA convergence with the UK average minus that in the greater south-east of England. I appreciate the argument that the south-east of England distorts the picture, but its exclusion amounts to moving the goalposts with regard to the measurement. Rather than challenging the overall balance of the UK economy, we will now be measuring how well Northern Ireland is competing with other dependent regions of the UK for the scraps that fall from the table. We have no target for GVA convergence with the Republic of Ireland, which would reflect the all-island dimension in which we operate, nor with the European Union average.
The economic aspects of the Budget are built around the same economic drivers that have been in use for about the past 10 years: they were reflected in the draft regional economic strategy, which was panned, rightly, for its conservatism — and I mean conservatism with a small “c” — across the board by businessmen and politicians alike. To be fair to the Executive, they have sought to develop those drivers to a new level in both the Programme for Government and the Budget. Even so, questions arise over the allocation of resources to address skills shortages at both ends of the spectrum — basic literacy and numeracy, and PhDs. It may also be questioned whether we are doing the right thing with regard to investment in infrastructure. An interesting debate will gather pace over the next few months as to how we balance development and meet the demand for moving resources out of the greater Belfast area and across Northern Ireland.
We must also recognise the importance of developing infrastructure in the greater Belfast area; recognising Belfast’s importance as a regional driver; and ensuring that, as a city region, Belfast is capable of competing as a major player in wider European and global scenes. That must be the cornerstone of our economic approach.
The Varney II report operated within a limited framework, but it encouraged the Executive to go further. However, the sobering reality behind both Varney reports is that the UK Treasury does not expect there to be any meaningful GVA convergence. Therefore, whereas the Budgets being agreed by the Assembly may refer to GVA convergence, the UK Treasury does not foresee such convergence taking place. When Sir David Varney appeared before the DFP Committee last week, he effectively conceded that point under questioning.
The UK Treasury has condemned us to operate within the same macroeconomic framework as previously. That framework views and protects the south-east of England as the main driver of the overall UK economy and the source of wealth from which the remaining regions of the UK benefit. Under that framework, Northern Ireland benefits through the fiscal transfers to the Barnett formula. That is not an appealing vision for Northern Ireland, and it is not one that our devolved Assembly should accept.
The policies and practices coming from the Treasury do not offer scope for any potential step changes in our circumstances. It is with regret that I detect that the Executive have given up the fight on a differential rate of corporation tax.
Mr O’Loan: Dr Farry referred to Varney II as being the product of the Treasury. However, our DFP officials were heavily involved in the production of Varney II, but they were not involved in the first Varney Review. That is an important statement, because one must ask whether the results of Varney II best illustrate the Department of Finance and Personnel’s thinking on the economy. If it does, it is a prognostication of despair. It suggests that, under existing measures, we will not achieve the GVA convergence that Mr Farry talked about or improve our relative position with the UK average, never mind those of the Republic of Ireland or the rest of Europe.
Returning to my point, we must look at the quality of our Government and ask fundamental questions about how we can do things better. The quality of the DFP officials’ involvement in Varney II raises a lot of questions about what the Assembly is doing.
Dr Farry: I thank Mr O’Loan for his intervention, and I concur with his well-made remarks. I look forward to joining him at the Committee for Finance and Personnel tomorrow morning in challenging the DFP officials about the outcome of Varney II and in looking ahead to the regional economic strategy.
Mr A Maginness: Varney II contained details on the privatisation of the Port of Belfast. Does Dr Farry agree that it would be disastrous to privatise an asset that has not cost one penny of public money and that produces a substantial profit, all of which is reinvested into the port, which is a major gateway for the economy of Northern Ireland?
Dr Farry: I thank the Member for his intervention. It is right to acknowledge that there is substantial concern across the board about several of the recommendations contained in Varney II. That is one that caused particular concern. It is imperative that the Assembly and the relevant Committees study that recommendation in great detail.
The issue of sustainability can be looked at in two parts. First, I talked at length yesterday about the sustainability of public services and the different areas — including the health and education sectors — in which public expenditure in Northern Ireland is not being used wisely. I will not repeat myself, but I refer interested Members to yesterday’s Official Report, where they can read my remarks in more detail.
Secondly, we must consider whether this is a green Budget. There are grounds for concern in that regard. Growing our economy and protecting our environment are not contrary objectives; if anything, they are complementary. Further to that, it is essential that they run parallel with one another. It is regrettable that we have not progressed with an environmental protection agency. The agency would not be a panacea to all of society’s problems, but it would be a sound investment that would help to ensure that we avoid many of the economic and environmental costs that we will derive from current policies and practices.
I am not sure whether our investments will address Northern Ireland’s carbon footprint, which is already high in the overall context of the United Kingdom. I am concerned about the ongoing obsession with focusing on roads and private transport at the expense of investment in public transport.
I suspect that through the investment strategy, we are repeating how we have done things in the past, but this time on a much greater scale. We should instead rethink matters and try to be imaginative in how we proceed in the future.
The Alliance Party has major concerns with the Budget, but it recognises that we are a long way into the process. It is clear to all that the party has voiced its concerns constructively. It has made its point, and it has divided the House in the past.
The Alliance Party will listen to the remainder of today’s debate with great interest. Ultimately, the party recognises the importance of Departments’ having the resources to deliver essential services and of proceeding on that basis. Hopefully, parliamentary scrutiny has flagged up critical issues that will be addressed in future budgetary processes.
Mr Speaker: The Business Committee has arranged to meet immediately upon the lunchtime suspension. I therefore propose, by leave of the Assembly, to suspend the sitting until 2.00 pm.
The sitting was suspended at 12.31 pm.
On resuming (Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr Dallat] in the Chair) —
Mr McQuillan: I support the Bill. The Budget is an essential part of ensuring that the Programme for Government is implemented. The Bill must be passed to enable all Departments to receive the funding to meet their financial requirements.
The Minister of Health recently announced the development of new cancer facilities at Altnagelvin Hospital. How could those proceed without the necessary resources? My constituents are deeply interested in investment in the roads network. Funding is needed to upgrade the A26, which is well into the planning stage; for new trains that have been ordered for NIR; and for new buses for Ulsterbus.
Passing the Second Stage of the Budget (No. 2) Bill is the only way in which to guarantee that funding. As I said yesterday, the Bill gives the Executive an opportunity to improve the lives of people in Northern Ireland by allocating resources to high priority areas, where the funds will yield greatest benefit. I have no doubt that those priorities are well informed, because locally elected people are making the decisions.
Untold damage will be done to the Assembly’s credibility and to our international image if the Bill does not pass. We have entered a second honeymoon period with investors after the recent investment conference. We must not damage that goodwill by rejecting the Bill.
Ms J McCann: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I support the Bill and welcome the opportunity to participate in a debate that is being held in the shadow of many families facing an economic crisis. That issue should be at the Budget’s core.
Recent rises in the cost of fuel and food, coupled with downward trends in borrowing and credit facilities, represent a real squeeze on personal budgets. Families are finding it difficult to meet the cost of basic needs, such as food, transport and heating. They are also in a real danger of losing their homes. Many people in my constituency are finding it difficult to meet mortgage repayments. Some, who have had their homes repossessed, are living with relatives in cramped conditions while they wait for social housing.
Prices are rising, but wages and benefits are static. Fuel poverty is a reality for one in three local households. The cost of living here is higher, and we pay more for energy, despite the fact that the average wage is lower.
A key priority for the Executive must be to tackle poverty and disadvantage. It is important that the Executive respond to the crisis by looking at new and innovative ways in which to tackle poverty. Departments also have a responsibility to be innovative with their budget allocations. The Executive should try to work with energy companies on initiatives, such as social-tariff schemes, that ensure that vulnerable households will not have to decide whether to buy food or to heat their homes.
A huge budget is available for procurement, and that presents the Executive with an opportunity to deliver a strong, vibrant economy alongside social outcomes. Recent guidelines for public procurement procedures identify equality of opportunity as an objective. The Executive could deliver quality change on the ground through social-economy enterprises and by ensuring that small and medium-sized businesses are considered for public-service tenders.
The Budget gives us a chance to deliver on the important issues of fairness, inclusion and equality of opportunity, by actively and effectively challenging the existing patterns of social and economic disadvantage and by using any future increased prosperity to tackle ongoing poverty.
Mr McQuillan referred to the investment conference. If any investment comes from that conference, the Executive can ensure that it is channelled into areas of disadvantage and need. We must take every opportunity to ensure that organisations with the responsibility to create and retain employment directly target people whom social and economic disadvantage directly affects.
I support the Second Stage of the Bill and urge all Departments to use their budget allocations to offset the real financial difficulties that people face. The Executive must also be creative in order to ensure that those who need help receive it in order to get through the current financial crisis. Go raibh maith agat.
Mr Deputy Speaker: I call Mr Nigel Hamilton.
Mr Hamilton: I think that you have elevated me to the head of the Civil Service. [Laughter.]
Mrs D Kelly: It is Sir Nigel Hamilton, please.
Mr Hamilton: Yes, the full title next time, please — I have worked hard for my knighthood. [Laughter.]
Thank you, Mr Speaker — sorry, Mr Deputy Speaker. I was almost elevating you to a higher office as well. When I first came into the Chamber after lunch I was fearful of the dreaded Q-word, as I am sure you were, but I am sure that it is the expectation of my imminent contribution to the debate on the Budget (No. 2) Bill that has rustled up a crowd.
I have enjoyed the debate up to this point — whether other Members will be able to say that after I have spoken, I will leave up to them. I want to respond to some of the issues that have been raised before making some other comments.
Declan O’Loan, one of my colleagues on the Committee for Finance and Personnel, has spoken both during yesterday’s Supply resolution debate and in today’s debate about how government in Northern Ireland works. That is an issue that we will have to get to grips with in the coming years, if not sooner. The various Varney reports — including the most recent one — have also been mentioned. Although that review does not say everything that we would want it to, it raises issues about governance and how our structures of government work in Northern Ireland, which are certainly worth reading if not, perhaps, worth replicating.
If Mr O’Loan is talking about making government more efficient and more effective, streamlining operations, and, as he said, finding better ways to deliver the same services, he will find no stronger friends than me and my party colleagues, as we also want to achieve that. One of the hallmark achievements of the now former Minister of Finance and Personnel — the new First Minister — was the creation of the performance and efficiency delivery unit (PEDU). Although PEDU has yet to undertake and conclude any piece of work, it will mark a step change in how we view Government in Northern Ireland, especially in relation to delivery.
Yesterday, Mr O’Loan cited the interview that appeared in last weekend’s ‘Sunday Independent’ with the chief executive of the Health Service Executive in the Republic of Ireland. I do not want to reopen old debates about the Budget that we had last year and in the early part of this year, but the Health Service in Northern Ireland is a good example of how changes in structure and delivery mechanisms can deliver real improvements. In recent times, record inputs have been made to the Health Service in Northern Ireland; however, we are not always getting the outputs that might be expected from that.
That comes at a time when Health Service staff — some of whom we met yesterday at the steps of Parliament Buildings — are putting their heart and soul into their vocation. When people are working flat out but the expected outputs are not being produced, clearly there is a wider, systemic problem, rather than there being anything wrong with the effort and the dedication of Health Service staff. We must get a grasp of those issues, and bodies such as PEDU, as well as a cultural change in Government in Northern Ireland, are essential for that.
The capital realisation programme has been mentioned a couple of times during today’s debate and during yesterday’s Supply resolution debate. Some doubts have been expressed about it, and, given the current economic climate, I understand Members’ concerns about whether we will realise exactly what we had hoped for with some of the sales of underutilised or unneeded assets. However, I maintain that it is an excellent exercise.
In fact, it is a useful exercise to identify the unnecessary, unneeded and unwanted scraps of land — with which we all, as constituency representatives, have, at times, had untold problems —and to find out who owns them and what their purpose is. It is still a worthwhile exercise to identify that land, and, over time, to realise the assets so that they can be employed elsewhere in the public sector for much better purposes.
There is no point in a triangle of land lying vacant in a constituency, because that serves no purpose. The land could be sold and the money redeployed to, for example, the Health Service.
The previous Member mentioned the economic crisis that we keep being told that we are in. I am not going to talk down the Northern Ireland economy — we live in optimistic times as regards our general economic development. However, it would be churlish not to accept that there are difficulties with credit, mortgages and energy prices. Rising energy prices affect everyone, even Members; and they are the reason why many more people face falling into the trap of fuel poverty this winter.
Mechanisms are available to the government and the Executive to address the problem, and I welcome the establishment of a task force by the Minister for Social Development. However, fuel poverty levels are increasing due to rising energy prices; so we must bear in mind that it is not the Executive that are putting people into fuel poverty, and that the responsibility for bringing people out of fuel poverty does not rest solely with the Executive. Members will struggle to find a bigger friend of business in the Chamber than I, but there is an onus on the companies that make exceptionally high profits, particularly from oil, as well as those that deal in various other utilities, to step up to the mark and contribute to the fight against fuel poverty in Northern Ireland.
If President Bush can go to Saudi Arabia — one of his allies — ask them to address the issue and be told that there is nothing they can do, there may be little that any of us can do. Therefore, there is little that the Northern Ireland Executive can do. However, where Members can make a difference and effect change, it is incumbent on them to do so. There are others who also have responsibilities in that regard.
Dr Farry mentioned the costs of division. From time to time I and others mock Dr Farry when he raises that issue, not because it is not serious, but because he raises it regularly in debates such as this. The new First Minister acknowledged that the cost of division is a serious issue. Obviously, costs are incurred because of our divided society, which could be avoidable in the long term, but only by taking difficult steps and hard measures. Members should support any short-term measures that exist to realise savings, and I welcome the engagement that has taken place between Dr Farry’s party and the former Minister of Finance and Personnel.
Dr Farry said that there is general dissatisfaction with the Budget. I am very positive about the Budget, of which the Bill being discussed is part. I am positive, because it is another step forward in the maturity of the political system here — a Budget Bill is a core document of an institution such as this, so it is good to have one being approved by the Assembly. No Budget in a legislature has been welcomed universally and has included all the spending requested — such is politics. There will always be people who disagree with the contents of a Budget, which is only natural.
Although the Budget does not satisfy everyone’s requirements or even all of my expectations, it is positive, which is in no small part due to its focus on the economy. That subject is dear to the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment’s heart and will become increasingly so in the coming days, weeks and months.
When we, as individual Members or as constituency representatives, talk about the economic uncertainty that we are faced with and about our constituents’ concerns, it is right and proper that the Executive are fully focused on economic development in Northern Ireland. That focus has been sorely lacking in recent years.
Some Members have expressed doubt as to whether the Executive’s policies will result in a step change in the Northern Ireland economy. However, we can be absolutely sure that the policies of the direct rule Administration were not going to deliver such a step change.
I am glad that the policy intervention in the Budget is focused on the key drivers of productivity — skills, enterprise, innovation and infrastructure. That focus is much needed, and was sorely lacking, if not non-existent, in the past.
Although Northern Ireland has high educational achievement at GCSE and A level, and the lowest proportion of people leaving school with no GCSEs, that success has not always translated into the economy.
Historically, there have been low levels of investment in infrastructure — a key driver for the economy — and innovation. Almost half of R&D expenditure is through universities. Although I am not knocking that in any way — universities are a key deliverer of research and development and innovation — it is an indication that we have a problem. In the past, businesses have not invested enough in that important aspect of economic development.
I am pleased and positive about a Budget that has set economic growth in Northern Ireland as its number-one priority. It is only by growing the economy that we can shield ourselves from the economic uncertainty that we are faced with. Furthermore, it is only by growing the economy that we can get on to the sort of footing for the future that we all want. As I said, that has been sorely lacking in the past.
Some Members may say that, during a period of economic uncertainty, we should concentrate on other issues. However, that should only embolden us to continue to focus on the economy as a real answer to our problems. That will deliver us from our current difficulties, and from those that we might face in the future if the Budget did not have that focus.
I welcome, not just the debate and the sub-topics that have been discussed, but the focus of the Budget. It is a positive Budget for Northern Ireland. As I said, I am sure that it is not to everyone’s satisfaction, but that is what we have come to expect in this place. I wholeheartedly support it, and encourage other Members to do likewise.
Mr B McCrea: At this stage of the proceedings, the question should be about the fundamental principles of the Bill. It is hard to disagree with many of the elements of the Budget. However, it is also hard to agree with some of the other elements. In truth, it is a rather bland document, devoid of any real enthusiasm or excitement. That is an issue that I raised during the debates on the Programme for Government. I fail to see any form of shared future or any real dynamic that will take us to a better place.
Mr Hamilton said there would be few in the Assembly who could point to a stronger position on the economy than his. I am willing to take on that challenge. I believe that the economy is vital for the development of Northern Ireland. However, it is not the only issue. Producing an economy without giving people the skills to take advantage of it is a recipe for immigration.
If we do the opposite and give people skills but fail to develop an economy that takes advantage of them, then people will emigrate.
Northern Ireland faces a two-fold challenge — the economy and education. Education, education, education; it is the only way forward to address the legacy of the past, to prepare young people for the future, and to give us the wherewithal to thrive in a competitive global economy.
I want to talk about the fundamental principles outlined in the Bill. According to schedule 1, the Department of Education will be granted £1,117,241,000 for general expenditure, which by anyone’s standards is a considerable amount of money. Why, then, has one in six primary-school principals in my constituency been off ill in the past year, due to stress and the inordinate amount of pressure that is put on them? Why are 130 teachers and leaders coming to the Assembly tomorrow to highlight the problem?
When I look at that one all-encompassing general expenditure figure, I find it difficult to understand how we can transfer funds between particular budgets. The Department of Education told the Education Committee that:
“It is, however, recognised that the funding differential between primary and post-primary schools should be smaller than it is currently. However, as all recurrent school funding comes from the one budget, unless the overall budget is significantly increased, it is not possible to increase funding to the primary sector without a corresponding reduction in the funding for post-primary schools.”
I fundamentally disagree with that approach. We cannot move forward without increasing funding to the primary-school sector, but it should not be done at the expense of the post-primary sector.
Schedule 1 also states that £74,445,000 will be provided for teachers’ superannuation and “premature retirement compensation”. In trying to balance the workload of the education workforce, it is impossible to predict with any certainty how we can get new teachers into employment and help more mature teachers who want to retire or move on. I cannot deal with those issues. There is a structural problem.
During his recent investiture, the First Minister talked about the need to do things differently; to have cross-cutting programmes; to talk to the leaders of all the parties; and to try to agree some form of genuine consensus on the way forward. Unfortunately, we do not see that with this particular set of contingencies. We see a silo-based mentality, whereby individual Departments have what they hold, and they will not share until it is too late.
The big issue is the package for children, and the fact that £3·8 million was unallocated. Not only was it unallocated, but it was used as the reason why that particular cross-cutting measure should be done away with. The Department of Education said that it was the Department of Finance and Personnel’s fault. The issue about the Bill that I wish to bring to the Assembly’s attention is that we should create more cross-cutting budgets.
The Departments of Health, Social Development, Employment and Learning and Education must find a way of delivering more joined-up government. We cannot do that without the Budget. The issue of extended schools demonstrates that. We have talked about that at some length, but it is worth reiterating. It is unacceptable to take money away from schools that operate in the most socially challenging areas.
Worse than not giving people money is building up expectations by giving people money and taking it away again. Here and now, I challenge the Assembly and the Executive to step in, overrule the Minister of Education on that matter and provide the £5 million, because we cannot afford to wait and see whether more money can be found. I hope that that issue will be dealt with at the Executive meeting this Thursday.
The Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety has not been found wanting in that respect. Not only was he able to find funding for a further 60 projects, but he found it for a further 32 children’s fund projects, which are multi-disciplinary and cross-cutting in nature. Even then, 54 school projects were unfunded from the end of June 2007. Although the Minister of Health clearly recognised that those projects were not his responsibility, he stepped in and provided the funding to keep those projects going. I commend him for that, and I urge the Minister of Education to do likewise.
It is absolutely imperative that a way is found to resolve those particular issues. I am quite sure —
I missed the comments from the sedentary position; perhaps we could have another go.
This is an issue for all consciences, on which people should step in and make amends. It is simply unacceptable — everyone has talked about the fact that more funding is not provided, not only for extended schools, but for the primary school sector as a whole.
Ms S Ramsey: I thank the Member for giving way. As a member of the Committee for Health, Social Services and Public Safety, I bring the Member’s attention to the fact that, when the Budget was introduced, the Committee ensured that the Health Department’s budget would be subject to an equality impact assessment. As a member of the Education Committee, did the Member do the same?
Mr B McCrea: I do not know — I might have the answer in front of me.
Ms S Ramsey: No — you did not.
Mr B McCrea: What is the purpose of equality impact assessments? It is not some sort of rule that one raps people over the knuckles with; it is to try and determine whether we do the right thing by vulnerable sections of the community. I fail to see any people more vulnerable than children, particularly children in socially deprived areas.
For the life of me, I cannot understand why a party such as Sinn Féin — with its supposed Marxist-Leninist principles — is prepared, not only not to increase funding, but to cut it. I have never seen the like of it. The party prevaricates, filibusters and tries to place the blame somewhere else.
The party cannot accept that it sold those people out because it did not find the funding to look after extended schools. Shame on them; I will continue to say that until that party resolves that issue. No amount of red herrings, or placing the blame elsewhere, will take me off that track. Sinn Féin should put its money where its mouth is and find the funding for the extended schools; find the funding for the primary school sector; and increase the funding in the pre-nursery sector. Those issues must be sorted out.
Since we talk about the Minister of Education, there is a fundamental problem with this Budget and the Programme for Government, and that lies in her strategy. It is simply not possible to deliver the changes that she has in mind, in the timeframe that she has set out, without massive financial intervention. Neither of those problems is reflected in the Programme for Government or the Budget.
We, on this side of the House, would like to widen the debate on education. We want to take it away from the narrow and somewhat sterile confines of issues like the 11-plus, the transfer procedure, or whatever it is called. For many people, it is a red herring. Inequality does not start at the age of 11, contrary to what other people say. It starts at birth, and we should be investing in those areas. We should consider how to increase parenting skills; how to provide support for parents; how to tie in social development agencies; and how to ensure that the Police Service is involved. Those are all of the issues.
I am pleased that there is agreement from the party across the way. I have said many times that, if it were to lead the strategy in that direction, it would have the support of all Members. However, it has not done so; it has chosen to go down a cul-de-sac that is taking us nowhere.
Sometimes people try to do the right thing, and they achieve incremental progress, but that is not enough. Mr Hamilton talked about the Alliance Party’s position and the cost of division, and about trying to bring things together. That is putting the cart before the horse. We must invest in schools and improve pupil:teacher ratios, and we should not close schools that serve their communities. I want us to learn lessons, understand what we are talking about and find ways to attain genuine co-operation and a consensual approach. When we do that, the Assembly will start to deliver for the people of Northern Ireland.
Mrs D Kelly: I congratulate our new Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment. I look forward to an early visit from her in Upper Bann in her ministerial role.
It is unfortunate that Mr Storey is not in the Chamber this afternoon. However, my colleague Mr O’Loan and I want to put to bed the nonsense of the SDLP’s Minister being in an invidious position. Margaret Ritchie was not in an invidious position. She was placed in a legal position because of the ministerial code, as negotiated between Sinn Féin and the DUP at St Andrews to ensure that no party could behave as the DUP had done in the past by being part of an Executive but with its Assembly team often voting differently.
The SDLP will not take lectures from the DUP about consistency in politics, given that the SDLP, from its formation, promoted the policies of non-violence, power sharing, agreement and self-determination. It is wonderful that the other parties in the House now agree with the SDLP’s vision for the North of Ireland and for the future of the people on this island.
Yesterday, Members referred to the funding available for health issues. The former Minister of Finance and Personnel said that he had made a promise to sort out the mess of unequal pay in the Civil Service. My colleague Mr Gallagher referred to Agenda for Change yesterday. On a local radio station today, I listened to callers discussing the Southern Health and Social Care Trust, where many of the lower-paid workers at the coalface still have to receive the money to which they are entitled under Agenda for Change. Some workers still have to receive £500 in back pay. For many of us, that is a large sum of money, and it should be paid.
It is appalling that so many directors and chief executives of health boards and trusts were able to leave in the smoke with their golden handshakes and pay-offs without putting matters right for the workers who deliver services to the people, day and daily. I trust that the Budget will address those inequalities and that injustice.
Mr O’Loan put on record the SDLP’s fundamental opposition to the Budget. Many of my colleagues have highlighted deficiencies in the Budget. In the past few minutes, some Members have spoken about the importance of the economy and it being the focus of the Budget and the Programme for Government. Nevertheless, there is continued logjam and stalemate at the heart of the Executive. For example, no decision has been taken on the school newbuild programme because we do not have a sustainable schools policy.
Members are aware that we have a struggling construction industry. Many young men, some of whom are fathers, are being forced seek work across the water, often in Scotland, because the Executive are not making decisions on new buildings, schools, elite facilities for the Olympic bids or, of course, the regeneration of Ebrington Barracks and the Maze/Long Kesh site. Such indecision affects both social and economic regeneration and is compounded by the planning logjam.
In her former role as Minister of the Environment, the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment instituted a reform of the Planning Appeals Commission and announced new investment for that commission and for planning policy. However, the Assembly still awaits the introduction of the reforms that will enable businesses to make Northern Ireland an attractive place in which to invest. As the Minister knows, a developer who is considering an investment in Banbridge, for example, would receive a much quicker decision on a planning application that was submitted only a few miles up the road in County Louth, where a decision would be made within three months. Developers want quick decisions; they do not want to wait for some 18 months, as is often the case in the North.
Some Members referred to the role of Committees in scrutinising the work of Ministers and Departments. They said that Ministers should bring their plans to the Committees for scrutiny. How wonderful it would be if that happened. In my experience on the Committee for the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister, the timetable shifts every week because OFMDFM gives us no strategies or delivery plans.
Among Members who talked about the creation of a shared future, Dr Farry spoke eloquently on the subject, but the cohesion, sharing and integration strategy has been delayed further. A huge number of decisions are not being made, and work is not being done. That is not good governance, and it does not provide good government for the people in Northern Ireland.
As many Members said, efficiency savings mean cuts, and that is a concern for public-sector workers. Many Members have been written to recently, as have I, particularly by people working in the Civil Service who feel demoralised and undervalued. That presents the Assembly with the challenge of how to reach out to them. The Minister is aware of the great fallacy about public-sector pay. Many civil servants are paid at a lower rate than my daughter who works part time for Tesco. Indeed, many of those public-sector workers earn little more than the minimum wage. Despite that, and in an unfair generalisation, they are lumped in with those who are paid a great deal more but who will not make decisions and whose work is not being done.
The Assembly talks about fairness, equality and pay, but it must get real and make decisions that will grow the economy, make a difference to everyone’s lives, and ensure that Northern Ireland is an attractive place in which to live and invest.
The Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment: I thank Members for their kind words on my recent appointment. I want do deal with as many issues as I can this afternoon. I will run through some of the points that were raised, although Members’ comments today largely reflect what was said in yesterday’s debate, during which I tried to deal with them.
Mitchel McLaughlin, the Chairperson of the Committee for Finance and Personnel, reconfirmed the Committee’s approval of the Bill’s receiving accelerated passage, and he acknowledged the reconciliation of the Main Estimates with the Budget. On behalf of the new Minister of Finance and Personnel, I thank the Finance Committee, and all Committees, for their continued work on scrutinising the financial planning and management of Departments.
The Deputy Chairperson of the Committee for Finance and Personnel spoke about the responsibility of Ministers to deliver, and he said that funding is not the whole story when it comes to the delivery of services. I agree strongly with that sentiment. Ministers have a serious responsibility to prioritise in order to deliver the services that the public expect in the incoming and future years.
We cannot do everything, and choices must be made. As Mervyn Storey pointed out, the devolved Administration exists to deliver as much as it can for the local electorate, and, therefore, there must be prioritisation of departmental budgets.
Mr Beggs and Mr Basil McCrea referred to the issue of cross-cutting funds, and Mr Beggs added mention of departmental silos. I recognise the argument about the potential for cross-cutting funds, such as Executive programme funds and the Secretary of State’s funding package. However, those funds have been examined, and, although they may, at first glance, seem attractive, the reality in the past has been somewhat different. In practice, the funds have been marked by high levels of underspend.
The question is not which Department provides the funding, but which Department takes the lead with those cross-cutting funds and takes responsibility for moving matters forward. There were, historically, high levels of underspend, so there was no delivery of what was expected. Departments did not feel that they had complete ownership or responsibility for the matters in question, and, therefore, the issue was not driven forward. That is regrettable.
For that reason, the Executive decided to mainstream funding, so that Departments could afford projects the appropriate priority. The Assembly Committees and the other key stakeholders have a role in ensuring that the Departments do not scale back good projects on the basis that I have outlined. This House and, indeed, the Committees, have a role to play in highlighting any occasion on which Ministers deviate from priorities to which they have committed in the past. This House will continue to play that role.
Declan O’Loan expressed some surprise that DFP officials were involved in the production of the second Varney Review. Frankly, I would have been surprised if they had not been involved in providing that local context to the work.
Mr O’Loan: For clarity, I expressed no surprise at all that DFP officials were involved in that process. I drew a conclusion about the fact that they were involved because the output — the economic diagnoses provided in Varney II — was so disappointing, and failed to offer any remedies. I was concerned that that was the best that the departmental officials could offer at that stage. That did not bode well for what that Department was offering to the economy.
The Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment: I do not accept that that is the case at all. Varney II was indicating that, if direct rule policies are continued, if there is no step change in respect of the economy, and if the issues are not dealt with, we are not going to see convergence. That step change must happen, and I believe that it will happen in the future. The point that I am making to the Member is that Varney II was an independent review — not a DFP-inspired document. Those officials were there to provide the backup, and to impart context to what was provided to the Executive.
Mr O’Loan also made comments about governance, continuing his comments from yesterday. He spoke about the need for good governance and stated that government was not just a political system, but also had an administrative side, and that he was concerned that there was an overlap between the two. That overlap would be a bad thing if it involved political interference, but, if there is political accountability, that overlap can be a good thing. That is the point that I made in respect of the argument for an environmental protection agency, which the Member very briefly mentioned today, and I certainly hope that that political accountability will continue to push the environmental agenda ahead. Although I am no longer the Minister of the Environment, I am keen to see that that moves ahead.
Mr O’Loan also highlighted the fact that there are a number of cost pressures facing the Executive over the coming year, including those that are a result of the downturn in the property market. Although he suggested that that will reduce the level of capital receipts, he will appreciate that there should also be a significant reduction in the cost of delivering the Executive’s capital investment programme.
The need to address such pressures is one reason why there is in an in-year monitoring process, and indeed, why the Finance Minister must report at the end of each monitoring round, as he will on the outcome of the June monitoring process.
The issue of water bills and charging was raised by Mr O’Loan and, I believe, by Dr Farry, who queried whether approval of the Bill implied approval of water charges. The financial package that was negotiated with the Treasury provided sufficient funding for the deferral of water charges in 2008-09. I can confirm that approval of this Bill does not confer approval of water charges because the Bill relates to the current year only.
The introduction of water charges was incorporated into departmental allocations for 2008-09 to 2010-11, as outlined in the Executive’s Budget, which was approved by the Assembly in January 2008. If the Executive decide not to introduce water charges — a decision that still has to be taken — that will have significant implications, of which the House is aware, for the level of resources that are available to Departments; not for the incoming year, but for the 2009-2010 and 2010-11 Budget allocations.
Mr O’Loan also raised the specific issue of water charges for churches. There are around 3,600 religious establishments in Northern Ireland, of which 1,200 are already metered for water and have been making payments for some time. The Executive agreed that, from April 2008, all non-domestic properties should pay for water and sewerage services on a phased basis of 50% of the full liability. Therefore, some religious establishments have received bills for the first time. I accept that. That has implemented the Independent Water Review Panel’s recommendation that everyone should contribute to the cost of water and sewerage services. The Executive, however, retain the scope to review the system of exemptions from water charges, although it must be recognised that additional exemptions will, again, have implications for the level of charges for other customers and, indeed, the level of public subsidy.
I accept Dr Farry’s point that the House’s engagement in constructive analysis and, indeed, scrutiny, should be welcomed. However, the Member put forward a pessimistic analysis of Northern Ireland’s economic development potential. The draft regional economic strategy highlighted that there was limited scope for convergence with the performance of the broader UK economy. However, that was in the context of direct rule. The regional economic strategy’s objective is to set a new direction for the local economy in order to ensure that it can take opportunities from a more stable political environment.
Mr Maginness referred to the Varney report’s recommendation that the Port of Belfast should be sold. I want to stress to him and, indeed, to all Members that the Varney report and its recommendations were simply that — recommendations. The decision on whether to go ahead with such recommendations lies firmly with the Executive.
Varney II is a comprehensive and robust analysis of the Northern Ireland economy, which highlights the many positive strengths and opportunities that exist to increase economic growth and prosperity. Therefore, the situation is not all doom and gloom. The report highlights policy areas that also require the Executive’s focus. It is a good analysis of where the economy was at that particular point in time.
Dr Farry also raised the issue of cost of division, which was also mentioned by my colleague Simon Hamilton. The Executive have recognised that there are costs associated with a divided society in Northern Ireland. However, it is delusional to believe that all those divisions can be dealt with in the short to medium term, or that that will result in significant additional savings that can be redeployed to improve public services. Although he praised DSD for its recognition of the cost of division, I am sure that Dr Farry would acknowledge that social housing is, indeed, one area where the cost of division is particularly apparent.
Dr Farry also commented on the green economy. I cannot resist returning to that issue. It will, obviously, take me some time to get away from it.
I agree that growing the economy and having a greener environment are not mutually exclusive. That is one of the reasons why protecting and enhancing our environment and natural resources is one of the themes in the Programme for Government. It is a key strategic and interdependent priority for our Government, so we will keep an eye on that.
The Member also mentioned the carbon footprint, and I would add CO2 emissions and transport difficulties to that point. Huge challenges lie ahead, and the Minister of the Environment is awaiting analysis on issues that are specific to Northern Ireland so that targets can be set. When he has that analysis, he will be able to examine what must be done and what adaptations are needed to meet our targets on climate change.
Jennifer McCann and Simon Hamilton mentioned fuel poverty. Ms McCann gave an indication of the context in which we are discussing the Budget Bill today. In developing the Executive’s Budget, the Minister for Finance and Personnel recognises the additional cost pressures that face local householders, including the increase in fuel costs. That is why the domestic regional rates were frozen in cash terms over the Budget period. That will reduce the bills that would otherwise have been faced by every household in Northern Ireland if direct rule had continued.
Furthermore, the Minister for Social Development has established a fuel poverty task force, which is due to make recommendations by August 2008. It is hoped that that will help to alleviate the situation for people who are under sustained pressure. The Executive will need to consider whether further support for households is needed in light of the available resources and competing priorities. The work of the task force will form part of that deliberation and discussion.
Ms McCann also raised the broader concern regarding the need to address social issues, particularly in light of the increasing costs facing households, such as food, transport and mortgage payments. Although the Executive’s key priority is growing the economy, I hope that that task force will address many of the issues that she raised. It is important that Ministers do not consider issues in the abstract, but that they take into account issues that Members have raised and which affect the everyday lives of the electorate and our citizens.
Although procurement policy has a potential role to play in developing social issues such as disadvantage, it must be ensured that value for money is part of service delivery. That must be kept high on the agenda.
Simon Hamilton mentioned PEDU, and I agree with my party colleague that any lack of improvements in efficiencies is not necessarily due to a lack of motivation on the part of public-sector employees. Taking up the point that was made by Mrs D Kelly, I pay tribute to the work of public-sector employees. They get very little thanks for the job that they carry out, and the House should send a message that we appreciate the work that is carried out by civil servants and the entire public sector in Northern Ireland.
Mr Hamilton raised the point about asset realisation, and I welcome his support for the work to release the surplus and underused assets. We do not welcome the current state of the market, but we must work with it. The Member also mentioned that economic development was the key priority, and that a step change and a cultural change were needed. I have already addressed that issue in response to Mr O’Loan’s point. That step change is needed to deal with the issues that have been identified by Varney II.
It is vital that a step change takes place in financial planning and economic development to bring about convergence in gross value added between us and the UK average. Dr Farry said that we had given up on convergence, but I do not accept that. We must have a step change and move on. If we keep to direct rule policies, we will not deal with convergence, but we will be able to move that issue forward if it remains focused in our mind.
Some chest beating took place about who was more concerned about the economy between Mr Basil McCrea and Mr Hamilton. Mr McCrea referred me to the Bill, which was quite exciting for me as a former lawyer. He referred to the amounts of money that are mentioned in schedule 1. He was just about the only Member who referred to the Bill.
Basil McCrea then spoke about skills in the economy. A balanced approach to economic development is very much needed in order to ensure that we deal across the scale. He also mentioned PlayBoard’s funding, about which there has been much talk. I welcome — as should the House — the Minister of Health’s responsible decision to reprioritise funding in order to ensure that PlayBoard projects can continue. Obviously, that matter must be sorted out in the long term. Nevertheless, it provides a good example to other Ministers that more funding is not always required to address a departmental problem.
The Member also mentioned unallocated central funds, and, having developed associated projects, it is Departments’ individual responsibility to draw funds from central funds. Therefore, it is not DFP’s fault that Departments did not avail themselves of available funding.
Mrs Kelly raised the issue about the SDLP and its Minister, but I will not rehearse the arguments that go back and forth across the Chamber. Suffice it to say, the Executive are a four-party mandatory coalition, not a 12-person mandatory coalition. Perhaps the party on the other side of the Chamber should reflect on that.
She also spoke about equal pay, and, although I do not have any answers on the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety’s Agenda for Change, I am sure that the new Minister of Finance and Personnel will be happy to write to her about that.
She referred to the planning logjam, particularly in her constituency, and, therefore, she will welcome the Department of the Environment’s moves to deal with planning. Hopefully, the planning reform paper will be with Members in the not too distant future. Apart from that, the planners are making progress, and, in a pilot scheme in the divisional office in Londonderry, they are dealing effectively with simple and reserved-matter applications — some within 20 days. We should recognise that that office is doing much good work, which, I hope, can be replicated throughout Northern Ireland.
Mrs Kelly also spoke about the fact that, in her experience, unfortunately, certain Departments and Ministers have not engaged with Committees in the way in which they should have. As I said yesterday, in coming years, I hope that such engagement will improve. The Executive have now had a year, so Ministers must engage with their Committees in order to show what they are doing with their budgets.
She said that efficiency savings mean cuts. I do not agree. Efficiency savings can mean cuts but not necessarily so.
In the next few weeks, as we approach the 2008-09 monitoring round, I urge Departments to manage closely their resources and declare any reduced requirements early in the financial year in order to facilitate the redistribution of funds to other priorities at the earliest possible stage.
In light of last week’s statement on the provisional out-turn for 2007-08, I cannot overemphasise the importance of good financial management in 2008-09 and beyond. It is critical that significant resources are not left unspent at the end of 2008-09. In the coming year, on behalf of taxpayers, the Assembly and the Executive will carry a heavy burden of responsibility to manage public expenditure in Northern Ireland prudently.
I am aware, Mr Deputy Speaker, that you wish to bring the debate to a close, and I will assist in that by thanking Members for their interest in the legislative stage of this public-expenditure cycle. I also thank again the Committee for Finance and Personnel for assisting in securing accelerated passage for the Budget (No. 2) Bill and for ensuring that the legislative timetable is adhered to.
Mr Deputy Speaker: Before proceeding to the Question, I remind Members that the Budget (No. 2) Bill requires cross-community support.
The Assembly divided: Ayes 50; Noes 15.
Ms Anderson, Mr Boylan, Mr Brady, Mr Butler, Mr W Clarke, Mr G Kelly, Mr A Maskey, Mr P Maskey, Mr F McCann, Ms J McCann, Mr McCartney, Mrs McGill, Mr McKay, Mr McLaughlin, Mr Molloy, Mr Murphy, Ms Ní Chuilín, Mr O’Dowd, Ms S Ramsey.
Mr Armstrong, Mr Beggs, Mr Bresland, Mr Buchanan, Mr Campbell, Mr T Clarke, Rev Dr Robert Coulter, Mr Cree, Mr Easton, Mr Elliott, Sir Reg Empey, Mrs Foster, Mr Hamilton, Mr Hilditch, Mr Kennedy, Mr McCausland, Mr B McCrea, Mr I McCrea, Mr McFarland, Miss McIlveen, Mr McQuillan, Mr Newton, Mr Paisley Jnr, Mr Poots, Mr G Robinson, Mr P Robinson, Mr Ross, Mr Shannon, Mr Spratt, Mr Storey, Mr Weir.
Tellers for the Ayes: Mr Hamilton and Mr Spratt.
Mr Attwood, Mr D Bradley, Mrs M Bradley, Mr P J Bradley, Mr Burns, Mrs D Kelly, Mr A Maginness, Mr McGlone, Mr O’Loan.
Dr Farry, Mr Ford, Ms Lo, Mr McCarthy, Mr Neeson, Mr B Wilson.
Tellers for the Noes: Mr Burns and Mr O’Loan.
Total votes 65 Total Ayes 50 [76.9%]
Nationalist Votes 28 Nationalist Ayes 19 [67.9%]
Unionist Votes 31 Unionist Ayes 31 [100.0%]
Other Votes 6 Other Ayes 0 [0.0%]
Question accordingly agreed to.
Resolved (with cross-community support):
That the Second Stage of the Budget (No. 2) Bill (NIA 18/07) be agreed.
Mr Deputy Speaker: That concludes the Second Stage of the Budget (No. 2) Bill.
The Minister for Social Development (Ms Ritchie): I beg to move
That the Mesothelioma, etc., Bill [NIA 16/07] do now pass.
Diffuse mesothelioma is a terrible illness. It has a long latency and is rapidly progressive, and, invariably, fatal, with death normally occurring within nine months of diagnosis. The Bill provides for a compassionate upfront lump-sum payment to people who have been diagnosed with diffuse mesothelioma, or, if the sufferers have passed on, to their dependants. It will ensure faster compensation for people with mesothelioma, without the need to establish an occupational or causal link.
The Bill will, crucially, help people who face difficulty in securing civil compensation, such as family members who were exposed to asbestos fibres from their partners’ or fathers’ work clothes and people who cannot determine an obvious source of exposure. The Bill will provide significant financial assistance to such people in the final months of their lives.
Under the new scheme, the intention is that payments will be available from October 2008, and persons with diffuse mesothelioma should receive a substantial payment within weeks of making a claim. Over time, the Department’s aim is to increase the compensation available, and any money recouped from subsequent civil compensation will be ploughed back into the scheme to provide even greater help to future sufferers. During Consideration Stage, Members sought clarification on several issues, on which I provided reassurances, and I will ensure that officials expedite payments as quickly as possible. The only test is the simple diagnosis conducted by a claimant’s general practitioner.
I thank the outgoing Chairperson, the deputy Chairperson and the Committee for Social Development. Furthermore, I thank Members for their support during the progress of this important and compassionate Bill, which I hope will provide some comfort to people during their final days.
Mr Brady: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Sinn Féin supports the Bill, and, moreover, we supported accelerated passage. In the Minister’s eagerness to attack Sinn Féin during an earlier debate, she gave the impression that Sinn Féin voted against the Child Maintenance Bill. However, we voted against accelerated passage for reasons that we considered acceptable. Unlike the Minister — who seems to want to rubber-stamp everything in her sphere of influence — Sinn Féin will continue to consider each piece of legislation on its merit. Go raibh maith agat.
Mr Deputy Speaker: Does the Minister want to make any further comments?
The Minister for Social Development: Although Mr Brady’s barbed comments are totally unreasonable, I nonetheless thank him for his contribution. The Mesothelioma, etc., Bill is a compassionate piece of legislation that will affect a small group of people who suffer from a terrible illness through no fault of their own.
Mr Neeson: I want to place on record my deep gratitude to the Minister and the Department for introducing the legislation — it is long overdue. As I said during Consideration Stage, the Justice for Asbestos Victims considers today a special day.
Some Members: Hear, hear.
The Minister for Social Development: I thank Mr Neeson for his helpful comments; that is the interpretation that I have received from the wider community. People are keen for the Assembly to enact the Bill as quickly as possible in order to bring comfort to sufferers during their final days.
I recognise that no amount of money can adequately compensate for a person’s life. However, lump-sum payments will be available within weeks of making a claim, and I hope that that measure will comfort sufferers and their dependants. I am grateful to the Committee for Social Development and to Members for their positive contributions during the Bill’s progress. The Bill has enjoyed considerable consensus across the Assembly — despite some barbed comments.
If Sinn Féin took its seats at Westminster and abandoned its mischief-making and policy of abstentionism, it could discuss parity legislation at Westminster line-by-line either on the Floor of the House or during Committee Stage — that is how parties can have real influence on parity legislation.
In conclusion, this is a progressive —
Mr F McCann: Will the Member give way?
The Minister for Social Development: No. I have only a few minutes left, and I want to deal with this compassionate piece of legislation, which, I note, the Member’s party supported.
This is a progressive and compassionate Bill —
Mr F McCann: On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. The Minister is giving the impression, having listened to what Mickey Brady said, that Sinn Féin did nothing other than support the Bill when it was discussed by the Committee for Social Development. She must clarify her position.
Mr Deputy Speaker: That is not a point of order.
The Minister for Social Development: That was not a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. It was simply a self-justification for the position that Sinn Féin took on the Child Maintenance Bill. That party said that it had points to make about an equality impact assessment; however, it did not make them when it should have.
The Mesothelioma, etc., Bill is a progressive and compassionate piece of legislation that will help people when they are most in need of it. I am pleased to commend the Bill to the Assembly. All Members look forward to helping people who are in great distress and who are suffering from this terrible illness.
Question put and agreed to.
That the Second Stage of the Mesothelioma, etc., Bill (NIA 16/07) be agreed.
First Report on Training for Success
Mr Deputy Speaker: The Business Committee has agreed to allow up to one hour and 30 minutes for this debate. The proposer of the motion will have 10 minutes to propose and 10 minutes to make a winding-up speech. All other Members who wish to speak will have five minutes.
The Chairperson of the Committee for Employment and Learning (Ms S Ramsey): I beg to move
That this Assembly approves the first report of the Committee for Employment and Learning on Training for Success (34/07/08R); and calls on the Minister for Employment and Learning to incorporate the report’s recommendations into his Department’s ongoing review of Training for Success.
Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I wish to begin by thanking all those involved in producing the report, including the Committee Clerk and Committee staff. The Committee heard extensive oral evidence, so I thank all the witnesses from the many private, public, community and trades union sectors who appeared before the Committee. I particularly thank the representatives of the sector skills councils, who provided such a valuable insight to the Committee, not only on Training for Success but on a wider sectoral level.
Those sessions proved to be an excellent opportunity to inform Members about broader training issues in various industries, and the Committee will continue that work. I thank Hansard and Assembly Research, which provided a valuable service to the Committee, as well as the departmental officials who participated fully in the Committee’s review, and who, I hope, found the work valuable to them and their programme managers.
Although Training for Success will need time to bed down and become established — given the Public Accounts Committee’s criticisms of the Department’s Jobskills programme — the Committee decided to prioritise early scrutiny of Training for Success in its work programme to ensure that lessons learned would be taken into account in the design and operation of the new programme.
By way of a brief introduction, I should explain that Training for Success is divided into two main strands. The first is the job-ready strand, which has four separate components aimed at delivering services for young trainees. The second is the apprenticeship strand, which delivers level-2 and level-3 apprenticeships. The Committee was pleased to learn early on that the Department was conducting its own work aimed at continually adjusting and improving the programme. The motion calls on the Minister for Employment and Learning to incorporate its recommendations into the Department’s work.
The Committee considers the Department’s monitoring, in conjunction with the collaborative approach with the Committee, to be the best method of ensuring that only the highest standard of training is delivered to apprentices and trainees in technical training. I know that the Minister will tell the House about the steps that the Department has taken to address some of those issues.
The Committee makes recommendations in nearly 25 areas of concern. I do not have the time to go into all of them, but I am sure that other Committee members will do so. I wish to focus on a few key areas only. I will begin on a positive note by commending the Department for its hard work in restructuring professional training within a tight timescale.
In aiming to provide a training framework for an extremely wide range of needs and abilities, the programme is, by necessity, highly complex. However, it is clear that the speed of implementation of that highly complex programme will lead to problems and to issues developing. That is why the review is so important.
I stress that when the Committee set out to conduct the review, it did not wish to become overly focused on procurement and contracting issues. Rather, it wanted to concentrate on the policy and operational aspects of Training for Success. However, that proved to be very difficult.
As soon as the Committee began to take evidence, many stakeholders raised important concerns about procurement and contracting. Those concerns were voiced throughout the review. The Committee was conscious that it did not wish to step on other Departments’ territories, particularly those of the Department of Finance and Personnel, bearing in mind the important role that its Central Procurement Directorate plays. However, given the level of concern, it would have been remiss of the Committee not to have drawn attention to several issues that relate to procurement and contract management.
I will mention briefly several areas in which the Committee considered that improvements could be made. In the roll-out of the programme, there was early evidence that suppliers were facing capacity problems. Therefore, the Committee questioned whether the initial procurement selection process was sufficiently rigorous to ensure that the bidding suppliers had the necessary capacity and capabilities to deliver, particularly in cases where bidders were claiming an important relationship with a third party or sub-contractor.
The ultimate contract failure of Carter and Carter Group Plc exercised the Committee greatly with respect to that issue. Carter and Carter Group had won the contract to deliver automotive training. However, had there been a more rigorous assessment at the procurement stage, the Committee considers that the weakness in the company’s capacity to deliver could have been identified.
As that company’s contract progressed, it became clear to the Committee that significant problems had emerged. The Committee was surprised that the Department had not intervened earlier to assess whether there had been a breach of contract. The Committee was disappointed with the time that was taken to intervene, given that members were impressed with the new quality mechanisms that the Department had put in place in all its programmes.
The Committee considers that the Department, working in conjunction with the Education and Training Inspectorate and the Learning and Skills Development Agency, offers a sound basis for general quality monitoring and improvement. However, the Committee was concerned that the framework for the inspection of new contract providers at the early risk-management stage was not entirely clear.
The Committee’s report, therefore, calls for assurances that an appropriate programme of inspection will take place where there is concern about delivery. In particular, the roles of the Education and Training Inspectorate and the Department’s inspection and monitoring mechanism must be identified clearly. Linked to that, the Committee calls on the Department to challenge suppliers at an early stage — if it believes there to be a problem — in order to assess whether there has been a breach of contract.
Moving on to the programme’s take-up, or occupancy, the Committee considered Training for Success in the context of the ambitious plan for economic growth that is presented in the Programme for Government. It is fair to say that the Committee has concerns that the current level of occupancy in Training for Success is slightly fewer than 5,900 young people, and the outlook for the programme meeting its target of 10,000 apprenticeships by 2010 does not look promising.
The Department has stated that it is content with the situation and that that is only to be expected of a new programme. The Committee is concerned that there are worrying messages in the top-line figure. In particular, only 7% of those in apprenticeships are at level 3, with 93% at level 2.
The Committee concurs with the key sectoral evidence that, although level 2 apprenticeships work well and are appropriate for sectors such as food, drink and hospitality, they are not appropriate for sectors that are expected to add higher gross value to the economy, such as manufacturing and technology.
Given the drive for direct foreign investment in engineering and manufacturing, the Committee was alarmed to learn that only 16 apprenticeships have been registered in that sector. Although a wide range of factors will influence take-up of Training for Success in the early stages, the Committee is concerned that some sectors, such as retail and leisure, reported a lack of basic information at the programme’s outset. The Committee considers that the time frame for implementation of Training for Success worked against marketing and promotional activity in advance of its initiation.
The Committee also remains unconvinced that sufficient dialogue has taken place with key local employers. The Committee appreciates that the programme is resource-intensive, but considers it essential that the Department address the apparent low level of occupancy through a comprehensive programme of employer engagement.
In a number of debates in the Assembly, concern has been registered about the general dearth of apprenticeships in certain trades and geographic areas. The Committee believes that the general perception of apprenticeships is not conducive to achieving economic growth targets and that there is a need for value to be returned to apprenticeships. However, the Committee also recognises that this is not, and cannot, be an issue for DEL to deal with on its own.
The Committee’s report calls for early and consistent messages — aimed at enhancing the perception of apprenticeship training as equal in quality to a more academic route — to be delivered to young persons throughout their schooling. The new joint DEL and Department of Education career strategy is a suitable vehicle for the promotion of training apprenticeships as a quality career path.
The Department reports a 12% decrease in the number of trainees in Job-Ready, compared to similar strands in Jobskills. I am aware that I am approaching my time limit, so I will move on.
The Committee views the potential for the exploitation of young people — through low wages and allowances paid to trainees and apprenticeships — as one of the most damning criticisms of the Jobskills programme. Training for Success goes a long way towards eradicating that potential problem, but the Committee is concerned by the evidence that some apprenticeships are still poorly paid. Our report calls on the Department to examine the model of apprenticeship payment in England, in which suppliers are contracted to pay apprentices at least £80 per week. I understand that the Minister will take up that point.
I would like to raise other issues, but I have a 10-minute limit and other Committee members will want to contribute to the debate. Go raibh maith agat.
Mr B McCrea: I should be happy to take interventions from the Chairperson of the Committee if she wants to finish her speech.
Modern economies cannot, and should not, be managed by Government. Rather, Government must seek to facilitate a match between the needs of individuals and the needs of business. Individuals must develop the skills necessary to develop business. Businesses and locations must be attractive places in which to work and live. We need a dynamic, innovative training and apprenticeship programme that brings individuals and businesses together for mutual benefit.
Unfortunately, that did not happen effectively enough under the Department’s Jobskills programme. The Minister and his direct rule predecessors were right to replace Jobskills with Training for Success. Indeed, as my colleagues have already said, the Department should be commended for its hard work and the speed with which it achieved the restructuring. However, the Minister is correct to keep Training for Success under review. I hope that the Committee’s report will aid that review.
It is most important to make Training for Success attractive to trainees. Certain operational aspects of Training for Success can be improved. As the Chairperson of the Committee mentioned, one of the major criticisms of Jobskills was the potential for trainees and apprentices to be financially exploited by employers. Training for Success goes a long way to improving that situation. However, I am not convinced that it completely removes the potential for exploitation.
We therefore recommend that the Department examine the possibility of introducing and enforcing a minimum rate of pay for apprentices, similar to the system that is currently operational in England. To attract people into that scheme, we must make it a financially attractive option. There is a disparity between allowances for young people in education and those for people in unwaged training. I hope the Minister will specifically address that anomaly.
Young people in education are means-tested and are currently paid educational maintenance allowances of £10, £20 or £30 per week plus three £100 bonuses, dependent on household income and a minimum attendance of 15 hours per week. Young people in the Job-Ready strand of Training for Success, for a minimum of 35 hours per week, receive a non-means-tested training allowance of £40 per week.
The significant problem is that that training allowance is taken into consideration when assessing entitlement to means-tested benefits. Potentially, that has the undesired effect of putting off people from the most deprived areas — arguably those people who would benefit most from taking up apprenticeships. I have been told of a case in my own constituency where that anomaly has produced not only hardship, but frustration.
I understand that the Department and the Minister have been making considerable progress toward the introduction of non-means-tested educational maintenance allowances that would not impact on young persons’ means-tested benefits. The Committee and I would welcome that, and we consider that moving to educational maintenance allowances would bring about a fairer, more inclusive and, ultimately, more successful system.
Many young people who enter into those schemes have not had the best experience of school and, at the moment, the Job-Ready strand tends to mean a front-loaded system that is based on a considerable amount of time in the classroom. We need to try to achieve a more balanced approach between the classroom and the vocational elements. That would make the schemes more attractive to people.
The business community must see the potential of Training for Success, but not everyone is aware of what is possible. I urge the Minister to introduce an effective marketing and promotional campaign.
I believe that we have a Minister who is fully aware of the contemporary needs of modern business — both indigenous and international — and who has a desire to achieve the best for young trainees. I am confident that he will give due consideration to the report and that he is already working on ways to improve Training for Success. I look forward to his reply. I support the motion.
Mr Newton: I welcome the report and I thank the Committee Chairperson, Ms Ramsey, for her diligence in proposing the motion. I thank the Deputy Chairperson, my colleague the Member for South Belfast Jimmy Spratt, and I thank the Committee Clerk and his team for the excellent work that they have done on the report.
In the short time that is available, I would like to stress three points. First, the background to the Training for Success; secondly, the role — as I perceive it — of the Department and of industry in taking the report forward; and, thirdly, how to build on the report.
We all know that the Training for Success initiative became necessary following the report of the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) at Westminster on its predecessor programme, Jobskills. The Public Accounts Committee made a number of damning indictments in that report. That report states:
“one of the most damning aspects of the Department’s handling of the programme was the extent to which a number of fundamental weaknesses — such as poor quality training and high levels of early leaving from the scheme — persisted over many years.”
The PAC report states that, since there was a:
“substantial ‘skills mismatch’ between Jobskills and the needs of the Northern Ireland economy, we can only conclude that, in far too many respects, Jobskills has provided poor value for money.”
I wish to pay tribute to the senior management team of DEL who listened to what was said by the Committee and by industry. Although Training for Success has not yet achieved all its potential, we are certainly a long way away from we were with Jobskills.
The Minister has agreed that his strategy for the Department’s role in delivery is to meet the needs of the economy and society — it is a demand-led strategy.
The Committee, in compiling the report, visited the further-education provision in Omagh. It is an excellent site, and the Department should be proud of that facility. There were two aspects of the visit that I and other members of the Committee found revealing. First, the college produces students well qualified in hairdressing and beauty therapy. They are highly motivated young people who, at the end of their term, could not find a job to utilise the skills and qualifications that they had achieved. Secondly, automotive students who had gone through the vocational education strand of the programme were unable to complete their apprenticeships, as the college was unable to find the necessary workshop experience for them. That is very disheartening for a young person.
The approach to determine the demand-led strategy is complex and multilayered. It involves: the skills expert group; workforce development forums, based in the six regional FE colleges; the sector skills councils — 25 skills councils each with a sector skills agreement agreed by DEL, Invest NI and industry; sector training councils with specific initiatives; and training and education providers delivering the strategy.
That strategic approach is complex, and it leads me to believe that the situation in Omagh may well be repeated in other areas. We have got to get to grips with that. The problems facing the automotive and construction sector seem to me to be created — not in totality, but in part — as a result of this multilayered approach to the delivery of the strategy.
In building on the report —which is a very positive one — I am conscious that Northern Ireland once had a vocational training system that was the envy of Europe. That included Government training centres and a training grant/levy system.
If implemented by DEL, the report will take the vocational training of our apprenticeships forward. We must reach for the sky as regards training and ensure that excellence in training is our benchmark. That requires us to think about centres of vocational training excellence that will provide a steady flow of young, qualified people — motivated and skilled — who will be able to apply for a career-type job in industry. We need prestigious centres, and one section of the report deals with how Scotland has approached that.
Only the best should be good enough for our young people, and only the best will meet the needs of the economy. I support the report.
Mr Attwood: I acknowledge the work of the Chairperson, the Deputy Chairperson and the Committee members, as on this issue — and that of the ongoing issue of Stranmillis, St Mary’s and Queen’s University — the Committee is punching at its weight. That is very important in a young democracy like this one. However, more than anything else, I want to acknowledge the staff involved in producing this report. Staff in any Parliament who produce a report such as this demonstrate that they can manage evidence, write reports and gather witnesses in a way that empowers the Assembly to do its business.
I make that point because, elsewhere in this Building, senior management and the Assembly Commission have taken decisions that damage capacity and prejudice the interests of this Assembly to do the business that this Committee has done over recent months, in this report. By decisions taken elsewhere in the Building we have hurt staff and the interests of this Assembly for Committee after Committee to do this sort of work in the future. I want to put that on record.
I acknowledge that the Minister has already announced a review and stated in the Chamber some months ago that if there were issues around Training for Success that did not work, he would not wait but would have them fixed. That is a very important statement for the Minister to make, and this Assembly and the Committee should ensure that he lives up to it.
Representatives from many sector skills councils and other organisations gave evidence to the Committee that Training for Success is more fit for purpose than previous training programmes. Although I want to address broader themes, my remarks should be understood in that context.
Procurement is the first of several areas that I want to discuss. I want to ask the Minister two questions. First, does the Department not now acknowledge that when Carter and Carter Group plc submitted the tender and was awarded a Training for Success contract, it gave commitments that it had on board subcontractors, but that that was not the case, that it was a breach of the procurement process, and that the contract should have been cancelled at that time? Secondly, if in January 2008 the inspectorate discovered that there were serious flaws in Carter and Carter’s management of the contract, why did the Department fail to pick up on the same issues in the previous month? If we do not deal with the issues involving procurement policy and the inspection of those who have contracts, I worry that the same mistakes will be made in the future.
Given what Mr Basil McCrea and the Chairperson of the Committee said, it is clear that an announcement will be made on the payment of wages to those who are in training. If there were such an announcement, I would welcome it. However, I do not welcome what paragraph 1482 of the oral evidence reports officials as having said to the Committee:
“We do not monitor what employers pay”.
We are then told in paragraph 1484 of the report that:
“In order to monitor wages, we would have to increase bureaucracy at a time when resources are stretched.”
That is not satisfactory. It is not good enough that our young people, aged from 18 to 25 and in training, are told that what they are paid is not monitored. In view of all the civil servants that we have, it is not good enough to be told that bureaucracy would have to be increased in order to carry out such monitoring.
The Chairperson of the Committee referred to another issue. On 10 April 2008, there were fewer than 6,000 people in training. How can we meet the target of having 10,000 trainees in less than two years from now? That would be an increase of 40% in a very short time. I ask the Minister to confirm whether he thinks that that target is feasible. Given that we are trying to make Northern Ireland more attractive for business and have many good reasons to do so, is it good enough that only 7% of apprentices receive level 3 training? If that training is for higher skills — and we are not training enough people in those skills — how will we remain fit and open for business?
Ms Lo: As other Members have done, I thank the Committee staff and all those who gave evidence to the review. I will address mainly level 2 and level 3 apprentice training.
In view of the numbers that are currently in training, I share the concern of Committee members and others that the Department’s target of training 10,000 apprentices by 2010 is unlikely to be met. Moreover, I am concerned that insufficient numbers of well-qualified young people opt for the programme as a viable alternative to school or full-time further education. Of the 3,000 apprenticeships, 93% are at level 2, and, as Mr Attwood said, only 7% are at level 3.
Level 2 apprenticeship courses are pitched below GCSE level — normally taken by school-age pupils — but at specific occupational areas. Level 3 is equivalent to the point that it is hoped that young people will reach when they leave school with five GCSEs at grades A* to C. Representatives of several key sectors have informed the Committee for Employment and Learning that level 3 is the basic requirement for sectors such as engineering and utilities. We must ensure that trainees receive training that is aligned to the current and projected needs of local businesses and that only the required number of level 2 apprentices are trained.
I also support the Committee’s recommendation that the Department remove apprenticeships from Training for Success. The report also recommends that apprenticeships be developed and promoted as distinct, high-value and high-quality programmes. At an evidence session on 23 April — the last session before the Committee report was finalised — departmental officials confirmed that the apprenticeship programme will be separated from Training for Success to become a flagship programme that will be on a par with A levels and other full-time professional and technical programmes that colleges provide. I welcome that.
The proposed new apprenticeship programme will link up with the provision that the Department is developing for people in work. If we move that service away from Training for Success and into a separate programme, what facility will be available for the young people who have completed the Job Ready strand of Training for Success? Where will they go?
The Department should also consider the report’s recommendation that adult and part-time apprenticeships be included in the changes. More flexibility is required in respect of the current programme minimum of 35 hours. Perhaps the opportunity to start an apprenticeship could be opened up to older people, or part-time apprenticeships might become available for women in the catering industry, for instance, or any other sector that is attractive to them.
We must also examine the report’s recommendations on the involvement of public-sector and community-sector organisations, particularly in rural areas.
Mr Ross: I welcome the opportunity to speak about the Committee for Employment and Learning’s first report on Training for Success. In common with other Members, I commend the Committee staff for the work that they put into compiling the report.
In many ways, it is too early to give a full assessment of the scheme’s success to date, although continued monitoring and early feedback is essential to ensuring that the mistakes made in Jobskills are not repeated with Training for Success. That is why it was so important that the Committee for Employment and Learning was able to scrutinise the programme early on and identify potential difficulties.
The Department has been conducting its own work on adjusting and improving the programme, and that is welcome. The Committee will play its role in helping the Department do that. As mentioned in the report and by Members who have already spoken, Jobskills was the subject of significant criticism by the Northern Ireland Audit Office (NIAO) and the Public Accounts Committee. Concerns over the quality of the training, the low progression and retention rates, the exploitation of young workers and the low net employment impact were highlighted. Training for Success is a valuable programme and, throughout the course of the evidence sessions, we heard about some of the difficulties in the scheme.
The Department should be commended for the approach that it has taken and the structural changes that it has so far made.
The single greatest failing is in the procurement procedure. That was not an area that we were initially considering, but, as evidence sessions continued, it became a recurring theme throughout the year. The Carter and Carter Group episode exposed the apparent weakness or flaws in the procurement process, and the oral agreements that were relied on were not satisfactory. Stringent new measures must be put in place to ensure that agreements and bids are much more robust. I welcome the report’s recommendation that formal written documentation must support any bids.
Apprenticeships are an important part of vocational training, a view that is supported by all sides of the House. Unfortunately, over the years, some young apprentices have been exploited as cheap labour. The Chairperson indicated that the legacy of the Jobskills programme was the exploitation of young labour.
There may still not be enough opportunities for apprentices; that is an area on which more focus is needed. The current apprenticeship occupancy levels mean that there is a risk that the Department may miss its target of 10,000 by 2010.
It would be a positive step to see all-age apprenticeships, proper wages and assistance for those who travel significant distances, whether in the form of an allowance worked into the scheme or some other measures.
Apprentices are hugely important, and the whole area should be given more of a push and promoted as a valuable opportunity for young people. It is important that the Department works with employers to create more level-3 apprenticeships, particularly in engineering and manufacturing technologies, to which the Chairperson also referred.
Vulnerable people must not miss out on career opportunities, and the Chairperson mentioned the Include Youth group, which made a powerful presentation to the Committee. Statistics and evidence suggest that young people in care are particularly vulnerable, less likely to attain academic qualifications and more likely to get into trouble with the law. Therefore, it is important that they do not miss out. Special attention is needed to prevent them from falling through the net.
It is important that young people with disabilities receive support and a tailored approach to learning and to employment, in order to ensure that they are given the same life opportunities as everyone else. I welcome the establishment of a disability subgroup for Training for Success.
In addition to all-age apprenticeships, the Committee considered the possibility of part-time apprentices, which would go some way towards helping those who cannot commit to a full-time apprenticeship. In particular, we considered mothers and young women. That group should be kept in mind.
We were told by several people that young people are not comfortable about classroom-based learning. Learning in that type of environment has turned many of them away from academic education. We must ensure that training is more relevant to them and less like being back in school. That is one way to attract more people into training. It is important that young people receive on-the-job training, which is one of the themes that emerged. Classroom training is important, but there must be a balance to ensure that people regard their training as relevant. I support the motion.
Mrs McGill: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Like other Members, I commend the Committee and its staff for producing a substantial report.
First, I want to address something that the Chairperson said and that is worth repeating, because the theme must underpin everything that is done in the Department for Employment and Learning and in the Department of Education. The report calls for early and consistent messages to be delivered to young people throughout their schooling in order to enhance the perception that apprenticeship training is a path equal in quality to a more academic route. That is fundamental and underpins everything that we do as elected Members and as members of society.
We want to introduce recommendations and legislation that will enhance life for young people. A couple of weeks ago, the Assembly had a debate during which several Members referred to the kind of society that we want to have, and all the report’s recommendations are key to achieving that society.
The report contains 25 recommendations, one of which relates to wages. That issue must be tackled, and the educational maintenance allowance should go some way towards doing that. Many people may not know that there is no enforcement of the minimum wage until a person reaches 19 years of age. That gap must be dealt with.
The disability subgroup will report at the end of June; and the Committee did have an evidence session with a disability group. It will be important that Members take account of the subgroup’s report.
I come from a rural constituency — West Tyrone — and I believe that the report’s recommendation on travel must also be taken into account. For example, I know two young people who wanted to be apprentices but faced practical difficulties with travelling from home to the bus stop and then on to Omagh. Furthermore, no funding was provided for that travel, or, at least, the funding available did not cover the costs. Therefore, there is an anomaly in that. As I understand it, the Job-Ready strand is funded, but the apprenticeship strand is not.
There is an onus on whoever is responsible — whether it is employers, parents, training organisations or further education colleges, for example — to fund travel. It relates to the issue of equality that I mentioned earlier, and I very much hope that all those matters will be addressed when the Minister and the Department see the report.
Linked to that issue is local provision. The Committee had an evidence session with representatives of ANIC (Association of Northern Ireland Colleges), including the director of the North West Regional College, Mr Murphy. I was amazed when I asked him about electrical training in the north-west, because he told me — and I hope that I have got my figures right — that there is one cohort of electrical trainees in Limavady and that, in the geographical spread between Coleraine and Castlederg, there is a total of 10 electrical trainees. I was unsure about whether the young people in those areas, and in my area of West Tyrone, are not interested in doing electrical training or whether that training is not available in their areas.
Provision for travel costs must be put in place, and the Department must ensure that training is provided in local areas, because that is another equality issue. According to the Committee report, nearly 6,000 young persons are registered under Training for Success, and the target of having 10,000 apprentices by 2010 is unlikely to be met. All the issues that I have mentioned — travel, local provision and equality — are important, and I commend the report to the Assembly. Go raibh maith agat.
Mr Cree: I support the motion. The Committee has worked constructively to produce the report, and I thank my colleagues for their work. Equally, to date, the Committee has had a good relationship with the Department and the Minister, and I hope that the report will add to the Department’s efforts to improve apprenticeships and Training for Success.
In September 2007, Training for Success replaced the much-maligned Jobskills programme as the Department’s primary professional and technical training programme. As my colleague has already stated, the Committee commends the Department for its hard work in restructuring professional and technical training, and it should also be commended for meeting demanding deadlines to ensure the timely introduction of Training for Success.
In recognising the speed with which the changes have been introduced and the complexity of the programme, the Committee hopes that the Department continually reviews Training for Success and its constituent parts and that, in the process of conducting those reviews, the Minister considers the recommendations in the Committee’s report.
I have time to focus only on some issues in the report. The Committee felt that information, occupancy data and intelligence about trainees and business were fundamental to Training for Success and that it is crucial that we assess its performance against a macro-economic environment to ensure that the economy and businesses are facilitated. That is at the heart of the Programme for Government, and it is a goal to which the Minister is committed.
The Committee considers personal training plans a positive step; however, we are concerned that some course suppliers are not completing them on time. Therefore, we recommend that the Department ensures that all trainees have completed a personal training plan by the end of their second month on the Training for Success programme and that IT systems be improved.
Equally, we are concerned that the number of trainees in the higher levels of apprenticeships has reduced at a time when we are trying to create jobs and wealth through foreign direct investment and indigenous business growth. Although the downturn in the economy largely explains the reduction, it cannot be put down to one single factor, and the Committee believes that Training for Success would benefit from the introduction of a specific promotional and marketing measure, including direct employer engagement, to ensure that participation is maximised and geared to the precise requirements of key business sectors. Linked to that is a concern that there is a concentration of level 2 apprenticeships, and the Committee recommends that the Department review the criteria that are used to allocate people to level 2 and level 3 apprenticeships so that they are robust and reflect an apprentice’s ability.
The Minister is committed to delivering a training and apprenticeship scheme that facilitates a modern economy and which will benefit those who pass through the programme, and I look forward to his response on the issues that have been raised.
The Committee heard a great deal of evidence about the lack of provision in the programme for those over the age of 25, particularly in non-traditional sectors, such as retail, hospitality and leisure. Only full-time courses are available, which may suit some applicants but not others. The Ulster Unionist Party believes strongly that all people should have an equal opportunity to benefit from training and professional programmes, lifelong learning, upskilling and reskilling. The ability of adults to retrain and refocus is becoming crucial in modern flexible economies and provides for more individual freedom and choice. Therefore, I was extremely pleased when the Minister recently announced that, from September, all apprenticeships will be available to people of all ages who are in employment.
In Northern Ireland, we are all too aware of what can happen when people do not have economic and social opportunities. Some, especially the young, can become disillusioned and vulnerable and drift into activities and lifestyles that, ideally, they would not choose. Therefore, it is vital that the programme is a success. To ensure that it is, we must get right the small details that facilitate individuals, and we must also fit that into a macro-economic picture so that our economy can continue to grow.
Mr Butler: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I thank the Committee, the Committee Clerk, the Assistant Committee Clerk and the rest of the Committee staff for compiling the report. It is important that the report’s findings be taken on board by the Department and the Minister.
All Members should recognise that the report focuses on only one aspect of Jobskills and the criticisms that accompanied it, and its successor — the Training for Success programme.
It should be recognised that many courses in the further education sector have been successful. Thousands of people have completed NVQs and Higher National Certificates and have entered employment and provided local businesses with the necessary skills to deliver the economy that we need.
That said, Training for Success and, to some extent, Jobskills focused on training people in vocational, professional and technical subjects. The scheme has been criticised because it was felt that vocational subjects and a vocational pathway were not as attractive for many young people as going to university.
Some positive aspects of Training for Success have not been touched on. For example, in the energy utility sector, the NIE, Training for Success and employers had a good partnership. The drinks and food sector also enjoyed a good working relationship with the further education sector and employers in delivering level 2 courses. Such examples should be taken on board.
There were concerns about Jobskills, which was heavily criticised in two reports. I know some people who gained from the Jobskills scheme; nonetheless, the main thrust of the NIAO (Northern Ireland Audit Office) and PAC reports was about the quality of the training that was provided and the low net employment impact. There was a view that people were not getting paid for what they were doing.
The evidence that the Committee gathered on Training for Success was about procurement and the capacity of some companies to deliver some of the programmes. The Chairperson of the Committee referred to Carter and Carter Group plc, and there may be other bodies. Although that was the main focus, the Committee recognised that Training for Success was doing much good work.
I hope that the Minister will act on the recommendations in the report. In order to avoid the criticisms that were levelled at the Jobskills programme — which are difficult to recover from — it is important that schemes be monitored from an early stage. That issue should be borne in mind for Training for Success.
When the Committee was gathering evidence, some stakeholders criticised aspects of Training for Success, and those have already been touched on. There was a particular problem with the construction and automotive industries, which needs to be addressed. As I said, procurement and the capacity of some companies to deliver certain courses was an issue. Furthermore, the take-up, or occupancy as it is called, of some of the courses was also called into question. The report contains good recommendations on such issues.
My colleague Claire McGill said that travel issues were a barrier to people taking up courses. A travel allowance is paid to people who are in employment but not to those who are on a training course. That issue also needs to be addressed. Too many young people who were on the course did not have personal training plans drawn up by their employers.
The Minister for Employment and Learning (Sir Reg Empey): I will try to cover as many issues as I can; however, there were many interventions, and I cannot guarantee that I will cover everything. I will ask my officials to follow up as best they can on anything that I miss.
I welcome today’s motion, the involvement of the Committee for Employment and Learning in monitoring and scrutinising Training for Success and the publication of its first report.
During the past few months, the Department has demonstrated considerable responsiveness to the Committee and to all stakeholders in Training for Success.
I thank the Committee for recognising in its report the Department’s hard work in restructuring the new professional and technical training provision.
It has been a considerable journey, and we must always remember the context for the change, to which reference has been made; namely, ‘Jobskills’, the tenth report of the Westminster Public Accounts Committee from 2005-06. The Department has developed a close and successful working relationship with the Committee in accepting its first recommendation to continue the ongoing review of Training for Success. I hope that that relationship continues.
The Committee has substantially influenced the Department’s thinking on how the present provision can be improved. The 25 key conclusions and recommendations in the first report are in line with the Department’s actions after its initial review of the provision.
My Department and I are wholly committed to apprenticeships and employment training. It is one of the main vehicles through which we can support business, industry, employers and the Northern Ireland economy. Each year, training helps large numbers of young people to move from education into the world of work. The introduction of Training for Success last year was an undeniable, and necessary, improvement on the former Jobskills provision. The Department received feedback that, under Training for Success, the needs of trainees and apprentices are being better served; that employers are happy with the quality of training; and that individual sectors are better able to contribute to the provision while addressing their specific needs.
A fortnight ago, I received that feedback directly when I presented the apprentice of the year award 2008. I saw, at first hand, the quality of apprentices and the commitment of employers. Not only that, but I was able to see the pride that both apprentices and employers took — the first in their work, the latter in their protégés. Obviously, something is being done right. However, it is still not perfect, and I accept that. Any new provision, especially one that is introduced with such restrictive time frames, will inevitably require modifications and changes, which will be introduced once they have been identified after the initial roll-out. We should not be afraid to make those changes.
I also accept that, although apprenticeships are much less of a problem child, problems must be resolved for those young people who experience barriers to employment or who have not yet gained the necessary training and qualifications to help them get work.
It is for that reason that the Department has decided to separate apprenticeships from Training for Success. In doing that, we can focus on the two strands and clearly identify how we will improve our service. That is in line with the Committee’s recommendation. From September, apprenticeships will be separately branded as a high-quality flagship provision under the title of Apprenticeships NI/Training for Success. It will exclusively represent the former Job-Ready strand, and will continue to provide young people with the training that they require to find employment or to progress to further training.
Although time does permit me to deal with all the recommendations in the Committee’s report individually, I want to comment on a few of the more significant recommendations, as well as on any progress that the Department has made on those.
The Committee has recommended that the Department examine the age restrictions for apprenticeships. I was delighted to announce at the apprentice of the year awards that, from September onwards, apprenticeships will be available to people of all ages who are in employment.
Officials are already examining the possibility of reducing the current 35-hour-week work requirement to establish whether apprenticeships for part-time workers can be accommodated in the present Budget limitations.
It is clear that employers have a vital role to play in encouraging and facilitating apprenticeships, but it has also become clear that many employers are not aware of the benefits to them or of how to engage with the process. For that reason, I welcome the Committee’s recommendation for an employer-focused marketing campaign. I confirm that officials are preparing to roll out such a campaign in the early part of the summer.
That work will also tie in with the higher level of direct engagement with sector skills councils and employers as part of the total development of apprenticeships under the Apprenticeships NI initiative.
Although the Committee has recommended that the Careers Service NI places apprenticeship promotion at the centre of its new strategy, we must be careful. Careers advisers provide independent and objective advice, which is designed to meet the needs of the individual.
It is obvious that they cannot promote apprenticeships at the expense of objective advice, which is in the interest of individuals. However, I assure Members that careers advisers will promote apprenticeship and Training for Success provision and information to individuals where it is identified as being suitable.
I am also conscious that wage levels have been an issue for apprentices, especially in light of the criticism in the original Public Accounts Committee report. I have already asked my officials to begin work on that issue, to which Alex Attwood and others referred. The Department is also aware that the Low Pay Commission has commenced a review and consultation process that will include apprentices. The Department will take part in the consultation, and, in doing so, will examine the possibility of introducing a minimum wage for apprentices linked to any funding arrangements for training. However, that is not a straightforward matter, and consensus from stakeholders will be required to guarantee that such a move will not affect the uptake of apprenticeships detrimentally.
With regard to the Committee’s recommendation on front-ended training, I am pleased to say that a revised structure for each of the Job-Ready components has been agreed following consultation with training suppliers and the sector skills councils. In essence, that will provide the flexibility to reduce the required hours spent in the classroom and will thereby relieve the pressures on the young people and suppliers alike. That will also ensure that all young people on the provision are properly assessed, have a programme of learning and training that matches their individual abilities, and that they will receive employability skills appropriate to their particular needs.
I thank members of the Department’s expert disability group who gave freely of their time to examine how the provision could be improved for that important cohort of participants. The group is due to issue its report before the end of June 2008, and I agree with the Committee’s recommendation that the report should be the first stage in an ongoing process that will ensure that the provision will best meet the needs of young people with a disability.
I am pleased to confirm that the training allowance payable to trainees will be replaced by a non-means-tested educational maintenance allowance from 1 September 2008, as was referred to earlier in the debate. That change is taking place to direct more funding at more vulnerable young people and their families.
The allowance rate of £40 per week will remain the same, but the change to the educational maintenance allowance will mean that young people and their families who are on means-tested benefits will be financially advantaged as the educational maintenance allowance will not be taken into account in the assessment of entitlement to means-tested benefits. The Committee was particularly keen for that to happen. The Department only received confirmation before lunchtime today that it was in a position to make this announcement.
The awarding of contracts was an unexpectedly contentious issue during the Committee’s scrutiny. Working under the advice and guidance of the Department of Finance and Personnel’s Central Procurement Directorate meant that the procurement process that led to the contracts for the delivery of training being awarded was carried out to the letter and with all applicable legislation and regulations. That process applied equally to all organisations that tendered for the work.
Mr Attwood, Mr Butler and the Chairperson of the Committee for Employment and Learning mentioned the Carter and Carter Group plc contract. I am not aware of any breaches of the process in the early stages of that contract. Mr Attwood asked what matters our departmental inspectors did not pick up that were picked up by the Education and Training Inspectorate in January 2008. It must be remembered that that contract only commenced in September 2007. Although the Department for Employment and Learning monitors the contracts, that process had only commenced a few weeks earlier. At an early stage, because of concerns, we decided to ask the Education and Training Inspectorate to look at what was going on. It found shortcomings that were then addressed by the Department.
I remind colleagues that that company was awarded a huge contract by the Department of Work and Pensions in London in December 2007. The fact that the company was in huge difficulties arose only after its founder was killed in an accident. Difficulties arose from that point onwards.
We are strictly confined to the guidance given to us by the Central Procurement Directorate of the Department of Finance and Personnel, and we have followed that guidance rigorously.
People say that we will not meet our targets. However, I am not abandoning those targets at this stage. Changes have been made, and we have removed the age limit. Furthermore, there was a slow take-up. Nevertheless, we can improve on our present performance, and I am not, at this stage, prepared to withdraw from those targets. Obviously, the targets will have to be examined as we progress.
Claire McGill asked about transport. Job-Ready participants are paid travel expenses, less £3, which is their provision. Apprentices are not entitled to travel expenses, although employers are expected to make a contribution as part of a fair-wage agreement. The two groups of people fall into different categories: Job-Ready participants have access to travel allowances and those in apprenticeships do not. However, we hope that that can be incorporated in a fair-wage agreement, and that is how we will approach the matter.
Anna Lo referred to removing the apprenticeships programme from Training for Success, and asked what facility would be available for young people who had completed the Job-Ready strand. The separation is mainly a branding and marketing issue. It is still anticipated that young people on the Job-Ready scheme can, and will, progress into apprenticeships, employment and further training. However, we must market the concept more effectively than we have hitherto, and giving it its own branding should encourage that. It was generally recognised that more had to be done in relation to marketing and branding, and we will roll that out from the end of the month — or certainly into the early summer — in order to attract apprentices for the new season.
Employers have a role to play. An insufficient number of employers recognise their bottom-line potential by having apprenticeships — and I have criticised them in the past for that. I welcome help from every Member to encourage employers to participate in the scheme.
I was struck by a comment from Robin Newton about our young people reaching for the sky while in training. That is the universal view of the Committee and the Department, and we must aim for the best for our young people. We have improved the delivery mechanisms, although they have shortcomings, and we must continue to do better.
I am conscious of the point that Robin Newton made about his visit to Omagh. An all-island skills conference, based in the north-west, will be held later this year. One issue will focus on border areas and labour-market intelligence, and whether we match the needs of the employers in those areas with the trained students who leave the institutions. That issue will be referred to at that conference.
I commend the Committee, my staff, and all those who participated in producing the first report on Training for Success. It is a good document, and I am happy to try and implement as many of its recommendations as possible.
Mr Spratt: I thank all those who took part in this worthwhile debate. It was encouraging to see the extent of interest in Training for Success, not only from members of the Committee but from others who participated. I add my thanks to all the witnesses who appeared before the Committee; in particular, Mr Laurence Downey who, in his previous role with the Sector Skills Council Development Agency, worked with the Committee office to ensure that it received full briefings and evidence from all the key economic sectors.
I thank Hansard, the Assembly’s Research and Library Services and the departmental officials who assisted the Committee at every possible level. Also deserving of mention are the Committee Clerk and his team, who assisted the Committee throughout the inquiry. I am delighted that the Minister is in the Chamber, and I thank him for making such a positive response to the Committee’s report.
The key issues have been discussed, and I do not intend to repeat all of them. I will make a couple of general points on the Committee’s report before commenting on some of the issues that Members raised.
The report should not be viewed as an end in itself but should form the basis for the continual monitoring and improvement of the programme. Such a process will ensure that Training for Success will remain aligned to economic requirements. Tomorrow, the Committee will hear evidence from tourism and hospitality representatives on the sector in general and Training for Success in particular. There will, therefore, be a continuous work programme. The Committee looks forward to working with the Department on ensuring that improvements and adjustments are made to the programme in order to maximise the opportunities for young people and the entire workforce. The Committee wants to develop a format whereby it can work with the Department on Training for Success.
As the Chairperson mentioned, the approach that was adopted by the Committee proved successful in informing members of the wider economic sectoral issues. The compilation of the report was a beneficial exercise that gave members an invaluable insight into the major training and employment issues of the day.
I want to touch on a couple of points that, due to time constraints, the Chairperson was unable to cover during her contribution. A key sectoral criticism to emerge, and one that the Committee endorses, is the lack of sufficient flexibility in the Training for Success programme to facilitate adult apprenticeships for those over 25 years of age or part-time apprenticeships. In some sectors, such as retail and hospitality, part-time working is the main work pattern, particularly for female employees. In addition, the Committee regards reskilling and conversion-type training as crucial elements in the ability to react to investment opportunities.
The Committee was particularly concerned about how Training for Success works for young persons with a disability, and there was wider Assembly interest in that issue. The Minister mentioned the report by a subgroup of the Department’s disability liaison group. That is scheduled to be published at the end of June 2008, and the Committee looks forward to receiving a copy.
I will try to cover as many Members’ contributions as possible. I hope that I will not exclude anyone, but, if I do, I apologise in advance.
Basil McCrea mentioned the importance of economic growth and how to facilitate matching skills to demand. He said that the Government’s job is to steer but not to intervene directly. He shared the concern of some Committee members about the possible continued exploitation of apprentices; the Committee must keep a close eye on that.
My colleague Robin Newton mentioned that the Public Accounts Committee levelled several criticisms at the old Jobskills programme, particularly about its high drop-out rate. He stated that no one wants such problems to be repeated, and he agreed that Training for Success is a major improvement on the old scheme.
Alex Attwood said that he supports the Minister’s review and acknowledges that Training for Success is a better programme, but that it is important to continue to monitor employees’ pay —that should be an extremely important function. He also mentioned the problems around the targets, particularly the lower-level targets.
Anna Lo mentioned the concern about the target of 10,000 apprenticeships by 2010, and suggested that insufficient numbers of people were coming forward. She also referred to a concern over the concentration on lower-level apprenticeships.
Alastair Ross said that it is too early for assessment, but that it is important to begin early scrutiny. The Committee certainly intends to continue to keep an eye on the programme. He suggested that there should be increased focus on apprenticeships, and I know that the Department is keen to do that. He also mentioned working with employers to ensure that the number of level 3 apprenticeships is increased. He further referred to the disability subgroup and the importance of part-time apprenticeships.
Claire McGill said that it was important for an early and consistent message to be sent to young people, and that DE and DEL need to enhance the value of apprenticeships. She was concerned that there is no enforcement of the minimum wage until the age of 19. She also mentioned — as she has consistently done in Committee meetings — the particular difficulties for folks in rural areas, and the funding gaps, particularly concerning travel. She outlined the importance of disability issues, as well.
Leslie Cree said that the Training for Success programme looks more positive than Jobskills, and that has been the general consensus running throughout the debate today. He also mentioned the importance of adult apprenticeships, and thanked the Minister for introducing those.
Paul Butler mentioned the importance of remembering other courses and provisions that need to be delivered through further education — particularly referring to the construction and automotive industries — and the importance of personal training plans, and the need for those to be improved.
I welcome the Minister’s very positive relationship with the Committee — and, indeed, that all of his officials — during the inquiry. The Minister referred to the young people who face barriers to employment, and the need to promote apprenticeships and to increase the programme. He also mentioned a number of other engagements, and of course mentioned the good news, welcomed by all on the Committee, of DFP’s approval today for the educational maintenance allowance to be paid from 1 September. That is something that the Committee welcomes very much. He mentioned other issues as well.
In closing, I again thank everyone, and commend the report to the House.
Question put and agreed to.
That this Assembly approves the first report of the Committee for Employment and Learning on Training for Success (34/07/08R); and calls on the Minister for Employment and Learning to incorporate the report’s recommendations into his Department’s ongoing review of Training for Success.
Committee Stage (Period Extension)
The Chairperson of the Committee for the Environment (Mr McGlone): I beg to move
That, in accordance with Standing Order 31(4), the period referred to in Standing Order 31(2) be extended to 12 December 2008, in relation to the Committee Stage of the Goods Vehicles (Licensing of Operators) Bill (NIA Bill 15/07).
The Goods Vehicles (Licensing of Operators) Bill passed its Second Stage on 20 May 2008, and it was referred to the Committee for the Environment on 21 May 2008. The Bill is comprehensive, consisting of 61 clauses and six schedules. It will make provision to regulate goods-vehicles operators and will deal with partial regulation of freight operators; enforcement; road safety; organised crime; and environmental issues.
The Committee is committed to undertake scrutiny of the Bill and to enable a report, as required under Standing Orders. The Committee has already engaged with the Department in pre-legislative scrutiny, which has proven useful in drawing out some key issues. However, much more work remains to be done on the Bill. A public notice was placed in the three main local newspapers on 30 May to invite people’s views on the Bill. The deadline for receipt of those views is 11 July. Committee staff will then collate and analyse the findings from those submissions during the summer recess.
After recess, the Committee will invite oral evidence from some of the parties who have submitted views before it carries out clause-by-clause scrutiny of the Bill and finally produces its report. I therefore seek extension of the Committee Stage of the Bill to 7 December 2008, in order to allow sufficient time for the Committee to consider the Bill and to report on its findings. I ask Members for their support. Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Ba mhaith liom an rún a mholadh.
Question put and agreed to.
That, in accordance with Standing Order 31(4), the period referred to in Standing Order 31(2) be extended to 12 December 2008, in relation to the Committee Stage of the Goods Vehicles (Licensing of Operators) Bill (NIA Bill 15/07).
Victoria Cross for Lieutenant Colonel Blair Mayne
Mr Deputy Speaker: The Business Committee has agreed to allow up to one hour and 30 minutes for the debate. The proposer of the motion will have 10 minutes to propose and 10 minutes to make a winding-up speech. All other Members who are called to speak will have five minutes. One amendment has been selected and is published on the Marshalled List. The proposer of the amendment will have 10 minutes to propose and five minutes to make a winding-up speech.
Mr Shannon: I beg to move
That this Assembly recognises the bravery which was displayed by Lt Col Blair Mayne during the Second World War and calls on the Ministry of Defence to reconsider the application for the posthumous award of the Victoria Cross.
I ask Members to imagine, with me, for a brief moment, a scene of terror. The air is filled with the screams of dying and the stench of the dead. You are gasping for breath as your lungs intake gulps of gunpowder-tinged air. You are lying in a ditch. The enemy is firing so often without break that the rat-tat-tat of bullets merges together. You know that each searing breath may well be your last. The officer that you look to for direction is dead. Deep in your heart, you believe that it will take a miracle to lift you from this scene of hell.
Suddenly, you hear a different sound: the roaring of an engine. With your last vestige of energy, you lift your head. With stinging eyes, you make out the form of a jeep that is cutting through the madness and mayhem. The man on board fires at the enemy like an avenging angel. He slows the jeep down at the ditch. On his way past, he calls: “I’ll pick you up on the way back.” Nothing flowery; no grand words — just a promise that gives you hope that, perhaps, it is not the time for you to die.
(Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr Molloy] in the Chair)
With a hammering heart, you watch as the man on the jeep forces the enemy to retreat, despite the fact that it holds all of the advantages of position, men and firepower. As the enemy retreats, the jeep turns around. This time, it stops. The avenging angel jumps to the ground amid a hail of bullets and holds out his hand.
Shaking, you grasp the hand as you are bundled in with your 11 comrades and wildly driven to safety. As you look to see what form your angel takes, you see that it is that crazy Ulsterman. It is “Paddy” Mayne, and everything falls into place. It is a man who is known for bravery and courage and for leading men to victory. A man who is and, in your eyes and the eyes of your surviving family, will for ever remain a hero of epic fame.
That story is the true story of Lieutenant Colonel Robert Blair Mayne’s actions as seen from one of the men who was saved by Colonel Mayne, or “Paddy”, as he was affectionately known. The story does not take into account the fact that, before Colonel Mayne and Lieutenant Scott had driven the jeep into oncoming enemy fire, Mayne had summed up the situation. Ever a man of initiative and action, he entered the first house that had formed the enemy defences and, after checking to ensure that the enemy was dead, he moved out into the open and fired into the next house, taking out those behind the enemy fire before moving in to ensure that none of the enemy remained.
After ensuring that clean sweep, he turned his attention to how best to save the trapped point men of the squadron. He noted that the enemy was well ensconced in the forest, and, with no way to surround them, he departed on what seemed to be a suicide mission in order to rescue those men. Not only did “Paddy” manage to rescue his colleagues, but he forced a retreat from the enemy.
It has been said that a level-one award such as the Victoria Cross (VC) is only given when the chance of death is 50% or more. A report from Brigadier Calvert, dated 11 June 1945, said:
“There can only be one explanation why Colonel Mayne was not killed by what had already proved deadly and concentrated fire: the sheer audacity and daring which he showed in driving his jeep across a field of fire momentarily bewildering the enemy.”
He also said:
“Colonel Mayne from the time he arrived dominated the scene. His cheerfulness, resolution and unsurpassed courage in this action was an inspiration to us all”.
Undoubtedly, it was a suicidal mission to rescue his comrades and ensure that the enemy retreated further. Colonel Mayne’s mission was a complete success. In the words of Brigadier Calvert:
“Not only did he save the lives of the wounded but he also completely defeated and destroyed the enemy.”
Ninety-six per cent of the people who have been awarded the Victoria Cross have been assisted in the actions for which the award was made. Colonel Mayne’s story is the stuff of which legends are made. It is the stuff of which many of us dreamed as young boys and acted out in our gardens. Blair Mayne was certainly a hero of mine as a young child, many years ago. His actions were those of a man who put others first and went above and beyond the call of duty. There is no doubt that his actions on that day were heroic and worthy of recognition and commendation. That is why Brigadier Calvert recommended that Mayne be awarded the highest award, the Victoria Cross. Mayne was informed that he was to be granted that well-deserved accolade, and he informed his mother accordingly, which made her even more proud of him.
I shall explain why I have told that war story, which could — and probably will — be made into a blockbusting film about a founding member of a covert special raiding squadron, a hero many times over, who is reputed to have single-handedly downed 130 enemy planes and was commended for the highest military award. The reason is that, six months later, a terrible mistake occurred. That mistake stripped Blair Mayne of his hard-won honour and much of his self-esteem.
The award of the Victoria Cross by the 1931 royal warrant is bestowed upon those who display acts of conspicuous gallantry and for a signal act of valour in the presence of the enemy. Mayne more than attained that standard, but the mistake lies with the word “signal”, which is defined in the Oxford English Dictionary as:
“an event or statement that provides the impulse or occasion for something to happen.”
It was not a planned event, and Mayne certainly qualified for the award. However, the word “signal” was misread as “single”. Mayne had been accompanied in the jeep by Lieutenant Scott, who provided covering fire, and, therefore had not acted single-handedly, which meant that he was deemed to be ineligible for the award. That mistake by a high-ranking civil servant — Jack Ganning, a military secretary — resulted in Mayne being stripped of the award. Instead, he was given a third bar on his Distinguished Service Order (DSO).
As evidence that Lieutenant Colonel Blair Mayne was supposed to get the Victoria Cross, on his citation, “VC” was marked, but stroked out, for the commendation. That is important evidence, and it clearly demonstrates that he was meant to receive the Victoria Cross.
We are not the only people who cannot understand why that medal was not awarded. King George VI asked how it was that the Victoria Cross eluded “Paddy”, and he enquired into why the award was downgraded. When he asked Winston Churchill to explain the demerit, Churchill was said to have been shocked and saddened by the glaring omission.
Enquiries were also made by several officers, who also could not understand what had happened. They did not have the access that we now have to the files, which clearly show a mistake between a few letters in the words “single” and “signal”. Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth’s uncle, Major General Sir Robert Laycock, who, at the time, was a serving officer in the forces, wrote a letter in which he stated that Blair Mayne deserved a Victoria Cross and would have received one had the proper authorities known their job.
As a consequence of someone’s misreading of a word, Blair Mayne did not receive the greatest honour that this country can bestow. No matter how much being awarded the highest French accolade meant, to have been given, and then stripped of, his British honour haunted Mayne for the rest of his life. For that reason, I ask the Assembly to do all in its power to put right that wrong and ensure that a true war hero — one of Ulster’s and Newtownards’s special sons — is finally given that which is rightly his — the Victoria Cross.
I am not asking for a precedent to be set by this posthumous and retrospective award. The Ministry of Defence paperwork provides clear evidence that he was commended for the Victoria Cross and informed that it was his. I ask only that the mistake be rectified and that his honour be properly restored to him and his hometown, Newtownards, which is eternally proud of its courageous soldier.
The memory of Blair Mayne lives on in Ards people’s hearts, and, in the Public Gallery, we are joined today by people from the Blair Mayne Research Society in Newtownards, including Barry Abbott from England, who has been industrious in his research. People from all over the world are taking an interest in this matter. The Scottish Parliament and the National Assembly for Wales will debate the same motion, and it is also intended to raise the matter in the Houses of Parliament. In this Assembly, in Blair Mayne’s home country, I ask Members to support the campaign.
There is a statue of Blair Mayne in Newtownards town centre, and his image now adorns walls that once boasted murals depicting paramilitary paraphernalia. It is time that the memory of a man who lived for his colleagues and his country was restored to its full glory through the restitution of the Victoria Cross.
King George VI asked him how it was that he had not received the Victoria Cross, and he answered in a manner that sums up this courageous and honourable man:
“I served to my best my Lord, my King and my Queen, and none can take that honour away from me.”
Let us do better today and restore and replace that which was his.
Mr McNarry: I beg to move the following amendment: Leave out all after “bravery” and insert:
“of many men and women in His Majesty’s Forces during the Second World War, including that which was displayed by Lt Col Blair Mayne; and calls on the Ministry of Defence to reconsider previous recommendations made on their behalf for the application for the posthumous award of the Victoria Cross.”
We owe no apology to the Mayne family for debating this motion in the House; however, I must say that we have drawn a crowd. In this debate, the nationalist, non-unionist interest is unsurpassed, and I thank Mr Attwood and Dr Farry for their attendance. There is only one member of the SDLP, one member of the Alliance Party and Mr Deputy Speaker, who, dare I presume, would not be here either if he had not been required to do his job. Five DUP and three Ulster Unionist Party Members have attended to debate this major issue.
Having said that, and having proposed the amendment, I am mindful of the fact that Lieutenant Colonel Blair Mayne was not alone in not receiving proper recognition for his considerable deeds of bravery and heroism. Research indicates that few Victoria Crosses were awarded to anyone during 1945. By that stage, the Allied Governments had decided that the war against Germany had been won, and all that remained to be done, in effect, were mopping-up operations.
It seemed that the Government needed heroes no longer and were turning their attention to the construction of the post-war world. Research also indicates that the vast majority of Victoria Cross recommendations were downgraded, or even ignored, by the awards committee.
Many heroes deserve to be recognised, just as Blair Mayne deserves to be recognised — for example, Group Captain Willie Tait, known as “Tirpitz Tait” after his most famous exploit, raiding the German Bismarck-class battleship Tirpitz in Norway. He was awarded four Distinguished Service Orders and two Distinguished Flying Crosses (DFCs). Many people like Willie Tait and Blair Mayne should have been awarded the Victoria Cross but were not; hence the wording of our amendment.
The failure to award the VC in no way diminishes the deeds of “Paddy” Mayne. He needs no VC to be remembered as a hero. In fact, he never exhibited any concern about the failure of the authorities to award him the Victoria Cross. Like most men of courage, he rarely mentioned his exploits after the war.
Turning to the motion, the arguments for it were best set up by an early-day motion signed by over 100 MPs in the House of Commons in June 2005, which stated:
“That this House recognises the grave injustice meted out to Lt Col Paddy Mayne, of 1st, SAS, who won the Victoria Cross at Oldenburg in North West Germany on 9th April 1945; notes that this was subsequently downgraded, some six months later, to a third bar DSO, that the citation had been clearly altered and that David Stirling, founder of the SAS has confirmed that there was considerable prejudice towards Mayne and that King George VI enquired why the Victoria Cross had ‘so strangely eluded him’;”
The motion continues:
“and therefore calls upon the Government to mark these anniversaries by instructing the appropriate authorities to act without delay to reinstate the Victoria Cross given for exceptional personal courage and leadership of the highest order and to acknowledge that Mayne’s actions on that day saved the lives of many men and greatly helped the allied advance on Berlin.”
“Paddy” Mayne was a controversial figure — heroes, and particularly military heroes, often are. His exploits, which were outstanding, showed the kind of heroism that this country badly needed in the dark days of World War II, when it stood at the edge of a disaster, facing an implacable and dangerous enemy with a human rights record that has blackened the history books ever since. The small-minded people who denied Blair Mayne the award did not understand the spirit that makes ordinary men admire the heroism of the likes of “Paddy” Mayne. Even the King, who normally never commented on such matters, enquired as to why the Victoria Cross so strangely eluded Blair “Paddy” Mayne.
Historical wrongs have been righted before. Men who were suffering from shell shock were wrongly shot as traitors in World War I, and that wrong was righted in so far as it could be. Apologies were rightly given for the slave trade and its impact on Africans. Therefore, why can the Ministry of Defence not bend a little and give proper recognition to one — indeed, all — of this country’s heroes? Is the Ministry of Defence trying to pretend that it can never be wrong? Surely it must realise that its continued petty-mindedness on the awarding of a VC to Blair Mayne and on its treatment of other heroes diminishes the Ministry in all our eyes.
My colleague Alan McFarland and I gave considerable thought to introducing our amendment.
We received correspondence from the Blair Mayne Research Society on the motion. On the basis of that correspondence, we felt that our amendment was appropriate.
In its letter, the society — an organisation formed in 1996, at the request of Ards Borough Council, to research the life and times of Blair Mayne in conjunction with the erection of a bronze statue of him in Newtownards town centre — offered these valuable and significant comments:
“It may be necessary to suggest at a distance of over 60 years that Paddy Mayne deserved a Victoria Cross, but how do we separate Paddy’s deeds from Willie Tait and many other brave men and women who fought and, indeed, sacrificed their lives for the freedom we all enjoy today? The answer is, we can’t. So, in supporting a VC request, we must include all the others who were recommended but never awarded … Blair Mayne himself never felt bitter or sore about the denial of a VC. Indeed, like all heroes, he never really talked about it. The family have been gracious with regard to a Victoria Cross, with his brother saying: yes, he should have got it during or just after the war, but to award it now, who will they pin it on? … Victoria Crosses are won on the field of battle, not in committee rooms or debating chambers. Support, if agreed, should be given to all, not just a few. How can we decide, just as that Awards Committee in 1945 decided, who deserves and who does not?”
With or without a Victoria Cross, Blair “Paddy” Mayne will always be a hero — the history books will confirm that. So, too, will many other brave men and women, who, like Blair Mayne, have been overlooked and denied the Victoria Cross. This amendment is not intended to detract from Blair Mayne’s war record. We fully support the reconsideration of an application for the posthumous award of the Victoria Cross. In doing so, however, we ask the House to do as we have done, which is to recognise that there are others equally deserving.
I did not meet or know Blair “Paddy” Mayne, but I guess that, if he was about to hear this debate, he, being the man that he was, would not only be proud to see what was being done in recognition of him, but probably feel quite embarrassed, too. Most certainly, though, he would be the first to say that others should be considered also.
Dr Farry: I endorse the campaign to recognise the heroism that was shown by Lieutenant Colonel Blair Mayne, otherwise known as “Paddy”. As a man from the town of Bangor, I speak with some trepidation. I declare, however, that I was born in Newtownards and lived there for perhaps a week. I am, therefore, capable of riding two horses at the same time.
I appreciate the real pride in Newtownards in the local hero, “Paddy” Mayne, who has been recognised through the erection of a statue. Locals also feel that it would be appropriate to recognise his deeds in the customary way of the British armed forces: through the award of a VC.
I appreciate the significance of the Victoria Cross. One of the sons of Bangor, the Hon Barry Bingham, was awarded the VC during the First World War. He was a resident of Bangor Castle long before it became the headquarters of Bangor Borough Council and, subsequently, North Down Borough Council. He was recognised for his heroism during the battle of Jutland in 1916, when he was a commander in the Royal Navy. He later became a rear admiral.
Many years ago, the honourable Barry Bingham’s Victoria Cross was bought by North Down Borough Council, and it was displayed at North Down Museum until someone was caught walking out with it in a pocket. However, it has now been put under lock and key, because it is a very valuable piece of memorabilia. We recognise the importance of recognising courage.
As Mr McNarry said, it is important to acknowledge that “Paddy” Mayne was a flawed character in many many different ways. However, it is fair to say that there have been many flawed characters throughout history. Indeed, most of our heroes have deep flaws. In fact, a certain amount of recklessness is required to merit a Victoria Cross or other medal, as conventional wisdom and procedures must be set aside to do the unconventional in order to achieve the objectives of protecting the lives of one’s comrades and defeating the enemy. In that context, it is appropriate to recognise the contribution that was made by “Paddy” Mayne.
Equally, we should recognise Private William McFadzean, who I believe — but I stand to be corrected — was the first resident from what eventually became Northern Ireland to receive the Victoria Cross during the First World War. Indeed, he was a teenage tearaway, but when he threw himself on top of a live grenade to protect his comrades, his only concern was for the lives of his comrades. His actions are reflected in the way in which “Paddy” Mayne conducted himself in his contribution to the war.
Aside from “Paddy” Mayne’s bravery, his role in the formation of the SAS during the Second World War should also be recognised. That was very much an improvisation to meet an evolving set of needs.
Mr McNarry touched on the argument that has been made about politicians trying to second-guess decisions that were made by the military up to 90 years ago. However, as can be seen from the so-called shot-at-dawn campaign, with the passing of time and perspective of history, matters can appear in a different light. There are occasions when decisions that were made for the best reasons at the time need to be reconsidered in the light of history. It is only through the study of history that we can see events in a fuller perspective. For those reasons, there are significant grounds for calling on the authorities to reconsider this case and do the appropriate thing with respect to the award of the Victoria Cross. I support the motion.
Miss McIlveen: I thank my fellow party colleagues from the Strangford constituency for securing the debate. Northern Ireland is such a small country, but it is particularly blessed with iconic heroes, whether in sport: David Healy or George Best; in music: Van Morrison; in science: Lord Kelvin: or, indeed, the inventor of milk chocolate, another Strangford old boy, Sir Hans Sloane. We can be proud of our mark on the world.
In the military world, there are few who could match the exploits of Blair Mayne. Given his almost unimaginable bravery and ability during the Second World War, it is hard to believe that he did not receive the Victoria Cross during an already heavily decorated career.
When one reads about Blair Mayne, it is like reading about a fictional hero in a ‘Boy’s Own’ comic. Sometimes, there seems a need to double-check the books to ensure that it is not some work of fiction. Blair Mayne was honoured with a DSO with three bars, the Légion d’Honneur and the Croix de Guerre, and, as my colleague has stated, his denial of a Victoria Cross was queried by King George VI.
We have heard about the incident for which Blair Mayne was recommended for the Victoria Cross in 1945. The tales of bravery that accompany the awards of the Victoria Cross always astound me, displaying as they do amazing selflessness in the face of enemy onslaught.
I have read and heard about our own Blair Mayne, and his exploits surely rank among the acts of other recipients. He was, allegedly, denied the highest military honour as a result of the military establishment’s prejudice against him — that transgression must be rectified.
After taking out a farmhouse full of enemies and avoiding heavy enemy gunfire three times, Blair Mayne, without concern for his own safety, risked his life to single-handedly rescue a squadron of his troops by lifting them individually into his jeep — how can such bravery not merit the highest possible military honour? Throughout the Second World War, he continually redefined bravery and is credited with assuring the SAS’s future and consolidating its position as a permanent part of the UK defence forces.
Even if the motion does not result in a posthumous award to this Ulster icon, it is appropriate that the House considers his exploits and bravery and that it acknowledge his place in the pantheon of the heroic. Flawed as he was, Blair Mayne was a true leader of men and an outstanding soldier. I support the motion. Lieutenant Colonel Blair Mayne should take his rightful place among Northern Ireland’s 11 other recipients of the Victoria Cross.
Mr Poots: In this country, we sometimes have a habit recognising people’s achievements, such as was the case with George Best, after their death. As was the case with Professor Frank Pantridge — who made a huge contribution to the world of medicine by designing the portable defibrillator — achievements are often not recognised because faces do not fit. Similarly, Harry Ferguson’s contribution to engineering was never recognised; neither of those individuals fitted into the society in charge during their lifetimes. Unfortunately, the same applies to Lieutenant Colonel Blair Mayne.
Blair Mayne was not an ordinary soldier, and Mr Shannon eloquently described his bravery and his contribution during the Second World War. The SAS and Blair Mayne were made for each other. His characteristics and qualities were ideal for membership of an organisation that tackles the most difficult circumstances and is required to demonstrate a degree of bravery that borders on foolishness.
Blair Mayne had numerous qualities. He was well built, intelligent, and exceptionally brave, and he had an excellent physique and level of fitness, all of which resulted in a phenomenal soldier. Rambo, Arnold Schwarzenegger and James Bond accomplish fantastic acts. However, those acts are in the movies and on television — Blair Mayne accomplished them in real life during the Second World War.
At the time of the desert campaign, Rommel was one of the most skilled commanders in the German army, and he was exceptionally difficult to get the better of. However, Blair Mayne and his SAS colleagues destroyed 400 enemy planes in the desert. Their efforts in infiltrating enemy lines and destroying those planes contributed greatly to Rommel’s defeat during that conflict.
He was then sent to Italy and southern Europe, and he later fought in France and Germany. It was there that this period of exceptional bravery, which Mr Shannon described, became so evident.
It is regrettable that an amendment has been tabled. It is, unfortunately, a generic amendment that refers to a great number of people as opposed to other, particular individuals. The Victoria Cross is awarded on a limited basis, and only a limited number of people are entitled to receive it. It is evident from the paperwork that Blair Mayne was one of those who should have received the Victoria Cross. To table such a generic amendment, suggesting that others deserve the award and without being specific, damages the motion greatly.
I was somewhat disappointed that a Strangford representative should table such an amendment, given that the motion is about Newtownards’s greatest son. I have some interest in war history, and I believe that Blair Mayne was one of the people who was most entitled to receive the Victoria Cross.
Mr G Robinson: In Lieutenant Colonel Blair Mayne we had a man who was not only a qualified lawyer and international sportsman, but an example of what a soldier of any nationality should be — courageous, knowledgeable of battle strategy, with an almost unhealthy disregard for his own safety, and above all, protective of fellow members of his unit. Those are characteristics that all soldiers can aspire to, but few can achieve or emulate what Blair Mayne did.
Blair Mayne’s war record attests to the tributes that I described, but, for whatever reason, he was — and has been — overlooked consistently for an award that he was most definitely entitled to, many times over. Indeed, I believe that Blair Mayne should join Lieutenant Colonel Martin-Leake, Captain Chavasse and Captain Upham as a multiple winner of the Victoria Cross, such were the number and heroic nature of his actions during the Second World War.
Blair Mayne, along with Sir David Stirling, was a founding member of the SAS, and after Sir David was captured, the SAS, under Mayne’s sole leadership, fought some courageous and dangerous missions on the island of Sicily, mainland Italy, France, Holland, Belgium, Germany and Norway. Lieutenant Colonel Mayne, as always, led from the front and was in the forefront of the fighting. This was a man who knew what leadership required. The very action that triggered his nomination for the Victoria Cross was to save comrades who were trapped by enemy fire. That was leadership in its truest form — leading by example. That is also heroism in its truest form.
The Victoria Cross is Britain’s highest military award. It was established in February 1856 by Queen Victoria, and it is awarded for:
“most conspicuous bravery, a daring or pre-eminent act of valour, self-sacrifice or extreme devotion to duty in the presence of the enemy.”
The citation for actions on 9 April 1945 at Oldenburg in Germany for the Victoria Cross, which was surprisingly refused, shows that it is obvious that Blair Mayne’s actions can be placed easily within the criteria for this highest of bravery awards. His citation read that his:
“brilliant leadership and cool calculating courage”
“a single act of supreme bravery”
The citation continued, saying that his “unsurpassed gallantry inspired all ranks”.
It seems that other reasons or considerations denied Blair Mayne the award that he so thoroughly deserved, as his citation was downgraded — if that is an appropriate term to use — to a third bar to his DSO. I saw two comments with regard to the debate that, in particular, focused my thoughts as to why this true hero was denied at least one Victoria Cross. His co-founder of the SAS, Sir David Stirling, described the failure to award the VC to Blair Mayne as “a monstrous injustice”, and King George VI apparently asked why the VC “so strangely eluded” Mayne. I can only agree entirely with those comments.
It is time that the Victoria Cross, which Lieutenant Colonel Blair Mayne so justly deserved, was awarded to him in recognition of his heroic actions and the lives that he saved on, at least, one occasion in 1945.
I hope that the motion will receive unanimous support from the Assembly, as Blair Mayne saw only the colleagues he was rescuing from certain death and nothing else. He defended democracy and showed extraordinary courage and leadership, yet he maintained a loyalty to his fellow soldiers that cannot be surpassed — all with disregard for his own safety.
I support the motion, and I look forward to reading about Lieutenant Colonel Blair Mayne VC.
Mr Attwood: I speak somewhat cautiously, given that many people — inside and outside the Chamber — have an appreciation of Blair Mayne’s life beyond anything that I can contribute. However, in such a debate, it is important to acknowledge something that everybody knows. The British Army weaves in and out of the lives of many nationalist families in this part of the world. It is part of our history, and acknowledging that must be part of our understanding of the past.
My father’s brother and brother-in-law fought in the Second World War, and I am named after a member of the First Battalion of the Northamptonshire Regiment, who lies in an unmarked grave in west Flanders and whose name is recorded on the memorial at Nieuport. Therefore, the British Army has been involved in my family’s history, and in the history of many other families on the nationalist side.
This is neither the time nor the place to talk more generally about the British Army and the SAS, because it has woven into the lives of members of the nationalist community in a negative manner. As I said, this is not the time to probe that further.
I agree with Stephen Farry. An unusual feature of heroes is that they tend to have flawed backgrounds. Last Friday was the anniversary of the assassination of Robert Kennedy, a man who has had particular impact on my life. He certainly had a flawed background, but — perhaps like the man about whom we talk today — he rose to the moment and to the challenge of circumstances in a way that belied his past conduct.
I note that there is division between the unionist parties on the way in which to resolve this matter. It is not the SDLP’s role to take sides in this matter. For that reason, we will not participate in the vote, although we acknowledge the merits of the arguments that have been put forward by the amendment and the motion.
Mr Deputy Speaker: Mr McFarland will have five minutes to make a winding-up speech on the amendment.
Mr McFarland: It is worth reminding Members that, on 9 April 1945, two armoured jeep squadrons of 1 SAS had been tasked with clearing a path forward for the Fourth Canadian Armoured Division near Oldenburg in Germany. An incident occurred, and, within around 48 hours, a citation had been written for a Victoria Cross by a chap called Major Michael Blackman — whom I knew in the 1980s — and a Captain Derrick Harrison.
The citation describes the incident as follows. A squadron under Dick Bond had been going forward and Lieutenant Schlee’s jeeps had been hit by the enemy. They had bailed out, with two men injured, and the whole convoy had stopped on the road. “Paddy” Mayne stopped before he reached the killing zone and observed the situation. He then cleared a nearby house, because enemy fire was coming from a second house. He grabbed a Bren gun and went to the second house, killing and wounding the enemy and firing into the woods. He and one of his young officers then jumped into a jeep.
The pair headed up the road in the jeep and through enemy killing ground, while firing at Germans in the woods. They drove back down before going back up for a third time. On this occasion, they stopped, the citation says, under fire. “Paddy” Mayne had been driving the jeep. He jumped out, loaded the wounded into the jeep and drove them out of the firing line to safety. That left the enemy with the option of either retreating or being killed, and the squadron moved on.
By and large, that is what the citation describes. The story was passed from the brigade commander, Mike Calvert, to the Canadian generals and to General Montgomery. “Paddy” Mayne was then recommended for a Victoria Cross.
However, it soon emerged that the situation had not been quite like that. I will outline what is now believed to have happened. Schlee had been hit and Bond had moved forward in an attempt to find out what was going on. Bond and his driver were shot by a German sniper. Therefore, at the scene there were two bodies, including the squadron commander, and two injured members of the forward troop. Mayne came forward again and, as a good commander should, assessed the situation. He got a Bren gun and with his driver, a Belfast chap called Billy Hull, cleared the first building and opened fire on the second building. He then moved a jeep up to fire on the second building. Next he jumped into another jeep with Lieutenant John Scott, and with a ·50 Browning machine gun in the front and twin Vickers in the back, they went up the road and back down and, along with the other jeep, suppressed German fire.
It is a brilliant story of outstanding bravery. Indeed, it is in the mode of H Jones in the Falklands War: the attack bogs down; the commanding officer jumps up and moves forward; his troops move with him; and the situation is saved. That, too, was a demonstration of outstanding bravery.
However, Mayne’s rescue of the prisoners took place after that. He drove back up the road, and with Scott firing in the woods to make sure that there were no Germans firing at them — there were not at this stage — Mayne loaded the wounded troops and the two bodies into the jeep and drove them to safety. Therefore, there are two incidents to be considered.
It is worth reminding Members what the Victoria Cross is awarded for. The first criterion of the award is in recognition of an act of outstanding bravery that helped to turn the course of a battle. As Michael Blackman explains, this event did not, in itself, turn the course of a battle. Therefore, the Victoria Cross awarded to Mayne was based on the second criterion: the rescue of a comrade from an impossible situation without regard for personal safety.
It could be argued that Mayne was accompanied by Scott. Indeed, it has been argued that Scott did all the shooting while Mayne’s role was merely to drive the jeep. Therefore, there is an issue as to whether Mayne had any single-handed role in the rescue.
Notwithstanding, to be eligible for a Victoria Cross a candidate does not have to have acted single-handedly. Leonard Cheshire received a Victoria Cross in recognition of his participation in endless missions over Germany. Guy Gibson received a Victoria Cross for leading the Dambusters. Victoria Crosses are not awarded only in recognition of single acts of individual bravery.
The difficulty in Mayne’s case is that, on the discovery that the citation had been over-egged, there was reluctance further up the line to take the story at face value and, therefore, it was degraded. A book titled ‘Irish Winners of the Victoria Cross’ is worth reading and provides some interesting explanations. It explains that those proposed for Victoria Crosses sometimes came up with the rations. Henry Gallagher and Father Willie Doyle in the First World War and Corporal Jimmy Barnes and Major Desmond White in the Second World War were all highly recommended for a Victoria Cross but did not receive one.
Mr Deputy Speaker: The Member’s time is almost up.
Mr McFarland: If we are to consider giving a Victoria Cross to “Paddy” Mayne, the acts of bravery of many other people should also be re-examined. Blair Mayne’s is one of the cases that deserve reconsideration. I support the amendment to the motion.
Mr Hamilton: I thank my colleagues and other Members for their contributions to the debate on this very important issue. I am grateful for the general quality of the contributions because it makes my job easier. There is very little left to be said about Blair Mayne — although that has never stopped me in the past.
As has been said most clearly by my colleague Michelle McIlveen, the life story of Lieutenant Colonel Robert “Paddy” Blair Mayne reads like something from a novel. Anyone who has studied Mayne’s life story will realise that he achieved much more in 40 years on this planet than most of us would achieve in 400 years.
He was a solicitor; he was an Irish universities heavyweight boxing champion; he gained six caps for Ireland and toured South Africa — one of the most difficult tours of all — with the British Lions. He was a scratch handicap golfer, I understand — a single-figure handicap golfer, certainly — at Scrabo Golf Club. Anybody who has played Scrabo Golf Club and lost a bag-full of balls will know that that in itself is merit enough to receive some sort of an honour around the town.
The concentration today has rightly been on Blair Mayne’s heroism in a time of war, a time when this country —and, indeed, our whole way of life and civilisation — faced its darkest threat. His service in uniform is the very epitome of gallantry and bravery. As has been said by nearly all Members, Blair Mayne was a founding member of the SAS, serving in various theatres of war, including North Africa, Italy, France and Germany.
Some of the particular acts of heroism that have been mentioned are so unbelievable as to strike you as something from a film — the sort of films that we all watched as children and even watch to this day. During the raid on Tamet airfield — for which he received his first Distinguished Service Order — he single-handedly destroyed 14 aircraft. He was reputedly responsible for destroying more enemy aircraft than any fighter ace. What makes that all the more extraordinary is that he did it on the ground behind enemy lines, not in a plane.
He was parachuted, as has been said by Mr Poots, behind enemy lines into Nazi-occupied France after D-Day and was awarded three bars on his DSO. That has rightly given him an honoured place on the long list of Ulster military heroes alongside the likes of Montgomery, Alanbrooke and others.
He is the very definition of a local hero. It was when I attended Regent House school, his alma mater — that is where the similarities end between him and I — that I first learnt of his wonderful story. Blair Mayne was born and bred in Newtownards, lived there pretty much all his life, died in Newtownards and is buried there to this day. He has been commemorated by the commissioning of a splendid statue that stands in the square in Newtownards. Last Friday in Newtownards, I had the privilege, along with Mr Shannon and others, of attending the unveiling of a mural of the most famous picture of Blair Mayne. That mural is on a gable wall where once there was a loyalist paramilitary mural, and I think that it is right and proper to replace that awful blight on our past with something good from our past.
I want to comment briefly on the remarks made by Alex Attwood. We appreciate his contribution to the debate and the very fact that he has been here throughout. We are grateful for the tone and manner in which he conducted his comments, which were gratefully received by those of us on this side of the House and outside this Chamber.
I come now to the amendment. Of course we will all honour any and every act of heroism, whether by Blair Mayne or by some of the other names mentioned. We honour the service of those men and women from this part of the world who are in uniform around the world serving our country and defending our way of life and our freedoms.
To pick up on some of the points that Mr McNarry made, Blair Mayne may not have complained that he did not get a VC, but he certainly won it and deserves to get it. I would not be so arrogant as to surmise what a man who has been dead for over 50 years would think of the motion or the amendment before us today — all I know is that he deserved the VC and, therefore, he should get the VC. Whether there is someone to pin it on is irrelevant.
Mr McFarland’s contribution did not particularly honour the service of Blair Mayne in the way that it should have done — the case of Lt Col H Jones in the Falklands was mentioned. That was another instance of the posthumous awarding of the VC. Whether there is a body to pin it on or not, Blair Mayne deserves that VC.
Mr Shannon: Some clarity is needed, and I have a quotation that will provide that clarity. Blair Mayne changed the entire course of the battle in which he was involved. To quote from the actual citation:
“the survivors were unable at that time to influence the action in any way until the arrival of Lt. Col. Mayne. The Lt. Col. continued along the road all the time engaging the enemy with fire from his own jeep. Having swept the whole area very thoroughly with close range fire he turned his jeep around and drove down the road again, still in full view of the enemy. By this time, the enemy had suffered heavy casualties and had started to withdraw.”
He was awarded the VC — it is in the citation, the recommendation, and the commendation given by the commanding officer. It is only right that he should receive it. Does the Member agree?
Mr Hamilton: I agree with what the Member has said.
Members on this side of the Chamber do not support the amendment. We are not dishonouring other people whose citations for VCs were downgraded or not given at all. We honour those people, but this has been a long-standing, ongoing campaign, focused on the figure of Blair Mayne. To dilute that in any way does a disservice, and that is why the DUP holds fast to the motion.
As Mr Shannon and others have said, the citation is there — and it begs the question as to why the Victoria Cross was not awarded. It is the premier award for gallantry in this country and it is not dispensed willy-nilly. What Blair Mayne did was far from routine. It was in no way ordinary, and it was not everyday behaviour — it was the sort of behaviour of which most of us are totally incapable.
He was absolutely extraordinary in his bravery, and he was rightly recommended for the VC in the citation that Jim Shannon just read — he spoke earlier of the mistake that was made. Although Blair Mayne was a maverick, and not everybody’s cup of tea within the military establishment, he was clearly deserving of the VC for which he was recommended.
Mr McNarry spoke earlier about the righting of wrongs, and sometimes one can be beleaguered when one hears our Government apologising for this and that. It is high time that this wrong was righted. Lt Col Blair Mayne’s face may not have fitted — he may have been a flawed character. In listening to what has been said about him today, it is easy to forget that he was human, and, therefore, he was flawed. The stiff-upper-lip attitude that has sometimes characterised the military in this country in the past will no longer suffice. It is high time that the rightful award of a Victoria Cross was made to Blair Mayne.
Some Members: Hear, hear.
Question, That the amendment be made, put and negatived.
Main Question put and agreed to.
That this Assembly recognises the bravery which was displayed by Lt Col Blair Mayne during the Second World War and calls on the Ministry of Defence to reconsider the application for the posthumous award of the Victoria Cross.
That the Assembly do now adjourn. — [Mr Deputy Speaker]
Cocaine in Coleraine
Mr Deputy Speaker: The proposer of the topic for debate will have 15 minutes in which to speak, and all other Members who wish to speak will have approximately 10 minutes.
Mr Dallat: I am grateful for the opportunity to bring this debate to the House. The title of the debate is ‘Cocaine in Coleraine’, and concerns the future well-being of my constituency. It could apply equally to any town and village across the North, and I have no doubt that the Members representing those areas are no less concerned than me.
Analysis of drugs seized over the past two years in Coleraine shows that the quantity of cocaine has doubled, although the year is not half over. In the same area, seizures of cannabis resin are much higher: the quantity has trebled to 13,286g. In recent times, six cannabis factories have been dismantled, with cash seizures approaching £200,000. Ecstasy tablets (E tabs) are also in plentiful supply; the number of those recovered has reached 2,400, and it is rising rapidly.
The area that I represent is exporting plants. Fortunately, 1,105 cannabis plants, valued at more than £500,000, did not see the light of day. It is frightening that my area now exports illicit drugs that will be used to destroy children and young people, who deserve better than to be consigned to the dustbin of narcotics.
Increased support for policing has, without doubt, been a godsend; nevertheless, new markets for deadly drugs such as cocaine, cannabis resin, E tabs, speed and so on are increasing. Frightening, too, is the development of sophisticated marketing plans that are attractive to the innocent and naive. A drug addict, who recently called at one of my offices to seek help, told me that he could have £2,000 worth of drugs on credit within an hour of dialling a certain mobile telephone number. He told me that he did not need to repay all the money if he agreed to handle cash or drugs on behalf of the pushers. It is as simple as that.
The drugs trade is highly lucrative for those with no conscience or grasp of the evil that they are involved in; but it is extremely costly in health and welfare, self-esteem and employment. At the recent economic conference, one of the leading questions of potential investors — particularly those from America — was, without the shadow of a doubt, drugs and how they affect the performance of the workforce. Fortunately, it has not become a major issue, but it will if we do not take seriously the upward trends and the switch to more dangerous drugs such as cocaine.
There is also the issue of the rehabilitation and resettlement of people who wish to kick the habit. Rehab provision is hopelessly inadequate — it scarcely exists. Provision is available in the Republic, but arrangements do not allow victims from the North to avail themselves of those services, and that needs to be addressed immediately.
I note that no Ministers are present for this debate. However, I hope that they will take the trouble to read the Hansard report.
Use of the Assets Recovery Agency is encouraging. I urge that its powers be strengthened so that it can seize cash that cannot be explained and which has not been declared to Revenue and Customs. We all remember the journalist Veronica Guerin, who lost her life when she took on the drugs barons. Her sacrifice was instrumental in changing the law and in making it possible to seize the millions of euro concealed by some of the deadliest criminals on this island. Let us hope that the North will not have to wait for a similar tragedy.
The call from the Assembly must be loud and clear: we support the police in their work of detecting and seizing drugs, arresting those involved, and calling for stiffer sentences for the drugs barons. We call on the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety to put in place a proper recovery plan for victims; we call on the Minister of Education to build drugs education into and across the school curriculum; and we demand a concerted campaign to unmask the pushers, the boys with the bling and the 4 x 4s. We fully back the whistle-blowers who are too frightened to approach the police; and we demand that communities are regained for the common and greater good of all.
I hope that, by having this debate, we raise awareness, not just in Coleraine but right across Northern Ireland and beyond, that this serious problem affects every town and village. Unless we, as a community, tackle the problem and work together, and unless Departments co-operate and exchange information, the problem will continue.
That is not the type of society that our parents and ancestors wanted — Ireland never needed or wished for a drugs-laden society.
Now that we have an Assembly, and various Departments that have an important role to play, action will be taken, please God. It is hoped that there will be no hiding place for the drug pushers in Belfast, Derry, Coleraine or any other large town or city, or on any small housing estates in rural areas. We must get the message across, loud and clear.
We must also support calls for greater resources, and, above all, it is important that the public be encouraged to play a role. There is not an area of which I am aware in which people do not know the identity of the drug pushers, but, through fear, they choose not to report them. There are also instances in which those who are messing about with drugs have an important role to play in attempts to find the big pushers.
I am not sure of all the details, but the victims to whom I speak tell me that the drugs industry is a sophisticated business. If one were to apply the same marketing principles to legal goods, one would be a millionaire. God knows, those supplying the drugs are millionaires, and we must put out their light.
Mr McQuillan: I pay tribute to the PSNI officers who lead the daily fight to remove as many drugs as possible from our cities, towns and streets. The nature of their work means that we do not know who they are, but our gratitude for what they do must be expressed in the fullest terms.
The PSNI report ‘Drug Seizures and Arrests: 1 April 2007 — 31 March 2008’ shows that there has been another drop in the number of drug seizures in Coleraine in 2007-08. That shows that the PSNI’s detection and seizure policies are correct. The nature of supply and use makes it difficult for officers to have success, but there has been a constant rate of success in the Coleraine area when it comes to catching suppliers and users.
Table 4.1 in the same report illustrates how the PSNI has been successful in detecting those engaged in supplying cocaine to the community in Northern Ireland. The figures show that the number of seizures has risen by two and a half times in two years. However, the amount seized has decreased by almost 10,000g. That demonstrates that the PSNI can successfully detect the people who carry small amounts of the drug.
However, the recent Coleraine seizure proves that the problem still exists, and constant vigilance is required to keep on top of the problem. Recent cannabis seizures in Coleraine and Castlerock show that the PSNI is ever vigilant in its hunt for drugs of any type.
It is also worth noting that there is a growing link between drugs and organised crime. That presents additional challenges to the PSNI in its work to eradicate the curse of drugs from our society, because the detection and seizure of drugs is made even more difficult by the secretive nature of organisations that deal drugs. Thankfully, the PSNI has had notable successes in the Coleraine area, which have resulted not only in the seizure of drugs and the prosecution of suppliers but in the reclaiming of money from the people who were engaged in that disgusting and evil activity.
It is sickening that people earn money by destroying people’s lives — be it the life of the addict or the lives of their loved ones — and do so without conscience.
In a previous Assembly debate, I mentioned the effect that the use of drugs can have on people’s states of mind and the tragedies that can, and do, result — be that through an accidental overdose or suicide. However, I am not saying that any of the tragic cases in Northern Ireland fit into that category. The potential for tragedy is greater when an individual uses drugs — an observation that is based on paragraph 13.4.1 of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs’ report, ‘Cannabis: Classification and Public Health’.
If an individual’s mental state has been altered by a drug — one must remember that cocaine is a much more powerful drug than cannabis — it is reasonable to assume that the user will act in a manner that he or she would not normally.
It seems that young people are most at risk, and they are also our greatest asset for the future. Therefore, we must protect them, as far as possible, from the scourge of drugs. That is especially true in Coleraine and its surrounding area, with its university, and its popular and vibrant nightlife, which, apparently, contribute to the use of drugs.
Although I have spoken about young people, I am also fully aware that the problem extends to all ages and social strata. That may not be unusual in the United Kingdom context, but it causes me deep concern. I am saddened by doubt that we will ever eradicate the drugs problem; it is essential, however, that we recognise it.
I support the PSNI and all other agencies in their efforts to combat the drugs problem. Last year, 18 drugs gangs — an increase of 33% on the previous year — lost their drugs, money and, in many cases, their liberty. The drugs squad made seizures worth more than £4·3 million, for which I thank them.
Adjournment debates are a useful way of highlighting local issues, but we must never overlook the fact that illegal drugs are a Province-wide problem. I welcome the debate, not just because it draws attention to Coleraine, but because it calls for increased support for those in our communities who deal with the realities of cocaine and drug abuse in Northern Ireland in general.
Mr Deputy Speaker, I apologise for leaving, but I have a meeting in Coleraine. I thank Mr Dallat for bringing the issue to the House.
Mr Brolly: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I welcome the debate and Mr Dallat’s assertion that, although the motion mentions Coleraine, he is as aware as am I that cocaine is available in every village and townland in Ireland; some of the bigger towns may be production and supply centres, but we all suffer.
People of my generation and that of most Members were probably not so much unaware as reluctant to accept that we were going to have a drug problem as rampant and as terrible as that in any other part of the world. We buried our heads in the sand for years, hoping that not talking about it would make it go away.
However, from experience, I know that my own village of Dungiven has a problem with powerful drugs, not just cannabis. We must accept that. The generation gap is characterised by those, like us, who are reluctant to accept that it is happening and the younger generation who are flippant and comfortable about drugs and accept their use as a way of life. Their approach is exemplified by some of the names that they use for cocaine. I have a list of them that I would like to go through.
It is significant that young people substitute pet names for cocaine. I wonder whether young people are responsible for doing so or if it is the insidious way in which dealers try to give the impression that cocaine is not as harmful as it very definitely is.
“Charlie” is a humorous sort of name given to it; “chang” may be something to do with the Middle East; “coke”, associated perhaps with Coca Cola rather than anything harmful; “gack” is humorous — people might ask where they could get some “gack”. Other slang names are “toot” and “vialli”; then there is “showbiz sherbet”. Sherbet is interesting stuff. “Snow”, “white”, “candy” — now what could be more harmless than candy? It is American, which gives it a wee bit of an upmarket sound. “Percy” must give cocaine some sort of aristocratic bent. I believe that cocaine is widely used as a recreational drug among people who consider themselves of a higher class. They are probably the people who call it “percy”. The last name, “sniff”, is ordinary, rock bottom, and probably used by most victims.
That is all fiercely insidious and dangerous, and it frightens me and people of my generation. What frightens me most is young people’s acceptance of cocaine. It is a white flaky powder made from coca leaves — I do not know whether everyone else knew that, but I did not know it until today. The first time that I ever heard of a similar word was when, as children, we used to have a nice warm drink of cocoa, perhaps with a piece of toast, when we were going to bed on a winter evening. It is sad that something as harmless as a coca leaf can create this type of havoc in society, but that is what is happening.
Cocaine is odourless, soluble and a powerful stimulant. It can be used in different ways, but normally it is taken by sniffing. It is difficult to imagine using a straw to sniff stuff up into one’s nose. In fact, I have also discovered that, sometimes, when a straw is not available, people use a rolled-up banknote, which suggests that they are not short of money, although they would not need to be if they are going to buy such stuff. Cocaine goes into the bloodstream very rapidly because it is sniffed up into the nose and the nasal membranes are so thin and sensitive. The user experiences an intense feeling of euphoria for between 15 to 30 minutes. That is the limit — 30 minutes — and then, to use the common phraseology, the user starts to come down again.
It is interesting that, for the sake of those 15 or 30 minutes, people are prepared to accept some of the effects of coming down, which include anxiety, paranoia and depression. Sometimes, as a result of the ill-effects of coming down, the user is encouraged, naturally enough, to use some more so that he can go back up again. That is when cocaine becomes very dangerous and when overdosing and death may result. Other effects include tremors, twitching, a rapid pulse, nausea and high blood pressure. It is amazing what people do for recreation in this day and age.
The serious risks of using cocaine include chronic sneezing — naturally, because of the sensitivity of the nasal membrane — frequent nose bleeds, and permanent damage to the nasal membrane. Worst of all, because of the dependence that may build up as a result of the terrible effects of coming down, overdosing becomes another risk, as does death — it is as simple as that.
The law says that, in whatever form, cocaine is a class-A drug that it is illegal to produce, supply or possess. An indication of the seriousness of the cocaine problem, as with all such problems, is that there is now a group called Cocaine Anonymous. Such groups are not established unless a problem is widespread and severe. Cocaine Anonymous operates along the same lines as Alcoholics Anonymous, and we all know how widespread the abuse of alcohol is. It is evident that cocaine abuse is a very serious problem.
When we talk about the law, we should not understand it as referring only to the PSNI or the courts. People’s attitude should be that the law starts with them — in their houses, in their homes. We must ensure that the parents of vulnerable young people are vigilant, and the next step involves asking teachers and young people’s wider family circles to be vigilant and, of course, the wider community. The whole community must stand up against cocaine use, and we must do it in a way that ensures that we are not seen as spoilsports. We are trying to save lives, just as we try to combat speeding in cars or joyriding — or whatever people want to call it. Those are all measures that we must take in order to save lives.
When all else fails and we cannot handle the situation in our homes, our wider family circles, our schools or our communities, we must get behind the PSNI, give it every support and make it clear that we want it to do the business.
Adjourned at 6.00 pm.