Tuesday 23 January 2007
Private Members’ Business
The Assembly met at 10.30 am (Madam Speaker in the Chair).
Members observed two minutes’ silence.
Madam Speaker: At the start of yesterday’s sitting, Members expressed an interest in debating the situation at Muckamore Abbey Hospital and the recent report by the Police Ombudsman. Motions on those issues have now been tabled in the Business Office. The Business Committee will meet today at 12.30 pm to discuss the scheduling of debates on those motions.
Report on Workplace 2010 and Public Sector Jobs Location
Madam Speaker: The Business Committee has agreed to allow two hours for each of today’s debates. The Member moving each motion will have 15 minutes in which to speak, with 15 minutes being allowed for the winding-up speech. All other Members who wish to speak will be allowed a maximum of 10 minutes.
The Chairperson of the Committee on the Programme for Government (Mr Molloy): I beg to move
That this Assembly notes the report from the Committee on the Programme for Government on Workplace 2010 and Public Sector Jobs Location and endorses the findings and conclusions set out in the Report.
In proposing the motion, I do so not as a member of the Committee on the Programme for Government but as one of the two Chairpersons appointed to the Committee to enable it to conduct its business.
Members should know that the Secretary of State wrote to me yesterday evening about the report that is the subject of this debate, and I understand that copies of that letter are available in the Rotunda. For the benefit of Members, however, I will outline the letter’s key messages later in my remarks.
On 24 November 2006, following a direction from the Secretary of State, the Business Committee of the Assembly established a Committee on the Programme for Government to consider priorities for a new Executive and to make preparations for restoration. The Committee on the Programme for Government recognised that there was much to be done, and, although it was extremely busy examining some specific matters, it determined to set up six subgroups to consider a range of other issues. One subgroup was formed to review the progress of the Workplace 2010 initiative, which is part of the reform programme aimed at addressing the urgent accommodation problems of the Northern Ireland Civil Service office estate. Importantly, the subgroup was also required to consider key issues in relation to public-sector jobs location.
It is appropriate to declare that I chaired the first meeting of the subgroup on 7 December 2006, but not as a member of the subgroup. Alternative arrangements for chairing each of the subgroups were agreed on 11 December 2006 and introduced immediately thereafter. When the Committee on the Programme for Government considered the findings and conclusions of the subgroup, there was consensus among the parties that not only should its report be printed, but that it should also be debated in the Assembly. The report is a Committee report, but its substance is, largely, the fruit of the subgroup’s labours. I acknowledge the efforts of the members from the four main parties who served on the subgroup. I am sure that they will participate in the debate.
It is also important to record that the Committee on the Programme for Government was careful to consider the findings and conclusions of the subgroup and added its own value to the report. I have no doubt that some of the Committee members will want to have their say. The members of the subgroup would also want me to acknowledge the support of Assembly staff. It is to their credit that the report was completed over the Christmas period in time for the Committee’s consideration. I know how dedicated the Committee office staff were in providing support to the Committee and to all the subgroups, and I thank them for the hard work and long hours that they put in to produce the report.
It is worth reminding the Assembly that the Committee on the Programme for Government agreed the terms of reference for the subgroup as recently as 4 December 2006. The Committee called for a report by 3 January 2007. It is to the credit of the subgroup that it rose to the challenge and reported by the due date. In so doing it called for, and received, written submissions and also heard evidence from witnesses. Having acknowledged the efforts of members, it is also right to recognise the valued contributions made by those who provided written responses and those who appeared, willingly and at short notice, before the subgroup to ensure that members were well informed on the issues.
I shall now highlight some of the key areas in the report. The issues raised proved to be complex and, dare I say it, somewhat controversial; they are recorded on pages 5, 6, 7 and 8 of the report.
Workplace 2010 is a private finance initiative (PFI). I know from experience that the PFI concept can provoke a range of reactions, not all of them positive. It is no surprise therefore that this matter came up as early as the subgroup’s first meeting, given the advanced stage of the procurement process, and the fact that the terms of reference required the subgroup to review the progress of the Workplace 2010 initiative.
Members of the subgroup felt somewhat constrained, and they were also concerned about the risks of having direct contact with any of the preferred bidders in relation to a commercially sensitive matter. Nevertheless, it is clear from the report that members have been diligent in their investigations.
The most striking feature of Workplace 2010 is the sheer scale of the initiative, which is a matter of some concern, especially to the members of the subgroup. This large and complex programme will affect about three quarters of the office estate and is expected to impact on some 18,000 civil servants. In return for an upfront capital payment, there will be an asset transfer to the successful private-sector partner of some 77 buildings out of a total of 202. About half of those 77 buildings are in the greater Belfast area. The remainder are in regional towns and include the jobs and benefits offices.
However, according to my reading of the report, the impact on staff was also given due consideration, particularly the issue of transferring staff from the public to the private sector and the quality of the environment in which civil servants might be expected to work to allow them to provide a much needed range of services to the public. The equality impacts and social and economic effects are also highlighted in the report.
The report also reflects on the importance attached to safeguarding the interests of the taxpayer and the local economy. In this regard, there are associated references to sustainability.
Many Members will want to focus on what the report says in relation to the important issue of the location of public-sector jobs in Northern Ireland. I look forward to hearing what other Members have to say on this issue.
In my opening remarks, I mentioned that the Committee added its own value to the report that the subgroup produced. That value is captured not only in the body of the report, but in summary on the second page of the report, where three specific additions and an amendment are recorded.
The Committee agreed to write to the Secretary of State setting out its views, namely:
“no decision should be made on advancing the Workplace 2010 contract until the concerns expressed by the Committee in its report had been considered;
it does not accept that the proposed consultation on Guiding Principles for the Location of Public Sector Jobs should be confined to the Review of Public Administration consequentials or that Workplace 2010 should be excluded from this consultation; and
the approach being taken to the implementation of Workplace 2010 has the potential to lead to the closure of government offices in non-urban areas, which might in effect result in the centralisation of public sector jobs.”
I want to confirm that the Committee sent a letter to the Secretary of State. The Secretary of State has responded, and copies of his reply are available in the Rotunda.
I am encouraged by the Secretary of State’s reply, which appears to recognise the validity of the Committee’s concerns. On Workplace 2010, he has given an assurance that officials will carefully consider, and will seek to take account of, the concerns expressed by the Committee. He has also indicated that the outcome of those considerations will be conveyed to him before final decisions are taken.
In relation to the proposed consultation on the guiding principles for the location of public-sector jobs, the Secretary of State has indicated that the scope of the consultation will be widened to allow for comment on the broad, overall policy relating to dispersal, including Workplace 2010 and decisions around the review of public administration. The Secretary of State also wrote that the consultation paper would be published next week.
On the question of whether Workplace 2010 has the potential to lead to the closure of Government offices in non-urban areas, with a resultant centralisation of public-sector jobs, the Secretary of State is most insistent that the Workplace 2010 contract will improve the flexibility to accommodate any future decisions on the dispersal of jobs and will allow the Civil Service to respond quickly as and when those decisions are taken.
Having brought Members up to date with the latest developments, I want to draw my remarks to a close.
Without dismissing the many papers, documents and reports that we read, there is no doubt that the devil is in the detail. This report acknowledges the virtue of making things easy for the reader by providing an executive summary.
Given that the remit of the Committee on the Programme for Government is to consider priorities for the new Executive, Members will want to pay particular attention to paragraphs 7, 8 and 9 on page 2 of the report. There they will see clearly in bold type, three actions, which I wish to commend to the Assembly.
The first shows regard to local businesses. It calls on a restored Executive:
“to monitor the position and consider what interventions might be possible”,
in circumstances where local businesses might suffer as a result of awarding Workplace 2010 to any particular bidder.
The second action appeals, to a greater or lesser extent, to us as politicians. It calls on a restored Executive:
“ to undertake an urgent examination of policies, which appear to favour PFI Solutions.”
The third action says much about the challenge of securing benefits for all the people of Northern Ireland, but not at inconsiderate expense to the taxpayer. It calls for the development and implementation of policy for the dispersal of public-sector jobs, which would take account of existing strategies for equality, rural development, sustainable development and targeting social need subject to careful consideration of cost.
I look forward to the rest of the debate, including what Members have to say about the Secretary of State’s letter. Thank you.
Mr Buchanan: There is real concern that all the work carried out by the Committee may be rendered worthless, because the process toward the implementation of Workplace 2010 is so far down the route to completion that no meaningful changes can be made.
There is always a concern that direct-rule Ministers will disregard the views of Northern Ireland politicians; but that concern is more acute in this situation, and it seems to be reinforced by the views given by the Secretary of State in his letter to the subgroup early in its investigations. Obviously, the recent press coverage surrounding some PFI contracts in Northern Ireland has not been positive, and that must inform our views when it comes to examining the proposals at hand.
The press coverage of Balmoral High School highlights the worst possible scenario regarding this kind of arrangement. Although reassurances were given that lessons have been learned from every bad example, we must always guard against the bad practice that has occurred in Northern Ireland and in all other parts of the United Kingdom.
However, there is no doubt that much of the Civil Service estate is in a very poor state of repair. There is an urgent need to ensure that the conditions in which civil servants work are of the best possible standard, and that they allow for efficiency and productivity. To that end, if Workplace 2010 is to go ahead on the current basis, it is vital that there are safeguards to prevent companies making so-called super profits on the back of the purchase and leasing back of the buildings.
There must also be protection for staff across Northern Ireland who are concerned that they will be forced to transfer from the public sector to the private sector, with the accompanying pension, and other, changes that could entail.
If Workplace 2010 is to proceed, there is little doubt that a large multi-national company will win the contract to provide services to the buildings.
Whereas reassurance was given that local companies may be involved in service provision, I am concerned that current local providers of these buildings may be pushed aside in the name of increased profits that will ultimately go to a company based outside Northern Ireland and probably outside the United Kingdom altogether.
With respect to the proposals for decentralisation, no one in the Chamber opposes the redistribution of jobs across Northern Ireland. However, Members must remember that it could not be carried out without cost to the taxpayer. The process must be carried out in such a way that jobs are relocated at appropriate times rather than simply to meet artificial quotas or targets. The relocation of jobs must be on a sustainable basis. The Scottish experience provides a model appropriate for Northern Ireland, should that proposal be acted upon.
Unfortunately, the Committee may be trying to shut stable doors long after the horses have bolted. However, I hope that the Government will take the Committee’s concerns on board, since many of the proposals are well on the way to implementation and others have already been completed.
It is important that the voices of Members, as local representatives, are heard by those implementing the proposals and that they take heed of our valid concerns.
Dr Birnie: All Members will be familiar with problems that arose over the past 15 years because of how electricity generation was privatised in the early 1990s. A long-term contract was entered into, which, in the eyes of customers, was too generous to suppliers. That continues to be a problem.
Is history about to repeat itself? I ask that because Workplace 2010 was a part of the Committee’s remit. I do not ask solely because, as some Members will have noticed, a former Government Minister, who was around in the early 1990s, has reappeared as part of one of the four companies bidding for the Workplace 2010 contract.
At the heart of the Workplace 2010 initiative lies a 20- or 25-year contract for transferring public assets to private ownership. If, in that process, the financial variables are miscalculated, Members, and Northern Ireland as a whole, will regret it for a very long time.
Mr Buchanan referred to the worst case encountered to date: Balmoral High School. In that instance, the public sector and the taxpayer will have to pay for years for a building that is no longer necessary because of PFI arrangements.
On the basis of evidence reviewed by the Committee, Members cannot be entirely confident that, with respect to Workplace 2010, the financial variables have been correctly calculated.
There are three such variables. The first is initial asset valuation, which, if correctly calculated, will ensure that buildings are sold off at the right price. It is worrying to inspect the websites of various agencies and discover that markedly different figures are quoted. The second variable is the unitary charge, which determines whether the public sector is charged a fair rate to lease back the buildings and use them or an exorbitant rate. What happens if, as is very likely in future, there is a need to change conditions of use? Will the private operator exploit his position? Thirdly, there are clawback arrangements. What if the private operator — or owner — of the Civil Service building chooses to sell it to another private company at a profit? Will a percentage of that profit be clawed back to the taxpayer?
Some will say that all the financial details have been correctly calculated, because the so-called outline business case demonstrates that the so-called net present value of the Workplace 2010 contract represents a lower-cost way of carrying out necessary repairs and maintenance of the Civil Service estate. That seems to be the official line that was given to the Committee and cited in the evidence submitted; that line is also taken by the Strategic Investment Board (SIB).
However, there are difficulties in evaluating that outline business case. First, having been published in May 2005, it is almost two years out of date. Secondly, the figures in the outline business case cannot be discussed in the public domain because of alleged commercial information sensitivities, thus handicapping any open and transparent debate about their implications. Thirdly, and most importantly when determining how much credence — or otherwise — should be given to the business case, a cost-benefit analysis for a projected 25-year period will always be a hazardous exercise. It is vulnerable to the assumptions that are made, such as the interest and inflation rates that will apply over the 25 years. Therefore, I am not convinced that the outline business case provides a knock-down argument that Workplace 2010 is truly superior to the more traditional methods of operating the Civil Service estate.
The other half of the report’s subject matter concerns decentralisation, to which the UUP takes a pragmatic approach. Decentralisation is beneficial in so far as it is consistent with reasonable value for money. It should be remembered that Northern Ireland has extensive experience of decentralisation policies in the 1990s and at the instigation of the 1999-2002 devolved Executive. Several consultancy studies on decentralisation have been carried out by, for example, PricewaterhouseCoopers. One estimate is that to move 4,400 Civil Service jobs from the Belfast area to elsewhere in the Province would cost about £40,000 per job in current and capital costs — in other words, a considerable sum of money.
It is also worth examining the experience that other jurisdictions and Administrations have had of decentralisation policies, as the subgroup did when taking evidence and in its consideration. We examined the experiences of Scotland and the Republic of Ireland. Notably, the Scottish Executive adopted a pragmatic approach to ensure that any decentralisation was done in a cost-managed way. The Republic of Ireland has introduced a policy of moving as many as 8,000 jobs out of the Dublin area. So far, the number of civil servants who have moved is in the hundreds, largely because they themselves have been resisting such movements. These examples are worth pondering.
One point about the statistics that were presented to the subgroup is worth noting. They showed that roughly 60% of Northern Ireland’s population live in the greater Belfast area. The percentage of Civil Service employees who work in that area is also 60%. In other words, the two figures more or less match, which hardly indicates any gross inequity in the existing distribution of jobs.
I thank the staff for their work on the report, which was done under great time pressure and even straddled the traditional Christmas holiday. I also thank those who gave evidence, both from the Department of Finance and Personnel and the Northern Ireland Public Service Alliance (NIPSA). I support the motion.
Mr Dallat: I welcome the publication of the report, and I would like to return to the key issue for the SDLP — the decentralisation of public service jobs, which would be in the interests of Northern Ireland as a whole. Esmond Birnie referred to previous attempts to decentralise jobs; however, those were not very successful. The Department of Education generously offered to move jobs from Bangor to Belfast, while the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety did not respond at all.
The contract for the provision of Civil Service accommodation is nearing a conclusion, and that creates a new set of circumstances that will enable the disappointments of the past to become the successes of the future. However, that will happen only if there is a concerted effort on many fronts to tackle the problem. It cannot be left to happen in a haphazard way; any new Assembly must have the enthusiasm and commitment to overrule the stubborn attitudes of senior civil servants who create the impression that they cannot see beyond Glengormley when it comes to the location of Civil Service jobs.
In Coleraine, for example, 261 jobs are going to be lost in Driver and Vehicle Licensing Northern Ireland, and there are worries that more will follow. Some 84 jobs have already been lost in HM Revenue and Customs, and a review is ongoing in the Social Security Agency — all in the one town, where the industrial base is extremely narrow. There are further worries about Limavady and Derry, where many of my constituents find work.
No one can tell me that that set of circumstances does not require the intervention of a new Assembly with the power and the commitment to deal with the crisis that is developing, not just in Coleraine but across the North, with the potential to cause particularly nasty destruction in areas that are already experiencing high levels of social deprivation.
Mr McMenamin: Does the Member agree that special emphasis must be placed on decentralisation of jobs to the west? I am talking about west Tyrone, Omagh and Strabane. Hundreds of civil servants — many of them young married women — leave their homes at six in the morning and do not get home until seven in the evening, leaving their children behind. That has been the story in the west for too long; surely there should be a fair share of jobs, and more jobs should be decentralised.
Mr Dallat: Madam Speaker, I could not agree more. I met civil servants in Coleraine last Friday. It is not just young mothers; many civil servants are also carers, and they cannot afford to be away from home for 16 hours a day. That is another factor that Members need to take into account when calculating the cost of decentralising Civil Service jobs.
There is a mood afoot that there is little opportunity at this late stage to build something into the contract to allow a new focus on decentralisation. I do not accept that. I listened to the figures given by Esmond Birnie — £40,000 to move one job. There has to be flexibility in the new contract to look at new ways in which decentralisation could be done without incurring massive costs.
I am sure that many Members came here today via the M1, the M2 or other arterial routes. One cannot fail to notice the horrendous damage that is done to the environment by sending thousands of civil servants into the greater Belfast area each day. That causes mental strain and adds to the never-ending parking problems.
Some Members have mentioned the defects in the Republic’s decentralisation programme, but it seems that people do not want to focus on its successes. Towns in the west of Ireland that could expect only minor improvements in their economic prospects prior to decentralisation are now vibrant and prosperous. That was brought about not only by the decentralisation of central Government jobs; many county council jobs were also decentralised, and the benefits of that are enormous.
More importantly, people have a new confidence in the future. The economies are more stable, and the new wealth has created many more jobs in the private sector, and, God knows, we need them. New industry and commerce are developing in areas that struggled for survival in the past. The emigration buses have stopped running. There is a new focus on education and training, new infrastructures for roads and railways — more about which Members will hear later — and the other support services that make up a prosperous society.
There is no reason for not replicating that in Northern Ireland, but it needs a new dynamism and commitment that have not been present in the past, and that gives one good reason for having a local Assembly. In the months ahead, people across the North will be looking to a new Assembly to bring about real change. That will not happen if decentralisation is not a cornerstone of change, or if senior civil servants continue to dictate where jobs will be located. Now is the time to ensure that winds of change sweep through the corridors of power, bringing new hope to many socially disadvantaged areas where Civil Service jobs are disappearing like snow off a ditch.
Changes must be made to bring hope where there is despair, happiness where there is gloom, and confidence where insecurity has been the order of the day. That has already happened in Wales and in Scotland. What is good for Aberystwyth and Aberdeen is good for towns outside the greater Belfast area, and, as my esteemed colleague Eugene McMenamin reminded me, that is particularly true of the north-west and the west.
Mr Neeson: I was not a member of the Committee on the Programme for Government, and neither were any members of my party. My colleagues and I gave up most of our summer to serve on the Committee on the Preparation for Government and the Subgroup on the Economic Challenges facing Northern Ireland, and I deeply regret Peter Hain’s despicable decision to exclude the Alliance Party from the Committee on the Programme for Government. In many ways, that exclusion was a disservice to the people of Northern Ireland and to the Alliance Party.
The main aim of the report is to create an efficient and effective workforce. Any working environment must be conducive to creating the necessary productivity. The fact that the main concentration of Civil Service jobs is in the south-east corner of the Stormont estate shows how centralised the Civil Service has become, although Civil Service jobs are based in 70 properties in the greater Belfast area. The existing properties leave a lot to be desired.
In the past, too many ad hoc decisions were taken on where to locate jobs in the Civil Service. From 1996-98, when the talks were being held in Castle Buildings, I saw for myself the conditions that Northern Ireland’s civil servants had to experience. I thought that it felt like a prison. Therefore there is an urgent need to modernise the buildings and facilities for our civil servants. The new Invest Northern Ireland building on Bedford Street is a good example of modernisation, and it shows what modern facilities can be achieved for our workforce.
I am in favour of decentralisation. I am on record as having stated that one major Government Department should be located in the city of Derry. In many ways, decentralisation provides greater opportunities to develop a more efficient and effective workforce. I agree with Eugene McMenamin that the time that many civil servants spend travelling to and from work should be taken on board. It is important that lessons should be learned from experiences in other areas, such as Scotland, Wales and particularly the Republic of Ireland, where decentralisation has clearly been proven to be successful.
One of my main concerns about the sell-off of properties, particularly in the Stormont estate, is that we must take rising property prices in Northern Ireland into account. Who will benefit most? Will it be the Government or the private sector? I contend that the private sector stands to make most from the sell-offs. We must also consider whether the refurbishment of existing buildings would be preferable to constructing new buildings.
Like many people, I am not convinced by the PFI argument. Does it provide value for money in the long term, and how can it be guaranteed that there will be good competing bids? One advantage with PFI is the opportunity for decentralisation, and I can think of many excellent sites in east Antrim that would provide facilities for new Civil Service offices.
As regards the review of public administration (RPA), I have said in the Chamber that 10 Government Departments in Northern Ireland is too many and does not provide for efficient and effective government and administration. If devolution is restored, will the Executive be prepared to take the necessary decisions to provide an effective and efficient Government? If that does happen, there will be an impact on staffing, other resources, and on building needs for the future.
A radical approach will be required to cater for the necessary public administration needs in the twenty-first century, and I pose a question that is not addressed by Workplace 2010. What provisions are being made for the provision of e-government? Undoubtedly, that will have major implications for staffing, buildings and other resources.
The restored Assembly will face major challenges, and I hope that it will meet them.
Mr Doherty: A Cheann Comhairle, I welcome today’s debate on the Workplace 2010 report produced by the Programme for Government Committee.
I wish to place on record several serious concerns about the current approach by British direct-rule Ministers, particularly on decentralisation. Workplace 2010 is a three-year to five-year programme of work to transform the Civil Service office estate. It involves the introduction of new accommodation standards, including open-plan working, rationalisation of the existing estate and the disposal of surplus accommodation to the private sector.
The Department of Finance and Personnel and the Strategic Investment Board are working together on that. The programme is likely to be delivered through a total property PFI solution, meaning that a private company would own and manage the Civil Service estate.
Civil Service accommodation is substantial, with a value of some £280 million and running costs of around £75 million per annum. The plan is to halve the current number of office buildings — around 70 in the greater Belfast area — over five to seven years as leases expire and larger buildings are refurbished. Thus some 35 buildings, along with several regional offices, will be included in the first phase of procurement.
Although Sinn Féin has no difficulty with a modernising and reforming agenda that leads to better work practices and accommodation, it has a number of serious concerns. The privatisation agenda — the selling off of public assets to the private sector — is one such issue. It is clear that the entire thrust of British direct-rule Ministers, the British Labour Party and the Treasury in London will have profound and far-reaching consequences. The Strategic Investment Board and the Department of Finance and Personnel both claim that the chosen PFI method will save £200 million. There is absolutely no proof for that claim.
There are also implications for employees, given that private companies will be managing the estate. There are proposals to outsource — privatise — work that is currently being done by the Civil Service. Over 500 jobs will be handed to private-sector contractors. Clearly, that will have implications for conditions of employment and pensions.
Another danger is that this will adversely affect smaller, locally based companies, which will be frozen out. They will find it difficult to compete for such big contracts, which will most likely be won by single suppliers. Local economies will lose that revenue.
Sinn Féin’s central concern is about the impact of the policy on decentralisation. Workplace 2010 claims to have addressed the issue by holding some of the Civil Service estate back, while balancing it with the need to deal with pressing accommodation requirements in the Belfast area in phase one.
The second phase will address the regional estate. There is no time frame on that. There are concerns that this actually militates against decentralisation, because the core administrative work of Departments will be consolidated in new offices in the Belfast area. That is particularly pertinent in the context of the review of public administration and the breakdown of councils. This is the rationale for the infrastructure and investment patterns that are clearly benefiting the greater Belfast area to the detriment of other areas. As regards the RPA announcements, it means that although councils in border areas will have increased powers, they will not benefit from Workplace 2010.
Senior civil servants, as the senior policy-makers, have a vested interest in ensuring that little or limited decentralisation takes place. Long-term rent agreements on privatised buildings will ensure that the core work of Departments continues to be done in the Belfast area.
Decentralisation would also have an immediate and long-term economic benefit in that it would bring jobs to the border counties. Decentralisation is one way to help to develop a better economy and to benefit rural regeneration; the rural population would be better sustained, and there would be an increase in income in many rural towns that would impact on schools, shops, post offices and other facets of rural life.
However, Sinn Féin believes that an opportunity has been lost to truly decentralise the Civil Service; to help to create balanced regional development throughout the North; and to help to kick-start regional economies in line with equality and new targeting social need obligations. It is not enough to say that moving from east Belfast and north Down into Belfast city centre satisfies equality and New TSN criteria.
Sinn Féin is concerned that Workplace 2010 as presently constituted, notwithstanding the flexibility for movement built into the programme, will merely copper-fasten the status quo and replicate current patterns of investment and disadvantage. That is unacceptable.
Although, as an Irish republican party, Sinn Féin has no political or emotional attachment to the Stormont estate, it is nevertheless opposed to the concept of public property being sold to the private sector, and it is opposed to plans to privatise aspects of the work currently being carried out by the public sector. The party remains unconvinced that PFI offers the best option and value for money, and it believes that a privatisation agenda is being rushed through too quickly.
Mr Weir: Will the Member give way?
Mr Doherty: I have concluded my remarks, so the Member has the Floor.
Mr Newton: I support the report. Like some of the Members who have spoken already, I pay tribute to the staff and the civil servants who went out of their way over the Christmas period — a difficult time in the calendar — to produce a balanced report.
As has already been mentioned, the circumstances under which the subgroup met were such that much work had already been carried out on Workplace 2010, and the letting of the Workplace 2010 contract was at an advanced stage. That placed constraints on the subgroup members, and it could be argued that the brief was very narrow and the timescale for the task extremely short.
The subgroup also met at a time when there was much need for investment in public-sector buildings and a recognition that modern and efficient offices were needed to deliver public-sector services effectively. Members have referred to when they were incarcerated — although I do not think that they used that exact word — in Government office buildings during the talks process; they felt as if they were in jail. If they felt that way for that short but intensive period, one can only wonder how the civil servants who spend year after year working in those offices must feel.
However, the Government have taken advice, with the result that the PFI option has been chosen. The subgroup members expressed concern that officials appearing before them were allowed to speak only in support of current ministerial policy.
In supporting the report, I want to consider two distinct areas. The first area is the equality, social and economic effects on the companies and employees who are currently engaged in carrying out maintenance work on the buildings that are listed. The second area is the policy of dispersal and whether employees might be forced to move home if an affirmative policy were put in place. During the subgroup’s meetings, I expressed great concerns about the small businesses that are currently undertaking work on behalf of the Civil Service and that will be affected by this initiative. Over the years, small to medium-sized businesses (SMEs) have tendered for business and have built their reputations on offering a service to the Civil Service; those businesses may be the major losers when the maintenance contract is awarded. Local firms employ local people, and I can only assume that they are performing their tasks to the satisfaction of the Departments.
To some extent, I am relieved that, as I understand it, the “big four” multinationals that have tendered for the project have indicated that, should one of them win the contract, they are willing to employ local labour and to involve local companies. I queried how tightly that commitment could be tied down; I was assured that it could be tied down to a limited extent, but whichever company won the contract would have the right to use any labour firm that it wished. However, it is useful to know that those companies are willing to consider the use of local labour. The use of local labour and the economic benefits for Northern Ireland should taken into account when the applications are being considered. I hope that the people who make the final decision will keep those factors uppermost in their minds. The people who are most likely to be hit are those who undertake what are regarded as “lower” jobs — those engaged in cleaning, canteen services and minor maintenance work.
When previous contracts of this nature were awarded to large multinationals, those companies went on to establish themselves in offshore low-tax regimes, thereby minimising the local economy’s tax take. That issue concerns me, and it was discussed during the subgroup’s deliberations. That factor should also be taken into consideration when the final contract is awarded.
I come now to the policy of dispersal. At one stage in my career, I spent two years being told by my employer that, due to reorganisation, I would be given certain options and would be absorbed into another area of work. However, it was not made clear where that work might be or what type of work I might be expected to do. Therefore, I can understand how some civil servants might be feeling about the Workplace 2010 initiative.
Mr Weir: Does my Friend share my concern about Rathgael House in Bangor? For some reason — the motivation of Government could be questioned on this issue — Rathgael House has been categorised as a “Belfast” building; no other building outside Belfast has been categorised in that way. Many staff in Rathgael House transferred from Belfast to Bangor because of family commitments, so the potential for dispersal is causing many of them great stress.
Mr Newton: I concur with the Member’s comments. I had intended to deal with that matter.
The experience of the Republic of Ireland Government has been mentioned. In their attempts to decentralise jobs, they have met with massive resistance from civil servants. As I understand it from press reports, the decentralisation of Civil Service jobs will become an election issue. Imagine what it must be like for the core of Civil Service employees at present. There must be dissatisfaction and concern among them and also among those small companies that help to service Government buildings.
The Scottish experience has been referred to, and we should learn from the experience of those who have previously engaged in decentralisation. The Scottish Executive, having been around the block once, are now starting to add to their thinking on decentralisation. Indeed, there is revised guidance on the relocation process, which seeks real and tangible benefits for the relocation, provides a rationale for it and is clear about the standards and processes for staff consultation. Information is made available to individuals and to Departments, and the real and total case for rationalisation is put.
We in Northern Ireland must learn from experiences elsewhere in order to ensure that we get cost-effective delivery in all situations. The report notes that 60% of the population live in the Belfast travel-to-work area and that 59% of civil servants are based in that area. To dismiss those figures would be unfair and, indeed, discriminatory.
Mr Elliott: I also wish to express my thanks to the Committee for the work that it has done on this report.
It is no major surprise that some Members have indicated that the Northern Ireland Civil Service estate has been under-resourced in the past few decades, resulting in a limited maintenance of buildings and a general decline in the overall estate. Modern and efficient offices are required to aid the delivery of modern public services, whether in the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (DARD), in the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment (DETI) or in the areas of health, the arts and education. Whatever the Department or agency, antiquated offices will have a negative impact on efficiency.
The need for vast levels of investment in the estate is given as the reason for the PFI known as Workplace 2010, a scheme that is similar to others in Great Britain. It is somewhat encouraging to hear a Sinn Féin Member express concern at the prospect of Her Majesty’s Government selling off some of their buildings.
Mr Weir: Does the Member take encouragement, as I do, from the fact that some progress has been made today? It used to be “no return to Stormont”, yet now it is “no sell-off of Stormont”.
Mr Elliott: I thank the Member for his comments; I cannot disagree with them. Perhaps the situation is moving on, in spite of what others may think.
Workplace 2010 is not simply about buildings. It is about employees; it involves real people. That is the crux of the matter. The terms used to sell the PFI often belie the very real fears of those that the organisation employs. The most anxious employees are often those in the lowest-paid jobs — those who earn little above the minimum wage.
We often hear consultants and others come out with phrases such as “improve the working environment” or “introduce more efficient arrangements”. Those phrases sound good to management and Government, but the fears of those further down the ladder are often deep-rooted.
Last summer, I was contacted by Civil Service support-level employees who were deeply concerned by Workplace 2010’s proposals and the pace at which changes were being implemented. They were deeply anxious that there was no supporting business case for making those changes, which looked set to be rolled out even before the two pilot schemes had been completed and analysed.
Those essential staff were worried about how the outworking of Workplace 2010 would affect their status. They were especially worried that they would be forced to move to the private sector. I welcome the fact that the Committee on the Programme for Government has addressed that concern.
Another bone of contention was that pensions were to be “comparable” after the changeover to the private sector. Note that pensions were to be comparable, not the same. Those staff to whom I spoke were worried not only about their own positions but about the impact that those changes could have on the way in which Departments are able to perform their duties to the Northern Ireland public effectively. For example, the influx of agency staff, of which there is potentially a high turnover, could mean no continuity of staffing. That could lead to a lack of ownership of tasks and, ultimately, to an unsatisfactory outcome for everyone.
Few of us are comfortable with change, particularly when that change is outside of our influence and when it can result in major changes, such as our status as an employee. Outsourcing does not have a good reputation in the Northern Ireland public sector. Many millions were wasted on the Child Support Agency (CSA), which failed to realise any improvement, and there are examples of agencies neither properly staffing their organisations nor training those staff. There is little wonder that the public lack enthusiasm for such a move when the employment of agency cleaning staff in some hospital wards has resulted in poor standards of cleanliness.
The fear of continued centralisation and the relocation of public-sector offices into our towns and cities cannot be allowed to continue to disadvantage those in rural communities, particularly those in the west of the Province. I thank other Members for their contributions on that point.
Representatives from the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS) recently briefed some of my colleagues on Fermanagh District Council and me on the proposed restructuring of HM Revenue and Customs. That restructuring threatens more than half of the 82 jobs in its Enniskillen offices. The proposed centralisation of those jobs is on top of last year’s proposal to remove Northern Ireland Housing Executive (NIHE) staff from the Enniskillen office.
The west is suffering as a result of such proposals, and the agencies concerned appear to show little interest in catering for the needs of employees outside of our main towns and cities. We heard in earlier contributions about employees having to travel long distances to work and about the problems that they have encountered. Public-sector staff in Enniskillen cannot feasibly travel to other sites in Northern Ireland. They will also find it extremely difficult to find alternative roles in their locality.
Moreover, the Workplace 2010 proposals disadvantage the public by removing staff who usually provide face-to-face, front-line services and advice to vulnerable members of our society, such as those on low income and those who find the complex taxation system difficult and intimidating. The loss of those jobs will mean that more than £500,000 will be lost to the local economy, resulting in numerous families struggling to cope financially. Indeed, it will be a major loss to the entire community.
There has been an historical problem of underinvestment in the estates, to which a pragmatic approach is certainly required. However, consideration must be given to the loyal staff members in the communities that I have mentioned. I do not want Northern Ireland to arrive at a situation whereby some areas are almost totally reliant on the public sector for employment. We have local council areas in the Province in which somewhere in the region of 50% of the workforce is employed in the public sector. That is not healthy; we want a fair and reasonable balance.
The success or failure of a major initiative such as Workplace 2010 in large organisations that are similar to the Civil Service invariably lies in the hands of the often overlooked but essential roles that security, catering or cleaning staff play. Employees at all levels must be kept informed and on board if the full potential of any change — particularly those that are outlined in Workplace 2010 — is to be realised.
The need for value for money must be addressed at every stage of the PFI. If the taxpayer is not receiving a good deal from the private firms, that problem will need to be addressed. I am glad that the Committee on the Programme for Government recognised that fact in its conclusions. However, the PFI cannot be allowed to focus solely on upfront costs, and service standards must not be compromised in order to remove the possibility of costly mistakes being made down the line.
(Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr Wells] in the Chair)
I am a strong advocate for decentralising public-sector jobs and taking them away from many of the main settlements. Earlier, someone said that there should be one major Department that focuses on Londonderry. It should not just focus on Londonderry; it should focus as well on areas such as Omagh, Dungannon, Strabane and Enniskillen.
The recent centralisation trend is disadvantaging the west of the Province. The final outcome of the review of public administration will result in the largest public-sector change that will have been experienced here, but, pending that outcome, rationalisation is premature. I support the conclusions of the report.
Ms Ritchie: Like the Members who have spoken before me, I commend all those who are associated with the report — the members of the subgroup and the staff who work alongside them.
The location of public-sector jobs must be addressed with respect to the relevant need of a particular community. A remoulded Workplace 2010 strategy should be the driving force for doing that. That means that a mechanism for the centralisation of Government jobs in the greater Belfast area should not be propelled through. However, that seems to be happening at present.
One of the central points that is advocated in the report of the Committee on the Programme for Government is the need for:
“an affirmative policy for the dispersal of public sector jobs which would take account of existing strategies for equality, rural development, sustainable development and targeting social need.”
I concur with that view, and I strongly support the recommendation that a restored Executive needs to proceed to:
“develop and implement such a policy, for the benefit of the whole of Northern Ireland as a matter of priority.”
Families in rural areas and regional towns need existing public-sector jobs to be sustained and secured. Local residents rightly demand the relocation of new jobs to places in which administrative expertise and skills exist in abundance.
Take the Workplace 2010 strategy as an example: it involves a review of current Civil Service office accommodation in Belfast and in regional towns. I am aware that the strategy group has already earmarked some public-service offices in South Down to be part of that review. Those include Rathkeltair House in Downpatrick and the local social security office. Rathkeltair House provides Planning Service and Roads Service functions as well as housing the driver and vehicle licensing office, the county agricultural office and the jobcentre. The building is relatively new — 16 years old — and is considered to be a development opportunity, but no sound reason has been offered for its inclusion in the contract. Many public-sector staff work there and wish to remain there; indeed, the majority of local residents access services there.
Public-sector staff must be provided with working conditions that reflect best practice in health-and-safety requirements.
Why sell a building that is only 16 years old? What is the real rationale for such a proposal? Was it made in the interests of people, the requirements of the local area, the best service delivery, or cost? Clarification is urgently required on that matter. I note the commitment made by Minister Hanson in a recent letter to me, dated 7 November 2006, that:
“the staff providing public services currently within the building would be relocated to another location within the town.”
I welcome that ministerial commitment to sustain existing jobs. I hope that that remains the position and that further opportunities will be created for the decentralisation of new public-sector jobs through the construction of the new Social Security Agency office in Downpatrick and substantial associated offices in other towns in the area. I believe that that task must be fulfilled at an early opportunity in order to provide public and local confidence. I hope that that will be one of the priorities of a restored Assembly and Executive.
Job dispersal and the relocation of new public-sector jobs to regional towns must be an integral part of the Workplace 2010 initiative. The needs of families, the young and the elderly must motivate, propel, and be the driving force of Government policy for the location of jobs. Furthermore, there is a compelling imperative for a revised Workplace 2010 strategy to ensure the sustainability of existing public-sector jobs and the relocation of new jobs to regional towns in order to fulfil the requirements of the regional development strategy. The Workplace 2010 strategy must quell the current contradictions in Government policy.
My colleague John Dallat, who represents the east Derry constituency, referred to the relocation of motor vehicle testing to Swansea from Coleraine. If that decision were implemented, it would also have an impact on the local vehicle testing offices that are dotted throughout Northern Ireland. If Workplace 2010 is to mean anything for the decentralisation of local jobs to local towns, the relocation of the Coleraine office must be stopped immediately.
In 2000-01, the regional development strategy stated that Downpatrick should develop as a hub town. For that to happen, there must be: a centre of public administration that provides substantial, high-level, public-sector jobs; a thriving retail commercial base; inward investment opportunities; support for local indigenous business, including the tourist centre; and a significant land zone for social and private-sector housing.
I therefore look forward to positive approval for Down District Council’s request for the location of a new council headquarters in Downpatrick. Such an administrative centre, with the capacity to accommodate other public-sector and Civil Service jobs, could be the centre of public administration excellence, alongside the divisional police headquarters, the Social Security Agency, the proposed midwifery unit, the new hospital, and the ambulance and emergency services centre. Expertise and skills in medical, health and social services provision and public-sector administration must be sustained and developed.
Moreover, the growing problems of travel to and through the greater Belfast area would suggest that it makes economic and social sense to secure existing jobs and relocate new public-sector jobs to places such as Downpatrick. The Assembly must resist any residual attempts in Workplace 2010 to rob regional towns and rural communities of existing jobs or new employment opportunities.
Economic opportunities in regional towns must be developed and sustained. We must continue to ensure that our children are able to seek employment and career opportunities in towns such as those in my constituency of South Down. We must continue to ensure that public-sector jobs in Northern Ireland are dispersed effectively and equitably. Provision of new public-sector jobs, combined with the development of all possible economic opportunities, investment in roads and transport infrastructure and the enhancement of the agricultural, fishing and tourism sectors will help to ensure more equitable benefits for families, young people and the elderly.
Workplace 2010 must be a determined strategy to decentralise Government jobs to rural areas. If not, it should be scrapped. It should protect and secure existing jobs, and it should secure the relocation and creation of new jobs in our regional towns so that a positive contribution can be made to the local economy.
It is significant that the Taoiseach is launching the National Development Plan (NDP) today. That is the first such plan with an all-island dimension, and, hopefully, it will provide the necessary funds to give regional towns the infrastructure that will ensure that new jobs can be located in them. If those towns have the links, why can they not have new jobs? That is what balanced regional development is all about.
Mr Beggs: I share the concerns that other Members have about the contract and the huge dangers that exist. Ultimately, those could cost local taxpayers and any devolved Administration dearly for decades. We should remember past mistakes, particularly those made with the electricity contracts, which we are only getting out of now. There is a huge danger that we will repeat those past mistakes.
I wish to concentrate on the effect that the proposed change will have on my constituency of East Antrim. I wish also to highlight the lack of Civil Service job opportunities in that constituency. My points will be relevant, given that I have heard many Members argue that Civil Service jobs should move west. That argument suggests that constituencies in the east are better served. I wish to draw relevant and objective material to the attention of Members and senior civil servants.
According to the claimant-count figures of December 2006, the job density figure for the East Antrim constituency is 0·48. That is the lowest figure for any constituency in Northern Ireland. Essentially, people in East Antrim have relatively few job opportunities. Unemployment levels in East Antrim are listed in the claimant count as being at the Northern Ireland average of 2·4%. What does that mean? It means that to travel to where jobs are located, constituents of mine in places such as Larne, Carrickfergus and Newtownabbey must get on their bikes, in their cars or onto buses or trains. They must travel to other places at a cost to themselves.
Mr Elliott: Does the Member agree that it would be difficult for someone who lives in Enniskillen to cycle to a job in Belfast?
Mr Beggs: I hope that the Member accepts that it would be equally difficult for someone who lives in Carnlough to travel to work in Belfast. Other areas of East Antrim, in the east of the Province, have relatively few Civil Service job opportunities.
Annex 1 of the ‘Report on Workplace 2010 and Public Sector Jobs Location’ illustrates civil servants’ work locations and from where they travel. It shows that of the constituencies in the east, East Antrim has the second-lowest number of Civil Service jobs in the devolved Departments. It has 215 employees from a total Civil Service workforce of over 27,000; that means that less than 1% of the workforce is employed in the constituency. That translates to only 78 jobs in Carrickfergus, 136 in Larne and 148 in Newtownabbey.
The Carrickfergus Borough Council area has the second lowest number of Civil Service jobs of any Northern Ireland council area. My constituents must travel elsewhere for jobs in the Civil Service. The opportunities do not exist in parts of the east of the Province, just as they do not exist in parts of the west. East Antrim fares badly in terms of job opportunities.
What of the future? We are all aware that the RPA is at a fairly advanced stage, and that other Civil Service reforms are to occur as well. I have noticed changes under way that will adversely affect my constituents’ already low level of employment. It is clear that there will be fewer council employees in my constituency. I share the concerns of my constituents that, with Carrickfergus and Newtownabbey being grouped with Lisburn and Antrim, local jobs will be relocated to those towns, where the councils have large, plush new headquarters.
Similarly, Larne has been grouped with Ballymena, Ballymoney, Moyle and Coleraine. Jobs in Larne are likely to be transferred to Ballymena or Coleraine. The Larne offices of the Roads Service and the Water Service have closed in recent years, and I am concerned that other areas that are under review may suffer similarly, especially since the area already has one of the lowest numbers of Civil Service jobs in Northern Ireland.
The Social Security Agency is currently reviewing back-office operations in Carrickfergus and Larne. It has been hinted that these operations will be discontinued, and there is consultation ongoing at present, so what few jobs remain are also at risk. I have also had informal conversations with a relatively senior member of staff of the Housing Executive, and I was asked whether Larne leaned more towards Ballymena or towards other towns in East Antrim. Obviously there is some discussion within the Housing Executive about the possibility of downgrading its office in Larne — perhaps it will become some sort of sub-office, at more cost to local jobs.
There is not just a dearth of jobs in the west; there are areas in the east that need job opportunities to be created, and this is particularly so in my East Antrim constituency. Jobs are at risk in the councils, in the Housing Executive and in the social security offices, and the constituency could end up with a complete dearth of Civil Service job opportunities.
I ask the Government and any future Administration here to examine areas in the east of Northern Ireland that have not been faring well. I support my colleague from Fermanagh and South Tyrone Mr Elliott in asking for a fair and reasonable balance in any relocation plan for Civil Service jobs. I ask for a fair and reasonable number of jobs to be relocated to East Antrim, so that the large number of civil servants who live there do not have to travel to Belfast or other areas at a cost to the environment and at a personal cost, given the extra travelling distance, to themselves.
Mrs O’Rawe: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle.
I welcome the opportunity to speak on the report from the Programme for Government Committee on Workplace 2010. I support the comments that others have made about the timescale involved and about how advanced the project already is. As my party colleague Mr Doherty said earlier, Sinn Féin has no difficulty with a modernising and reforming agenda that leads to better work practices and accommodation. However, we do have concerns on a number of issues around Workplace 2010 and the location of jobs in the public sector, most of which have already been mentioned. Workplace 2010 has implications for employees, given that private-sector companies will be managing the estate.
There are proposals to outsource work currently done by the Civil Service, and NIPSA (Northern Ireland Public Service Alliance) has stated that more than 500 jobs will be handed over to private-sector contractors. Such action would have huge implications for conditions of employment and pensions. Over 300 of those 500 jobs involve the lowest-paid staff in areas such as security provision and mail and messenger services.
Sinn Féin is concerned that that decision will have an adverse impact on certain groups on whom section 75 will have an effect, including those for whom gender and community background are issues. Although women and Catholics are under-represented in Senior Civil Service grades, they are over-represented in the lower grades, which are the grades most likely to be affected by privatisation.
Sinn Féin is concerned that Workplace 2010 will have an adverse impact on workers who will have to move from the public sector to the private sector, and it shares the concerns of others that The Transfer of Undertakings (Protection of Employment) Regulations 2006 (TUPE) will not provide adequate protection. It is not enough for the initial consultation document to state that TUPE should be sufficient to prevent adverse impacts. That is too vague and does nothing to allay the fears of the workers who would be affected by the transfer. Sinn Féin notes that Britain has experienced difficulties with the transfer of undertakings, and my party is concerned that those are not adequately addressed in Workplace 2010.
Sinn Féin’s concerns around dispersal or decentralisation remain, and the equality impact assessment has not addressed them. A LeasCheann Comhairle, I hope that all the concerns raised by the subgroup are given due consideration. I thank the staff from the subgroup and the witnesses who gave evidence. Go raibh maith agat.
The Chairman of the Subgroup on Workplace 2010 and Public Sector Jobs Location (Mr Poots): Although I was not a member of the subgroup, as its nominated Chairman, it falls on me to wind up the debate.
As a result of decisions taken at a meeting of the Committee on the Programme for Government on 11 December 2006, my party was invited to nominate a member to facilitate the work of the subgroup. I was honoured to assume that role, and although I was unable to attend the subgroup’s final meeting, at which my party colleague Paul Girvan ably deputised, I was present when the subgroup heard its oral evidence, considered the written submissions and discussed the issues in some detail.
Many of the points that have been made in the debate have therefore come as no surprise, as they referred to issues that exercised the minds of the members of the subgroup. Neither has it surprised me to hear contributions from Members who represent urban, suburban and rural constituencies. The question of where public-sector jobs — or, for that matter, any jobs — might be located is often the subject of discussion, and the prospect of employment opportunities in one’s constituency is always attractive.
Thus far, my assessment is that some more Departments will have to be created, because we have had proposals for new offices in the city of Londonderry and in Strabane, Omagh, Dungannon and Enniskillen. Indeed, when she referred to hub towns, Margaret Ritchie appeared to want several Departments to be located in Downpatrick; not in Ballynahinch, Newcastle or Saintfield, but very clearly in Downpatrick.
I found it interesting that officials from the Department appeared reluctant to enter into detailed discussions with the subgroup about the location of public-sector jobs, preferring instead to extol the virtues of Workplace 2010. However, the Hansard report shows that one witness said that:
“The issue has economic, political, staff and public service elements”. — [Official Report, Bound Volume 21, pSG146, col 1].
In that sense, the location of public-sector jobs is absolutely no different to Workplace 2010, which is a massive project that will impact on the delivery of public services, as well as affecting civil servants’ well-being.
Thomas Buchanan rightly pointed out that local businesses should not lose out as a result of Workplace 2010. Esmond Birnie cautioned against the risk of awarding long-term financial contracts and getting the financial variables wrong.
He identified three key issues: getting the right price, ensuring that the leaseback charges are reasonable, and the risk of additional charges if there is a need to adjust the contract. He also referred to the failure of the PFI project at Balmoral High School and the resulting closure of that building.
John Dallat, like Dr Birnie, pointed to the difficulty of diversifying public-sector jobs. Others said that many people from the north-west of the Province have to leave home in the early hours of the morning to travel to work, and that this results in congestion on the motorways and added stress on the drivers.
Mr Dallat seems to suffer from the deluded misconception that a devolved Executive would be a panacea for all the problems that exist in Northern Ireland. A mantra that has been expressed by many on the opposite side of the House in recent weeks when we come up against a problem of any kind is that if we just had a devolved Executive, everything would be well — there would be sunshine whenever we required it, it would rain only at night when people were sleeping, the grass would be greener and everything would be so much better. Unfortunately, that is not the reality; any new Executive that there might be at some future date would face many of these problems and would not have all the answers that people seem to expect them to have.
Sean Neeson rightly criticised the Secretary of State’s decision to exclude the Alliance Party from the Programme for Government Committee. He said that that was a disservice. I was more strongly in agreement with him at the outset of his speech than I was at the conclusion, particularly when he mentioned relocating jobs to Londonderry. I wonder what his colleague the mayor of Lisburn — Northern Ireland’s second city — would have to say about the former leader of the Alliance Party’s being so keen to take more jobs to Londonderry when there are so few public-sector jobs in Lisburn, which is a larger city. He also criticised the conditions that some civil servants are expected to work in; I think that that criticism was fair.
Mr Neeson also called for modern and efficient public offices. Giving evidence to the subgroup, the Northern Ireland Public Service Alliance made several references to the difficulties that it was having with Clare House. Subsequently I visited Clare House, and the working conditions in that building are much better than in many of the buildings where civil servants currently work. There is certainly potential to provide better buildings for civil servants under these proposals.
Pat Doherty, of Sinn Féin, broadly supported a programme of modernisation. He was critical of privatisation, especially with regard to employment conditions and pensions. He thought that the proposals that we have militate against decentralisation and that there is a lack of will on the part of senior civil servants to pursue a decentralisation policy. I suspect that that may be correct; civil servants may not necessarily be that inclined to decentralise from their current locations.
Robin Newton spoke of a need for investment in public-sector buildings and a modernisation programme. He expressed concern about the small and medium-sized businesses that are providing services at the moment, but took some comfort from the fact that, even though the four bidders are multinational companies, they have all indicated that they will use local labour and local companies in carrying out their operations.
There were a number of references to the uncertainty in the minds of civil servants about the possibility of relocation and the disruption that it would entail. Tom Elliott said that Workplace 2010 is not just about buildings but about people. He was concerned that not enough time had been taken to consider the lessons from the two pilot projects, and that local economies would suffer. He was also in favour of decentralisation and was one of the individuals who proposed that two Departments should go to Fermanagh and South Tyrone.
Margaret Ritchie called for public-sector job location to take account of the needs and economic states of local communities. She mentioned Downpatrick on several occasions during her speech. Ms Ritchie said that existing jobs should be sustained in local areas and called for an affirmative policy of job dispersal. She also believes that Government policy should be consistent. The regional development strategy promotes hub towns, of which public-sector jobs are an important aspect. While others wish to constrain the growth of the public sector and encourage the growth of the private sector, Margaret Ritchie seeks new public-sector jobs in Downpatrick. She wants a bigger public sector, with more administrators and civil servants, and less money for front-line services, such as doctors, nurses and teachers.
Roy Beggs recalled the privatisation of Northern Ireland Electricity and how the company was undervalued. He is worried that history might repeat itself. Unlike his East Antrim colleague Mr Neeson, he pointed out that it is not only the west that suffers from a dearth of jobs. He also pointed out that the effect of RPA, and the reduction in the number of councils, has the potential for further job reductions in smaller towns, such as Larne and Carrickfergus. If Lisburn City Council and Carrickfergus Borough Council are to be amalgamated — and who knows what councils will be amalgamated — I think that the folks of Lisburn will be happy to give the folks of Carrick a fair crack of the whip in deciding what might happen.
Mrs O’Rawe was the last Member who spoke for Sinn Féin — perhaps not for Sinn Féin, but she was certainly the last Member to speak. She feels that there will be difficulties in dealing with the section 75 issues in Workplace 2010.
I have my own concerns about the proposals. The logic of selling property only to rent it back is flawed. If people in the private sector who have acquired property in recent years were asked whether they regretted it, remarkably few would say that they do. Indeed, more people want to buy property in order to rent it out because it is a profitable exercise, as opposed to what the Government are doing, which is selling property and renting it back. Usually, property grows in value, as has been reflected over the past number of years.
I am deeply concerned that anyone could propose renovating Dundonald House to current building standards. Dundonald House, which was developed in the 1960s, is well past its sell-by date. One problem with the design and structural quality of that building is that it is a copycat development of something from the Marxist eastern bloc. The original problems with the design and structure of Dundonald House, as highlighted in a report in the 1990s, are the reason that the building now has problems with crumbling concrete and secondary glazing in the structure, and why there is a complete absence of air conditioning.
The cost of the renovation work would far exceed that of a new building. In terms of a building, and a Department, that is ripe for relocation, the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, which is tasked with dealing with rural issues but is based in a crumbling building in east Belfast, should be the number-one target for any constituency. Members from quite a number of constituencies have said where they think that Department should be relocated.
Arguments can be made for the relocation of DARD, which could be achieved at a reduced cost to the public rather than renovating the existing building. I have been told by people involved in Workplace 2010 that there should not be a problem with that. If it is identified that it would cost more to bring Dundonald House up to acceptable standards than to acquire a new building, the Department could be relocated to another site.
I thank all Members who participated in the debate. It has been useful, and I trust that the contributions will assist the Civil Service in reaching its conclusions. Some people suggest that the proposals represent a fait accompli and that nothing more can be done. Nonetheless, the report has been produced, and I trust that due consideration will be given to what is contained therein.
Question put and agreed to.
That this Assembly notes the report from the Committee on the Programme for Government on Workplace 2010 and Public Sector Jobs Location and endorses the findings and conclusions set out in the Report.
Mr Deputy Speaker: The Business Committee has agreed to meet at lunchtime today. I therefore propose, by leave of the Assembly, to suspend the House until 2.00 pm.
The sitting was suspended at 12.15 pm.
On resuming (Madam Speaker in the Chair) —
Welfare Reform Bill
Madam Speaker: The Business Committee has agreed to allow two hours for the debate. The Member who is proposing the motion has 15 minutes to speak, with 15 minutes for the winding-up speech. All other Members who wish to speak will have a maximum of 10 minutes.
Mr O’Dowd: I beg to move
That this Assembly expresses deep concern about the implications of the Welfare Reform Bill, particularly the introduction of a new coercive regime into benefit administration, and its impact on a number of vulnerable groups, including neurological patients.
I will speak in favour of the motion, but as the day goes on, I may speak in favour of the amendment. Given that the amendment is in the flavour of the motion, I will not speak against it. However, the difference between the motion and the amendment is a technicality that we might clear up as the debate proceeds.
The Welfare Reform Bill was introduced in the British House of Commons in July 2006 and has been carried into the 2006-07 session. The British Government intend to extend the Bill to the North by way of a welfare reform Order — that is, government by undemocratic direction.
The Bill has five main components, but the provisions that we will debate attract the most public attention. First is the introduction of a new style of benefit — the employment and support allowance (ESA) — that is to replace incapacity benefit. The main tenets of that benefit are that during the 13 weeks after first making a claim, claimants will be assessed and placed in one of two groups. Group one, which is the work-related activity group, is for those who are capable of participating in work-focused interviews and activities. Group two, which is the support group, is for those who have been assessed as severely functionally limited — that is a rather regrettable term. People who are in that group will not have to participate in such work-focused activities, but they can choose to do so.
During those first 13 weeks, all new claimants will receive a basic award while their assessment is completed. It is unclear how that assessment will be carried out in the North. In England, private companies are to be used. However, lobby groups in England are uncovering already some disquieting revelations about those very companies. Claimants in the support group will be entitled to an additional support component payment, which is likely to be higher than that that is given to those who are in the work-related activity group.
Each claimant in the work-related activity group — this is a bit technical, but we will get through it — will have to agree an action plan with their personal adviser. It is not clear what qualifications, if any, are required of personal advisers. In fact, a personal adviser to someone who has severe and complex medical needs may have no medical background whatever.
If a claimant is unable to attend an interview without good cause, a sanction will be imposed. “Good cause” has not been defined, but it appears that the caseworker will determine what is “good cause”. However, as I have said, that caseworker may not have any knowledge of neurological, mental or physical health conditions.
Although today’s debate focuses on the provisions that relate to changes in incapacity benefit, the Bill also proposes changes to several other areas, including housing benefit and council-tax relief in England.
When translated to here, it will mean that when new Labour refers to welfare reform, it means possible cuts in housing benefit and rates relief and a possible increase in taxation.
We are debating the implications of the Bill on vulnerable groups, including neurological patients, people with multiple sclerosis (MS), brain injuries, epilepsy and many other complaints. It will also include people with mental-health issues and those restricted by a physical disability. The Bill will force, coerce and bully such people into compulsory participation in a practice that might see unqualified civil servants making medical decisions about people with complex health and medical issues.
The practice of compulsory participation for such claimants with complex health problems in work-related activity groups is inappropriate in principle, given the fluctuating, and at times unpredictable, nature of some of those health problems. The Bill attempts to cover up the practice of forcing people with complex health and medical needs back to work as an alternative therapy — a crude form of the “work-never-killed-anyone” analysis. The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) in Britain, which administers the Pathways to Work pilot scheme, admits that its therapists are unfamiliar with neurological conditions.
Are we being told that the section of the local Social Security Agency that deals with incapacity benefit, which will undoubtedly enact the Welfare Reform Bill here, is bursting at the seams with neurological experts? I think not. The Social Security Agency is not qualified in that regard.
Mr S Wilson: The Minister in England has made it clear that there will be extensive training for staff and that he is happy for voluntary groups with expertise in identifying mental-health problems to be involved in that training. Does that not assure the Member that at least some people with expertise from interested groups will be helping the staff who will be making the decisions?
Mr O’Dowd: The Member is correct; the Minister made such a statement. However, are we to say that civil servants working in the Social Security Agency or other Departments that administer benefits will be trained to be psychologists or neurologists?
Mr McCann: Does Mr O’Dowd recall a similar exercise that was carried out four or five years ago? People on long-term benefits, including those who were severely disabled, mentally ill and those with a whole range of medical disabilities, were asked to come to a benefit office only to find that the staff were unqualified. Many of those people found that their benefits were suspended through no fault of their own. Does the Member agree that there is a very strong possibility that, regardless of the level of training, lay people will be working in a medical environment, which will have a knock-on effect right across the community?
Mr O’Dowd: I do agree. It is also clear that there is no regulatory body for therapists. Any voluntary group can set itself up with therapists and be introduced into the system, and that is unfair. Indeed, the Bill refers to “alternative medical treatments”. The Department for Work and Pensions in England is not the Department of Health; the Department for Social Development (DSD) is not the Department of Health here. The DSD is not qualified to hand out treatment. Treatment is not offered by GPs or consultants or by the Department of Health, but by someone appointed by a Department with no medical or health knowledge. Patients are told that, if they do not adhere to advice given by unqualified individuals, their benefits will be cut.
Vulnerable people in our society have been placed in an impossible position, and those with mental-health issues are being put under added pressure. Proposals of conditionality may result in undue pressure being put on claimants to sign up to inappropriate or unachievable action plans rather than risk a reduction in their benefits.
Pilot schemes in Britain have already thrown up cases of vulnerable people being forced into jobs and scenarios that they were not ready for, and, more importantly, for which they were not given any form of proper support and guidance.
The British Government tell us that the main principle of the Welfare Reform Bill is to support and encourage more people in receipt of incapacity benefits to move into employment, where they are able to do so. No one can argue with that; unfortunately, the Bill’s remaining 264 clauses are more to do with reducing the cost of incapacity benefit than a structured and properly managed plan for a return to work.
The Bill does not address the reluctance of employers to accept potential new employees whose records show long-term receipt of incapacity benefit. It does nothing to remove the physical and mental obstacles placed in the way of people who wish to come off incapacity benefits and return to work. Recent statistics confirm that fewer than 40% of employers would hire someone with a mental illness, with 70% stating that to employ someone with schizophrenia would either be impossible or very difficult.
There is little point in encouraging people towards work if employers are unwilling to employ them. Furthermore, encountering such prejudice or discrimination can have a devastating effect on the mental health of an individual who has successfully come off benefits only to have to return to those benefits in a worse state of health. The vast majority of people with disabilities, mental-health issues and neurological conditions want to play their part in the workforce. Some, due to their conditions, may not be able to do so. We should recognise that and legislate for those circumstances in a compassionate manner.
The Government must take further action to reduce the stigma and discrimination faced by people with mental-health problems. Only last week, Rethink (NI) launched a campaign on the steps of Stormont, calling on people to rethink their attitudes to mental health. However, the Government have not played their role, particularly in eradicating prejudices among employers.
People with the conditions that I have described have been to the forefront of campaigning against the discriminatory employment practices that excluded them. They want to remove the barriers to employment; the Government have a duty to act. The Welfare Reform Bill is not about ensuring that those people can play their part in the workforce in a properly structured and managed fashion: it is about forcing people into jobs that may well have a detrimental effect on their health and well-being.
What is required? For a start, we need an Assembly and an Executive to prevent the Welfare Reform Bill becoming reality. Another good starting point would be the enactment of legislation based on the desire to help people back to work, not simply to save money. We must remove the barriers to employment for people with mental-health difficulties and physical and neurological conditions, and make proper provision for those who — we must accept — may not be able to return to work.
Any review of individual cases should be carried out by properly qualified doctors and medical teams — not civil servants or private companies, as is proposed in the English Bill. Most of all, people should be treated with dignity. Rather than brand them as spongers, any review of the welfare system should ensure that people with mental-health difficulties, disabilities or neurological conditions are made to feel valued. I ask the House to support the motion.
Mrs D Kelly: I beg to move the following amendment: Leave out all after “groups” and insert
“, especially those people with mental ill health.”
The SDLP’s amendment is not intended to dilute the motion, but to clarify the impact that the Welfare Reform Bill will have on people with mental ill health. The original motion, in specifying neurological patients, was somewhat confusing, as the definition of a neurological patient is wide-ranging in its medical interpretation. However, I thank the Member for Upper Bann Mr O’Dowd for expanding on that in his contribution.
The Welfare Reform Bill introduces the employment and support allowance, which will replace incapacity benefit. The vast majority of ESA claimants will have to take part in work-focused and work-related activities in order to obtain the full rate of benefit. People assessed as severely functionally limited will not have to attend interviews or engage in specified activities to receive the full rate of benefit. This latter group is known as a support group. However, there are concerns that this mechanism will deny people with severe and enduring mental-health conditions opportunities for supported employment.
Mr S Wilson: Does the Member not accept that the current system does just that? It stigmatises people by implying that those on incapacity benefit are incapable of work. Even though nine out of 10 people go on to incapacity benefit hoping to get back to work, of those who stay on it for two years or more, most stay on it until they retire or die. The real stigma is being presented by the current system, not the one proposed.
Mrs D Kelly: I thank the Member for his point. The SDLP is not opposed to welfare reform. We share the view of many leading charities and others that people who abuse the system must be rooted out. They deprive our society of much needed funding for schools and hospitals and give genuine claimants a bad name.
In setting out the case for reform, the Green Paper states that:
“Ensuring citizens have the right to enter the world of work is a fundamental responsibility of any modern government.”
The SDLP has long recognised the social injustice that is inflicted by the poverty trap of benefit dependency. The fact that one child in three continues to live in poverty must be a key challenge for a restored Assembly to tackle.
The SDLP welcomes the opportunities for employment in the North presented by the Irish Government in its National Development Plan, much of which mirrors ideas and strategies of the SDLP’s ‘North South Makes Sense’ campaign. However, the motion rightly calls on the House to express deep concern at the implications of the Welfare Reform Bill, a view shared by many leading non-governmental organisations which advocate on behalf of those with disabilities and mental ill-health, including the Royal College of Psychiatrists.
People with mental-health problems are one of the most excluded groups in society. According to the social exclusion unit, only 24% of adults with mental-health problems are in work, which is the lowest employment rate of any of the main groups of disabled people. Added to that, fewer than four in 10 employers say that they would recruit someone with a mental-health problem. Employers are key to the success of welfare reform, but there is nothing in the Bill to encourage them, or ensure that they play as full a role as possible in helping people to move from benefit to work and remain there. Tax incentives could provide such encouragement.
The SDLP is also concerned that staff assessing an individual’s capability to work do not have appropriate training in mental health to assess people for employment and support allowance, and for supporting people into work. The Bill has no proposals to increase training for support staff who will have to make important decisions on a person’s suitability, nor is there any cross-reference to the role that allied health professionals, especially occupational therapists, could play in making such assessments.
Members know about the current inadequate provision of staff and the long waiting lists. Given the key role of occupational therapists in the rehabilitation of people with mental ill health, this will place increased demands on an already overstretched resource. There is no sign of Government joined-up thinking here.
The use of sanctions is a major cause for concern. If claimants do not comply with the conditionality criteria, which are: attend work-focused interviews; attend work-focused health-related assessments; and engage in work-related activities, they risk losing up to 25% of their benefit right away. Unemployment, and the ensuing financial hardship, is a contributing factor to mental ill health, with increased stress and anxiety, loss of self-esteem and depression.
Mr P Ramsey: Currently, there is no the right of appeal in respect of ESA in the Bill. The Member referred to the support groups who are concerned about the fear and anxiety that people, particularly those with mental-health problems, will have as a result of these customer-unfriendly forms that they will have to complete. Will the Member support the call for the retention of the independent appeals service?
Mrs D Kelly: I thank the Member for his intervention, and I support his call. The right of appeal is a fundamental concern that many organisations have expressed about the Bill.
The threat to remove benefit without putting proper support in place can only be seen as punitive. There are insufficient guarantees that the right support will be available, and there are not enough vocational training rehabilitation facilities available at accessible locations in Northern Ireland. The community and voluntary sector fights the good fight to fill the gaps, but it has to continuously chase European funding or seek the crumbs from the table of health and social services.
The Welfare Reform Bill is long on regulation but short on evidence-based approaches. There are no guarantees that the staff who will be the decision-makers have the appropriate training and skills, or that the doctors who conduct the medical reviews have the time or even the specialist mental-health training to do so. In the past, doctors were put under pressure to put people onto incapacity benefit in order to reduce the unemployment statistics; now there is a new form of social definition of medical incapacity in order to push doctors the other way.
More needs to be done to seek the support and co-operation of potential employers as the key, and the right of appeal is limited.
Madam Speaker, I support the amendment to the motion and will take advice later on how neurological patients can also be included in it.
Mr N Dodds: This is an important piece of legislation, which has already gone through the legislative process in the House of Commons.
First, the Northern Ireland Assembly decided that there would be parity between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom in welfare, benefits and social security legislation. It took that very sensible decision on a consensual basis because the consequences of not implementing parity would be too awful to contemplate. It would create a financial black hole, and the resources of the Department of Finance and Personnel would be taken up almost exclusively in trying to deal with differences between here and the rest of the United Kingdom.
It would cause considerable inconvenience and disadvantage to all communities here in trying to access entitlements compared to the rest of the country. It would have a devastating impact on the ability and ease of people to move freely between different parts of the United Kingdom and to move, live and work elsewhere. Northern Ireland would have to have new and different computer systems and different administrative arrangements, which would cost a fortune.
Parity was the right thing to do then, and it is the right thing to do now. Any future devolved Administration that does not go down that path would be playing into the hands of the Chancellor of the Exchequer and Her Majesty’s Treasury, who would be delighted if Northern Ireland were to go its own way on benefits and social security. Breaking parity would give them the opportunity to consider a great many other issues for a financial package for Northern Ireland.
Mr S Wilson: Does the Member see any irony in the fact that Members opposite, especially Sinn Féin Members, suggest that we should go our own way? Those same Members would violently and vehemently oppose the regionalisation of public-sector pay, for example, but have no difficulty with the regionalisation of public benefits.
Mr N Dodds: The Member is quite right to point out that dichotomy.
In a debate in the Northern Ireland Assembly, an Alliance Party Member proposed that we should increase pensions by £5 per pensioner. We do not need a debate in the House to get consensus that £5 is not enough and that we need to increase it by far more. However, when it was pointed out that the cost would have to come out of our own resources, no one could say where the hundreds of millions of pounds should come from.
The principle of parity is well established; it has been in existence for the social security arrangements between Great Britain and Northern Ireland for decades, and it should continue.
However, it is right and proper that, as the legislation proceeds, Northern Ireland Ministers, whether direct rule or devolved, should express their views to their colleagues about the arrangements that should apply to all our citizens for social security benefits. The same applies to provision in the Bill for incapacity benefit claimants.
The principle has been enunciated that there should be support for those who cannot work and encouragement for those who can and wish to return to work. No artificial barriers should be put in their way, and the system should try to make it worthwhile for those who can work to do so.
Statistics show that the difficulty with the current system is that many of those who go onto incapacity benefit stay on it for many years. At first, claimants do not believe that they will be on benefit for an extended period, but circumstances force them to stay on it. Throughout the country, over half of those on incapacity benefit have been on it for over five years. That compares to 43% in 1997; so the number on long-term incapacity benefit is rising. The number of under-25-year-olds on incapacity benefit has risen by 71%, almost three quarters, since 1997.
I talk about these and other issues in my constituency advice surgery with many people. I am sure that other Members do likewise. What many people want is to have support when it is needed, but to be able to move forward when they feel they can. The present system does not provide that flexibility.
Mr P Ramsey: Does the Member not accept that support groups are genuinely concerned that the main focus of the Welfare Reform Bill is on a reduction of benefit costs rather than on helping those with chronic medical problems?
Mr N Dodds: I will come to that point. I have already said that while the DUP generally supports the principle of parity, there are issues to be addressed. People are concerned. The issue mentioned is the capacity of advisers to recognise those suffering from mental illness. That point, raised by organisations and charities, is important and needs to be firmly addressed. Over 40% of benefit claimants suffer from mental-health problems. If secondary mental-health effects are included, that number rises to two out of every three claimants. That is very important. It is essential that advisers are properly trained and equipped, and that they get the input and assistance that my hon Friend Mr Wilson, the Member for East Antrim, referred to. My party will push strongly for that.
I am concerned about other aspects of the Bill too. It is unnecessarily complicated. The new employment and support allowance will create six levels or categories into which claimants will fall. Trying to explain to claimants how the benefit system works is already complicated. However, under this proposed legislation, distinction will be made between non-contributory claimants who fail to go to work-focused interviews; contributory claimants who fail to go to work-focused interviews; non-contributory claimants who receive the work-related activity component; contributory claimants who receive that component; those deemed to have limited capability to work who will receive the support component; and severely disabled who currently receive the disablement allowance. It is extremely complicated. One can predict a rise in the number of complaints to constituency offices and other agencies because of that.
These concerns are well-founded, and there needs to be much more information provided. The Bill should have been streamlined. The intent behind it is good, but it is unnecessarily complex, and there are potential pitfalls. I could have made many other points.
The approach of simply sitting back and doing nothing fails the people who are most in need of support and help. I am concerned about parties that simply take the attitude that the Welfare Reform Bill is no good and that the Assembly should ditch it. Parties must be extremely careful — I have not heard the proposal of a single alternative that would not cost millions of pounds by breaking the parity principle and thereby taking money away from those who need it, namely claimants and others who need that support. Parties must focus on the work that needs to be done, particularly on training and information. Some of the proposals that have been made today concern me.
Mr Kennedy: This is an important debate — and obviously many of my party colleagues share that view. [Laughter.] At least the Marie-Céleste was staffed.
I have no doubt that my colleagues are elsewhere in the Building or in their constituencies, undermining the efforts of those Members who are here. It is —
Madam Speaker: Order.
Mr Kennedy: If Members want more time to interrupt me further, that is fine.
The Welfare Reform Bill that is currently going through Parliament will not apply to Northern Ireland. I understand that a separate Order in Council will be made for Northern Ireland, which will be based on the provisions of that Bill. Although the Ulster Unionist Party is concerned that Northern Ireland has the highest rates of economic inactivity in the UK, those rates are comparable with some regions in Great Britain. It is doubtful that the Welfare Reform Bill will address that problem, and pilot schemes in Great Britain have had little impact on the levels of economic inactivity.
A range of mental-health charities and interest groups have criticised the Bill. However, the charities, and the Ulster Unionist Party, are more supportive of those elements of the Bill that seek to empower claimants to return to work. In February 2006, some 112,996 people were claiming incapacity benefits, and 169,691 were claiming disability living allowance in Northern Ireland. Therefore, the Bill affects a considerable number of people.
Rethink, a leading national mental-health charity, has welcomed the provision of more support for people on incapacity benefit because many people with severe mental illness want to work, but have been left without the necessary help and support to do so.
However, Rethink is concerned about the Bill’s proposals to disqualify people from benefit or reduce their benefit on certain grounds. Claimants’ benefits could be reduced if they do not attend a work-focused interview or undertake work-related activity without good cause. Jobcentre Plus staff do not know enough about severe mental illness to make judgements about whether someone fails to attend for no good reason or because of a serious deterioration in their condition. That could lead to those on low incomes having their benefits cut unfairly.
Rethink is also concerned about proposals that would effectively disqualify from entitlement to benefit anyone who behaves in an improper fashion or fails to take medical advice for no good reason. The treatment of severe mental illness is often a case of trial and error, and medication often causes severe side effects. If someone stopped or reduced their medication because of such severe side effects, would that be considered a good reason? What would happen if someone disagreed with a psychiatrist’s diagnosis or tried complementary therapy instead? Those are the aspects of concern to Rethink.
Under the Pathways to Work rollout many people may require support to work that they have never been offered before. The provision of cognitive behavioural therapy, which is woefully inadequate throughout the NHS, is particularly welcome. However, Rethink is concerned by early research findings commissioned by the Department for Work and Pensions, which states that:
“there is no statistically significant evidence that the policy has any impact on those who report having one health problem that is mental illness.”
The Department for Work and Pensions needs to think more widely about the sort of support that could work for people with mental illness and should consult with service users and carers.
The Government have not taken enough action to reduce the prejudice and real discrimination of employers. There is little point in pushing people towards work if employers are prejudiced against giving jobs to people with severe mental illness. Fewer than 40% of employers say that they would employ someone with mental illness. Some 75% of employers have said that employing someone with schizophrenia would be impossible or very difficult. The Work and Pensions Committee said that the Government’s action on employers was “wholly inadequate”. It still is. New Zealand spends 25 times more per head of population than the UK Government on anti-stigma campaigns. We need to challenge the stigma of mental illness if we are going to help people get back to work.
Overall the Welfare Reform Bill focuses on supporting more people into work, and that is a welcome aim. Thirty-five percent of people with long-term mental-health issues, who are economically inactive, would like to get back to work, as compared to 28% of people with other health problems. People with mental-health issues are often keen and willing to return to work but lack the support to be able to achieve that goal. Many proposals in the Bill demonstrate a greater awareness of the needs of people with mental-health issues. However, additional thought needs to be given to the practical outworking of the Bill and the allocation of resources for appropriate training as necessary. That is to ensure that those with mental-health issues are not stigmatised or penalised by lack of understanding on the part of personal advisers or other professionals involved in the assessment of their ability to participate in compulsory activities. With those brief observations, provided helpfully by someone else, I give broad assent to the motion. [Laughter.]
Madam Speaker: I commend the Member for his honesty.
Mr McCarthy: I support the motion. The Bill, although containing many real concerns for a lot of people, aims to support more people back into work, and that has to be welcomed. Members recognise the wishes of many people — particularly those with mental-health issues — to get back into work, but they lack the support to be able to achieve that. Many proposals in the Bill demonstrate a greater awareness of the needs of people with mental-health issues. More thought is required on the practical outworking of the Bill and the allocation of funds for the necessary training. That will ensure that those with mental-health issues are not stigmatised or penalised — as has already been mentioned by other Members — by a lack of understanding on the part of the professionals involved in the assessment of their ability to participate in compulsory activities.
As the Alliance Party’s health spokesperson, I have worries that the people already burdened by ill health will find the contents of the Welfare Reform Bill to be an added concern and possibly a disincentive for them to offer themselves once again for employment.
It appears that the Bill will introduce a new coercive benefit-administration regime. I am apprehensive that vulnerable neurological patients will be forced either into work when they are still unfit or they will find themselves on lower benefits.
I am also concerned about the proposed large-scale involvement of private-sector companies, some of which have an established record of incompetence in respect of patients who have long-term mental-health problems. The proposals in the Bill are underpinned by the new ESA, which will replace incapacity benefit and income support that is paid on the grounds of incapacity for new claimants.
Mr P Ramsey: There is a worry that those private companies will be more interested in profits than in the welfare of the customers whom they are supposed to be looking after. Does the Member agree that if private companies are to be involved in any part of the proposed welfare reform, that involvement should be in education and training only?
Mr McCarthy: I agree with Mr Ramsey. That is a concern, and, as I said earlier, the private companies’ record of incompetence in relation to patients who have long-term mental illness is clear.
It is likely that the majority of claimants will have to take part in work-focused interviews and work-related activities in order to qualify for the full benefit rate. The Bill also obliges a claimant to show good cause for having failed to attend a work-focused interview. The explanation for that failure must be given within five days of the day on which the interview was to take place. That timescale is too short and should be increased.
Other aspects of the Bill must also be addressed. The Alliance Party supports the motion and the amendment, and I hope that the powers that be reconsider the real effects that the Welfare Reform Bill may have on many of our constituents.
Mr S Wilson: As the Member for North Belfast Nigel Dodds stated, the DUP supports the Welfare Reform Bill. It does so for good reason: the Bill aims to move people away from benefits and into opportunities for work. When many people who get incapacity benefit first receive it, they state that they do not wish to remain on it.
Economic prosperity in Northern Ireland has been rising over the past number of years, but certain groups have been left behind. I am sure that Members will have witnessed that in their advice centres. Such groups may comprise those people who find themselves on benefits because they have been deemed incapable of working. The situation is black and white: either one can work, or one is incapable of working. There is no recognition or help for the people who want to work, would like the opportunity to work or would like support to get them back to work, but who, due to their incapacity, have been deemed incapable of working. Those people either qualify for benefit and live in poverty — because the benefit is insufficient to give them a decent standard of living, as I am sure all Members accept — or they have to work. There is no in-between.
One important benefit of the Welfare Reform Bill is that it opens up opportunities for those people. However, when the term “welfare reform” is used or when there is an indication that there might be a change in how benefits are assessed, Sinn Féin and, to a lesser extent, the SDLP have a knee-jerk reaction that implies that change must be bad in some way.
Mrs D Kelly: I said that the SDLP welcomes and supports welfare reform. That was not a knee-jerk reaction. The SDLP has stated its concerns about the impact and implications of some of the measures in the Bill, and about some of the glaring gaps. The SDLP is supported in those observations by many leading charities, including such a strong advocate as the Royal College of Psychiatrists.
Mr S Wilson: When the Member’s support for the Bill is hedged about with so many qualifications, one must ask whether she really supports the Bill or wants the best of both worlds. On one hand, she supports it because she wants to see disabled people lifted out of poverty; on the other, she finds a thousand reasons to oppose it. She cannot have it both ways. As the hon Member for North Belfast Mr Dodds said, there are concerns, but the general principle should be supported if Members genuinely wish those who are regarded as disadvantaged to be lifted out of poverty.
There will always be this sort of left-wing, knee-jerk reaction from Sinn Féin. One can only hope that Sinn Féin’s rhetoric will be diluted when it is faced with real choices. The former Minister of Education embraced wholeheartedly the private finance initiatives and PPP schemes that he had ranted and raved and railed against before becoming Minister.
If Members do not go down the road of parity as outlined by Mr Dodds, benefit claimants and others in Northern Ireland will arrive at a position of inequality with the rest of the United Kingdom. The Chancellor of the Exchequer, Gordon Brown, would love that, because it would reduce the subvention to Northern Ireland.
It is clear from surveys that many people on incapacity benefit would love the opportunity to go back to work. Some would not be able to go back immediately, and would need support and advice on what work would be available to them: hence the personal capability assessments, the work-focused interviews and the support that would be required once they were employed. Members are right to be concerned that that underpinning support must be of good quality and do the job that it is designed for. I have no difficulty with questions being asked about that or with seeking to ensure that if that is what is promised in the Bill, then that is what is delivered on the ground. Those issues should be the focus of Members’ concerns. We should not dismiss the Bill as something that will hurt or disadvantage people who currently receive incapacity benefit.
The other big issue that must be addressed has not been mentioned so far. It is one thing to say that we should support people and put them back into work. That is the supply side of the equation. However, the demand side of the equation must also be addressed. Will there be sufficient demand from employers to facilitate those people? I have checked with officials, and I understand that the Pathways to Work programme in Northern Ireland concentrates on public-sector employers. It is important that there be a variety of options, and Members must find a way to encourage the voluntary and private sectors to provide places for people to move from receiving benefits into work.
Some of the arguments that have been advanced in the debate are illogical. The logic of what the Member for Strangford Mr McCarthy said escapes me: a Bill that is designed to encourage and, indeed, force people to present themselves for a personal capability assessment, go for work-focused interviews and, if they are not in a support group, eventually go into work, would be a disincentive for people to offer themselves for work. It is not a case of people offering themselves for work; the case is that those who should and could be in a position to help people back into work must do so. People will simply not have the option of whether to do that or not.
According to surveys, nine out of 10 people who are on long-term benefits do not want or intend to stay in that position. They want to get back to work. However, they become stigmatised and end up being victims of the system. Their doctors, who may not make an assessment of their capabilities, simply keep on writing lines for them. Therefore, those people stay in a position where they eventually become dependent and hooked on the benefits system. As a result, 90% of those people are still on benefits when they reach retirement age or death. Apart from the waste of economic potential, that is also a waste of people’s lives.
It is also a disadvantage to those people because it keeps them on benefits, on low incomes and in poverty rather than opening the door to productive employment and opportunities for better-paid work. For that reason, I support the Bill. Rather than focusing on people’s incapacity and inability to work, and thereby stigmatising them, the Bill allows their capabilities to be assessed and offers them opportunities. That is a much better deal than the current system. Although there may be issues about how that might be administered, it is a good principle that, in the long term, will benefit those who are disadvantaged.
Ms Stanton: Go raibh maith agat. I support the motion, which was tabled by my colleague. I want to reassure Nigel Dodds and Sammy Wilson that the motion is not a knee-jerk reaction. Mr O’Dowd has explained that it does not seek to abolish the Welfare Reform Bill but, rather, questions whether the right structures and mechanisms are in place to ensure that when party offices are inundated, Members can do more than just empathise with people: they can give them a better quality of life.
The Bill does not recognise the major problem of employers’ attitudes towards people with long-term health problems or impairments. One of the main barriers to returning to work for people who have a history of mental illness is the attitude of potential employers. Last year, NICVA’s (Northern Ireland Council for Voluntary Action) proposals for an anti-poverty strategy urged the Government to tackle the problem of economic inactivity, which is when people are not working and are defined as being unemployed. Few people realise that there are 500,000 people in that category in the North. The issue is far removed from whether people who have a history of mental distress are unwilling to work: it is of greater concern that employers do not want to employ those people who do want to work. It is a concern that there is nothing in the Bill to oblige or, at least, to encourage employers to play as full a role as possible to assist citizens to move from benefits to work with built-in safeguards, flexible measures and policies to ensure that when people make that move, they will not lose out on benefits and other provisions during periods when they are unable to work.
It is right to give people every help and encouragement to return to work. Many people need advice and assistance, particularly those who have mental health problems.
In my constituency of North Belfast I have had to deal with vulnerable families who were not advised that once they received compensation following the murder or killing of a loved one, they would no longer be entitled to benefits. Many of those constituents had been on prescribed medication or other substances — [Interruption.]
Madam Speaker: Will Members please listen to what is being said or at least conduct their conversations outside the Chamber?
Ms Stanton: Many of those constituents were on prescribed medication or other substances to deal with their pain and suffering, and many have no memory of where and on what the compensation was spent. Those constituents did not receive the adequate services or professional help that they should have after experiencing trauma. The lack of available expertise has meant that, years down the line, their mental health has deteriorated and they now face the further distress of having their benefits cut because they received compensation some years earlier.
At the same time, employers have been reluctant to employ people who have been unable to work for extended periods through sickness. It is in employers’ interests to recognise that such people have many talents that employers can use. Sinn Féin believes that employers should welcome people with disabilities rather than discriminate against them. The party also believes that the Bill should provide safeguards and flexible policies to ensure that the most vulnerable will not be discriminated against.
I wrote to the Minister about part III of the Bill, which deals with benefit fraud. People are frightened and being placed under unnecessary stress because of the terminology used in the threatening letters that they receive. Issuing such letters contradicts Government policy, which is to ensure benefit take-up, particularly among the elderly. However, it is the elderly who are most intimidated by those campaigns, which are probably adding to the number of deaths of older people over the winter.
We must get the process right in the first place. However, Sinn Féin does not believe that this Bill is the right approach — vulnerable people should not be left with what may be an inadequate process. We must ensure that flexibility is key in any policy: measures must be in place so that those with serious illnesses who want to return to work can do so without fearing that their benefits will be stopped or docked should their health deteriorate.
Go raibh míle maith agat.
Mrs M Bradley: Although the Bill may be a welcome progression for some people with mental-health problems, it could be the cause of yet more difficulties and uphill struggles for many others. For many genuine mental-health patients, the prospect of a day’s work or of simply re-entering a working environment is an additional stress that could be detrimental to whatever balance they have achieved through their medication.
The mental-health sufferer who is willing to try to re-enter the workplace may feel obliged to return to work in order to comply with the Department’s regulations — no matter whether or not that is the intention of the regulations — rather than face interviews with staff who have no knowledge, training or experience in working with people who suffer from mental-health issues.
Once in the workplace, those suffering from mental health problems can find themselves unable to cope with the daily pressures, but, by that stage, it is too late. Only appropriate and suitably qualified personnel should decide whether patients are ready and able to re-enter the workforce — those decisions cannot be left to administrators. We cannot, and should not, allow another crisis similar to that created by the disability living allowance (DLA) system, whereby pen-pushers make decisions while ignoring medical and professional opinions. Patients are left to flounder and the decisions are reviewed, appealed and, occasionally, justly reinstated. All the relevant management and staff in the workforce must be suitably trained to facilitate and encourage the mental-health sufferer in order to build a firm foundation that can be improved upon.
It is time for the Government to channel their energies into improving the delivery of services and programmes for mental-health sufferers. I have worked in the mental-health field for more than 20 years, and I have witnessed at first hand how resources, funding and staffing have always been at the bottom of the scale when it comes to budget allocation.
Mr P Ramsey: The Member will be aware that the personal capability assessment (PCA) — formerly known as the all-work test — uses a points system and asks questions under the heading of mental health. One question specifically asks people whether they are:
“scared or anxious that work would bring back or worsen … illness.”
If people answer yes, that will contribute to the number of points that they receive. I agree with what the hon Member has said, and claimants and support groups are worried about the circumstances that she describes, where people’s respect and dignity will be lost. The Welfare Reform Bill does not inform people that they will be dealing primarily with mental illness and trying to help that. We know the number of people who have been killed during the Troubles, and we also know that many people suffered physical injuries. However, we do not know the level of psychological damage and trauma that has been suffered by many thousands of people. Those people are caught in a trap. I suggest to the Member, and to my unionist colleagues, that we support welfare reform but not if it strips the customer of respect and dignity.
Some Members: Hear, hear.
Mrs M Bradley: I thank the Member for his intervention.
(Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr Wells] in the Chair)
I do not want to think that we are now being forced into finding a quick fix for a problem that has been largely ignored for many years. Unfortunately for the Government, we can no longer use drugs to deal with the issue of mental health, as has been the case in the past. Therein lies the problem that we face.
Today, Members did not oppose the Bill; rather, we all shared our concerns about its contents. The sharing of concerns can only be good for this place.
Lord Morrow: I welcome the aims and objectives of the Bill. I congratulate Danny Kennedy on being able to marshal some UUP Members. At one stage, he was very lonely and looked a wee bit forlorn.
Mr S Wilson: The Members found the debate so significant that they were not here for his speech. [Laughter.]
Mr Kennedy: I am happy to confirm that, at the end of my speech, all other Members looked unhappy and forlorn.
Mr N Dodds: Can Mr Kennedy confirm that it was not his speech, anyway?
Lord Morrow: At least the Member can console himself that he did not have Back-Benchers sniping behind his back.
Mr Dodds has injected a dose of reality into the debate. Mr O’Dowd came out with that phrase that we hear ad infinitum, that if the Assembly were back, we could all do wonderful things. Mr Dodds reminded us that this is a parity issue about which the Assembly could do precious little. It is the responsibility of any Assembly to highlight issues and to speak on behalf of people, especially those who live on the margins. I have spent the best years of my life as a public representative, trying to improve the lot of those who live on the margins. Therefore, I consider the Welfare Reform Bill to be essential, and I welcome its aims and objectives. I hope that the Bill is enacted, because simply talking about its objectives is not enough.
I am glad that Mr McCarthy, a gentleman whom I hold in very high regard, is in the Chamber. When I was Minister for Social Development, I remember vividly taking some flak when I turned down the Alliance Party’s suggestion that all pensions be increased by £5. That was a laudable suggestion, but Mr McCarthy came to agree with me that it was a ridiculous suggestion because it could never be achieved. Northern Ireland has a block grant and that fell outside our allotment; it was a parity issue and could not be done. I was pleased to learn that Mr McCarthy now accepts that fact.
Incidentally, that has nothing to do with what I wish to say. I shall move on to more substantive matters.
According to paragraph 9 of the executive summary of the Green Paper on welfare reform from the Department for Work and Pensions, ‘A new deal for welfare: Empowering people to work’, the Bill’s objectives are to:
“reduce by 1 million the number on incapacity benefits; help 300,000 lone parents into work; and increase by 1 million the number of older workers.”
I am sure that Members have already noticed it, but it is worth recording that paragraph 1 of chapter 4, which is titled “Helping older workers”, states:
“By 2024, an estimated 50 per cent of the adult population will be over the age of 50, due to the combination of increased life expectancy and low birth rates. But although people are living longer than ever before, they are spending a relatively lower proportion of their lives in work than previous generations. Unemployment among people over 50 is low, but inactivity is high and many people leave work early due to ill health.”
That is important to note. As I look around the Chamber, I suspect that we will all be considered older workers by 2024. Mr Shannon is nodding in approval; it includes him, anyway.
All political parties should be seeking to get more adults into employment. The number of people not working represents a huge problem for the local economy. While the Government have been pursuing Pathways to Work and seeking to reform the welfare system, the Conservative Party has suggested the so-called “payment by results” method. It is claimed that that policy could transform the benefits system by getting one million people who are on incapacity benefit back to work.
The Government have already called in private providers to help such people find work. At present, the providers get a payment up front, plus a larger sum when a person has been in work for 13 weeks. However, that only applies to new claimants. More than 2·6 million people who are already on incapacity benefit — an estimated one million of whom want to get off it and into work — have been sadly ignored. The Government have overspent elsewhere, and those people are low on the priority list.
The Tories’ “payment by results” approach would remove the up-front payment to the provider and increase the amount payable once the claimant is in sustained work. The cash cost would be matched to the benefit savings, so no net outlay would be involved and the benefit savings would be so great that an increased payout would be worth it. Not only would shifting one million people or more back into work provide social and economic benefits, but it would institute a model of risk transfer to the private, community or voluntary sectors that could be used elsewhere in the benefits system.
The problems surrounding benefit fraud have already been highlighted. There can be no better illustration of benefit fraud than the case last week of Paul Appleby from Nottinghamshire, who was sentenced to 10 months in prison at Nottingham Crown Court after being found guilty of benefit fraud in December. What had he done? He claimed to have been crippled for some 13 years, before being pictured participating in marathons. He even completed the 2005 London marathon in a time of three hours and 37 minutes.
Mr Shannon: Maurice could not do it in that time.
Lord Morrow: I could not, and I am not on any benefits.
Mr S Wilson: He is on the lower rate of disability living allowance.
Lord Morrow: That is where the Member is wrong.
At the same time, Mr Appleby was claiming that he needed round-the-clock care, a wheelchair, two walking sticks and a walking frame. Since March 1994, that gentleman had been granted the highest rate of DLA for life, yet he could run marathons and do many other things besides.
Mr Kennedy: He is reflecting on that now.
Lord Morrow: Investigators were stunned to find video coverage of that claimant taking part in road races. He was so fit that he joined an athletics club in 2001, after his back condition improved, illegally pocketing more than £22,300 over the following five years.
I raise that case because it is imperative that people who are genuinely entitled to benefits receive them. That £22,300 should have been directed to those in need who truly deserved it. I welcome the drive to catch benefit fraudsters and to ensure that the money that they have been claiming is directed to those who really need it. The unfortunate gentleman to whom I referred is going to have some time for reflection, as Mr Kennedy said. I suspect that there may be other such cases of abuse of the benefits system in this country and on the mainland. That abuse must be tackled.
One element of the Government’s proposals that should be broadly welcomed is the commitment that repeat benefit-fraud offenders will lose their entitlement to assistance. I believe that they should lose that entitlement for ever. Stringent steps should be taken to ensure that an example is made of those who abuse the system — that will be the best deterrent to those who might be encouraged to go down the road of benefit fraud. There is much more that could and should be said, but my time is up. I agree with the principles behind the Welfare Reform Bill.
Mr Deputy Speaker: The Member who was due to speak next is Mr Copeland. However, because he was not present in the Chamber throughout Lord Morrow’s speech, he is not entitled to speak at this time. Mr Copeland will be permitted to speak later. I therefore call Mr Francie Brolly.
Mr Brolly: Go raibh míle maith agat. I assume that my job is to sum up the debate thus far, at least on behalf of my party. We are somewhat short-staffed.
Sinn Féin cannot support the amendment — not because we are opposed to it in principle, but because we believe that it would have been better as an addition at the end of the original motion. As presented, the amendment would, in effect, delete reference to neurological patients. The proposer of the motion, Mr O’Dowd, said in his speech that vulnerable groups include people with mental-health issues. Fundamentally, we are not in disagreement on that matter.
Mr O’Dowd provided a rundown on the replacing of the old system of disability benefit with the new two-pronged work-related activity and support-group method of classifying those who are, more or less, incapacitated. He mentioned the fact that, for the first 13 weeks, claimants will receive a basic allowance to sustain them until their cases are assessed. Mr O’Dowd also expressed some concern about the qualifications of personal advisers to do the job that is expected of them, particularly in the care of people who suffer from mental-health difficulties. It has been claimed that money would be set aside to train those advisers, but their job is still very difficult for a layperson, however well trained. If any of us had such difficulties, we would expect to see a qualified doctor.
Sanctions are a difficult issue, but Sinn Féin certainly does not regard them as appropriate at times. The imposition of sanctions is a way of forcing people back to work. The concept of compulsion was mentioned during the debate; however, people who are weak due to health difficulties might find it difficult to stand up against being compelled to go to work. I think that we would describe that as slightly indiscriminate.
Mr McCann intervened to express concern about laypeople or civil servants having the kinds of responsibilities that this Bill will give them. Dolores Kelly talked about parts of the Bill and about the historic dependence on benefits that there is in this part of Ireland due mainly, of course, to the lack of employment that, for historic reasons, there has been in certain areas. The reluctance of employers to employ mentally ill people was also mentioned. It is difficult for these people to integrate themselves into the workforce because of stigma, discrimination and sometimes even fear.
Sanctions have been mentioned repeatedly. One of the points that was made was that they do not take account of the fluctuating, unsteady nature of mental illness. On one day a person can be quite happy to go to work or attend a tribunal, yet on another they would just not be mentally fit to do so. It appears that there may be a presumption against incapacity benefit, rather than the presumption in favour of it that we had before.
Mr Dodds spoke about the difficulty that there would be if the Bill going through Parliament at Westminster was not accepted here — there would be problems with cost and difficulties with the system here. He also mentioned the important statistic that the number of people over the age of 25 who are receiving incapacity benefit has risen dramatically, for whatever reason.
Mr Ramsey intervened to say that while the stated aim of this Bill is to get people back to work, there is a strong element of penny-pinching. Mr Kennedy spoke again about the provisions of the British Parliament applying here, and he mentioned the names of a good number of mental-health charities and support groups that have expressed concern about this legislation, not least about non-attendance at work-focused interviews resulting in the reduction of benefits. Again, that does not take into account how the condition of a mentally ill person can change from day to day.
A question was also raised about whether, in fact, getting mentally ill people back to work is necessarily beneficial to their condition, and there is no evidence to show that it is. Perhaps at times it is anything but beneficial. Mr McCarthy welcomed getting ill people back to work. That is what we would like to see, all things being equal. He also mentioned the importance of promoting understanding of mental illness among the general population. We are much better at that than we used to be. We accept and deal with people in a much more politically correct way than we used to. These people should obviously be helped to assimilate into workplaces as well as into society in general. Mr McCarthy also warned about the possibility of this rather stern system forcing people back to work who are not fit for it, and that is likely to happen.
There was general concern about certain aspects of the Bill. Mr Sammy Wilson was very concerned about Sinn Féin’s attitude to the Bill, although he was probably more concerned about Sinn Féin than about its Members’ remarks. However, he commented that we can either take it or leave. If it is going to be made legislation for this part of Ireland, we either take it or leave it and we really should not express any opinions critical of it. He may have a point.
I am afraid that I ran out of paper at that stage, so I must apologise for giving short shrift to the Members who spoke later in the debate. I must, of course, give Kathy Stanton some time. She raised the interesting point that people who receive compensation in tragic circumstances are precluded from accessing benefits. Perhaps that should be looked at: should such insurance payments interfere with people’s entitlements in the normal course of events? She also pointed out that the condition of people who are ill can change from day to day.
Mary Bradley, a former mental-health worker, was critical of funding for the mentally ill, whether it is hospital funding, care funding or, as in this case, benefit funding. She felt that, over the years, mentally ill people and those with chronic health problems have not received the attention that they were due. Mr Morrow was not convinced that a local Assembly would do any better than the very clever people in England who know more about these things than we do.
That is about all that I have to say, except that —
Mr Deputy Speaker: I have to ask the Member to sit down.
Mr Brolly: If I could just, before I finish —
Mr Deputy Speaker: Order. There seems to have been some confusion. The Member’s party indicated that Mr O’Dowd was going to make the winding-up speech, and therefore 15 minutes was allocated to him. We are not at that stage yet; there are other Members who have still to speak. Mr Brolly, unfortunately, will have to be restricted to 10 minutes. I propose to call several other Members to speak, and then Mr Alban Maginness, who will have 10 minutes to wind up on the amendment. After that, Mr O’Dowd can formally wind up the debate — he does not have to take 15 minutes. The indication that we received was that Mr O’Dowd was going to make the winding-up speech, and therefore we put Mr Brolly ahead of other Members. There is no way around this; we have to go by Standing Orders. Therefore, Mr Brolly’s time is up.
Mr Brolly: On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. I just want to assure the House that the best was yet to come.
Mr Deputy Speaker: I suggest that you hand the rest of your speech to Mr O’Dowd and let him conclude your remarks.
Mr Shannon: As of February 2006, there were 113,000 people in the Province claiming incapacity benefit, 170,000 claiming disability living allowance, just over 100,000 on income support, and some 63,000 claiming attendance allowance. Unemployment in the Province has fallen by 2% in the past quarter, with a decrease over a year of just under 1,000 people claiming jobseeker’s allowance. Northern Ireland has the lowest unemployment rate in the UK and a decline in the rate of those being awarded certain benefits. Why are we being presented with a Welfare Reform Bill that would scrap the old system, and bring in new terms and conditions that are dubious, to say the least?
Ther’s nae point in lettin oan that tha sistam we hae noo is purfect, an that ther er naen whau disnae tak guid o’ tha provishun o’ tha benefits. But iver aw we er seein deep doon checks an far mare stronger missures tae complete afore tha award.
Tha Weelfaer Refoarm Bill maks — amangst mony ither changes — provishun fer new benefit, tha employment an suppoart allooance fer the tak iver fae tha incapacity benefit. This wull bring tha gither baith allooances an will meen as weel a means tested allooance, whuch is a mixtur o’ incum suppoart, an incapacity benefits. This is missured by a person haein a capability fer woark but is limited by ther fisical er mental conditshun that it wudnae be reasonable fer tae expect theim tae woark.
There is no point in pretending that the current system is perfect and that no one is taking advantage of the benefits system. There are now more in-depth checks and more stringent criteria to fulfil before benefits are received. The Welfare Reform Bill makes — among many other changes —provision for a new benefit, the employment and support allowance, to replace incapacity benefit. ESA will incorporate a contributory and a means-tested allowance — a mixture of income support and incapacity benefit — which is assessed by a person’s physical or mental position, and it is not reasonable to require him to work.
The assessment of a person’s capability to work will take place over an initial 13-week assessment phase and will include an assessment as to whether that person has the ability to work in work-related activity, thereby making him more useful to society as a whole. Such people will then claim benefits depending on whether they have been assessed as entitled to the “support component” or “limited capacity for work-related activity”. If those who are assessing such people find that they have the ability to return to employment, their benefits can be topped up by attending training, trials and interviews and agreeing action plans. Claimants who refuse to take part in such assessments can have their benefits sanctioned and reduced to the basic level.
What happens to a man, with three children, suffering severe depression after an accident? His wounds have healed, but he is left with crippling depression. Getting out of bed to take a test judged by strangers is nearly impossible. His body has healed, but his mind still reels. That man will be penalised by having his benefits reduced. He is still in the same situation and still has three children to feed, but he cannot do that on lower benefits and so the ruthless cycle continues.
It is a fact kent personally by maesel that in tha caes o’ heed injury, its a lang process o’ rehabilitation, a process whuch is frustratin an lang drawn oot, an cannae be rushed.
A maun whau hiss’ abilities yin dae, caun loas theim tha nixt, an laek a waen hiss’ tae larn ivery step an actshun agin.
This process shud nae be rushed in a effirt tae git benefits, which is whut is scarinly an in aw proabability sumthin that is used as a carrut tae push sumyin awa abin ther capabilities, tae ther detriment in tha lang rin.
People who suffer head injuries face a long process of rehabilitation, and I have personal experience of this. That process is frustrating and drawn out, but it cannot be rushed. A man can possess abilities one day and can lose them the next in a split second, and, like a child, has to learn every step and action again. That learning process should not be rushed just to gain a top-up in benefits. Frighteningly, and in all probability, a top-up in benefits is something that could be used as a carrot to push people beyond their capabilities, which would be to their detriment in the long run.
Pathways to Work was piloted in 2003 in an attempt to help those claiming incapacity benefit to return to work. It is a laudable idea if it is used merely as a tool aimed to assist those who have the desire and ability to get back to work. However, there is a fear that it could be a way of forcing those physically or mentally unable to return to work into the position in which they must work to feed their children, even if their health is weak.
The area of mental health is precarious in any society, but it is especially so in the Province and other places bombarded by terrorism — as we have been for the past 30 years. There are those among us who have witnessed unspeakable horrors, been traumatised, lost loved ones and never recovered, and there are those who still mourn. Northern Ireland has a high rate of mental-health problems, and all of those issues make it a lot more understandable to those who try to understand. However, given that there are some who only see figures, there is a fear that the people who suffer will be disregarded and overlooked.
It is feared that there will never be a test that could adequately and accurately determine someone’s ability to be involved in the working world.
The Northern Ireland Neurological Charities Alliance (NINCA), a coalition of groups that support people with MS, Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, epilepsy, muscular dystrophy and many other conditions, has stated its fear of the impact that the legislation will have on the groups it represents, and rightly so.
We have a duty to protect the vulnerable, not to put them through more heartache than they already suffer. Employment is an important factor. What businessman would employ someone whom they knew to have been seriously unwell and who, in all likelihood, is not fully recovered from their illness? Who would employ someone who is being pushed into work before they are able to do a job adequately or who may be unreliable because of a medical problem? Not many businesses can take such risks on such uncertainties. What happens when no one can employ that person? Will that affect the benefit top-up system?
There are too many uncertainties in the proposed legislation. How can a person’s mental ability or capability to work be accurately tested? How can we assess whether a person cannot face the workplace or is merely avoiding employment? How do we find the perfect placements that help someone along rather than trail them backwards? How can it be ensured that a workplace environment is suitable for the delicacies of a particular individual? It can never be fair to force a person with mental-health problems back into society when he or she is not ready.
In no way do I accept that people cannot ever recover from mental illness or brain injuries. I am all too aware of the steep road that must be climbed, step by excruciating step. For the state to strong-arm their way in this matter will only load more stress and unhappiness onto sufferers and their families. As it stands, the Province’s neurological and mental health care provision is inadequate. There are no centres of excellence, no real aftercare system, and little help for the wounded and their families. We cannot heap yet more stress and tension on them by exposing them to yet more pressure.
This attempt to integrate people into society is, indeed, noble and will be worthwhile, if enacted in the right spirit and at the right time. However, I do not believe that the Welfare Reform Bill provides an adequate framework for that task. Such a sensitive issue should not be tackled in this manner, and we must do all that we can to protect not only the vulnerable, but their husbands, wives and children.
We want people to be working and doing their bit, and we want fewer families to be dependent on the state. We want to get people on benefits who are capable of work into satisfying jobs, but not at the sacrifice of the health of those who are truly unable to work again yet who are being pushed into doing so. As Members of this Assembly, we must make it very clear that that is unacceptable.
Mr Copeland: Mr Deputy Speaker, I apologise for my absence for Mr Shannon’s contribution. As you may be aware, there were several bomb scares in Belfast and in my constituency this afternoon. I was called away from the House, but I am pleased to say that the bomb scares were hoaxes. Nevertheless, this afternoon’s events serve a salutary warning to Members of what happened in our past and what, God forbid, our future may hold.
I must admit that, before I became an elected representative, I held certain views about those in receipt of what are euphemistically called benefits. Those views were based on little knowledge and a degree of social prejudice. However, working in my constituency office over the past few years has put faces to what I previously judged as mere statistics. For a family to be required to get — in some people’s views — something for nothing is a difficult and bitter pill to swallow.
I have had difficulty in completing disability living allowance forms on behalf of constituents because the forms run to 30 or 40 pages.
I have seen cases where two people are ostensibly in the same circumstances, but whose entitlement to the benefit appears to be based, not on their circumstances, but on their ability to fill in the form. I have seen, as have most Members, what I consider to be borderline cases, or people who should not be entitled to the benefit, in receipt of it, while genuine cases are denied it.
A society is judged properly not on how it treats the majority of its citizens, but on how it deals with those who are least able to look after themselves.
Mr Dallat: Does the Member agree that, while there has been much emphasis on fraud in today’s debate, precious little has been said about the millions of pounds that go unclaimed every year? That is money to which people at the lowest end of the social spectrum are entitled. Given that the Government have Big Brother computers to catch people who commit the most minor offences, they seem still to have no capability to discover people who are missing out on millions of pounds of benefits every year.
Mr Copeland: I agree with the Member, and that leads me to a specific case that came to my attention on Saturday. A young man — he is 25; that is young compared to me — earns £85 a week from part-time work. He acquired his home of 14 years through living with his grandfather — the tenancy was transferred to him on his grandfather’s death. His income of £85 a week caused him difficulty with paying his rent, and he fell into arrears of £347. He was taken to court by the Housing Executive and appears to be facing eviction. He has received a bill for about 90% of the rent that he owed. However, owing to the cost of his court case, the bill may as well be for £1 million, because he does not have the wherewithal to pay it. Unless I can intervene, it is likely that he will be forced from his home. He will become another statistic, another blip and another difficulty for another Department.
All legislation, whether it has its root here or in Westminster, is designed to deal with the norm, or standard, of the greater number of cases, but it impacts on individual people and families. The Welfare Reform Bill that is making its way through Parliament in Westminster will not apply to Northern Ireland. Fair enough. However, a separate Order in Council will be made for Northern Ireland based on the provisions of the GB Bill. I am not sure that all the heart-rending, tears and angst that we display today will account for anything, because the decision will be made in another place.
The benefits system was designed when children in this country had no shoes, little food and died from cholera because of unclean water. Society has moved on, and some people see benefits as a replacement for work and income. That cannot be sustained. Any legislation must strike a balance between satisfying the needs of those who are able to provide from their taxes to develop a society in which they are proud to live and assisting those who cannot look after themselves.
Specific mention has been made of those who suffer from what is described as mental illness. That encompasses many conditions, some of which, such as extreme tiredness or depression, are thought by some not to exist. I have seen people who are depressed, and those conditions exist. The system is so complex and convoluted that even those who are entitled to benefits sometimes give up their claim.
The young man whom I referred to earns £85 a week — only just the minimum wage. Substantial numbers of people in my constituency earn less than the minimum wage.
I have no doubt that the man on £85 a week may be entitled to support from the state. However, access to it, and the ability to enquire without being fobbed off, is not available to him.
An enormous number of people view the receipt of state benefits as charity. They live in fear of what they call the “workhouse”, something that is long gone. There is a pride that comes from work and being able to pay your own way.
If legislation does not level out the humps and hollows, give access and entitlement to those who are entitled and take whatever steps are possible to prevent abuse of the system, it is not worth the paper it is written on. I appeal to those who are bringing forward this legislation, particularly those who represent Northern Ireland in the House of Commons and in the House of Lords, to consider all legislation in terms of the citizens it will affect, rather than its impact on the state or its bottom-line cost.
The building blocks of all of this, that each and every one of us in this Chamber should accept and fight for as equals, are the rights of the people who sent us here — whether they voted for us or not.
Some Members: Hear, hear.
Mr A Maginness: One of the greatest achievements in the post-war era, certainly in western Europe, was the establishment of what is now called the European social model. It is based on social democratic principles, so that everyone in society is protected, and there is social security so that those who are vulnerable, or disadvantaged, are given an opportunity at least to maintain their existence and to live as full a life as possible.
The creation of the welfare state, in particular in Britain by the Labour Government in 1945, was an amazing achievement and should be precious to us all. It is certainly precious to us in the SDLP. We will rightly defend that achievement, because it has given the whole of our community some sense of social security when otherwise they would be undermined. Therefore, it is important for the SDLP as a political party to emphasise that.
That does not mean that the SDLP is opposed to the reform of the social security system or the welfare state. We accept the need for reform. All processes and systems need to be reviewed from time to time. However, the basic principle of protecting people, especially vulnerable people, must be affirmed. This House should affirm it.
The SDLP amendment simply emphasises the need to protect sufferers of mental illness. Forty-one per cent of incapacity benefit claimants in Northern Ireland suffer from mental illness. The SDLP has put forward this amendment to safeguard their interests. It is not incompatible with Mr O’Dowd’s motion. Members are all grateful to him for bringing it to the attention of this House today, and are supportive of the motion, which expresses deep concern for the implications of the Welfare Reform Bill. The SDLP is not opposed to that Bill, but the party certainly has deep concerns about some aspects of it.
Mr Dodds, in a clear and forensic contribution, emphasised the importance of parity. My party accepts that there should be parity as a sensible concomitant of the social security system in Northern Ireland. There is consensus in the House that parity should be maintained to protect the integrity of that system. It will help and protect everyone in our society. The SDLP is against neither parity nor welfare reform.
Mr Wilson came into the House today with his verbal shotgun and fired a few rounds across these Benches. He is an expert marksman; of that there is no doubt. Unfortunately, he hit the wrong targets. He expected the SDLP and Sinn Féin to be opposed to the Welfare Reform Bill, but we are not opposed to the Bill or to reform.
I was slightly concerned by some of the comments made by Members on the Benches opposite, particularly the DUP Benches. They overemphasised welfare fraud, made scapegoats of people, and stressed scrounging and exploitation of the system. The vast majority of claimants are decent and in need, and they must be supported. As Mr Dallat emphasised, many who are entitled do not claim. Those unclaimed benefits substantially outweigh the claims that fraudulently exploit the system. Members on this side of the House emphasise the importance of need; we certainly do not approve of greedy people exploiting the system. There is human weakness everywhere in society; greed is one aspect of that, and from time to time it will manifest itself.
Jim Shannon was right, in his compassionate speech, to emphasise the needs of those suffering from mental illness. Recovery from that condition is a steep hill to climb, and we must be compassionate. My colleague Mrs Kelly stressed that those who suffer from such illnesses will become concerned, anxious and fearful if a new system seeks to coerce them into employment at a time when they are unable to enjoy work or be productive.
It is important that Members take note of what has been said by the various charities and organisations. The Royal College of Psychiatrists has warned that, in certain circumstances, those suffering from mental illness can become fearful and anxious; they are easily put under great pressure. It has emphasised to Parliament the importance of protecting the mentally ill, and it speaks with real authority. It acknowledges the benefit of reform, but also sees the downside of forcing people into employment in circumstances where they cannot cope. Members should heed that timely warning from such an authoritative body.
MIND, the organisation for those suffering from mental health, has emphasised that the conditionality requirements under the new legislation could be too onerous. It is important to emphasise that point in the House today. MIND and the Mental Health Foundation also highlight the fact that employers discriminate against people who suffer from mental illness. A survey indicated that 18% of employers would not employ anyone suffering, or recovering from, mental-health illnesses. That statistic serves as a timely warning to every Member, because if those people are to return to employment, a market in which they are welcome must be created.
It has been a good debate in which Members from all sides of the House have stressed important points: we should be caring and considerate; we are not against change; and compassion is an important element of any new welfare system. The system must not be bureaucratic and complex; rather, it must meet people’s needs. By applying common sense instead of bureaucracy, the noble goals of bringing people back into the workplace and meeting the needs of the vulnerable in society can be achieved.
Mr O’Dowd: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I am reminded of another occasion in the Assembly: did I, or did I not, indicate that mine was to be the winding-up speech? I do not think that there should be any further statements from the 12 apostles of the DUP. However, we never know what they will do: they may release a statement on something.
The debate is important, because Sinn Féin is trying to ensure that a system is in place to enable those who are currently on incapacity benefit, and capable of returning to work, to do so. Some Members on the Benches opposite said that they agreed with the principle of the Welfare Reform Bill. However, at this stage, simply agreeing with the principle of the Bill is not enough. The question now is whether Members agree with all the Bill’s 264 clauses, many of which lobbying and advocate groups for the most vulnerable in society have described as coercive. Many of the clauses would force people back to work.
Mr Morrow spoke at length about a case of benefit fraud in which the guy involved was an athlete, and so on, and so forth. I left the Chamber to find my notes, because I too can cite a case — of a young, single mother of two young children, who has severe mental-health problems. She took part in a pilot scheme in England, under which she was left with the impression that she had to return to work. She duly did so and lasted a week. She lost her job, left home, abandoning her two children, and became homeless — all because she was under the impression that she had failed and had to find work. That case represents the opposite extreme of the misuse of so-called welfare reform.
The Bill is wrong, because it is not concerned with encouraging people to return to work: it is a money-saving exercise designed to slash the number of people on incapacity benefit. Had the Bill been properly thought out, there would be adequately resourced systems and professionally trained and qualified client advisers — as opposed to civil servants being trained to do the jobs of professional medics — and cases such as the one that I have just outlined would not have happened.
Lord Morrow: On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. I am slightly confused: is the Member deeply concerned about the implications of the Bill or opposed to it?
Mr McElduff: On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. Was that a point of order? [Laughter.]
Mr Deputy Speaker: Lord Morrow’s point of order was certainly not a point of order.
Mr McElduff: I am grateful for that ruling, Mr Deputy Speaker.
Mr O’Dowd: I will not respond to a point of order if it is not a point of order. As Mr Morrow keeps telling Members, the ruling of the Speaker is final.
Everybody agrees that we need a system that encourages and allows people to return to work. However, that system should not penalise people for being mentally ill, for suffering from a disability or for having a neurological condition. The Welfare Reform Bill that is now passing through the British House of Lords does not have that scope. I welcome the comments of Jim Shannon, who also raised deep concerns about the Bill.
The amendment is, without doubt, well intentioned. There was a mix-up that could have been resolved if we had had a chance to talk to the SDLP beforehand. However, were my party to support the amendment, the words “including neurological patients” would be eradicated from the motion, to be replaced with “especially those people with mental ill health”.
The mental ill-health lobby’s voice has been well heard through the lobbying that has been done this afternoon. Members could include those suffering from mental ill health under “vulnerable groups” in the text of the motion, as we could those with neurological illnesses. I accept that the amendment was made in good faith. However, history will not record it that way. This is one of those cases in which we are damned if we do and damned if we do not. Members will have to see how the vote goes.
(Madam Speaker in the Chair)
Question put, That the amendment be made.
The Assembly divided: Ayes 25; Noes 10.
Billy Armstrong, Mary Bradley, Wilson Clyde, Robert Coulter, John Dallat, Diane Dodds, Nigel Dodds, Jeffrey Donaldson, Mark Durkan, Alex Easton, Tom Elliott, Seán Farren, Tommy Gallagher, Derek Hussey, Dolores Kelly, Danny Kennedy, Alban Maginness, Nelson McCausland, Lord Morrow, Ian Paisley Jnr, Edwin Poots, Pat Ramsey, Margaret Ritchie, Jim Shannon, Peter Weir.
Tellers for the Ayes: John Dallat and Margaret Ritchie.
Francie Brolly, Fra McCann, Barry McElduff, Martin McGuinness, Mitchel McLaughlin, Francie Molloy, John O’Dowd, Sue Ramsey, Caitríona Ruane, Kathy Stanton.
Tellers for the Noes: Fra McCann and Kathy Stanton.
Question accordingly agreed to.
Main Question, as amended, put and agreed to.
That this Assembly expresses deep concern about the implications of the Welfare Reform Bill, particularly the introduction of a new coercive regime into benefit administration, and its impact on a number of vulnerable groups, especially those people with mental ill health.
Adjourned at 4.10 pm.