Official Report: Tuesday 26 May 2015
The Assembly met at 10:30 am (Mr Speaker in the Chair).
Members observed two minutes' silence.
Mr Speaker: Before we start today's proceedings, I confirm that I have received a communication in writing from OFMDFM requesting that its Question Time slot at 2.00 pm be deleted from today's business. I am sure that Members will understand the circumstances. At this point, I will also take the opportunity, on behalf of the entire House, to wish Mr Peter Robinson, the First Minister, well and a speedy and full recovery.
Mr Speaker: As a valid petition of concern was presented on Friday 22 May in relation to the passing of the Bill, the vote will be on a cross-community basis.
That the Welfare Reform Bill [NIA 13/11-15] do now pass.
Before proceeding, first of all, I express our sincere thoughts, best wishes and prayers to the First Minister and my party leader, Peter Robinson. We continue to remember Peter at this time, as well as Iris and the family, and we trust and pray that Peter will make a speedy recovery.
No one more than I knows how much we depend upon the ability of our First Minister and my party leader. During all the discussions over the last number of weeks and months, he has been a tower of strength and has been by our side, and I want to personally say that we miss him in the Chamber today. This debate will be the worse for not having him with us as we proceed.
Over the last few weeks, welfare reform has never been far from public consciousness. Much of that has been due to media speculation surrounding our lack of progress and the ramifications that that could have for these institutions and, more importantly, for wider society. As Minister with responsibility for these matters, I feel that it is incumbent on me to say a few words to put today's proceedings into context and to underline my personal commitment, and that of my party, to Members to oversee the implementation of welfare reform measures contained in the Bill together with the schemes of mitigation agreed by the five main parties at Stormont Castle in order to deliver the best possible welfare system for all the citizens of Northern Ireland into the future.
I think that we all recognise that the Bill sets a new and very different course for our welfare systems. No one could possibly argue with the overarching policy intent to reach out to individuals who have become detached from the rest of society and who are, too often, trapped in a state of worklessness and benefit dependency as well as to ensure that our system is fair to the taxpayers who fund it and is sustainable into the future. The Bill represents a concept and a contract with individuals and families who are in need of support. For those who are able to work, we believe fundamentally that work should always pay, and, for the most vulnerable in society, we believe that our welfare system should provide the support that they need.
Those are the basic principles upon which our welfare state was founded, and, in bringing forward this legislation, it was those basic principles that received support from a wide range of stakeholders during the legislative passage of the Bill to this stage. Similarly, it was the engagement of political parties at Stormont Castle in December that helped me to frame not only this legislation but the package of mitigating measures that parties have agreed are essential in order that we do not lose sight of those principles. We can debate the levels of support that are needed and provided as, indeed, we have done during the fraught passage of the Bill, and that is only right, given that the cost of social security benefit in Northern Ireland is in the order of £5 billion per annum. I believe that, if we adhere to the two fundamental principles that work pays and that the welfare system supports, we will go some distance in providing a better welfare system.
As elected representatives, we have a responsibility to ensure that the hard-earned contribution of taxpayers is sufficiently recognised in how we deliver welfare to the wider population. It is undoubtedly a fact that we all, as elected representatives, would like to do more for those impacted by these reforms and who are dependent on social security benefits. That much is evident from the amount of time and the extent of debate that the Assembly has given to the Welfare Reform Bill. However, I firmly believe that the time for talking is now over. I believe that now is the time for decisions and for getting on with the implementation of reforms. Unfortunately, the fiscal reality for Northern Ireland is that we cannot afford a more expansive and expensive welfare system than the rest of the UK. If we spend more on benefits, the harsh reality is that we will have less to spend on schools, hospitals and all the other public services that we rely on. I believe that, with the mitigation schemes that we have negotiated with DWP, Her Majesty's Treasury and internally in our own political structures, we have achieved that balance between mitigating measures in the Bill and spending on public services for Northern Ireland.
It may also be helpful to some Members if I can provide assurances that claimants will be supported throughout the reform process. As Minister with responsibility for the voluntary and community sector, I understand and value the work carried out by the independent advice sector in providing support and guidance to many people in Northern Ireland, particularly when they are at their most vulnerable. On a daily basis, benefit uptake officers in the Social Security Agency (SSA) see the value of that service when they regularly signpost claimants to the advice sector for advice and support on debt or money issues. However, I also acknowledge that, whilst front-line Social Security Agency staff do, on occasions, refer claimants to the advice sector, there is not an agreed process currently in agency guidance.
I want to ensure that the statutory and voluntary sectors work closely together when welfare reform is implemented. I have asked the agency to put in place a process whereby all claimants who would benefit from advice and/or support on debt or money issues will be signposted to the advice sector. It is important that that is introduced into the guidance for decision-makers, particularly those delivering the discretionary support scheme.
I also want to promote the role of the advice sector during the process of the implementation of welfare reform to ensure that claimants understand that independent support and advice is available to support them. The programme of information that my Department will be launching to support welfare reform will include elements that will promote the role of the independent advice sector.
The move towards a system of universal credit (UC), which is designed as an in-work and out-of-work benefit, sits at the heart of the Welfare Reform Bill. The concept of a universal credit was supported and seen as a progressive change by a wide range of stakeholders during the Bill's passage. By the time universal credit is fully implemented, it is anticipated that 37,000 households will be either newly taking up or taking up more benefit as a result of universal credit and that an overall increase in entitlements of approximately £39 million per annum will accrue. A package of transitional protection will ensure that there are no cash losers as a direct result of the managed migration to universal credit where claimants' circumstances remain the same. Universal credit will also tackle other barriers to individuals taking up work, such as providing support for childcare costs, therefore encouraging lone parents to work.
Another issue that was raised was the social sector size criteria, or the bedroom tax as it has become widely known. Members will be aware that my party and I have continually opposed the bedroom tax, and we have secured Executive agreement to measures that will protect current and future tenants from any financial impact of the bedroom tax, initially for the entire period of the new Government.
The Executive recognise that I also have to balance protecting claimants from any negative aspects of the bedroom tax with ensuring the best use of the social housing stock in Northern Ireland and have agreed that I should develop a scheme that protects existing and future tenants from any reduction in housing benefits for their tenancies unless there is a significant change in their personal circumstances or they are offered suitable alternative accommodation.
At Consideration Stage and, again, at Further Consideration Stage, Members may recall there was also a great deal of discussion around the outworkings of the five-party talks held at Stormont Castle in December. Those talks resulted in an agreement to fund a package of mitigating measures to alleviate some of the harsher impacts of various welfare reform provisions.
Let me also put on record my commitment, my party’s commitment and that of my party leader to make the necessary resources available to fund the package of measures that the five parties agreed at Stormont Castle. Let us remember that it was a five-party agreement. I have been disappointed in some in the House who want now, almost like Pontius Pilate, to wring their hands and almost to cleanse their conscience as though, somehow, they had not signed on the dotted line. Today, the people of Northern Ireland need to understand very clearly that it was a five-party agreement.
Members will be aware of the subsequent debate on the detail of the mitigating schemes. I reiterate to Members that I believe that we have now attained the balance between what, in an ideal world, we would like to do and what we can afford to do. The schemes agreed between the five main parties of the Assembly will offer additional protections to many. There have been a lot of negative comments about claimant groups not being protected and the marginalised being ignored.
Let us reflect on what was proposed in the Stormont Castle Agreement. For disabled people, a disability protection scheme is proposed to help them to transition from disability living allowance (DLA) to the new personal independence payment (PIP). This will provide for a payment equivalent to up to one year’s full DLA payment for people who are unsuccessful in claiming PIP, and it will also guarantee claimants who will receive less under PIP 75% of the shortfall for up to four years. The scheme will also offer victims and survivors who do not qualify for PIP the opportunity to make a claim for a similar payment.
For all benefit claimants and families on low working income, there will be a new system of financial help when they have a financial crisis. This will be related to the levels of minimum wage, and the Executive have agreed to maintain the funding for this service.
For people who might be impacted by the bedroom tax, now or in the future, there will be full protection from any cuts in housing benefit.
For all working-age families receiving universal credit, there will be flexibility in how frequently they receive their benefit and in making direct payments to social landlords. We will also ensure that universal credit payments are made to the main carer in cases where there is concern about the impact of single payments to households.
Finally, I turn to the supplementary payment scheme, which has, in some way, led to today’s position. This scheme provides all claimant commitments with full protection. These claimants are families with children, the long-term sick and adults and children with disabilities. It is not accurate for some to claim that my party and I do not support providing protection for those groups. As Members proceed in the debate, I ask them always to be very mindful of the words that they use and the impact that they create on those whom they claim to support and defend. Generalisations often miss the facts and cover the reality of what goes on daily to provide help and support for our many vulnerable and disadvantaged people
The issue is what we can afford and what is deliverable for people who do not currently claim social security benefits. In those cases, we have offered financial support to claimant groups that can show that they are in financial crisis. I believe that our approach has been fair, legal, affordable and deliverable.
Let us remember that those were the criteria that were set out by the First Minister. That was the challenge that was given to the parties over the last number of days. If they had any suggestions, ideas, amendments or proposals, those would have to be within the parameters of what was set out as being legal, affordable and deliverable. It is for others to reflect on the impact of their proposals on the rest of Northern Ireland's public services.
We have come a long way. When we set out on this journey, people said that we could not change things. My predecessor Nelson McCausland negotiated a package of measures, which were the envy of many other jurisdictions. I have heard that said in conferences and in discussions with other persons from the rest of the United Kingdom.
We have now gone further. The welfare reform system that the Bill will bring in is not that of the UK Government. It is distinctly different: it is made in Northern Ireland. Contrary to what is being said, it provides much greater support for adults with disabilities, for children with disabilities, for families with children and for those who are long-term sick. It not only protects existing claimants but ensures that support is available for future claimants covered by the supplementary payment scheme for suffering financial crisis, which is a direct consequence of the changes. It also protects current and future tenants from the financial impact of the bedroom tax.
This is not simply an aspiration. We are putting substantial resources into this. Over the next three years, our proposals will mean that those in need will receive over £200 million more than they would have received under the GB scheme. In UK terms, that is the equivalent of £6 billion. That demonstrates how far we have gone to offset the harsher effects of the UK Government’s reforms. That demonstrates how we have ensured that we have negotiated what we believe is best for Northern Ireland. However, there is only so much that we can reasonably do. We need to strike a balance between welfare and other services on which we all, including those receiving benefits, rely. We cannot and should not focus on the welfare system without taking into account the impact on other services, including our health service, our education service and services for our children and young people.
A tremendous responsibility rests on the House today. It is a question of choice: either we adopt the Bill and secure the real additional benefits associated with our proposals for the most vulnerable in our society, or we do not and instead give way to what will be an immensely worse outcome for those whom we serve.
I place on record my gratitude to the Chair and members of the Social Development Committee for their work. To Members of the House, I say this: we have disagreed, debated and negotiated, but there has been in-depth scrutiny of the Bill, much of which has been positive. Much has been achieved, which involved hard work.
I say to those Members who signed the petition of concern: you will have to explain to the people whom you represent why you have failed to ensure that you protected their best interests and that their welfare was at the heart of your actions. I believe that my party colleagues and I, with those who support the Bill, can justify that we have endeavoured in all good faith.
In conclusion, I want to say that I am disappointed by the allegations made by the party opposite that, somehow, I misled the House and withheld papers and that my officials were involved in some sort of clandestine operation. I want to make it very clear, without any equivocation, that I have expended every effort, all avenues and all possibilities. I pay tribute to my officials, who have worked extensively before Christmas, during Christmas, after Christmas and up until today to ensure that we got an agreement. Others need to ask why that was not enough. I move the Bill.
Ms P Bradley: I rise to speak in favour of the Final Stage of the Welfare Reform Bill. I thank the Minister for bringing it forward, and I thank him for his opening comments.
I believe that when we, as Members, were elected to the Assembly, the public entrusted us to protect the best interests of all society, including the vulnerable, and also to ensure that we maintain good financial control. Often, this is a difficult balancing act, and it involves making some very difficult and unpopular decisions to ensure the long-term viability of this region of the United Kingdom. Both the Republic of Ireland and other regions in the United Kingdom have seen austerity measures being put in place. Welfare systems in both jurisdictions have been overhauled to reflect the different economic landscape that we find ourselves in today. In my view, the Stormont Castle agreement, along with the various measures negotiated, as the Minister said, by my party colleague Nelson McCausland, endeavoured to protect those who may be hit worst by welfare reform. As the Minister also stated, all Executive parties sitting around the Chamber agreed to that.
I find that some people sitting in the Chamber today are completely arrogant to the fact that, for some reason, the economic realities of this present economic world do not apply to Northern Ireland. That astounds me. I believe that the Stormont Castle agreement was the best compromise between facing our responsibilities as elected representatives and protecting the most vulnerable of our electorate. The welfare system was developed from an ideology to help those who could not help themselves; it was designed to be a hand-up and not a handout. Unfortunately, over the years, our system has evolved into one where claimants are finding that they are better off out of work than they are in it and where young people are so disillusioned that they now view the welfare state as almost a career choice. We are bombarded with TV shows that depict those who have made a clear choice to live off the taxpayer. The welfare system cannot sustain that, and, more importantly, people who genuinely need help find themselves tarred with the same brush and feeling a stigma about accepting the help that they, of course, so genuinely need.
I believe that the supplementary payment scheme in the Stormont Castle agreement will protect those whom the system is designed to help, while those who are capable of supporting themselves will find added impetus to do so. We have invested so much in providing jobs and training that people should not have an excuse for being able to do nothing. When I was growing up, the mantra was that if you were not earning you were learning. This is not a witch-hunt but a wake-up call. If we do not pass the Bill, we could see a collapse of our institution and a possible return to direct rule, which will mean that welfare reform will be brought in as it has in the rest of the United Kingdom, with no protection for those with disabilities, those who are ill and those with children.
We have a moral duty to accept the Bill, with the supplementary payment scheme, as agreed. We have to step up to the mark and be leaders to protect the most vulnerable.
Mr M McGuinness: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. First of all, I extend my warmest best wishes to the First Minister, Peter Robinson, for a speedy recovery. I want to make it clear that we have in our thoughts and prayers Iris and the rest of the family.
I have worked with Peter for the last eight years in the Office of First and deputy First Minister. Throughout all that time, even though we have different political allegiances and sometimes different political opinions about how we take our work forward, we have never had anything other than a good personal relationship. Of course, there have been commentators out there who, every time they get the opportunity, try to portray relationships here as poisonous and as though people hate each other and so forth. In terms of my relationship with Peter, nothing could be further from the truth. So, it was with great concern that I learned yesterday morning that he had taken ill and been brought to Dundonald hospital and then on to the Royal Victoria Hospital. I think that he has made a major contribution to the progress that we have made here over the last eight years. It is a source of great concern that someone like him could be hospitalised with the illness that he is dealing with. We are very sincerely and genuinely concerned, and we hope that he will recover from this and be back in his job.
Obviously, we are dealing today with very important matters in whether we are going to move forward in the Assembly to ensure that, in our deliverance for citizens, we deal with that on the basis of the huge challenges that we all face against the backdrop of the changes that have occurred in recent times. There is a big focus today on welfare. Obviously, the British Government's approach to welfare is a source of great concern, but this is not just about welfare — this is bigger than the issue of welfare. Sometimes I think that, even within the media and people commenting on the predicament that we find ourselves in, you would almost think that it was the only problem that we face. Our concern is wider and is about the grave implications of the further cuts threatened by the Tories as part of a £25 billion reduction that will be outlined in the July Budget. Obviously, our concern has to be about what proportion of that will affect us.
These cuts, which have been described as "eye-watering" by Tories themselves, will affect the most vulnerable and will lead to the loss of thousands of jobs in vital front-line services in areas such as health and education. They also formed absolutely no part whatsoever of the Stormont House Agreement. Last week I spoke to someone who was in Downing Street and who spoke to key officials there. He said that only one word could describe what is coming down the tracks at us in July. The word that he used, which was not mine but his, was "brutal".
This week we are facing into a building crisis in the political institutions here in the North. The immediate difficulties that we are facing into have been triggered by the decision to bring to the Assembly the welfare Bill, which, in my opinion, does not implement the protections agreed at Stormont House and subsequently for children with disabilities, adults with severe disabilities, the long-term sick and large families.
Capitulating to pressure and demands from the Tories in London is, in my view, a major tactical error. However, the crisis we are facing, and I say this to all the parties in the Assembly, is not of the making of any of the parties here or in the Executive. The crisis has been created by the austerity agenda of a Tory Administration in London that is attempting to decimate our public services and punish the most vulnerable people in our society.
Mr M McGuinness: No, I will not give way. In the recent elections, Sinn Féin stood against Tory austerity and for social justice and equality. Our approach was mandated by over 176,000 voters, almost 25% of the popular vote. In contrast, the Tories received only 9,000 votes in the North, just over 1% of the vote. Chris Hazzard got more votes in South Down than the 16 Tory candidates who stood in the Westminster elections in the North. It is a party that does not have a single Assembly seat or local council seat. They have no democratic mandate for their austerity policies here in the North of Ireland, yet they have already taken £1·5 billion from the Executive's block grant.
The British Government's Cabinet of Tory millionaires has announced plans for further eye-watering cuts of £25 billion to our public services and our welfare protections for people with disabilities, the long-term sick and large families. Those new cuts are set to begin almost immediately, and they will devastate our core public services. In meetings that the party leaders attended last week, they will know that I challenged the British Secretary of State Theresa Villiers on two occasions for a breakdown of how that £25 billion raid would impact on the people of the North. She refused point blank to tell me. She told us that we would have to wait for the July Budget. Here we are, talking about vital budgetary matters affecting the future of our people, and we are being told by the Secretary of State that we have to wait until the Chancellor of the Exchequer announces the July Budget before we will know the implications of where the axe is going to fall on vital front-line services delivered by our Departments and of welfare cuts impacting on people who have already been threatened by the Tory welfare cuts agenda.
Of course, it also raises the question as to what is coming down the tracks at us in July. It will even impact on the negotiations that took place during the course of Stormont House in relation to alleviating the plight of those who would be affected by the welfare cuts. There is all sorts of speculation about taxing carers' allowance and taxing welfare recipients. From our perspective, we need to get everything that we are doing here into kilter with the need to ensure that what is coming down the tracks from the British Government in July is fed into our planning for the delivery of vital services for people in the future.
The approach of the Secretary of State and the British Government in relation to the refusal to tell us how that is going to impact on us — indeed, we are not the only people who are not being told; they are not even telling people in England thus far — is absolutely unacceptable. We made it very clear in our election manifesto that the Executive need a viable Budget for front-line public services and welfare protections for the most vulnerable. Sinn Féin will not support a welfare Bill that does not contain those protections, and we will not be part of any agenda that punishes the poor and dismantles public services.
In my view, the measure of any society, and, indeed, of any Government, is how it treats those most in need and those who are most vulnerable.
Mr M McGuinness: No, I will not give way. In the face of such devastating Tory cuts, our public services, our welfare system, our Departments and the Executive are, in my opinion, not sustainable. None of the Executive parties stood on a platform of implementing those Tory cuts, and Sinn Féin will not abandon children with disabilities, adults with severe disabilities, families with children and the long-term sick. That is why we moved a petition of concern to stop the passage of the welfare Bill, and I welcome the fact that the SDLP has supported our position.
It has always been my view that the outstanding issues in the Welfare Reform Bill can be resolved, but this requires political will from all parties in the Assembly to protect the most vulnerable. Make no mistake about it: the biggest threat to our political institutions remains the ongoing Tory austerity agenda of cuts to our public services and the welfare state. This is a time when the Executive parties need to stand together to defend our public services, particularly in health, education and welfare. We need to stand up for the people who elect us rather than acting in the interests of a Tory elite. We need an immediate negotiation with the British Government for a Budget which protects our public services and for fiscal powers to give us control over our economy.
Of course, we are not alone in our battle against austerity. I note that the Scottish First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, will today make an important anti-austerity and anti-cuts speech. Of course, they are on the right side of the argument. They are on the right side of history. I appeal to all Assembly parties to join them. The Scottish Executive have requested a tripartite meeting of the representatives of the Scottish, Welsh and local assemblies. We should take up this offer and develop a common position in the Executive and with the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly in opposition to Tory austerity. The current crisis has come about solely through the actions of the British Government. It can be resolved only by the actions of the British Government. They have attacked the most vulnerable in society, slashed the Budget for public services and undermined the credibility of these institutions.
We in Sinn Féin are clear on what needs to happen. It is the platform that we stood on in the recent election: protections for the most vulnerable; a workable Budget; and powers to grow the economy and create employment. We believe these are the aims that all parties could and should unite around. Sinn Féin has worked and maintained the institutions over the past eight years in the face of great provocation and attack. Power sharing, partnership and devolution are the only ways forward. These principles are the basis of the institutions here in the North. Any undermining of these basic principles by the actions of the British Government or parties will be unacceptable.
What the people require is an Assembly that delivers and has the Budget and powers to make a difference in people's lives. There is still time for the parties and the British Government to change tack and deliver a new Budget that delivers for our public services, economy and people. If a choice has to be made between standing side by side with the Tories or standing up for people here, our economy and public services, I know what side Sinn Féin will be on.
Mrs D Kelly: Many people have attempted to set the context of the debate in a much broader range of positioning and recent agreements than is the case. I think that we have to remember that where we are today with austerity measures is not just because of the ideological position of the Tory party, which, as the deputy First Minister rightly said, has got no mandate here in the North, but because of the more recent crash in the banking regulation sector. We are asking the most vulnerable people in our society to pick up the bill. We ought to remember that in setting the context of the Welfare Reform Bill debate. We do not want to be complicit in the Tory party's morally unjustifiable attack on the most vulnerable and marginalised. There has to be a much broader debate about what type of society we wish to create and live in.
Whilst I was canvassing during the recent election, I was struck by the number of people who are at home all day, having had to give up not only their jobs but a large part of their life to care for others. As you all know, we have an increasingly ageing population. I met a number of people on the doorsteps who are caring for family members who have dementia or indeed have had a stroke and who are still on long waiting lists for adaptations and home improvements. There is little help from others; certainly not from the public sector because there is just not the money to provide that help. That is something that struck right at the heart of me, particularly as I came from a health and social care background. It is those very people, who look after the most vulnerable in society, whom the Tories wish to attack further, if we are to believe their leaked manifesto and budgetary commitments, in which they talked about taxing disability living allowance.
We have not come to our decisions lightly. It ought to be remembered that the SDLP, along with the Ulster Unionist Party and the Green Party, sought to amend the Bill. Over 30 amendments were tabled and rejected by the DUP and Sinn Féin. In fact, the DUP lodged a petition of concern against those amendments, so, rather than us going to Sinn Féin's position, we welcome Sinn Féin following us on welfare reform. I recall that, on the day, we warned Sinn Féin that the bedroom tax was, courtesy of its votes, in the Bill. We hear much today about how we risk losing the mitigation powers for the worst excesses of the bedroom tax, but that is not the case. Scotland has already mitigated the bedroom tax in its delivery of welfare reform.
My party colleagues and I wish the First Minister a speedy recovery. I hope and pray that he makes a good recovery and that his family are supported. As someone whose family have suffered a recent illness, I know the stress that it causes and the effect that it has on the wider family circle. We certainly wish him a good and full recovery. Nonetheless, a few months back, Mr Robinson and, I believe, the Finance Minister were allowed by the deputy First Minister to go off and make a deal at Westminster. That is against the joint nature of the office, and the deputy First Minister could have referred the matter to the Attorney General had he chosen to do so, but he did not. He allowed the First Minister to go off and do his own deal. It was out of those meetings that, we strongly suspect, welfare reform was coupled with the block grant. We feel that we have had a gun put to our head — metaphorically speaking, thankfully — with the threat of fines. The British Government should remove that threat. That is the first thing that they should do.
In their approach to the North of Ireland, this British Government are the most partisan that we have seen in 20 years. In fact, they have threatened to breach the Good Friday Agreement with their proposals on the Human Rights Act and the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). We will not stand for that. We will take whatever action is necessary to fight against that, including redress to the courts if need be. I welcome the intervention of Charlie Flanagan, the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade in the South, on that, as well as the Irish Government's robust stand and their challenge to the British Government.
We have been asked to vote for a Bill that we do support and that we had sought to amend. In the recent correspondence that has now been shared with all the parties, I note that other parties shared our concern. On behalf of the Ulster Unionist Party, Mike Nesbitt registered his protest at the side deals that have been a feature of this Administration and were a feature of the previous Administration, in which Sinn Féin and the DUP are and were the two largest parties. As we have seen all too often, those side deals start to unravel. They are seldom in the interests of all the people right across the community in Northern Ireland and, indeed, are very often in those parties' political interests.
Therefore, over the past week, we have — for the first time, in some cases — had access to some of the papers being exchanged between the DUP and Sinn Féin.
I, like many others, do not know why Sinn Féin was so slow to pick up that the vulnerable — people with disabilities, children with disabilities, and the long-term sick — would not be protected under the Welfare Reform Bill, because those were some of the very amendments that we sought to enshrine in the legislation. We wanted those in statute, not in guidance or regulations. We wanted to make sure that that was part of the type of society that we wished to create and part of the type of protections that we wished to give to those same people.
My party and I recognise the difficulties in setting a Budget and the time constraints that we work within, but it is not yet too late for all parties to get around the same table and thrash out the concerns about welfare reform that we each have. Therefore I ask the DUP to consider the time frame again and whether it would be in the best interests of us all to have a mature negotiation in which all of the parties are included all of the time.
Mr Storey: If the narrative that the Member is painting to the House and to the public is the case, then why did her party, along with the four other parties, sign the Stormont Castle agreement? Let us be very clear: all the information was available to everybody in the room. I ensured that the most senior civil servants were available: the head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service was there; the head of the Social Security Agency was there; and all the relevant information was there. Why did we have an agreement and why, today, does that agreement lie in tatters?
Mrs D Kelly: I thank the Minister for his intervention, because it allows me the opportunity to state, again, that we reserved the right to amend. My party tabled numerous amendments, which were petitioned against. Was that the best use of a petition of concern — to petition against amendments — if you were going to seriously listen to our concerns? You cannot have it every way. You cannot say to us, "Let's have a mature debate, let's hear your concerns" and then petition against them so that they are chucked out and do not stand any reasonable chance of being heard or being reflected in the legislation.
There are others who, over the last few days, have spoken to the SDLP about our responsibilities in protecting the institutions. They have said that, once again, the SDLP should bear the full and heavy load for others. And, yes, I am proud to say that the SDLP as a political party puts the needs of the people and the institutions before our own political well-being on many occasions. This time, however, we are fed up with the side deals and the bad grace that often persists between Sinn Féin and the DUP from which we all have to suffer. If it was not for the photo ops, we would seldom see them working in unison for the good of the people.
We are asking Members to reflect on what role they have played in the Stormont House Agreement and welfare reform and to reflect on why we have a loss of confidence in the British Government, which, as you know, will be responsible for bringing forward the other aspects of the Stormont House Agreement: parades and dealing with the past. The SDLP is concerned about how that will be brought about at Westminster, and that is why we have a lack of confidence.
The welfare reform debate is about protecting the vulnerable — protecting children and families — but it was SDLP MPs, such as my colleague Alasdair McDonnell and others, who voted against the welfare and benefit caps and sought to amend many of those amendments at Westminster, unlike some other parties. Here, too, we will defend those who are most in need of a voice.
Others talk about the Tories and making work pay. I think that we could all subscribe to that value or belief, but what are we seeing? We are seeing zero-hour contracts, agency workers and temporary jobs. We are seeing an erosion of many of the rights and entitlements that workers have fought for over the past 100 years, including a decent wage.
I will finish on this note: we have to remember that people here in the North are much worse off, whether in work or out of work, than people in GB. In March 2015, an income tracker by Asda showed that the average disposable income for a family in GB was £185 and only £92 for the people of Northern Ireland. That simply is not good enough. The message that we want to send to the Tories is that we are still a community coming out of conflict. They have ignored our cry for help to move Northern Ireland forward.
Mr Speaker: We need to have some order to hear the contributions.
Mr Beggs: The UK welfare system today is still that broadly envisaged in the Beveridge report in the 1940s: a safety net of support for those who genuinely need it. We want to see the sick, the disabled, the working poor, families, children and our older people all being supported whilst adults who are fit to work but currently are unemployed are supported back into the work space. Ulster Unionists very much agree with the belief that people who are fit to work should be better off in work than on benefits. We want more people entering the world of work, individuals and their families prospering and being better off, and we want Northern Ireland to prosper.
Universal credit was an ambitious project. Despite its shambolic roll-out in GB, it still might just work. The Department for Work and Pensions has claimed the success of transferring the welfare claims of single people to the new benefits system. However, we are still some way from gaining success. Earlier this month, only approximately 52,000 of the 7 million prospective claimants were in receipt of the new benefits, but more and more are being added. Until it starts to handle more and more complex cases, there is little on which to really judge the success or failure of the new system.
When the Westminster Welfare Reform Bill received Royal Assent on 8 March 2012, no one could have expected that it would take more than three years before the Assembly reached the Final Stage of the Bill covering similar rules in Northern Ireland. Unfortunately, the scale of welfare administration has become increasingly unsustainable in recent times, and reform was inevitable. The dated system was preventing individuals and families from improving their life chances. The trap of welfare dependency was beginning to catch entire families.
This is the most difficult and controversial Bill that the Assembly has faced in recent times. My party does not like everything in it. We proposed several amendments. We were successful with some and unsuccessful with others. The Bill at least delivers some reform to a system that clearly is no longer fit for purpose. Amendments were made to the GB legislation to reflect local concerns, and extra funding was set aside by our Executive through the Stormont House Agreement discussions to moderate the effects of the changes. This has been built into the 2015-16 Budget.
The aim of the Bill is to simplify benefits, improve work incentives and reduce administrative costs. The changes are occurring against a background of the UK continuing to increase its cumulative deficit. Labour, the Lib Dems and the Conservatives have all committed to Budget break-even; they disagree only over how fast they each would bring it into balance. The reality of the recent UK elections is that there is no going back. I think that Labour is even reviewing the position that it took. I also recall Iain Duncan Smith, the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, highlighting that, with the old GB benefits system, it took almost an hour for an experienced welfare supervisor, using sophisticated computers, to establish whether someone would be better or worse off if they worked a few hours more.
We had a very complicated system that was very costly to administer, and there was a lack of transparency as to whether individuals would be better off in work. Benefit traps are preventing our constituents from working to help themselves and their families.
We do have choices. If this Bill is not approved, we will be the only part of the UK using the old benefits system. There will be less funds in many other public areas. Let us be clear that there is no money tree. There is no going back asking for more money. We have been there lots of times over the past three years. There were crunch talks around Christmas last year, and we got an offer of a settlement at that stage. If we do not approve this Bill, there will be even less money for health, less money for education and less money for Departments and other publicly funded bodies.
If this Bill is approved, the potential of further penalties and unplanned departmental cuts will be averted. Penalties were discussed earlier. Penalties come simply when we decide to deviate from the welfare system. The Westminster Government simply take that money off our block grant. That is what a penalty is: we choose to differ, and therefore we pay. How can we argue to other parts of the United Kingdom that that is unfair? How can we argue that to this Government, whose members represent areas where they have a different benefits system? Why should they permit us to introduce a more generous benefits system to Northern Ireland and not pay for it? That is an argument that some would wish to win by going back to negotiations. However, I am firm in the belief that that would go nowhere. Experience of the past three years shows that that is the case.
If we choose to deviate from the welfare system that applies elsewhere in the United Kingdom, we will have to pay for it from our block grant. That is the political and economic reality. Fines have been indicated — essentially clawbacks of our deviation to date — of £14 million, then £87 million and then some £114 million this year. The figure is projected to reach £250 million next year, and I understand that the First Minister has said that it could even be £500 million the following year. This is what is coming down the line if we do not implement change. Politics is supposed to be the art of the possible. That means that we all have a responsibility to examine not only the pluses and the minuses of this Bill but the implications that will flow from the Bill not being approved.
In addition to the welfare clawback or fines, if this Bill is not approved the offer of borrowing will not be there. Remember that, because of delays last year, there was an additional £100 million deficit. We were afforded borrowing last year to avert further drastic in-year cuts. Let us remember that, last year, there were in-year cuts of 4·4% across many Departments and the overall Budget to claw back deficits that were running up. The longer we take to make decisions and the longer we avoid financial decisions, the worse will be the long-term implications. There is poorer and poorer planning around where those cuts can be made, and they are implemented in a much speedier fashion than would otherwise be the case. I understand that, if we do not approve the Bill, the borrowing to cover the £100 million from last year will be required in this year's Budget, and, of course, the hundreds of millions of pounds that were offered to us to pay for a voluntary redundancy scheme will no longer be available. They will not be on the table. That was part of the deal.
What would be the implications of all that and other aspects for the Assembly's Budget, which is with our Finance Minister and is due to be brought before the Executive and ultimately the Assembly to finalise it? Well, to balance the Budget, further cuts would have to be announced. I understand reliably that that figure is in the order of £600 million. The community and voluntary sector has already suffered compulsory redundancies. There is no doubt that if the Budget problem deepens even further if the Bill is not approved, there will be thousands of compulsory redundancies, instead of voluntary redundancies, across the public sector. How else do you balance the Budget? There has to be a balancing of the Budget. If the Executive are not prepared to do that, we know that there are mechanisms within the legislation that will pass that responsibility to senior civil servants who will set the Budget at 95% of last year's Budget.
Take the health service. Failure to implement welfare reform and finalise the Budget could mean an 8% reduction in the health budget — not an increase to deal with those increasing pressures, such as the growing waiting lists and the delays at our accident and emergency centres. There is a huge responsibility on everyone who is thinking of opposing the Bill to explain where the £600 million gap in our Budget comes from. How is that going to be filled? Or, how are we going to avoid the inevitable crash, as I see it, when civil servants will be forced to take such drastic decisions?
The question to Sinn Féin, today, is very clear: vote for the Bill with all of its local amendments and additional safeguards, or reject it and wait a few months for Westminster to implement it for them, with, potentially, no additional protection. If the Assembly survives — I say, "if" — which I think would be highly unlikely, is Sinn Féin prepared to watch these powers and all other powers being handed back to Westminster? There may, of course, be an Assembly election, but, if there is, we will come back to face the same problems, and the same issues will arise. If there is a failure again, in a few months' time, and if there is stalemate, I do not think the United Kingdom Government could sit around while such drastic cuts would be affecting the people of Northern Ireland, in terms of not only our health service but a wide range of public services.
In addition, if the Bill is rejected, the Northern Ireland social security administrative burden will grow and grow and grow. Let me explain. In Great Britain, there is a clear commitment to move to the new computer system. Recently, an official indicated to the Social Development Committee that the ageing UK current social security system cost £1 billion a year to maintain and run. When, eventually, everything transfers to the new system, that system will no longer be required. So, how is Northern Ireland going to run the current social security system with its rules and regulations? What is it going to cost us to maintain that large, burdensome computer system so that we can have the luxury of having different social security rules and regulations here? I have not heard any costs of that. I am not saying that it is going to cost £1 billion, but the administrative burden will cost hundreds of millions of pounds on an annual basis. So, on top of all the other voids, another cost is coming in. The alternative suggested by the official was that we operate a paper system for our social security in Northern Ireland, which, of course, may have even higher administrative costs. Certainly, that is not a practical option.
Over the years, it will be increasingly difficult and, indeed, almost impossible to calculate the difference between the new system and the old system. That is where the uncosted, Gerry Adams, Sinn Féin, Southern-campaign directive guaranteeing protection against all future welfare changes unravels. It is undeliverable, uncosted and irresponsible. It is so sad that we have major parties in Northern Ireland that are prepared to run with the line that there will be no change to the welfare system in Northern Ireland.
I want to put on public record that, on Friday morning, the Ulster Unionist Party met some Sinn Féin representatives in Stormont Castle.
It was one of the last chances to find out whether there was room for negotiation. Remarkably, the Sinn Féin representatives told us at the meeting that they had costed proposals that would guarantee protections for existing and future claimants and that it would be done broadly within the spending envelope already agreed in the Stormont House Agreement. We did not believe them, but we were prepared to, at least, consider it. Surprisingly, four days later, and even in the course of this debate, we have heard nothing. We are still waiting for a copy of those proposals. Sinn Féin was being irresponsible once more, even until the last minute.
It was with bemusement that I learnt that a petition of concern had been placed against the Final Stage of the Welfare Reform Bill in March and has been repeated again for today's debate. Sinn Féin has supported many amendments and approved the details of the Bill that are presented today for final approval. In fact, on the specific issue of contributory employment and support allowance (ESA), an issue on which Sinn Féin now professes opposition, this is what Mickey Brady said on 10 February:
" I argue that clause 52 ... is a good clause".— [Official Report, Vol 101, No 8, p102, col 2].
It is so good that Sinn Féin is now wholly opposed to it. Sam McBride quoted Martin McGuinness as having told the Sinn Féin ard-fheis:
"Our protected welfare system has eliminated the Tory cuts",
but then Sinn Féin flip-flopped, when the Southern command wagged the Northern tail.
One of the worst aspects of this flip-flopping is the failure to govern: the failure to lead and the failure to take responsibility, with the knock-on adverse effects that will fall on the people of Northern Ireland. Then again, should we really be surprised, considering that this is the party that claims that it stands against cuts, four years after implementing consecutive cuts? The Belfast Agreement, approved by the people of Northern Ireland, accepted Northern Ireland's position in the United Kingdom. This means that we receive UK welfare benefits and, if any changes are proposed, we must pay for them out of our remaining block grant.
Billions of pounds of subventions are already coming to Northern Ireland and, on average, our citizens are in receipt of thousands of pounds more than those in other regions of the United Kingdom. Yes, there is some argument over whether it is £7 billion, £8 billion or £10 billion, but the reality is that our citizens are receiving considerably more funds from public sources than those in any other part of the United Kingdom. Sinn Féin fails to acknowledge that reality. It seems to think that extra welfare costs will be paid for from the money tree, and it seems to wish to emulate the Greek form of economics and bring that to the Northern Ireland economy and government. I do not want such failure. Sinn Féin seemed to be willing to implement welfare reform in Northern Ireland whilst fighting austerity in the Republic of Ireland. That failure to govern or take difficult decisions in Northern Ireland will affect every one of our citizens. Have no doubt of it.
This morning, on Radio Ulster, I heard Paul Terrington, the current head of the Institute of Directors, indicate that stability in the Administration is crucial for economic growth in Northern Ireland. He went on to say that the single issue of stability, the continuation of the devolution process around corporation tax and all those things are in a vacuum at the minute. We do not have political stability to sell ourselves elsewhere or bring in new investment and we do not recognise the realities of financing our local Administration. We are creating instability and making it more difficult to bring jobs in and more difficult for existing employers in Northern Ireland to invest. The issue of corporation tax is being held back. It was a part of the agreement but, if it were devolved, what exactly would Sinn Féin be proposing? Would it propose increasing corporation tax, perhaps to pay for some of the additional welfare benefits? The Budget has to balance, and there seems to be a lack of reality in actions that are being taken by those who should know better. Sinn Féin is showing the citizens of Northern Ireland and, indeed, the Republic of Ireland that it is unfit to govern and cannot create stability either in its decision-making or its ability to live within the Budget.
At the last Sinn Féin ard-fheis, Mr Brady said that, during the recent Stormont House talks, the relentless tide of austerity was abated. How was it abated? Our Budget is determined at Westminster. That is part of the Belfast Agreement, and we have to live within the Budget that comes to us. Sinn Féin was so anti-austerity that it agreed to cut 20,000 posts in the public sector; posts that we cannot afford to maintain. It was so anti-austerity that it was a cheerleader for a Budget that has witnessed its own Education Minister admit that he will have to make 1,500 teachers and support staff redundant by September. Again, how has the tide of austerity been abated?
On top of the supplementary payment fund and all the other protections, he even claimed that Sinn Féin delivered a £564 million welfare package. That is absolute nonsense. Is he claiming that Sinn Féin secured each and every one of the mitigation measures? Is he claiming that Sinn Féin solely secured the additional funding for the transfer from DLA to PIP? Does he forget that many of the safeguards were already agreed over 12 months ago?
The simple fact is that it said originally that it would not implement welfare reform, then it agreed to do it, and then it flip-flopped once again. It is unstable government. It said that future claimants would be protected. They cannot be. That is the reality. How do we continue to calculate into the future, whether it is one year, six years or 10 years, the difference between the benefits that someone in Northern Ireland would get under the old system if we do not change and the system that will be applicable in other parts of the United Kingdom? It said that it has alternatives, but it has never shared them, and we have still not heard today what those alternatives are.
During the Bill's stages, there were decisions by the DUP to kill off the vast majority of formal amendments through the abuse, in my mind, of the petition of concern. Was that done as a diversionary tactic to save Sinn Féin's blushes at the time? Perhaps. But it did, as others said, prevent the Assembly from reaching its view in a simple vote. The Bill we are being asked to vote on today is better shaped than it was three years ago, and there was an opportunity to at least mitigate some of the worst consequences that would flow from welfare reform.
I welcome my party's amendments to the Bill. The early amendments that went down in April 2013 highlighted some of our concerns about the frequency of payments, the need for split payments, the provision of medical evidence and a desire for a Northern Ireland PIP pilot scheme. While the Bill is better for those changes, we would have preferred additional changes, such as improvements in welfare advice.
Let us recognise that there are many positive changes, as the Minister highlighted. The frequency of payment has moved from a monthly universal credit payment to twice monthly. There is provision for split universal credit where there are issues in households. There is the direct payment of housing benefit to landlords to prevent the increasing likelihood of evictions if money that was designed to go to housing benefit was not actually used for housing costs. That is another positive change that was being built in. Then there was the discretionary housing protection. There were other changes, such as the reduction in the maximum period of sanctions from three years to 18 months. Provisions were built in to protect those who have a disability. That was done in a time-limited and proportionate manner. So, significant changes were built into the raw legislation that came here. I am firmly of the belief that, if we do not approve it, somebody else will, at some point, approve a system of welfare reform for Northern Ireland. We do not know whether they will take those mitigations into consideration. The responsibility will pass to others because budgetary and other issues mean that, in the long term, it is simply not sustainable to maintain the position of not adopting these measures.
During its passage, the Social Development Committee undertook the task of reviewing every aspect of the Bill. On behalf of me and the rest of the Ulster Unionist Party Assembly group, I take this opportunity to thank Michael Copeland for his outstanding hard work on the Bill. Anyone who observed his work on the Committee was left in no doubt about his genuine interest in not only ensuring that the reforms did not have a devastating impact on communities across Northern Ireland but that they were as fair as possible. He certainly set this party's course of direction on the Bill.
Aspects of the DUP's management of the Bill and the financial management related to it have been unhelpful. Unsurprisingly, however, after presiding over the mismanagement of previous Budgets, the DUP sought to lay all the Executive's financial ills from last year at the feet of failure to progress welfare reform. That was despite the £87 million in fines accounting for less than half of the £200 million shortfall in the Executive funds. Of course, never ones to miss a chance to spin a tale to suit their own needs, they almost sounded as if they convinced themselves that what they were saying was absolutely true. Of course, it was not. Basic mathematics and honesty were not important. Nevertheless, the failure to progress the Bill came at a cost of £87 million, which we did not have to spend on other public services. Not only were key public services cut to pay for that, but it happened late in year.
Members will recall that the June monitoring round was finalised, I think, at the end of July, and it was then perhaps another couple of months before each Department announced how it was going to claw back the amount that was levied on it within the short, six-month period that remained. That is the worst way that any Government can manage. Short-term clawbacks, little planning and little notice — that is poor use of public funds, and we are in danger of repeating that this year. I say this to those who will vote against the Bill: you bear a huge responsibility. That is coming down the track. That is the political reality, and avoiding it does not solve the problem. Other costs will come back from other Departments to pay for the failure of the Bill to go through. Some parties, such as Sinn Féin, saw no contradiction in standing with posters earlier this year saying, "Stop Tory Cuts" while, at the same time, individual Ministers were implementing the reduced budgets that had been handed to them. I mentioned that earlier.
I will get back to the journey of the Bill. It now appears that it will fall at the very last hurdle. Sinn Féin has looked South and remembered that, there, it claims to be the anti-cuts party.
So, they are expressing their opposition to the Bill, regardless of the implications for the people of Northern Ireland, regardless of the most vulnerable and regardless of potential cuts to our health service — perhaps £200 million is coming out of health. How will you explain that to our most vulnerable citizens who are in ill health and need medical interventions? I would like to hear an answer from any Sinn Féin Member remaining to contribute to the debate. How will they solve that? How will they avoid that? Wishing for something different does not deliver it.
The Dublin leadership of Sinn Féin has viewed the Welfare Reform Bill as a threat to exposing the rank hypocrisy of what its party does daily in Northern Ireland compared with what it says, which is that it opposes austerity in the Republic.
So, the question is clear: is Sinn Féin prepared to reject today's Bill, lose the additional protection that comes with it, terminate the supplementary payments fund and remove all the other positive aspects that were linked to it during the negotiations at the end of last year, all for the sake of a few votes in the Republic of Ireland? As we go forward, I ask the people of Northern Ireland to remember how different parties voted on this matter and, further down the line, when the inevitable starts to happen, to realise who caused it and recall the warnings that everybody clearly understood were coming down the line. Yet politicians, it appears, are choosing to ignore the political reality. I support the Bill.
Mr Ford: I will commence, Mr Speaker, as you did, by extending good wishes on behalf of my party colleagues to Peter Robinson. We trust that we will see the First Minister back in his place and fulfilling his duties at an early stage.
For the record, I should stress that I am speaking from the Back Bench, though I have no doubt that the Minister for Social Development will appreciate the support of at least one Minister in the House today. When I say that I "support" the Bill, it is in the context that Alliance is firmly in opposition to many of the welfare reforms and opposed them in the only place that mattered: the Parliament of the United Kingdom at Westminster. That was where those decisions were taken, not here.
There is much talk about welfare powers being devolved to these institutions. The reality is that welfare powers are not devolved in any genuine sense. Right from the post-war settlement — in fact, possibly even from Lloyd George's old-age pensions, but my memory does not go back that far — we have had the reality that, on the basis that people in Northern Ireland pay UK taxes, they get UK social security benefits. The expenditure under annually managed expenditure (AME) is adjusted to deal with that without regard to the block grant. That is the position that we are in, and that is where we now stand with these measures, which have been passed by the UK Parliament. Our powers to make any change are extremely limited.
It is fine for some Members to say, as Mr McGuinness did, that the Conservatives have a minuscule mandate in Northern Ireland, which is, of course, true. I notice that even the Ulster Unionist Party seems to have realised that casting off the Tories was probably a good thing electorally, but the reality is that, whether we like it or not, whether we approve of the electoral system or not and whether we think that it is fair or not, the Conservatives have a mandate as the Government of the United Kingdom. All parties that accepted the Good Friday Agreement and the principle of consent need to live with that. In the context of a UK Government, the Conservatives have the power to decide things, and we have distinctly limited powers as a devolved region.
Mr Beggs: Will the Member acknowledge that, whilst the legislation is required to be approved here and we can deviate from it, we must pay for any deviation? So, we have the authority to change it, but we must pay for it out of our limited block grant.
Mr Ford: I entirely accept the Member's point, which I will go on to in a minute. That is where I believe that the nationalist rhetoric about welfare in this place is simply not correct. We have, as Mr Beggs has just reminded the House again, extremely limited powers to make any adjustments around the margins. We are not an unbridled power or a sovereign state, and we need to recognise the reality of where we are.
It is fine to talk about issues like the Human Rights Act, where I have no doubt that, because of its particular implications for the Good Friday Agreement, many in the House will seek to oppose any potential changes that the Tories may introduce, but this is not the Human Rights Act. This is the fundamentals of living within our means, dealing with the budget that we are given and making such modifications as we can. We may work with Scotland and Wales on many issues — indeed, in my ministerial role, I work with the Scottish Cabinet Secretary on many issues — but we cannot on the issue of social security, which is fundamentally an issue for the UK, not at all devolved in Scotland in Wales and only nominally devolved here. However, we did make those mitigations and we did make those changes before Christmastime in Stormont Castle amongst the five parties, and then we incorporated them into the Stormont House Agreement, and that recognised the practical limitations of what we can do. We cannot do all that we wish to do. We have to live within the administrative possibilities and we have to live within the financial realities, and we had a very detailed examination of those. Civil servants from DSD and the Social Security Agency put a lot of effort in then, and have since, to put the detail on that, for which we should be grateful, but we need to recognise that that is the reality and that that is what five parties signed up to — to live within the reality, to make the ameliorations and to accept that that was the best that we could do —
Mr Wilson: Does he also accept that the changes that were made and presented to the Executive reflected exactly the kind of groups that Sinn Féin and others said, including his own party, that they wanted protections made available to? That has been faithfully reflected, yet oddly enough, despite the fact that the money is there, the protections are there and the groups that were identified are covered, we now face this situation today.
Mr Ford: Yes; Mr Wilson makes an entirely valid point. We dealt with those issues in detail in Stormont Castle and, working with the Governments, we got them into the Stormont House Agreement, yet we are left in the position where it is unclear as to exactly why some people who made that deal have reneged on it.
We also have to recognise that, when we reached the agreement in Stormont Castle, all of that had a cost to other public services — a very significant cost. If I remember correctly, we started off talking about something in the region of £40 million amelioration coming from other aspects of our budget. We got it up to £93 million annual average cost in Stormont Castle, and that is money coming directly from other services — directly from services that are provided to protect vulnerable people and people in need: health and social care, classically so; housing; job skills and employment work; I might even add in the issue of justice. Those who require those services are all seeing a reduction in those budgets because money is being put into propping up the social security budget.
It is not just a matter of health, although Mr Beggs correctly highlighted the fact that health is the largest of those issues. The £93 million in the Stormont Castle Agreement that is being put into social security funding will result in a direct cost, if it is proportionate, of between £6 million and £7 million on policing in Northern Ireland, and we could look at many other examples. We have made that balance; we have sought proportionate changes that would ensure that we maintain essential public services at the same time as we ameliorate welfare cuts, but we cannot go any further than we have gone, and that was a reasonable accommodation. It is the job of a responsible Government to make those difficult decisions. It is great to be in government at a time of expanding finances and nice opportunities, when Ministers can appear in front of cameras and smile at things, but the reality of government is that we need to learn to take difficult decisions, to deal with the difficult hand when we are played it at difficult times, and to be realistic and accept those.
In that respect, it seems to me that Sinn Féin and the SDLP have to prove that they can be responsible around budgetary matters in difficult times in just the same way, frankly, as Members on the other side of the House need to prove that they can be responsible and recognise reality in other respects. The critical aspect is that the Government have to make the decisions based on the context in which we are living at the time.
Power-sharing requires compromise, rising above narrow ideology and reaching an accommodation, and it means aspiring for the common good. That is what was required, and that is what I believe we achieved at Stormont House on welfare reforms. If we do not pass the Bill, all that we agreed in the Stormont House Agreement potentially falls.
Do Members really want that? That will mean nothing at all for the voluntary exit scheme for those civil servants who wish to leave and have built up their expectations over the last months that they will get the chance to go. It will mean absolutely nothing for dealing with the past, new institutions, additional funding for inquests and all that was promised to victims, the bereaved and those who were injured. A lot of hopes were built on that, which now stand the risk of being crushed because people cannot agree the Bill. It will mean an immediate loss of last year's £100 million loan, with an expectation that it will be added to the burden of repayments this year, and there will be nothing at all for the additional funds that were expected to be invested in integrated education and shared education. If we do not agree the Bill, we have the prospect of full-blooded Tory cuts with no amelioration whatsoever.
Sinn Féin is making much about its claims to protect those who are dependent on social security benefits. The reality is that Sinn Féin is leaving them in a worse position. It is leaving them with a loss of public services, whether those be health, justice or job skills services, and leaving people worse off because of continuing fines that are being paid back to the Treasury rather than being put into any services here.
The SDLP claims to be the guardian of the Good Friday Agreement. The Ulster Unionists gave up on the Good Friday Agreement a while ago, we were never quite sure exactly how much Sinn Féin was committed to the full detail, and the DUP would claim that it never supported it. If we cannot work the system of power-sharing that is before us, we call into question whether Members have any commitment at all to the Good Friday Agreement. Members who signed the petition of concern are in danger of abandoning the Good Friday Agreement along with the Stormont House Agreement.
Mrs D Kelly: Under the d'Hondt principles of the Good Friday Agreement, I do not recall the Alliance Party being entitled to two Ministers. [Interruption.]
Mr Ford: I am sorry; I am devastated. If somebody cannot tell the difference between a mathematical formula and a principle, we have a real issue.
If people are prepared to throw out the Bill without recognising the effects that doing so will have on those who are most vulnerable in this society and the dangers that lie ahead for public services in general, those who are dependent on those public services and for victims of the past who are expecting something to emerge from the Stormont House Agreement, they really are contradicting the principles of the Good Friday Agreement as well as those of the Stormont House Agreement.
It looks like Alliance will end up being the only party that is in support of those principles and the only party that is prepared to be fiscally responsible and socially progressive. The Alliance Party is not afraid to accept that difficult decisions have to be taken at difficult times. When people reach an agreement, they should stick to the agreement five months later. We will, therefore, support the Bill, not because we want Tory cuts to be implemented but because we want to stop future Tory cuts being implemented.
Mr Campbell: I join others in wishing Peter Robinson a speedy recovery.
Given the removal of OFMDFM Question Time, it seems somewhat strange, when we in an open-ended legislative debate that could go on for hours, for us to take a lunch break of two and a quarter hours; hopefully, the Business Committee will be able to meet. That seems absurd, but I am sure that the Whips are discussing it as we speak.
A number of issues about the Bill need to be brought to a head. When it comes to what most people in the House would like to see, welfare reform does not divide us. We would all like to see a belt-and-braces, super-duper welfare reform package. I presume that almost everyone in the Chamber, as well as outside, would want to see that in place. However, that is what we would like to see. That is what we would want to see in a perfect world. What we have is not perfect. It is rather imperfect, and there is no additional money. Given that we were told by a Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition that there was no additional money, does anybody seriously think that the Conservatives, bereft of the Liberal Democrats and now governing on their own with a complete majority, will say, "Yes, we did say that with the Lib Dems in tow, but we have now had a think about it. We are going to give everybody else in the UK a £12 billion hit, but we will overlook that for you people in Northern Ireland and give you a bit more money."? It is not going to happen. It simply is not going to happen.
The reality is that we have to do whatever we are going to do within the confines of our Budget. When we come to that point — I know that there are some, particularly in Sinn Féin and the SDLP, who do not seem to be at that point yet, but everybody else seems to be — we then have to decide what we do. Do we sit tight and hope, Micawber-like, that something will turn up? When my head comes out of the sand, will somebody somewhere, with this magic money tree that everybody talks about and nobody knows where it is, deliver hundreds of millions of pounds to deliver what we would all like to see? It ain't going to happen.
What do we do then? If we all wish that it was better but know that it is not going to be, do we sit tight and then it will get worse? That is what is going to happen; it is going to get worse. Or do we adopt the better way and try to mitigate the worst excesses of a welfare reform system that is, as everybody else in the UK admits, better than what they have? When I speak to the Scots Nats, Plaid Cymru, the Conservatives and Labour across the rest of the United Kingdom, they say, "I wish we had the system that you people have." When I say that we might not have it, they say, "That is your call." We are making it today. This call is being made today.
Over the course of the last month, we have heard from Sinn Féin a number of pie-in-the-sky economic issues. In fact, I was really glad that our former Finance Minister made the quote before I made it: it was not really Karl Marx economics, it was Groucho Marx economics. I notice that the deputy First Minister referred to the Member Mr Chris Hazzard, and I am glad that he did. Who will ever forget the car-crash radio interview before the election, when the Karl Marx economics of Sinn Féin was that, if you run up a credit card debt, we will write it off? These are the people who will say that we can get a better welfare reform package. Of course, they also said that they want to safeguard not only existing claimants but all future claimants. The current DLA claimant rate, in some parts of Northern Ireland, is three times greater than in the rest of the UK. If it becomes four times greater, do they want to safeguard it? If it becomes five times greater, do they want to safeguard it? Commentators ask, "How do you account for future claimants?". They answer is that you do not. You cannot, because they are future claimants. You do not know what it will be, yet Sinn Féin wants to say that we have to get a budget and reforms that take account of the unknowable.
Mr Wilson: Will the Member accept that the fantasy economics extends even further than that? On one hand, they claim that there will be £1,500 million lost to claimants as a result of welfare reform over the next five years, yet they believed that, by negotiating with the Government before Christmas for slightly above £500 million, they could ensure that none of the people who will be affected would lose out and that £500 million would cover £1,500 million of reductions. Does he not think that that maybe shows that their grasp of numbers is not great?
Mr Campbell: I thank the Member for his intervention. I think he was underselling it a bit when he said that their grasp of the numbers is "not great". "Not great" does not come close. The reality is that we have a Conservative Government in place for, in all likelihood, five years. The subvention is £10 billion a year. People ask why we cannot go it alone. It is 50 billion of those over the next five years — 50 billion of those. That is why we cannot go it alone.
I have heard a lot about anti-austerity. I remember, and I am sure many here remember, that, four months ago, the talk across Europe, in Spain, Italy and various countries, was that anti-austerity parties were on the rise, which they were; that they were getting more votes, which they were, and that they were becoming more strident in their demands. Then, four months ago this weekend past, an anti-austerity party was not just on the rise, but became the Government of Greece. Then we heard, "You are going to see stuff happen now; you are going to see austerity confronted and smashed." What do we see four months later? The Greeks are at the IMF, saying, "Please, can you bail us out? Please, can you do something? We cannot meet your demands." So much for the mighty anti-austerity measures and the great anti-austerity party. I wonder where Sinn Féin, the great anti-austerity party of Groucho Marx rather than Karl Marx, will be?
The reality is that we are where we are. We have got to cut our cloth. People might not like it — I do not like it — but it does not change where we are. We have got to get on, mitigate what we can, do our best for those in need and do our best to secure the best deal — and we have got the best deal in the United Kingdom — or else it gets an awful lot worse. I support the Bill.
Mr Maskey: I am speaking for Sinn Féin, which stands for a number of key principles in its involvement with these institutions, including protections for the most vulnerable, a workable Budget that will enable us to deliver on the Programme for Government across all commitments, and the securing of additional powers to allow the Executive and the institutions to grow the economy and create employment.
I have heard it said over the last number of days that Sinn Féin is sleepwalking into this debate and does not listen to people. I remind people that we do listen. We are, in fact, just out of an election, and those of us who were on the campaign trail spoke collectively to several tens of thousands of people in their homes, on their doorsteps and at social gatherings and public meetings. I assure Members, and anyone else for that matter, that we do listen, and we heard loudly and clearly what people were saying. They are telling us that confidence in these institutions is low, and that they are worried about their future, their welfare and cuts to services. It is regrettable that some of them lay the blame at the door of these institutions rather than where it actually belongs, which is with the British Government; but is a discussion for another day.
The point I would make is that our party came out of the election with 176,000 votes. We are very pleased and privileged to have secured that very significant mandate. We have that mandate across the island of Ireland, in all the political institutions that the people have a franchise to elect into, and we are very proud and privileged to have that.
Mr Maskey: No, I will not give way. Thanks, Minister.
We are proud of that. What is very clear is that the fundamental principles we stood for were endorsed by that high number of people. They are the commitments that we made during the election and they are the commitments that we are going to hold to dearly as we proceed. What will happen in the weeks and months ahead, I do not know, but I do know this, and Martin McGuinness made the point very clearly earlier: Sinn Féin is not remotely interested in these institutions collapsing, but, equally, these institutions are only worthwhile if they are delivering for the people that we collectively represent, and I mean collectively as in all of the parties here.
I will make the point again that the Tory Government, who are the body responsible for the position that we find ourselves in, have no mandate here whatsoever, whereas the parties around the table here do, and we have a responsibility to discharge that mandate to the best of our ability for the people we represent. Nobody in this room, the last time that I checked, represents any electorate outside these Six Counties.
Mr Maskey: No, I am not giving way. I thank the Member.
I just want to make the point that we do listen, and we did listen. Not only that; when we make a promise, we will stand by that promise.
I want to make a couple of points before we go on. People are making remarks willy-nilly. They probably do not understand what they are saying themselves. The first thing is the whole question of fines. People say that we are being fined, and I have heard Members saying that that is money down the drain. Well, actually, I remind people that the money that is being taken off us by the British Government currently remains in the pockets of those welfare recipients. If it were not for Sinn Féin, the SDLP and others who have been resisting those cuts, those people would have had that money removed from their pockets already. Those are the most vulnerable in our society. When all the parties talk about defending the most vulnerable, that is the type of people that we are actually talking about. That money has not been lost or squandered or gone down the drain, as someone mentioned in the last number of days. That money remains in the pockets of those who are most vulnerable and who desperately need it.
I will also make a point for those who like to delude themselves about the machinations of Sinn Féin. Sinn Féin is a national party, and we do not have to be dictated to by one part of the country or another. When people refer to where Sinn Féin in the North takes its orders from, let me say this: Martin McGuinness, for example, is a member of our national executive, our ard-chomhairle, as are a number of other Members on these Benches. We are not dictated to by any one part of the country or any individual. Sinn Féin has a very strong, committed, collective leadership that has representation from throughout the whole country. Let me assure anyone who has any doubts or any delusions in their minds: the decisions that we come to have been thought out, considered and acted upon on a national and collective basis. I think that is what it should be. You will not find any individual in our party faltering against another because our party is united. We are an anti-austerity party. We are a party that wants to work with all of the other parties, building the economies, North and South, and treating people fairly. That is what we will continue to do. As I said earlier, we are very proud and privileged to have received the very significant mandate that we continue to receive, and we will exercise that mandate very judiciously.
I will also make the point that continuing attacks on Sinn Féin during this debate or, indeed, others is a bit futile because it will not resolve anything. In case you have not learned anything over the years, criticising Sinn Féin is not going to make us shift one way or another. We will do what we have to do, what we need to do and what we think is in the best interests of the people who we collectively represent. Criticising Sinn Féin is really a waste of your time.
I did not want to go there, but I want to make one point, particularly in relation to the SDLP and Dolores Kelly's remarks earlier. I think it is very unfortunate that parties seek to waste their time and energy today in the debate taking sideswipes at Sinn Féin, or, indeed, any other party, when the real focus of our dispute has to be with the British Government. I will say this — I do not want to return to it later today, and I hope that nobody else has to — had the SDLP worked in good faith during the implementation period for the Stormont House Agreement, maybe, just perhaps, they might have been able to deliver on some of the points that they have been making.
That is by the by, however, because the last point that I want to make in regard to that is that the people who we represent want us to work together. They do not want us sniping at one another. They do not want parties bickering, complaining or criticising each other. They want us to knuckle down, roll our sleeves up and get to work to tackle those very serious problems that people out there face.
The Minister, in his opening remarks, praised his officials, and rightly so. I want to place on record my gratitude and thanks to all the officials in his Department, including the Social Security Agency, who regularly come to the Social Development Committee and take a lot of time to explain things to and work with the Committee, and likewise throughout the whole Welfare Bill issue. However, by the same token, the Department officials do not set policy. That is the job for the parties around this Chamber. The officials do not set the policy.
There was progress. Parties reached an agreement in the Stormont House talks. We all agreed on that. We may disagree about what precisely we agreed — that is another day's argument — but, nevertheless, we made progress. As I have said, subsequent to that, we had further discussions about implementing the Stormont House Agreement. Ultimately, it came back — the Minister made the point earlier — and we were told by officials via the DUP that the deal that we wanted, which was to support current and future claimants, was not legally, operationally or financially deliverable. We dispute that. What we are saying is that the parties should decide the policy that we pursue, and we then have to get that enacted. Officials work very hard — I want to endorse the Minister's praise of the officials — but they do not set policy. Therefore, our party will not determine its policies based on what officials tell us. We have to listen, learn from what they are saying and work our way round the obstacles. We need to get round those obstacles politically, not simply acquiesce to them. That is the point that I wanted to make about the Department's officials.
Crucially for us, even though progress was made, it was not enough, and we have made that very clear. That is why, on 9 March, we said clearly that we would not continue to support the Bill as it goes through the House: it and the commitments and schemes did not go far enough. Essentially, we have two problems that we have to deal with. Both of those problems —
Mr Maskey: No, thank you. Both of the problems that we face originate in Westminster. They are the savage cuts to the block grant, which are well rehearsed — £1·5 billion over recent years — and the equally savage cuts to welfare, which the British Government want us to impose on people. Crucially, we have more of the same coming to us in July. Let us repeat that we are talking about treating with respect the most vulnerable. They include the long-term sick, large families with children who will be affected by the benefit cap, children with disabilities and adults with severe disabilities. Let me make it very clear that the Department's officials gave us figures for those categories: a family with a child on disability premium would lose up to £1,750; ESA time limiting would cost people £5,100; adults with a severe disability premium would lose £4,500; adults with a disability premium would lose almost £1,000; and the benefit cap would impact on some families to the tune of £2,300 or perhaps more. Those are the figures given to us. Of course, we know that the history of figures is that they could change by this time tomorrow, but it will be for another person to deal with that argument.
I want to conclude on a very simple point. In the last while, we have heard a lot of very strong and solid voices from wider civic society, which has stood together. I want to praise them again for coming to the Committee for Social Development during the evidence-gathering sessions on the Bill. There were people from the trade unions, Churches, community and voluntary sector and rights-based NGOs, including the Human Rights Commission and the Equality Commission. They spoke very well and cogently on the serious and negative impact that the welfare cuts being imposed by London would have if implemented here on the people whom we all represent. We need to focus our minds on those people. We represent people here. We do not represent people in Birmingham or anywhere else. We need to learn from and be in solidarity with all those people. The offer from Nicola Sturgeon to the devolved Administrations to sit down and work together on this issue is a very worthy one, and it would be foolish for anyone not to take up that offer.
I say to those in wider civic society that it is time for those who have identified the problems to work together to find solutions. Solutions do not lie just in the Chamber. Yes, we have the responsibility to pass legislation, or not, as the case may be. Clearly, today, we will not pass it. That is a decision that the Minister has foisted on the Chamber. Nevertheless, I call on wider civic society to work with all the parties here. This problem will not go away. The Bill will not pass today. We are then into unknown territory, and it is up to the parties to work out where we go. I would far rather that the parties —
Mr Maskey: I cannot give way, sorry. The difficulty —
Mr Maskey: OK, I will not give way; it is not the case that I cannot. I do that respectfully. I did not want to go there. This is legislation, and everyone can take as long as they need to talk in the Chamber today. However, the clock is ticking, and the Speaker has warned that he will interrupt.
I just want to finish my remarks on this point: parties here have a major responsibility on their shoulders. We in Sinn Féin have no hesitation in standing our ground against austerity. People inside and outside this Chamber have a responsibility to stand up against the cuts to the block grant and welfare, as well as the cuts that are coming down, yet again, from London from 8 July.
In the same way in which we are talking to people in the Twenty-six Counties over the head of parties, politicians and vested interest groups, I say that people out there in civic society have a voice and should use it very strongly. The people's voice was made very clear to us in the election campaign, and I presume that other parties heard the same.
We have a job to defend the people we represent, particularly those who are most vulnerable. The parties here who want to challenge the austerity measures that are coming from London and want to work with civic society out there, whether it is the unions, the community and voluntary sector, the Churches or all those organisations that very rightly put on the table the very negative impacts of the cuts if they continue to be implemented, should work together and challenge directly where the responsibility lies. Despite the differences around the Chamber, the responsibility for the cuts does not lie with the parties in the Chamber or the Executive. It lies in London. I call on people here and in civic society to stand up to London, stand together and look after the best interests of the people we are elected to represent.
It is time for people who want to equivocate on where the responsibility lies to get off the fence. The Government in London are quite clearly signalling that much more savage cuts will be imposed on us. Those will be to welfare and very important public services. We are saying to people who are against that that we should work together to challenge the British Government that are trying to impose those cuts and, if need be, stand up and name and shame the parties who are willing to acquiesce to that agenda.
Mr Speaker: The Business Committee has arranged to meet immediately after the lunchtime suspension.
I intend to discuss with the Business Committee whether we should resume the debate at 2.00 pm to fill the slot that has been left by the cancellation of questions to OFMDFM. I will communicate the decision of the Business Committee through the party Whips as soon as it has been made.
The debate stood suspended.
The sitting was suspended at 12.31 pm.
That Standing Order 20(1) be suspended for 26 May 2015.
Mr Speaker: Before we proceed to the Question, I remind Members that the motion requires cross-community support.
Question put and agreed to.
Resolved (with cross-community support):
That Standing Order 20(1) be suspended for 26 May 2015.
Mr Speaker: As there are Ayes from all sides of the House and no dissenting voices, I am satisfied that cross-community support has been demonstrated and the motion is agreed.
Debate resumed on motion:
That the Welfare Reform Bill [NIA 13/11-15] do now pass.
Mr Wilson: This is an important debate. It is perhaps one of the most important debates that we have ever had in the Assembly. As a result of the decision that the Assembly will make today, we will move into uncharted waters. We do not know constitutionally where this could lead us, and we do not know politically where this could lead us, but the one thing that we do know is that, financially, the consequences of this have been spelt out and spelt out very clearly by the Finance Minister. We can talk in the abstract about the financial consequences of the Budget for this Assembly, but those financial consequences will be felt by every family. That is why the debate should be of importance to the people of Northern Ireland. Every family in Northern Ireland will face financial consequences as a result of the outcome of the debate today.
It is little wonder that the SDLP and Sinn Féin have taken the stance that they have in the introductions to their speeches here today. There is an embarrassment there. Indeed, it is significant that none of the Sinn Féin spokespeople were prepared to take any interventions. That, to me, is an indication of how weak and paper-thin their arguments are. If they were sure of the ground on which they are opposing this legislation, you would have expected them to at least be prepared to stand and debate and discuss it and to answer questions in the Assembly. They have not been prepared to do that. In fact, we have had the excuses that this is a contrived situation and that, somehow or other, the Finance Minister has pushed us into having the Bill brought early.
I remind the Assembly that this has not come out of the blue. We have been trying to get this Bill through the Assembly for around a year and a half now. We have had meetings of all the parties, extensive discussions, negotiations with Ministers in England and even a crisis summit before Christmas last year. So, it has not come out of the blue, but the one thing that we do know is that the Finance Minister has to bring forward the final part of the Budget to the Assembly so that Departments and all those people who are affected by spending decisions of the Assembly know where they stand, so that schools know how much money they have for the rest of the year, further education colleges know what courses they can afford to run for the rest of the year, those who have applied for voluntary redundancy know whether they will be taking it and community groups know what they will have in their budget. I could go on.
There was no alternative but to bring this issue to a head. It is not contrived, it is not forced and it is not something about which the Finance Minister, the Social Development Minister and the First Minister thought, "Let's ramrod this through." It is something that has been in the making for a long time, and there has been an expectation that it is something that we would deal with.
The second argument that I have heard here today is, "Well, if only we had a bit more time, then we could've resolved the issues. Why couldn't we just sit down and talk?". Mr Maskey said we should work together to make more progress. The parties worked together at Christmas and thought that they had made progress. Before that, the former Social Development Minister worked with the DWP Minister in England and got concessions that, as my friend Mr Campbell said, are the envy of other parts of the United Kingdom. Since then, the Social Development Minister, on the basis of the agreement reached before Christmas, brought forward a plan as to how vulnerable groups might be protected, all of which has been presented to the Executive. I point out that nearly all those changes have not been as a result of those who claim to have concern for the vulnerable; they have been as a result of the work of a succession of DUP Ministers who took the lead on these issues.
As Mr Ford pointed out, while Sinn Féin poured out the anti-austerity rhetoric, it was not present when the debates about austerity were taking place in the Parliament of the United Kingdom; it was being too precious about its republican principles. That is how much it cares about the vulnerable. If there had been a real concern about the vulnerable, we would have seen Sinn Féin making its arguments in the place where welfare reform had its genesis: the House of Commons. Indeed, Sinn Féin has made it quite clear that, should there be future cuts, it will not be there to defend the vulnerable because it is a party of abstention. Abstention is more important than protecting the vulnerable. Let us not have any more of this nonsense about, "If only we had more time to talk. We're interested in supporting the vulnerable".
It is significant that, although the Social Development Minister has brought forward proposals that, we are told, are still unacceptable, we do not have a clue why they are unacceptable. Have we had any amendments? Sinn Féin has refused to accept the challenges, but I would have thought that I would at least have heard from its spokesmen today some indication as to where the flaws are. However, we have not heard from them, so what more is there to talk about? We have had extensive discussions with DWP Ministers; we have had changes made to the legislation; we have had the Stormont House Agreement and the subsequent papers tabled from it. There has been no new input from those saying that this is still unacceptable. No changes have been proposed.
The other argument is, "Well, if we all went together collectively to speak to the Prime Minister, perhaps he would give us more money". That has been well articulated here today. Those who put forward that argument know full well that it is nonsense. Anyone who thinks that a party that would not give more money when in coalition with the Liberals will, now that it has won an election, is in power in its own right and is going to introduce more welfare cuts on people in England, Scotland and Wales, exempt Northern Ireland, where it does not have one MP, is living in a fantasy world. Yet those are the arguments that we have had today as to why we should not proceed with the Bill. They are all false and threadbare, and they will have dire consequences because the Bill has to be voted on today. If it is refused and rejected, there will be consequences.
Let us look at what is being proposed. It is not that the Bill is unnecessarily harsh. I remember being on the ministerial group that discussed the Bill. This seems to be a moveable feast because, at that stage, a number of things were highlighted, all of which were dealt with. The first one was the impact that it would have on the social fund, and the Executive put more money into that. The second one was the impact that it would have on people who would no longer be eligible to receive help with their rates, and the Executive put more money into that. The third one was the spare room subsidy and the fact that we did not have the housing stock to move people around, and we got an exemption from that. The fourth one was that there were people who would find it difficult to manage their money, and, if they were paid once a month, they would find themselves short at the end of the month, so we got a change whereby we could make more regular payments. The fifth one was that, in some dysfunctional households, if you paid all the money to one person, they would go out and spend it on drink, so the money should be split, and that was dealt with, too.
All five had financial consequences, of course, in extra administration, but every issue raised was dealt with, and, by the way, it was a DUP Minister who negotiated with a Minister at the Department for Work and Pensions. Those who claim to have a monopoly on being worried about the vulnerable ought to remember that all the issues that they raised were taken on board seriously, dealt with and reflected in the legislation that we have here. We were prepared to put our money where our mouth is and deal with the financial consequences of that.
Then, of course, the issue that came up was that there were still vulnerable groups that needed to be supported. One of the reasons why additional moneys, to the tune of £540 million, £550 million or whatever it was, were found in December was to provide additional support for those groups over six years. The impression has been given that, by some sleight of hand, the Minister for Social Development turned his back on those agreements. The truth of the matter is that, when you examine it, you see that not one penny has been removed. Every single penny of the money that, before Christmas, Sinn Féin and the SDLP thought was a sufficient guarantee for vulnerable people is still in the budget for this Bill.
The groups that they asked to be addressed, children with long-term disabilities and people with severe disabilities, are covered by the supplementary fund. A discretionary fund has been set aside to look at the cases of future claimants. Where they merited payment, they would get it. Despite what Mr Maskey said, the paper states that the losses to those vulnerable groups, especially those with children, will be covered. People will not lose out, yet we are told that this is not sufficient.
Sinn Féin has tied itself up with its rhetoric that not one person would lose out. The truth of the matter, given that the total welfare budget will not rise as fast as it would have without welfare reform, is that some people were always bound to lose out. Let us not pretend that that was not going to be the case, but the groups deemed to be the most vulnerable have been covered. I am sure that the Minister for Social Development will be more than happy to spell out, and will be more competent than me in doing so, the detail of how those people will be covered. By turning our back on the Bill today, they, the very people whom those who signed the petition of concern claim to want to protect, will not be protected.
Mr Campbell: I thank the Member for giving way. Does he agree that, in addition to the group of people he is talking about, there is a considerable number of vulnerable people who would have been better off under the welfare reform package that had been negotiated but who, now, will not be better off as a result of this?
Mr Wilson: I was just coming to that. Some 80% of those who will be affected by the changes to universal credit will either be no worse off or better off. Forty per cent, or 80,000, of them will be better off; 40% will be no worse off; and 20% will be less well off — and even they will have transitional protection in that it is only when their circumstances change that they will find that their payments are reduced.
Here is the real danger. I said that we were entering uncharted waters on this. I pay tribute to those parties who recognise that there are difficult decisions to be made and that there are costs involved in that. At least, they have not buried their head in the sand in the way that Sinn Féin and the SDLP have done. They have been prepared to support this. The real danger is what will happen if we do not proceed with this and if we prove that we are not mature enough to take the hard decisions. Being in government means that you have got to take hard decisions. It is one thing to say that we want devolved government and we want more devolved powers — in fact, I heard Mr Maskey say that he wants not just this devolved, but a lot more fiscal powers devolved — but putting up or putting down taxes will be hard decisions to make because they will have consequences. If you cannot deal with the issues that we have before us, how can we hope to deal with any more powers being transferred to the Assembly? If we do not have the ability to do that, one of the possibilities — I do not want to be alarmist. We have muddled through crises before in the Assembly, and the only people to have suffered have been those who have been affected by the delays and the indecision, and the only thing to have suffered has been our credibility. I do not think that our credibility being affected in that way is good for the political process. Some people play fast and loose with it.
Mr Storey: The Member will recall, I am sure, a document that was published by Sinn Féin, ironically called "Sinn Féin Welfare Reform: The Facts". That is a contradiction in terms. In that document, Sinn Féin said:
"Sinn Féin will not be part of any agenda that punishes the most vulnerable in our society."
Yet, in a Department in which it had control, the Education Minister made a decision without reference to anybody else — and I see the Education Minister is in the House this afternoon — and £1·7 million was taken out of the early years fund. Who has that affected? Who has that punished? That was deliberately a target towards families that are now in a very dire situation. So, when it has the control and the power, it attacks the vulnerable, and that is the accusation that it is making against the rest of us.
Mr Wilson: Furthermore, the vulnerable are attacked as a result of the incompetence of Sinn Féin in dealing with the issue of welfare reform. Of course, that £1·7 million reduction in the early years programme, which deals with vulnerable families, could have been avoided by simply passing the Welfare Reform Bill. The money we would have saved in one week, rather than it going back to Westminster, would have ensured that those early years programmes were continued. So, not only has the financial situation been brought about by Sinn Féin, but the Minister decides to attack the vulnerable rather than cut some of his pet projects. Of course, he could have saved that money by not pursuing as rigorously his policy of promoting Irish language schools, but, no, Irish language schools are much more important than those families who would have benefited from the early years programme. Again, we can see the hypocrisy of the party opposite. They use such fine statements as, "We want to protect the vulnerable", but, when they have to make decisions about protecting the vulnerable, they are not so good at doing it.
That takes me to the absolute crux of the point that I want to make. We do not know where this will lead us, constitutionally, but one of the options, constitutionally, is for the Government at Westminster to say, "Since welfare reform is not devolved to Wales and not devolved to Scotland, and Northern Ireland can't handle it, we will take it back to Westminster", and all the protections that I have spent some time outlining here today will disappear. Somehow or other, that is supposed to be a good outcome for the vulnerable and for those who will be mostly affected by welfare reform.
If that is the logic of those who have signed the petition of concern, then it is little wonder that the stock of some Members in the Assembly is so low amongst the general public. That is something that has to be given real consideration. Of course, there might be no immediate decision taken by the Government to take this under the control of Westminster, but the one thing that they cannot allow to happen, and the one thing that we cannot allow to happen, is for this festering sore to remain here, because it is going to be more and more costly. Mr Beggs outlined the escalating cost, and I do not want to go into that. As the gap between welfare payments in Northern Ireland and those in the rest of the United Kingdom widens, we will pay back more and we will also pay for the additional cost of administration as we lose the use of the UK-wide system of administration and have to take that on under our own hat and auspices.
It is probably too late, at this stage, to ask those who signed the petition of concern to withdraw the foolish action they have undertaken. I am not an expert on this, but I suspect it is too late. However, we have spelt out the consequences of it. Putting this on to the Floor of the Assembly was not due to some rush of blood to the head by the decision-makers in the DUP. It was something that had to be done, and was done only after every effort was made to try to resolve the issue. I must say that I am disappointed that we have failed to do that.
I have just one word of warning. Sinn Féin is magnificent with words. This is how Mr Maskey started his speech. He said that the aims of his party were to protect the vulnerable. Well, I think I have shown that they are not protecting the vulnerable in this. He also said they aim to have a workable Budget. The Finance Minister will have a lot to say about how workable the Budget will be if the welfare reform changes do not go through. Mr Maskey also said that his party wanted the acquisition of more fiscal powers. Anybody who would want to add more fiscal powers to the Assembly and to the people who bury their heads in its economic sands would be out of their skull. Indeed, why would you hand fiscal powers to people who clearly cannot even handle the powers they already have?
I do not know whether anybody in the Irish Republic ever watches or listens to the debates in the Assembly. I hope that those in the Irish Republic, who Sinn Féin hope will eventually vote them into some coalition arrangement after the next election, are listening to this debate. If they pay any attention to it, they will realise the financial and political incompetence that rests on the Benches across the way. If their representatives in the Republic turn their backs on economic and political reality, in the way that Sinn Féin has done here, then, if the people of the Republic are foolish enough to put them into a position where they hold the levers in a coalition arrangement, dear help that economy. We do not need the Southern economy to go into a tailspin because of the kind of people who might take up those kinds of positions: claiming to be anti-austerity but not having a clue as to how to run a modern economy in any one way.
We believe that we have brought forward an honest attempt to square the circle of the welfare changes at Westminster, which have inevitable consequences here, just as they did in Wales and in Scotland. In fact, it is significant that, although the Scottish nationalists claim to be anti-austerity, they accepted that those welfare changes had to be implemented. We have brought forward an honest attempt, and we have spelt out the consequences. I hope that, as people cast their vote at the end of the debate today, they will bear all those points in mind.
Mrs O'Neill: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I will start by picking up on some of the comments made by the previous Member, particularly in relation to his commentary on the electorate in the Twenty-six Counties. The Member should cast his mind back to the European elections: half a million people across the island are consistent with what Sinn Féin does, particularly in relation to our policies of standing up for the most vulnerable and for public services. That is something that we are very proud of, and it is not something that we will stand back from. The immediate difficulties —
Mrs O'Neill: The Member should let me get started.
Despite the fact that, as the previous Member said, we knew that this was coming and we were always going to arrive at this point, we are debating the Welfare Reform Bill in the Chamber today because the DUP and the Social Development Minister decided to move the motion on the Bill, despite knowing that there was no way it would command any kind of support in the House. The reason we are in the immediate crisis that we are in today is that reality.
We have not had the papers come forward. I listened carefully to the Social Development Minister's opening remarks, particularly around the fact that so much information had been provided. There is no doubt that there has been plenty of to and fro in the form of discussions with advisers and across our parties about ironing out all the difficulties and trying to put in place the protections that clearly need to be put in place. However, this is despite the agreement that was arrived at in the Stormont House Agreement, despite the Minister's commitments before Easter that there would be papers coming forward and that we would chart our way through and despite the Minister's promise to the House — I will quote him — that no one in the North of Ireland would be
"adversely affected as a result of the changes" — [Official Report, Vol 100, No 5, p23, col 1].
I ask the Minister this: are the cuts of £1,750 to the child disability premium not an adverse effect? In my book, that is most certainly an adverse effect and something that the House needs to be very concerned about.
Mrs O'Neill: I am sure that the Minister will take his opportunity when he sums up the debate today to respond to the points. The Minister will have his opportunity to respond to the points that I have outlined. He clearly said, again, that he had done everything that he could to find a way forward, but, again, that is not the case. Where is the bedroom tax paper?
Mrs O'Neill: Again, the Minister can address these points in his contribution towards the end of the debate.
Where is the bedroom paper? Where is the agreement on the disability scheme? Despite the fact that my party clearly flagged up our concerns and the issues that we need to see addressed, that has not been forthcoming. The Minister created the immediate crisis that we are in today by taking the Bill to the Floor, knowing fine rightly that it will not be agreed today.
Mr Dickson: Will the Member give way to somebody who cannot respond at the end of the debate?
Mrs O'Neill: Let me get on with my contribution to today's debate. Everybody has the opportunity to put their name down and go through the normal procedure.
The debate so far today has taken a very narrow view. It has been about taking that narrow approach. It has very much been about trying to apportion blame, which is not helpful. It is not helpful to the electorate. We cannot look at welfare as an isolated issue; it is something we need to look at in the round. Sinn Féin has consistently said that it wants to work with the other parties and address the outstanding issues. I have clearly highlighted the opportunities that we have taken. We want to be constructive and continue to be constructive in our approach to all of this. What we have failed to do and what many contributors this morning have failed to do is to focus on the bigger picture. The reality is that there is a black hole in the block grant. The reality is that we have been stripped of £1·5 billion. The reality is that George Osborne has clearly said that he will make more in-year cuts. I challenge the other parties to start looking at the major issues that we have to address collectively in the time ahead. When Martin McGuinness asked Theresa Villiers for confirmation of the implications of what is coming in the July Budget, she did not know. She does not know, but the Finance Minister in the Executive here knows.
Mrs O'Neill: It all leads to the artificially created crisis that we find ourselves in today. I make those points because they are points that need to be made, but I come back to the point that Alex Maskey and Martin McGuinness made, which is that we need to work together. We cannot roll over and just deploy what the Tory Government want — cuts, cuts, cuts to public services.
(Mr Principal Deputy Speaker [Mr Newton] in the Chair)
I listened carefully to Members trying to play welfare off against public services. That is not the way to look at it. That is a disgrace. This is not about one or the other; this is about all. This is about protecting our front-line services and protecting people in relation to welfare. The public will look at the debate today, as they have looked at the debate in recent times, and they must be asking themselves what the vision of the Assembly is. Do the Executive have the vision to stand up for public services and the most vulnerable? When our electorate looks to Scotland, they see the contribution that the SNP has made. Nicola Sturgeon is standing up today and talking about her anti-austerity policies, and this Executive need to take the same approach. The Scottish Executive have sent out a clear invitation to work with our Executive and the Welsh Executive to challenge the Tories on their austerity policy.
Mrs O'Neill: It is comical that Sammy Wilson referred to people burying their head in the sand, because I very much think that the DUP has an ostrich mentality when it comes to standing up to the Tory Government. There are parties in the Chamber that are very happy to cosy up — [Interruption.]
— to the Tory Government and their austerity policies, but not one party in the Chamber stood for the recent Westminster election on the same Tory policy. Not one person put that in their manifesto. The people in the Six Counties did not vote for a Tory policy of austerity; the people in the Six Counties voted for local, elected politicians. [Interruption.]
That is why we are devolved. We have an opportunity now to stand up and show the electorate of the North that we will work together and face down the Tory policies of austerity. [Interruption.]
People can choose to sit in the Chamber today and try to apportion blame, but it does nobody any good.
Mrs O'Neill: At the end of the day, we need to work together. I can say it 10 times in 10 ways if you like, but the reality is that that is what we need to do. We need to face down the Tory austerity policies, and we need to do it together. [Interruption.]
Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: I ask Members not to make remarks from a sedentary position. The Member has indicated that she is not giving way.
Mrs O'Neill: There is still time for parties in the Chamber to work together. People should change tack and work with the Scottish and Welsh assemblies. They should clearly stand up for the local electorate, for welfare and public services and to protect the most vulnerable. People must work to achieve a workable Budget. We cannot continue with the raids on the block grant and the £1·5 billion black hole that has been created. We cannot continue with that policy. We need to work together. We need more powers to grow the economy, and we need to create employment. Sinn Féin believes that all the parties in the Chamber can work together. You can all sneer all you want, but that is the reality of the situation. Either you sit here and accept what the Tories give you, or you stand up for the people who elect you.
Mr Attwood: I express my best wishes to Peter Robinson in light of his current ill health. I hope that he makes a full recovery.
This might bring a slight smile to the Minister's face — it might be the only one in the next five or 10 minutes — but, when he was here at Further Consideration Stage, I said that, whilst there was definitely a new broom handle, it was still the same old brush. With that precedent, it seems to me that some of the Minister's opening comments, which were, maybe somewhat surprisingly, very slight — I am sure that he will correct that when he comes to the reply, which, no doubt, will last substantially longer than his opening speech — suggested that some new bristles were being attached to the old broom.
From our point of view, we would like to look further at that and at a lot more, and we will come back to that.
Whilst we have been setting out our stall on welfare today, a number of Members have commented on the fact that the Scottish National Government have been setting out their stall on everything. Whilst I think that some have relied on what the Scottish Government have done today in a rather casual way, it is worth looking at what the Scottish National Party has outlined today, where it outlined it and what it was saying.
The Scottish First Minister went to Hearts Football Club in Tynecastle stadium, and not only did she outline a business pledge with businesses and unions in Scotland and say that she wanted to enter into arrangements whereby a living wage was paid by businesses in Scotland, including Hearts Football Club, which is where they were this morning, she also outlined what their approach to the new Tory Government was going to be.
Whatever our views may be on welfare, we should all take a little bit of time between now and 42 days from now, when the Chancellor will announce the full scale and speed of his first austerity Budget in the lifetime of the five years of this Parliament, to assess what Cameron, the Chancellor and Iain Duncan Smith, who is curiously back in DWP, intend to do, not just to the people of England but to the people of Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.
Given the fact that the DUP attends Westminster, and I welcome that, it will have to make a decision, which is whether it puts its hands up when the Queen's speech is outlined and when the Chancellor outlines what he is going to deliver in the first months and years of this new Westminster Parliament, which is not just going to have an impact on the people on welfare in Northern Ireland and Britain but on thousands of other people in the public and private sectors, especially those elements in the private sector in Northern Ireland that are dependent on public-sector work.
So, if we step back for just one moment and recognise that there are 42 days until the Chancellor and the British Prime Minister announce what they are going to do, it might bring, even late in this debate, a slightly different perspective that would well inform and well serve all the parties here, especially those parties that will be sitting in Westminster and will have to make calls on what the British Chancellor announces in the first week in July.
Nicola Sturgeon said that she was going to try to attack the scale and speed of austerity, work up an alternative to austerity and that she, John Swinney and her colleagues were saying to the British Prime Minister that he cannot ignore the democratic will of the Scottish people. She made the point, which has been proven time and time again, that austerity slows down economic recovery, and she concluded by saying London had to change their approach or lessen the impact on Scotland.
Whatever we think about welfare, if that is not a pathway for what we should be doing in the next 42 days in our engagement with the British Government, we are ill-serving not just those who are on welfare in Northern Ireland but all the people of Northern Ireland, who will live with all the consequences of what the Chancellor and the British Government intend to do in the next 42 days, the 42 weeks thereafter and the 42 months that will be the early months of the next British Government.
I have to say to Mr Campbell that I do not understand his speech. In one way, understandably, it was all about the moment, the Welfare Reform Bill and what it does and does not mean for the political and constitutional authority of this place. However, I do not understand that, in making those observations about the moment and the Welfare Reform Bill, he had nothing to say about the next 42 days. When Nicola Sturgeon, a few hundred miles away, has so much to say about the next 42 days, I do not understand how we can be silent on all of that, when she and so many others are speaking up.
Mr Allister: Perhaps the Member will tell us what his mentor, Ms Sturgeon, did about welfare reform in Scotland. Was she silent on it or did she resist it and succeed in overturning it?
Mr Attwood: I think that that question suggests that, on this occasion, which is a very rare occasion for Mr Allister, maybe he does not quite understand the constitutional arrangements that exist between Scotland and London and Northern Ireland and London. As I think he probably now recognises, when we negotiated the Good Friday Agreement, we negotiated that Northern Ireland would have devolved powers for welfare —
Mr Attwood: I will in a second.
The other parties did as well. So we are in a constitutionally and legally different situation from London. However, this is what she then did: she did things that other parties in the Chamber took a bit of time to recognise as useful and some things that parties in the Chamber still have to recognise as useful. What does that mean? It means that the Scottish Government were the first Government to say that, on a pound-for-pound basis, they would mitigate the impact of the iniquitous bedroom tax.
Mr Attwood: They were the first devolved arrangement that, on a pound-for-pound basis, mitigated the impact of the bedroom tax. When that suggestion was raised on the Floor of the Chamber, Mr Allister, through you, Mr Principal Deputy Speaker, it came from the SDLP proposal, and the response from other parties was to mitigate it only for existing and not future tenants. The ball has moved on in that regard, and I welcome that, but I will come back to the issue in my closing remarks, because I have questions to put to the Minister for Social Development arising from his opening comments where, again, I think that he created some muddle — to put it mildly — in relation to the bedroom tax.
Mr Allister, what the Northern Ireland Assembly did not recognise, unlike Scotland, was that welfare was so important that it created a dedicated welfare committee. As the anoraks in the Chamber will know, one of the committees regularly covered by the Parliament channel is the Welfare Reform Committee of the Scottish Parliament. That programme recognises that that Government and that Parliament put in place mechanisms to drill down on what is happening on welfare to try to protect the Scottish people.
Mr Attwood: That proposal was rejected during the Consideration Stage and the Further Consideration Stage of the Welfare Reform Bill in the Chamber only a matter of weeks ago when the opportunity for us, collectively, to interrogate welfare reform was available. We will live to regret that. Why? Because of the scale of what is about to hit us when it comes to welfare reform, even to the point where the welfare reform Minister in London, Iain Duncan Smith, briefed the papers over the weekend to say that he is trying to resist the British Government's imposition of £12 billion more welfare reform cuts. Iain Duncan Smith is telling the Treasury that that is too far, too fast.
Mr Attwood: The architect of welfare reform and welfare cuts is now arguing with his own Government that they need to slow it down, even in his terms.
Mr Wilson: I thank the Member for giving way. We know that he has eulogised the Scottish Parliament on quite a few occasions; some of us might wish that he would go and join it. Since he is eulogising the Scottish Parliament — he is quite right that it does not have the same constitutional powers that we do — it did, for example, have the power to set up a supplementary fund to help those who were affected by welfare reform. Did it do that? It did have the opportunity to introduce separate schemes such as we have done for vulnerable groups. Did it do that?
The truth of the matter is that they did not, because they knew the limits to dealing with the aspects of welfare reform, and it was quite convenient for them to say, "It was the bad English and not us".
Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: It is time for Question Time with the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development. We will return to Mr Attwood after Question Time.
Mrs O'Neill (The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development): My Department has prepared draft bovine viral diarrhoea (BVD) legislation, which has been approved by the EU Commission and is ready to be subjected to the legislative processes here. Before I can introduce such legislation, Animal Health and Welfare NI needs to demonstrate that it has sufficient private sector funding to enable it to maintain the implementation of the eradication programme without the need for further public funding. This is important, not only because of the pressures on available public funding, but because of the need for industry to lead in tackling this production disease.
Significant progress on this issue has been made recently, and Animal Health and Welfare NI has presented a draft of its viability and sustainability plan, which is being considered by officials. I also have to be satisfied that Animal Health and Welfare NI, which will be responsible for the implementation of aspects of the legislation, has an IT system that is fit for that purpose. While the current system has been adequate for the administration of the voluntary BVD programme, it is not yet sufficiently robust to enable the introduction of legislation. Animal Health and Welfare NI is working with its database provider to resolve those issues.
I would like to highlight the amount of work being taken forward by Animal Health and Welfare NI, in conjunction with my officials, to facilitate making the BVD eradication programme compulsory. In many respects, this project has been breaking new ground, and it has, of course, presented a number of challenges that have taken time to work through. I also highlight the positive contribution that the industry, both the dairy and beef sectors, are making to that ongoing work.
I am hopeful that any remaining issues can be successfully resolved shortly and that I will be in a position to legislate later this year.
Mr Irwin: I thank the Minister for her response. Does she accept that there is frustration in the industry over the length of time it has taken to get this scheme up and running?
Mrs O'Neill: Yes, as I said, trying to get to a stage where we have a compulsory scheme has not been without its challenges. This is very much an industry-led initiative. However, we are very supportive, and we have been working with the industry to get us to the stage we are at. I am pleased that we recently received the viability plan from Animal Health and Welfare NI. Things look good, and I am hopeful that we will be able to move forward and introduce the legislation. We have already had the legislation approved by the EU, so, in terms of the Department's role, we are steps ahead. We want to make sure that the viability and sustainability plan is in place and that we have everything set out that allows us to take a staged approach to tackling BVD.
Mr Boylan: Go raibh maith agat, a Príomh-LeasCheann Comhairle. How successful has the uptake of the voluntary scheme been?
Mrs O'Neill: Since the scheme commenced on 1 January 2013, over 4,000 herdkeepers have joined the scheme and, between them, have purchased just over 400,000 tags and test kits. That has resulted in over 300,000 test results being uploaded onto the database, with 289,000 of them negative. The level of persistently infected bovines found is 0·51% of tests, which is about 1,500, and for a further 1%, the results are, as yet, unknown.
Mrs Dobson: As we know, the Minister announced, to great departmental fanfare two years ago, that she was going to legislate for compulsory BVD testing. Can she provide an update on the latest estimated cost to farmers per applicable animal if the scheme becomes compulsory?
Mrs O'Neill: I do not have those figures on me. As the Member is aware, we announced it with fanfare, and I still speak about it in those terms. This is an industry approach to trying to tackle a production disease. It is important that we move towards tackling production diseases, as opposed to tackling diseases after the fact, and this is very much a preventative approach that will help improve the productivity farmers get from their animals.
The teething problems are a result of industry problems, not DARD problems. The Department has the legislation on the table and has had it approved by the EU. Before I bring the legislation forward, I need to be assured that the industry can respond to what is set out in it. We have been working our way through that, and I am confident that the industry has produced a sustainability plan that looks very positive. This will allow us to go through due process and bring the legislation to the House before the end of this year.
Mrs O'Neill: The rural micro capital grant scheme closed for applications just last Friday, 22 May, so you will appreciate that it is pretty early to give any definitive view on the quality or range of applications. However, I can say that the rural support networks were extremely busy dealing with enquiries and calls in advance of the application deadline. I understand that over 450 applications have been submitted and that the eligibility screening process will start immediately, with the intention of working towards issuing letters of offer to successful applicants by July.
As Members will already know, financial support of up to £1,500 an application is available for selected projects, and that is intended to encourage rural community and voluntary groups to improve and develop their facilities and assets, which, in turn, will contribute to improved community engagement in the local area. I anticipate that over 150 rural community organisations will directly benefit from the initial £200,000 set aside in my tackling rural poverty and social isolation budget for the scheme. The new programme represents an excellent opportunity for community groups to build on their existing roles, strengthening community engagement and improving the lives of those living in rural areas. The response so far suggests that the programme will have a tremendous impact in our rural areas.
Mr McCartney: Go raibh maith agat, a Phríomh-LeasCheann Comhairle. Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as a freagra. I thank the Minister for her answer. Can she give us some detail on how the successful projects will be selected and the sorts of criteria that she will be using for them?
Mrs O'Neill: The programme opened on Monday 13 April and closed on 22 May. To reduce the administrative burden and the application processing times, once an application is screened against the programme's eligibility checklist, there is no secondary assessment process. That speeds up the whole grant scheme. Each rural support network has been advised of its grant allocation to fund projects in its area, and all eligible applications up to the allocation threshold for the area can be awarded funding. In the event of the network being oversubscribed, selection will be through the use of random selection, which will be undertaken in an appropriate venue and is open to attendance by applicants. Actual selection will be undertaken by an individual who is independent of the entire process, and selection will be verified by attending DARD officials. Random selection is not a first come, first served process. No grant awards will be made until the call for applications is closed and all applications in the relevant network area have been screened for eligibility. I expect that letters of offer will issue before July 2015.
Mrs O'Neill: AFBI has received 246 eligible applications from staff interested in exiting via the voluntary exit scheme.
Mr B McCrea: Does the Minister have any idea of how many of the applicants will be successful in getting voluntary redundancy?
Mrs O'Neill: I do not have those figures now. Obviously, AFBI has to work through its processes for making successful bids to the scheme. Suffice it to say, it is working very hard on its strategic plan for 2020, and I am working very closely with it to set out its priorities for the years ahead, particularly around research, development and innovation. I want to work very closely with it to make sure that we arrive at a sustainable plan for AFBI to have a successful and thriving institute into the future.
Mr Byrne: Given the cutbacks, will the voluntary exit scheme for AFBI be able to be self-financing or will extra moneys be available to it to warrant and pay for the scheme?
Mrs O'Neill: The same as other Departments and arm's-length bodies, AFBI will be able to bid into the voluntary exit scheme that is being taken forward across the Executive. As I said, we are obviously operating in challenging economic circumstances, and AFBI has very clearly been set a challenge and a task to look at how it will be sustainable into the future. We want to have a thriving AFBI. I want to work with it, and I have done so over the last period to make sure that what it brings forward is something that will create a sustainable AFBI, and the strategy is set out until 2020. We have that paper nearing finalisation, and it also looks at the costed savings that AFBI could achieve. It looks at income generation that AFBI could achieve, particularly around increasing EU receipts. I will consider the entire package of proposals very carefully before coming to final decisions on the future direction of AFBI and on how we envisage it working.
Mr Beggs: The Minister referred to her application to the voluntary redundancy scheme. She will, however, be aware that her party's opposition to welfare reform, on which the scheme depended, means that it is unlikely to be available. Can she advise us whether she has any funding in her Department to pay for a voluntary redundancy scheme, or will she have to overlook a compulsory redundancy scheme?
Mrs O'Neill: I will not be drawn into speaking about what-ifs. Unless the Member has a crystal ball, I do not think that he can say definitively what will happen next. The scheme is going forward as is at this moment in time; if there are changes, we will have to look at all of that.
Mr Allister: What percentage of AFBI staff do the 246 represent? In particular, does it ease the foolish agenda of trying to close the Crossnacreevy testing station? Is the Minister hoping to hide behind that as a means of delivering that austerity measure?
Mrs O'Neill: I do not intend to hide behind anything. I do not have the percentage figure either. The total number of applications is 246. AFBI was planning for around 200 to go out on the voluntary exit scheme. As I have already stated, that is all part of its strategic sustainability plan up to 2020 that we asked it to develop. AFBI has many an opportunity to look at increasing its income, particularly from EU drawdowns, and particularly since the Executive have a target to increase our drawdown under Horizon 2020. There are plenty of opportunities for AFBI to look at increasing its income, as it has done significantly down through the years, which has helped it to be sustainable. Given the economic climate that we find ourselves in and the current financial constraints, particularly the implications that Tory cuts to the block grant will have for arm's-length bodies, it is more important than ever that AFBI has a very clear vision of where it is going. I am working with it, and its 2020 strategy paper is nearing finalisation and includes AFBI's costed savings proposals showing how it plans to live within its budget. It is also about increasing drawdowns and identifying priorities in areas of work that will really help the industry, particularly in relation to research and innovation.
Mr Poots: Does the Minister recognise that both Scotland and the Republic of Ireland are pouring more resource into research in agriculture and that the attack that she has made on AFBI is actually an attack on the entire agricultural community? The community will not achieve sustainability if it does not have the quality research that AFBI provides, and it will not be able to replace core funding through the other means that the Minister so blandly points out, with AFBI suffering substantial damage as a consequence.
Mrs O'Neill: I can only continue to repeat myself: there has certainly been no attack on AFBI. I have been working very closely with AFBI. There are a lot of misconceptions out there: I have heard figures about reductions in its budget that are incorrect. I understand that a figure of 26% has been quoted. That is very much not the case. On a like-for-like basis, using the same methodology employed by the Department and across the public sector, the reduction to AFBI's budget is about 11·5%. When you compare that against AFBI's overall cost base, the reduction only equates to 7·5%. So, whilst I do not underestimate the challenges that that creates for AFBI, just because something has always been done a certain way does not mean that we should continue to do it that way. This is why AFBI has been tasked, and why I have worked very closely with it, to look at its future direction, how we can work together, how we create a sustainable, thriving AFBI, because a failing AFBI is not in anyone's interests or those of the agricultural industry. I want it to be successful, and I am happy to continue to work with it. We have a strategy in place now. We have a plan, and, as I said, it is nearing completion.
Ms McCorley: Go raibh maith agat, a Phríomh LeasCheann Comhairle. Thank you, Mr Principal Deputy Speaker. Can the Minister elaborate any further on AFBI's strategic plan for post-voluntary exit?
Mrs O'Neill: It will all come back to the strategic plan, which we are close to completing. That will very clearly set out AFBI's costed savings proposals to show how it plans to live within its available budget for 2015-16 and up to the end of the decade. I am going to consider the package of proposals very carefully before coming to a final decision on its implementation.
As I said, none of us can continue to do things in the same way. We need to prioritise what we do, consider stopping certain things and find more efficient ways of getting things done. Particularly on AFBI, we need to look at how we can increase its drawdown of European funding. I have clearly set challenging targets, but I believe that it is up for that and the board is working very hard to make sure that it maximises its drawdown of external funding outside of what the Department allocates, which is quite significant. I do not have the exact figure with me, but I think it is close to £40 million of funding. That is the priority, and it clearly shows that there is a will within the Department to focus on research and innovation. I will continue to do that, and I clearly set out my stall in wanting to work with AFBI to make sure that we prioritise the work for the time ahead.
Mrs O'Neill: Following a full reassessment audit by SGS Qualifor, an internationally recognised certification body, I am pleased to report that the Forest Service management system has been assessed and certified as meeting the requirements of a well-managed forest against standards recognised by the Forest Stewardship Council. The certification process recognises the importance of timber production, along with its environmental and social requirements. The impact of that is significant for the timber industry. Last year, it added over £50 million of value to the economy.
In environmental terms, obtaining forest management certification provides independent evidence that Forest Service plans and operations are maintaining and enhancing the biodiversity of our forest ecosystems. The certificate is also important for tourism. Visitors want to know that forests are being properly managed and that plans for cutting and replanting operations comply with the highest standards.
Ms Maeve McLaughlin: Go raibh maith agat. I thank the Minister for the detail in her answer. Has the Minister considered further exploiting the potential of our forests, particularly in tourism and recreation?
Mrs O'Neill: Yes, an assessment of the potential for forestry tourism development opportunities was jointly commissioned by the Tourist Board and Forest Service, and confirms that some of our forests are strategically important within tourism destination areas because they have the potential to hold visitors as part of a longer visit. The outcomes of that study have underpinned the decision by the Executive to invest £4 million in forestry tourism projects, collectively known as the forestry fund. That work is nearing completion, and many forests have benefited through improvements to poor-quality and outdated tourism and recreation-related infrastructure.
The forest fund also identified a need to establish a baseline of forest visitor figures in terms of numbers and profile. As a result, a forest visitor survey has recently been completed, and a key outcome will include information on the economic value generated by forest visits. The final report is currently being assessed, and I am confident that the survey will provide a clear evidence base for the value of forest tourism. The information gathered by the survey will also provide an important aid to future recreation and tourism investment considerations and partnership working arrangements. Our forests offer a unique opportunity, and attracting more visitors will have a positive impact on the economy of rural areas across the North.
Mr Swann: Does the Minister believe that the Forest Service currently has the flexibility or ability to maximise its revenue-raising potential, either through timber sales, asset sales or even land leases?
Mrs O'Neill: Yes, I think that the Forest Service has come a long way from what it did in years gone by. We have social and recreational use of forests and we have seen many examples of very positive working in partnership with councils. Alongside that, the Forest Service also has significant income generation from timber, and there have been no challenges or issues identified to me, but if the Member wishes to raise things with me outside of Question Time, I would be very happy to receive them, because it is very important that we maximise the receipts from Forest Service. I continually engage with the Forest Service chief executive on challenges and opportunities, but we are not coming across major issues or barriers to potential income generation. However, as I said, I am happy to talk to the Member if he has any specific issues.
Mr Rogers: Thanks, Minister, for your answers thus far. In the Republic, there are plans through the new forestry programme to plant over 8,000 hectares over the next 10 years. What expansion plans does DARD have for forestation and creation of woodland?
Mrs O'Neill: I refer the Member to the DARD website. We have very clearly set out our plan and targets for planting. We have our grant aid assistance to help people to plant out. I do not have the actual details of the targets with me, but I am very happy to provide them to the Member in writing. It is not to say that the targets that have been set and where we have got to with them are not without challenges, but I think that the targets run up to 2020. I will provide those details to the Member in writing.
Mrs O'Neill: With your permission, Cheann Comhairle, I will answer questions 5 and 14 together.
As discussed at a recent meeting of the Executive, OFMDFM is taking forward the sale of the site with the exception of the 8·7 acres that has been earmarked for our headquarters and the 85 acres on the lower site that has been set aside for NI Water.
My officials are working closely with colleagues in OFMDFM on matters relating to our relocation. OFMDFM has confirmed that the announcement of DARD's HQ move to the Ballykelly site has generated more interest in the site. OFMDFM is represented on the programme board that is in place to provide the strategic direction for DARD's relocation programme.
A planning application for a new headquarters at Ballykelly was submitted to Causeway Coast and Glens Borough Council on 30 April this year. The planning application is for the building and the new access road required to service the building. A series of enabling works and studies are being undertaken at the site and are due to be completed by the end of May. A transportation assessment has been carried out, which concluded that the proposed access road meets the requirements of the new headquarters. My officials have commissioned DFP's Land and Property Services to acquire the land for the proposed access road.
My officials are now working on completing the full business case. I expect that to be completed by November this year, with a view to awarding the contract for construction in December this year and construction beginning as planned in May next year. My officials are also working with DFP colleagues to identify suitable temporary accommodation in the north-west. This will help to facilitate the transition and ensure that the Department continues to provide the full range of its services to the high standard expected throughout the period of transition.
Mr Campbell: Is the Minister aware that the delay and possible derailing of the welfare reform project, which we are discussing today, puts at risk not just the thousands of jobs at Ballykelly but the other thousands of jobs at the Maze site and the tens of thousands of jobs, all in the private sector, that could be created through the corporation tax reduction?
Mrs O'Neill: I do not want to get drawn into that again. I do not think that you need to play welfare reform against the moving of DARD's headquarters to Ballykelly. The Member will know that I have fought very hard for a better distribution of public-sector jobs. That continues to be the case. These jobs moving to the north-west is a major win for construction in the north-west, the ongoing servicing of the building and a fairer distribution of public-sector jobs. That continues to be the case. I will continue on this journey. We have come a long way to get us to where we are now. The planning application has been submitted. I will continue to make sure that we deliver on DARD's headquarters moving to the north-west because I believe that it is the right thing to do for public service. It is a nonsense to start to play welfare reform against DARD HQ.
Mr Ó hOisín: Go raibh maith agat, a Phríomh-LeasCheann Comhairle. Does the Minister have a time frame for the delivery of the planning application process so that there can be no delays in the delivery of the entire project, which is essential for the north-west?
Mrs O'Neill: Yes. On 30 April this year, we had a planning application, which was lodged with the new Causeway Coast and Glens Borough Council, for the design of the new headquarters. This application also includes details of the new access road requirements. Consultations have been ongoing throughout the design development process between my design team and other statutory bodies, such as Planning Service, the Environment Agency and Transport NI, as well as the ministerial advisory group on architecture. The building has been sited and designed to minimise the impact on the surrounding landscape, with particular focus on the nearby church. The exterior of the building has been designed so as to integrate appropriately into this rural setting, with extensive use of granite, stone and bronze cladding. The building will be constructed in two phases, with the completed building measuring 6,600 metres squared. The building will provide modern office accommodation for DARD staff and will be built to government office standards, making full use of open-plan spaces and modern working practices. Planning Service works to a 12-week target. We expect this to be completed by August this year. We will then proceed to the invitation-to-tender stage, with a view to awarding a contract for the construction of the building by December this year.
Mr Dallat: I welcome the Minister's response. I also welcome the idea of her Department coming to Ballykelly. Would she agree with me that that is only a tiny part of a 900-acre site? Will she please explain to the House why, in her discussions with Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister and others, they are scurrying about only this week and talking about a master plan for a site that has the potential to create hundreds, if not thousands, of jobs? Finally, will the Minister tell us where else in the world you would have a site like that, with an airport beside it, a railway running through it and a main road going past it? There is still no master plan, and an economic task force has still not been set up, so —
Mrs O'Neill: I welcome the Member's positive commentary on the move to Ballykelly and the benefits that it will bring. I know that he has been a consistent supporter of the move.
It is very clear that the Executive, and OFMDFM in particular, have responsibility for the wider site. The fact that DARD has become the anchor tenant has, I think, very clearly led to more significant interest in the site. That is something that is obviously very positive and something that we welcome. The Executive have set out their stall on needing to move to secure investment in the wider site. Maybe over the last month or so, they have very clearly set out their stall on what they want to achieve and the benefits of moving quickly. OFMDFM did a soft marketing test, which very clearly set out that many businesses out there expressed a significant interest in the site. I cannot remember the number, but many businesses did that.
The potential is fantastic. You are right. The location is fantastic, and there is so much potential, particularly from the railway halt and all the other possible travel methods to that area. They are second to none. My main interest is in securing the headquarters in the site, and, as I outlined in previous answers, we are clearly on target to being able to deliver on that.
Mrs Overend: Setting aside the Minister's shameful actions to date on the issue, not least the blatant disregard for public money, does she think that some of the proceeds of the sale of surplus lands could be put into a community fund for the Roe valley?
Mrs O'Neill: Maybe the Member does not understand. When the site is sold off, it will be an Executive sale. The money will not come into DARD, so it will not be my individual responsibility. It will be the Executive's responsibility how the money is spent.
On my regard to public money, I have very clearly set out my stall on why we need a relocation project. I have also very clearly set out my stall on the benefits of moving the headquarters to the north-west. I have also very clear set out the benefits of moving the Forest Service to Fermanagh and the Rivers Agency to Loughry in Cookstown in the Member's constituency. Maybe she thinks that that is a bad spend of money, but she can answer to the electorate on that.
We have very clearly set out the benefits of spending public money in that way, with the fairer distribution of public-sector jobs, the construction jobs and the long-term economic benefits that it will create, particularly if you take the increased footfall into a small area like Ballykelly. To me, the benefits very clearly weigh up in the spend of public money.
Mrs O'Neill: Since the European Commission’s comments on the draft rural development programme 2014-2020 were received on 31 March this year, my officials have been engaged in a process of negotiation with the Commission to address the comments that were raised and to gain approval for our programme as quickly as possible. The negotiations have included seven videoconference meetings with Commission officials in Brussels and one face-to-face meeting. So far, our ANC scheme that was submitted in the draft programme has been informally approved by DG Agri, with minor technical amendments. We are hopeful of receiving informal approval for more schemes shortly.
Once the Commission’s comments have been addressed to their satisfaction, the full draft programme will be resubmitted formally for approval. A period of inter-service consultation will then begin with the Commission. Formal Commission approval for the programme should be received by July this year or September at the very latest. In the interim, my officials will continue to work on the necessary business cases and the design of schemes so that we can start to open schemes once the EU and business case approvals are in place.
Mrs McKevitt: Minister, it is generally believed that we are the last region to agree to the new rural development programme scheme. Can the Minister advise whether any rural groups have been put at a disadvantage because of that delay? What protections will her Department give to the groups to help them to deliver on their schemes?
Mrs O'Neill: It is untrue to say that the majority of other member states have had their programmes approved, because that is not the case. The Commission underestimated the fact that it would have to deal with an influx of applications coming forward last year and is struggling to turn all those around and get approvals out. The reality is that we are not at the bottom of the pile. I noticed that the Twenty-six Counties had its programme approved, which is something I welcome, but, as for our approval, we are working consistently with the Commission. As you can gather from what I have said, there has been ongoing engagement with the Commission, and we are hopeful that we will get approvals in the next months.
Alongside the work that is being done in tidying everything up with the Commission, my officials are drafting schemes and getting things moving. For example, we invited applications for the agri-environment schemes when people made their claim for the single farm payment by the deadline of 15 May, even though we have only had informal approval of that scheme. We are not letting anything sit; we are making sure that we will have programmes open and ready. You will know that rural groups are still receiving funding, but I am anxious that we learn the lessons of the previous programme, that we do not have a slow start and that we get things moving. We can do that only when we have official sign-off from Europe. In the meantime, we have a body of work to get on with.
Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: That ends the period for listed questions. We will now move on to topical questions. The Member listed to ask question 1 has withdrawn their name.
T2. Mr B McCrea asked the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development to outline her position on rural broadband provision. (AQT 2552/11-15)
Mrs O'Neill: The Member will be aware that the responsibility for broadband is a priority of the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment. However, I have been keen to assert myself and make sure that we work to plug the not-spots of service provision. Anyone who lives in a rural area will be alert to the frustration felt by businesses and by families who may have children who are studying. If you cannot get a connection or have a slow connection, it can be frustrating. My Department has invested £7·5 million in rural broadband over the past number of years. We have assisted 1,700 households in getting a connection. That was done through my tackling poverty and isolation package of funding, and we will continue to work with DETI to ensure that we plug the gaps.
Mr B McCrea: Does the Minister accept that there is huge frustration throughout the rural parts of our country that they cannot get what they consider to be an essential utility for modern living and that it is perhaps something that the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development should take on board to drive rather than just leaving it to the techies?
Mrs O'Neill: I think I have just answered that. I said that it was very frustrating for people living in a rural area who cannot get a connection. It is the responsibility of the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment, which has contributed significantly to broadband across the board. My intervention was merely because rural communities that did not have a connection or had too slow a connection to make any difference were frustrated. That is why I have invested £7·5 million from my tackling poverty and isolation pot of funding. It is also significant that we have been able to assist 1,700 households. However, if you are still in an area where you cannot get a connection, it is only natural that you will be frustrated. I can give an assurance that, from my Department's point of view, I will continue to work with DETI to plug the not-spots and address speed issues in other areas.
T3. Mr Nesbitt asked the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development for an update on the number of young farmers who have applied for a top-up to the basic payment. (AQT 2553/11-15)
Mrs O'Neill: I do not have that figure with me, but I am happy to write to the Member. We had almost 2,500 young people applying to take part in the College of Agriculture, Food and Rural Enterprise-run course, so that in itself was extremely significant. It exceeded the Department's expectations of the numbers that would come forward. I am not sure how many of those translated into applications. The deadline of 15 May has just passed, and we will be able to assess that over the next number of weeks.
Mr Nesbitt: I thank the Minister and would welcome written confirmation. She said previously that the top-up payment would be based on 25% of the total direct payments average per hectare, which I think is around €84. Given the Minister's previous answer, I wonder whether she can give some assessment of the financial implications of that.
Mrs O'Neill: The Member is right that €84 per hectare was the estimated figure that we thought we would be looking at. However, that was dependent on the numbers that came forward and the numbers that came out of the scheme. Until we have the final number, I do not want to give a figure that either raises or lowers expectations of the final payment. As I said, it is dependent on the final number of applications that came forward.
T4. Mr Campbell asked the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development to outline her Department’s progress on country-of-origin labelling in the sheep sector. (AQT 2554/11-15)
Mrs O'Neill: It is an ongoing issue that we are attempting to get to the bottom of. The Member will be aware that country-of-origin labelling came into effect in April. Prior to that, as far back as last year, we were dealing with the nomadic issue, and we now have the lamb issue, so I am concerned about what that means for all the other sectors in the time ahead. We have been monitoring recent developments very closely. I am doing everything in my power to address the issue. I have had conversations with Minister Coveney in the Twenty-six Counties, DEFRA in England and Phil Hogan, the European commissioner. I have written to DG AGRI and DG Competition in Brussels about being able to get to a position where we can agree a voluntary label that could be used by the industry — and others in the future if needs be. I believe that we can have a resolution to this labelling issue if there is a will and a way. There is certainly a will in the industry; we need a will from the buyers, such as the big companies that ask for particular labels on their products.
Mr Campbell: The Minister outlined a series of conversations that she had been having. While she has been having those conversations, farmers have seen prices go down. They have declined significantly in recent months. How long does she believe it will be before she starts to see those prices recovering, principally as a result of the labelling saga?
Mrs O'Neill: Obviously, pricing is an issue outside the Department's remit; it is a commercial issue. However, suffice it to say that, if there are barriers — if we do not have fairness in or the supply chain or if we do not have conversations across the supply chain — people cannot plan for potential fluctuations in prices.
In terms of country-of-origin labelling, it is my intention to have it resolved ASAP. This is the time when farmers will be selling, so they miss out the longer this goes on. I made that clear to the European Commission, DEFRA and Simon Coveney. I have tasked my permanent secretary — Simon Coveney has done the same with his permanent secretary — with trying to find a solution. It is in the best interests of our local industry that we find that solution ASAP.
T5. Mr McMullan asked the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development for an update on her efforts to address rural crime. (AQT 2555/11-15)
Mrs O'Neill: I am very aware of the real concerns that levels of crime are causing amongst the farming community, including the number of livestock thefts that have occurred on farms. I have met the PSNI Chief Constable and the Minister of Justice on a number of occasions and made them aware of my concerns. I explained the real worry that this was causing in rural areas and highlighted the need for something to be done. Responsibility for tackling rural crime lies primarily with the PSNI, but DARD, through its veterinary service enforcement branch and CAFRE, works closely with the PSNI, particularly in relation to the detection, tracing and recovery of stolen livestock. I am aware of some local PSNI initiatives to prevent rural crime. Those are to be welcomed. I am also aware of joint work being taken forward by the PSNI and an Garda Síochána to combat crime in border areas. I welcome the multi-agency approach that has recently resulted in the recovery of stolen animals, arrests and convictions in the North and ongoing prosecutions in the Twenty-six Counties.
Mr McMullan: Go raibh maith agat. I thank the Minister for her detailed answer. Can she give us any details of her discussions with her counterparts regarding fuel laundering and associated crime, particularly in the border areas?
Mrs O'Neill: Yes. I have recently had a conversation and a meeting with the Minister of Justice, David Ford, about the measures that have been taken forward right across the island to tackle fuel crime. It is something that is 100% condemned. We need to continue to work together to resolve it. As I said, I think that the multi-agency approach, with the gardaí and the PSNI working together, has been most effective. Whilst it is too early to say, we are hopeful that the new detection mechanism that has been inserted into the fuel, which is being taken forward by HMRC, will yield improvements and act as a deterrent to people being able to launder the diesel and things like that. I raised it also with Simon Coveney at a recent NSMC meeting. In terms of my responsibility, I am very clear about making sure that we are to the fore in doing everything we can. My Department will play its role in tackling fuel fraud but also rural crime in general.
T6. Mr Brady asked the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development to outline how her focus on rural broadband provision has benefitted the Newry and Armagh constituency. (AQT 2556/11-15)
Mrs O'Neill: My Department has now invested a total of £7·5 million in rural broadband. This investment has already helped some 17,000 rural dwellers, farms and businesses to access broadband services. The broadband improvement project, which is led by DETI and to which I am contributing £5 million, has been responsible for an additional 14,000 rural premises being able to connect to broadband if they wish. In the Newry and Armagh area specifically, 4,591 premises have been connected through this investment, giving rural dwellers in the area the same opportunities as those living in urban areas.
Broadband is a priority of mine. I want to see all rural dwellers in the North being able to connect to broadband if they wish. To that end, I am investing a further £1 million in the broadband improvement project and allocating £2 million of the next rural development programme to tackling the harder-to-get-at areas that still do not have access to broadband. I want to encourage as many rural people as possible to make more and better use of broadband. I have asked officials to carry out a scoping study to see how my Department can encourage more and better use of broadband so that rural businesses and farmers can benefit from the wide range of government services that are now available online.
Mr Brady: I thank the Minister for her answer. When will all not-spots be connected? Go raibh maith agat.
Mrs O'Neill: The additional funding from the tackling rural poverty and social inclusion budget will help to reduce the number of not-spots to around 20,000. The broadband funds in the new rural development programme will also target those remaining not-spots. Other government programmes are in the pipeline, and these will also impact on the remaining not-spots. Signing of contracts is to take place once the business cases and programmes have been approved. The target date is mid- to late May.
As I said earlier, I understand the frustration within rural communities. We have made progress in reducing the number of people who cannot access broadband. However, we still have a way to go. In terms of my contribution, I am committed to working with DETI and the broadband improvement projects. I have very clearly set out my intention to invest additional funding to tackle broadband and to try to plug the gaps that are there.
T7. Mr Moutray asked the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development whether she has any plans to introduce a new, more robust identification system for cattle to deter livestock thieves. (AQT 2557/11-15)
Mrs O'Neill: I think that the system that we have in place is a good system. We look at it in terms of tackling rural crime and how we can address it together. One of the areas that is looked at is whether improvement can be made to the tags. A recommendation has not come forward from the industry that is workable for farmers but also acts as a real deterrent. Outside of that, as I said earlier, the focus has to be on collective and multi-agency working across the island with the gardaí and the PSNI.
Mr Moutray: I thank the Minister for her response. Would she be open to giving consideration to making mandatory the freeze branding of the last three digits of ID numbers on cattle?
Mrs O'Neill: Quite a number of years ago, I was involved in the launch of a freeze-branding project at, I think, Clogher mart. That initiative was taken forward jointly with the PSNI and looked to me like a very beneficial project and a good way to go. However, there was not a lot of industry take-up. I am always very happy to keep things under review. If there is an initiative such as freeze branding, which, as I said, has been piloted but did not have a great uptake, I will always be happy to look at it. If there is something that acts as a deterrent, is easy for farmers to maintain and does not put a cumbersome burden on them, I will be very happy to look at it.
T8. Mr G Robinson asked the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development what criteria her Department uses to quantify the impact of the ‘Mixing Slurry Safely’ leaflet. (AQT 2558/11-15)
Mrs O'Neill: I do not have that information with me. It is all published on our website, but I am very happy to get it sent to the Member.
Mr G Robinson: Does the Minister agree that the impact of information regarding slurry safety must be investigated to ensure that resources are being accurately targeted for best results?
Mrs O'Neill: Yes, I agree with the Member about farm safety and making sure that everybody plays their role. The Health and Safety Executive is in the lead, and my Department plays a key role in collective working on making sure that we highlight the dangers on farm, particularly around slurry and the devastating impact that that can have. I can give the Member that assurance surely.
T10. Mr Agnew asked the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development, following the BBC ‘Spotlight’ programme on puppy farming, whether she believes that the problem is that the legislation is too weak or is it that enforcement has been inadequate. (AQT 2560/11-15)
Mrs O'Neill: I think that it is fair to say that we have some of the strongest legislation, particularly when you compare us with England, Scotland, Wales and even the Twenty-six Counties. The Member will be aware that I have given a commitment and that we have undertaken a review of our legislation to see whether there are ways in which we can improve things. A number of recommendations have come forward as a result of consultation. The Member will also know that I have extended the deadline for receiving contributions to that consultation, given the recent publicity on dog breeding establishments.
Our enforcement officers do a fine job of taking action on reports made to them. However, whilst I believe that the legislation is strong, there is always room for improvement, in everything in life. If we can do something to improve the legislation and help enforcement officers, I would be very much up for that.
Debate resumed on motion:
That the Welfare Reform Bill [NIA 13/11-15] do now pass. — [Mr Storey (The Minister for Social Development).]
Mr Attwood: Before Question Time, I was about to respond to comments made by Mr Wilson. He said in passing that, maybe, I should go and join the Scottish nationalists. I think that it is more the case that we should be like them, not join them by going over there. Everybody now knows, not just the likes of me, and I have been making the argument for a long time, that Swinney, Sturgeon, Salmond and the rest are the most effective Government on these islands. They are a very effective electoral and political machine, and we should be as close to them as we can on issues of common interest in order to maximise our impact on the thinking of the Conservative Government in London.
The Scottish Government may be leaders in so many ways, but they could learn some things from here about welfare mitigation. Whatever the dispute about some of the detail, some of the principles were good. Nobody in this party will deny that or say that the principles that informed welfare mitigation, which the Minister brought forward further to Stormont House, were bad. The principles were good, and they are principles that could apply to other jurisdictions in Britain, including the Scottish jurisdiction, to supplement the multiple schemes that they have already introduced to mitigate welfare reform.
Mr Principal Deputy Speaker, I want to make a broader point. It was touched on in a number of contributions, but I think that it needs further detail. Whatever the dispute around Stormont House, whatever the issues around the protection of claimants and whatever the responses in the Chamber to the SDLP and Green Party amendments at Consideration and Further Consideration Stage, an environment exists now that is different from the one that existed at any time since Stormont House. Sammy Wilson said that people here should not bury their head in the sand on welfare. I suggest that, if he wants to make that argument, it applies equally that nobody in the Chamber should bury their head in the sand when it comes to the changed environment that exists at the end of May, compared with any time up to 7 May and after Stormont House. Before 7 May, it was anticipated that there would be a hung Parliament. Before 7 May, it was anticipated that either the Tories or Labour would require the support of other parties, which would be a constraint on some of the worst ambitions of either party if it were to lead the London Government. Before 7 May, no party was going to have an overall majority. Now, after 7 May, that is changed. As one commentator put it, when talking about George Osborne:
"Who’s going to stop him now? This is a dash to shrink the state, squeeze everything, contract out what can’t be cut and return, as his own Office for Budget Responsibility said, to a prewar, pre-welfare state, bare-bones government. These children of Thatcher are ideologues to the core, often without even knowing it. They have breathed in from infancy a 'common sense' assumption that the state is always wasteful, private and market always good, the collective worse than the individualist. As Thatcher said, you will always spend the pound in your pocket better than any government will. Now he tests that – possibly to destruction. All but the NHS, overseas aid and schools will be cut by a third, according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies."
So, whatever the context was — I will give way to the Minister in a moment — in Stormont House, at Consideration Stage or Further Consideration Stage, let us not bury our head in the sand about the context that exists in these days after 7 May and in the 42-day run-up to the emergency Budget in July.
Mr Storey: I thank the Member for giving way. Obviously, he believes that I work for DWP and not for the Assembly. Does he not argue against his own point? If the case is as he sets out, it puts the onus on the parties that signed the petition of concern, his own party included. If that had not happened, we would have been able to implement the changes and mitigating measures that we had agreed, and which would have taken off the table the worst elements of what we fear in relation to the current process. What you have done is ensure that what is coming down the road is the GB version, and there will be no mitigating measures.
Mr Attwood: I think that there is a long path in the 42 days between now and the emergency Budget. There is some path to travel between now and then. Either immediately before recess or possibly even after it, the Assembly can convene again and come back to the Chamber to pass a Budget, if it is the wish of the parties. A lot of water will flow under a lot of bridges between now and then, and, in that context, we can do more in respect of welfare reform as it is and, potentially, do more in respect of welfare reform and the Budget proposals that are going to emanate from London over the next 42 days.
Mr Storey: Does the Member not understand the parliamentary process? The petition of concern kills this Bill. It will not come back for six months. That is the period of time during which it cannot be brought back. It could be 18 months before we get another Bill like this through the doors of the Chamber. That is the reality.
Mr Attwood: I do not believe that that is the only scenario that faces the Chamber this afternoon, and I will outline why. If you think it is, you should pull the Bill, and tell London to put its welfare penalties where they should be: in the bin. Tell London that we will now join with Nicola Sturgeon and our colleagues in Wales, and say to them, in terms of what is proposed on 8 July, that we want mitigations, changes, amendments, revisions and protections for our people. Otherwise, if you send the message to London today that that is where we are on welfare, the DUP may as well raise their hands for the Queen's speech and for the Chancellor's emergency Budget on 8 July, because you will be saying to London, Minister — I speak through you, Mr Deputy Speaker — that when it comes to it, a party in Northern Ireland will swallow whatever they propose, be it on welfare reform to date, welfare reform over the next three years or the Budget proposals that are going to come in the next 42 days. This is the moment to join with Nicola Sturgeon and say that, whilst good work has been done in mitigating some of the welfare reforms, we want to see the full colour of London's proposals when it comes to welfare and Budget changes, for the reasons that I am now going to outline.
People say that we do not know what London will propose. I understand that, in meetings held last week, which I was unable to attend, the Minister of Finance and Personnel indicated that she and other parties are unsighted when it comes to what will be proposed in the Budget on 8 July. If we are unsighted, we should listen very closely to what the Chancellor of the Exchequer told the CBI in London last week. Here we are, 42 days from the emergency Budget, and the Chancellor of the Exchequer, last Wednesday, put up in lights what he will propose. It appears that the new Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Greg Hands, has started to ask Departments whether they can find ways of trimming their 2015-16 plans to fast-track a proposed three-year squeeze.
We have bitter experience of that from 2011. After the election of the coalition Government, the Chancellor went to the House of Commons with an emergency Budget in June. At Further Consideration Stage, I said in the Chamber that there would be a replay of that strategy. Last week, the Chancellor of the Exchequer told the CBI that, when it comes to his emergency Budget in June, there is going to be a replay of what happened in 2011. Osborne told the annual dinner of the employers' organisation that:
"When it comes to saving money, we all know that the more you can do early, the smoother the ride."
He then indicated that the Conservative Party, in its election manifesto, said that it would adopt a three-pronged approach to deficit reduction in the current Parliament: £13 billion of departmental spending cuts, £12 billion in welfare cuts and £5 billion of extra revenue from a crackdown on tax avoided. Treasury sources say the expectation was that the savings would be found from day-to-day running costs — from the pound in the pocket of each person who is in work or out of work — rather than from capital projects. Osborne will use his second Budget of 2015, the one later this year, to outline how he intends to shave about 10% off the £120 billion slice of the welfare budget that is not spent on pensioners. During the election campaign, the Conservatives refused to detail where the cuts would be made, but the Institute for Fiscal Studies said that child benefit and disability allowances would inevitably have to be looked at.
By the time the spending squeeze is over in 2017-18, the independent Institute for Fiscal Studies estimates that — wait for this — the budgets of unprotected Whitehall Departments such as Justice, Transport and the Home Office, will have been cut by a third, once inflation has been taken into account. What does that mean for our Justice Department, or for the Minister's Department, or the Agriculture Department of Michelle, after her contribution to the welfare debate? Change that to unprotected Northern Ireland Departments such as Justice, Agriculture and social security, which will have been cut by a third, once inflation has been taken into account.
That is why the SDLP says to all parties in the Chamber that, given the scale of what the Chancellor has begun to put into the public record and public domain, given that we are 42 days from the scale of all that, which could result in a reduction of one third in unprotected Departments in the Northern Ireland Executive, and given the scale of all that upon all the people who are reliant upon those moneys, be it in the public sector or those in the private sector who are reliant on public contracts, is it not time to stop for a moment and not force through the Welfare Reform Bill? That will send the message to London that, when it comes down to it, that is what the Assembly does in a moment of a crisis when people are talking up the potential collapse of the Executive. That is something that Sinn Féin relied upon as its defence for putting through what it called the best possible Budget in November of last year and in January. The collapse of the institutions was their protection, as they saw it, for putting through the worst austerity Budget that we have seen in this part of this island since 2011.
Is it not time to take time out, Minister, and to say, "Let's not move. Let's gather ourselves and see who our allies are. Let's then go to London."? If we send out the message today that we are going to go quietly when it comes to the scale of what the Chancellor is proposing — he is proposing to get the pain up front rather than later when his tax relief begins to kick in — then we are letting down not only people on welfare, but we are letting people down. They will all suffer the consequences of the scale of that.
Mr Storey: I thank the Member for giving way. I omitted to say earlier that our thoughts and prayers are with him and his family on their recent bereavement. He knows that we have been thinking about them at this time.
Does the Member forget that we had a five-party agreement? We sweated it out, had the discussions at Christmas and had the detail, despite what Sinn Féin says about not having the information and the papers. We did all of that and still, when we had got a five-party agreement, parties in the House could not honour the commitments and keep their word. Now, because of the budgetary issues, we are in the crisis that we are in. It is not because I arbitrarily decided to move the Bill's Final Stage today.
Mr Attwood: I thank the Member for that intervention. I acknowledge his further words today and the words that he conveyed to my family over recent days.
I will deal with that point fully in a moment, but I want him to consider, because he is the welfare Minister, and he will be the Northern Ireland welfare reform Minister, what is now being scoped out in the public and media domains for what the next phase of welfare reform will look like. According to a lot of sources, it has eight or nine different features. Whatever the views of the Minister, the DUP and other parties are on the content or even the integrity of the Stormont House Agreement, I think that what I am about to outline will deliver a withering blow to whatever was agreed at Stormont House unless we all box cleverly and maximise a position of strength when it comes to the Tory Government.
This is what informed sources are now saying is the scale of what the Chancellor, the Treasury and Downing Street are about to propose. First, they are saying that the annual benefits cap — some of this is in the public domain — will be reduced from £26,000 to £23,000 a year. Given the scale of unfunded commitments that are measured by £5 billion in tax breaks and a reduction in inheritance tax, I would be very cautious about believing that a reduction of the benefits cap to £23,000 is even the limit of the Chancellor and DWP's ambitions. Secondly — again, this has been talked about in the public domain — those under the age of 21 who are claiming jobseeker's allowance will be barred from claiming housing benefit. What will be the consequences of that? That could be 42 days away. What will be the consequences of so many —
Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: Can I disturb the Member for just a moment? A Member has a telephone close to the microphone system that is interfering with the Hansard recording. The Member may continue.
Mr Attwood: I will stand up and say that it is not me, Mr Principal Deputy Speaker. Perhaps others want to declare an interest in that matter.
What will be the scale of that if it transpires?
Thirdly, papers leaked to 'The Guardian' within the past few weeks warn that the £120 billion-a-year legal cap on welfare spending could lead to extremely controversial cuts to benefits. The Minister will be aware that, during the Stormont House negotiations, Mark Durkan repeatedly warned about how London would use its welfare cap there and the notional welfare cap in Northern Ireland to cap welfare spend going forward. The Government could short-circuit so many of the welfare reform proposals that they are clearly intent on imposing by putting in place welfare limits in London and Northern Ireland that say, "You work within that financial threshold". That would drive a coach and horses through any financial envelope that the Minister had been able to secure in the Stormont House proposals. The plans leaked in that memo also suggest that savings could be found by increasing the bedroom tax by applying it to categories of renters other than just social housing tenants. That point confirms that the changes — [Interruption.]
— yes, you know what I am going to say — that I introduced as Minister to try to stop profiteering by landlords in the private sector were not subject to the bedroom tax, as Sinn Féin and Mr Wilson tried to claim at Consideration Stage and Further Consideration Stage. Potentially, DWP and the Treasury have plans to apply it to categories of renters other than social housing tenants. The plans also suggest the abolition of statutory maternity pay or alternative proposals to get employers to contribute more to the cost of statutory pay.
Other leaked documents refer to cutting disability benefits, DLA, PIP and attendance allowance and stating that they would no longer be tax-free. Other proposals suggest that those eligible for carer's allowance could be hit by restricting those eligible for universal credit and so on, concluding with this comment from a newspaper article:
"The Trussell Trust charity has estimated that the number of people reliant on emergency food handed out at food banks had increased by nearly a million people under David Cameron's premiership.
But another reason why people should be worried of Mr Duncan Smith's return to DWP is the charity's calculation that nearly half of all those referred to their local food bank between April and September last year were due to failures in the welfare system — including the stricter benefit sanctions introduced since 2010."
I make that point because, on 18 April, every political representative in south and west Belfast got a letter from the Trussell Trust saying that it wanted the cooperation of the political representatives in those areas to help it to communicate and give people access to its south-west Belfast food bank, touching on areas from Twinbrook and Dunmurry to Andersonstown, the Monagh bypass, the Upper Springfield Road, the lower Falls to the Spires shopping centre and all places in between. What we are about to face in the scale and speed of further welfare reform is captured in all that, yet we are being asked to sign off on something from Stormont House, whatever the dispute might be about the details. When it comes to welfare, you begin to wonder whether the Stormont House Agreement is worth the paper it is written on. Whatever the dispute might be, if that was the understanding at the end of December, it is now five months later, and that is the SDLP's best understanding of where DWP, the Treasury and the British Prime Minister now intend to go.
What is the point in the Executive, on the one hand, giving money to support those in welfare need when, on the other hand, the British Government have plans for the Budget and welfare to take much more money away from us when it comes to those who are subject to public funding or welfare support? You begin to wonder what the point is in trying to negotiate and get a position of strength, even though it was not all the strength that we thought it should be, when we end up in a situation five months later in which that is the scale and speed of London's proposals for the Budget and for welfare. I suggest to the Minister that that is at the core of this debate. Whilst you can try to legislate for what the situation was, despite the disputes ever since over Stormont House, is it not a precautionary position and one of strength to ask about the authority of all that when the carpet will be pulled from under all of us with welfare and the Budget? That is not speculation; it is in the parliamentary diary at Westminster. There will be a Chancellor's statement on, I believe, 8 July. He is not hiding what he is going to do. He may be coy about some of its scale, but he is not hiding it.
Do we not have a responsibility to ourselves and to all those who are subject to public funds, whether it is welfare or otherwise, to say, "We need to see the colour of all that to make our