Official Report: Tuesday 10 February 2015


The Assembly met at 10:30 am (Mr Speaker in the Chair).
Members observed two minutes' silence.

Assembly Business

Mr Speaker: The motion will be treated as a business motion and therefore there will be no debate.

Resolved:

That as provided for in Standing Order 53(1), this Assembly appoints an Ad Hoc Committee to consider the Statutory Rule: The Justice (Northern Ireland) Act 2004 (Amendment of section 8(4)) Order (Northern Ireland) 2015; and to submit a report to the Assembly by 18 March 2015.

Composition: DUP 2
Sinn Féin 2
UUP 1
SDLP 1
Alliance 1


Quorum: The quorum shall be five Members

Procedure: The procedures of the Committee shall be such as the Committee shall determine. — [Mr Weir.]

Committee Business

Mr Speaker: As the next three motions relate to amendments to Standing Orders, I propose to conduct the debate as follows. I propose to group the three motions as detailed on the Order Paper and conduct a single debate. I will ask the Clerk to read the first motion in the group and then call the Chairperson of the Committee on Procedures to move it. Debate will then take place on all three motions in the group. When all who wish to speak have done so, I will put the Question on the motion relating to Standing Order 20A(4). I will then ask the Chairperson to move formally the motions relating to Standing Order 4 and Standing Order 6, and I will put the Question on each of those motions without further debate. I remind the House that cross-community support will be required. If that is clear, I shall proceed.

Mr G Kelly (The Chairperson of the Committee on Procedures): Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I beg to move

Leave out Standing Order 20A(4) and insert –

‘The Speaker shall determine, by means of a random selection, the order in which questions are taken. However, the first question may not be from a member of the same party as the Minister to whom it is addressed, unless all the Topical Questions are from members of that party.’

The following motions stood in the Order Paper:

In the title to Standing Order 4 at the end add ": New Assembly"

After Standing Order 4 insert –

"4A. Election of Speaker: Assembly term

(1) Where the Speaker gives notice in writing to the Clerk of his intention to resign from the Office of Speaker during an Assembly term, the Speaker shall continue to hold office until a new Speaker has been elected.
(2) A new Speaker shall be elected in the manner provided for by Standing
Order 4.
(3) If the Speaker cannot take the chair for the proceedings to elect a new Speaker, the chair shall be taken by an Acting Speaker, who shall be the oldest member present at the meeting who is not seeking election as Speaker.".

Leave out Standing Order 6 and insert –

"6. Procedure when Office of Speaker becomes vacant

(1) Where a vacancy in the Office of Speaker of the Assembly occurs during an Assembly term, a Deputy Speaker shall report the vacancy to the Assembly at the opening of its next meeting and the Assembly shall, as soon as may be, proceed to elect a Speaker in the manner provided by Standing Order 4.
(2) For the purposes of that election, the chair shall be taken by an Acting Speaker, who shall be the oldest member present at the meeting who is not seeking election as Speaker.
(3) Where there is no agreement on the election of a Speaker, meetings of the Assembly shall be chaired by the Deputy Speakers in weekly rotation in the order in which they were elected in so far as this is possible.".

On behalf of the Committee on Procedures, I am pleased to bring these motions to amend Standing Orders to the House today. The first relates to topical questions; the other two relate to the election of a Speaker during a mandate. This may seem a strange combination, but it is purely for the sake of expediency, rather than any link between them.

The first motion relates to Standing Order 20A(4). On 9 December 2014, the Assembly approved the Committee's report on the review of topical questions. One of the recommendations in the report was that, as for listed oral questions, the first topical question may not be from a Member of the same party as the Minister. Today's motion will give effect to that recommendation by amending Standing Orders accordingly.

The other two motions relate to the election of a Speaker during a mandate. Standing Order 4 currently sets out the procedure for the election of a Speaker at a meeting of a new Assembly but is silent on the procedure to be followed if a Speaker indicates his intention to resign during an Assembly term. The proposed amendment will insert a new Standing Order 4A to address this, by describing how the Speaker resigns and clarifying the procedures for the election of a new Speaker during an Assembly term. The proposed amendment also commits the outgoing Speaker to take the Chair for the proceedings to elect a successor.

The final motion relates to Standing Order 6, which already sets out the procedure to be followed if the office of Speaker becomes vacant during an Assembly term, but does not specify who would take the Chair for the purposes of that election. The proposed amendment will insert additional text into Standing Order 6 to make it clear that an Acting Speaker takes the Chair in these circumstances. The amendments to Standing Orders 4 and 6 will address the gaps in Standing Orders and clarify the procedures for the election of a Speaker during a mandate.

In closing, a Cheann Comhairle, Mr Speaker, the three motions before the House are straightforward — famous last words — and on behalf of the Committee on Procedures, I commend them to the House.

Mr Clarke (The Deputy Chairperson of the Committee on Procedures): Given that there have been no other contributors, I see no need to wind on the debate.

Mr Speaker: Before we proceed to the Question, I remind Members that the motions require cross-community support.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved (with cross-community support):

Leave out Standing Order 20A(4) and insert –

‘The Speaker shall determine, by means of a random selection, the order in which questions are taken. However, the first question may not be from a member of the same party as the Minister to whom it is addressed, unless all the Topical Questions are from members of that party.’

Resolved (with cross-community support):

In the title to Standing Order 4 at the end add ‘: New Assembly’

After Standing Order 4 insert –

‘4A. Election of Speaker: Assembly term

(1) Where the Speaker gives notice in writing to the Clerk of his intention to resign from the Office of Speaker during an Assembly term, the Speaker shall continue to hold office until a new Speaker has been elected.
(2) A new Speaker shall be elected in the manner provided for by Standing
Order 4.
(3) If the Speaker cannot take the chair for the proceedings to elect a new Speaker, the chair shall be taken by an Acting Speaker, who shall be the oldest member present at the meeting who is not seeking election as Speaker.’

Resolved (with cross-community support):

Leave out Standing Order 6 and insert –

‘6. Procedure when Office of Speaker becomes vacant

(1) Where a vacancy in the Office of Speaker of the Assembly occurs during an Assembly term, a Deputy Speaker shall report the vacancy to the Assembly at the opening of its next meeting and the Assembly shall, as soon as may be, proceed to elect a Speaker in the manner provided by Standing Order 4.
(2) For the purposes of that election, the chair shall be taken by an Acting Speaker, who shall be the oldest member present at the meeting who is not seeking election as Speaker.
(3) Where there is no agreement on the election of a Speaker, meetings of the Assembly shall be chaired by the Deputy Speakers in weekly rotation in the order in which they were elected in so far as this is possible.’

Mr Maskey (The Chairperson of the Committee for Social Development): Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I beg to move

That, in accordance with Standing Order 33(4), the period referred to in Standing Order 33(2) be extended to 28 May 2015, in relation to the Committee Stage of the Regeneration Bill (NIA Bill 43/11-16).

The Committee Stage of the Regeneration Bill began on 24 January 2015 and is due to conclude on 3 March. The Committee issued a call for evidence on 23 January, and this is due to end on 16 February. The Committee received a pre-legislative briefing from the Department on 8 January, and issues were raised at an early stage. The Committee must give those issues closer scrutiny with the Department and the stakeholders. The Committee will endeavour, of course, to complete the Bill in as short a time frame as possible. However, an extension will allow for the possibility of any delays due to conflicting Committee business, such as the Pensions Bill and other ongoing work. The Committee expects a greater response to the call for evidence for the Bill, given the nature of the content. Building in some extra time would ensure that it can give due consideration to any evidence received. As the House will know, it is, of course, vital that the Committee scrutinise the Bill effectively to a standard that the House would consider adequate and the public would expect.

There is no way of knowing how many responses from stakeholders will be received before 16 February or how many sessions will be required to hear oral evidence from witnesses on the basis of that. With all that in mind, the Committee agreed that it was important to build in sufficient time to address those various unknowns. The Committee, therefore, agreed to ask the Assembly for an extension to the Committee Stage until 28 May 2015. On behalf of the Committee, I ask the House to support the motion. However, the Committee makes it clear to the House that we will endeavour to complete our work before that date. Go raibh maith agat.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved:

That, in accordance with Standing Order 33(4), the period referred to in Standing Order 33(2) be extended to 28 May 2015, in relation to the Committee Stage of the Regeneration Bill (NIA Bill 43/11-16).

Mr Speaker: Members should briefly take their ease while we get the Bill's folder organised.

Executive Committee Business

Mr Speaker: I call the Minister for Social Development, Mr Mervyn Storey, to move the Consideration Stage of the Welfare Reform Bill.

Moved. — [Mr Storey (The Minister for Social Development).]

Mr Speaker: Members will have a copy of the Marshalled List of amendments detailing the order for consideration. The amendments have been grouped for debate in the provisional grouping of amendments selected list. There are five groups of amendments, and we will debate the amendments in each group in turn.

The first debate will be on group 1, which contains 23 amendments and oppositions to two clauses stand part. The group deals with duties on the Department, administration and assessments. The second debate will be on group 2, which contains 14 amendments and oppositions to nine clauses stand part. The group deals with entitlements. The third debate will be on group 3, which contains seven amendments and oppositions to six clauses stand part. The group deals with sanctions. The fourth debate will be on group 4, which contains eight amendments. The group deals with reports, reviews, pilot schemes and information sharing. The fifth debate will be on group 5, which contains 26 amendments. The group deals with Assembly control, commencement and technical issues.

Valid petitions of concern have been tabled in relation to amendment Nos 1 to 13, 15 to 22, 24, 26 to 29, 36 to 45, 48 to 50, 53 to 57 and 73 to 75. Each will, therefore, require a cross-community vote. I remind Members intending to speak that, during the debates on the five groups of amendments, they should address all the amendments in each group on which they wish to comment. Once the debate on each group is completed, any further amendments in the group will be moved formally as we go through the Bill, and Questions on each will be put without further debate. The Questions on stand part will be taken at the appropriate points in the Bill. If that is clear, we shall proceed.

No amendments have been tabled to clauses 1 to 3. I propose, by leave of the Assembly, to group these clauses for the Question on stand part.

Clauses 1 to 3 ordered to stand part of the Bill.


10.45 am

Clause 4 (Basic conditions)

Mr Speaker: We now come to the first group of amendments for debate, which contains 23 amendments and opposition to two clauses. These amendments deal with duties on the Department, administration and assessments, and include amendments on matters such as the claimant commitment, frequency of payment and the taking account of relevant medical evidence.

Members will note that amendment No 1 is mutually exclusive with amendment No 3. Amendment No 13 is consequential to amendment No 12. Amendment Nos 18 and 19 are mutually exclusive. Amendment Nos 35 and 36 are also mutually exclusive. Amendment No 39 is consequential to amendment No 38. Amendment No 57 is consequential to amendment No 10 and amendment No 37.

Members will note that valid petitions of concern have been received in relation to amendment Nos 1, 3 and 4, 8 to 13, 17 to 19, 36 to 39, 43 to 45, 53, 57 and 74. Therefore, they will require cross-community support.

I call Mr Roy Beggs to move amendment No 1 and to address the other amendments in the group.

Mr Beggs: I beg to move amendment No 1:

In page 3, line 5, at end insert

"(8) Regulations shall provide, in circumstances where one member of a couple does not accept a claimant commitment within a prescribed period, that the claim may be considered as a claim by the other member of the couple as a single person.".

The following amendments stood on the Marshalled List:

No 3: After clause 6 insert

"Joint claims where one party does not accept claimant commitment
 
6A. In a claim by members of a couple jointly, where one party does not accept a claimant commitment the claim shall proceed as if the party who has signed a claimant commitment had made a single person claim and payment shall be made to that party.". — [Mrs D Kelly.]

No 4: After clause 6 insert

"Provision of Claimant Documentation
 
6B. Regulations must provide, if a claimant is unable to provide documentation required to process a claim, for the information to be provided by prescribed third parties to enable the claim to be processed.". — [Mrs D Kelly.]

No 8: After clause 12 insert

"Frequency of payment
 
Frequency of payment
 
12A. Universal credit shall be paid twice monthly unless a single claimant or the members of a couple jointly opt, in making a claim, to be paid on a monthly basis.". — [Mr Beggs.]

No 9: In clause 14, page 6, line 32, at end insert

"(a) in preparing, reviewing and updating a claimant commitment under subsection (2) the Department shall have due regard for the claimant’s skills, experience, caring responsibilities and physical and mental ill health.". — [Mrs D Kelly.]

No 10: In clause 16, page 7, line 35, leave out "approved by the Department" and insert

"employed by a HSC Trust or who is a general practitioner". — [Mr Agnew.]

No 11: In clause 16, page 7, line 41, at end insert

"(c) any decision taken under subsection (5) shall take account of relevant medical evidence including evidence of mental ill health.". — [Mrs D Kelly.]

No 12: In clause 24, page 12, line 3, leave out "—" and insert

"or an incident motivated by hate—". — [Mrs D Kelly.]

No 13: In clause 24, page 12, line 15, at end insert

"(9) For the purposes of subsection (7)—
 
(a) an ‘incident motivated by hate’ has such meaning as may be prescribed;
 
(b) a ‘victim of an incident motivated by hate’ means a person on or against whom an incident motivated by hate is inflicted or threatened (and regulations under subsection (7) may prescribe circumstances in which a person is to be treated as being or not being a victim of a serious incident motivated by hate)’;
 
(c) a person has recently been a victim of an incident motivated by hate if a prescribed period has not expired since the incident was inflicted or threatened.". — [Mrs D Kelly.]

No 17: After clause 37 insert

"The Independent Living Fund
 
37A. The Department shall bring forward within 18 months of commencement of this Act a fund to replace the Independent Living Fund, following consultation with the Department for Employment and Learning and the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety.". — [Mrs D Kelly.]

No 18: In clause 38, page 17, line 29, at end insert

"and any such assessment must take account of relevant medical evidence.". — [Mr Beggs.]

No 19: In clause 38, page 17, line 29, at end insert

"and any such assessment shall take account of relevant medical evidence including evidence of mental ill health.". — [Mrs D Kelly.]

No 35: In clause 79, page 60, line 27, at end insert

"(2A) Any person determining a question mentioned in subsection (1) or (2) shall take account of relevant medical evidence.". — [Mr Beggs.]

No 36: In clause 79, page 60, line 27, at end insert

"(2A) Any person determining a question mentioned in subsection (1) or (2) must take account of relevant medical evidence including evidence of mental ill health.". — [Mrs D Kelly.]

No 37: In clause 79, page 60, line 31, at end insert

"( ) must provide that a person carrying out an assessment under paragraph (a) or determining a question under subsection (1) or (2) shall be a health care professional employed by a HSC Trust or a general practitioner;". — [Mr Agnew.]

No 38: In clause 80, page 61, line 19, leave out "9 months" and insert "6 months". — [Mr Agnew.]

No 39: In clause 80, page 61, line 33, leave out "'the next 9 months' means the 9 months" and insert "'the next 6 months' means the 6 months". — [Mr Agnew.]

No 43: After clause 100 insert

"Payment of awards in cash
 
100A. The Department shall ensure that a claimant under this Act who has no access to a bank account shall have access to any relevant award in cash.". — [Mr Agnew.]

No 44: After clause 101 insert

"Payments pending appeal
 
101A. In Section 5(1) of the Social Security Administration Act (NI) 1992 (regulations about claims and payments) after paragraph (r) insert—
 
"(s) for the making of a payment pending appeal".". — [Mr Agnew.]

No 45: In clause 103, page 71, line 30, at end insert

"(8) Subsection (1) does not apply unless it is determined that, whether fraudulently or otherwise, the claimant has misrepresented, or failed to disclose, any material fact.". — [Mr Agnew.]

No 53: After clause 130 insert

"Impact of Regulations on Victims and Survivors
 
130C. The Department must ensure that regulations under this Act are prepared with due regard for the impact on victims and survivors of the past in consultation with the Northern Ireland Commission for Victims and Survivors.". — [Mrs D Kelly.]

No 57: In clause 132, page 94, line 28, at end insert

""general practitioner" means a medical practitioner providing primary medical services;
 
"HSC Trust" means a Health and Social Care trust established under Article 10 of the Health and Personal Social Services (Northern Ireland) Order 1991 (NI 1);" — [Mr Agnew.]

No 74: In schedule 1, page 98, line 32, leave out paragraph 6. — [Mr Agnew.]

Mr Beggs: I welcome this long overdue opportunity to open the debate on this next stage of the Welfare Reform Bill. It has been the most contentious and drawn out yet probably the most important legislation that this Assembly has ever considered. To date, we have had about £100 million of fines imposed upon us in reductions in the block grant. That has meant £100 million of reductions in public services. There have been clawbacks during this financial year, mid-year. Indeed, I suspect that has contributed to the lack of funding that would have been available to health.

In 2015, £114 million would have been set aside in potential fines, again from the block grant. However, you would not think that today is as important as it really is by observing the shameful actions of the DUP last night in tabling multiple copies of their pre-prepared petitions of concern against every single amendment that has been put forward, other than by their Minister. They have effectively killed off discussion and the decision-making process in this Assembly. Disgraceful. They are attempting to steamroller the Bill through as they would wish it to be. They are attempting to prevent this Assembly from having its say. They have single-handedly potentially blocked almost 50 amendments, including well over 20 in this group alone.

Mr Beggs: I wish to continue; I may give way later on. There is nothing that can be argued about what I just said. It is very factual. They have displayed the undemocratic nature of their attitudes as MLAs and as a party, which, of course, has the word "democratic" in its name. The other country that springs to mind that has the word "democratic" in its name was the Democratic Republic of East Germany, as it was at one time. Of course, that was a totalitarian state. It would appear that the DUP are much more akin with that attitude than that of normal Western society. That, unfortunately, sums up how they approach the whole issue of welfare reform. It is embarrassing enough how they tried to bring a copy and paste of the GB Bill across to Northern Ireland. They now, apparently, have no shame in preventing what limited amendments could have been made to the Bill by this Assembly. Their mechanism is making it virtually impossible for amendments to succeed. I look forward to hearing a shameful explanation from DUP Members who, presumably, all signed it and all have a responsibility in how they have, effectively, removed the democratic and more normal working of this Assembly.

Why should we not have the ability to debate the Bill, its individual clauses, and make amendments?

It appears to be their way or no way.

After two years of sitting in an abyss, after months of detailed Committee scrutiny of the proposals and after a huge level of engagement by organisations that deal with welfare issues on a day-to-day basis, the DUP has decided that it knows best. It appears to have its ears closed, certainly to other Assembly Members here and to this debate. No amendment is seemingly good enough for it, as it thinks it has the right to step in and determine what can and cannot be changed in the Bill.

Mr P Robinson: Will the Member give way?

Mr Beggs: I wish to proceed.

Mr P Robinson: Is the Member afraid to give way?

Mr Beggs: I will give way later on.

Mr P Robinson: Is the Member so sure he is accurate in what he is saying that he will not give way?

Mr Beggs: Of course. However, I have to ask whether this petition — [Interruption.]

I obviously have touched a raw nerve — [Interruption.]

Mr Speaker: Order. All remarks should be addressed through the Speaker. If the Member wishes not to take interventions, that should be accepted by other Members because there are no restrictions on the debate at all. Everyone will have their opportunity to make a contribution.

Mr P Robinson: On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Can we have some assistance from the Chair? When a person who is speaking in this House also has the title of being a Deputy Speaker, is it right that he shows such inane inability to understand the rules of this House that he would seek to mislead the House into believing that they do not have the right to put down amendments and to vote on those amendments and that anyone who puts down a petition of concern can decide which way they vote on any amendment?

Mr Nesbitt: On a point of order, Mr Speaker.

Mr Speaker: I have a point of order to respond to. The point that I made in my earlier intervention should provide the guidance. There is no restriction on debate, nor is there any restriction on people's ability to contribute to the debate. There were opportunities, quite clearly, for all parties and all Members to put down amendments if they so wished. Reference was made in some of the opening remarks about discussions on clauses being prevented. I make it clear that there are no such restrictions. If Members are prepared, they can wait their turn and they will be called if they so indicate. Let us have a measured debate. There is no point in starting cross-chatting; the election is not for several months, so let us deal with this very important piece of legislation.

I will take the second point of order.

Mr Nesbitt: Thank you, Mr Speaker. If I heard the Member for East Belfast correctly, there was an accusation that Mr Beggs was misleading the House. Will you review that, please?

Mr Speaker: My advice is this: let us not get into words. I could have challenged some of the earlier comments but decided not to. If someone is a Deputy Speaker they are still entitled to be a Member, to act like a Member and to contribute on behalf of themselves and their party, and that is exactly what is happening. Mr Roy Beggs will be a contributor to this debate and he will not preside over any aspect of it. Your point about the language that was used, I would give as a general health warning to every contributor, but some of the opening remarks could have had the effect of saying, perhaps completely unintended, that some aspects of the Bill are not up for discussion at all. Every aspect of it is, and every Member will have an equal opportunity if they so wish. If they decide not to, that is their decision. It will not be the Speaker who will prevent that level of contribution or discussion. Let us resume the debate.

Mr Beggs: Thank you, Mr Speaker. I obviously touched a very raw nerve there. I would have thought that what is happening is that rather than, perhaps, the normal warfare across the Benches there is a tag team happening. I would put that for others to consider. Is this tag team working in unison? Some put the petition of concern down and both will vote their separate ways, knowing the net result that will occur and knowing that some will be able to express their opinion and yet prevent the amendments going through. I simply ask Members to watch the rest of the debate, listen carefully to what everybody says, watch how people vote and watch the net effect of the petitions of concern which, I understand, have been signed by every member of the DUP Assembly party.

Given the amendments that have been presented in this group I am more surprised, perhaps, by the amendments that are not there. One would have thought that others who were very vocal in their comments some time ago might have put something down.

Mr Speaker: I have given you a considerable amount of laxity to set the context. You should not attempt to go back over the process. We are where we are; there is an Order Paper in front of us, and there is a Bill folder that we have all had access to. I am waiting on you to start to address the amendments that are down, not the ones that are not. Thank you.

Mr Beggs: Thank you, Mr Speaker. I was coming to that in the next section of my comments.

The Ulster Unionist Party tabled its initial set of amendments almost two years ago. This is not something that we have thought about lightly or suddenly determined that we will take action on. We saw difficulties in what was being proposed by the Minister some years ago, and in this particular group, we have tabled amendment Nos 1, 8, 18 and 35. Some of the initial points that we made two years ago remain to be addressed. Members will probably not be surprised to see us raising the issues in our amendments in this group, as we have been highlighting them for months and years as being of concern.

I will deal firstly with amendment No 1, which is on joint claims. The coalition Government's policy is that couples living in the same household will make a joint claim for their benefit. I accept the rationale of a claimant commitment. We agree that, in order to receive universal credit, a person should have to sign a pledge that lays out exactly what is expected of them and, in return, what benefits and support will be provided. However, it was a mistake in the draft policy to allow a situation where, if one member of a household failed, for whatever reason, to sign their commitment, the rest of the household would be penalised. Potentially, no benefits would go into a household as a result of a failure by one individual.

Why should a family, perhaps with a number of dependent children, be left without support just because one of the parents failed to meet their commitments? Unfortunately, there are households where that could happen. An adult, a parent or a partner who fails may put their own needs ahead of the needs of others, but surely their partner and children should not suffer. We must protect the most vulnerable from debt and the possibility of homelessness. Those are issues that would automatically follow if there was a complete end to the support and benefits available to a whole household. Debt would gather and housing costs would mount, with the possibility of landlords effecting eviction at some point in the future.

Mr Wilson: I thank the Member for giving way. Does he accept that, as the law stands, which the Bill supports, where someone is incapable of making that commitment, provision is made for them? Does he recognise that the difficultly with his amendment is that it opens the door for those who choose to not make any commitment to seek a job? Under the shelter of his amendment, they may hide behind their family or their family's vulnerability so that they do not have to live up to the requirements that anyone would expect of someone who is claiming benefits?

Mr Beggs: I thank the Member for his intervention. I do not want vulnerable children to suffer because of an irresponsible parent or guardian. There is the potential for that individual to suffer by removing benefits that are going to him until he meets his requirements under the agreement. So, there still is the potential under what we are proposing for that individual to suffer, but his family, his partner and his children would not suffer. Society would be much fairer if it was done on that basis.

Were families to be ultimately made homeless by this, it would probably result in significant additional costs to the public through emergency housing, because vulnerable children would need to be looked after. So, not ensuring that there is adequate protection for the family of the irresponsible parent, adds huge misery to those who should not face it and huge cost to the public purse from emergency housing.


11.00 am

It was because of the iniquitous implications of what was being proposed that the Ulster Unionist Party decided that that would be one of the areas that we wanted to change. Let us be clear: when you change an aspect of welfare reform, there are financial implications, and there will be costs to the block grant, but it is responsible that we discuss the issues and weigh up the costs and the benefits. There are areas in which costs may not be excessive but the benefits to members of our society may be considerable. Therefore, we should be open to amendments.

The Department had indicated that, in cases in which one claimant refused to sign a commitment and left the household, that person would be excluded from the claim and the household would have to submit a new claim. There are other issues around that. Will the benefit then start from the date of issue of the new claim? Will that leave a period in which no housing benefit will be paid into that household? There are grey areas that need clarifying.

The Bill also fails to address the fundamental problem of what happens if the stubborn party does not leave the household. There are complications on which I want to hear certainty that vulnerable members of our community will not face difficulties. Social security offices and independent advice centres up and down the country will agree that, although that may sound improbable, it does happen.

Mr Wilson: Will the Member give way on that point?

Mr Beggs: Certainly.

Mr Wilson: Is the Member not arguing against the point that he made earlier? He indicated that, if one partner was not prepared to give a commitment, the answer was to remove the benefit and punish that person rather than the rest of the family. Now he is telling us that the potential is for the non-committing partner to stay in the house and still benefit from the housing benefit that will be paid to keep a roof over the family's heads, so, according to the Member's logic, there is no punishment.

Mr Beggs: There will be punishment, because there will be a lack of funds to the household. The individual will face a degree of pressure.

The Member needs to reflect on whether he wants that individual's partner and vulnerable children out on the street. Is that the punishment that he wishes for? There needs to be balance and careful thought in all that we do. Whilst the numbers affected in that type of scenario may be relatively small, there will potentially be a huge impact on vulnerable individuals. Therefore, there is merit in what is being proposed in our amendment.

It is a sensible alternative. We are instructing the Department to allow certain cases to be considered carefully. In other words, assessors will have the flexibility to allow a claim to go ahead if it is for the benefit of the remaining members of the household, rather than it being rejected outright by another automated system or a computer. As it stands, staff do not have an ability to be flexible. They will be ticking boxes, and the system will tell them what is to happen, and, as a result, children will potentially be put out on the street.

Under our amendment, people refusing to sign the commitment will, of course, still not be entitled to support. Importantly, it means that their selfish, pig-headed approach will no longer prevent the rest of the household from receiving support. That line of thought complements what is already in paragraph 1 of schedule 1 to the Bill, but it makes it more explicit and clear, and removes any uncertainty that there may be.

The Department accepted my party's request for that in the Stormont House talks, so the amendment is simply reflecting that. I will listen carefully to what the Minister and others say. Can he assure me publicly in the House that he will honour, through guidance, what our amendment proposes? If he is able to do that, we will have to reflect further. It is important that this issue is aired and addressed, and it is for that reason that I moved the amendment. I remind him and the Department that my party has shown good faith by slightly revising the amendment from what was originally tabled to try to ensure the existence of something that is practicable and deliverable. I hope that he and his colleagues will not knock it out with one of their petitions of concern or allow anyone else to knock it out. Everyone in the House should be able to support this reasonable amendment.

I turn now to amendment No 8. The frequency of payments is another major touchstone issue that dominated the earlier Assembly discussion on welfare reform. I welcome the SDLP's decision to sign our amendment. As the Minister will be fully aware, his predecessor asked a number of voluntary organisations to investigate the proposal to move to monthly payments. They found that such a default system would have the potential to cause major difficulties for claimants, especially in being able to budget appropriately for their outgoings. Individuals already come to my office occasionally looking for emergency support and perhaps have to be referred to food banks.

There are good things happening in the community and voluntary sector. However, if we were to move to monthly payments flat out and with no variation, there would be a huge danger that the community and voluntary sector, given the good work that it is doing in assisting vulnerable people, would be absolutely swamped because many do not yet have the skills to budget beyond a relatively short period. We have to ensure that there is support to try to increase those skills. I particularly welcome the engagement in my area of Christians Against Poverty, which works with some of the food banks to try to empower people to live within their budget and avoid the necessity to seek emergency aid.

Mr Dickson: Will the Member give way?

Mr Beggs: Yes, I will.

Mr Dickson: I am interested in his engagement with members of the community. Would Mr Beggs also tell them that his party's 2010 manifesto, which is identical to that of the Tories, is the unmitigated Bill that is presented to the House today and that it is the mitigations that are being presented to the House today that will actually deal with the issues that he is talking about?

Mr Beggs: I believe that the Member's sister party also had a hand in the origin of this Bill, so I find his comments very strange. Let me make it very clear that this is a devolved Assembly. We are Assembly Members, and we are accountable for our actions. I hoped — [Interruption.]

Mr Beggs: — that we would not have petitions of concern, in order that the Assembly can make its decisions in a responsible manner.

Mr Dickson: Will the Member give way?

Mr Beggs: I wish to proceed.

Fortunately, Ministers, both past and present, appear now to have accepted the proposal for twice-monthly payments as the default position. I welcome that, but I want the Minister to give clarity on the issue. It is important that we avoid using a criterion-based approach. That would undoubtedly save on administration costs in the short and long term, but, as I said, there are dangers in just ticking boxes and someone potentially not seeing a common-sense approach. Importantly, I understand that some households may prefer monthly payments, which is why my party wants to allow that to be an option. Opting out of twice-monthly payments and moving to a single payment, if that is what individuals wish, would minimise administration costs.

In recent days, my party has received some assurances that we previously sought on this. In part, we welcome the offering of choice to claimants of how regularly they wish to receive payments. I simply ask the Minister to, in place of our putting the question, reaffirm his commitment to default to twice-monthly payments. Not only that, I expect him to show the Social Development Committee the respect that it is due as soon as possible as regards any future proposed policy changes, so that its views can be taken on board.

I turn now to amendment No 18, on medical evidence for work-related activity. As Members are only too well aware, at present there are major problems with the system of assessing those who have limited work capability and, therefore, their entitlement to employment and support allowance. I will go further and say that the system is not fit for purpose. I accept that assessing claims based on whether health conditions or disability restricts the applicant's ability to work is an enormous task for the Department and its agency. However, it is a system that unquestionably needs to be improved. The transition from incapacity benefit to employment and support allowance (ESA) was chaotic and simply did not work. Many problems arose.

I have heard the Department boast that 67% of all appeals heard on ESA decisions were upheld, but that misses the point, which is that a third of its decisions were wrong. I came from the world of industry, where you should try to get it right first time. The concept of being happy with making a third of decisions wrong is not what most normal businesses would operate under, and it clearly needs to be improved.

Of course, when incorrect decisions are made, additional costs are associated with appeals, and we also have to pay for those. We all have experiences, through our offices, of what looks like a rather rational claim being rejected. The problem is that a person can present a different image during a so-called medical assessment rather than the realty that we know from having spent time talking to and observing them, perhaps more time than is available in the assessment.

There are few more difficult cases to assess on the day than those involving claimants who present with mental health difficulties. The Northern Ireland epidemic of mental health problems is connected to the legacy of our Troubles, so there is a real issue in our community of presenting on this. Is it any wonder that we have the world's highest rate of post-traumatic stress disorder? Such facts, however, are not reflected in ESA assessments. The Ulster Unionist Party's concern is that that will continually fail to be reflected in future limited-capability assessments for universal credit.

The absence of medical records will inevitably lead to wrong decisions being made and too many appeals going against the Department. Why can medical evidence not be reviewed before the formal appeal? I believe that, were that medical evidence available earlier, the need for the applicant to present at the formal appeal process would be abated. Remember that an appeal does not benefit genuine claimants or the Department. The delay in receiving benefits and the huge administration costs involved with appeals can cause problems for both parties. I do not doubt that, on the day, the Department does its best to make a fully informed decision that accurately reflects a customer's circumstances. However, without crucial documents, such as psychology reports, it is well-nigh impossible to make accurate assessments.

There is a real problem in fresh evidence supporting an appeal being becoming available only on the day of appeal. The Department states that, in four out of five appeals that were upheld in favour of the customer, new supporting evidence is produced by the customer that was not available to inform the Department's original decision. It makes far more sense to have that evidence, usually medical reports, available at an earlier stage during an earlier assessment.


11.15 am

Our amendment No 18 would ensure that any assessment of a person's capability for work or work-related activity would take relevant medical evidence into account. Whilst the issue of medical evidence has been settled for personal independence payment (PIP), no such understanding has been found for the transition to universal credit. I accept that the financial implications of our amendment may be significant and, given the costs encountered with the rest of the mitigation measures in the Assembly, we need to reflect on whether we should pass those additional costs to the Department. As the Minister has been made aware, the amendment was designed so that we can have that debate.

I am sure that every other party has concerns with the current arrangements, so it is clearly something that needs to be addressed. I and my colleagues will listen carefully to the Minister's response. I hope that he accepts the problems attached to work capability assessments and that he will lay out exactly what we are likely to see in the future with the universal credit proposals.

Our amendment should be fairly self-explanatory, yet it is hugely important. I trust that it will be accepted. Not only does it make perfect sense to have the right medical reports but it also appears that it is an idea that each of the main parties have suggested they would support. I welcome that. The transition from disability living allowance (DLA) to PIP will be an enormous task, so I welcome the decision to set up a fund that will, hopefully, allow for the required medical reports without imposing huge additional costs on those with vulnerabilities who may have difficulties paying for them.

I also have concerns about the wider issue of having to pay several million pounds to GPs for what many people believe they should already be doing. When you think that the average GP is on £94,000, it would not be an unreasonable task for them to take part of that responsibility on board. I fully appreciate the issues that our GPs face at the moment and that they are under pressure. However, I ask the Minister to provide an update on the preliminary discussions between his Department and the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety about the shaping of GP contracts in future to include medical reports. Of course, that would apply equally to work capability assessments and personal independent payments.

I now move on to a few of the other amendments that have been tabled. Amendment No 3 deals with joint claims and was tabled by the SDLP. I think that it is unnecessary given what we have proposed. There is a subtle but important difference between their amendment and ours. The Ulster Unionist Party amendment proposes to allow the Department to show some flexibility to assess those types of cases on an individual basis, whereas the SDLP's amendment is much wider. It was agreed by all parties, including the SDLP, that flexibility through guidance was the preferred way forward. I ask Members from all parties, irrespective of the petition of concern, to support the general intent of what is proposed in amendment No 1, which stands in the names of Robin Swann and me.

Mr Campbell: Will the Member give way?

Mr Beggs: Yes, I will.

Mr P Robinson: Why did you not give way to me?

Mr Campbell: I do not know.

The Member is going through a series of amendments, not just his party's amendments but the SDLP's. Has he given any thought to the cost of the amendments if they were carried? Will he elaborate on those costs at some point in his speech?

Mr Beggs: I will listen very careful to the Minister. We have carefully calculated some areas as best we can, but, ultimately, the Minister and the Department will have much more accurate information. That is why we have built a degree of flexibility into our amendment. That will allow the Minister to use the information that he and others do not have to make adjustments and try to address real need without the need for potentially bureaucratic costs to be loaded in.

It is right that we consider how we can improve, and, as I said some time ago, it is also important that we have an understanding of any costs that may flow from amendments. Some of us will decide that some amendments are worth paying that money for; others may take a different approach, and that is their right. Certainly, it should be the decision, ultimately, of a vote in the Assembly to determine what goes on.

I wish to move on to amendment No 4 in relation to the documents through third parties. Again, we will listen with interest to how the Minister responds to the proposal. Our opinion is that charities, social workers and housing associations would be in a trustworthy position to provide required documentation. I am, however, aware that the Department has already confirmed that guidance will cover the acceptance of documents from third parties, something that I believe is already accepted practice. Again, I look forward to hearing what the Minister will say on that issue.

In regard to amendment No 9, it makes sense on a practical level, so much so that I would be surprised if the Department did not already propose having due regard for them.

Mr Agnew's amendments, Nos 10, 37 and 57, are, no doubt, well intentioned, but, unfortunately, I believe they also undermine themselves. There has long been concern about the work-focused, health-related assessments and those coming down the line for the personal independence payments (PIP). In our amendment Nos 18 and 35, we are opening up the debate on medical evidence. However, I wonder whether we want to go down the road of having to direct so many of our already overstretched GPs or experienced nurses to carry out those tests. I am not opposed to health-care professionals approved by the Department carrying out assessments as long as they take into account available medical records and they are suitably qualified to make medical judgements. Making sure that we have the right competence of assessors should be an absolute priority right now; not necessarily who their employer is. Nevertheless, I will listen to what the Member has to say on that issue, not least in regard to how he believes his amendments would be delivered within the existing pressures facing our GPs and trust staff.

Mr Agnew: I thank the Member for giving way. In the past, such assessments were carried out by in-house medical professionals. One way or another, we have to pay for those professionals, and, one way or another, we have to train them through our universities. It is simply a question of oversight and accountability. The record of Atos in England suggests to me that that oversight and accountability was not sufficient.

Mr Beggs: I agree that they have to be paid, but why do they have to be employed by the trust? They could be employed by the Department or by an agent of the Department. The Member has been very prescriptive in what he proposes.

At face value, the Ulster Unionist Party agrees with amendment Nos 12 and 13. People subjected to domestic violence have rightly been given additional protection in the Bill, and now we are being asked to expand that to incidents motivated by hate. Of course, Northern Ireland is only too well versed, sadly, in such incidents, in terms of religion, sectarianism and race, so, yes, we are open for them to be included in the Bill. However, and it is a big however, as the Members who will later propose the amendment will likely be already aware, there is currently no formal definition of hate incidents; some will be easily understood, but very many others may not just be as clear. I suspect that that is why the Members have passed the responsibility for categorising such incidents to the Department under clause 24(9)(b) of their amendment. Our concern is that, without the definition, we are potentially opening up a can of worms that the Department will face constant challenge on; perhaps, again, legal costs and delays. I trust that the Minister has sought the advice of suitably qualified legal minds in this regard, so I look forward to hearing what he has to say on this issue.

On amendment No 17, I first ask for clarification from Mr Ramsey, perhaps later on, who I thought had been previously assured by the Health Minister that the independent living fund in Northern Ireland was going to be retained in some form after June 2015. If that is the case, I welcome it as it would allow some 600 disabled people here who are receiving support from it to continue to lead their own independent lives in the community. However, given the almost inevitable ending of the scheme across the water later this year, I understand that ours, even if it was retained, would probably undergo some reform. If we decide that it should be for the Social Development Minister supported by DEL and the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety, it is better to give them the 18-month time frame, as stated in the amendment. If, however, this amendment has been tabled without the knowledge of the Health Department, the Department for Social Development or DEL, I have to question whether it really was the most appropriate time to make the proposal, not least because I suspect that its more natural home would be in the Health Department. Again, I will listen to the contribution of others on this issue.

Amendment Nos 19 and 36 from the SDLP are fairly similar to those that we tabled previously and which also appear on today's Marshalled List. Even the most objective observer would struggle to see what the difference really is between them. I fully expect mental ill health to be covered by the reference to medical evidence that we make. They each propose doing exactly the same thing; the important thing is to make sure that the issue is addressed.

I turn to amendment Nos 38 and 39 from Mr Agnew, who moved the debate into something new. He is proposing changing the prospective test and the length of time for which the personal independence payment claims are likely to continue in the future to meet disability conditions from nine months to six months. We must be conscious that it would be a fairly fundamental breach of parity if we were to accept this, and there is grave uncertainty about what the cost would be. Again, this would be raising an issue of unfairness across the UK.

In some cases, no doubt, it is very difficult to predict whether a claimant's condition is likely to improve within nine months, so maybe six months would lead to more accurate assessments, but I do have to ask this: what will be the additional costs in administration? The Assembly is likely to bear those additional costs. Again, I look forward to what the Minister may have to say on t