Official Report: Wednesday 11 February 2015


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

The sitting begun and suspended on 10 February 2015 was resumed at 10.30 am (Mr Speaker in the Chair).

Executive Committee Business

Clause 4 (Basic conditions)

Debate resumed on Question, That clause 4 stand part of the Bill.

The following amendments stood on the Marshalled List:

No 2: In clause 6, page 3, line 28, leave out '7' and insert '3'. — [Mrs D Kelly.]

No 5: In clause 10, page 4, line 36, at end insert

"(2A) Where an additional amount under subsection (2) can be awarded at two different rates, the lower rate shall be no less than two thirds of the higher rate.". — [Mr Agnew.]

No 6: In clause 11, page 5, line 25, at end insert

"(4A) Regulations under subsection (4) shall provide that any calculation involving a reduction based on the age of the claimant shall not take effect for a period of 52 weeks in respect of any new claimant.". — [Mr Agnew.]

No 7: In clause 11, page 5, line 31, at end insert

"(iii) to continue for a period of four weeks after a claimant is employed.". — [Mr Agnew.]

No 27: In clause 52, page 39, leave out lines 7 to 12. — [Mr Agnew.]

No 28: In clause 54, page 40, line 19, at end insert

"unless the claimant had made contributions before the commencement of this Act". — [Mrs D Kelly.]

No 29: After clause 54 insert

"Condition relating to youth
 
54A. In paragraph 4 of Schedule 1 to the Welfare Reform Act 2007 (condition relating to youth) after sub-paragraph (1)(d) insert—
 
" (e) after the assessment phase has ended, the claimant has limited capacity for work-related activity".". — [Mr Agnew.]

No 42: In clause 95, page 66, line 30, at end insert

"(5) Notwithstanding subsections (1) and (4) the benefit cap shall not be applied to child benefit or to any benefits a claimant receives for caring responsibilities, carer’s allowance or additional amounts received within Universal Credit for claimants with regular and substantial caring responsibilities under section 10 or section 12.". — [Mrs D Kelly.]

No 48: Page 90, after line 23 insert

"Duty to ensure access to advice
 
Duty to ensure access to advice
 
120B. It is the duty of the Department to ensure that all claimants have access to independent advice in relation to making a claim under this Act.". — [Mr Beggs.]

No 50: After clause 120 insert

"Duty to ensure access to independent advice
 
120D.—(1) The Department shall ensure that any person making a claim under this Act shall be entitled to have access to independent confidential advice and assistance provided free of charge in relation to making a claim under this Act.
 
(2) For the purposes of section (120) the Department must bring forward guidance on the independent confidential advice and assistance which is to be provided in consultation with the Northern Ireland Advice Services Consortium, within 3 months of the commencement of this section.". — [Mrs D Kelly.]

No 51: After clause 130 insert

"Discretionary support
 
130A.—(1) The Department may, in accordance with regulations under this section—
 
(a) make payments by way of grant or loan to prescribed persons;
 
(b) provide, or arrange for the provision of, goods or services to prescribed persons.
 
(2) Anything done under subsection (1)(a) or (b) is referred to in this section as the provision of discretionary support.
 
(3) Regulations may make provision—
 
(a) for the Department to provide discretionary support only in prescribed circumstances;
 
(b) conferring a discretion on the Department (subject to any provision made by virtue of paragraph (c) or (d))—
 
(i) as to whether or not to provide discretionary support in a particular case; and
 
(ii) as to the nature of the discretionary support and (in the case of support by way of payments) as to the amount of the payments and the period for or in respect of which they are made;
 
(c) imposing a limit on the amount of the discretionary support that the Department may make in any particular case;
 
(d) restricting the period for or in respect of which the Department may provide discretionary support in any particular case;
 
(e) for claims for discretionary support to be made in the prescribed form and manner and for the procedure to be followed in dealing with and disposing of such claims;
 
(f) imposing conditions on persons claiming or receiving discretionary support requiring them to provide to the Department such information as may be prescribed;
 
(g) for the disclosure of information relating to discretionary support in prescribed circumstances or to prescribed persons;
 
(h) authorising the Department in prescribed circumstances to recover by prescribed means discretionary payments made under this section;
 
(i) requiring or authorising reviews (whether by the Department or a prescribed person) of decisions made by the Department with respect to the provision of discretionary support or the recovery of payments made under this section;
 
(j) for such other matters as appear to the Department to be necessary or expedient in connection with the provision of discretionary support, including provision creating criminal offences and provision amending or applying (with or without modification) any statutory provision.
 
(4) In this section "prescribed" means prescribed by, or determined in accordance with, regulations under this section.
 
(5) Discretionary support is not to be regarded as a social security benefit; but regulations under this section may provide for any statutory provision relating to a social security benefit (or to such benefits generally) to apply with prescribed modifications to discretionary support.
 
(6) Regulations shall not be made under this section unless a draft of the regulations has been laid before, and approved by a resolution of, the Assembly.
 
(7) The Department shall, in respect of each financial year, prepare and lay before the Assembly a report on the operation of regulations made under this section.". — [Mr Storey (The Minister for Social Development).]

No 52: After clause 130 insert

"Discretionary support Commissioner
 
130B.—(1) There shall be an officer known as 'the discretionary support Commissioner'.
 
(2) The discretionary support Commissioner shall be appointed by the Department on such terms and conditions as the Department may determine.
 
(3) The discretionary support Commissioner—
 
(a) shall appoint such discretionary support inspectors; and
 
(b) may appoint such staff for the Commissioner and for discretionary support inspectors,
 
as the Commissioner thinks fit but with the consent of the Department.
 
(4) Appointments under subsection (3) shall be made from persons made available to the Commissioner by the Department.
 
(5) Discretionary support inspectors have such functions as are conferred or imposed on them—
 
(a) by regulations under section 130A, or
 
(b) by any other statutory provision,
 
in relation to the review of decisions of the Department.
 
(6) It shall be the duty of the discretionary support Commissioner—
 
(a) to monitor the quality of decisions of discretionary support inspectors and give them such advice and assistance as the Commissioner thinks fit to improve the standard of their decisions;
 
(b) to arrange such training of discretionary support inspectors as the Commissioner considers necessary;
 
(c) to carry out such other functions in connection with the work of discretionary support inspectors as the Department may require;
 
(d) to report annually in writing to the Department on the standards of reviews by discretionary support inspectors.
 
(7) The Department shall publish any report made under subsection (6)(d).
 
(8) In Part 1 of Schedule 4 to the Administration Act after the entries under the heading 'The social fund' there is inserted—
 
'Discretionary support officers
 
The discretionary support Commissioner.
 
A discretionary support inspector.
 
A member of any staff appointed under section 130B(3)(b) of the Welfare Reform Act (Northern Ireland) 2015.'
 
(9) In the Freedom of Information Act 2000, in Part 7 of Schedule 1 after the entry relating to the social fund Commissioner there is inserted—
 
'The discretionary support Commissioner appointed under section 130B of the Welfare Reform Act (Northern Ireland) 2015.'.". — [Mr Storey (The Minister for Social Development).]

No 73: In schedule 1, page 98, line 17, leave out sub-paragraph (4). — [Mr Agnew.]

No 75: In schedule 1, page 99, line 5, leave out paragraph 7. — [Mr Agnew.]

Mr Attwood: I am inclined to say that I am speaking to a packed and hushed Chamber surrounded by my party colleges, but, clearly the latter point is not correct. I think that the former point is more correct.

Mr Attwood: I gave them the morning off, Minister, or they said that they did not want to listen to me any longer: you can make your choice.

One point that struck me yesterday was when the Minister said that this all came down to people. My variation on that story is that last month the 'Andersonstown News' reported that the first food bank in west Belfast was shortly to open. Those are the sorts of facts and experiences that should inform how we approach today. I say to the Minister that I am inclined to talk about Ministers who are in government and those who are in power. There is a big difference between the two. The Scottish Nationalist Ministers, together with my colleague to my left, demonstrate those who know the difference between being in government and being in power.

Everybody knows that there is a new broom in DSD. I am not going to say much about the previous incumbent, but everybody knows that there is a new broom in DSD, and I would like to see the fingerprints of all that in how you respond to the amendments today. It would be no mean achievement if, at the end of today, recognised in our law were victims and survivors, the need to give advice and assistance, what may be the case on the far side of the Westminster election with the benefit cap, which one of the amendments in the group deals with, and the idea that the issue was so important that the Assembly said to itself that it needed particular oversight measures for welfare now and in the future. I hope that that will inform how the Minister approaches the amendments that will be debated today that touch on those issues and many besides.

The reason why we have amendments such as that on the benefit cap in this group is that it is our view that we have not seen the half of it with welfare reform and what the ambitions of a future Tory Government might be when it comes to the benefit cap. It is now openly talked about that, on the far side of the election, the British Government will try to have further austerity, as they see it, of £30 billion. Indicatively, £12 billion would be the welfare contribution to that austerity budget. We are saying today in the context of all our amendments but particularly that on the benefit cap that we have to anticipate what will be the shape of things very soon from now.

If I were to put money on it — that is more my brother's inclination than mine — I would say that, at the moment, the Tories are planning their first strikes in the event that they are elected. We know that from, if nothing else, David Cameron's recent contribution about reducing the benefit cap to £23,000, but it will be more than that. Remember what happened after they were elected in May 2011. There was an emergency Budget in June 2011 where they made their first slash at welfare, followed by the November paper from the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions where the ambition of universal credit was outlined. We are heading, Minister, for a replay, because it is up in lights already from David Cameron's contribution of a few days ago. That is only the first part of the menu, because the tensions in the British Government between DWP, Treasury and the Cabinet Office mean that, without any doubt, the balance of power was always with the Treasury and the political strategy will now be defined by the Cabinet Office and Treasury, not by DWP. We need to anticipate what the shape of things will be on the far side of the election, in the first weeks after the election, including, potentially, what Labour might get up to on where welfare is going.

Mr Storey: I thank the Member for giving way. In many respects, I share some of the concerns that he expresses, and those are the issues that I have been endeavouring to address. Indeed, when Ed Miliband was in Northern Ireland, I had the opportunity, along with the First Minister, to have a discussion with him around these issues. In fact, I also intend to be in London at the beginning of the week. These are issues that I take a keen interest in, but we have to face the reality, which is that, as all the pundits, including your brother, will probably say, we face the most intriguing election that the United Kingdom has had for many years. It is one of which we cannot determine the outcome. However, my focus has to be to ensure that I have had discussions with the Labour Party and with the current Government. Not that I would use betting parlance, but that is me hedging my bets.

Mr Attwood: As I said, there is a new broom in DSD, and that seems to me to indicate that you, at least, are thinking to the end of the next year, whereas maybe your predecessor was thinking about the last century. We will not go there for the moment.

Given that recognition, I come back to the group of amendments, which, I reassure you, I am talking to. It is about the benefit cap, and that is why, when I come to it in more detail, the amendment about the benefit cap is so important. If the analysis is right and there is bad news coming from the Tories if they win and, potentially, bad news from Labour if they win, we need to anticipate where all of that is going.

One of the reasons I say that is the exchange that I referred to yesterday between Mark Durkan and Mr Gauke, who is a Treasury Minister, at a Westminster Select Committee. I am sorry that Sammy Wilson is not here because he was at the hearing. He was remarkably quiet at the hearing, and I wanted him to be here so that I could enquire about that. This is the reply to Mark Durkan from Minister Gauke when he probed him on what might be the approach of London in relation to a heavy stick being used if our funding here in Northern Ireland was not on a sustainable basis. This is relevant to welfare and to the benefit cap. This is what Mark Durkan said:

"There is some concern, not just because of the experience on welfare reform, where the block grant was fined unless the Assembly passed a Bill that it otherwise would not have wanted to pass ... will the Minister assure us that the judgment that is made on budget sustainability in a couple of years’ time will not hinge on the Treasury saying to the Executive, for instance, 'You do not have a sustainable budget unless you introduce water charges'"

and so on. The Minister said to that:

"my approach to looking at the finances of the Northern Ireland Executive as a whole, in their totality, is that they need to be on a sustainable footing. When it comes to public finances, whether in Northern Ireland or in the United Kingdom—public finances are the sum of its parts—this is a matter of looking at the totality of the public finances".

He concluded:

"in terms of how the Treasury will view that in future, I would not go beyond the wording set out in the Stormont House agreement."

He did not take the opportunity, Minister, to say that, in the future, be it on welfare, Budget or corporation tax, which is what he was talking about in the context of the Select Committee, he would rule out the fact that, if Northern Ireland's public finances, in the view of the Tories, were not on a sustainable footing, there would be a big stick waved in our faces once again, as we have experienced over the last two years. We are getting an early warning from London about how they will look at this place when it comes to how we administer our business, be it the Budget, corporation tax or welfare, which is a reason why we should build into our primary legislation the protections that I urged on you earlier about independent advice, the benefit cap or other aspects referred to in the amendments, including naming the issue of victims and survivors in the Bill.

Let us be clear about it — this is the final general point that I want to make — universal credit is coming to a shuddering halt. Cabinet and Treasury know it, and they will now take control of it. The consequences of that, as we said yesterday, will be more penalties and more cuts to the welfare baseline, including the benefit cap. It will be more than £23,000, because that will not cut it for David Cameron if he is re-elected. It will certainly not cut it for George Osborne if he continues to be Chancellor. That is the context in which the matter has to be considered. As somebody wrote just a few months ago:

"So the next secretary of state will have a lot of problems on their plate. Cut your losses and cancel universal credit, or press ahead despite the risks? Even more difficult will be dealing with the administrative chaos in the disability benefit system: angry claimants, disgruntled staff, a contractor who wants to escape as quickly as possible, and mounting costs for taxpayers. And looming over the department is the post-election spending review — welfare will be firmly in the Treasury’s sights again."

That is why we should put some of the amendments from Mr Agnew, from the Ulster Unionists and from us into the Bill.

I will also speak about a number of amendments that I urge the Minister to consider further. He is aware of the two amendments that have been tabled in relation to independent advice and independent advice and assistance. I think there is a difference, and, whilst we will work with the Ulster Unionists in that regard, we think that our amendment, because it refers to assistance, is also very important. Can I explain our thinking? I have a sense that the Minister's mind is not as closed as a petition of concern might suggest. I will maybe put it that way, if that is not too cryptic or generous. Therefore, I encourage him, over the next while, in response to this matter to indicate where his thinking might be generally for Further Consideration Stage on this and other matters.

What is this about? I acknowledge that there are a lot of good people giving a lot of good advice in-house in the Social Security Agency, the Child Support Agency and so on. I am not denying that. Some people suggest that, when you gather together all of the money that goes into that pot, be it in-house or in the independent sector, it might be £4 million or £5 million. That is a very significant contribution. To be fair, it tracks back to the days of direct rule and worked itself through both SDLP and DUP Social Development Ministers, so, whatever the tensions may be in the Budget and even whatever the tensions may be within the independent advice sector — I will not go there — nonetheless the Government have shown some level of good authority when it comes to funding independent and in-house — more in-house than independent but nonetheless.


10.45 am

It comes back, Minister, to the fact that, if you give all the assistance to the claimant, you can maximise the benefit to the claimant, reduce the risk of a negative assessment, avoid going to an appeal, and, at the end of it, the quality and experience of the life of the claimant and their family is going to be that much more different. If we can front-load that in order to maximise that journey to the right outcome, we should take the opportunity to do so.

The briefing that I am going to borrow from is the Northern Ireland Advice Services Consortium briefing. This is not a stand-alone advice agency; this is the consortium of people who give independent advice. It referred to the fact that advisers interview people; help the person prioritise their problems; provide up-to-date advice about available benefits; help complete applications; advocate at appeals, if necessary; help people liaise with Departments; and refer externally to other forms of appropriate crisis intervention. I put it to the Minister that the scale of that is greater than the good work that is done within the welfare offices because, inevitably, they are more constrained than taking an expansive and inclusive approach to advice giving, as is outlined in those seven approaches. It empowers claimants to resolve their own issues and maximises income by promoting benefit uptake, which is currently one of Northern Ireland's main priorities. Remember what your predecessor said, Minister, in October 2013:

"My vision is that every individual and household across Northern Ireland is receiving all social security benefits to which they and their families are entitled."

What that will mean is that it will reduce poverty, benefit local communities and reduce social exclusion. Those are not just more meaningless words; they are proven in empirical evidence. That is the consequence of maximising benefit uptake and having a good customer journey through the benefits system. It improves the quality of decision-making, so there will be fewer complaints to our offices about what is going on in the various offices, and it helps clients avoid stressful crisis interviews. One estimate in a paper from the citizens advice bureau — I think that it is the citizens advice bureau in Britain and Northern Ireland, not just here in Northern Ireland — is that £1 invested in welfare advice has £8·80 potential savings to the state. You can imagine that, in terms of health, mental support and all the rest of it, that is the consequence of independent advice and assistance.

As I indicated yesterday to Mr Beggs in an intervention, we are already showing some good authority in that regard. Our own Chamber legislated in the Housing (Amendment) Act (Northern Ireland) 2010 — I think that I put that through the House myself — that every person in Northern Ireland has the right to access free advice about homelessness and preventing homelessness, so we have already opened the door on statutory advice. The door is wide open, and rightly so, when it comes to other areas of public service.

When it comes to a person being questioned about a criminal offence, they have the right to free legal advice under PACE. A person who is detained under mental health powers can access legal advice further to a European Court decision, Winterwerp v Netherlands, which is further reflected in our draft mental health capacity Bill, which contains a specific right to independent advocacy.

My argument is that, in the backdrop of where we are on welfare reform and in the foreground of what might happen on the far side of the election, whoever is elected over there, and, as you indicated earlier, talking to everybody, I will just refer in passing to the fact that Channel 4 said two weeks ago that the balance of power could come down to the SDLP MPs, and put a big logo up to advertise the fact. That was a very shrewd political commentator on 'Channel 4 News', who is very familiar with this part of the world, so, in passing, I will make that point as well. What difference will a statutory right to advice make? This is what they conclude:

"We are mindful that accessing independent advice might become increasingly difficult in the future, not least in light of the Department of Justice’s proposal to remove welfare benefits from the scope of legal aid. Therefore, by making a commitment now to ... creating a statutory right to advice, the Department for Social Development would be providing an assurance to all those who may be adversely affected by welfare reform: claimants will be supported in making decisions and choices about their benefits."

I urge the Minister to consider those matters in going forward.

I will return to our amendment on the benefit cap. What we are saying, at the heart of it — and this is probably, in terms of cost and of the principle of parity, which I always said that we should stretch the limits of and then, on occasions, went unilateral in breaking in respect of not tabling regulations, although I suspect that once I was out of office, someone somewhere in the Department rectified that. I have never been able to actually clarify who failed to follow my best advice, but, in any case, the point that we are trying to make is that, in the context of London's ambitions on welfare, how that might work itself through and how that might impact on the benefit cap, caring benefits should be exempt. We know that, of all our amendments, this one might have some consequences in terms of cost, but we ask that some minds be applied to the issue that the benefit cap should not apply to child benefit or carer's allowance and benefits, care and responsibilities because we do not think that, in any circumstances, vulnerable children and adults should be at the front line of what might happen next, and that we should anticipate and legislate accordingly against all that.

I will just refer to some other amendments. My colleague Mrs Kelly spoke to amendment No 2, which is a minimum change that has a good benefit in reducing waiting day provision from seven to three days. On amendment No 28, we have had some conversations with the Minister. If he says what I anticipate he will say, we will not be inclined to move that amendment.

In terms of our opposition to clauses 61 and 63, advice has been received in the past from the Law Centre and the Northern Ireland Council for Ethnic Minorities. I can give you an example of what the concern might be. If somebody in Northern Ireland has been given permission or leave to remain and is therefore entitled to work and is working, and the leave to remain is withdrawn, they will have contributed to the state, but they may not be able to access benefits. This is one of the issues that has been raised. In circumstances where there is a contributing person who has been entitled to work, but whose circumstances change and who is then not entitled to work, but is yet to leave the state, will the welfare system under clauses 61, 62 and 63 and the benefits named therein accommodate that person to get assistance? We think that there are some issues around social security law and European requirements in that regard.

I will move to the issue of the bedroom tax. I see that Mr Wilson is still not in the Chamber. With some encouragement from people to my right, he tried to sustain an argument in the House last night that the SDLP's opposition to the bedroom tax is somehow less than fulsome and honest because we were the people who brought the bedroom tax into Northern Ireland. I will find the words that were used by Mr Wilson last night. He said:

"I noticed the pseudo-anger that we had from the SDLP on this issue."

It may be from other people.

"For example, they upbraided Sinn Féin on their refusal to sign a petition of concern on the spare-room subsidy, ignoring the fact that the spare-room subsidy was introduced into Northern Ireland by the SDLP." — [Official Report, Vol 101, No 8, p64, col 1].

He was, of course, referring to legislation that the House passed in 2007, the Welfare Reform Act, which addressed the issue of local housing allowance, not for people in the Housing Executive sector, not for people in the housing association sector and not for people who were getting housing support from health and social services, from a charity or from a voluntary organisation. It was from none or any of those sectors. It was in respect of the local housing allowance for the private rented sector, and there is no provision for a bedroom tax in the law that was passed in 2007.

Mr F McCann: Will the Minister give way?

Mr Attwood: I will give way in a second.

What was that law meant to do? It was to regulate the private rented sector. Why should it not be regulated? If there were landlords profiteering, especially at the height of the property market, by increasing rents disproportionately to either the quality of the property or the rental market in that area, is it not right for us to legislate to put constraints on the private rented sector?

Mr Brady: Will the Member give way?

Mr Attwood: I will.

Regulating the private rented sector to the benefit of the tenant and the state and not to the benefit of profiteering landlords is not a bedroom tax. The legislation, which has been updated regularly by the Housing Executive, put down established and identified rental market areas in Northern Ireland so that there was a template against which to judge market rental for private properties in each of those areas — clearly, rental properties and prices vary depending upon the section of the Northern Ireland — with the intention of delivering affordable social rents to make it fairer or less confusing and to remove unjustified differences between areas and within areas to have a rental regime that tried to create a similar rental for similar properties in similar areas. That is not a bedroom tax by any description. I will give way.

Mr F McCann: I thank the Member for giving way. When I got up, I asked if the "Minister" would give way, but Mickey reminded me that that was a while ago. I remember the debate on the introduction of local housing allowance very well. We raised a number of issues at Committee. I think that it might have been with Margaret Ritchie at the time. We said that quite a number of people would lose out and would have to pay more. A lot of them would be in the Member's constituency of West Belfast, in some of the more impoverished areas. It meant that people were paying more money for poor conditions and had to borrow money to make a top-up. I think that you are picking nits when you talk about the difference between a bedroom tax and what people were forced to pay extra in terms of the local housing allowance.

(Mr Principal Deputy Speaker [Mr Newton] in the Chair)

Mr Attwood: I am surprised by that contribution because, for the last two years, we have been talking about the bedroom tax. What is the bedroom tax? It is saying to somebody in a rental property, "You have to get out of it, and, if you are staying there, you will have to pay a punitive price for so doing". That is the bedroom tax in law, and everybody knows what that means. Regulation of a previously not properly fully regulated market when it came to private property —

Mr Brady: Will the Member give way?

Mr Attwood: I will. That is a far different creature from that.

If you were so concerned that this was the precursor to the bedroom tax, which you and Sammy Wilson now, in a pseudo way, pretend that it was, why did you not petition at that time to block it? If you thought that this was going to open the door to penalties for tenants across Northern Ireland in the private, Housing Executive and housing association sectors — indeed, in every sector — why did you not petition? You were right to raise concerns. [Interruption.]

Did you even come and ask anybody? Mr Wilson now says that the precursor to the property tax was in 2007. You did not need our votes in 2007; all you needed was two or three Sammy Wilsons. [Interruption.]

Did you go — [Interruption.]


11.00 am

Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: Order. I ask that all remarks be directed through the Chair and that no remarks be made from a sedentary position.

Mr Attwood: Thank you, Mr Principal Deputy Speaker. You did not call it the bedroom tax, nor did you try to lodge a petition against it or approach Sammy Wilson, who was so concerned about this precursor to the bedroom tax that he would willingly have joined you in opposition to what Margaret Ritchie was trying to do.

Mr Brady: I thank the Member for giving way. He is trying to defend the indefensible by giving the impression that the private rented sector is regulated: it is not. We have argued from 2007 for the regulation of the private rented sector. A private landlord can charge whatever he wants. The local housing allowance meant that people at subsistence-level on benefits paid £20, £25 and £30 out of their benefit. Do not try and defend the indefensible and put it out as something it simply is not.

Mr Attwood: I will make a number of comments. I notice that the Member does not now use the words, "bedroom tax".

Mr Brady: I never used the words, "bedroom tax".

Mr Attwood: You and your colleagues, and colleagues across the Chamber, used the words on multiple occasions last night. There was one precious moment when Sammy Wilson gave way to Mr Brady because they were making common cause and thought that this was their moment, and they nearly felt a wee bit embarrassed. As is so often the case with Mr Wilson's contributions, his need for theatre gets in the way of the facts.

Last night, you were willing accomplices as you tried to pretend that action was taken with caution and mindful of the risks to create a proper regulatory regime. Does the law provide that, in every set of circumstances every tenant is protected from landlord excesses, when, as in other parts of these islands, people have to rely more on the private sector because of austerity budgets, of which one is about to be passed in this Chamber?

We were told that it is the best deal possible, and yet it will see people losing their houses. Why? Because they will not get wage increases. Why? Because they will not have enough childcare support. Why? All the reasons inherent in that Budget will see people losing their homes, resulting in them being thrown to the private sector and to some of the profiteers with whom you and I would rightly disagree. Do not pretend today that what happened in 2007 was the precursor to the bedroom tax and the cause of all the profiteering that goes on in the private rented sector. [Interruption.]

It is you who has the responsibility to mitigate the impact of all that on our people and to vote through a Budget that is the best deal possible.

Mr Adams says that he wants to lead an anti-austerity Government in the South after 2016. He wants to lead an anti-austerity Government. Well, he should come North and see what it is like to lead an austerity Government. We will see what the Irish people have to say.

Mr Maskey: Your party will never be in any Government.

Mr Attwood: You see, that is what happens —

Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: Order. The Member must be heard. There should be no comments from a sedentary position.

Mr Attwood: Comments from a sedentary position are always very revealing. What is revealing about that is how people to my right now rely on a democratic mandate, which we have never taken away from the people of Ireland, to beat up on other parties. They flouted a democratic mandate for 20, 30 and 40 years. Even in the last day, they continue to flout a democratic mandate by resisting the right of legislators to bring forward amendments to Bills and hiding behind petitions of concern to ensure that the will of the majority prevails come what may. Sinn Féin should look long and hard at its purported claims to want to lead anti-austerity Governments when it leads an austerity Government in the North. It claims a democratic mandate, which is its right to do because that is the will of the people of Ireland, but it flouts democratic practice in the Chamber, as, unfortunately, was done for decades on this island at a terrible cost to so many people on this island.

Mr Maskey: It was at a cost to ourselves. You remember that.

Mr Attwood: I did not hear that one; I wish I had.

Mr Maskey: It was at a cost to ourselves. You should remember that. We paid for our democratic mandate with our lives.

Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: I ask the Member to address his comments through the Chair. There should be no remarks from a sedentary position.

Mr Attwood: My party leader issued a statement yesterday saying that the party to my right was rattled. When people hear — hopefully, it will be recorded in Hansard — that a member of Sinn Féin has said what he has just said about paying for their lives for a democratic mandate —

Mr F McCann: Paying with their lives.

Mr Attwood: With their lives. I recognise that. I am not somebody who denies the pain and grief of people in the republican family. I acknowledge that, as victims and survivors, they require support. I will finish this point very quickly. People on this island paid a hugely disproportionate price for those who took up arms and may have lost their lives when there was a democratic alternative and a mandate for democratic change. Violence was resisted in election after election by the people of the island. There was a constitutional alternative. The violence succeeded only in dividing our people more and more.

Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: I ask the Member to come back to the amendments rather than addressing remarks that were made from a sedentary position.

Mr Attwood: The issue that I was going to talk about was the bedroom tax. It is not too late. Sinn Féin signed the petition of concern about the bedroom tax —

Mrs D Kelly: It did not.

Mr Attwood: It signed it way back.

Mrs D Kelly: It did not.

Mr Attwood: Sorry; it got that wrong as well.

Mr McCartney: Who is speaking here?

Mr Attwood: I was getting guidance. Anyway, it is not too late to sign the petition of concern. If you go out that Door, turn right and turn right again, there is an office called the Business Office. In there, a petition of concern is waiting. [Interruption.]

You can sign it as well, Minister, if you are so inclined. A petition of concern would mean that that issue could be more conclusively addressed today. Why should it be done? London knows that the bedroom tax, a bit like universal credit, is dying a slow but painful death. It is painful for the people who suffer from it. It has cost too much. It has not had the outcome that London intended. It will be abandoned sooner or later. Labour has already said that. The Liberal Democrats are jumping ship, and the Tories know that the bedroom tax is not long for this world. We encourage people, at this late stage, to send out that message to London and to our people and to honour the words of people in the Ard Fheis and in statement after statement that the bedroom tax is not going to exist in practice or law in this part of the world.

I also want to comment on the claim that there is a four-party deal and a five-party deal. Last night, Mr Brady said that he had a document, and he was waving it. There were certainly documents in the talks at Stormont, but no document was signed off on until the five parties moved to that conclusion. I have checked because I was mystified by what was being claimed.

Mr F McCann: You did not need to check; you were there.

Mr Attwood: I checked with other parties. Yes, I was there.

Mr F McCann: You know what we are talking about.

Mr Attwood: I do not know what you are talking about, and nor do other parties in the Chamber. I do not understand what this document is. Documents were produced, discussed and interrogated, and options A, B, C and C+ for mitigation were looked at and so forth. I recall that, during one session on, I think, 17 December, our party said that, if there was a mitigation package of up to £100 million, we were prepared to look at it. We were raising the issue of the welfare cap, which I want to raise with the Minister in a moment. We began to flag up the point that I made earlier, which is whether London's practices on welfare of waving a stick and imposing penalties will be replicated when it comes to corporation tax.

Mr Brady: I thank the Member for giving way. When I raised the subject last night, you seemed to be very reluctant when you were given the opportunity to rebuff what I had said. You seem to have plenty of knowledge now and said that you were there. Did you not remember it from last night, or did it take you all night to think about what was actually happening?

Mr Attwood: To Mr Brady's embarrassment, Hansard will confirm that my colleagues the Minister of the Environment and the deputy leader of the SDLP asked you on a number of occasions to give way, but you declined. Then, all of a sudden, you gave way to your partner in crime — I am sorry; I will withdraw that remark because it might be inappropriate — your partner in petitions on the first occasion that he asked you to do so. Yet, when Mr Durkan and Mrs Kelly asked, you declined. I ask Members to reflect on any and all of that.

Is there another amendment that I want to speak to? Give me a second, please. I do not think there is, so I will conclude my remarks because I have probably gone on longer than I had anticipated.

I remind the Minister of the points in my opening remarks about naming in the Bill victims and survivors, independent advice and assistance and where we might go with the benefit cap and so on. As I said, I have a question for the Minister about the welfare cap. This became a major matter of discussion at the Stormont negotiations: was there some flexibility that London was giving to us with our notional welfare cap that might accommodate more flexibilities on the administration of universal credit, if it ever ends up being administered over here? You know my view on that. My question to the Minister is this: is there some indication of flexibility on the notional welfare cap that might enable things to be done below that notional threshold in a way that mitigates the impact of welfare reform beyond anything that is named in any documents that came out of the Stormont negotiations, including the five-party understanding? Is there anything in that regard?

I will conclude with this remark; I have probably referred to it in the House. When I was the Minister for Social Development, the then Minister for Employment and Learning, Lord Empey, and I had a meeting with Chris Grayling, who is now the Justice Secretary in London but was then a junior Minister in DWP. From what I understand, Mr Grayling is one of the more dogmatic of the Tory high command. He had a conversation with us that should echo in the ears of everybody in the Chamber when it comes to the bedroom tax. The conversation went like this: he said that, because of the recession, it was inevitable that people were losing their houses. People who had a big mortgage and lost their job had to give up their house. He said — this is nearly a quotation — that it was not fair that somebody living next door in a house of the same size and getting housing support should be allowed to live there, if the other person had lost their home. Think about that: because somebody suffers difficulty to the point of losing their home, the person next door should lose their home as well. I remember saying to him that, in my view, that indicated false values and a false approach to dealing with people in housing need or maintaining them in their accommodation. To be fair and accurate, he looked somewhat crestfallen and embarrassed, because in that moment the mask had slipped and the dogma of London on the bedroom tax was clear for all to see. It is not about what they claim it is about; at its heart, it is that they will penalise the social tenant because the private tenant falls on hard times.


11.15 am

Mr Lyttle: My Alliance Party colleague Stewart Dickson is setting out the general Alliance Party position on the Welfare Reform Bill. I accept that a rationale is being made for opposing amendments for which Members have been unable to provide costings at this stage of the Bill. I take the opportunity to speak to the amendments concerned with ensuring access to independent advice services.

It is my experience that independent advice services provide vital assistance to the Northern Ireland Executive to ensure that people in our community receive the social security assistance to which they are fully entitled. That means people in work, people out of work and some of the most vulnerable in our community. Those funds help people to access financial and social benefits for themselves and for the benefit of our wider community. They also help to deliver the Minister for Social Development's vision that every individual and household across Northern Ireland should receive all the social security benefits to which they and their families are entitled. The Child Poverty Alliance, which is an umbrella group of organisations such as Children in Northern Ireland, Save the Children, the Children's Law Centre, Queen's University and the University of Ulster, stated clearly in a recent report, 'Beneath the Surface: Child Poverty in Northern Ireland', that:

"The impact of independent advice services to families during these times cannot be overestimated."

We have heard from Mr Attwood how CAB figures from Great Britain show that, for every £1 invested in welfare advice, around £8·80 in potential savings are made to the state. I firmly believe that the Department needs to ensure that the advice sector is adequately resourced to provide the advice needed by people in our community. Some ask why that advice needs to be independent. Of course, the Social Security Agency does extremely important work. It has existing targets for benefit uptake, and it might be useful if the Minister advised the House today how he thinks the Social Security Agency is doing on that.

Independent advice is also crucial, and independent advice organisations are at the heart of our communities, which they serve. They can, at times, be more accessible than statutory agencies, and people can be more at ease in that location, leading to efficient assistance on entitlements. They can, at times, have more open conversations. The adviser is therefore better able to assess the claimant's entitlement and advise on the most appropriate course of action. The independent advice sector therefore complements the statutory services.

Whilst the Minister for Social Development has stated that the advice sector plays a vital role in supporting people through the changes arising from welfare reforms, I am increasingly hearing serious concerns from advice organisations that accessing independent advice might become increasingly difficult. I hear that message clearly in my constituency of East Belfast from the East Belfast Independent Advice Centre, which provides a vital service in our community. They provide drop-in advice clinics at the East Belfast Network Centre and outreach advice clinics in local primary schools, libraries and community centres; telephone advice; home visit services; and volunteer opportunities for local people, offering accredited training and work experience. They also offer specialist services in representation at social security tribunals and specialist advice on debt. They have therefore achieved significant outcomes on an annual basis. In the last year, they assisted the community in claiming around £2·8 million in social security assistance. They have assisted with around £3·3 million of debt arrears, dealt with somewhere in the region of 15,000 queries for local people and represented around 142 people at social security appeal tribunals. They have also engaged in an extremely beneficial project for east Belfast: the Community Advocacy Skills Training project. That advised around 20,000 people and assisted the community to access over £4·9 million in statutory entitlement to assistance. As well as achieving those quantitative outcomes, the independent qualitative evaluation report completed in 2013, the launch of which, I believe, the First Minister supported, found that the project had a positive impact on other outcomes, such as improved mental health, prevented family breakdown and tackled economic inactivity in our community. It also increased skills in our community and improved, therefore, the overall advice provision across the constituency.

The demand for these services is only likely to increase in the near future. Between the last two quarters of 2014, the number of people whom the service assisted increased by around 25%. In December alone, the organisation made 53 referrals to food banks, and it made 18 in January. There is a concern that welfare reform will see a spike in demand for those services. Modelling by the Social Security Agency showed that 50% of those claiming DLA could be impacted adversely by the move to PIP. I understand that there are around 9,500 people in receipt of DLA in East Belfast.

The Minister has said that there will be a package of mitigations, including hardship funds. People will need assistance to access those funds. Evidence from Scotland has shown that, without assistance, people struggle to access such emergency provision. Therefore, the independent advice centres providing a vital service to people in work and out of work and some of the most vulnerable people in our community need all the help they can get. They prevent homelessness; they tackle mental and physical ill health; and they keep families together as well as encouraging education and employment in our communities. That has benefits not just for the individual but for the whole community. Yet, it is my understanding that the East Belfast Independent Advice Centre, for example, receives around £40,000 per year from the Department for Social Development and £30,000 per year from Belfast City Council — £70,000 of public funds. We heard that, in total, it is estimated that around £4·5 million to £5 million goes into the advice sector, so it is startling that an organisation that achieves the outcomes for the wider community that it does receives only around £70,000 in public funds to do so. With those limited funds, that organisation and organisations like it generate millions of pounds each year in additional financial assistance for those most in need in our community. The evidence suggests that it is a sound use of public funds to invest in these services. I ask the Minister for Social Development how, in lieu of this statutory duty, he will ensure that our advice services have the funding that they need to achieve the outcomes that they are capable of and to which our people and our community are fully entitled.

I would also like to add that it is on the record that the Alliance Party MP for East Belfast, Naomi Long, voted against the benefits cap and the bedroom tax at Westminster for very good reasons. Indeed, there was cross-party opposition to the bedroom tax. We have heard that the hard-earned agreement between the UK Government and the Northern Ireland Executive will set out how that opposition will be implemented and realised in Northern Ireland through the mitigation funds. I ask the Minister to make clear in his comments how exactly that will be achieved. I also ask the Minister to make it clear how victims and survivors in our community and, indeed, the Commission for Victims and Survivors will be given due regard in relation to welfare reform. It is my understanding that there are legislative obligations already in place to ensure that that will be the case, but it is important that he makes that clear in his comments today.

Mr Agnew: I thought that my approach to the Bill, with my amendments, was clear from my speech yesterday, but I feel that I need to make it clearer, given some of the criticism of the amendments that I have tabled. There are different ways to approach the Bill, and each is legitimate. We should then argue the approach that each party has taken. The Ulster Unionist Party has taken the approach that it would amend the Bill but only where it deems that there are no costs, although Mr Wilson highlighted his belief that there were indeed costs to that party's amendments. However, what it sought to do with each of my amendments was criticise them because there were costs.

I make no apology for the fact that there are costs to my amendments for the simple fact that the two major signatories to the Stormont House Agreement on either side of the House have given commitments that no one will be worse off under the Bill. With my amendments I have sought to put it in legislation that no one will be worse off under the Bill or that, at worst, there will be mitigation of the impacts where I believe that people will be worse off. When I am asked where the money comes from, I say the top-up payment. I say that not in a glib way but because I have been given assurances by the Minister, his Department and those on the other side of the House that it is sufficient to maintain the payments that people already receive.

My amendments are largely to ensure that people continue to receive the payments that they receive, albeit, in some cases, through a different mechanism such as universal credit as opposed to existing benefits. In some cases, they do not even go that far and not as far as I would like — I will talk about the ESA, for example — but would extend the provision that exists for a temporary period.

I have not sought to say that the benefits system should be more generous, although, of course, I would love to be able to say that. I have taken a responsible approach, and I have said that if we are to have the top-up and are committed to ensuring that no one will be worse off, let us put it in the Bill and give that guarantee. It is one thing to say it, but it is another to do it.


11.30 am

Whilst we have heard a lot about the Stormont House Agreement and how no one will be worse off, we have not been given the details as to how. There has been some suggestion that the Stormont Castle agreement set out the how: where the money will go and what that will look like. Some commitments have been made to publish that, but I have yet to see it. I am debating the Welfare Reform Bill today, and I go forward on the basis of protecting those who, it would appear, will lose out under the Bill if the assurances that they have been given are not met.

I want to make it clear from the outset that that is the approach that I have taken. I believe that it is the right approach. I accept that other parties have taken a different approach. Some have tabled no amendments; some have tabled amendments that, they believe, will not have a cost; and others, like me, have tabled amendments that will have a cost. However, we have a top-up fund for a reason, and those are some of the areas in which, I believe, it should be used.

I now come to the bedroom tax and my proposal to oppose clause 69; to do what I have consistently said that I would do and seek to vote down the bedroom tax. Undoubtedly, there have been some mixed signals about the bedroom tax. I know that the Minister and others were at pains yesterday to point out that commitments have been given on the bedroom tax, and that would seem to suggest that there is a consensus that it was a bad idea. For that reason, I will not rehearse all the arguments. I certainly believe that it is a bad idea, and its application has been shown to be disastrous in GB. I believe that it was ill-conceived from the very start and that the very principles of the bedroom tax are wrong. As Mr Attwood alluded to, it was about punishing people who rely on support from the state. It was a punishment and, in my view, was never, in any way, about making things better.

We have been told about the flexibilities that have been agreed with the Government; the flexibilities that were negotiated two years ago or something to that extent. We have agreed it with the Government, so why can we not agree to put it into legislation? If we have that flexibility, why is it not in the Bill? It is not that I doubt the sincerity of the Minister when he says that the commitment is there or that of any other parties that have been privy to that agreement, but I fail to understand why we cannot give the security of putting it in legislation — or, to be more accurate, removing it from legislation.

Some of the clues were given. It would seem that it is a five-year deferral. It is not about it being that, as has been said, the bedroom tax is wrong in principle. It is about us having some practical problems with it — we do not have the housing stock or the one-bedroom houses. We have asked for five years to get a greater provision of one-bedroom houses, and we will then implement the bedroom tax. I am sorry to say this to Sinn Féin, but if that is what they signed up for, it is not what they committed to. Mr Maskey alluded to the previous petition of concern that three parties were going to sign and that would have stopped the bedroom tax. What we are being presented with is a five-year deferral. It is not the ending of the bedroom tax in Northern Ireland, but a deferral so that we can build more houses.

I have an example in my constituency. I have constituents who have been campaigning for years for multi-element improvements to their Housing Executive bungalows. Due to various reasons, which I will not go into, around the Housing Executive —

Mr Maskey: I am grateful to the Member for giving way. I just want to make sure that we are all on the same wavelength. We stated very clearly — our party and others, and you — from the outset that we were opposed to the bedroom tax. Our principle in all this is that we are opposed to people having to pay the bedroom tax. Yes, we want to abolish that tax and see it gone. We do not want to have it on any legislative or statutory basis, but we ended up with a five-party agreement.

Other Members have stood in this Chamber, lauding the good intentions and goodwill of Lord Freud, for example. I made it very clear, having met Lord Freud, that he basically said to all of us, "I feel your pain. I know your circumstances in the North are different. I know that there are worse levels of unemployment. I know that there are worse levels of sickness, including mental ill health, not only related to the conflict, but, obviously, that plays a big part." He also repeated that he knows about the difficulties with the stresses in housing because we have a lot of segregated housing areas, and so on. However, at the end of the day, he felt our pain but said that we would have to pay for anything that we wanted to do differently, and that is what we are doing.

Whether we like the legislation or not — people all have their views, and so do we — what we have at this time is an agreement for the next number of years under which no one will have to pay the burden of that bedroom tax. That, I think, is one of the most important messages that should come from this Chamber yesterday and today. What we have is the result of a five-party agreement. We tried to extract money from the British Government, which had no intention of ever giving us any money. Therefore, we had to make choices. You are prepared to make that choice; all the parties around this Chamber have been prepared to make the choice that those who would have suffered the burden of a bedroom tax will not now have to do so. I think that that is a good-news story, rather than people having to squabble in what is really a party-political argument or political point-scoring. That is regrettable because this is a better deal for people. People out there who are suffering through wondering whether they are going to have to pay additional rent or move out of their house now know as a result of this five-party agreement that they will not have to suffer that.

Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: I remind Members that interventions are to be short.

Mr Agnew: Thank you, Mr Principal Deputy Speaker. I will let Ms Kelly in in a second. To sum up Mr Maskey's point; are we better off with a five-year deferral than where we started? Yes, I accept that. Is it what was promised: to ensure that the bedroom tax did not apply in Northern Ireland? No, because, right now, the Department for Social Development is ensuring that more one-bedroom houses are being built. It would not be doing that were it not for the intention to introduce the bedroom tax at a later stage.

Mr Storey: Absolute nonsense.

Mrs D Kelly: I thank the Member for letting me in. Does he agree with me about this commitment and statement? I quote directly from Mickey Brady, who said on 30 July 2013:

"Martin McGuinness clearly stated that if the Bedroom Tax is brought before the Assembly, Sinn Féin will move to block its introduction in the North."

What we have today falls far short of that.

Mr Agnew: I thank the Member for her intervention. Mr Storey said from a sedentary position that this is not what is happening in DSD.

Mr Humphrey: Will the Member give way?

Mr Agnew: I will in a second. I will give an example from my constituency. I started this point before the interventions and I would like to get through it.

Constituents required multi-element improvements to their bungalows. For various historical reasons, the Housing Executive could not do that. They have now been transferred to Oaklee Housing. They were promised two-bedroom refurbishments. Then, the bedroom tax came in in GB and they were told that they were getting one-bedroom bungalows. To be honest, the state of the bungalows that they were living in was so bad that they were grateful for anything, because they had waited for years while political wrangling around the funding of new builds, refurbishments etc was decided in this place, and they were left with the consequences. The outcome is that their bungalows are now to have one bedroom rather than two because we are preparing for the implementation of the bedroom tax. I give way to Mr Humphrey.

Mr Humphrey: I thank the Member for giving way; I appreciate it. In terms of the point that the Member finished before he sat down, does he really believe it? Did he not listen to the debate yesterday at all? He heard about the concessions that Minister McCausland got from the mainland Department, the concessions built on and secured by the current Minister, and yet he comes off with a statement like that. It is about getting a mix. I have had constituents come into my office who want one-bedroom bungalows. I have to say to the Member that there is not a plot under every bed, as he seems to think.

Mr Agnew: I thank the Member for his intervention. Do I genuinely believe what I am saying? I absolutely do, because the policy was always for three- and two-bedroom build, because that is what met the needs, and that policy changed when the bedroom tax came in in GB. I have heard no other rationale for it. I do not believe for a second that it was coincidental that it kick-started when the bedroom tax was coming into place. I hear about the concessions, and Mr Maskey referred to the costs. The commitment, by taking the bedroom tax out of this Bill, is not just saying "We will not have it for the five-year period", which we have been told is the concession but saying that "Northern Ireland has decided that it will not have it at all."

Mr F McCann: Will the Member give way?

Mr Agnew: I will.

Mr F McCann: I think that there are a couple of things in what you said. Maybe what you should do is go and listen to a replay of this debate. People have been at pains to point out, yesterday and today, that the whole institutions were in danger of collapse. Are you saying that that would have been much more beneficial than coming to an agreement that protects people, when we could have faced the full implementation of the Welfare Reform Act 2012?

I used to give Mrs Kelly credit for a bit of wit, but what Martin McGuinness said in June and today are two completely different things. They have negotiated.

Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: I ask the Member to addresses his remarks through the Chair.

Mr F McCann: Pardon? Sorry, Chair. At that time, Martin McGuinness said what we all believed, but negotiations took place at the time which made life better for people in this place.

Mr Agnew: Principal Deputy Speaker, I really am confused. On the one hand, I am told that, had Sinn Féin stuck to its commitment on the bedroom tax, these institutions would have collapsed; on the other, that the deal ensures that the bedroom tax will not come into Northern Ireland. I am not sure which is true, but —

Mr Maskey: Will the Member give way?

Mr Agnew: I will, because I seek clarity from the Member.

Mr Maskey: I thank the Member, and the Principal Deputy Speaker for his indulgence. This is turning into a debate between you and Sinn Féin which we should probably have outside or somewhere else. You should be dealing with the Bill that is in front of us today, and the mitigation measures that have been agreed by all the parties. All the parties have decided that we will subsidise the bedroom tax to the point where no one who would fall foul of a bedroom tax, as a result of the London-based legislation, will have to pay that burden. As I have said before, I think it is a good thing.

You should not mistake the fact that people need to have one-bedroom accommodation. You will know that, if you check your figures. There are Ministers around here who can verify it. As we speak, there is a far greater demand for one-bedroom accommodation which cannot and will not be met by this Executive, or by the Housing Executive for that matter. There is a great demand for that type of accommodation, irrespective of the bedroom tax. You need to understand that. If you go through every single constituency, you will see that housing associations, the DSD and the Housing Executive are trying to get one-bedroom accommodation units built, in the whole range of constituencies, which are falling foul of objection after objection.

Just to make it very clear, our party is involved in no conspiracy to dicky-up the figures or force people into one-bedroom accommodation. I can tell you that — like yourself, I am sure — I represent a lot of single people who are looking for one-bedroom accommodation. It has nothing to do with housing benefit because they will be paying the rent themselves. They will not be in receipt of any benefit, so do not mix up the two.

Mr Agnew: I thank the Member for his intervention. I will try to move on from this point.

I am still unclear whether we are not going to have a bedroom tax in Northern Ireland or whether we are not going to have it for five years. With regard to the agreement to fund it, given that we have had no extra money from the UK Government, it is our decision how we spend our Budget, and we can decide whether that is something that we want to do for five years or do in the long term. Yes, we will have to fund it, but we are funding it out of our Budget already. There is no additional money coming from the Treasury. We have some loans to make people redundant, we have been allowed to move some money around, but the whole nonsense of a £2 billion fund was just that: absolute nonsense.


11.45 am

Mr Humphrey: Will the Member give way?

Mr Agnew: I will in a second.

Money has been moved around. There is no additional money for this provision or anything else for that matter. It comes out of our block grant. As I said, money is being moved around and loans have been given, but the money is not additional —

Mr F McCann: Is that your objection?

Mr Agnew: It is not my objection at all. I am quite happy that we fund this, but my point is that we decide how we spend our money. We have agreement from the Treasury; is it an agreement for five years on the bedroom tax, or is it the case that we are choosing to fund this for five years out of our block grant? I assumed that it was the latter; that seems to be the proposal in Budget.

Mr Humphrey: I thank the Member for giving way again. Over the last couple of days, the Member has expressed his disquiet over the Stormont House/Stormont Castle agreements and so on in terms of what he sees is the lack of information and detail that he has as a party that was not signatory to it. I appreciate that, and the First Minister conceded that yesterday. Would the Member have preferred the institutions here in Northern Ireland to have collapsed, because that is how we would have ensured that the Tory cuts would have been imposed? That is how we would have ensured that the bedroom tax would have been imposed, and we would have had no control over that and no opportunity to alleviate that with the concessions that the DUP Ministers have negotiated. Does the Member accept that point?

Mr Agnew: What I would say is that we need to be honest with people. When people are being told that we got £2 billion in extra money, we need to make it clear that that is not true. We need to be honest about what the agreement was and what it did. Part of the agreement said that the Treasury kindly, in its benevolence, said that you can take hundreds of millions of pounds from your infrastructure capital and you can transfer it to resource to make people redundant. It kindly let us do that. That is not extra money. That is money that we would have spent potentially on schools, roads and infrastructure. It was money that would have created employment in Northern Ireland, and we have moved it to a fund. The Treasury said, "We will let you do this on the condition that you use it to cut the size of your public sector" — a redundancy pot that will see 20,000 people added to the unemployment list over four years. That is what was in the Stormont House Agreement. That is honest. I argued all along that any agreement should have public input, and that never happened. It is up to people to decide whether that is a good deal or a bad deal, but we should be clear as to what the deal was. That is exactly what it was, and no one has disputed that, because they cannot dispute it.

Mr Allister: Will the Member give way.

Mr Allister: I understand the Member's point that we are taking money from capital to fund the exit scheme. I understand that entirely, but are we not doing exactly the same in order to nullify welfare reform? Are we not passing a Welfare Reform Bill that, on the face of it, brings in reforms and then, with the other hand, we are dipping into the block grant — the very money for resource in schools and hospitals — to negate the welfare reform and make it of no effect other than to reduce the amount of money that we have for schools and hospitals? That seems to be something that the Member is happy with. Is that correct?

Mr Agnew: I thank the Member for his intervention. I think that it is fair to say that we have very differing politics. I believe that spending public money on protecting the most vulnerable in our society is something worth doing, and I make no apology for saying that that should come out of our block grant and that that should come out of public funds. For me, the very essence of why we pay our taxes is to ensure that the most vulnerable in our society are protected and to ensure that when the economy collapses — while I would love to blame politicians in Northern Ireland, it was to a large extent through no fault of our own here — that people out of work have a safety net and can provide for themselves and their families, albeit at a very basic level, to ensure that they are not in destitution. We have seen the growth of food banks over the UK, so it is to ensure that the state provides rather than people having to rely on churches and charities providing handouts. That is why I pay my taxes.

"Taxes" is a big, ugly word, and we are told that we should reduce them all the time. We are told to lower taxes, and everything will be better, but we pay taxes for a reason. We pay taxes because we believe in society. We believe that we are better off collectively when we put money into a central pot to provide for all of us should we need it, whether for health, education or welfare. I believe in public services; I do not believe in rebalancing the economy, which is a nice slogan for cutting the public sector to shreds. I thank you for your comments, Mr Allister. I know that you will disagree with me, but you gave me an opportunity to make it very clear where I stand on this issue.

I move on to another area of housing, which is covered in amendment No 7. There has been some misunderstanding about what amendment No 7 does or what its rationale is. It is about the four-week transition payment for people who move off benefits and go into work. I have plenty of experience of the private rented sector. I have experience of housing benefit and know how these things work. I will lay it out as clearly as I can, because I feel that there were misunderstandings in some comments. When you are on housing benefit, your rent is paid in arrears at the end of the month for the month that has just passed. However, most private landlords expect rent to be paid up front. As Members will be aware, most employers do not pay in advance but after someone has worked for a month.

Amendment No 7 seeks to protect people who have been paying their rent through housing benefit and have sought work, as we want them to. The amendment is about not only ensuring that work pays but ensuring that people who might have been living on a very basic income on benefits and are unlikely to have savings do not fall into the trap of getting a job and having their housing benefit immediately stopped, with a landlord demanding rent. Who loses in that situation? The person who loses is the individual who has sought work, as we supposedly want them to do. That person gets a job and loses. Indeed, the landlord loses out because he or she cannot claim rent and is now in a position of having to penalise the person, potentially asking him or her to move out for breach of contract if he or she fails to pay the rent, or they will take a hit. One of those parties will lose out because someone has done what we want them to do and got a job. It is a reasonable proposal to allow a transition payment for the period that the person is working but not receiving income. Others may disagree, but, if they disagree, at least they understand it first.

Amendment No 6 is about the shared accommodation rate for young people. I think that the very premise of the proposal in the Bill is discriminatory. It treats young people differently, and the definition of young person has gone up to the age of 34. I turned 35 last year. I know that my young colleague Mr Lyttle is still 34. Sorry, Chris; I hope that is not personal information.

I will use myself as an example and go back to before my last birthday, when I was still 34. I had a job, I had two children, I had a partner and I had a house. These institutions were under threat, and there was the potential that I could lose my job. There was the potential that me losing my job, and the stress that that would create in my family, would put strain on my relationship and it might have broken down. So, I would have been unemployed, single, and have had two kids; and I would have been told, first by the Tory Government where this has come from, but now by this Northern Ireland Executive that proposes to pass the legislation, that, "We will only support you to live in shared accommodation, where you might not be able to bring your children and which might be completely unsuitable to your needs. We are immediately going to punish you for losing your job and for the breakdown in your relationship — because those were not bad enough — and we really do want to kick you when you are down".

My amendment proposes not to scrap that proposal, although I would like to do so. It is a reasonable amendment, which gives a person one year to find a new job or a new home. Do not punish them from the day and hour they lose their job or when their relationship breaks down. I think this is reasonable. It would be the sign of a Government that understand the needs of people who find themselves unemployed. It would say that the Assembly does not follow the rationale of the Tory welfare cuts, which is to punish people for being unemployed. It would recognise the real-life stories of why people find themselves in those circumstances.

Amendment No 27, and, indeed, my opposition to clause 54, is around the youth provision of employment support allowance (ESA). As I understand it, this is a payment that is received by a very small number of disabled young people. It recognises that, due to age, contributory ESA would not be available to them other than for the provisions in our current welfare legislation. My proposal is that those should continue into the new legislation. My understanding is, and the Minister can clarify this, that the commitment is that those people will not lose out under the current proposals. My proposal, as it has been consistently, is to put that protection in the Bill, but I wait to hear the Minister's proposals in relation to the youth payment of ESA.

Amendment No 5 is around the disability addition, and, again, it comes back to putting the commitment in the Bill that no one will be worse off. As things stand, there would be a reduction in universal credit of £26 per week for families who receive the disability addition. Again, if we are committed to making sure that no one is worse off, we should give a commitment to ensure that the disability addition remains part of universal credit. My proposal is that it should be in the Bill. I wait to hear if the Minister, through the supplementary payments, is committed to ensuring that the families affected will not lose out.


12.00 noon

Amendment No 73 relates to the self-employed and the assumption made in benefit calculations that they receive minimum income. Again, the point was made yesterday evening about wanting to make work pay and incentivising people to work. I do not believe that people who set up their own business really believe, "I am only doing this because I cannot get enough benefits, and if you would just give me more benefits, I would not bother with this whole business stuff; it is quite hard". I think that people who set up their own business are driven, but when the economy takes a downturn and they cannot receive a minimum income, never mind a living wage, from their business, I think that it is right that we do a proper assessment of need, rather than what we somehow think should be the case, which is that if you have a business, you should be earning a minimum income. It is not always the reality, and I think that we should protect those in small businesses and encourage them. When they are doing well, they should come off benefits, and an assessment should be done on that basis, but when things are not going so well, we should not simply say, "Well, we are not going to meet your needs because you are a business person, and we do not want you to become too reliant on benefits", as was suggested yesterday. I do not believe that that is the ambition of anyone who establishes a business.

Amendment No 75, which is the last of the Green Party amendments, is around the full conditionality for work for EU nationals. I have been provided with evidence, I believe that the Committee has been provided with evidence, and I have no doubt that the Minister has been provided with evidence that this clause, as currently drafted, should it be unamended, would breach EU rules. If the Minister has counter-evidence, I would be interested to hear it, but the clause leaves us open to a situation in which two workers employed in the same job in the same company — one from Northern Ireland or elsewhere in the UK and one from outside the UK but still within the European Economic Area (EEA) — become unemployed at the same time, and we treat one differently from the other. It is a bit like what I said about young people in relation to shared accommodation. That is legislating for discrimination. I do not accept that as how I want to see our society.

I have to say that I am disappointed, as this amendment was originally proposed by Anna Lo, who probably could have spoken with much more conviction on this issue, given her experiences of working with ethnic minorities in Northern Ireland. I am disappointed that Alliance has withdrawn from its amendment. I do not believe that it would breach anything that I understand about the Stormont House Agreement, in that it would not incur significant cost, but part of that deal was that it appears that no amendment should be made. As I said, I think that it is regrettable in this case, because there is clearly a minority fighting this cause for minorities. I stand to do that, I believe, with the support of the SDLP, and I welcome that.

I have a few final points. I note with a wry smile the establishment of the discretionary support commissioner. The wry smile is because the party opposite is the champion of the bonfire of the quangos in Northern Ireland, but we see the creation of a new commissioner. I think that it is necessary. I personally believe that commissions and, indeed, commissioners are necessary, and I commend the work of the Children's Commissioner, the Human Rights Commission and the Equality Commission, unlike those opposite, but the next time that they stand up here and make a blanket dismissal of commissions, I will remind them that today they sought to establish the discretionary support commissioner.

Finally, amendment No 42 is on the benefit cap. There are two possibilities on the benefit cap. First, you either believe that benefits are paid on the basis of need. If you do, by proposing a benefit cap, you believe that we are overestimating the need, which is why some people go above that cap. In that case, you need to re-evaluate the whole benefits system. Or secondly, you disagree with the fundamental principle of benefits, which is to meet citizens' basic needs. If that is the case, I wonder why you support welfare at all. I find it hard to understand the rationale of the benefits cap other than that it is a kind of cheap political defence of the welfare system that says, "We cannot stand up and defend it passionately and with conviction, so we will put this artificial cap on, regardless of families' needs, and we will disadvantage people so that we face down some pressure". I would not even say that it is public pressure; I would say that it is media pressure. If you believe in the principle of benefits based on need, I think that the benefits cap is regrettable. I welcome the SDLP's amendment to the clause.

Mr Storey: We will return to the second group of amendments. I trust that we will try to make some progress on this as we move forward.

During yesterday's debate, I covered how clause 4 sets out the basic conditions that must be met for entitlement to universal credit. I am grateful that the Committee Chair indicated his intention not to move the opposition to different clauses in this group. Clause 4 specifies the basic conditions for entitlement to universal credit. Clause 3 states that a claimant must meet those basic conditions, as well as the financial conditions. Therefore, should the tabled amendment to clause 4 be accepted, an amendment would also have to be made to clause 3.

As is the case with social security benefits and tax credits, the claimant will have to meet basic conditions for entitlement to universal credit. Those basic conditions are relevant to the policy and are considered compatible with EU obligations. It would be highly unusual for there to be no basic conditions for entitlement to social security benefits or tax credits, as that would make the system unworkable.

Universal credit is primarily designed to support people of working age who are living in the United Kingdom. Therefore, the purpose of clause 4 is to ensure that people between 18 years of age and the qualifying age for state pension credit who are living in Northern Ireland will receive support appropriate to their circumstances.

Specifying the conditions for entitlement avoids duplication of provision such as the support for students and the state pension credit system. It also limits universal credit to EU nationals who attest a right to reside here and are habitually resident. In addition, acceptance of the claimant commitment will ensure that appropriate work-related requirements are placed on claimants to help them into work.

On amendment No 2, I want to briefly explain what clause 6 does. While I appreciate that it can sometimes be laborious and tedious, I think that, as we work our way through these provisions, it is important to put some factual comments on the record. I have to say that, if yesterday is anything to go by, there is a lot of inaccuracy. If you were to listen to some of the comments that were made in the media this morning, you would see that a lot of people really need to take a long, hard look at some of the things that they have been saying. I will say this: at least some of them had the courtesy to the House to make the comments in the House. Some of them never appeared in the House all day yesterday.

Mr Wilson: Name them.

Mr Storey: Well, Mr McNarry. He was quite capable of going to the media and grandstanding this morning. Where was he yesterday? He never appeared in the House all day. Where is the respect for the House? Where is the respect for the legislative process? That, I think, shows the political grandstanding.

Mr McNarry: Good morning, Minister.

Mr Storey: He was probably watching his monitor, and, as a result, we have at least had one success today in that he has now appeared in the Chamber.

Clause 6 provides regulation-making powers for restrictions on entitlement to universal credit even though the basic and financial conditions are met. Regulations under this clause may also be used to remove entitlement to universal credit where it would exist for only a short period. This avoids the administrative costs of processing an award that could result in only a very small payment.

Similarly, the clause provides for an award to begin only after a specified number of days have elapsed since the date of the claim. We intend to provide for a waiting-days rule, which is a feature of existing out-of-work benefits and operates to limit administrative costs. The clause limits any waiting-day provision to a maximum of seven days. Amendment No 2 seeks to reduce this to three days. The principle behind the waiting-days policy is that benefits are not intended to provide financial support for very brief breaks in employment or brief periods of sickness. Many people come to benefits directly from employment, and it is reasonable to expect them to use prior earnings to budget for an initial period of unemployment.

Jobseeker's allowance and employment and support allowance currently have seven waiting days at the start of a claim, and the intention is to carry that practice forward into universal credit, hence the necessity for the clause. Accepting amendment No 2 would have potential financial implications for the Northern Ireland block grant, as claimants in Northern Ireland would be receiving preferential treatment compared to those in Great Britain. The impact would be difficult to justify and would create the potential for wider and significant equality issues between claimants in Northern Ireland and in Great Britain. For those reasons, I urge Members to reject amendment No 2.

Amendment No 5 relates to clause 10, which provides for an amount to be included in the calculation of a universal credit award for claimants who are responsible for children or qualifying young people. Under the provisions outlined in the Bill as drafted, an additional amount will be paid to universal credit claimants if the dependent child or qualifying young person is disabled. This is consistent with the objectives of universal credit of simplicity and affordability. This element of universal credit will replace child tax credit as the main source of extra support for children in low-income families in and out of work, as now child benefit will remain separate.

Universal credit is designed to simplify the current benefit systems and will therefore not replicate the range of complex premiums currently paid to disabled adults and children. Money saved from abolishing these premiums will be recycled and used to target support for disabled people with the greatest need. The universal credit rate payable to severely disabled children will be higher than the current child tax credit equivalent. However, the lower rate of universal credit disabled child entitlement will be less than the lower rate of child tax credits.

Let me provide assurance to Mr Beggs, who commented on this during his contribution. Families that migrate to universal credit, and those families whose children attract the lower rate of disability element, will receive transitional protection. I am happy to say that to the Member who raised the issue.

There are other provisions within universal credit that complement the policy of simplifying matters. For example, for working parents, there is a higher earnings disregard for those in receipt of a disabled child element, and any household in receipt of disability living allowance or working tax credits will be excluded from the benefit cap. In addition, existing claimants who migrate to universal credit through a managed process will have their award protected by transitional protection. That will ensure that current benefit claimants will not receive less as a result of their move to universal credit, where circumstances remain the same.


12.15 pm

Amendment No 5 specifies that the lower rate should be no less than two thirds of the higher rate. This amendment would seek to retain the current position under tax credits where the disabled child element equates to two thirds of the severely disabled child element.

The stated policy intent for universal credit is to create a simple, streamlined benefits system and to realign arrangements for disabled children with those of disabled adults when they reach the age of 18. This is not a savings exercise but a recognition and refocusing of existing support. Money released as a result of those adjustments will be reinvested in support for the most severely disabled people.

It goes back to my earlier point. I do not want this to become a trite comment. We can have a lot of argy-bargy about the issue. Politics, unfortunately, brings to us all that element of confrontation and the argumentative spirit that seems to be inherent in it. Let us remember that we are talking about children and adults in our community who are disabled. I say this again: let us remember that this is about real people in our communities. In the comments this morning, it was as though we wanted to fight the orange and green battle all over again and, somehow, if you happen to be on the nationalist, republican or green side, you are not entitled to anything, and if you are in the loyalist, unionist or Protestant community, you get nothing. That would be an awful simplification of what we are trying to achieve and an awful disservice. When we focus on this issue, let us try to have some humanity and some sense of the impact that this has on families with disabled children and on disabled adults.

To accept the amendment that the lower rate should be no less than two thirds of the higher rate would reduce the amount of money available for more severely disabled people.

The GB Welfare Reform Act 2012 —

Mr Attwood: Will the Member give way?

Mr Attwood: The Minister has reiterated his commitment to people, and that is accepted. I refer you to your remarks on amendment No 2, when, subject to what Hansard says, you said of claimants that it is reasonable to expect people to carry their own costs for a week before accessing jobseeker's allowance or ESA. Is it reasonable to expect somebody with a lot of children or who is on low pay to carry those costs for a week? In those circumstances, is three days not better and, in any case, would a three-day flexibility not be covered by any headroom that exists or does not exist in the overall notional Northern Ireland welfare cap?

Mr Storey: I thank the Member for his intervention. To clarify, I said that many people come to benefits directly from employment and that it is reasonable to expect them to use prior earnings to budget for an initial period of unemployment. The clause, as I said, limits any waiting-day provision to a maximum of seven days, and amendment No 2 seeks to reduce this to three days. I made those comments in that context. That is not in any way to minimise the concern that the Member has and has raised on a number of occasions.

Mr Attwood: Will the Minister give way?

Mr Attwood: I will press you further. A lot of people get paid in arrears. You and I get paid in arrears — I think. They have spent the money in advance of receiving it. There might not be that much money left to cover the costs for a week, especially if you are low paid and if you have family needs.

Mr Storey: Again, the Member makes a point, but we still have to ensure that, when we put in place this framework, it is practical and deliverable. It is difficult — I think that this point was made even this morning by some — to have a situation where you will, in every eventuality, cover every circumstance.

Mr Wilson: Will the Minister give way?

Mr Wilson: Most people are paid in arrears. Therefore, when people get paid at the end of the week, that is normally the money that they set aside for the next week. The argument that he is making is perfectly valid: if people are coming from employment into unemployment, they have received their last week's wages. Their last week's wages are usually what they use to finance the coming week.

Mr Storey: I thank the Member for those comments. I am sure that the Member opposite will be glad to see that Mr Wilson has now graced the Chamber with his presence. I felt earlier that some Members opposite had withdrawal symptoms because Mr Wilson was not here. I am glad that he is here, and I thank him for those comments.

I will conclude on clause 10. If clause 10 is not allowed to stand part of the Bill, it would mean that we in Northern Ireland would have to consider an alternative means of providing support for children, as the Tax Credits Act 2002 will be repealed when tax credits are fully subsumed into and replaced by universal credit. That will have the effect of disadvantaging people here from obtaining support for children, including those with disabilities. Accepting the amendment would clearly breach existing parity arrangements, and it could have implications for Northern Ireland in relation to the block grant and in relation to utilising the IT system that has been designed for universal credit and is provided through DWP.

Let us remember that the whole issue, a number of months ago was, "Oh, well, we'll just dump welfare reform and go it alone". Remember the costs associated with having a separate IT system. I am glad that we have moved well on. Mr Attwood always says that somewhere lurking in the shadows of all this are the long tentacles of DWP. I remind the Member that we are part of the United Kingdom. The Mother of Parliaments is Westminster. We are United Kingdom citizens, and there is a working relationship. I am very appreciative of the working relationship that we have with DWP. On this issue, and as we roll out the introduction of the changes to our welfare system, we will be very dependent on ensuring that that relationship is as has it has been in the past, given the IT issues and the challenges of changing from one system to another. As we have said, the notion of developing and financing a stand-alone system has long since been set to the side. We know that it was not possible. For those reasons, I urge Members to reject the amendment.

Amendment Nos 6 and 7 relate to clause 11, which provides for an amount to be included for the support of housing costs in universal credit. It enables the award of universal credit to include such an amount if the claimant is liable to make payments on their home in the form of rent, mortgage costs or other housing-related costs. The wider reform agenda will see housing benefit abolished, with the rent element of it being replaced by the housing cost element of the universal credit award. Clause 11 will provide for the continuing provision of housing support for eligible claimants. Clause 11(4) provides for regulations to set out the detailed rules for calculating the amount of housing support payable. As I have indicated, two amendments have been tabled for the clause. I think that it would be helpful to Members if I first explain how I intend to deal with amendment No 6. This amendment refers to:

"a reduction based on the age of the claimant".

There are two age bands in relation to the housing costs element of universal credit; those under 25 and those under 35. A tenant living with a young person aged over 25 will have their housing costs element reduced by £68 a month. This is known as the housing cost contribution. Given that the housing costs element is reduced for those tenants living with a young person aged over 25, I shall deal with the amendment in that context. It has long been a feature of the benefits system that someone living in a claimant’s home should be expected to contribute towards the rent. Under universal credit, there will be a flat-rate deduction known as a housing cost contribution of £68 a month for most adults over 25 years of age. This housing cost contribution will not apply to tenants living with an out-of-work young person or a student aged under 25. Amendment No 6, as drafted, would provide for a 52-week exemption from the use of the housing cost contribution in the situation of a person under 25 who is in work. It is considered right that the entitlement to universal credit, which is an income-related household benefit, should be reduced where there is available income.

Amendment No 7 relates to a run-on in the housing costs element of four weeks after a claimant starts employment. While the housing costs element will continue in payment for those expected to remain in prison for up to six months, it is considered that where there is available income, a run-on would not be appropriate. There would be potential cost implications for the Northern Ireland block grant if these amendments were to be accepted. It would also result in claimants in Northern Ireland being subject to preferential treatment compared with claimants in Great Britain. The impact of this would be difficult to justify and would create the potential for wider and significant equality issues. For these reasons, I urge Members to reject the proposed amendment.

Mr Agnew: I thank the Minister for giving way. He said that citizens in Northern Ireland would be subject to preferential treatment compared with claimants in Great Britain. Surely everyone who receives a supplementary payment as part of a top-up will be in a preferential situation over claimants in Great Britain.

Mr Storey: Yes, but the Member fails to understand a fundamental difference. We are paying for it; it is not affecting what we are paying for. We have made decisions about additions to ensure that we have a Northern Ireland-plus or a GB-plus model, and we are paying for that out of the block grant. Therefore, that is accepted because it does not have an impact on our AME. That is the reason. Let us remember that the first package of measures was agreed by DWP and the Government at Westminster. This package of measures has been endorsed by the Government at Westminster as the outworkings of the agreements that we secured. There needs to be that understanding. When I make those comments about differential treatment, I make them in that context. That is where we can have the justification to do what we are doing, always mindful that we have endeavoured, in these proposals and what is contained in the Bill, to ensure that we retain parity with the rest of the United Kingdom. For those reasons, I urge Members to reject the proposed amendments.

I will move on to amendment No 27. It may be helpful if I summarise exactly what clause 52 does. Employment and support allowance is currently structured into contributory and income–related benefits. If a person does not satisfy the National Insurance conditions for the contributory allowance, they can claim the income–related allowance, provided they satisfy the eligibility criteria. Clause 52 introduces a time limit for the period in which a person in the work-related activity group is entitled to receive contributory ESA.

The proposal is for that limit to be 365 days. That change supports the move towards a simplification of contributory benefits and a fairer benefits system.


12.30 pm

The rates payable are the same for contributory and income-related benefits. ESA claimed on either basis can be paid until state pension age. At present, people can qualify for unlimited contributory ESA on the basis of a small amount of National Insurance paid. However, ESA was never intended to be a benefit for the long term except for the most severely ill or disabled, for whom work is not a viable option. In these cases — for example, those in the support group — ESA will not be time-limited. It will also reinforce the fact that, for the majority, ESA is a temporary benefit, and aligns the rules for the contributory allowance more closely with contributory jobseeker's allowance.

Amendment No 27 proposes the removal of the time-limiting aspect for ESA youth claimants. I reiterate that those in the support group will not be affected by time-limiting. Time-limiting will impact only those in the work-related activity group who are temporarily unable to work because of an illness or disability. There is no objective justification for treating young people any differently from others. Equal treatment should be applied to all claimants, irrespective of age.

As the House will be all too aware, the impact of this measure raised serious concern among a number of Members. However, in accordance with the terms of the Stormont House Agreement, my Department is developing proposals for the provision of additional financial support for those claimants who will be adversely impacted by the time-limiting restriction proposed for ESA. The support will be designed to supplement their incomes as they adjust to the new arrangements. It is my intention to table an amendment at Further Consideration Stage to facilitate that additional financial support. Removing clause 52 would undoubtedly lead to further fines on the Northern Ireland block grant. For these reasons, I urge Members to reject amendment No 27.

I now move to amendment Nos 28 and 29 to clause 54. Clause 54 abolishes the special concessions that allow certain young people to qualify for contributory employment and support allowance without meeting the usual paid National Insurance contribution conditions that apply to all others. This measure applies to new claims only; existing claimants will remain on contributory ESA. However, youth claimants who are in the work-related activity group will be subject to a time limit of 365 days. Those in the support group will be unaffected, as will anyone receiving income-related ESA, whichever group they are assigned to.

The normal rules are that a person must have paid or been credited with sufficient National Insurance contributions in the tax years that are relevant to the claim in order to qualify for contributory allowance. There are special conditions for young people who are exempt from meeting the usual paid National Insurance conditions. These provide that a person aged 16 to 19, or under 25 in certain prescribed circumstances, who is not in full-time education and has had limited capability for work for 196 consecutive days will be entitled to contributory ESA. Clause 54 repeals these provisions of the Welfare Reform Act (Northern Ireland) 2007 and prevents new claims for contributory allowance being made on the specific grounds of youth from the date the clause comes into operation. After that, people who would have benefited from the concession will be required to meet the usual contribution conditions that apply to all contributory ESA claims.

As I previously stated, there is no objective justification for treating young people any differently. No other age group can qualify for contributory ESA without having paid, or being treated as having paid, National Insurance contributions, nor does any other contributory benefit have similar arrangements. The vast majority of claimants who receive contributory ESA on the grounds of youth — around 90% — are expected to receive income-related ESA. Those who do not qualify for that are likely to have capital in excess of £16,000 or a partner in full-time work who may be entitled to working tax credit. This change is another step in simplifying the benefit system to facilitate the introduction of universal credit.

Clause 54 does not prevent claimants under 20 from making claims for ESA. The only change is that they will have to meet the same conditions as everyone else who applies. If they have not paid sufficient contributions, they will be assessed for income-related ESA rather than contribution-based ESA, both of which are paid at the same rate. Amendment No 28 adds the words:

"unless the claimant had made contributions before the commencement of this Act".

Those words are not required as the claimant will qualify under the normal rules if he has paid sufficient National Insurance contributions. This clause only amends the special conditions for young people.

Amendment No 29 adds additional words to paragraph 4 of schedule 1 to the Welfare Reform Act (Northern Ireland) 2007, which would require the claimant to have limited capability for work after the assessment phase had ended. Limited capability for work is one of the conditions of entitlement a claimant must satisfy before he is eligible for an ESA award. Therefore, the additional words are unnecessary. The purpose of schedule 1 is to describe the conditions of entitlement to a contributory ESA award relating to National Insurance contributions, with the special conditions for youth being set out in paragraph 4.

The clause has also been opposed. Removing the clause would enable youth claimants to continue be treated more beneficially than claimants of any other age, and I have already indicated that there is no objective justification for such treatment. For those reasons, I urge Members to reject amendment Nos 28 and 29.

Clauses 61, 62 and 63 ensure that claimants can receive contributory jobseeker’s allowance, contributory employment and support allowance, maternity allowance or statutory payments only if they are entitled to be in employment in the United Kingdom. There was never any policy intention for a person with no entitlement to work in the UK to receive out-of-work benefits, and this new condition of entitlement will ensure that that situation can no longer arise. It is important to protect the public purse by only paying benefits when and to whom it is appropriate to do so. I urge Members to reject the opposition to those three clauses.

Clause 69 introduces size criteria into the calculation of housing benefit for working age tenants in the social housing sector. I am well aware of all the discussion, debate and concern that there is around this particular clause. I will work my way through this and trust that this will be of benefit.

I recognise that what is proposed represents a major change for social sector tenants. However, I am also acutely aware that we, as a society, must act to reduce the spiralling costs of housing benefit and restore fairness to the system. It is manifestly unfair that the rate of housing benefit that tenants in the private rented sector receive is related to the size of dwelling the claimant needs when no restrictions are placed on those in the social housing sector. In considering how best to move forward, I have focused on balancing the need to protect people and communities from the worst aspects of the policy with the need to ensure that we make the best use of our limited social housing stock and do not implement measures that hinder, or even discourage, mobility.

Rather than removing the clause from the legislation, I have discussed with Executive colleagues if and how the discretionary housing payments budget can be further enhanced so that tenants will not be impacted until such times as the housing stock matches the need.

There are members of the Northern Ireland Executive in the House, and there is a five-party party agreement among the Executive. I say that just in case it has somehow been lost in the midst of all that has been said over the last 24 hours. The Executive have agreed to create a separate fund of £17 million per annum that will mitigate the impact of this measure by protecting existing and future tenants from any reduction in their housing benefit unless there is a significant change in their personal circumstances or they are offered suitable alternative accommodation. Officials are developing —

Mr Agnew: Will the Minister give way?

Mr Storey: Just let me conclude on this. It is important, because there was an accusation from some yesterday that there have been yet again very secret and suspicious discussions and that we are all in a big plot and plan somehow. Of course, I am the one who has to implement it. Let me be open and transparent and tell Members what has been agreed.

The Executive have agreed the fund, and officials in my Department are developing a scheme that will go to the Executive for agreement prior to public consultation. The outcomes of this consultation will form the basis for the subordinate legislation. In accordance with the terms of the Stormont House Agreement, my Department is developing its proposals for the provision of additional, enhanced DHP support for claimants who will be adversely impacted through the introduction of this measure. I advise Members that, at Further Consideration Stage, I will be bringing forward an amendment to facilitate this.

Mr Agnew: I thank the Minister for giving way. Obviously, when I discussed this issue, there was some confusion. I think that he has cleared it up, and I just want to confirm that. The policy is that a mitigation fund will be put in place until such time as the housing stock is suitable in order that we implement the bedroom tax. Is that what the Minister is saying? It is important that this matter is made clear.

Mr Storey: Let me repeat to the Member because maybe he did not hear. We have created a separate fund of £17 million per annum that will mitigate the impact of the measure by protecting existing and future tenants from any reduction in their housing benefit. There is no secret that we have to balance that against the reality, so it is unless there is a significant change in their personal circumstances or they are afforded suitable alternative accommodation. We will see that in developing the scheme, which will really be a replication of the discretionary housing payments that are in existence.

Let me come to a point that the Member made earlier. It was as though there is somehow no need for us to look at housing and single-bedroom properties in certain locations. If I look at his constituency, I see that the breakdown of applicants in housing stress in North Down is that 35% of those on the waiting list are looking for single-bedroom accommodation. There is a need. That is an issue that we will have to deal with.

If I can devote some more time to my other responsibilities, as I have been doing while waiting on getting agreement on bringing the Bill to the House, I will want to move on the issue of the long-term sustainable future of the Housing Executive. I want to address the nature of what we do and the way in which we do our business so that we can continue to build, to improve and to ensure that, as far as my responsibilities and those of my Department are concerned, we have good quality homes for people in Northern Ireland, irrespective of where they live. There will be mixed provision and not only one-, two- or three-bedroom properties. That is what we ought to be about. That is a long-term challenge and a long-term issue for the Executive.


12.45 pm

Mr Agnew: I appreciate the Minister giving way again. I want to be clear about my objection. As far as I can tell, the Minister has laid out that there will be a discretionary payment for those who cannot find alternative suitable accommodation but who are in a house that is deemed to be greater than their needs. He has made it clear that he intends to improve the housing stock in its diversity and the number of bedrooms.

What I was trying to make clear in my submission was that there are those who, like the Minister, subscribe to the policy that if there is smaller accommodation for a person and their needs change, they should move. However, there are others who said that they disagreed with that policy, yet they have signed up to it. It is them who I am trying to expose when I seek to make it clear that this is essentially a phased introduction of the bedroom tax. That is what it is; plain and simple. It is a phased introduction, but it is still being introduced in Northern Ireland.

Mr Storey: The Member should ask others about that and not the Minister. There is another issue. One of the practical reasons why we need to retain clause 69 is so that the calculation can be made when we come to implement the scheme. If clause 69 was not in the Bill, I would have a huge difficulties in making that calculation.

Let us dispense with the myth that, somehow, we are, in some clandestine way, trying to introduce the bedroom tax. There are practical considerations. I know that the Member maybe struggles to get his head around the issue, but dealing with a five-party mandatory coalition ain't easy. There are also challenges and difficulties in trying to transcribe legislation from the House of Commons into Northern Ireland legislation. There are also the practical implications of how you want to get to a certain point. Sometimes, it is easier to allow something to remain in the primary legislation. That will allow us to work out the calculation for how we would use or pay for the fund that we will set out to the Executive and the House over the next number of weeks. For those reasons —

Mr Attwood: Will the Minister give way?

Mr Storey: I will, but I want to make some progress. I will give way to the Member if he is brief, if that is possible.

Mr Attwood: The Minister was right to identify the long-term issue of the profile of the housing stock in Northern Ireland. In the short term, the critical question is this: if someone decides that there is a significant change in a tenant's personal circumstances and there is suitable alternative accommodation, and the tenant says that they do not wish to move from their three-bedroom house, will they be subject to the bedroom tax?

Mr Storey: That will be dependent on how we develop the scheme. I have heard a lot of comment in the last 24 hours that people want us to be definitive about every individual single issue. There is no doubt about what will happen. There will be those who, for their own political reasons — if they could recognise what a benefit claim form was, in some cases — will bring out examples and say, "You said there wasn't going to be this. Well, here is the evidence." Let us remember that we are dealing with a complex situation and with families who face a variety of challenging and complex circumstances. Not everybody's family is as unified as we would like them to be. Families today are more diverse. I say this on a personal basis: there are things that happen in our families that we would have preferred were not the case, but we have to deal with those circumstances and situations. If there were no protection and no structure for those circumstances to be dealt with, you would come to this House and say that we have no systems, safeguards or security.

I cannot give this House a blank cheque so that, in every set of circumstances in relation to all the issues that we are dealing with, every one of them will be dealt with in exactly the same way. Do you know the reason why? Every one of those circumstances will not be exactly the same. We have only just got through the issues in relation to ESA; it is complex. Those are things that we have to deal with. I ask the Member to give us the indulgence to ensure that we are in a position to develop the scheme. Officials are doing that, and I hope to be in a position to see the proposals relatively soon. That will go to the Executive and will, I trust, give some clarity.

I want to move on to amendment No 42. The amendment seeks to revise which benefits are included in the calculation of the benefit cap. The proposal is to remove child benefit, carer's allowance and any benefits or components of benefits received for caring responsibilities. The primary objective of the cap is to tackle the culture of welfare dependency by setting a clear limit on what people can expect to get from the benefits system. It is important that the benefits system is fair and seen to be fair, not just to benefit recipients but to the taxpayers who pay for our welfare system. It is neither reasonable nor fair that households in receipt of out-of-work benefits should receive a greater income from benefits than working households earning the average weekly wage.

This clause will allow us to prescribe in regulations how the benefits cap will operate. The cap will apply to the combined income from the main out-of-work benefits: jobseeker's allowance; income support; employment and support allowance; housing benefit; child benefit and child tax credit; and other benefits, such as carer's allowance. Households that include a member who is receiving disability living allowance will be exempt. This is in recognition that disability living allowance is paid to people to help with extra costs arising from their disability.

For carers, the benefits system is designed to provide financial support where caring responsibilities prevent carers from working full time. As such, it is only right that carer's allowance should be counted alongside other income-maintenance benefits. Child benefit is an allowance that is paid to help with the expense of raising a child. As such, it should also be counted alongside other income-maintenance benefits.

Initially, the benefit cap will be delivered through housing benefit payments, so households that are not getting housing benefit will not have the cap applied. Ultimately, it will be administered as part of the new universal credit system. To amend the list of benefits that are included in the calculation of the benefit cap would be a clear breach of parity and would result in a financial penalty to the Northern Ireland block grant.

However, as I have stated previously, in accordance with the terms of the Stormont House Agreement, my Department is developing proposals for the provision of additional financial support to claimants who will be adversely impacted by welfare reform, including the benefit cap. I will bring a paper to the Executive — I hope in the near future — setting out how far it is proposed to move forward with welfare reform, including the modalities of implementing the different schemes agreed in the Stormont House Agreement. I propose to bring forward an enabling clause for these schemes at Further Consideration Stage.

At this time, my Department is working through the various payment scenarios for assistance from the supplementary payment scheme. I accept that there are many families across Northern Ireland who have exceptional needs and require to be paid more benefit. However, my party voted for the benefit cap in the House of Commons, and we believe that families on benefits should not receive more than working families. The SDLP's proposal would only increase the number of benefits, which could lead to exclusions from the benefit cap, and that will lead to additional costs for the block grant because it will bring in a difference between the social security systems here and Great Britain. For those reasons, I urge Members to reject the amendment.

In amendment Nos 48 and 50, the proposal is to insert a new clause to impose a duty on the Department to ensure that all claimants have access to independent advice on making a claim under the Act. I know that this issue has had considerable debate and discussion. DSD has lead responsibility on behalf of government for voluntary information and advice services in Northern Ireland. Through 'Opening Doors: the Strategy for the Delivery of Voluntary Advice Services to the Community', the Department has already put in place arrangements to support a comprehensive, integrated, quality service across Northern Ireland within a framework to ensure that services are planned and delivered in a way that matches resources to need, focusing particularly on meeting the needs of the most disadvantaged. Through 'Opening Doors', the Department already invests a substantial amount of money — in the region of £4·5 million annually — in the issue, to maximise access to advice provision and ensure that independent advice is accessible and available to all, free at the point of need and targeted to support the most vulnerable in our society.

Over recent years, my Department has developed a new approach for our funding and business relationships with the advice sector, particularly organisations providing general voluntary advice, which includes benefit advice. The advice sector at local level, which provides general advice services, are moving to become the responsibility of local government. Therefore, that duty would eventually be on local councils. I have concerns that the current amendments will also place a statutory duty on councils, since they will have the responsibilities for those services. This is driven by the objectives outlined in 'Opening Doors' and is influenced by a number of factors: the need to maximise the impact of our funding investment and the need for a more structured and coordinated approach to supporting those who need to access advice services.

As a result, the main advice support organisations operating in Northern Ireland — Citizens Advice, Advice NI, the Law Centre (NI) — have been contracted to work in partnership arrangements known as the Northern Ireland Advice Services Consortium. I am conscious of the potential impact of welfare reform, and my officials are engaging with the consortium to discuss how we can work alongside the advice sector to best support customers through the implementation of welfare reform. Indeed, I met the consortium, and we had a very useful, cordial and constructive conversation on the issue. The advice consortium has a key role to play in building and supporting the capacity and capability of front-line advice providers; securing joined-up, targeted, service delivery; exploring alternative funding streams; and maximising the impact of the substantial resources that the Department has invested in advice.


1.00 pm

(Mr Speaker in the Chair)

As an immediate priority, the consortium is working to develop an agreed methodology for monitoring and take-up of advice services. We are also working closely with the consortium and local councils to better understand the impact of our existing investment, bringing a more robust approach to the targeting and prioritisation of support. This will present a key opportunity to monitor the impact of the welfare reforms and other government changes on advice services, and it will allow government to respond in circumstances where specific need or changing demand has been identified and evidenced. This links closely with our commitment in the Opening Doors framework to work in partnership with the advice sector, maximising access to quality services and bringing a structured approach to resourcing the sector.

The Department has just completed a widespread consultation with the advice sector on a new strategy that details the priority for the immediate future. This is real partnership working together, rather than a relationship based on statute. It is important that the voluntary sector is not seen as part of government, and that is one of the issues that I have around placing it on a statutory basis, because it is vital for me and for the Administration that the voluntary sector is not seen to be part and parcel of government or that somehow we have a command-and-control mechanism in place. They need to retain their independence and be seen to be independent of the Executive. Placing them under a statutory provision would potentially compromise that position. I have taken on board the concerns that have been raised by Mr Attwood. We have had a discussion on it — it has also been raised by other Members — and I have given, I trust, a sufficient assurance that the needs, the structure and the delivery of independent advice are met and secured in a way that people have confidence in.

The question that is raised in my mind is this: what are the current problems that we have that are so pressing that they have led to a requirement for the demand for it to be placed on a statutory basis? Members could be coming to me and saying, "Here is the list of huge problems and huge difficulties, and your Department has not given us a penny". I listened to the comments made by the Member for East Belfast in relation to the amount of money that goes into that area, and I pay credit and commend in the House today the organisations in east Belfast that have drawn down huge amounts of money into their community. That can be replicated across many other parts of Northern Ireland.

I believe that the £4·5 million that my Department gives to the independent advice sector is having an effect. Can we do more? Can we do it better? That is why the work that we continue to do with the sector — I give a commitment to continue to work with that sector — will intensify, but I do not believe, at this minute in time, that we are in need of a legislative framework that could create difficulties and — this is another point — could lead to a significant increase in the costs of the provision of that service. We would have to be very careful about that. Let us remember that there are many out there who like to make industries of certain things. I think that that has not happened with the advice sector as it is currently constructed because it has been a voluntary partnership between government and those organisations.

I think that, if we place it on a statutory footing in legislation, we could get ourselves into more challenging times. For those reasons, I urge Members to reject the amendments.

Amendment No —

Mr Attwood: Will the Minister give way?

Mr Attwood: I suggest to the Minister that the argument that somehow creating a statutory right to advice captures the advice sector in government is not the best of arguments. Citizens have the right to independent legal advice if they are arrested. I am sure that nobody is suggesting that David Ford has somehow captured the legal profession when it comes to its actions, given the events of recent days and months.

Are you minded at all, Minister, given your forthright remarks on the matter, to consider a further amendment at Further Consideration Stage?

Mr Storey: I will give consideration to the comments that have already been made to me, and, between now and Further Consideration Stage, I will give further consideration to the particular issue. I have already mentioned the elements on which I will bring further amendments at Further Consideration Stage. I think that that will require us to have discussions in a way that tries to tease out not only the issue but the benefits of making a particular amendment. I take on board the comment that has been put to me, and I will reflect further on the issue over the next few weeks.

Amendment No 51 introduces proposed new clause 130A, which provides for discretionary support assistance replacing elements of what is currently the social fund.

Mr Brady: Thank you, Minister, for giving way. I want to clarify something that I said last night. Essentially, discretionary support assistance will replace the social fund, which, in Britain, has been abolished. It has gone to local councils, and there are all sorts of difficulties with that. I do not want to pre-empt your comments on amendment No 52, which is about the discretionary support commissioner, but Mr Agnew seemed to suggest that that was some sort of quango being set up. Perhaps he did not grasp the significance of it. The Social Fund Commissioner was independent and a very important part of the process of ensuring that the most vulnerable had access to community care grants and, in some cases, budget loans, and so on, where the local office had turned people down. The social fund inspectors did a very good job, and it seems to me that this particular role will replace a very important post and give an independent dimension to discretionary support. Moreover, and you can agree with this, Minister, if you want, discretionary support will also include people on low income. As far as we are concerned, that is an innovative step.

Mr Storey: I thank the Member. I was waiting for the opportunity to reply to Mr Agnew on the issue because he made some other comments that I am quite happy to address. The Member is absolutely right about the social fund and the Office of the Social Fund Commissioner. What we are doing is simply replacing what was already there; it is not the creation of a new position. I will deal with that issue because I want to make a few comments about some of the quangos that are acting disgracefully in Northern Ireland at the minute. Therefore, we will come to that.

I want to say a word of thanks and appreciation to the Member for the work that he has done. Depending on what happens on 7 May, he may be leaving this House and going to the House of Commons, I hope to take up his seat. That is an issue for him and his colleagues. He has made a contribution to the Committee through his knowledge of many of the things that we are discussing. Over many years, he knew what it was to work with people on a day-to-day basis. I think that that knowledge was clearly seen in the work that he carried out when the Committee was scrutinising my Department's policy. I would like to see it return to that as quickly as possible.

Moving on to the issues on amendment No 51, proposed new clause 130A would provide for the discretionary support assistance, replacing elements of what is currently the social fund. I will explain in a moment how that clause is intended to be used, but first I would like to set out some of the broader context and the rationale for those changes. Again, I know that this can become laborious, but I think that, when we have comment in the public domain that is sometimes ill-informed, ill-advised and inaccurate, it is important that we lay out the facts of those things in the House, which has the responsibility for the legislation. I know that that will not stop some people who never let truth get in the way of a good story, but that is an issue that they have to deal with.

In Northern Ireland, the need for immediate support to those facing emergency financial situations is already higher than in any other part of the UK. I know that from my constituency, where there are particular issues and times when you can see a rise in the demand for services that are provided for under the social fund as it exists. That is due to a combination of factors, but it is primarily because of the higher levels of people here who live in poverty. In comparison with the United Kingdom as a whole, Northern Ireland also has a persistently higher proportion of people who are concentrated just above the poverty line and at risk of falling into poverty.

It is not only those relying on benefits who find themselves needing help to relieve emergency situations. Figures show that, in Northern Ireland, over two fifths of individuals living in low-income households are part of a family where at least one adult is either in full-time or part-time work. For all those low-income groups, reliance on temporary support in emergency situations is expected to continue, if not to increase.

There are also serious consequences for greater and longer-term costs to the public service if an effective response to immediate need is not available. There are very real risks for long-term health and social care costs, and there are consequences where the interests of households with children are threatened or where individuals are left without the fundamentals such as food, clothing, heat and housing.

In the past, the greater element of discretionary support has been delivered through the social fund in the form of community care grants, crisis loans for living expenses and household items, and budgeting loans as part of the social security system. The proposed repeal of certain social fund services will mean the removal of community care grants and crisis loans for living expenses and household items from that system. That has prompted the Department to develop a new provision for Northern Ireland.

The objectives of the new provision are to alleviate the most exceptional, extreme or crisis situations that present significant risk to the health, safety or well-being of low-income and vulnerable households through the provision of practical support; to ensure that those facing the most extreme hardship as a result of the adjustment to the changes to the social security regime are supported in their efforts towards self-dependency where access to discretionary support would avoid or reduce major risk or life-threatening circumstances; to maximise the effectiveness of discretionary support by ensuring that people in such circumstances have timely and appropriate access to and support from the range of government-funded general and specialist information and advice services to minimise the risk of re-occurrence; to support greater self-reliance and independence; and to improve social and financial inclusion.

Responding to such need will require a new provision that is responsive and flexible and that ensures a rapid and effective response to the most immediate needs through the provision of a range of interventions to relieve immediate need, to support and facilitate greater self-reliance, and to promote and support personal responsibility. Collaboration with other statutory services to ensure a proper assessment of individual need will also be required.


1.15 pm

The new provision has been designed to ensure that support is properly targeted to address the highest-priority need of those on low income. It will not replicate the social fund, but it will reflect its strengths in ensuring a speedy response to emergency or crisis situations, including its local accessibility, its flexibility in meeting a wide variety of needs and its independent review mechanisms. The Social Security Agency, in designing the new provision, has used a number of key design principles that emerged from phase 1 of the social fund research study. Those have been endorsed by the Social Development Committee, and I know that it spent some time on that issue.

The new provision’s response to immediate need, as experienced by low-income and vulnerable individuals and/or households, will also allow for a range of practical interventions. Those will include the direct provision of financial awards, primarily through interest-free repayable loans. However, the provision of non-repayable grants will remain as an important element of support in the most extreme cases. Other interventions may, however, include, either directly or through third parties, the provision of goods and services. That may include essential equipment to relieve immediate household needs.

An important aspect of the new provision is the recognition that those finding themselves in the most extreme financial emergencies can also benefit from readily available specialist advice and information provided by a range of government and community providers. Referral to such advice, with the customer’s consent, will form an important element of the discretionary support provision.

Encouraging independence through effective use of discretionary support is an important part of the new provisions and is a vital element in building a stronger economy and tackling poverty and disadvantage. Discretionary support is about supporting people, protecting the vulnerable appropriately but also encouraging self-efficiency. I urge Members to accept amendment No 51.

I turn now to amendment No 52, which introduces new clause 130B, which defines the recruitment, role and responsibilities of the discretionary support commissioner and their staff. I trust that Mr Agnew is paying attention to this element, as it will rectify a comment that he made earlier. An important aspect of the discretionary support provision is the need for an independent review mechanism of decisions.

Under the social fund, the independent review service is provided by the Office of the Social Fund Commissioner for Northern Ireland. That will be replaced by the office of the discretionary support commissioner. The rules for the new independent external review will be similar to the current review process under the social fund. So, rather than us endorsing a new quango, we are replacing what is already there. Given what I have seen some of the quangos in Northern Ireland do recently, for example, the Equality Commission, I would love to be in a position to ensure that they are curtailed in the way in which they do their business. Of course, we had the charade in this House the other day when a Member tried to give the impression that he was taking the Equality Commission on, but we all know now that when the appropriate amendment should have been placed in the Budget process, that was not done. So, a lot of people want to seem to give the impression that they are really taking these things on, but, in reality, they are only trying to placate their own position and present a narrative that they know is not the case.

I notice that the Member said that he would remind us when we say that we want to reduce the overall number of quangos. He will come back to this point and tell the DUP and me that, "Well, you created a new quango". The reality is that we are replacing what is already there. You have heard from the Member opposite that, if we were not to do this, there would be a call from Members in the House — "How will we deal with the issue? How will we address these concerns?" — and rightly so.

Mr Agnew: Will the Minister give way?

Mr Storey: I will give way when I am finished.

It is clear that what we are doing here is replacing what already exists; no more, no less.

Mr Agnew: I thank the Minister for giving way. I was clear that I have no problem with the proposed commission. It is not me or my party that is so critical of existing commissions. He said that this simply replaces what is already there. Is he therefore saying that it will exist within the same footprint — ie there will be no greater costs?

Mr Storey: Sometimes, you wonder where some Members come from on these things. The rules for the new independent external review will be similar to the current review process under the social fund. I assume that the issue will be the same when it comes to the way in which it is funded. What I will do, so that there is clarity for the Member, is give him further information on the costs. That will, I trust, be of help and benefit to him. I do not have that information in front of me, and there is no point in trying to bluff my way out of it. That is the reality, and that is where we are.

Amendment No 73 proposes the removal of the ability to treat a person as having a prescribed level of income. Let me explain why we would want to treat a person as having a prescribed level of income. Universal credit will provide support for people who are self-employed only where self-employment is the best route for them to become financially self-sufficient. A safeguard is being built in so that universal credit does not end up subsidising people undertaking unprofitable activities. The safeguard will be in the form of a minimum income floor.

The minimum income floor will set a minimum level of assumed income from self-employment. The minimum income floor is designed to provide a fair incentive for the self-employed to increase their earnings and productivity and realise their financial potential. The earnings expectations of self-employed claimants under universal credit mirror those expected of claimants of similar circumstances in employed work. For example, the minimum income floor for claimants expected to be able to work full-time will be equivalent to 35 hours per week at the national minimum wage.

It is right that universal credit should support people to be self-employed, but only in so far as self-employment is the best route for them to become financially self-sufficient. If claimants are within one year of starting out in self-employed activity, they will be eligible for a start-up period. This will mean that newly self-employed claimants will be exempt from reaching the minimum income floor for a period of one year, and their universal credit payments will be calculated according to their actual income rather than assumed income. This is one start-up period for self-employment of 12 months every five years where the claimant has ceased the previous activity and started a new business. Further, when we migrate people to universal credit who are already running their own business, we will provide a similar six-month grace period before they need to make any adjustments under universal credit.

If amendment No 73 were accepted, it would mean that there would be no incentive for those who are self-employed on a low income to increase their earnings through developing their self-employment. The minimum income floor will assume a level of income for the self-employed based on the earnings that we expect a claimant with similar circumstances in employment to achieve. For these reasons, I urge Members to reject amendment No 73.

Amendment No 75 removes paragraph 7 of schedule 1. The paragraph gives the Department the power to make regulations specifying the work-related requirements for claimants who are asserting a right to reside in the United Kingdom on the basis that they are EU jobseekers under EU treaties. By way of background, I should explain that people coming to the United Kingdom from EU countries do not have unrestricted access to UK social security benefits and tax credits. Since 2004, access to most benefits for EU nationals has depended on whether they have a right to reside here, and, for most benefits, the right-to-reside requirement is part of the habitual residence test.

Having a right to reside does not simply mean that a person can live in a particular country. Broadly speaking, a person who moves from one EU country to another has a right to reside if they are economically active or are able to support themselves. That means that not all EU nationals will have a right to reside even though they can exercise free movement rights, such as migrants moving from one country to another claiming benefits. Only certain categories of person moving within the EU will have certain guaranteed rights attached to their residence in the host country. That is what is meant by EU nationals having a right to reside.

Since 2006, all EU nationals have had a right to reside in the UK for three months without the requirement to be financially self-sufficient. However, access to benefits during that three-month period will not satisfy the right-to-reside test. Those who have a right of residence after the initial three-month period include workers or self-employed persons and their families and students and their families, provided that they can support themselves. EU nationals may also have a right to reside straight away as a jobseeker if they can show that they are looking for work and have a genuine chance of being engaged. Family members of jobseekers also have a right to reside. To have a right to reside as a jobseeker, a person needs to be registered with the jobs and benefits office/social security office and sign on as available for and seeking work. A person with a right to reside as a jobseeker may claim income-related jobseeker's allowance, which can give them entitlement to housing benefit.

Although the power under paragraph 7 is quite wide, we only wish to exercise it in relation to EU jobseekers. We do not intend to exercise the power in relation to EU self-employed, and, in relation to EU workers, we only intend to exercise it in relation to those who retain worker status because they become involuntarily unemployed and therefore need to seek employment to continue to retain their worker status. The regulations will enable us to check that an EU jobseeker is, in fact, searching for work and available for work and that they therefore continue to meet the right-to-reside test. If someone claims to be an EU jobseeker without actually searching for work, they will no longer satisfy the right-to-reside test. An EU claimant who does not have the right to reside will not be eligible for universal credit. That is because universal credit is treated as a social assistance and is not payable to EU nationals without a right to reside.

The crucial point is that we are only exercising the power to enable us to check whether an EU claimant continues to enjoy a right to reside as a jobseeker. Without the power to verify whether a claimant is seeking work, we would be unable to verify whether they continue to have a right to reside under EU law. While we have a legal duty to provide support to people who come to Northern Ireland in line with national and international obligations, it is also necessary to protect the taxpayer and the benefit system. There is a need to make sure that the rules that apply when people from outside come here do not allow them to take inappropriate advantage of the benefit system. Members will understand and appreciate that that is the issue. Without that provision in the Bill, the Department would be unable to check if an EU national with work status met the right-to-reside test. Accepting amendment No 75 would be a clear breach of parity. There would be potential implications for the Northern Ireland block grant, and it would result in EU claimants in Northern Ireland being subject to preferential treatment in comparison with EU claimants in Great Britain.

I have tried to cover most of the issues raised by Members. Mr Lyttle, who is not in his place, raised the issue of victims and survivors. I trust that, at some length in the House yesterday, I gave reassurances on that. The Member, when he hears of this being referred to in the debate, will be able to find my comments on the issue in Hansard. I draw my remarks on the group 2 amendments to a conclusion.

Mr Speaker: Thank you, Minister. As there was no formal suspension for lunch agreed by the Business Committee, I propose by leave of the House to suspend proceedings at this point. The sitting will be suspended until 2.00 pm, when the next Member to speak will be the Chairperson of the Committee for Social Development, Mr Alex Maskey, to make the winding-up speech.

The sitting was suspended at 1.31 pm and resumed at 2.01 pm.

Mr Maskey (The Chairperson of the Committee for Social Development): Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I have not always played to a packed House, but this probably beats the record.

I will wind up on the group 2 debate by restricting my comments to the comments made in respect of the, I think, 14 amendments in the group rather than the Committee's opposition to the clauses. I have already outlined the reasons for that. Of course, the Minister's remarks are well on the record for people to consider. A number of Members have sought clarity and some further information from the Minister. That is on the record for all those who sought it.

Dolores Kelly spoke about amendment No 2 to clause 6, which aims to reduce the number of waiting days for entitlement from seven days to three. That was supported by Mr Attwood. Roy Beggs, on the other hand, indicated that he was not convinced of the merits of such a change. He suggested that it would place an administrative and cost burden on the Department. Sammy Wilson made comparison with people who may have to work a lying week before they get their first week's wages. He was not in favour of the amendment. This is just to illustrate the variety of views. I point out that, when the Committee considered the issue, it had concerns that the clause might have an impact on passported benefits, but it was assured by the then Minister that the award notice would give claimants their underlying entitlement. The Committee was assured that those issues would also be addressed by way of regulations.

Mrs Kelly stated her party's support for amendment No 5 to clause 10. Mr Beggs, on the other hand, did not support the amendment and felt that there was a lack of clarity on the estimated costs associated with the amendment. He referred to transitional support that is already provided. Mr Agnew noted that there should be provision to protect families under the clause. He wanted to hear the Minister's views. Some of the comments that were made reflect the Committee's concerns about clause 10 when we considered it two years ago. The Committee, for example, had a particular concern about the child tax credit being reduced from £57 per week to £28 per week, which would impact on families with a disabled child. Of course, as we know, the Stormont House Agreement has made new arrangements. That concern, by and large, has been addressed by that agreement. The Minister also referred to aspects of that.

Mrs Kelly voiced her support for Mr Agnew's amendment Nos 6 and 7 to clause 11. Mr Beggs opposed those amendments and stated that there are choices to be made in respect of what issues are deemed to be priorities and that that needs to be taken into account. Mr Agnew's amendments in relation to clause 11, which relates to housing, refer to the periods within which payments should be made to a claimant. Mr Agnew said that amendment No 7 will protect people who have been paying rent through housing benefit, and he noted that this was about making work pay. He also said that he believed that it was reasonable to have a transitional payment. Furthermore, he said that clause 11 potentially discriminates against young people, and that young persons should be given one year to address their unfortunate circumstances.

Amendment No 27 would amend clause 52 in relation to the period of entitlement to contributory allowance. It was supported by Mr Agnew and Mrs Kelly. Mrs Kelly said that she awaited the Minister's response on the possibility of an extension to the period. I believe that Mr Beggs indicated that his party would not support the amendment. Mr Brady referred to the potential of ongoing discussions to extend the period and, again, noted that under the Stormont House Agreement the period of ESA would be extended. Mr Agnew said that he wanted to hear from the Minister on the matter. As I said in my opening remarks, the Committee, in its report, asked the then Minister to explore the possibility of extending the period to more than 12 months, and that has been done, secured and agreed.

Clause 54 concerns a condition relating to youth. The SDLP and Mr Agnew have tabled, respectively, amendment Nos 28 and 29 to clause 54. Mrs Kelly indicated that she awaited the Minister's response with interest; hopefully, the Minister's response has satisfied that. Mr Wilson asked why young people should be treated differently from anyone else. He noted that the age that was specified was to encourage young people into work as opposed to going into the benefits system. Again, I believe that Mr Beggs was not supportive of the amendments and felt that they needed clarification by Mr Agnew.

The Committee considered clause 54 and had a number of concerns. It noted that no new claims would be allowed when the clause came into operation and was particularly concerned, then, about the impact that that would have on young people with disabilities. I remind Members that the Department advised the Committee that almost 97% of the people to whom the provision currently applies would not be affected by the change and that new claimants may qualify for income-related ESA. This has also been dealt with, to a large extent, by way of the Stormont House Agreement arrangements.

Issues relating to housing are among the most contentious in the Bill, it would seem, and certainly have been some of the most talked about in the media. Mrs Kelly noted her party's opposition to clause 69 and welcomed the Green Party's support in opposing it. She also mentioned that the Labour Party in Britain had said that it would abolish it if it is in government after the May elections. She made a number of other comments of a political nature that I do not really want to go into.

Stewart Dickson focused most of his comments on this issue and suggested that people on housing benefit had been demonised. He referred to the nature of accommodation here and the problems that that throws up and to the fact that the evidence in Britain shows that the policy has led to an increase in rent arrears. Again, I note that a range of special measures agreed with the British Government in the Stormont House Agreement have been taken on board to deal with the matter.

Mr Attwood also mentioned clause 69. Whatever about people's views of how it has been addressed, Members nevertheless acknowledged that the matter has been addressed at least to the point where people who would have been subject to the bedroom tax burden will not have to endure that as a result of the Stormont House Agreement.

The SDLP proposed amendment No 42 in relation to a benefit cap. Mrs Kelly noted her party's concern that the cap of £26,000 was likely to be reduced further. That is speculative but probably well informed. If a Conservative Government is elected in May, that figure may be reduced to a figure as low as £18,000. She obviously knows that that could affect thousands of families here, and her particular concern was about the potential impact on children.

Roy Beggs noted that, while he believed that the SDLP meant well in proposing the amendment, he felt that any change to the benefit cap should be made in Westminster for all of what he described as the UK. Sammy Wilson noted that he did not have any great sympathy with the amendment to remove the benefit cap. He believed that it was necessary to make work pay and there was a need to get the issue into perspective. Mr Attwood and Mr Agnew also made further comments in a similar vein in their opposition to a benefit cap. Again, the Minister has addressed that in other commentary in the last day or so and has said that the Stormont House Agreement would seek to address that matter.

In relation to clause 95, the Committee was advised that the number of households affected amounted to around 620. It is fair to say that there were different views on the Committee on the issue, and it is still one of contention between various parties. That is an ongoing situation with regard to the outworking of the Stormont House Agreement.

Amendment Nos 48 and 50 would insert new clauses 120B and 120D. Those are in respect of claimants seeking independent advice on their claims. The SDLP has tabled an amendment, as has the Ulster Unionist Party. All those who commented valued the important role played by the independent advice sector and the support that it provides for claimants across the spectrum. The Minister has addressed that fully. It was an issue that the Committee was clear on when it deliberated on it. The Committee listened to the presentation by the people from the independent advice sector. Several MLAs had experience of the sector over a number of years and understood clearly the need for an independent advice sector. Let us hope that the commitments given by the Minister and others are pursued in a way that makes sure that people have proper access to a well-resourced service. That is important, but I am satisfied from what I have heard that that will be the outworking of the agreement that we have. Chris Lyttle acknowledged the vital work of the independent advice sector, and those views have been taken on board. The Committee was very supportive of the concept and would want to support any measure that enhanced the support for that sector and, more important, the rights of claimants to have access to that advice.

The Minister outlined the requirement for a new clause that relates to discretionary support. The Committee was informed on Monday that the social fund would continue until any discretionary support scheme came into operation. That is an important safeguard. Any draft regulation made under the new clause will have to be laid before the Assembly and approved by a resolution of it. I think that the Minister in his concluding remarks also referred to that in a satisfactory manner.

The Minister's amendment No 52, inserting new clause 130B, will establish an office known as a discretionary support commissioner; I will not elaborate on that because the Minister has dealt with it. It seemed to me from comments from a Member that he did not quite understand what the role of that person has been, which indicates to me that maybe he did not have a lot of experience dealing with cases. However, that is an opinion.

Amendment Nos 73 and 75, tabled by Mr Agnew, relate to calculating capital income and work-related requirements. Mr Beggs had no hesitation in opposing them. Mr Sammy Wilson noted that amendment No 75 would remove the ability of the Department to apply the right to reside condition on prospective claimants. Mr Beggs suggested that the amendment might amount to the Assembly seeking a right to discriminate and he was fearful of the consequences if it was accepted. Mr Agnew also addressed the matter.

I am giving a flavour to some extent of the diverse opinions expressed by Members. Even if they agreed on the sentiment of an amendment, there was clear disparity in some cases in some of the points and opinions expressed. I hope, a Cheann Comhairle, that I have done justice to the Members I have quoted. I am trying to give a flavour and a synopsis of their concerns. They are concerns that have been shared by all parties and particularly by a wide range of stakeholders who engaged with the Committee during the Committee Stage. I have tried to reflect the concerns of the Committee against the commentary of some Members, reflecting amendments tabled by Members and how those sit against the views of the Committee and, more important, how they sit against the arrangements being discussed and delivered through the Stormont House Agreement.

When the Committee deliberated on this, it set its opposition to a number of clauses, and concern was expressed about them. There was a range of measures that the Committee was advocating. A number of those asked the Minister to review, consider and discuss with Executive colleagues.

By any yardstick and In fairness to all the Members who have spoken since yesterday, every one of them, even though they might have fairly strong or passionate views on how certain aspects of how a matter was dealt with, whether it was dealt by legislation or mitigating measures, and I stand corrected if needs be —


2.15 pm

Mr Speaker: Excuse me, Alex. Could you point the mic towards you? Hansard, I think, is —

Mr Maskey: Sorry. Do you want me start again?

Mr Maskey: OK. I am making my concluding remarks.

Without fear of contradiction, notwithstanding the views expressed across the Chamber since yesterday and the number of amendments that have been tabled and will be debated throughout the rest of the afternoon — I respect the right of everybody to table amendments, debate them and express their concerns — reflecting on the views of the Committee, as determined two years ago, I am very satisfied that, even with all the comments that have been made, which I take in good faith or otherwise, by any yardstick all of the concerns that were raised by the Social Development Committee have been addressed by the Stormont House Agreement. The Minister has continued to outline the ways in which that has been done.

We should remind ourselves that it is a five-party agreement, so the parties have all agreed to this. Even though there are different opinions on how you might continue to address some of these matters, I have not heard one Member — I am glad that this is the case — saying that people will be worse off as a result of the Stormont House Agreement and how it is unfolding. It will continue to be rolled out by way of regulations and further public consultation. The good thing is that, against a very difficult backdrop where we had legislation being imposed by London, whatever about the time it has taken to address this and the means by which we get there, people who would otherwise have been out of pocket — those who are described as "the most vulnerable" by all of us — due to a welfare reform Bill will have that problem addressed by the Stormont House Agreement. The Minister has addressed all the concerns that were raised by the Committee. The Committee will continue to have that important statutory role of scrutinising and working with the Department to ensure that the agreement continues to work out for the benefit of the people we collectively represent, including those who we tend to call "the most vulnerable".

It is unfortunate that we have had a certain amount of acrimony in the last day or so. People have quoted cases in their constituencies: I was dealing with a cancer victim last evening who, in the fog of the debate, was very concerned about what was likely to happen to him and his family. Were they going to lose money? Did the DUP "strangle all the amendments" — his words, not mine? Are other parties not being allowed to change the Bill? Are we just going to have all of what was imposed from London imposed on us? I had to assure him last night that that was not the case and tell him what the intention of the Bill was, despite the politicking that is going on, some of which is fair enough and some of which is not. People are legitimately raising concerns, and it is our job as an Assembly to make sure we address all those concerns to the point where we resolve them satisfactorily.

This is the message that people should hear from the Chamber: from the evidence that we have heard so far, the welfare legislation is going through. It will take some time, not only for the completion of the Bill but for the secondary legislation to be processed and the various schemes to be devised, but this is a far, far better scheme than was ever envisaged by the Tory Government in London. I am not going to say we should be grateful for that, and it has come at a cost. It created a lot of political instability, and it will cost the block grant, but people make choices. Since yesterday, I have not heard one Member being critical in any way about the way in which this has been dealt with. I have not heard one Member saying anything other than that they are happy enough about having made the choice to protect the most vulnerable and, if that has to come out of the block grant, then that is what will happen. We had a bit of a political set-to yesterday and this morning, which is regrettable, because the news has to go out to the people out there who are most vulnerable and are more worried about where they get their rent or their disability premium from than whether there was a POC, an amendment or a four- or five-party agreement. The message has to go from the Chamber that we are delivering a better system than that envisaged by the Tories in London. For that, we are grateful.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 4 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 5 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 6 (Restrictions on entitlement)

Amendment No 2 not moved.

Clause 6 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

New Clause

Amendment Nos 3 and 4 not moved.

Clauses 7 to 9 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 10 (Responsibility for children and young persons)

Amendment No 5 not moved.

Clause 10 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 11 (Housing costs)

Amendment Nos 6 and 7 not moved.

Clause 11 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 12 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

New Clause

Amendment No 8 not moved.

Clause 13 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 14 (Claimant commitment)

Amendment No 9 proposed:

In 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.". — [Mr Attwood.]

Mr Speaker: Before I put the Question, I remind Members that amendment No 9 requires cross-community support due to a valid petition of concern.

Question put, That amendment No 9 be made.

The Assembly divided:

Question accordingly negatived.

Clause 14 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 15 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 16 (Work preparation requirement)

Amendment No 10 not moved.

Amendment No 11 not moved.

Clause 16 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clauses 17 to 23 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 24 (Imposition of requirements)

Amendment No 12 proposed:

In page 12, line 3, leave out "—" and insert

"or an incident motivated by hate—". — [Mr Attwood.]

Mr Speaker: Before I put the Question, I remind Members that amendment No 12 requires cross-community support due to a valid petition of concern.

Question put, That amendment No 12 be made.

Mr Speaker: I have been advised by the party Whips in accordance with Standing Order 27(1A)(b) that there is agreement that we can dispense with the three minutes and move straight to the division.

The Assembly divided:

Question accordingly negatived (cross-community vote).

Mr Speaker: I will not call amendment No 13, as it is consequential to amendment No 12, which was not made.

Clause 24 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 25 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 26 (Higher-level sanctions)

Mr Speaker: We now come to the third group of amendments for debate. The group contains seven amendments and opposition to six clauses. [Interruption.]

Will Members leave quietly? This could be a long day of business, but it will be shorter if it is all done quietly and orderly.

The amendments relate to sanctions, levels of penalties and cautions. Members will note that amendment Nos 14 and 15 are mutually exclusive, that amendment Nos 23 and 24 are mutually exclusive and that amendment Nos 25 and 26 are mutually exclusive.

Members will also note that valid petitions of concern have been received for amendment Nos 15, 16, 24 and 26. Therefore, they will require cross-community support.

Mr Storey: I beg to move amendment No 14:

In page 13, line 13, leave out "3 years" and insert "18 months".

The following amendments stood on the Marshalled List:

No 15: In page 13, line 13, leave out "3 years" and insert "26 weeks". — [Mr Agnew.]

No 16: In clause 27, page 14, line 20, at end insert

"(10) A claimant shall be provided with at least fifteen days to provide a good reason under any such requirement in this section.". — [Mrs D Kelly.]

No 23: In clause 47, page 25, line 29, leave out "3 years" and insert "18 months". — [Mr Storey (The Minister for Social Development).]

No 24: In clause 47, page 25, line 29, leave out "3 years" and insert "26 weeks". — [Mr Agnew.]

No 25: In clause 50, page 35, line 14, leave out "3 years" and insert "18 months". — [Mr Storey (The Minister for Social Development).]

No 26: In clause 50, page 35, line 14, leave out "3 years" and insert "26 weeks". — [Mr Agnew.]

Mr Storey: Amendment No 14 addresses the issue of higher-level sanctions as set out in clause 26. The clause provides for financial sanctions to be applied to those claimants who are subject to all work-related requirements and, without good reason, fail to meet their most important responsibilities. Most people want to find work and will never be in the position of facing a sanction. The vast majority of claimants comply with requirements. However, for a small minority of claimants who shirk their personal responsibilities — a minority that has no regard for their obligations — we need an effective sanctions system that encourages responsibility and deters non-compliance.

Currently, sanctions, especially for the most serious failures, are set at a low level. Claimants are not always clear about the consequences if they fail to meet their requirements. We want to create a clearer, stronger system that is easily understood by claimants and acts as a more effective deterrent to non-compliance.

The clause as drafted provides for sanctions of up to three years for the most serious failures. Those are: failing to apply for a vacancy; failing to accept an offer of work; failing to take part in certain work-placement schemes, such as work experience and mandatory work activity; and losing pay or employment voluntarily or by reason of misconduct. However, as a result of concerns raised by the Social Development Committee and others, I tabled an amendment to restrict the maximum sanction to 18 months.

Those failures clearly damage a claimant’s employment prospects, and it is only right that we have a sanctions system that effectively deters such behaviour. The amount of sanction will be set in regulations. We intend to set a sanctionable amount that is broadly in line with existing jobseeker’s allowance arrangements. The sanction periods will also be set in regulations. We expect those to be three months for a first failure, six months for a second and 18 months for the third and subsequent failures only. As an 18-month sanction will only ever be imposed where claimants fail to meet their most important requirements on at least three separate occasions, we expect it to be applied to very few.

There will be some circumstances in which shorter sanctions may apply; for example, when a claimant leaves a job voluntarily a week before his or her contract ends and then claims universal credit, but I suspect that such cases will be the exception.

I wonder if it might be helpful if I provided an example of how escalation up the higher-level sanctions ladder might work in practice. If a claimant refuses to participate in the Steps 2 Success programme and cannot show good reason, he will receive a three-month sanction. If, four months later, he is asked to apply for a job and refuses to do so, he will — again, so long as there is no good reason — be sanctioned for six months.


3.00 pm

These are clear sanctions that are critical to incentivize claimants to meet their responsibilities. Only in the most extreme cases of non-compliance will claimants face an 18-month sanction. In the example that I have given, the claimant would have to refuse another job or fail to meet another important requirement within 12 months of his second failure. Only then would an 18-month sanction be imposed. I believe that these are tough but fair sanctions and are necessary to deter the minority of claimants who might otherwise break the rules, and I therefore urge Members to accept amendment No 14.

(Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr Dallat] in the Chair)

Amendment No 15 seeks to reduce the maximum sanction to 26 weeks. Perhaps Members did not realise that there is a sliding scale of three, six and 18 months, as I have just explained. As the claimant would have failed to comply on three separate occasions before an 18-month sanction could be considered, I think that 26 weeks as a maximum sanction is too lenient and urge Members to reject amendment No 15.

Amendment No 16 amends clause 27, which deals with other sanctions, and seeks to give a claimant a period of 15 days within which to provide good reason under any requirement within the clause. I should point out that there will be no specific time limit in universal credit regulations for good reason, therefore ensuring enough flexibility to adapt to the individual circumstances of a claimant. The key point, which will be reflected in guidance, is that the claimant always has a right amount of time. It is therefore anticipated that the current rule of five working days should be the default, but if, for example, the claimant is in attendance and has provided their evidence, there may be no need to wait a further five working days. Alternatively, if the claimant is waiting for evidence from a doctor or support worker, it is only reasonable to extend the five working days. In all circumstances, a sanction will not apply where good reason is demonstrated. In view of that, I urge Members to reject amendment No 16.

In relation to amendment No 23, clause 47 inserts legislative provision to provide for a reformed jobseeker’s allowance sanctions system. As was the case with clause 26, which we have already mentioned, we want to create a clearer, stronger system that is easily understood by claimants and acts as a more effective deterrent to non-compliance. Higher-level sanctions will be imposed on claimants who fail to comply with their most important labour market requirements, such as applying for jobs. There will be a three-month sanction for a first failure, six months for a second, and, with my tabled amendment, 18 months for a third failure, rather than the three years outlined in the Bill. We do not expect many claimants to be sanctioned for 18 months, but it is important to include that option to deter serial non-compliance. I believe that, when viewed in this light, these admittedly tough but fair sanctions are necessary to deter the minority of claimants who might wish to break the rules, and I urge Members to accept amendment No 23.

Amendment No 24 reduces the maximum sanction to 26 weeks. However, I previously mentioned that there is a sliding scale of three, six and 18 months, and the claimant would have failed to comply on three separate occasions before an 18-month sanction could even be considered. A maximum sanction of 26 weeks in these circumstances is too lenient. For this reason, I urge you to reject amendment No 24.

On amendment No 25; whilst income-based jobseeker's allowance will be replaced by universal credit, jobseeker's allowance will continue as a contributory benefit alongside universal credit. We therefore need to ensure that the rules on claimant responsibilities that apply to contributory jobseeker's allowance are aligned with those for universal credit as far as possible. This is necessary for three reasons: first, to ensure that all claimants who are subject to work search and work availability requirements, whether they receive jobseeker's allowance or universal credit, are treated in a similar way; secondly, to smooth the transition where a claimant's time-limited contributory benefit ends and they become entitled to universal credit; and, finally, to avoid unnecessary complexity for jobs and benefits office and social security office staff by ensuring they can apply the same rules to people in similar circumstances.

Clause 50 mirrors the work-related requirements and sanctions that apply to comparable claimants of universal credit. Amendment No 25 will therefore match the maximum sanction applicable under universal credit in clause 26 by reducing it from three years to 18 months. I therefore urge Members to accept amendment No 25.

Mr Allister: Will the Minister give way?

Mr Allister: Can the Minister explain that? When the Bill was originally drafted and presented by his predecessor, a three-year sanction was obviously thought to be appropriate. Those are the terms in which the Department and the Minister drafted the Bill. What has changed the Minister's mind to halve the three years to 18 months?

Mr Storey: As a member of the Committee for Social Development, you will be well aware that a number of organisations expressed concerns about the three-year period. I listened to those concerns. I also think that it is a reality that came about as a result of the Stormont House Agreement. There is no point saying otherwise.

I want to make this point because it is something that I have heard others say about the Bill: I do not think that any of us would want to bring this Bill, as it was in its entirety, to the House. If we had the freedom to bring our own Bill in the way that we believe completely reflects the needs of citizens in Northern Ireland, and if I were in government where it was the decision of one party, I have no doubt that the Bill would be different. It would have a different emphasis and focus.

Many valid points were raised about people's concerns. On one hand, we are undoubtedly seen by some as being lenient. On the other hand, we are accused of being draconian. In fact, if I remember rightly, some of the comments made during the Committee for Social Development's inquiry into this, albeit that it was a long time in the distant past — maybe I am inaccurate, but the Member may not have been on the Committee at that time and came on to it only later — the phrase "draconian" was used by some.

The point I have been trying to make is that we still need to have tough, but fair, sanctions. That is what we need to try and reflect. The sanctions are still there, even though there has been an issue about moving from three years to 18 months. I think that that is the rationale that has been applied to try to get an agreed position that is not seen as being heavy-handed, but equally cannot be interpreted as a free-for-all with no penalties, and that you can do as you wish and no sanctions will follow.

Mr B McCrea: Will the Member give way?

Mr Storey: I will in a moment. I will seek clarity from the Deputy Speaker on whether he wishes me to continue to go through the other amendments and conclude on those. I just have a couple more comments to make. I will give way to the Member.

Mr B McCrea: The Minister is very kind. I follow up on a point you made. You appeared to say to Mr Allister that you are minded to reduce the period from three years to 18 months because of the Stormont House Agreement. Are you therefore surprised that, certainly in the group that I am looking at, there is opposition to clause 26? I would have thought that, if there was general agreement, you would not expect that? Is that a surprise to you?

Mr Storey: I think it will come as no surprise to the Member that nothing is a surprise to me. I have learnt that more and more in the last number of weeks, since taking up office. I now waken, with God's help and God's grace, every morning, and nothing that is said or done, not only by my political opponents but sometimes by my colleagues, surprises me. That is really the nature —

Mr Allister: Is that Sammy Wilson?

Mr Storey: I was not referring to the honourable Member and my good friend, Mr Wilson. That is the nature of the job.

I come to amendment No 26. As has been the case for amendments Nos 15 and 24, which I have already addressed, amendment No 26 would reduce the maximum sanction to 26 weeks. Once again, I highlight the fact that the sanctions are applied on a sliding scale of three, six and 18 months, and a claimant has to have failed to comply with a requirement on three separate occasions before an 18-month sanction would apply. I consider that 26 weeks as a maximum sanction is too lenient and therefore urge you to reject amendment No 26.

Clause 111 amends sections 109A(5) and 109B(6) of the Social Security Administration (Northern Ireland) Act 1992 to reduce the period during which the customer can withdraw agreement to pay an administrative penalty from 28 to 14 days. Administrative penalties can only be offered in cases where there are grounds to bring proceedings, and acceptance is on the basis that, by agreeing to pay the penalty, there will be no prosecution. Withdrawal of agreement means that, while the penalty need not be paid, the Department’s agreement not to prosecute will no longer stand. The repercussions of such a decision are important to the individual concerned, and we do not want people making the wrong decision because of the time factor. Where the penalty is offered, claimants will retain the right to seek independent legal advice and participate in a face-to-face interview. The offer of a penalty must be accepted in writing, and, once accepted, the additional cooling-off period applies, during which the person can reconsider their decision to accept the penalty and seek further independent legal advice.

As a result of concerns expressed as part of the Stormont House Agreement, I propose to remove the clause from the Bill. The outcome will be that there is no amendment to sections 109A and 109B of the Social Security Administration (Northern Ireland) Act 1992, meaning that the cooling-off period will remain at 28 days. I therefore urge Members to support my proposal to remove clause 111.

Clause 112 introduces a new civil penalty that can be imposed on those who negligently make incorrect statements or fail, without reasonable excuse, to advise the Department of a relevant change of circumstances, resulting in an overpayment. The motivation behind the measure is to change the behaviour of customers who do not give accurate information about their circumstances or report changes to those circumstances and carry on receiving benefit they are no longer entitled to. This is another area that concerns have been raised about. As part of the Stormont House Agreement, I propose to remove the clause from the Bill. In the event that the clause does not stand part of the Bill, as a consequence, amendment Nos 76 and 78 relating to repeals listed in schedule 12, which relate to clause 112, also need to be removed. Therefore, I urge Members to support my proposal to remove clause 112.


3.15 pm

It may be helpful if I start by explaining that clause 115 removes references to a caution in section 5B of the Social Security Fraud Act (Northern Ireland) 2001. The effect will be that any person cautioned for an offence will no longer incur a loss of benefit under the legislation. The wider policy intention is the Department's drive to deter the commission of fraud by either imposing its own financial penalties, which are known as administrative penalties, or by seeking a conviction through the courts. The clause, therefore, will provide the enabling power to no longer apply a loss of benefits to cautions, given the policy direction of moving away from cautions to financial penalties and/or convictions.

Whilst it is my Department's policy to move away from cautions in future, I should add that, in some instances, the Public Prosecution Service may direct the Department, in the public interest, to offer a caution as an alternative to prosecution. On the introduction of the provision, in instances where a caution for a minor offence is administered, there will be no further loss of benefit. The provision, therefore, will provide an easement for the claimant in those circumstances, so it is proportionate to the nature of the offence. Successful opposition would remove the clause from the Bill, which, in effect, would mean that those offered a caution on a direction from the prosecutor will incur a loss of benefit as well. Therefore, I urge Members to reject that opposition.

In conclusion, I add that the provision in the clause is subject to commencement by order. As a result, cautions will continue to trigger a potential loss of benefit until such time as my Department seeks commencement of the provision.