Official Report (Hansard)

Session: 2011/2012

Date: Monday, 05 January 2009

Members present for all or part of the proceedings: 
Mr Danny Kennedy (Chairperson)
Mrs Naomi Long (Deputy Chairperson) 
Ms Martina Anderson
Mr Tom Elliott
Mrs Dolores Kelly
Mr Ian McCrea 
Mr Francie Molloy 
Mr Jim Shannon 
Mr Jimmy Spratt

Witnesses:
The junior Minister (Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister) (Mr Donaldson) 
The junior Minister (Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister) (Mr G Kelly)

The Chairperson (Mr Kennedy):

Good afternoon, gentlemen and ladies. I shall start by wishing you all a very happy new year. Thank you for making yourselves available — and for allowing us to be at your disposal — to consider the draft Financial Assistance Bill. We seek justification for the Bill’s accelerated passage, and then we will move to discuss the Bill. We will now listen to your presentation, and then we will move to questions.

The junior Minister (Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister) (Mr G Kelly):

Thank you. I too wish everyone a happy new year.

On behalf of the First Minister and deputy First Minister, we thank you for convening this meeting at such short notice to discuss the draft Financial Assistance Bill. First, we would like to gain the Committee’s support for a process for taking the Bill forward through the Assembly in a way that, given its urgency, ensures that legislation is in place as soon as possible. Secondly, we wish to take the Committee’s views on the draft Bill and to address any queries that members might have.

As was explained when the meeting was requested, the draft Bill fulfils a commitment made by the First Minister and deputy First Minister during the debate on the impact of the global economic downturn on 15 December 2008 to bring forward legislation early in the new year to provide permissive powers to implement remedial action in response to any circumstances that the Executive agree warrant rapid and effective action.

The need for such legislation has been prompted principally by the need to provide a statutory basis for the fuel payments announced as part of the Executive’s response to the economic downturn. More generally, the Bill aims to provide a firm statutory basis for the Executive to respond to exceptional circumstances involving hardship, or where additional financial aid is seen as a necessary element of the Executive’s response to tackling poverty and social exclusion.

Time is of the essence because the legislation will confer the necessary legislative authority to enable us to assist households with fuel payments. For that reason we are seeking your support for the accelerated passage procedure.

Subject to the Assembly’s agreement, the procedure will allow the Bill to pass all its stages by the end of January and, in turn, will allow for £15 million to be allocated for a fuel poverty scheme as part of the December monitoring round, to be incurred this financial year. Without the accelerated passage procedure, we would not anticipate having the necessary legal authority to incur the expenditure until well into the next financial year, which would mean losing the opportunity to use the allocated £15 million during this financial year.

I am sure that the Committee recognises the need to get the fuel payment out as soon as possible in order for it to be effective in its aim to alleviate fuel poverty and hardship, and the only way in which that can be done is by passing the new legislation.

We are taking this action in acknowledgement of the real hardship and urgent need of people who cannot afford to heat their homes this winter. I read in a newspaper this morning that 2008 was the coldest year for some time, and temperatures dropped as low as -11˚C in the past few weeks. Therefore, we are taking this action in acknowledgement of the real hardship and urgent need of people who cannot afford to heat their homes this winter, and also those who are seriously struggling to find a way of continuing to do so.

Standing Orders 42(3)(a) and (b) requires us to explain reasons for seeking accelerated passage and the consequences of it not being granted. Standing Order 42(3)(c) also requires us, if appropriate, to explain any steps taken to minimise the future use of the accelerated passage procedure. I trust that the Committee can see the exceptional nature of the issue, and that there exists a genuine and urgent necessity brought about by the global economic crisis.

We hope that the powers that the Executive will have under the Bill will avoid the need for urgent Bills in the future to tackle unforeseen events or gaps in the arrangements to tackle poverty, social exclusion or deprivation. We assure the Committee that, where time allows, our practice will be to take Bills through the Assembly under the normal process, as we have in the case of the Public Authorities (Reform) Bill.

At this stage, I will hand over to my ministerial colleague, who will talk more about the purpose of the draft Bill before we take questions and comments.

The junior Minister (Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister) (Mr Donaldson):

Thank you, Chairman, and a happy new year to members.

As my ministerial colleague said, the circumstances that prompted the draft legislation are exceptional, particularly given the current economic downturn and the general hardship it has created, and will create, for those in poverty or at risk of poverty. The Bill will provide the Executive with flexibility in the allocation and distribution of funds across all Departments so that they will be able to respond to any crisis or hardship situation. It also provides the legislative framework within which the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister, and other Departments, will be able to act promptly to provide financial assistance in situations of exceptional circumstances, and to tackle poverty, social exclusion and patterns of deprivation.

Although the Committee will have seen the explanatory and financial memorandum that accompanies the draft Bill, I will summarise its main provisions. The Bill will give the First Minister and deputy First Minister, acting jointly, the power to determine that either exceptional circumstances or unsatisfactory funding arrangements for tackling poverty exist, and that financial assistance should be provided. Since those issues will invariably be cross-cutting because of the nature of such provisions, any decision will always also need to be a matter for the Executive Committee.

Secondly, the Bill will give the Department or Departments designated by the First Minister and deputy First Minister the power to make a scheme to provide financial assistance to tackle the effect of the exceptional circumstance or to tackle poverty, social exclusion or patterns of deprivation where there are no arrangements for providing for that assistance, or, where such arrangements are in existence, they are ineffective, inadequate or unsatisfactory.

Thirdly, the draft Bill will provide that where the First Minister and deputy First Minister do not designate a Department to make a scheme, OFMDFM will make the scheme itself. The draft Bill will also provide for any scheme to be made by means of regulations that are subject to negative resolution. It will provide for the matters that may be included in such a scheme, and it will provide that the scheme allows for financial assistance to be given in any form — including by way of grant, loan or guarantee — and that the assistance may be made directly or indirectly.

Consequently, the draft Bill will provide the First Minister and deputy First Minister with the necessary statutory powers to take remedial action to respond to any future crisis or hardship situation that the Executive agree warrants rapid and effective intervention. It will give the First Minister and deputy First Minister the necessary statutory powers to tackle poverty, social exclusion or deprivation where arrangements for doing so do not exist or are not fit for purpose. The draft Bill will provide the Executive with flexibility in the allocation and distribution of resources across all Departments so that they may be able to respond to any future crisis or hardship situation. Most immediately, the Bill will provide the statutory basis for a scheme to authorise the payment of some £15 million to address fuel poverty.

Recently, the Committee has drawn our attention to the effects of the current economic downturn on those on low incomes and the most vulnerable. It has also questioned whether there was more that we, as a Department, could do to provide a stimulus for a more effective and co-ordinated response across Departments to tackle social need. The draft Bill facilitates the ability to determine when exceptional circumstances warrant action and to work with Executive colleagues in determining the form and nature of the Government’s response. As such, the Bill provides for a more proactive role and gives the Executive greater flexibility in responding financially to urgent and unmet social need. For that reason, we strongly commend it to the Committee.

The Chairperson:

I thank both junior Ministers for their contributions. Obviously, members will have many questions to ask.

You have mentioned the specific case of the fuel-poverty measures that were brought forward by the Executive at the end of last year. Would this Bill allow the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister and the Executive to have a more enabling power? I am seeking clarification that it would not just be a matter of the First Minister and deputy First Minister acting jointly. Would they have to bring any such measure before — and seek the agreement of — the Executive?

The junior Minister (Mr G Kelly):

The Executive are clearly at the centre of this. There was an anomaly in respect of the particular issue of the fuel-poverty payments in regard to whether we had the legislative authority to bring those forward. We want to have that legislative authority, but the Bill is more wide ranging because we do not want to have this problem every time a Department, or a number of Departments, could experience the same difficulty. The Executive will clearly be at the centre of it, and in each case, the scheme will be brought to the Executive.

The junior Minister (Mr Donaldson):

It should be said that this is not the first time that we have encountered this difficulty. There have been other examples in the past when there have been issues around an immediate governmental response to a crisis situation and whether further legislation was required. As junior Minister Kelly has indicated, it is not just about OFMDFM, it is about the entire Executive — across all Departments — having the capacity to respond to exceptional circumstances. That would involve, as a necessity, the making of an Executive decision. It would enable legislation to be included within the scope of any response, where required.

The Chairperson:

Presumably, a Minister who is responsible for his or her own individual Department could suggest that the Executive use this legislation to assist in a particular situation that affects their Department. Would that require the agreement of both the First Minister and deputy First Minister and, collectively, the Executive?

The junior Minister (Mr Donaldson):

That is the case at present. For example, when a Minister wishes to use the procedure to bring matters to the Executive for urgent resolution, that is the current convention. If there was, for example, a situation in agriculture whereby the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development was required to take urgent action, this procedure would assist her in doing so, with the agreement of Executive colleagues, where required.

The Chairperson:

Are you convinced that that level of detail is spelled out in the Bill before us?

The junior Minister (Mr Donaldson):

Yes, I think that we are. I was conscious, as we were going through our initial presentation, that we did not want it to be too heavy and difficult to follow. Hopefully, the explanatory and financial memorandum that accompanies the Bill will make explicit what is implicit in the Bill. We are satisfied that the contents of the Bill reflect our desire to enable the Executive collectively, and Ministers individually, to respond to crisis situations.

The Chairperson:

How much will depend on the term “exceptional circumstances”? Is there a better or more detailed definition of what will qualify as exceptional circumstances? The report that we, as a Committee, produced last year highlighted that there were exceptional circumstances relating to child poverty. Are they sufficient to warrant special consideration through the use of this Bill? The floods that occurred last August on the Westlink and in other parts of Northern Ireland would clearly be judged as exceptional circumstances. Who ultimately defines the term “exceptional circumstances”, and how is it defined?

The junior Minister (Mr G Kelly):

In essence, it is very difficult to define “exceptional circumstances”, and it would be wrong of me to say that it would always be very obvious, but generally speaking, it would be obvious. In the circumstances that you have mentioned, such as flooding, the Executive agreed that those were exceptional circumstances, so there was a collective agreement on what was an exceptional circumstance.

That goes back to the previous question about the Executive’s role. Clearly, the Executive’s role is at the core of the matter, and it involves all the relevant Departments.

The junior Minister (Mr Donaldson):

I take your point, Chairperson. An unforeseen situation, which could arise suddenly, and which required an immediate response, could be described as an exceptional circumstance.

You are asking whether something that has developed over time, but has only just become apparent would constitute an exceptional circumstance. I believe that it would. In theory, the draft Bill could provide for such an exceptional circumstance, whereby something arises that is outside the norm of the Programme for Government and Departments’ work, or where a problem has developed over a period of time that requires exceptional Government action. Something that takes us outside the realm of the Programme for Government could be described as an exceptional circumstance — something that was unforeseen when the Programme for Government was drafted and then agreed by the Assembly.

It is not just a sudden act of God that we are dealing with; the draft Bill will enable the Executive to respond to issues of poverty that will not arise overnight, but which could be regarded as exceptional circumstances.

The junior Minister (Mr G Kelly):

May I tease that out, Chairperson? You may have one view about what an exceptional circumstance means, and other members of the Committee may have another. We are here to listen, but I presume that you are trying to find a definition. If you cannot define “exceptional”, a mechanism must be found that will define it. I would argue that that mechanism is by the agreement of the Executive. If there are other ways of doing it, we are here to listen. Are you seeking a mechanism? It is difficult issue; you might have a list of exceptional circumstances, and I might have a different one. The common thread is that they are unforeseen, and some of the issues that we have been affected by were unforeseen events.

The Chairperson:

It appears that you are saying that we cannot tell what “exceptional” circumstances are, but we will know them and recognise them when we see them.

The junior Minister (Mr G Kelly):

We will do that by agreement, which is important.

The Chairperson:

We will identify them collectively?

The junior Minister (Mr G Kelly):

Yes. It is obvious that the flooding constituted an exceptional circumstance. The pork crisis could potentially have been another. Fuel poverty already existed, but the increase in the number of people affected by fuel poverty because of global events made it an exceptional circumstance.

The Chairperson:

I am conscious that other members wish to speak, but I have one more quick point to make. No budget is provided for these circumstances. In a situation in which all budgets are already agreed, the Executive will have to move money about in order to deal with exceptional circumstances. That will have a consequential impact on other provision.

The junior Minister (Mr G Kelly):

Only on what has already been provided for by way of in-year monitoring and by re-prioritisation to deal with the matter in hand. The Executive brought forward the December monitoring round in order to find the money to deal with that circumstance. It is not the intention of the Executive to take money from Departments willy-nilly, neither is that the purpose of the draft Bill.

The junior Minister (Mr Donaldson):

This is the stuff of Government, Chairperson. Departments continually have to re-prioritise as each year goes by, and not just as a result of exceptional circumstances. We will have to deal with these matters through the normal processes of public expenditure management, both by in-year monitoring and by re-prioritisation. However, we accept that unforeseen circumstances can sometimes have a knock-on impact on financial allocations in Departments.

The Chairperson:

Thank you. Several members have questions.

Mr Moutray:

I thank the witnesses for attending. With respect to procedure, which Department will be designated to allocate the £15 million to address fuel poverty, and how will that be done?

The junior Minister (Mr Donaldson):

That has not been finally decided, but the Department for Social Development is more than likely to be designated because the mechanism by which the money will be distributed is most closely related to the work of that Department on the use of pension credits, income support and the available databases.

Mrs Long:

I wish you all a happy new year. I have a couple of questions. The Chairperson asked which Minister must sign off on these matters. My reading of the draft Bill and explanatory memorandum is that only the First Minister and the deputy First Minister need agree, and then a negative resolution will be proposed in the Assembly. Even the agreement of the Minister whose Department is designated to deliver the programme is not required. The draft legislation provides that the First Minister and deputy First Minister, “acting jointly”, may direct the Department to spend the money in that particular way. It is necessary that a negative resolution be made in the Assembly to approve the regulations but, as I understand it, the draft Bill does not require the relevant Minister to agree.

Is there a mechanism to ensure that the Minister of the designated Department delivers the programme? The draft Bill also includes a get-around clause; it provides that OFMDFM can deliver the money directly. Is there anything to ensure that the Minister is content, and that this provision cannot be used as a way for OFMDFM to get around a ministerial decision against funding a particular programme?

The junior Minister (Mr G Kelly):

That is not the intent of the draft Bill, but I understand that that is not the member’s question. We asked that question of our officials. One of the difficulties is that other laws and regulations have a bearing on these issues, and every consideration cannot be provided for on the face of a Bill. The ministerial code has a bearing on the situation that you describe. OFMDFM may take forward a project in circumstances where a cross-cutting issue that cannot be dealt with by designating a Department to deliver the programme. In such a situation, OFMDFM can bring forward a scheme to the Executive.

Mrs Long:

Can it be specified in the draft legislation that only in those circumstances can OFMDFM deliver the programme directly?

The junior Minister (Mr Kelly):

We can refer this matter to officials once more. I am not entirely sure, but I understand that the ministerial code, which is already set, covers that circumstance.

Mrs Long:

The code does not specify that OFMDFM can only become the lead Department for delivery when an issue is cross-cutting. That will have to be specified in the Bill. As it is, the draft legislation implies that OFMDFM can become the lead Department in the delivery of programmes that are the responsibility of any Department.

The junior Minister (Mr Kelly):

That is not our intention. We will refer that matter to officials. I asked that question of officials.

The junior First Minister (Mr Donaldson):

Junior Minister Kelly referred to the ministerial code. We will ask the Executive to approve an amendment to the ministerial code that will make it a requirement that all such matters be brought before the Executive for consideration and agreement. Subject to the Executive’s agreement, the draft amendment to the ministerial code will be brought to the Assembly for approval by cross-community support. That is our intention, and it will be enshrined in the ministerial code that matters such as the member has referred to must come before the Executive for determination and agreement.

Mrs Long:

That would mean that, in the current political circumstances, Ministers from Sinn Féin and the DUP would be protected while other Ministers might not. Executive agreement could be obtained without the agreement of all Ministers. Therefore, I am not sure whether the Minister who delivers the programme must agree. I am simply flagging up that issue because I am not sure whether it has been thought through.

The junior Minister (Mr G Kelly):

The Bill allows for more than one Department to be designated. For example, three Departments were involved during the pork crisis. Therefore, there would not necessarily be a single scheme; there could be a series of schemes.

Mrs Long:

There is an issue about paragraphs 2(1)(a), 2(1)(b) and 2(1)(c). My reading of clause 2 is that the conditions listed in all three paragraphs must exist in order for the powers to be exercised. When junior Minister Donaldson read the clause, he said that either paragraph (a) or paragraph (b) must be fulfilled. On reading the clause, however, it is apparent that the conditions in all three paragraphs — (a), (b) and (c) — must be satisfied.

Effectively, the flood payments that were mentioned would not have come under that clause, because they might have been made to people who were not suffering financial deprivation or poverty and who did not live in areas of social exclusion. Those people received payouts for flooding in exceptional circumstances. The wording of clause 2(1) renders it quite restrictive. Its interpretation, however, seems to be more liberal than my reading of it would suggest.

Obviously, the Committee has had only a short time to consider the clause. I want clarification. I understand that flood payments were possible without the legislation being in place. What would happen, in similar circumstances, for people who are in exceptional need but who do not necessarily belong to the first category, as described in 2(1)(a)?

The junior Minister (Mr Donaldson):

The clauses are separate: clause 1 relates to exceptional circumstances, whereas clause 2 relates to poverty. Although they are distinct, there is a crossover. The home of a person who is in poverty might be flooded as a result of heavy rainfall. He or she would benefit from any Executive response in that particular instance. However, clause 2 relates to the poverty aspect of the Bill, which is designed to tackle poverty and social deprivation that may or may not arise as a result of unforeseen circumstances.

Mrs Long:

Therefore, paragraphs 2(1)(a), 2(1)(b) and 2(1)(c) must all be in place; it is not an either/or situation.

The junior Minister (Mr Donaldson):

That is correct.

Mrs Long:

OK. I wanted to check that.

You mentioned tackling poverty, social exclusion and patterns of deprivation based on objective need. What discussions have taken place with the Treasury to ensure that that cannot, in any way, undermine parity with regard to social-security payments and so on? The financial assistance specifically targets social need in the same way that certain benefits do.

The junior Minister (Mr Donaldson):

Indeed, that is a moot point. Obviously, that issue arose during our consideration of the assistance that we would provide in order to alleviate fuel poverty. That is one reason why that particular scheme was designed in a way that would not contravene the principle of parity.

At this stage, I should mention that there are implications for the use of data banks, which are used when payments are distributed. We are working with our Whitehall counterparts to deal with those issues. Legislation that may impact on that, and which includes Northern Ireland, is currently under consideration. Therefore, we must engage with our colleagues in Whitehall in the discussions that are taking place at various levels.

In general, the Executive operate on the principle that parity on social-security matters is maintained. The Bill is not explicit about that because one wants to allow a degree of flexibility. However, if that parity were to be breached due to exceptional circumstances, we would want to discuss that with the Treasury.

Mrs Long:

My final question relates to accelerated passage. The first time that we were made aware that legislative cover was required to allow the Assembly to make payments to those in extreme hardship and fuel poverty was during, or just after, the summer. There has been a lot of toing and froing on the matter. Are there any reasons other than those of which we are aware — the hiatus that existed for a period — for the matter being brought to us so late, rather than having been dealt with during the autumn?

The junior Minister (Mr Donaldson):

Obviously, you are aware of the impasse, during which the Executive did not meet. Undoubtedly, that had an impact on our consideration of how we should respond to the issue of fuel poverty. However, the draft Bill is meant to address a gap that would have existed regardless of whether the issue of fuel poverty had arisen. The fuel poverty issue has brought matters into sharper focus for us, but we had previously identified the need for the measures in the draft Bill — I mentioned other situations that led us to recognise that there was a gap and a difficulty that inhibited the Executive’s ability to respond to a crisis or an unforeseen circumstance.

The draft Bill was not formulated because of the fuel poverty issue. There is a gap in the Executive’s capacity to respond to crises and unforeseen situations, and we want to plug that gap with the legislation. As it happens, the first beneficiaries of the draft Bill will be those in fuel poverty, but we have no doubt that the legislation will be used in the future.

Mr I McCrea:

Some people will claim that the legislation should be the responsibility of the Department for Social Development (DSD). Why is OFMDFM proposing it instead of DSD?

The junior Minister (Mr G Kelly):

It has been shown that there is a specific issue, which no legislative authority can address. That demonstrates that other issues and circumstances could arise, and we want legislation to cover those. Had DSD formulated legislation to address a single issue, that issue would be dealt with, but primary legislation would have to be formulated repeatedly to address other similar issues. Naomi Long mentioned the possible delay in the process. We are introducing the legislation as quickly as possible — we do not want to go through the same process again. Therefore, the legislation is catch-all to ensure that the Executive and Departments have the necessary power and that we do not go through the same process again.

The junior Minister (Mr Donaldson):

We have received responses from ministerial colleagues on the contents of the Bill, and some of the points that they have made will have to be considered and may have to be reflected in the draft Bill when it goes to the Assembly. The process has not been conducted in isolation — we have consulted with ministerial colleagues, and, as junior Minister Kelly said, OFMDFM is taking the lead because of the cross-cutting nature of the legislation. An unforeseen circumstance could arise that would relate to the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development or the Department of the Environment. Although the initial issue that the legislation will address is closely aligned with the responsibilities of the Department for Social Development, the draft Bill is about more than that — it is about plugging a gap in the Executive’s ability to respond collectively to unforeseen and exceptional circumstances.

Ms Anderson:

The capability gap existed during the previous Executive’s existence, and it has continued into the present Executive’s tenure. The Executive have identified that gap and taken action to redress it. The Committee has completed its inquiry into child poverty, and one of its concerns was that there was no Minister to take the lead on issues that were left sitting out in the ether or were subject to cross-departmental responsibility. At times, cross-departmental responsibility seems to be used as a mechanism to allow Departments to avoid taking responsibility for delivering policy. If a need or a gap is identified, will the draft Bill allow you — after discussion with your Executive colleagues and if resources are found to try to bridge that gap — to discuss it with the Minister concerned, so that OFMDFM will take the lead in directing the policy rather than delivering it alone?

Pre-legislative consultation is preferable to accelerated passage. However, in the context of the situation from which we have emerged — particularly the discussions that took place last year — the draft Bill is a good-news story, and we should be selling it as such. People are looking for immediate action, particularly on the issue of fuel poverty.

If the proposed proactive intervention is made, will the £15 million be paid directly or indirectly? Will people receive a cheque, or is the money going to go to —

The Chairperson:

Order. Members must remember that the Committee is only considering the draft Bill, which will be an enabling Bill. Its initial purpose will be to bring forward the fuel-poverty initiative, but I do not want to get into the detail of that initiative — that is for another Committee to discuss. We are here to discuss the precepts of the draft Bill.

Ms Anderson:

Financial assistance is dealt with in the draft Bill, if we are discussing the specifics of the draft Bill, with all due respect. We do not know who will be the lead Minister, but, regardless of which Department will take the lead, I am sure that there is a preference for either a direct or an indirect payment.

The Chairperson:

I want to try to avoid a detailed discussion on the initial use of the draft Bill.

Ms Anderson:

With all due respect, I think you are wasting more time. We are here to discuss the capability gap that has been identified in the system. The first usage of the legislation will involve the distribution of the £15 million. Clause 4 of the draft Bill states that:

“a scheme may be provided for financial assistance”.

Therefore, we should be able to ask questions about that scheme.

The junior Minister (Mr G Kelly):

I can possibly intervene between Ms Anderson and the Chairperson. There are people in dire need — one need only consider events of the last few weeks to see that. Everyone around this table realises that we are trying to plug the capability gap. We are trying to get the necessary finances to the people who count, in the quickest possible time. How that is to be done is open to discussion at the moment. It is an urgent discussion — we are considering a number of possibilities. It is the aim of the whole Executive to deal with that, at least in a generic way.

On the issue of designation, the forthcoming Bill will enable the Executive to agree the designation. It may be, as someone mentioned, that a single Department will drive the policy, it may be driven by a number of Departments, or there may be a gap that must be filled by the First Minister and deputy First Minister. All of that is dependent on the Executive agreeing to those things.

Ms Anderson:

Will the generic legislation that is to be introduced avoid the need for new Bills to be introduced in the future, in unforeseen circumstances, for instance? Junior Minister Kelly referred to the pork producers; had action been required to deal with the recent crisis, which Department would have taken the lead — would it have been the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety or the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment? Will the proposed legislation benefit all Ministers in the Executive?

The junior Minister (Mr G Kelly):

Clearly, the intent is to do that — that is central to the introduction of the proposed Bill. It may be that one, two, three or four Departments take the lead. We want to make sure that, where there is no agreement on which Department has responsibility, any Department — or collective of Departments — will be enabled to take action, as will the Executive collectively.

Ms Anderson:

So they will be able to introduce regulations, as opposed to a new Bill?

The junior Minister (Mr G Kelly):

That is correct.

Mr Molloy:

How long is it envisaged that it will take for the legislation to be processed and for payments to be made to those in need? On the issues of exceptional circumstances and the difficulty of deciding who will make the decisions, if the Assembly were to vote in support of a particular issue, would the Executive be required to take that on board and declare that exceptional circumstances exist?

The junior Minister (Mr Donaldson):

Of course the Executive would have to take that into account. The Executive are, at least, morally bound to consider any resolution that is passed by the Assembly. Were the Assembly to be particularly exercised about certain exceptional circumstances, and should it feel that the Executive ought to respond urgently, I think that that would be reflected in the Executive’s actions.

If the Assembly were to initiate the consideration of the exceptional circumstance, it would follow the same procedures as a consideration initiated by the Executive. Alternatively, an individual Minister would come to the First Minister and the deputy First Minister, and they would take the matter forward. I hope that Ministers are sufficiently in touch with the thinking of their Assembly colleagues that they would be at the forefront of knowing what such exceptional circumstances might be.

The junior Minister (Mr G Kelly):

The Bill’s Consideration Stage is scheduled to take place on Tuesday 20 January, and it will go through its Final Stage on Tuesday 27 January. It is hoped that it will become law by 6 February.

Mr Molloy:

Are you saying that no legislation is currently in place to make such payments?

The junior Minister (Mr G Kelly):

There is no legislative basis on which the authority to make those payments can be granted. We cannot make the payments.

The junior Minister (Mr Donaldson):

Junior Minister Kelly’s summary of the Bill’s progress is quite right. We hope that the Bill will be introduced under the accelerated passage system, at the latest, on Monday 12 January and that the Second Stage will take place on Tuesday 13 January. Given that the Executive are not scheduled to meet until 15 January, we will consider using the urgent procedure to obtain Executive agreement. If necessary, that may be made subject to the consideration of amendments by the Executive, which are to be made during the Bill’s passage as a result of the views of other Ministers and of the Committee. The indicative timescale that junior Minister Kelly outlined is aspirational and is subject to the agreement of Ministers.

The Chairperson:

Mr Molloy raised the issue of legislative authority. Presumably, it would be possible for an individual Minister to bring forward a case that was, in his or her view, an exceptional circumstance, but which might not garner the support of the First Minister, the deputy First Minister or his or her Executive colleagues. Who would adjudicate in such circumstances, and how would the process be determined?

The junior Minister (Mr Donaldson):

The First Minister and the deputy First Minister, or the Executive, would adjudicate. It is up to a Minister to bring a matter to the Executive, and he or she can have that matter placed on the agenda as normal. The Executive are required to consider the matter and, if necessary, to determine the way forward on it. The normal procedure is for a Minister to approach the First Minister and the deputy First Minister to ask for the matter to be considered under that process. You are correct to say that the Executive may determine that a matter is not sufficiently exceptional to warrant the use of the procedure.

Mr Elliott:

Thank you for your presentation. I have concerns about the possible overriding power of OFMDFM over other Departments. You mentioned cross-departmental working, and it would be good to give more authority to that.

Junior Minister Kelly said that there was no legislative authority to make payments for hardship relief. How were those to be paid? Some system must have been in place to make those payments, given that the money was available.

Will you explain, in layman’s terms, how the legislation will make a real difference? The hardship payments that were made after the August floods were paid to householders through the councils, so there was obviously some mechanism for making payments. How will the legislation make a difference, and how will it change the process?

The junior Minister (Mr G Kelly):

The first question is difficult to answer. The Department for Social Development and every other Department examined the situation and found that they were unable to make such payments. Therefore, separate legislation was necessary to address that difficulty, and that is why we are here today. Every MLA will ask why we cannot pay out the money and why there is a need for legislation. Although the process may seem illogical, we are trying to rectify the situation.

Mr Elliott asked what difference the legislation will make to the ordinary person. During the winter, oil prices rose and, subsequently, fell. Therefore, the payment will enable individuals to heat their homes more than it would have done a month ago, because the money will go further. Fifteen million pounds is not an insignificant amount, although the payments to individual homes will be small. However, the money will help people during the winter, and, in general, people — such as pensioners — will be glad to receive it.

Mr Elliott:

My question was not specifically about the £15 million, but about the broader terms of the legislation. The Executive had a mechanism that enabled them to release hardship payments after the floods in August. How are the proposed fuel payments different? How will the legislation help in the future, beyond the £15 million — although that is important, especially if it could not be paid? I find it difficult to believe that the Executive agreed the sum of £15 million, given that they could not pay it under the current circumstances.

The junior Minister (Mr Donaldson):

Mr Elliott asks an important question. We walked a fine line in relation to the flood payments. We used local government as the mechanism to make those payments because the Executive, and the Department, did not have the capacity to do so. Furthermore, Northern Ireland had experienced flooding previously and, therefore, had a precedent to deal with such issues. Although fuel poverty is not being experienced for the first time in Northern Ireland, the circumstances are exceptional. That is the purpose of the forthcoming Bill. We had the oil but not the right engine in which to put it; we did not have the precise mechanism.

Believe me, when lawyers become involved in processes and data protection issues arise, the situation can become complex. Therefore, we recognised — not for the first time — that we needed to plug an existing gap to ensure that the Executive could use the mechanisms to deliver action quickly, effectively and efficiently. That is why we are introducing the legislation. Issues that need to be resolved quickly, and that, on the face of it, appear simple, can suddenly become complex. The legislation gives the Executive and Ministers the power to make regulations by negative resolution to enable them to act quickly in circumstances that are not covered by existing legislation.

I accept Mr Elliott’s point. A layman might question why the Government cannot make such payments. However, the more I discover about the workings of Government, the more I discover the complexity of such issues. The proposed legislation gives the Executive the power and flexibility to deal with such situations.

Mr Shannon:

It is good that the junior Ministers are in attendance. I want to ask about fuel poverty. The letter that the Department sent to the Chairperson says:

“we are keen therefore to introduce the Bill to the Assembly at the earliest opportunity to enable payments to be made during the winter when people need them the most.”

Will the Department for Social Development decide how the money will be dispersed, or will the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister contribute to the process?

Pensioners in receipt of pension credit currently qualify for a winter fuel payment, and they receive a higher payment when they reach the age of 75. Will the mechanics of the system enable that to continue? Will the system be driven by OFMDFM, DSD or the Executive as a whole?

The junior Minister (Mr G Kelly):

The legislation will be driven by the Executive as a whole. DSD holds the information database, so the expectation — and I emphasise that a decision has not yet been made — is that DSD will drive the practicalities of the system. Jim asked whether the system would be able to handle the fact that people qualify for extra payment when they reach the age of 75. That system already exists, so it is only a matter of feeding the information into the database.

Mr Shannon:

Is it possible, therefore, that that system could engineer the distribution of the extra £15 million that will come through? That is what I am trying to tease out, but you do not know the answer to that question yet.

The junior Minister (Mr Donaldson):

No, we do not. Discussions are continuing between officials of various Departments to determine the best method for the distribution of that money. Our priority is to pay that money as quickly as possible to the people who need it, especially given the current economic climate, which is one of the reasons for introducing the legislation. However, we cannot give a definitive answer to your question because the discussions on the best mechanism for delivering the payment to individuals have not yet come to a conclusion.

The junior Minister (Mr G Kelly):

Any Department that is involved in that scheme — or future schemes — will engage in ongoing dialogue with OFMDFM and the Executive.

The junior Minister (Mr Donaldson):

Northern Ireland Electricity is involved in the discussion because, in theory, it could also be part of the mechanism for delivering the payments. Therefore, it is more complicated than simply delivering payment through one Government Department.

The Chairperson:

Once again, I must exercise caution. We do not want to stray into the nuts and bolts and practicalities of the draft Bill. Rather, we should concentrate on the generalities.

Mr Shannon:

I asked who would drive the system. I hardly think that we are skirting into the practical issues.

The Chairperson:

I know, and that is why I let you continue.

Mr Shannon:

You are very generous.

The junior Minister (Mr Donaldson):

OFMDFM is driving the scheme forward, as the Executive agreed. The draft Bill is part of the process of moving the financial assistance forward as quickly as possible. We are talking to other Departments — particularly DSD — about the delivery mechanism and about the role that that Department would play in that aspect of the measure.

Mr Shannon:

I am keen to know how we arrive at what would be described as exceptional circumstances or a disaster, because clause 2 refers to tackling poverty. Naomi asked a similar question earlier, and the Chairperson also touched on the matter. The Committee has put forward a number of recommendations in relation to child poverty, in particular. If the Committee was to become aware of child-poverty issues that were not being addressed or that the number of those in child poverty was growing, could it — rather than the Ministers or the Executive — deem that exceptional circumstances exist and should be addressed?

The junior Minister (Mr Donaldson):

The response to that question is similar to the response that I made to Mr Molloy. We do not want to get hung up on who initiates the process. Were exceptional circumstances to become evident to the Committee during an inquiry on an issue, such as child poverty, and the issue was not being addressed by the Executive, there are normal mechanisms by which the Committee can raise the matter with the Department. If it is a matter that can be taken forward, we can take it forward.

The junior Minister (Mr G Kelly):

It might be worth pointing out that the phrase “exceptional circumstances” relates to clause 1, whereas poverty and connected issues are dealt with in clause 2.

Mr Shannon:

I have one final question, Chairman. I am concerned that a number of voluntary organisations are currently down to the wire in respect of their finances and funding. Will the “exceptional circumstances” provision enable us to bring those issues to the Executive or to individual Ministers to evaluate whether we can help financially? Jeffrey knows the voluntary organisation to which I refer because I have spoken to him about it.

The junior Minister (Mr Donaldson):

Indeed I do.

Mr Shannon:

Time is running out, but I am keen to ensure that financial assistance be provided to that organisation.

The junior Minister (Mr Donaldson):

Chairman, I admire Mr Shannon’s ingenuity in respect of the way in which he was very capably able to raise that matter.

The Chairperson:

I have gone past the stage of admiration. It is more a case of exasperation. [Laughter.]

The junior Minister (Mr Donaldson):

Legal issues are involved in the situation that Mr Shannon raised, so it is probably best not to say too much at this stage. However, one of the reasons for the delay in making payments is because of a legal challenge. We seek to have that resolved as quickly as possible.

The junior Minister (Mr G Kelly):

As far as poverty is concerned, the circumstances do not need to be exceptional.

The Chairperson:

I am sorry; please explain that again.

The junior Minister (Mr G Kelly):

Circumstances do not need to be exceptional to address poverty issues. Two issues in respect of the draft Bill are being dealt with: one is exceptional circumstances, and the other is poverty. Funding arrangements could be inadequate; they might not stand up to scrutiny or they could be ineffective. All of that can be dealt with in any case.

Mr Spratt:

I thank the junior Ministers for attending. We have had a great deal of discussion about exceptional circumstances and I do not want to return to that issue. Any Department in the Executive could be affected. In relation to normal scrutiny procedures, such as appearing before a Committee — we are sitting in a special session today to consider this draft Bill — if any emergency arises, I assume that there will be a mechanism to discuss that in the Committee at the same time that it is discussed in the Executive so that the procedures can be scrutinised?

The junior Minister (Mr G Kelly):

Very much so. Normal scrutiny procedures stipulate that any Department that addresses those issues is expected to operate in the normal way and talk to the Committee about a scheme and ascertain the Committee’s view of it.

The junior Minister (Mr Donaldson):

Exceptional circumstances might need to be addressed more urgently than is normally the case. We are confident that Committees will respond as this Committee responded. We appreciate the way in which this Committee responded in relation to the need to deal with this legislation. This discussion needed to occur today — without, in any way, anticipating the decision that the Committee will make at the meeting’s conclusion.

There is no intention to exclude the Committees from their scrutiny role, be it in relation to the “exceptional circumstances” provisions of the draft Bill — albeit that that may necessitate a Committee to act more quickly — or in relation to the poverty aspects of the Bill. As some members have indicated, Committees may even be proactive in identifying matters that relate to poverty and that require attention.

Mr Spratt:

If that is the case, is there not a necessity to have something laid down in the guidelines of the proposed Bill? Has that been considered?

The junior Minister (Mr Donaldson):

That is certainly a point that we can highlight, but that would normally be dealt with through the Assembly’s procedures. Primary legislation, such as the Northern Ireland Act 1998, deals with the role of Committees in relation to legislation, and the draft Bill does not attempt to subvert that in any way. That is implicit in the proposed Bill, so I do not think that we need to legislate for the role of the Committees, since that role is already a given. Legislation would only be necessary if one were removing or reducing the role of the Committee in some way, but we will certainly consider the point that you made to ensure that that is fully compliant with the Assembly’s own procedures.

The Chairperson:

Realistically, the scrutiny of any measure being introduced under “exceptional circumstances”, or as otherwise indicated, would take place after the event. You would not come to the Committee and ask for its view on a set of exceptional circumstances and ask for our view. Clearly, the Committee’s scrutiny would take place after the introduction of any such measure.

The junior Minister (Mr Donaldson):

It would, yes. Most Committees have a good relationship with their Ministers. Often, a Minister who is introducing a measure will, out of courtesy, inform the Chairperson or Deputy Chairperson. That may not happen in every instance, but it is good practice, and one that we want to encourage.

Mrs D Kelly:

I have listened carefully to both junior Ministers, and, on the latter point, it would be much better for such decisions to be made by affirmation rather than being subject to negative resolution. The Bill will have considerable sweeping powers, and I share the concerns of the Chairperson and Naomi Long that the words of both junior Ministers on the authority of the Executive were not explicit. I want the Executive’s authority to be explicit in the Bill. A cynic would say that the draft Bill represents a power grab by the First Minister and deputy First Minister to allow them to override both the budgets and the decision-making authority of individual Ministers. Therefore, there is a need for greater clarity in the content of the Bill.

The second clause of the draft Bill deals with social exclusion and patterns of deprivation, and situations in which actions or arrangements are deemed inadequate or unsatisfactory. That allows the First Minister and deputy First Minister extremely wide scope to direct the spending of individual Ministers without any reference to the financial implications, or even the agreement of the Department of Finance and Personnel.

If OFMDFM is so concerned about tackling poverty and social exclusion, I would expect their anti-poverty strategy and strategy on poverty, cohesion, sharing and integration to have been introduced. Junior Minister Kelly said in the Chamber that the cohesion, sharing and integration strategy would be presented to the Assembly by the end of November 2008, but to date it has not come before the Committee, never mind the Assembly. Therefore, OFMDFM’s actions do not underscore what they said about seeking to tackle poverty.

The Chairperson:

It would be helpful if you would frame a question.

Mrs D Kelly:

I want the junior Ministers to seek to have made explicit in the Bill the authority of individual Ministers and what redress they have if they do not agree with the direction being taken by the First Minister and deputy First Minister.

The Bill also covers data-sharing and, as some Members mentioned, there are currently legislative bases on which to share the data of people who receive pensions, but not of those who are on income support. Is the Bill not an opportunity to close that gap in the legislation?

There is also the issue of how the Bill might deal with fraudulent applications and the recovery of overpayments. Will the junior Ministers undertake to bring the draft Bill before the Committee again before it comes before the Assembly and confirm that it will contain requirements for the consent or agreement of individual Ministers, particularly in the case of the powers in clause 2 being used?

The junior Minister (Mr Donaldson):

Mrs Kelly has asked several relevant questions. We have gone into some detail on the role of the Executive and Ministers this afternoon. The First Minister and the deputy First Minister have a particular role in the Executive, part of which is to co-ordinate the work of the Executive. When exceptional circumstances arise, it is invariably the case that more than one Department is involved: perhaps the Department for Regional Development and the Department of the Environment; or the Department for Social Development and the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, and so forth.

Part of the thrust behind the draft Bill is to improve the collective approach of the Executive to situations that are exceptional and circumstances that require urgent action by the Executive collectively. It is not about a power grab — far from it; it is about making power-sharing work effectively for people who are affected by unforeseen circumstances and who want to see their Government deliver and respond efficiently when they find themselves in need of help.

We recognise that, in the past, there has been a difficulty — a deficit — in the way in which Government responds because of the complexity of the response. Also, the legislation has not been there and it needs to be put in place, along with the procedures that must be followed to ensure that that happens. It is about making Government more effective and efficient.

We are, of course, mindful of the position of Ministers. Some of those Ministers will belong to the parties that we represent, and some of them will not. There is no question of the draft Bill being introduced to target any particular Minister or Ministers. The First Minister and the deputy First Minister will always listen carefully to the views of any Minister, or any concerns that Ministers may have about issues, and seek to resolve those issues, either with those Ministers or around the Executive table.

The role of the Executive is fundamental. These decisions will go to the Executive; they must be involved in the process. We will introduce a proposal to change the ministerial code to reflect that so that it is clear, and that change will have to be brought before the Assembly for a cross-community vote.

As for the gap in income support legislation, data-sharing and fraudulent payments, the draft Bill, as the Chairman has indicated, is enabling legislation. We have tried to deal with the fuel poverty issue in the context of the draft Bill. Further regulations may be required in light of whatever scheme is devised to make the payment, and that might require regulations to cover a situation where there is a fraudulent claim, etc. However, it is not necessary to include those regulations within the scope of the draft Bill, as it makes provision for regulations to be made to cover those situations.

Although I respect Mrs Kelly’s concerns, the motivation for the draft Bill is to ensure that we have an Executive who are responsive to the needs of people who find themselves in a difficult situation and who look to the Government for help. We want to be able to respond quickly, appropriately and efficiently to such situations.

Mrs D Kelly:

I return to the amendment to the ministerial code. It would be helpful if the two could be read in tandem. What would be the timescale for changes to the ministerial code? If Mr Donaldson recognises that there must be an amendment, there must be some indication of how it ought to be amended.

The junior Minister (Mr Donaldson):

As I said earlier, the Executive’s next meeting will be held on 15 January. Changes to the ministerial code will not be included in the legislation. However, we will consult with ministerial colleagues on those changes and bring forward a proposal. If the Committee supports accelerated passage, we want to ensure that, when the legislation is fully enacted, the changes to the ministerial code will be in place. That is the ideal situation and, with the co-operation of the Committee and the Assembly, that can be achieved.

The Chairperson:

In order to assuage some of our concerns, will you give further serious consideration to including the word “Executive” in clause 1 to read:

“if the First Minister and deputy First Minister, acting jointly, in conjunction with the Executive”?

I understand why individual Ministers should not be afforded privilege or veto, but that should be added at least as a comfort blanket and as a safety net.

The junior Minister (Mr G Kelly):

We are open to that.

The junior Minister (Mr Donaldson):

Yes, Chairman, although I stress that the safety net is the ministerial code and, under the 1998 Act, that is very clear. Our concern is that we do not do anything to subvert the position of the ministerial code.

That is why, when initially drafting the Bill, we were careful to ensure that we did not cut across the provisions in the Northern Ireland Act 1998, which is, in effect, the constitutional legislation under which all those matters are dealt with. In the Act, the Executive’s role is central and fundamental, and that is reflected in the ministerial code. However, as I indicated to Mrs Kelly, we are prepared to consider changing the ministerial code, and we can give the Committee an undertaking that it will have sight of that change as soon as possible. Hopefully, such an approach will assuage concerns, without the need for legislation, and be a better way to deal with things, ensuring that the primacy of the ministerial code is respected and that it can act as the reference point on the role of Ministers and the Executive. The problem is that if every time issues relating to the role of Ministers and the Executive arise they must be reflected in legislation, then the ministerial code, which ought to be the first point of reference, would be subverted.

The Chairperson:

Strictly speaking, the Committee’s role is to scrutinise this piece of legislation, and we cannot stretch that role to consider the ministerial code, which is not our responsibility. Nevertheless, we must be comfortable that the proposed legislation will not have a negative impact.

The junior Minister (Mr Donaldson):

We have taken on board the points made by members today, particularly concerning questions, which have come up several times, about the role of the Executive and the position of Ministers, and we will endeavour to carry out further work on the amendment to the ministerial code. We hope that that will provide the Committee with the comfort that it seeks. Subsequently, the Committee must decide whether that work is adequate. Nevertheless, we believe that that is the best approach to take in order to keep ourselves right with regard to respecting the integrity of the ministerial code.

Mrs Long:

I accept that the motivation behind such intentions is not to grab power, although that does not mean that one could not use such measures to do so, which is why we would like them tied down tightly. Would it be possible for the Committee to have something in writing to indicate the part of the ministerial code that would prevent a joint decision by OFMDFM from overruling ministerial colleagues with regard to this legislation?

In addition, would it be possible to clarify precisely why clause 2, which does not deal with exceptional circumstances, is necessary at all? I would assume that one would only intervene on poverty, deprivation and social-exclusion matters on an emergency basis, in which there were exceptional circumstances. I would have thought that one would wish to intervene routinely, and that Ministers would wish to conduct proceedings. Therefore, given that I am unclear about whether an intervention would occur only in exceptional circumstances and whether poverty, deprivation and social-exclusion policy will be directed at all times, or at any time chosen, by OFMDFM, will you explain the need for clause 2? I appreciate that there is inadequate provision, but I do not understand why you would not just address that lack of provision.

The junior Minister (Mr Donaldson):

With regard to the assurances that members have sought concerning the position of Ministers and circumstances in which they might be overruled, once again, I stress the primacy of the Executive. The First Minister and the deputy First Minister will not be working in isolation.

Mrs Long:

Nevertheless, I want something in writing that explains which part of the ministerial code would apply. I understand what the junior Minister said and I appreciate the assurances that he gave; however, I want something to be set down so that it is clear that such intentions are watertight and not just aspirational.

The junior Minister (Mr Donaldson):

If the Committee wishes to write to us in those terms, we will provide a response. Concerning the member’s second point, poverty is one of the most cross-cutting matters with which the Executive must deal, and it would be difficult to find any Department on which poverty matters do not have an impact, whether it is rural poverty affecting DARD or poverty affecting education, health and so on.

It is because of the cross-cutting nature of that issue that we feel that the Executive’s response to poverty could be sharpened and made more efficient and effective by the introduction of the legislation. The motivation behind that is to ensure that junior Minister Kelly and I have a role in a number of aspects. That includes, for example, major issues about children and young people, older people and poverty.

I think that I speak for both of us when I say that, at times, it is a challenge for us to co-ordinate the work of Government across Departments when tackling issues of poverty. That is why the issue has been separated, and given the degree of priority that it has in the legislation. It is to make Government more effective in responding to issues of poverty.

Mrs Long:

I understand the point that has been made. As a Committee, we are familiar with the issue because we have already had the debate about what controls and levers OFMDFM has over individual Departments to ensure that they address the issues of poverty when they are addressing their general priorities.

I am unclear as to why that is packaged in with exceptional matters. The Committee’s own research during the child poverty inquiry showed that there were a range of different mechanisms being used in Scotland, Wales and elsewhere to try to develop a response by other means. Were such means given consideration? Was this legislation chosen as the best? Why was it packaged in with the exceptional matters? The two issues do not seem to be completely connected. I am not saying, however, that one is unimportant.

The junior Minister (Mr G Kelly):

Perhaps your last comment is the important one. The issues do not necessarily have to be packaged together; however, we want to cover the whole process, and we do not want to go through another process of introducing different Bills.

If you want to separate clauses 1 and 2, we can consider that issue. However, we believe that clause 2 is necessary for all the reasons that junior Minister Donaldson gave.

There are all sorts of complications in respect of the ministerial code. If everyone agrees that the intent is to have flexibility, let us not overcomplicate the issue. Our argument is that the solution lies in the ministerial code, but we will come back to you on that issue. If Naomi or the Committee could write to the Department in specific terms, we will consider the issue.

The junior Minister (Mr Donaldson):

At Westminster, it is not unusual for legislation to address miscellaneous provisions that bring together all kinds of issues under the umbrella of one Order or Bill. That includes primary and secondary legislation. We are in a similar situation. There are some linkages between the two issues. We identified a gap, and because of those linkages, they were coupled together in a single piece of legislation. We could have brought forward two separate Bills. However, miscellaneous provisions legislation is a recognised vehicle that is used at Westminster and I believe it has been used here in the past to address issues that, on the face of it, may not seem entirely related. However, I believe that there are sufficient linkages between the issues to justify the cohabitation of the two clauses within one Bill.

Ms Anderson:

I appreciate that Naomi has expressed her own views. However, I do not want the two junior Ministers to leave with the impression that such views are reflective of the Committee as a whole. I agree with what junior Minister Donaldson just said about the need for the issues not to be decoupled. I say that bearing in mind the experience of the child poverty inquiry, and also in the understanding that there was a need for a cross-cutting mechanism that would result in some kind of financial assistance, support or direction to Departments.

Otherwise, the Programme for Government commitment would never be fulfilled — as I said earlier, they were out in the ether. I do not agree with Naomi that clause 2 should be removed.

Mrs Long:

That is not what I said.

Ms Anderson:

I support the inclusion of clause 2. The generic nature of the draft Bill will allow the Committee to see some kind of fulfilment of the implementation of the recommendations that arose from the child poverty inquiry. Therefore, I do not want to —

The Chairperson:

Would the Member like to ask a question?

Ms Anderson:

I am making my remarks through you, Chairperson, because the Ministers might regard Naomi’s comment as the view of the Committee. That view is certainly not my view, nor is it is the view of Francie, or Barry, who is not present. I do not want to give the Ministers that impression.

Mr Spratt:

It is not our view either.

The Chairperson:

We will have the benefit of the Hansard report, which will reflect the full discussion.

Mrs D Kelly:

I was intrigued by the comment of junior Minister Donaldson that the practice of tackling poverty across different Departments needs to be sharper. I would have thought that there was already a statutory requirement under both the Good Friday Agreement and the St Andrews legislation to tackle poverty and social inclusion. Is that comment not an indictment of your own Department’s failure to produce strategies to tackle both poverty and integration, and indeed the failure to agree to sign off on the — [ Interruption.]

The Chairperson:

Order.

The junior Minister (Mr Donaldson):

One can have all the strategies in the world, but what matters is delivery. That is what we are talking about; it is Government’s delivery on the ground that needs to be sharpened up. I am not pointing the finger at any particular Department. I am simply reflecting our experience of working at the centre of Government. We feel that the legislation will help to make us more efficient in dealing with cross-cutting issues and in the Executive’s response to matters such as poverty, which involve a number of Departments.

Government can always be more efficient. This Bill will not be the final step in improving the efficiency of Government; other steps will be necessary in the future. That comment is not intended as an indictment of anyone; it is simply an acknowledgement that we can always find ways of being more efficient in delivering the programmes that we have set out, whether they be the Programme for Government or a particular strategy.

The Chairperson:

I am reasonably satisfied that we have teased out all the issues arising from the proposed Bill. Ministers, thank you very much for your attendance. We will provide you with a copy of the Hansard report of the meeting, and if there are any other issues that we wish to raise, we will do so in correspondence.

Members raised a number of issues during the meeting, and the Ministers indicated that they would be willing to respond in writing, if desired. Are we agreed that we should table those questions? The issues principally concerned the ministerial code, which was mentioned by Naomi Long, among others.

Mr Shannon:

Will that delay us? Can we still make a proposal?

The Chairperson:

No, it will not delay us. The next stage is to test members’ views to see whether or not they will support accelerated passage, but this matter is separate to that. After a presentation, it is relatively normally to table outstanding queries. Are members content?

Members indicated assent.

The Chairperson:

Do members want to discuss the matter further or make a proposal to support accelerated passage for the Bill.

Mr Moutray:

Views have been well aired in the past 90 minutes or so, so I propose that the Committee support accelerated passage for the Financial Assistance Bill.

Ms Anderson:

I second that.

The Chairperson:

I ask members to demonstrate whether they are in favour of accelerated passage for the Financial Assistance Bill.

Members indicated assent.

No members have voted against the proposal. I declare the matter agreed. I thank members for their attendance.

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