Official Report (Hansard)

Session: 2011/2012

Date: Wednesday, 08 October 2008

Members present for all or part of the proceedings: 
Mr Danny Kennedy (Chairperson) 
Mrs Naomi Long (Deputy Chairperson) 
Ms Martina Anderson 
Mr Tom Elliott 
Mr Ian McCrea 
Mr Barry McElduff
Mr Stephen Moutray 
Mr Jim Shannon 
Mr Jimmy Spratt

Witnesses: 
Mr Jim Hamilton ) Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister 
Mr Neill Jackson ) 
Mr John O’Neill ) Department for Social Development 
Mr Peter Toner ) Department of Agriculture and Rural Development

The Chairperson (Mr Kennedy):

I welcome Neill Jackson and Jim Hamilton from the Office of the First Minister and the deputy First Minister (OFMDFM), John O’Neill from the Department for Social Development (DSD), and Peter Toner from the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (DARD). You are very welcome, gentlemen; thank you for your attendance. Do any of you wish to make an opening statement?

Mr Neill Jackson (Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister):

If members would find it helpful, I will recap the main purpose of the Bill. The Bill has three main elements. First, there is the abolition of the Fisheries Conservancy Board and the transfer of its functions to the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure. Secondly, there is the abolition of the Northern Ireland Disability Living Allowance Advisory Board. Thirdly, there is the removal of several redundant provisions from the statute book relating to bodies that have already been abolished, such as the Pig Production Development Committee, Enterprise Ulster and the Laganside Corporation.

OFMDFM has been facilitating the Bill on behalf of the relevant Departments with a policy interest in the matters contained in it. Colleagues from DSD and DARD are here today in relation to the response we believe has been received from the Committee for Agriculture and Rural Development and to answer any questions in relation to that matter.

The Chairperson:

The position of the Agricultural Wages Board (AWB) seems to be the controversial issue. The other Departments appear to have accepted the logic behind the abolition of other bodies, but the Agriculture Committee has come back to us about the AWB. Mr Toner, do you wish to provide a perspective on that?

Mr Peter Toner (Department of Agriculture and Rural Development):

I wish to reiterate the DARD Minister’s position and her rationale for holding that position. The Minister has indicated that she does not propose to abolish the AWB and has therefore not sought inclusion of any related provisions in the Bill. Last year, the Minister considered the case for the abolition of the AWB in the context of the national minimum-wage structure and decided not to abolish it for the following reasons. First, the national minimum-wage structure does not offer farm workers the same protection afforded by the board; in particular, regarding wage rates. Secondly, although wage costs are slightly higher, that has to be balanced against the need to retain suitably skilled agricultural workers in Northern Ireland.

Thirdly, the level of bureaucracy associated with the board’s rates is not significant and is no different in the North than anywhere in these islands. Fourthly, and finally, the board is a valuable forum for wage negotiations and, importantly, is used as a benchmark for the wider agrifood industry and other rural occupations. In short, the Minister is of the view that the abolition of the AWB would place agricultural workers here at a disadvantage when compared with those elsewhere on these islands and that her decision was made in the interests of sustainable farming and to protect the rights and continued availability of farm workers, including migrant workers, in the North.

The Chairperson:

Are there any comments or questions?

Mr Shannon:

Can this Committee put forward a proposal today relating to the AWB, or are we just being informed of what is being recommended?

The Chairperson:

The Committee has two options. We can refer the matter to OFMDFM — for example, we could say that this Committee has a view that the AWB should be abolished —

The Committee Clerk:

No, the Committee would not have to do that.

The Chairperson:

The Committee Clerk will advise us.

The Committee Clerk:

The Committee can accept what the Committee for Agriculture and Rural Development has said; that it is concerned, and that it would like the AWB to be abolished. We could pass that request and recommendation to OFMDFM and ask whether the Department wishes to include the abolition of the AWB in the Bill. Alternatively, the Committee could decide that it has already dealt with the matter at draft Bill stage; whereby we noted the concern, forwarded it to OFMDFM, and the Department noted that concern but did not include any provision in the Bill. The Committee could then inform the Agriculture Committee that it could propose an amendment to the Bill at Consideration Stage or introduce its own Committee Bill. Those are the Committee’s options; forward the response to OFMDFM and wait for a reply, or send it back to the Agriculture Committee informing it that it should proceed by itself.

The Chairperson:

We would be leaving the responsibility with the Agriculture Committee to handle the issue as it chooses to do so.

Mr Elliott:

Just for clarification, can this Committee recommend to OFMDFM that the abolition of the AWB be included in the Bill?

The Committee Clerk:

That would not be part of the remit of this Committee.

The Chairperson:

We have been advised that it is not within our remit.

Mr Elliott:

Then, what is the point in the Committee consulting on the matter?

The Committee Clerk:

OFMDFM is responsible for the Bill as a whole because it comes under the review of public administration (RPA). However, the AWB is part of DARD’s remit.

Mr Spratt:

Is it not OK for this Committee to say that it agrees with the Agriculture Committee?

The Committee Clerk:

The Committee can do that if it so wishes.

Mr Shannon:

I believe that the Committee Clerk indicated that we could do so.

The Committee Clerk:

The Committee can do so, if it wishes. However, the matter is not within the remit of this Committee. The Bill has come to this Committee as a result of RPA, and it refers to the abolition of several bodies.

Mr Shannon:

However, under the Committee’s RPA remit, it could make a recommendation and say that it agrees to the abolition of the AWB.

The Committee Clerk:

Yes; if that is the Committee’s wish.

Mrs Long:

My assessment is that this Committee was acting as a clearing house for the views of other Committees on matters that are within their remits — in the same way that we do for the Budget and Programme for Government. Therefore, individual Committees take forward issues that are within their own remits. My only concern about forwarding the response to OFMDFM is that we have done so at draft stage, at which point the concerns were noted but not included in the Bill. If we do that again, the process would be the same.

It might be better if the Agriculture Committee were to deal with the matter proactively: for example, by moving an amendment. I do not foresee that there will be a major change of heart on the issue. We would be forwarding the same argument on behalf of both Committees to OFMDFM, and that argument did not convince the Department to make any changes at draft stage. It would be better if the Agriculture Committee took the argument forward. That Committee might be more successful and achieve a better result.

The Chairperson:

The Clerk of Bills has joined us. He may wish to share some insight on procedures. You are welcome. Sorry to call upon you suddenly. I am grateful to you.

The Clerk of Bills:

At present, the Public Authorities (Reform) Bill is before this Committee, which can decide to propose an amendment if it wishes. The Committee Clerk has already pointed out that the matter under consideration falls within the remit of the Committee for Agriculture and Rural Development. That is the appropriate Committee to deal with that subject matter. However, this Bill is before this Committee, and this Committee has the power to make amendments if it so decides. If the Committee decides not to move in that direction; there is nothing to stop the Agriculture Committee proposing an amendment. There are several options available.

Mr Shannon:

If this Committee decides to make an amendment, will that become part of the Bill, or must it go to the First Minister and the deputy First Minister for their ratification? I would like to know what happens from the procedural standpoint.

The Clerk of Bills:

No, a proposal today will not become part of the Bill. The Committee will conduct clause-by-clause scrutiny of the Bill and will, eventually, produce a report. In that report, the Committee would suggest that the Bill be amended appropriately. The Committee Chairperson would put forward the amendment, which would be considered at Consideration Stage. However, in view of the evidence that I have heard, the amendment would most likely be opposed by the Executive. That is my speculation. Therefore, it would be for the Committee to persuade the Assembly in plenary session.

The Chairperson:

Would the amendment be opposed by the Executive or by the Department?

The Clerk of Bills:

It would be opposed by the Executive, I would say.

Mr Shannon:

It might be a reason for the Executive to meet again.

The Chairperson:

I am afraid that we will not sort that matter out today.

Mr Elliott:

I have a question about procedure. If the Agriculture Committee decides to submit an amendment, will that be at a later stage of the Bill or at the same stage?

The Clerk of Bills:

It will be at the same stage — Consideration Stage. At that point, it is open to any Member to propose an amendment.

Mr Elliott:

My second question is whether, at this stage, this Committee can recommend to OFMDFM that it amends the Bill without our putting forward an amendment?

The Clerk of Bills:

The Committee can certainly record that suggestion in its minutes. The Committee can write to the Department in an attempt to persuade the Ministers to take the amendment on board and include the AWB in the Bill. However, the decision would be entirely up to the Ministers.

As regards Assembly procedure, that option would be effective at Consideration Stage. Whether Ministers or the Committee recommend the change does not matter; it must be introduced as an amendment for debate.

The Chairperson:

Are you saying that it cannot be a suggestion; it must be an amendment?

The Clerk of Bills:

It must be an amendment proposed by somebody. The Committee may suggest that the Ministers take forward the amendment. However, if they do not take the amendment —

The Chairperson:

It would, potentially, slip.

Mrs Long:

Based on the work that was done at the draft stage, I assumed that OFMDFM and the Executive would oppose any amendment. I suggested that it might be better to recommend taking forward the change through the Agriculture Committee because that is where the bulk of the detailed discussions is taking place.

If this Committee moves an amendment, then it would be for us to drive it through, even though the issue is well outside our area of expertise. It may not be outside individual members’ expertise — I am not questioning that. The question is how to most productively pursue the matter that has been raised by the Agriculture Committee. It may be that the matter would be more effectively followed up by that Committee, because its members will debate the issue in the Assembly more effectively.

The Chairperson:

I presume that this Committee, in referring the matter back to the Agriculture Committee for action, could make its view known.

Ms Anderson:

The opinions of Committee members are known. The issue falls within the remit of the Agriculture Committee. I agree with Naomi about the degree of expertise on the matter in that Committee in comparison to that which exists in this Committee.

The issue does not matter to me, as a republican. However, boards exist in England, Scotland and Wales. I do not oppose the scrapping of any quango, but the evidence presented shows that the AWB does not deal only with wages. One of the arguments put forward in the Assembly during the Second Stage debate was that there would be some minimum wage protection for agricultural workers. However, the board also deals with items such as holiday pay and holiday entitlement. Therefore, arguments concerning the minimum wage alone do not cover those issues, and for that reason, Sinn Féin opposes the board’s inclusion in the Bill.

Mr Spratt:

Will Mr Toner explain the position of the Ulster Farmers’ Union (UFU)? The Committee knows the views of the Committee for Agriculture and Rural Development.

Mr Toner:

When the Minister took up office last year, the UFU called for the abolition of the board. The Minister considered the issue on foot of that call. The UFU called for the abolition in the context of the national minimum wage structure.

Mr Spratt:

Does that mean that the Minister’s decision is opposed by the Committee for Agriculture and Rural Development, and the Ulster Farmers’ Union, which represents the vast majority of farmers in Northern Ireland?

Mr Toner:

Yes. The Minister decided to retain the board on foot of the UFU’s request that it be abolished.

Mr Spratt:

On what did the Minister base her decision to retain the board?

Mr Toner:

For the reason —

The Chairperson:

Order, please. I am having difficulty in hearing what is being said.

Mr Toner:

The Minister considered the abolition of the board last year on foot of a call from the UFU to do so. That was in the context of a national minimum wage that the UFU considered protected agricultural workers’ rights sufficiently.

For the reasons that I outlined earlier, the Minister decided not to abolish the board. If members wish me to, I will repeat those reasons: there are four of them. First, the national minimum wage structure does not offer farm workers the same protection afforded by the board, in terms of wage rates in particular. Secondly, although wage costs are slightly higher — and the farmer perspective comes in here — that must be balanced against the need to retain suitably skilled agricultural workers in the North. Thirdly, the level of bureaucracy — again where farmers come into it — associated with board rates is not significant and is no different in the North to anywhere else on these islands. Fourthly, it is considered that the AWB provides a valuable forum for wage negotiations and, importantly, is used as a benchmark for the wider agrifood industry and other rural occupations. The Minister considered the abolition of the AWB on foot of a UFU request.

Mr McElduff:

Jimmy Spratt said that the UFU represents the “vast majority” of farmers. I presume that it represents the majority of farmers, but I am unsure whether it could be described as the “vast majority”. What stance did the Northern Ireland Agricultural Producers Association (NIAPA) — another farmers’ union — adopt on that matter? It has been brought to my attention that serious adverse circumstances would accrue for low-paid workers. Has an equality impact assessment (EQIA) been completed?

Mr Toner:

An equality impact assessment has not been carried out, because there has been no decision to change the policy. If such a decision were taken, we would pursue an EQIA. I cannot recall what stance NIAPA adopted.

Mr Elliott:

I declare an interest as a member of the Committee for Agriculture and Rural Development. As Mr McElduff mentioned, I would welcome an EQIA because the national minimum wage is lower than the minimum wage set by the AWB. I understand that a decision was taken to include the AWB as part of the abolition of several quangos in the Province, which was then changed. Is that so? Furthermore, I understand that, over a year ago, all parties in the Assembly supported the abolition of the AWB.

Is the information on wage differences accurate? For example, someone who digs potatoes on a farm comes under the remit of AWB regulations. However, if that person then packs those potatoes the next day, they would come under the national minimum wage. That situation is an absolute nonsense and it is one of the reasons for supporting abolition.

The Chairperson:

I remind members that this is not the Committee for Agriculture and Rural Development.

Mr Elliott:

We are discussing the AWB today.

The Chairperson:

I accept that, and, on that basis, I allowed the question.

Mr Toner:

The 2003 review of public administration recommended the abolition of the AWB. However, around that time, a subsequent decision was taken to retain the board, because the UK Government had given such assurances to trade unions in the UK. There are boards in the rest of the UK.

Mr Elliott asked about wage levels. A 22-year-old worker who is employed for more than 40 weeks — that is, an experienced agricultural worker — is paid an AWB hourly rate of £5·92, as opposed to a national minimum wage rate of £5·73 an hour. That constitutes a 19 pence difference. Although that may seem insignificant, it results in a difference of £7·60 a week or £30·40 a month when multiplied by a 40-hour week — not an inconsiderable difference.

Mr Elliott’s comments in relation to agricultural work and non-agricultural work were correct. Workers in the field, planting potatoes, etc, would attract an AWB rate. Workers packing potatoes would attract a rate at the national minimum wage level. The difference in wage rates is explained by the fact that agricultural activity is being undertaken.

Mr Elliott:

Does any other industry or employment sector in the Province have its own wages board?

Mr Toner:

I am not aware of any.

The Chairperson:

Are members content that they understand the options available to them? There seem to be a number of options available. We have debated the issue, does anyone wish to make a proposal?

Mr Elliott:

I propose that the Committee makes a recommendation to OFMDFM that the AWB is included for abolition in the Public Authorities (Reform) Bill.

The Chairperson:

Does anyone wish to second the proposal?

Mr Jackson:

At this point, it might be helpful to record what junior Minister Kelly said during the debate on the Second Stage of the Bill. He said that OFMDFM could not include in the Bill legislation that has not been requested or approved by another Minister of the Executive.

The Chairperson:

Therefore, in other words, if we forward Mr Elliott’s proposal to the Department, we will receive a letter referring to that ministerial view?

Mr Jackson:

That is the position the junior Minister took during the debate and I am not aware of it having changed.

The Chairperson:

Mr Elliott; in light of that, do you wish to revise your proposal?

Mr Elliott:

No. There are other Ministers in the Executive. That view was obviously expressed by OFMDFM —

The Chairperson:

Yes; but Mr Jackson has said that the junior Minister made that statement on behalf of the Executive. Is that correct, Mr Jackson? Is that your understanding?

Mr Jackson:

Yes. The Bill was approved by the Executive. It has been advanced on their behalf by the First Minister and deputy First Minister and in turn by the junior Ministers. The First Minister and deputy First Minister do not think it appropriate to unilaterally introduce legislation that has not been requested by another Minister of the Executive.

Mr Shannon:

Is that contrary to information that the Clerk of Bills gave to the Committee earlier today?

The Clerk of Bills:

That is the position of the Executive. As far as Assembly procedure is concerned, this Committee is entitled to make its own decisions and propose any amendment that it feels is appropriate to any piece of legislation. Any Member of the Assembly may also do that, and those amendments would then be dealt with during Consideration Stage in the Assembly. That is the Assembly procedure. There is no bar.

Mr Shannon:

Therefore, there is nothing to stop the Committee from doing that?

The Chairperson:

Is it fair to say that it is unlikely to be sponsored either by the Department or by the Executive?

The Clerk of Bills:

From the evidence that has been given, that would seem to be the case.

Mrs Long:

That is the key issue. The only way that such a recommendation can be included in this Bill is if an amendment is tabled, debated in the House and a majority of Members vote in favour. That is the only way that it can happen. However, the question is how that can happen.

The Committee already knows that OFMDFM is not going to sponsor the amendment: therefore, asking it to do so is essentially a waste of time. We would be better either tabling an amendment ourselves — if members choose to do so — or refer the proposal to the Agriculture Committee, asking it to propose an amendment. Realistically, those are the only ways that an amendment can be included. My suggestion was that it would be more effective for the Agriculture Committee to advance the amendment. It is closest to the subject matter and best placed to have the debate.

I propose that we write to the Agriculture Committee, saying that we do not see merit in our approaching OFMDFM based on the Department’s previous responses. However, the Agriculture Committee would be able to bring —

The Chairperson:

We would be giving that Committee the option of tabling an amendment.

Mrs Long:

Yes.

Mr Elliott:

I am happy if Naomi wishes to add that suggestion to my proposal. That would demonstrate to the Agriculture Committee that they have our support on the matter. Whether OFMDFM do what we ask is up to them —

The Chairperson:

It would then become a two-fold approach. The Committee would write to OFMDFM, and, given the likely response we will receive, we would then refer the matter to the Agriculture Committee.

Mr Elliott:

We should also take up Naomi’s suggestion of referring the matter back to the Committee for Agriculture and Rural Development with our support.

The Chairperson:

Yes, but we would have to await a formal response from OFMDFM first.

Mrs Long:

The difficulty with that proposal is that we would have to wait until OFMDFM responded before referring the matter back to the Agriculture Committee. As we already know, essentially, what OFMDFM’s response will be, we could include its previous response with our reply to the Agriculture Committee as the evidence on which we are basing our decision. That would make it clear that we are not making a judgment on the Committee of Agriculture and Rural Development’s position and are simply referring the matter back to that Committee. I understand where you are coming from, Chairperson, but my concern about combining the two proposals is that we will end up elongating the process. I want to get to a point at which something is likely to happen.

The Chairperson:

Is there a time consideration?

The Committee Clerk:

The closing date for tabling amendments at Consideration Stage is 4 November 2008. If the Committee has to write to OFMDFM and await its response, we would require a motion to be passed in the Chamber to extend the Committee Stage.

Ms Anderson:

Surely this matter comes under the role of the Agriculture Committee. It has made a recommendation to us, and we know what OFMDFM’s decision will be. Therefore, Naomi is correct in saying that we should refer the matter to the Agriculture Committee so that it can take action.

Mr Spratt:

Paragraph 10 of the paper from the Agriculture Committee states:

“The Committee for Agricultural and Rural Development asks, therefore, that the Committee for the Office of the First Minister and the deputy First Minister recommends that the Office of the First Minister and the deputy First Minister reintroduces an amendment to include the Agricultural Wages Board as a body to be abolished under the Public Authorities (Reform) Bill.”

It seems that we will just be kicking the ball back again.

Mrs Long:

Notwithstanding that, we know that OFMDFM will refuse the request. We are trying, therefore, to short-circuit that process to give the Agriculture Committee an opportunity to formulate an amendment that will subsequently be debated in the Assembly when the Bill reaches Consideration Stage. That is the only opportunity that I can foresee for any change being made to the Bill. OFMDFM has stated that it is not prepared to consider such an amendment.

I understand why the Agriculture Committee made the request, but we could end up simply stringing the process out and being no further forward in four weeks’ time.

The Clerk of Bills:

The normal process is that by the time the Committee reaches the stage of clause-by-clause scrutiny, it will have had to consider whether this is an issue and whether an amendment should be made. By not including an amendment, this Committee would be saying, effectively, that it is not in favour of one. The Committee would be assuming that another Committee will then make a concrete decision. However, the Bill is before this Committee alone, and these are issues that this Committee should be considering.

Another Department is involved but, in this instance, a single Department is taking forward a piece of omnibus legislation that covers several matters. As a civil servant, I was involved in progressing legislation, and I know that it happens regularly. It is within the remit of this Committee to consider the issue: indeed, it would be normal practice to do so. It just so happens that the legislation covers more than one Committee, and the expertise on the matter in question lies with the other Committee. In addition, several Ministers are involved in the legislation. However, let us be clear that the responsibility lies with this Committee, because this is the Committee Stage of a piece of legislation that is before only one Committee.

The Chairperson:

The other option is for us to refer the matter back to the Committee for Agriculture and Rural Development with our view on how it should be handled.

Mr Elliott:

Is that appropriate within the legislative process?

The Clerk of Bills:

The Committee can decide that it will not take a view on the matter, but will decide to —

The Chairperson:

The Committee may take a view but it will not take action. It will refer the action to another Committee.

The Clerk of Bills:

Yes — the Committee can do that.

Mr Elliott:

How long will the Committee for Agriculture and Rural Development have to submit its amendment?

The Clerk of Bills:

That is entirely up to the Committee. There will be a period of time between the end of the Committee Stage and the scheduling of the Consideration Stage. My guess is that it is likely that the Agriculture Committee has already considered that kind of issue. Another member of the Bill Office is dealing with that issue, because separate advice must be given to each Committee about what can be done. There will be an adequate period of time during which the Agriculture Committee would be able to propose amendments. It is at least a couple of weeks, so time is not an issue.

The Chairperson:

OK. Mr Elliott had an earlier proposal that was seconded.

Mr Elliott:

The proposal still stands, because that is what the Agriculture and Rural Development Committee asked us to do. The proposal is that this Committee should ask the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister to introduce the abolition of the AWB as part of the Public Authorities (Reform) Bill.

The Chairperson:

Does anyone second the proposal?

Several Members indicated assent.

The Chairperson:

Are there any amendments to the proposal?

Members indicated dissent.

The Chairperson:

Do members agree with the proposal?

Members indicated assent.

The Chairperson:

The Committee has agreed to write to OFMDFM.

The Committee Clerk:

Yes.

The Chairperson:

OK. Are there any other issues that members want to raise with the officials, or that officials want to raise with members?

Mr Elliott:

I assume that the Fisheries Conservancy Board will continue to operate until it is abolished?

Mr Hamilton (Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister):

That is correct.

The Chairperson:

As there are no further questions, thank you very much for your attendance, gentlemen.

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