Official Report (Hansard)

Session: 2011/2012

Date: 01 July 2009

Members present for all or part of the proceedings:

Mr Jimmy Spratt (Acting Chairperson) 
Ms Martina Anderson 
Mr Alex Attwood 
Mr Tom Elliott 
Mr Ian McCrea 
Mr Barry McElduff 
Mr Francie Molloy 
Mr Stephen Moutray 
Mr Jim Shannon

Witnesses:

Dr Stephen Donnelly ) 
Dr Gerry Mulligan ) Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister 
Mr Michael Pollock )

The Acting Chairperson (Mr Spratt):

Gerry, Stephen and Michael, you are very welcome. I advise you that this evidence session is being reported by Hansard. I assume that the witnesses will wish to make a short presentation to the Committee, and I will then open the session up to questions from members.

Dr Gerry Mulligan (Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister):

Thank you for the opportunity to appear before the Committee to discuss a range of topics, the first of which is the proposed UK legislation to meet child poverty targets. The Committee will be aware of the background to that legislation, but I want to remind members where the legislation has come from, and provide some detail on the Department’s position and on timing and process matters in respect of the legislation before inviting questions.

At the last Labour Party conference, the Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, made a commitment to legislate to meet child poverty targets. The Labour Government set targets to eliminate child poverty by 2020 and to half it by 2010, and this legislation intends to put that policy on a firm statutory footing. Between the announcement at the Labour Party conference and March 2009, a significant amount of work was done to determine what the Bill should look like. In March 2009, the three Ministers involved — the Treasury Minister, the relevant Minister at the Department of Work and Pensions, and the Minister of State for Children, Young People and Families — launched a consultation document, which closed after Easter.

We now have a draft Bill, which was introduced at Westminster last week. It contains provisions that cover the specification of the targets to be met and the duty on the devolved Administrations and the UK Government to produce strategies to meet those targets. It also deals with reporting arrangements, as well as some miscellaneous provisions and consultation arrangements. For the first time, it defines what the targets will be for four areas: income poverty; material poverty; a mix of material and income poverty; and a persistent child-poverty target.

The Bill requires that we produce a strategy that deals specifically with child poverty and tackling the initial target within a year, and further targets within three years. As with other devolved Administrations, we are required, under the proposed legislation, to lay that before the Assembly. We are then required to report on progress against those targets as part of a UK report, which will be given to Westminster by the Secretary of State. That is a rather brief summary of what the duties will be under the legislation.

The Bill was introduced last week and it will have its Second Reading on 20 July. We expect that the Committee Stage will start before recess in late July. That is our working assumption at the moment. We want to get back to the Bill team in Westminster with the agreed Executive position on the Bill before the commencement of the Committee Stage. The reporting stage is targeted for post-November 2009, with Committee Stage in the Lords pre-Christmas and Royal Assent as soon after that as possible. That is the broad timescale for the legislation.

Closer to home, the First Minister and the deputy First Minister want to bring the Bill to the Executive with their proposals for Executive endorsement on 9 July, which is the next meeting of the Executive. That is the current plan and the target that we are aiming for. With that in mind, we would appreciate it if the Committee could provide its views so that we can advise the First Minister and the deputy First Minister of those so that they can be taken into account in advance of the meeting on 9 July — if possible. I appreciate that that is a very tight timescale. However, we are pushing this through because of the speed with which the Bill is progressing through Westminster and the desire to get to the Bill team at Westminster in advance of the Committee Stage.

We are optimistic that Ministers will be in agreement with the Bill as it reflects power of the duties at UK level. Ministers are considering the specific issues in the Bill that relate to Northern Ireland. However, we are optimistic that there will be broad agreement on the UK-level provisions currently in the Bill.

As I have said, Ministers would welcome the views of the Committee so that they can take those into account as they bring proposals to the Executive on 9 July.

The Acting Chairperson:

That is very short notice. The Bill has been brought to us at the last minute, which is a problem if we wish to make any amendments to it. Members have only just seen the whole thing. There will be a recess period in Westminster as well; why can we not have another bite of the cherry on 9 September?

Dr Mulligan:

We are working on the timescale to which the Bill team in Westminster is working. It was their request that we outline the Northern Ireland position on the Bill before the Committee Stage commences. In line with parliamentary procedures, we could seek amendments as the Bill proceeds. Indeed, Minister Timms indicated that there will be that possibility. The convention is to try to have as many amendments as possible agreed in advance of the Committee Stage. It may be that the Committee Stage will not commence before the recess, but, to be on the safe side, we are assuming that it will be split, with the first part of the stage beginning towards the end of July.

The Acting Chairperson:

How long will the Committee Stage last, and, given the urgency of the issue, why are we only receiving the Bill now? Has it only arrived with OFMDFM in the past few days?

Dr Mulligan:

We had some indication of the likely content, but the actual draft Bill was received by OFMDFM at the same time as it was published. We have been pressing the Bill team at Westminster for a clear idea of the timescales. In a sense we are driven by those timescales. We would have preferred to have a longer period to avoid the tight timescales with which we are now faced, but we are trying to accommodate the Westminster Bill team. There is a possibility that the Committee Stage will begin after the summer, but we are not making any assumptions on that.

As part of the process, when Westminster legislates in devolved areas there is a requirement for a legislative consent motion to be introduced in the Assembly. We would expect that to occur around September 2009. That also must be factored in to the rather tight timescale for the Bill.

The Acting Chairperson:

The question that I asked was: when will the Committee Stage at Westminster end? Will you clarify that?

Dr Mulligan:

I will have to ask Michael, who has been speaking to the Bill team.

Mr Michael Pollock (Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister):

The indications were that the Committee Stage would be split before and immediately after the summer recess. It will therefore probably end around September. There is no indication of definite dates as yet. As Gerry said, the Second Reading of the Bill was scheduled for 29 June, but that was postponed, and should now take place on 20 July.

The Acting Chairperson:

A Committee Stage here lasts for 30 days; is it 30 days across the water as well?

Mr Pollock:

It may be 30 days, but, as Gerry indicated, the Bill team, who are officials in the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), are speaking about splitting the Committee Stage, so it depends when the 30 days begin.

Dr Mulligan:

We will check with the Bill team in Whitehall and come back to the Committee to confirm that.

The Acting Chairperson:

Obviously we are in some difficulty.

Ms Anderson:

Go raibh maith agat. Thank you. Following the inquiry into child poverty, it is welcome news that the Executive will have a duty to produce a strategy with a series of programmes and actions, as you have outlined. I assume that it will require some kind of Executive funding for all of that to be implemented. I take account of what has been said about the time frame that we are up against, but what opportunities are there to propose an amendment to the Bill, to clause 13, for example?

When I look at the reporting mechanism here, I am conscious of the fact that if we could include a duty on OFMDFM, that, in turn, would put a duty on the relevant Departments and councils. That could be done through the legislative framework and through the work that is going on under the review of public administration on community planning. We have gone through a child poverty inquiry and a number of recommendations were made. We will report those to the Assembly, so that we can monitor whether the rates were increasing, decreasing or remaining the same. Therefore, regardless of whatever other recommendations are proposed around the Bill, at least in the reporting mechanism there is an amendment to clause 13, which places a duty on OFMDFM to report to the Assembly. We wanted to find out what kind of tracking systems were in place to allow us to ensure that we could measure outcomes by way of the kind of programmes and projects that were going to be put in place around child poverty.

Dr Mulligan:

An amendment such as you suggested would be technically possible when drafting the legislation. However, we would need to request that from the Office of the Parliamentary Counsel in London, because it is responsible for drafting the legislation. The amendment would have to be accepted, but, to some extent, that would be outwith our control. We can propose such an amendment, but I am not sure whether we can insist on it. I can only anticipate the possible reaction. The counsel may agree to the amendment, but it may want to consult with the other devolved Administrations, in as much as it might be slightly inconsistent with the duties on Scotland for example. It may suggest, and again I am only speculating, that if we wanted to strengthen the duties on the devolved Administration, we might consider doing that through an Assembly Bill, rather than through what is essentially a UK-wide piece of legislation. However, that is only speculation on my part.

Ms Anderson:

We might just find that the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly also have a duty placed on them. I am sure that their Members would like their relevant Executive to report to them, so that they can monitor what is happening within their sphere of responsibility. That seems reasonable.

Dr Mulligan:

I can see the value of strengthening the legislation. However, at this stage, I do not know how the Bill team, who have ultimate responsibility for amendments, would respond to that specific suggestion. It might well accept them.

Ms Anderson:

Can we find out?

Dr Mulligan:

We will certainly put it to them.

The Acting Chairperson:

We can find that out.

Mr Pollock:

The rationale for imposing the duties in the Bill on the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions is that it is difficult to place duties at local level when a lot of the policy levers, such as tax and benefits, are reserved matters and are held at Westminster.

Ms Anderson:

As you said, if we are going to produce a strategy with a series of programmes and actions and the Executive are going to dedicate money for its implementation, surely the programmes, policies and projects that are going to emanate from that strategy are within the controlling authority and responsibility of the Executive and Assembly in terms of monitoring and allowing us to scrutinise.

We went through a child poverty inquiry, heard a lot of evidence and made a number of recommendations. In order for those recommendations to be implemented, we would at least be able to monitor our Departments. All we are looking for is to carry out our responsibilities as elected representatives more effectively and efficiently and allow us to monitor our Departments meeting targets.

Dr Mulligan:

I accept that an amendment to place that duty in the Bill would certainly strengthen that obligation. There is an obligation on the Executive to report progress, albeit through an agreement on how the Lifetime Opportunities strategy will be monitored. However, it is not a statutory obligation. Therefore, an amendment would certainly strengthen that. We are a little unsure as to how the Bill team in London would respond to that.

If Ministers agreed that that was the direction in which they wanted to go, we could certainly put that to them.

Mr Shannon:

I am pleased that we have legislation coming through. However, I share the concerns that were raised by the Acting Chairperson and Martina Anderson. The whole driver for the Committee in its inquiry was the 100,000 children in Northern Ireland who live in poverty, 44,000 of whom live in severe poverty. If that remains our focus, aim and goal, hopefully we will get delivery.

I want to see how each Department feeds in to target-setting. The all-party Assembly group on children and young people met the two junior Ministers yesterday to question them and to engage their interest. I have to say that their commitment is solid. Gerry Kelly and Jeffrey Donaldson indicated that they, too, saw the need to have Departments tied into helping to achieve child poverty targets. How can we make sure that that happens, with OFMDFM as the driver and all other Departments feeding in? The drive of Save the Children and Barnardo’s, which welcome the information before us, should encourage us to achieve our goal.

Dr Mulligan:

The child poverty targets towards which we are working are specified in the Programme for Government. All Departments are party to that, and Ministers have agreed to those targets. There have been public service agreements on which Departments are held to account. Although short of a legislative requirement, that is still a process of accountability which requires Departments to indicate what they are doing to meet the current Executive targets for child poverty.

This process builds on that by making more explicit exactly what Departments are intending to do. We are working with Ministers on an Executive subcommittee to drive forward all the commitments on poverty and social inclusion. That process will, in a sense, also hold Departments to account in making a contribution to tackling poverty and social inclusion, and to reporting continuously on progress. Ministers on that group have agreed to an external stakeholder forum of experts, stakeholders, the voluntary/community sector and trade unions, who will also oversee progress on targets. Within existing arrangements, therefore, and notwithstanding the importance of legislation, there are processes to secure Departments’ commitments to that area of work, and to monitor progress.

Mr Shannon:

May I ask a supplementary question?

The Acting Chairperson:

Just one.

Mr Shannon:

It will be only one. One recommendation in the child poverty inquiry report concerned tax credits. Although they are a matter for Westminster, can anything be done about tax credits here? The National Assembly for Wales has made suggestions about tax credits, although they would not have the power to makes changes either. However, the implementation, monitoring and allocation of tax credits were big issues for the inquiry. Can tax credit policy be part of the child poverty process?

Dr Mulligan:

The issue of tax credits is very much part of the process in so far as the Bill is as much about UK-level policies as it is about the policies of the devolved Administrations. Tax and benefits policy rests with the UK Government. In that sense, the UK Government will, as part of its strategy, be explicit about what it intends to do about tax credits, whether it intends to increase or decrease them or to attempt to increase their uptake. That would be relevant in our case by ensuring that everyone who is entitled to tax credits avails of them.

Therefore, it would be relevant in that sense. However, reporting and policy responsibility will rest with Treasury, at a UK level.

Mr Attwood:

Thank you for your presentation. I understand that Westminster is protective of its own processes, especially with regard to legislation. It seems to me that whatever the Bill Office’s view appears to be, there should be a conversation. At this stage, circumstances, as regards the Assembly’s recess period, are beyond anybody’s control. There should be some facility, either at Committee or thereafter, by which amendments that are specific to Northern Ireland can be tabled without that raising some constitutional issue. To offer that particular dedicated facility would not require much flexibility.

In any case, on the basis of briefings that we have received, it appears that amendments have been made to the legislation, which we should forward. If the Programme for Government’s target for the reduction of one level of child poverty is more ambitious than that of the draft legislation, for us to argue for a lesser target than that which is endorsed in the Programme for Government seems contradictory. Therefore, some amendments should be forwarded as a matter of course, either through the Committee or the Executive, because the Assembly has already committed to them; unless, of course, as some people might believe, the Programme for Government targets will not be met, and the Bill, therefore, provides a facility to actively downgrade those targets.

In the absence of that, it seems self-evident that amendments should go forward to reflect whatever differences there might be with targets that the Assembly has already endorsed through the Programme for Government. Similarly, it seems self-evident that there cannot be a target to reduce child poverty in one category without having that target in each jurisdiction. Those matters are self-evident and should, therefore, one way or another, be forwarded to Westminster, regardless of whatever the Bill Office says or does not say about facilitating late amendments from the Assembly.

Dr Mulligan:

In response to your first point, we are at one with you on seeking flexibility on that matter. We will certainly press for as much flexibility as we can manage to get from the Bill Office. I am not sure whether or not we can, constitutionally, do more than make a request. We are not in a position to insist. However, we will certainly pursue that as best we can. As officials and intermediaries between the Committee and the two Westminster Ministers, we are also put under significant pressure. Therefore, we would like that degree of flexibility to be built in. We will certainly strive to get it.

Dr Donnelly is head of research and is, therefore, more of an authority on targets than I am. I understand that the Programme for Government’s targets are, more or less, the same as those that have been set by the Department for Work and Pensions for the elimination of child poverty by 2020, and halving it by 2010. The Bill defines those targets for the first time. It provides a detailed description of what it means to eliminate child poverty by 2020 and halve it by 2010. It is not that the Bill’s targets are any less ambitious than those that have already been set: it is that they now specify, across all jurisdictions, what those targets actually mean.

Mr Attwood:

That is not consistent with the briefing that the Committee received in which it was suggested that the Bill outlines an interim target to end severe child poverty. However, the Programme for Government’s target is to eliminate severe child poverty earlier than the Bill’s target.

Dr Mulligan:

The Department can also examine that issue. However, I am not aware of any inconsistency with the Bill.

Mr Pollock:

The Bill does not mention severe child poverty. Northern Ireland is the only jurisdiction in the UK that has picked up on severe child poverty, and the Department is conducting some research into measuring levels of that form of poverty. However, there is nothing more specific at present.

Dr Stephen Donnelly (Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister):

There are four measures in the Bill, and we can cover three of those measures today. However, severe child poverty is not contained in the Bill.

Dr Mulligan:

Perhaps it would be helpful if Stephen provided the Committee with a very brief description of each of the measures in the Bill.

Dr Donnelly:

DSD funded a family resources survey, which allows OFMDFM to monitor the relative income poverty target, and Clause 2(1) of the Bill envisages “less than 10% of children” living in such a form of poverty. The Department can monitor that, and that is a statistically-robust measure. Through that study, the Department can also monitor the combined low income and material deprivation poverty target and the absolute low-income poverty target, and can demonstrate whether Northern Ireland is below, the same as, or exceeding the levels of such poverty in GB. However, the Department has difficulty in measuring the persistent poverty target, because the information is drawn from a household panel survey and the sample size in our survey is so small that the statistical results are not robust. Therefore, in summary, the Department can measure three of the four measures that are contained in the Bill.

The Programme for Government states that the Department will:

“Work towards the elimination of severe child poverty by 2012.”

A paper is currently with Ministers, which provides a definition of severe child poverty, and the different options for monitoring it.

Mr Elliott:

I thank the witnesses for their presentation, and I welcome the Bill in broad terms. However, the major concern that I have with the Bill is that it is almost a wish list. A Bill such as this should be more about defined outcomes, and it falls rather short on that front. Indeed, other Committee members have also alluded to that fact, but have not received enough information from the witnesses in response. Therefore, I want to know how those outcomes will be measured.

Secondly, clause 11 of the Bill, which deals with ‘Northern Ireland strategies’ refers on a number of occasions to the progress that the Northern Ireland Departments intend to make. I foresee a difficulty in that there may be an intention, but that the Departments may never make that progress. Perhaps I am reading that clause incorrectly, but it seems similar to our own Programme for Government targets for child poverty, which I always believed were extremely ambitious. Will we reach the child poverty targets contained in the Programme for Government? We have not yet reached the end of the timescale for attaining those targets, but I believe that we were clearly behind schedule.

Another issue that I have is how the Bill fits in with the Lifetime Opportunities strategy. Do we need to upgrade that strategy to comply with the Bill?

Finally, I wonder how much relevance clause 8 of the Bill has to Northern Ireland. Will Northern Ireland be included in that clause? I assume that it will, but perhaps the witnesses will clarify that?

Dr Donnelly:

In relation to outcomes, the Bill is specific. The target is to have less than 10% of children in relative income poverty by 2020, and to have less than 5% of children in the combined low income and material deprivation poverty and absolute low-income poverty.

There is still some debate around how persistent poverty should be measured. However, the Bill does state that there should be a reduction in the percentage of children in three out of the last four years. Therefore, the Bill does quantify what the outcomes should be.

Mr Elliott:

I am not totally convinced with that answer, and the Committee spoke at length about the measure of child poverty during its inquiry into child poverty. Can you answer my other questions?

Dr Mulligan:

Inevitably, as with any strategy, there is an element of vision. It is important that the strategy starts from the point of what the Executive wish to achieve, and that will be delivered through a combination of devolved and reserved tax benefits and policies. An intention can develop into an expectation. With monitoring, one can begin to see the impact of policies —

Mr Elliott:

Or lack of impact.

Dr Mulligan:

Or lack of impact. In that case, because we have built into the existing process regular monitoring on an agreed framework, Departments would soon become aware of whether the initiatives in their areas were not having the impact that they intended. With regard to strengthening the monitoring of progress, I can reassure the Committee that it is on a much more transparent and regular basis, and we will be able to see whether the intentions match the outcomes.

Mr Elliott:

On that point, is Dr Mulligan saying that that monitoring is not going on at the moment?

Dr Mulligan:

The Executive subcommittee only reached agreement on poverty and social inclusion on the monitoring framework at its last meeting. We now have an agreed framework. Indeed, we are in a position to share that with the Committee, if that would help.

We do not see that as a departure from Lifetime Opportunities. Lifetime Opportunities was a response from the Executive to their statutory duties under the St Andrews Agreement Act 2006 to adopt a strategy to tackle poverty and social inclusion. Lifetime Opportunities is broader than child poverty; however, two elements deal with early years and children and young people, which are generating, and will continue to generate, specific actions. Those actions, whether they are in areas of childcare, education, health, or wherever, will, along with the goals and objectives in Lifetime Opportunities, go to make up our specific child poverty strategy.

I get a sense that there is no strong desire to go back to the drawing board with regard to Lifetime Opportunities, particularly as the Executive have agreed that that is the appropriate architecture. However, it is a very high-level framework. We want to ensure that the actions that follow on from that constitute an appropriate strategy for tackling child poverty. It is not a departure from Lifetime Opportunities; it is a development of it.

Clause 8 deals with UK strategies. We anticipate inputting to the UK strategy the areas for which the devolved Administration has responsibility. There is an acknowledgement that, at a UK level, that has not been sufficient, and that the devolved Administrations, particularly the public services, have an extremely important role to play. We will be inputting our role in public services into the UK strategy.

Mr Elliott:

Will that involve individual Departments putting forward their roles?

Dr Mulligan:

Where fuel poverty or childcare is the specific responsibility of an individual Department, we will be putting that forward as part of our contribution to the wider UK strategy.

Ms Anderson:

You talked about monitoring. We have 10 years of an EQIA, and part of the seven stages of an EQIA is that you are going to monitor the impact of your policy or programme. Notwithstanding the strategy, there would have been programmes, policies and projects set to tackle and address some elements of poverty and deprivation, in particular how they define poverty. Has the system not yet adapted that with regard to its effect on youth? It is not just about avoiding the bad; it is about promoting doing good. The EQIA is about promoting equality of opportunity for all of the children that we have talked about in this instance.

Earlier this year, or at the end of last year, we talked about the need for a tracking system to be put in place so that we can monitor effectively the millions of pounds that have been spent on programmes, policies and projects to address deprivation. To go back to what Mr Elliott said, we need to move to outcomes, otherwise the current pattern will be extended.

We will continue to spend what we have always spent without monitoring whether it achieves the desired outcome. That fault must be acknowledged and addressed. I am not saying that it is Gerry’s responsibility alone; however, given that you work in that unit, you probably have a strategic responsibility to engage other Departments.

Dr Mulligan:

I take the point entirely: the programmes have operated and, I hope, have been monitored over a period of time; therefore, why is monitoring beginning only now? The current approach to monitoring draws together statistics and indicators that allow us to make international comparisons. There is consistency with indicators that are agreed at European level and with indicators that reflect Programme for Government commitments. We consider indicators that will allow us to assess whether we are meeting the targets. When members see the framework — which we will forward — they will recognise that it is probably the most comprehensive approach to monitoring the progress of tackling poverty.

Ms Anderson:

We could, perhaps, see the framework and come back to you.

The Acting Chairperson:

I thank Gerry, Michael and Stephen for the presentation.

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