Fourth Standing Committee
on Delegated Legislation
Wednesday 27 November 2002
[Mr. Alan Hurst in the Chair]
Draft Housing Support Services
(Northern Ireland) Order 2002
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Desmond Browne): I beg to move,
That the Committee has considered the draft Housing Support Services (Northern Ireland) Order 2002.
A draft of the order was laid before the House on Friday 15 November 2002.
I welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Hurst. I trust that we shall all remain in order and to the point. If we do not, I am sure that you will put us right.
On suspension of devolution in Northern Ireland, the then Secretary of State for Northern Ireland gave an undertaking to do his utmost to deliver the bulk of the Assembly's legislative programme at Westminster within a time scale as close as possible to that envisaged by the Assembly. That message was reiterated by the current Secretary of State, when he announced on 19 November that he was introducing 22 Bills with potential to affect for the better the day-to-day lives of every man, woman and child in Northern Ireland and covering a wide spectrum of issues.
Supported housing is an effective and valuable service for many people in Northern Ireland. It helps them to live independently in the community and often complements community care provision. Many people depend on it, including the elderly, those with learning difficulties, victims of domestic violence, vulnerable young people—including those who are homeless—and people who suffer, for example, from alcohol or drug addiction.
Support comes in many different forms. It may be practical, such as helping a person to set up and maintain a home. It may help a person to develop domestic and practical skills or simply provide advice on issues such as financial management, including paying bills and making benefit claims. It could be personal, such as helping to develop social skills, giving emotional support and advice or simply befriending someone who is lonely, or it may be aimed at ensuring that vulnerable people feel safe in their homes by giving help in establishing personal safety and security or providing community alarms.
In the past, the cost of providing support has been met from a number of funding sources. The Department for Social Development provided assistance through a special needs management allowance, the Housing Executive did that through its staying put fund and some recipients of services met the costs from their own means. However, the main funding source was housing benefit, but the courts decided that from 1 April 2003 housing support
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services will no longer be an eligible charge under housing benefit. Unless that situation is addressed, it will create a major reduction in the level of funding available to providers of supported housing schemes and could either result in the closure of some schemes or, at the very least, force providers to reduce significantly the level of service to their vulnerable residents.
In addressing that situation, the opportunity was taken to rationalise the different funding sources to create a single fund, replacing the fragmented funding arrangements with a new and more streamlined mechanism. The proposals are in line with what is being introduced in Great Britain, but in Northern Ireland responsibility for managing the fund will fall to the Northern Ireland Housing Executive rather than to local authorities. There has been widespread consultation through the document ''Towards Supporting People'', and all who responded indicated their support, subject to some concerns about funding.
This is an important piece of legislation that many people are waiting to see enacted. The previous Minister for Social Development, the hon. Member for Belfast, North (Mr. Dodds), had introduced it to the Assembly where it had been debated and all those Members who contributed to the debate indicated their support. It had also completed its Committee stage and was accepted, subject to the amendment to which I shall refer later under article 5. Had devolution not been suspended, the legislation would certainly have completed its course through the Assembly in the normal way.
The draft order gives the Northern Ireland Housing Executive the power to manage the new fund and to pay grant to those who provide housing support services. It allows the Department for Social Development to determine those vulnerable groups who will be eligible to receive support services, and to determine the types of support services that will be eligible for funding. It will also allow the Department to impose terms and conditions under which grant may or may not be paid, thus ensuring that the quality of service provided to vulnerable people will be a major factor in deciding how much grant may be paid. At the request of the Northern Ireland Assembly's Social Development Committee, it includes, under article 5, provision for consultation on any regulations that will emanate from it.
There are provisions relating to the disclosure and unauthorised disclosure of information that are necessary to comply with data protection legislation. Finally, there is a provision to amend section 129 of the Social Security Contributions and Benefits (Northern Ireland) Act 1992 to exclude payments in respect of housing support services when determining entitlement to housing benefit, which fulfils the court ruling that housing benefit should no longer cover housing support costs.
Mr. John Taylor (Solihull): I, too, welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Hurst, and I wish to repair an omission. I had the pleasure of serving under your chairmanship
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on the Committee that dealt with the Commonhold and Leasehold Reform Bill, which was some time ago, but as I was unable to attend the final sitting, I could not join in the closing courtesies: I want to say that in my 19 years in this House, I have never served on a Committee that was better chaired. Just because I have said that, I do not expect to be given a longer leash than is customary in matters of order during this sitting.
I draw the Minister's attention to article 3, and in particular to the alphabetical litany in paragraph (2). This is what the Executive can do:
(b) give financial assistance to any person,
(c) enter into arrangements or agreements with any person,
(d) co-operate with, or facilitate or co-ordinate the activities of any person,
(e) exercise on behalf of any person any functions of that person; and
(f) provide staff, goods, services or accommodation to any person.''
That amounts to a wide discretion. Will he comment on the sort of supervision that might be provided ministerially to ensure that those discretions do not run riot?
From your professional experience, Mr. Hurst, you will know about objects clauses in memorandums of association that are written so widely that the incorporation can do just about anything. I am slightly fearful: this group of permissions and competences is so wide that I would like to feel that the Minister is able to say to me, ''Well, there is always X or Y to enable us to keep an eye on this and to ensure that nobody abuses these competences because of their great width.''
Article 4(2) is a fine piece of legal draftsmanship, which I find quite entertaining. I do not wish to be too derogatory about it, but it has a lighter side:
''A person is an eligible person for the purposes of this Article if, and only if, he is a person of such description as may be prescribed.''
That is a nice continuous loop. It reminds me of the words that Lewis Carroll put into the mouth of Humpty Dumpty:
''When I use a word . . . it means just what I choose it to mean.''
As the prescription is very important, because it defines eligibility, I hope that the Committee will not leave it entirely open-ended. The definition of eligibility will be open-ended unless the Minister can say that the prescription will come back to the House—perhaps to this very Committee Corridor.
I shall restate my anxiety, because I may not have put it clearly. The eligibility of a given person to be a recipient is ''as may be prescribed''. That means that the Committee is leaving that decision to someone else, so I wonder whether that further definitional activity, which will prescribe eligibility, will be considered in Committee. I hope that that happens, and I shall not mind the extra afternoon's work if it does, because there will then be better control over the operation, which I am bound to say I consider to be broadly benign. My party will certainly not oppose the order, and I will not be trespassing on eternity this afternoon.
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I am concerned about article 7(2). The article, which concerns the unauthorised disclosure of information, is important. I would not criticise the draftsmen for the trouble that they have taken and the detail that they have gone into. As the Minister said, we are talking about vulnerable people. He mentioned various categories of folk who need help, and we all accept that they need help. Because those people are vulnerable, they are less able to protect their affairs. Information about personal circumstances, criminal offences, the number of times that people may have been to a drug rehabilitation centre, the trouble that they may have with alcohol and whether they have been bankrupt should be protected, so the article is very important.
I am slightly anxious about article 7(6)(c), which states that in some circumstances a disclosure can be made with lawful authority. Disclosures may have to be given
''for the purpose of instituting, or otherwise for the purposes of, any proceedings before a court''.
I accept that the interests of justice may require the disclosure of information, and I cannot imagine the Minister signing a public interest immunity certificate in such a case, although he might consider it. Normally, Ministers try to help judicial process, and rightly so.
The reference to ''a court or tribunal'' slightly worries me, too. In my experience, which may be limited or untypical, it is possible mischievously to trigger tribunal proceedings. It is very hard mischievously to trigger court proceedings, but tribunals—their younger cousins—can be set in motion frivolously, mischievously or even maliciously. I should not want precious information about vulnerable people to be disclosed to tribunals if proceedings were started for one of the virtueless reasons that I have described.
I should like the Minister to assure us that if, for example, I were a malevolent seeker of information, I could not go to Northern Ireland, set up a spurious tribunal hearing and put in requests for the disclosure—or whatever the tribunal equivalent of that is—of information about a person for reasons other than the proper process. A little protection there might be useful. Alternatively, he could offer a word of explanation, because I do not have the benefit, as he rightly does, of a whole civil service Department behind me, and I have to live off my wits and may have misunderstood the situation.
This is the third time in a row since I have been Opposition spokesman for Northern Ireland—none of those times has been under your chairmanship, Mr. Hurst—that we have dealt with a piece of Northern Ireland legislation that contains the creation of no new ombudsman or commission. Either the Department has lost the plot or it is doing rather well.