03/03/2014 Stormont Today


A political programme focusing on the day's events at the Assembly and Northern Ireland Executive. Mark Carruthers is the guide through the corridors of power at Stormont.

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Hello and welcome to Stormont Today. Coming up: one week on and the issue


of letters to On the Runs rumbles on. There are major questions about


how the scheme was established, the way it has been misrepresented and


the way it has led to the current confusion. The education minister


makes it clear he won't bear the brunt of any cost rising from the


delays in setting up the Education and Skills Authority. It is not I


who has incurred this cost but the political failure of some parties


and I expect the Executive to cough up for it. Our political


and I expect the Executive to cough correspondent Gareth Gordon is here


to cast correspondent Gareth Gordon is here


threaten resignation and the British Government to apologise. An urgent


question tabled by the DUP's Paul Given ensured that the issue of On


the Runs and the so-called letters of assurance remained on the agenda


today. The On the Runs scheme had no


statutory basis and at the point where justice was divulged, there


was no provision for the Northern Ireland office to continue with its


operation, so can the Minister of eyes if the NIO has usurped the


responsibility to this assembly and has the criminal to agency,


including the police service and Public Prosecution Service, only


complicit in aiding and abetting the Northern Ireland officepos-mac


unlawful actions by taking this schema forward? Will seek a


declaration from the High Court in determining whose responsibility is


this issue? I am afraid he is premature. I am seeking advice on a


range of issues. He has correctly highlighted the fact that there was


no statutory basis of the scheme and there will be no statutory basis for


stopping it but that was the difficulty we are in. I welcome the


fact that after some effort, I obtained an apology from the


Secretary of State. Clearly, there are many questions and it may be


that it will not be possible to have answers until the report comes at


the end of May. It is also clear that in this assembly and in my


department, we, as yet, unaware of what the details are. We will have


to see what we get emerging but it is clear that there are major


questions about the way the scheme was established, the way it was


carried on and the weight has been misrepresented and the way it has


led to the current confusion arising out of the trial.


I'm joined now by out of the trial.


issue of On the Runs continues to occupy minds here at Stormont? With


a different day this could have been had we gone over that precipice last


week. The crisis blew up from nothing. We may have got over it


last week but the issue certainly has not gone away and it won't go


away before the judge led enquiry reports at the end of May and I


would not think even then, so no surprise that it did dominate a lot


of the proceedings at the Assembly today. It would have done so even


more had Peter Robinson carried out that resignation threat. Last week


was full of political drama. There is still plenty of mileage left in


it when figures like Peter Hain go on the airwaves and add fuel to the


fire. The Justice Minister David forward played a prominent role in


the drama even though he knew nothing of the OTR letters. What was


happening there in that clip we saw was an urgent oral question from the


Justice chair, Paul Given, of the DUP. He was asking that since


justice powers were developed to the Assembly in 2010, did the NIO even


have any legal staters to run this administrative scheme which provided


letters of comfort to On the Runs after this date. David Ford said he


was obtaining legal advice. He still has not got that advice. We know


that there were 38 such letters issued since 2010 but he has not got


this advice yet and he was giving away little else. There are also


questions that his permanent secretary in the Department of


Justice did know about the scheme where as David Ford did not. Many


people find that a strange situation. The issue dominated first


Minister 's questions as well? First Minister 's questions as well? First


advice to determine whether the NIO had the authority to carry on that


scheme since 2010. He does not think they did and he says it may be an


issue for the judge in the forthcoming enquiry, as well as one


for the Attorney-General. Peter Robinson says he intends to raise


the issue with both the PSNI undersecretary State, so much more


on this to come. As we have been hearing, the fallout


dominated questions to the First Minister today. Peter Robinson told


the Assembly that the responsibility for On the Runs should have been


transferred following the devolution of justice in 2010.


The bottom line in this matter is that everybody in the community was


aware that there were On the Runs, everybody was aware of the fact that


Sinn Fein was pushing for something to be run on this issue will stop


everybody was aware that the government had acknowledged there


was an anomaly, but when then looks at all of the documentation that is


available, both in terms of the minutes of the Policing Board and in


terms of the comment in the book of Jonathan Powell, where he


indicates, wrongly, but only technically, that they were


references made in the joint declaration where there was no


reference is made but there was a reference in a separate paper on the


On the Runs. Does the first Minister believe there was authority from the


Northern Ireland office to maintain the scheme for the On the Runs after


the devolution of policing and justice in April 2010? I think this


touches on the issue raised by my friend, the Member for East


Londonderry area on. I don't claim to be a lawyer but I have to say,


even with the fact that I have been a lawmaker for probably the best


part of 35 years, looking at the negotiations that were held on


policing and justice, it seems clear to me that matters relating to the


PSNI, to prosecutions and other matters to suggest that the


no legal authority for either the PSNI to be responding in the way


that it did, and certainly no authority for the NIO to be issuing


letters. That is a matter that the enquiry judge will want to look at


all stop it may well be an issue that the Attorney General will want


to look at. It will be a matter that we will take up with the PSNI and


arrangements have been made, but to have meetings with the PSNI, and the


Secretary of State on these issues. The authority does not lie somewhere


out there, to float around between the NIO and the devolved


Administration as to who wants to take an issue out. Authority is laid


down in law as to whose responsibility it is. He will be


aware of the anger from the general public and victims of terrorism at


the dodgy deal which was struck between Sinn Fein and success of UK


governments on runaway terrorists. Given the smug and insensitive


response from Sinn Fein on this issue, but indications does he


believe that this House for the leaders talks on flags, the past and


parades? People are outraged and on a number of different level. They


are outraged at the implication of one-sided justice and that damages


the whole of the justice system, but circumstances are available for one


set of those was once work -- responsible for crimes are not for


the others. The fact that the removal by the then government of


the legislation dealing with On the Runs was on the basis that Sinn Fein


withdrew their support because they did not want soldiers to enjoy the


same kind of privileges that terrorists would have. That is an


outrage, I think, in any society. The First Minister continuing to


voice his anger over letters given to On the Runs. John O'Dowd was also


at the dispatch box today. The much anticipated Education and Skills


Authority, the single body intended to replace the five regional


education boards, to replace the five regional


Does the Minister accept that many parents who do not place a high


value on schooling had a career in education themselves, but they


cannot bring themselves to engage with the education establishment


again. What is the department going to do to preach to the script?


Parents who had a poor educational experience themselves and do not


value education, I have launched an advertising campaign to encourage


all parents to become involved in their children's education, to make


society realise that education that does not begin and end at the school


gates. Despite the highly qualified and motivated staff we have, I left


parents and communities are involved, it will not succeed. Can


the Minister remind the chamber of the importance of security


arrangements in terms of savings to the public purse and educational


well-being of our young people? This was initially involves as a method


to improve educational outcomes for our young people and to modernise


the management layers within our society and therefore to make


savings as well. It is estimated that we could have saved ?20 million


a year if we had had the political will to move forward. That


apparently does not exist. We are now facing this scenario that with


councils moving to their new numbers, the education and library


boards have to be reconfigured to meet those boundaries. If there is


financial consequences for the Department of education as a result


of this not going through and I happened to bring forward


legislation, I will be going to the Executive and pointing to them that


it is not I who have incurred this cost but the political failure of


parties around the Executive and I would expect the Executive to cough


parties around the Executive and I up for it. It is vitally important


parties around the Executive and I of parents. They have a legal


responsibility to ensure their children attend school. It is also


important that we encourage parents to do so. My department has an


education campaign and a policy document detailing what actions can


be taken on and also the work of the education and welfare service.


The education Minister John O'Dowd urging parents to ensure their


children attend school. Meantime, the DUP was calling for greater


North-South co-operation and criticising Sinn Fein for not being


in favour of it. Usual positions in the Assembly were flipped on their


head today as the Enterprise Committee's report on electricity


was debated. The electricity grid needs to be strengthened. The


planning commission must set an early date to talk about a permanent


solution. It is a ridiculous situation. We do not have the


infrastructure in place. The electricity prices we have in


Northern Ireland dissuade people from investing here. Northern


Ireland has lost several major inward investment projects because


of this. We need to attract large energy users to Northern Ireland. If


they are on the grid, it will reduce costs for others. Repay some of the


highest energy costs in Europe. -- we pay.


highest energy costs in Europe. -- pleased that everyone agreed to


further examine the high energy costs. It is a welcome change of


heart to hear a Sinn Fein deputy chairman talk about the high cost of


energy and impact it has on people in Northern Ireland. Given the fact


that his party has singularly tried to do all that it can to ensure that


energy prices are held high in Northern Ireland. The interconnector


is held back as a result of the attitude of Sinn Fein when it comes


to the exploitation of our own resources. I welcome the call for an


early date to be set to reconvene the planning application for the


north-South interconnector. A specific route has in identified. As


the committee has recognised the importance of the interconnector, I


assume it will support the delivery of the interconnector without


further delay and I would welcome confirmation of that. Wilber member


indicate his support and perhaps his party 's support for a North-South


interconnector? I have been trying to speak on behalf of the


committee. We are talking about building a interconnector. A road


from Londonderry to Dublin. Why can't the two projects be merged?


Why can't it be road? It is completely feasible.


Phil Flannigan with his proposals for a North-South interconnector.


The devolution of powers in Scotland and Wales continue to be discussed.


Earlier today, NI21 was discussing this school devolution. You table


this motion. It effectively disappeared into the ether. It was


quite a czar amendment. We were keen to debate the fact that devolution


is changing around the UK and we are behind the curve on this. The


concern expressed by other parties was that your idea of discussing


these fiscal objectives was to far-reaching. When we posted the


amendments, it got through by four votes. There are be concerned about


the volatility of things like corporation tax. We need to look at


this in a professional manner, like they have done in Scotland and


Wales. I just think we are going to be left behind. What did you make of


the financial Minister's comments. He


the financial Minister's comments. benefits from Northern Ireland. That


is what you would want. I was surprised with some of the DUP lines


on this. They were saying yes, corporation tax is volatile, but


that is all we focused on. They should have said, let us do this


properly. Let us set up a commission that would run hard the independence


vote in Scotland, but it would run into the next government after the


next Westminster election. At the moment, we are locked in a place


where we are hoping for the devolution and corporation tax in


the autumn, but there is no guarantee it will happen. But isn't


at sixes and sevens? You have described the the Assembly as a


state of confusion. This is our road map to normalisation. We have spoken


about and consistently had these things that you would want to see a


government in opposition normalising our politics and taxes. It's in


Northern Ireland that should be coming of age and standing for


itself. Devolution means we can have fiscal powers and do things around


the margins that make a big difference. That is our road map to


how you normalise Northern Ireland. The ball is now in Simon Hamilton's


court. He has to report back to the Assembly by the autumn. The issue


has not gone away. Absolutely not. It has to come back in the autumn.


We will be pushing hard on a decision on corporation tax. If that


was to go against us, there will be huge pressure to say, if


was to go against us, there will be that, what is your plan B?


was to go against us, there will be not have a plan B if he does not get


corporation tax. Interesting stuff. Thank you for joining us. There were


some other important financial matters discussed in the chamber


today, including inflation. Over ?1 billion is now collected in the


business and commercial rates section. The regional rate


represents half of the typical bill. The other half is made up of


district rates which are set by individual councils. In order to


provide certainty and stability for his Mrs and households, the rates


have been partially frozen until 2015. We want to do whatever we can


to make sure conditions for economic growth are in place for Northern


Ireland. The ten one macro -- the Executive has taken a strong


approach to this. We understand that household and businesses are under a


lot of pressure. The committee did agree to recommend that there should


be a freeze on some of the rates. Town centres are facing


difficulties. Town centres are facing


real pressure and rates are a major issue for them. I want an assurance


from the minister that he is doing all he can to recognise that


pressure. The Stormont Department responsible for employment fell to


achieve its targets on sickness absence. The employment and learning


committee learnt that sickness levels were on a downward trend. At


last week 's committee, MLAs were taken through the figures. The trend


is now downwards. There was a high of around 19 days in 2001. That had


come down to 11.4 days by 2011. We did look at causes of absence, so in


general terms within the civil service, it is long-term sickness


absence that accounts for the majority of overall sickness


absence. Within that mental health is recognised as the main cause. If


people are off on long-term sickness and they are suffering from mental


health and other issues, we need to be compassionate in how we deal with


them. We need to offer whatever help and assistance we can. We need to


look at the reasons why people are suffering from these illnesses. I


would not disagree with suffering from these illnesses. I


what specifically they have done about these absences. I am a little


amused. The figures are interesting, but I wonder what the value is if we


don't actually have any detail behind them? Is their value in us


having this as a session in the committee because we don't know what


is driving the figures. Obviously there is an issue because it is


costing the public purse a lot of money. I often wonder whether it's


self-defeating publishing some of these figures. We do need to monitor


sickness levels, I often wonder if certain individuals will view the


average figure, realise they are significantly lower than that and


feel they can top up their sick days? In terms of the overall


numbers that are off on long-term sick, what percentage of those are


off on mental health reasons? 29 days is the average lost because of


mental health issues. Some have longer absences. Gareth Gordon has


joined me again. We heard today the office of the first and deputy first


ministers making plans to launch a committee on the sexual orientation


debate. committee on the sexual orientation


Public consultation is to begin soon and the strategy will follow. It is


aimed to promote and environment free from harassment and bullying in


terms of homophobia. Finally, a familiar face is due back in


Northern Ireland later in the week. Bill Clinton has not been here since


2010. Tomorrow he will be in Dublin and Wednesday he attends a ceremony


at Queens. He will also be going to Londonderry and I went be surprised


if he puts in an appearance here at Stormont. That is it for now. I will


be back tomorrow at 11:20pm. Until then, good buy.


Nowadays we take the issue of fairness in employment for granted.


I have never felt it important to ask anybody's religion


when I'm going to employ them as a sheet metal worker.


This is the story of fair employment in Northern Ireland.


it masked a much greater problem in terms of educational disadvantage.


The Fair Employment Act of 1989 changed Northern Ireland's society


dramatically. We still have a way to go.


But are we on the right track? Absolutely.


In January, 1941, just months after the


A political programme focusing on the day's events at the Assembly and Northern Ireland Executive. Mark Carruthers is the guide through the corridors of power at Stormont, and is joined by key people from decision makers to opinion formers to make the experience enlightening and entertaining.

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