06/11/2012 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 in the next 30 minutes:


How a decision by the Agriculture Minister will help some sports


manufacturers. Ash wood can only be imported under certain tech nickal


conditions. -- technical conditions. Also: There is a perception that


this Chamber is male and middle- aged.


MLAs vote in favour of change and call for the reduction of the


minimum voting age here to 16. And we'll hear from our Political


Editor who's been walking the corridors of power to keep us up-


to-date with all that's happening up here on the hill.


First tonight, there was a somewhat muted atmosphere around Parliament


Buildings today, as the thoughts of many elected representatives were


focused elsewhere. A large number of MLAs were keen to attend the


funeral of the murdered prison officer, David Black, in Cookstown


and the Assembly's Business Committee decided to alter the


agenda to accommodate them. Our Political Editor, Mark Devenport,


is here to talk us through the day. It was a very unusual day at


Stormont? It was. We had this unusual suspension in the middle of


the day. Normally, they have a lunch break. Instead, they were


stopping at noon and then not coming back until 4.00pm. That was


all about the funeral of the murdered Prison Officer, David


Black, in Cookstown. A lot of elected representatives wanted to


make their way there, as we were reporting yesterday. It wasn't


everyone from the Assembly because the family expressed their wishes


there should be no Sinn Fein representatives so there was no


presence from the Deputy First Minister, who otherwise you would


have thought he would have been there, he was talking about the


murder of David Black in the Chamber and calling those


responsible "idiots". The suspension finished. We went on to


questions. Some of the elected representatives were still having


difficulties getting back because Danny Kennedy was late by nine


minutes for his question time, which was due to happen at 4.30pm.


The Sinn Fein Green Party motion later today on lowering the age of


voting to 16 was debated and passed? Yes, passed by 51 votes to


29. All the parties lining up on the side of changingst voting age


with the exception of the DUP and the TUV. The interesting thing


there is that the Ulster Unionists, who you might have thought would


not have been keen on this, they came out for a change in the voting


age. The DUP weren't convinced. They came under attack from critics


who said some of your MPs have said they are in favour of this move and


Sinn Fein produced a parliamentary motion which Peter Robinson had


signed in 2005 supporting this move. The DUP say their assembly group


policy is there shouldn't be a change. What happens next? This is


a call for Westminster to change the law as far as the voting age is


concerned. The Assembly doesn't have the power to do anything


itself? Because Sinn Fein and the Greens were putting this forward,


they came under attack, but electoral policy is the prominence


of the Northern Ireland Office. Thank you.


More now on Regional Development Questions, and, as we've been


hearing, Danny Kennedy was one of the MLAs who attended the funeral


of David Black this afternoon. The Roads Minister began by apologising


to the House for delaying the start of Question Time after getting


caught in traffic. Members will know that I'm travelling back with


others to the very sad circumstances in Cookstown, the


funeral of Mr David Black, which was a very solemn and dignified


occasion. And I apologise to the House for my slight delay. As the


member will be aware, the increase in the cost of penalty charge


notices from �60 to �90 took effect from 4th July 2012. In the


intervening period to 31st October 2012, 37,277 PCNs have been issued.


This represents a decrease of just over one-tenth when compared to the


41,052 that were issued in 2011. My department is monitoring the impact


of this fee increase on illegal parking as well as the various


types of contraventions. This monitoring exercise will run for 12


months to allow for a comprehensive assessment to be completed. My


department will carry out a statistical analysis of the results


found in Northern Ireland compared to those in England and Wales.


Given 28% of tickets are issued on one road in Belfast, and 86% of


those issued between 4.30 and 6.30, does the Minister consider that the


company carrying out the contract at present is doing so in a fair


and equitable way across Belfast? The contract for this work was


retendered and has been allocated. I'm satisfied that the successful


tender does fulfil all of the requirements in terms of what is


necessary including increased savings to the department and the


cost of these services which of course is quite substantial. The


member has raised the issue of a particular section of clear way.


I'm still assessing that particular situation and will be happy to


liaise with him as we give further consideration to the questions that


have been raised. We don't seek to punish people and let me make clear


again that the company involved, there are no increased benefits for


additional tickets to be issued and it is not done on that basis and


the individuals who served the tickets gain no benefit on a


personal basis either. Can I ask him, how much money is being lost


to his department as a result of this delay? The member will be


aware that, as it's been previously indicated, the clock is now running


on those delays and any delay will certainly result in increased costs


in a number of areas. Assuming there is no change in the total


construction period, there would be direct quantified inflationary


increases arising from month on month delays to the start of


construction. The project team will attempt to mitigate the impact of


any delay, however the initial assessment of a delay to the


starting date is in the order of �750,000 per month. Of course,


there is also the postponement of the scheduled start date which will


result in the department having to declare back to the Northern


Ireland Bloc �10 million for every month of delay.


The Regional Development Minister, Danny Kennedy.


The Agriculture Minister, Michelle O'Neill, briefed Members on what


she's doing to protect ash trees here from the potentially


devastating Ash Dieback disease. It's been found in four counties in


England and the Minister has signed emergency legislation to try to


prevent its spread here. And during Question Time, she also dealt with


questions about the planned relocation of her department to


Ballykelly. I recognise that the location could cause problems for


some existing staff and I have therefore outlined my commitment to


use the time that we have available to ensure that the transition from


Belfast-based headquarters to the rural setting of Ballykelly is made


as easy as possible for all the staff. I'm aware the railway line


crosses the lower end of the site and I have written to the Minister


for Regional Development inviting him to give serious consideration


to a rail hub. Would she agree she showed a complete disregard to the


pressure on local infrastructure in the area? Would it not have been


bet tore have these conversations before you announced your decision?


The member might be surprised to know I don't agree that I brought


my decision on the 3rd September to the Executive. I announced to my


colleagues, the objective criteria, I informed them of my move and I


decided on the Ballykelly site. I did what I needed to do in terms of


informing Executive colleagues. Given Fermanagh has a significant


number of ash trees, can the Minister give an update on the


situation with the ash dieback disease? I am pleased to report


following a meeting with the Minister last Friday, we agreed the


need for additional safeguards on imports of ash wood and bark. We


found there are regular imports of ash logs from manufacturing


purposes. That is a potential pathway for disease. Today, I


authorise the making of a statutory rule, the plant health wood and


bark amendment order as emergency legislation. From today, ash wood


can only be imported under certain conditions as set out in the order.


I believe this is a proportionate response to the risk of introducing


disease in wood. From today, these can only be imported if they are


accompanied by an official statement that the wood originates


in an area known to be free from Chalara fraxinea. However, the risk


reduces substantially if the wood receives suitable treatment. It is


in light of what happened when ever foot-and-mouth came on the scene


where the carcasses of the beasts were burnt. In relation to the ash,


I can appreciate that certain people might say the right approach


would be to burn the ash and therefore probably deal with the


hurly stick business in a different way. Is the eradication on site - I


have been told by moving those spores of trees that are damaged,


it spreads it around the country, and that could happen. We have had


no outbreaks in the North. We don't have any at this stage. Hopefully,


we won't have to deal with it. In the South they did burn and it was


on site. I can confirm that with the member. For me, it is about


protecting our native species and the hurly makers. We have found a


way forward that will allow them to make hurls way into the future.


The Agriculture Minister, Michelle O'Neill, with a sporting offer to


the DUP's Paul Girvan. The Education Minister has rejected


DUP criticisms of his handling of computer glitches in primary


schools. In a statement about his aims for education, John O'Dowd


also told the Assembly that while most teachers are excellent, there


are some who need retraining or are not effective any more. On 17th


October the Chief Inspector of the department's education training


inspectorate launched the annual report on the state of the


education system. The inspectorate makes a key contribution to raising


standard. It acts as a catalyst for improvement. In the last year, 81%


of schools with follow-up inspections had improved one


performance level. The report paints an improving picture in our


primary schools. A picture that shows that the revised curriculum


has bedded in well. At Key Stage 2, overall quality was good or better


in four-fifths of primary schools inspected. I would like to


acknowledge the dedication of our primary schools and the improvement


that has been delivered. Too many children are not well served. It is


very clear from the Chief Inspector's report and from wider


evidence that effective leadership and high quality teaching are


central to delivering improvement. Now it has been held accountable


for the outcomes. We need to do more. More to acknowledge the great


teachers and develop more of them. And more to challenge and support


those who are not as effective as they should be. For that reason, I


have already announced action to enhance the professional standing


of teachers this year. I propose to bring legislation to strengthen the


role of the General Teaching Council as the professional body in


supporting teachers and upholding the highest professional standards.


We will also support the continuing price of the development of


teachers through a new strategy for teacher education that will focus


on attracting the right people into teaching. I also want to announce


that as part of our work to learn from the best, the North will be


participating in a major review by the Organisation for Economic Co-


operation and Development, OECD, looking at how assessment and


evaluation systems deliver improvement force pupils. Our


experience will help others learn from our experience. Importantly,


it will also help us to learn from others, too. It will involve an in-


depth review of our education system carried out by independent


experts from other OECD countries. It seems right after all that if


you expect our schools to be inspected and evaluated and to


respond with action to build on strength, we should expect to


subject our system as a whole to similar scrutiny. You used


"exciting development". There will hard I'll be few teachers who will


be sitting on the edge of their seat as a result of the content of


what is in the Minister's speech. He has tried to expand on the


statement that he made last year. I do have a concern, Minister,


however, that teachers listening to this today will be of the opinion


that they are being asked to pick up the tab for the failures of the


department rather than addressing the issues which are currently in


our educational system. It always amazes me how the member manages to


evaluate what the outside world is thinking. There will be different


views on what I have said today both in the teaching profession and


parents and also on boards of governors. I'm not pointing the


finger at teachers here. We have a collective responsibility to


improve the educational outcomes of our young people and within the


collective responsibility there is a role for teachers. And I have


said in my statement the vast majority of our teachers are


excellent. However, we have to accept that there's teachers out


there who require retraining and there's teachers who are no longer


effective. I don't believe we have the mechanisms in place to deal


with that quickly enough to make an impact. I want those discussions to


continue. I also set out a challenge for myself as Minister. I


have called in OECD to inspect our education system. The education


system I am in charge of. The buck stops with me. OECD are coming to


inspect my role as Minister and the policies I have delivered. I don't


think I can be any more open and transparent than that. At the close


of play, around 100 schools were facing difficulty. Their computer


experts tell me they have identified a problem in the system


and they have identified a way to resolve that problem. And they are


running further tests before they put that into the system. We don't


have wide scale problems. We do not have a crisis. We have a difficulty


and a problem. The Education Minister, John O'Dowd.


As we heard from Mark Devenport earlier in the programme, the


Assembly voted in favour of reducing the voting age to 16.


Changing the law remains the responsibility of the Government in


Westminster but today at Stormont, the DUP was the only main party not


calling for a change. I have been extremely politically active and


aware since my early teens but was only entitled to a vote three years


ago. I want to ensure young people are given a greater say. The


argument that older people know what is best for younger people was


used to deny women the vote in the 1900s. This motion should be a


motion of confidence in the younger generation. I urge everyone to


support it. To those who don't, it shows the fear of becoming


irrelevant. I can't help but notice a huge reason for political


detachment is the very make-up of this Chamber. There is a real


perception that this Chamber is male and middle-aged and too much


so. It is time for change. Can I say that whilst the people who are


involved in the vote at 16 movement are clearly well educated, clearly


well motivated and take an interest in the political process - there is


no doubt of that - I don't think that that can be said for the vast


majority of 16-year-olds across the country. I don't think that every


16-year-old will be watching proceedings today with a huge


degree of interest. The party is opposed to voting at 16. Could he


explain is his party united in this? We are given to understand


that one of your MPs does support voting at 16 so is that a united


position, or...? I think that members are able to hold their own


individual views on this. I don't think that would be unique. The


Assembly party here is united on this vote. We don't believe in


voting at 16. I could list the number of things you cannot do at


16. You cannot drive, you can't rent out films such as Robocop. So


the reason that society has said you can't do that is because of


protection. It is somewhat ironic that some of the individuals here


today who will argue to give 16- year-olds more responsibility are


the very people who also argue and supported raising the smoking age


up to 18 and want to have further restrictions on young drivers.


Another aspect is the issue of citizenship training. Our young


people are being taught in our schools about the importance of


voting. What happens at present, they are given this information,


many come 16, they leave school, and it is a minimum of two years


before they have an opportunity to exercise their vote. They forget


what they have learnt at school and they haven't had a chance to


exercise it. How much better would it not be having gone through your


citizenship training that you were presented at the first chance of an


election to exercise that vote and participate? The habits learnt in


our younger years tend to be what follows on in our latter years. It


is vital we encourage more people to vote. If young people are able


to go and fight wars, they should be entitled to vote for the


Government that would send them. I do think that I am fed up hearing


politicians say young people are apathetic. They aren't interested


in politics. I often speak to young people as do many people in this


House. They are far from apathetic. They are very, very interested in


many issues in society. One thing they are not interested in is how


this political process and these bodies engage with them and attempt


to try to encourage them to become involved in politics. None of us


know for certain whether such an extension would lead to a


significant increase in young people voting. We need to qur and


implement measures that deal with - - everyone in this chamber should


agree with me that that is a good thing. It certainly is not a reason


to deny politically active 16-year- olds their democratic rights.


The Alliance Party's Stewart Dickson.


Joining me now is one of the proposers of that motion, the Green


Party's Steven Agnew. Why does lowering the age of voting to 16


make sense in your view? I think more and more young people are


engaged in politics. We are doing citizenship courses in schools. We


do have a problem of 18 to 25-year- olds voting and research suggests


that 16s is a much better age to get younger people engaged. At 16,


you are in school, you can be in school getting registered to vote,


it is time - you are talking - so make it real. When we look at


things, we had a debate about the age of criminal responsibility. We


say young people are responsible at the age of ten for their actions.


At 16, we are arguing you are not responsible enough to vote. At 16,


you are well enough informed. they interested? Critics of the


idea say there is a huge amount of apathy as far as 18 to 25-year-olds


are concerned. Where is the evidence that 16 and 17-year-olds


will take the opportunity to vote? I remember being 16. I remember all


the young people I went to school with and went on to university with.


Young people are the most energetic, passionate opinionated group. This


is a time when you are exploring all these thing. You have the time


to. You can research them. So they are interested. There has been a


failure of politicians to engage young people and to reflect their


views. OK. You have to address the issues that matter to young people.


OK. You won the motion today, the vote 51 to 29. What happens now?


You hand this over to Westminster and there is no guarantee that


Westminster will do anything about it? There is a Private Members'


Bill in the House of Lords looking at lowering the voting age. We are


sending a clear message that in the Northern Ireland Assembly, they


support the reduction. Steven Agnew, thank you.


Legislation which will reform the welfare system has been the source


of significant controversy here at Stormont in recent weeks. Well,


last week, the Social Development Committee took evidence on whether


or not the bill is compliant with human rights legislation, as we can


hear now in our weekly look at committee business. I must record


that the Commission is disappointed that there is a lack of evidence


that the department has undertaken the required human rights scrutiny


of the bill. We noted that last Monday that the Minister for social


development advised the Assembly that the department had conducted a


full analysis of the bill against the European Convention on Human


Rights. The Commission would point out to you that the department is


obliged to analyse the bill against all relevant human rights standards


in the Treaty obligations in the Council of Europe and United


Nations systems, not just on the European Convention. This


commission's focus is testing the bill against human rights standards


and not the politics of welfare reform. The Commission can support


the stated aim of the bill to assist people into work. The right


of people to work is recognised in the European social charter. The


measures included within the bill intended to assist and encourage


individuals in exercising the work however must take into account the


particular circumstances of the individual. On the issue of


sanctions, paragraphs 28 to 38, we have raised concerns on the


potential for the sanctions regime relating to the various work-


related requirements, our concerns are about these being imposed


unduly harshly with the result that an individual may become destitute.


The bill does contain numerous safeguards that the sanctions


should not be imposed without good reason. And that those who have had


a sanction imposed upon them may apply for a hardship payment. But


our concerns about this still remain. It says here as part of the


process for bringing the bill to the Executive, my department's


already conducted a full analysis of the proposals contained. Then it


goes on to detail the various articles. But I finish - the


department's view and mine is that the bill is compatible with the


Convention rights as defined in Section 1. That view has been


confirmed by the department's solicitors office. Yet you are


concerned about the absence of detailed human rights analysis of


the bill and its potential implications. Now, either you are


right, or he is right? We are not disputing the Minister has


undertaken a human rights analysis. In fact, we have noted he has made


that remark to the Assembly. The only thing we are drawing to the


committee's attention is has the committee seen sight of that impact


analysis? Also, with regard... we seen sight? No, we haven't.


you requested that? No, we haven't. The Commission did meet with the


Minister when ever the Welfare Reform Bill was passing through


Westminster and it was made clear at that stage to both the Minister


and his officials that the Commission was willing to engage at


whatever level it saw fit but in the interim period there has been


no approach made by the department. Have you approached the department


yourselves? No, we have not. Sammy Douglas and David Russell


ending that look at committee business.


That's it from Stormont Today for this week, but do make a point of


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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