12/11/2013 Stormont Today


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 on the programme.


Health Minister Edwin Poots defends his opposition to gay adoption and


gay men donating blood. The natural order, whether one


believes in God or in evolution, the natural order is for a man and a


woman to have a child. Tributes are paid in the Assembly to


the founding member of the SDLP, Eddie McGrady.


His words delivered by our party leader at the weekend that ring true


to the man he was. He said, don't mourn for me, just get out there and


finish the job. And I'm joined by the journalist


Gerry Millar to look over today's events.


It was the Health Minister against the Alliance Party in question time


today. Children's cardiac services being centralised in Dublin and


Northern Ireland's abortion laws were on the agenda but, once again,


Edwin Poots' opposition to gay adoption and gay men donating blood


dominated proceedings. The Minister was asked by Trevor Lunn if he


believes homosexuality is an illness.


In terms of this issue, I don't think it is an illness. I do think


that many people have various elements to their lives that when it


comes to sexuality many people who are heterosexual would desire lots


of other folks. Those of us who are married should not be doing that.


People can resist urges. In terms of all of this, I would encourage


people to take a sensible and rational view on these issues. I


know there has been a number of challenges and the various stances I


take but I make it very clear that Indians of blood safety, that is


truly about safety. Whether one believes in God or evolution, the


natural order is for a man and a woman to have a child and therefore


that has made my view on adoption very clear and on raising children


very clear and it should be a man and a woman that raises a child.


People can criticise me for that and challenge me for it and say it is


backward. The truth is that still today, in this modern era, it is


only a man and a woman that can produce a child and therefore I


think it is in the best order for a man and a woman to raise a child.


Does the Minister accept that since restrictions were put in place, the


lack of clarity on the ongoing delay of outcome but increasing stress on


families and can he give a more concrete timescale for completion


and does he accept that an all Ireland network of children's heart


surgery with a print in Belfast is what is needed? I do accept that the


delay causes further consternation to families and that is not what we


want to have. However, I need people to be agreeable to what we in this


house actually want and that is what we have been working on. That is a


course of work that will have to be seen through if we are to be


successful. I would urge people to be patient a little longer. Time is


of the essence. Professor Wood leaves his role in December so we


will need to have something in place before that happens and that is a


course of work that we are continuing to in gauge upon. I would


hope to be in a position to give this house a full update in the not


too distant future. The law in Northern Ireland does not address


the issue of faecal abnormality. We must fully -- free till


abnormality. My views on the issue are well known. I am opposed to the


liberalisation of the law but I would look at any proposals put


forward by the Minister. As members are aware, the position on the


termination of pregnancy in Northern Ireland is provided in the body of


criminal law. Any guidance to the document produced by my department


can only reflect existing law, it cannot change it. The recent


consultation has been successful in highlighting concerns health


professionals and others have in relation to this sensitive issue. I


have asked them to look at every possibility as ideal everyday with


the difficulties faced by women and their families often in tragic


circumstances. The Health Minister Edwin Poots. I'm


joined now by the journalist Gerry Millar. Edwin Poots once again the


centre of attention at Stormont. If I was working for a tabloid


newspaper, I would be counting every headline Edwin Poots has put in it.


I think it is clear that the public want ministers to keep their own


personal moral opinions out of decision-making and I think Edwin


Poots acknowledged that when he made a clear statement that he decided to


put a ban on blood donors, gay blood donors, that it was done purely for


health reasons. He has repeatedly said his beliefs do not get in the


way of his ability to do his job and they do not unduly influence him in


his decision-making process will stop do you think his position has


changed? Three big issues tend to suggest there is a moral aspect to


his decisions. The three big issues that are always going to grab the


headlines, abortion, gay blood donors and gay adoption. I think


they overshadow all the good work because the press will always try to


grab those headlines. The new children's hospital is being


shadowed -- overshadowed. Using phrases like the natural order as he


did today and the best order is for a man and a woman to raise a child.


I think there were mistakes and he is almost trapped by the opposition


and I think he full story. When questions are asked, he probably


can't help himself. He seems to get himself into the headlines. For me


it is probably not for the right reasons. It is an enormous


portfolio, a huge responsibility, and it is difficult to stay on top


of all the nuances of that. They are very difficult, they are very


delicate and the public is split on them so they are very difficult


things to handle. The DUP had indicated that Edwin Poots would


more likely than not be rotated out of the ministry at this stage so


people are surprised that has not happened. Do you think you will be


there much longer? It is going to happen sooner or later.


Gerry Millar, thank you. A bit of housekeeping earlier today


saw the rules around Topical Questions change. From next week


they'll be asked after the submitted questions. However, today, they


remained top of the Question Time agenda with the SDLP's Alban


Maginness concerned about the future of one of our banks.


Last week the RBS announced a review into the Ulster bank and separations


in Northern Ireland. The RBS being the parent bank and being state


owned. Has the Minister any concerns in relation to that and has he


sought a meeting with RBS to discuss the review? I have concerns. There


are areas in the report that do cause concern. The second review


into establishing long-term and sustainable footing is called for


further restructuring of that bank. It is inevitable that there will be


further job losses. As indeed there probably will be across other banks


before they get to a position where they are probably -- properly


functioning. The valuation process is entirely evidence -based and


naturally that evidence reflects the relative advantages and


disadvantages of particular trading locations. At the end of the day, it


is the open market that establishes current levels. This alone will


determine who pays more and who pays less following reevaluation but I


think we would be in a far worse position if it had not been for


something like small business rate relief scheme which has given ?1.5


million in relief to properties. This department has also frozen the


nondomestic regional rate for the eighth year and we have introduced


empty properties relief to tackle vacancies which are dotted across


towns and city centres across Northern Ireland. The Minister may


be aware of the news today that the town of Ballymena, according to a


survey, is now in the unenviable position of having the highest


proportion of empty shops right across Northern Ireland at a


staggering 27% of all shops being empty. What can the Minister do to


address that? I appreciate he can't rig the rating system but he can do


more, surely, if the present concessions are not arresting the


decline. Is his mind open to doing more in terms of relief for town


centre shops so that we can arrest this situation in a prosperous town?


In terms of what persistence and what support we can give to


Ballymena, it is not just Ballymena it is right across Northern Ireland,


but in terms of small business rate relief scheme, 1183 properties have


got ?1.7 million of relief on their bills. In terms of empty properties


and trying to address some of those vacancies, Ballymena is still to


start. I think that is very uncharacteristic of the Ballymena


area. I don't think, I accept there are probably other things we can do


but I operate within a very defined spending envelope and no matter how


many things I can do, even if I eliminated the Ritz -- rates for


some businesses, it is no substitute for having sufficient turnover. If


you do not have enough turnover to keep you above water, there is


nothing I or anyone can do to keep you above water.


Straight-talking from the Finance Minister, Simon Hamilton. Northern


Ireland's politicians have failed the victims of the Troubles over the


last 15 years. That was the message from Deputy First Minister, speaking


in the Assembly today. Martin McGuinness admitted mistakes have


been made, but he said he hopes the current talks chaired by the


American diplomat, Richard Haass, could come up with a way of dealing


with the past. Mr McGuinness was reporting back to the Assembly from


the latest meeting of the North-South Ministerial Council.


Our meeting was a very positive and good meeting and provided a valuable


opportunity to focus on some of the key challenges we face. Last week


came in a few short weeks after the successful investment conference in


Belfast and the global economic Forum. The council recognise the


value of of events and I have no doubt they will provide an important


platform to provide economic growth and prosperity. Can I ask him if he


and the first Minister took the opportunity to discuss how the


Northern Ireland executive and the Irish government can work together


to deliver a comprehensive victim centre process in dealing with the


past? If so, what ideas were considered? As the member has heard


me and other say over the course of the last 15 years, one of the


greatest flaws in the peace process has been the approach to the past,


of which there are many narratives. There is a huge responsibility on


all of us to deal with that. That is why we agreed and I am pleased the


member's party was part of the agreement to house -- to ask the


diplomat from the United States, Richard Hass, too chaired the


multiparty talks. He has been involved in the engagement, and of


course he has been talking, not just to the parties but to the Irish


government, the British government and we are aware the United States


government through the vice president, who lie and the first


Minister spoke to in the aftermath of the appointment of Richard Hass.


We hope within the process we will see a resolution to the issue of


flags and the issue of parades and find a way forward on the issue of


how we support victims. Yes, I think absolutely all of us need to hold


our hands up, and this is a signal failure. But I hope it is a failure


that can be corrected. We have had in the course of the last number of


days, further positive reports from those who have been analysing the


situation, that there is an upturn in fortunes. Always very and to talk


about green shoots, people have done that before and done it to their


cost. But there is some sense things are beginning to go on the up. We


expressed our concerns that the National dairy Council campaign is


an abuse of country origin labelling. The deputy minister has


raised this issue with the authority and the Irish government


counterparts. She has brought the campaign to the attention of the


European commission. We are concerned it contravenes the


principles of the single market, discriminates against consumers. The


news recently about a new barrier going up in east Belfast, wasn't


good news, particularly in the context of wanting to ring down the


walls in Belfast over the course of the next ten years. -- bring. Last


night we brought you the news of the passing of Eddie McGrady, and today


MLAs from across the chamber paid tribute to the former MP, who was a


founding member of the SDLP. I came to know Eddie McGrady very well. We


served on the first policing board and he was a true gentleman.


Certainly, politics in Northern Ireland will be much sadder with the


loss of Eddie McGrady. Words delivered by Alistair Macdonald at


the weekend ring true to the man he was. He said, " don't mourn for me,


just get out there and finish the job". My thoughts and prayers are


with his children. As well as the wider family circle. His sister, his


brother and of course his deep friend and political colleague,


Margaret Ritchie. When I spoke to Eddie last Wednesday night, I just


said a prayer with him because I knew it would not be long. He will


be deeply missed as a close friend and colleague. He has left a lot for


Margaret, Karen and myself to do to try and fill his shoes in Southdown.


May he rest in peace. Everyone had the highest respect for Eddie


McGrady. I happened to be chairing a meeting in down hospital in what


happened to be his last day of the member of Parliament the Southdown.


I saw him and I realised Parliament would be closed in a few hours time.


I called him up to say if you last words and there was hardly a dry eye


in the house. I always found him a courteous and fair colleague and


enjoyed working with him. I met him recently at the opening of a school


and we had a bit of banter together. I know he will be missed by his


colleagues in the STL P. He will be missed and other colleagues by all


of us here in this house. I want to pay tribute to the service he


provided to the people of Southdown over the last two and a half


decades. As a journalist I always enjoyed interviewing Eddie McGrady.


I will not give too much away, but there was a time around the


negotiations of the Belfast Good Friday agreement when Ulster


television ran a sweepstake on when an announcement was going to come.


Eddie came out to the interview point and I cast him if he would


like to join the sweepstake, and he did. And he warned. Either he had


inside knowledge, or he had some influence over what was going on in


those talks. I will remember him both in terms of the negotiations


which led up to the Good Friday agreement and in the happy days of


the assembly when things were not quite as smooth running as they are


now. The deals that were done in the corridor behind the speaker's chair


generally involving Jim Wilson, Eddie and sometimes I got in if


votes were needed, is a tribute to a man you knew it was a gentleman. If


a deal was reached you knew it would be stuck to and he was a man who


stuck to his word. Warm tributes from across the


political spectrum for the late Eddie McGrady. One in 85 men is


diagnosed with prostate cancer each year in Northern Ireland. Earlier, a


motion was brought to the floor calling on the Health Minister to


introduce a screening programme for the disease. It was tabled by Sinn


Fein's Oliver McMullan who joins me now. Thanks for joining us.


You had a very personal reason for bringing this motion. I was


diagnosed earlier in the year with prostate cancer, so I brought the


motion today. I have asked the Minister to do a screening programme


for those people, those men who have been diagnosed with the cancer.


There is little uptake after they come out of the programme. The


anxiety, mental issues and I believe there needs to be a programme put in


place to look at this. You think that is more important than the


screening programme? At this present time, the medics are not getting a


handle on the whole disease. But there is nothing there when the men


come out of the programme and go home. This is part of the programme


and this is recognised by the medical profession and within the


research team in Queens University. Is that what you found difficult and


received your initial treatment, that was fine but it was after that


you struggled? After you come home, there is pressure on your family as


well. When your surgeon tells you you have been diagnosed with cancer,


it is a new world. A lot of people cannot handle that when you go home.


It does affect your home life, because there is nothing fair and


there is a big void. This is what we want to try and fill and that is why


I was asking the Minister to do something about that. What feedback


did you get from the Minister, how hopeful are you things will change?


He did talk about it and he said he would look on it. I want to see him


put it into operation. The longer we hold this off, because prostrate


cancer is fast becoming the top cancer among men. The area I


representing East Antrim, it is one of the highest areas for prostrate


cancer. So there has to be a problem. There is these hotspots and


the research unit now has a postcode list of all the hotspots of cancer.


Two men watching this who think they have a problem but are nervous about


going to their GP, what would you say to them? Don't be nervous, go


and speak to your GP and get something done. Men are very slow at


coming forward for medical help. I appeal to them to come forward or


talk to someone who has been through the treatment and give them some


reassurance. Oliver McMullan, thank you.


The House got to hear about a raft of Public Account Committee reports


today as MLAs gave their verdict on the work of the committee which


pores over the account books. The PAC chair said the committee is


working hard to ensure public money is properly spent. When I read of


lofty projections and unrealistic business cases of reform projects


and overreliance on consultants of public bodies, whose culture is


transparency and good governance, I wish for some learning to take place


and I cannot help thinking of the benefit my constituents could have


further public money. One example of this was the account consultancy


project. This was an initiative devised to introduce centralised


accounts. The original contract value for this was 970,000. The


final total was 9.6 million and further it was delivered four years


later. Lack of transparency raises its ugly head in several of the


reports. There are serious questions to be answered in relation to


housing maintenance contracts and hopefully be upcoming enquiry by the


committee will shed some light on what has been going on. But there


are also issues elsewhere. The report into the safety of services


provided by health and social care says there is a lack of evidence to


show safety has improved in the last decade. Ten years! And there is an


absence of robust measures of level and client patient harm which makes


it difficult for the department to demonstrate improvement. First of


all, let's remind ourselves what we are debating today. These are the


reports that we are discussing. I am holding in my hands, ?1 million


worth of work by the Public Accounts Committee. Because that is the


average, an average of ?100,000 per report, ten reports, ?1 million. Let


me make something clear, I think there is a role for an effective


Public Accounts Committee, scrutinising expenditure across


government departments. But when I look at these reports, I want to


refer to some of the points members have already made. I ask myself, are


we improving governments, or are we making government more difficult in


Northern Ireland? The truth in some respects is, the average person is


pursued until the ends of the earth for 100, 200 or ?300 of an effect


that might have been falsely claimed or incorrect -- incorrectly claimed.


But because of the nature of the people involved in this, enormous


amounts of money went up in smoke. We recognise we need to find new


ways to deliver public services. We have to do things differently and we


can no longer do what we have always done because that is what has always


been the way. The status quo will no longer suffice. The landscape of


public services delivery is changing. To enable us to deliver


world-class public services we have to be leaner, more productive and


more efficient. The Finance Minister, Simon


Hamilton. And Gerry Millar has joined me again.


Getting back to Question Time, what's your take on Topical


Questions been, they're being moved, but do you think they've been a


useful tool in challenging ministers on their briefs? They are trying to


make them more important and more controversial so they will be more


newsworthy. It was a topical question that got the health


Minister to save the controversial health statement would be big news


today. If they are pushed to the end of questions, there is more chance


people will be able to respond to answers already given. But it does


not give ministers a chance to prepare. If you don't prepare, you


are being asked questions on the hoof and it is then you prove you


know your portfolio. It'll be interesting to see how that changes


the quality of the debate. One other issue before we go. There were very


warm tributes paid to Eddie McGrady in the chamber today. It will be a


great comfort to his family that right across the political spectrum,


the tributes were fantastic. A direct political opponent being so


warm. He was a very kind and personable person and he transcended


party politics, which is a huge tribute you can be involved in party


politics and the tributes were moving and kind-hearted. Also on


social media yesterday. Lots of people from right across the


spectrum making the effort to go on the record? He was the ultimate


constituency politician and he loved Southdown. People felt


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.