13/06/2011 Stormont Today


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

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Hello and welcome to Stormont Today. We'll be talking money, or rather


the lack of it. The bills are piling up and there is plenty of


anxiety facing the Minister and students over tuition fees cool.


This MLA have the answer? Before he would ever consider going to the


executive that the department of employment and Learning itself


should also be operating efficiently and that this shortfall


in funding is meant internally and by the colleges and universities


themselves And it was back to the Budget for the finance Minister but


have been back to basics? I think in one case a minus was put in


instead of a plus and therefore you got a different outcome in terms of


the amount of cash the Department of Agriculture bid for.


Exam stress is just one of the problems facing our students just


now. There is also the gruelling question of tuition fees and the


prospect of a potential hike. Some �1,200. For now it is a weight game


while the Minister makes up his mind. In the meantime I'm joined by


the outgoing President of Queen's Student union. Welcome to the


programme. Good evening. Do you have any debts yourself? I do


indeed. I left university two years ago with a tuition fee debt of


�20,000. That included my student future, as well as the course costs


and the student living allowance as well. How much stress is this


causing students on campus, this notion of a hike? Indeed it is


causing students stress because of the uncertain future with tuition


fees in Northern Ireland, as well as the exams and course materials


they've got to be concerned about. But for the families and electorate


of Northern Ireland they were promised under the last Government


a response in July. We still don't have a proposal of a date on the


table for this tuition fee arrangements moving into 2012.


it is a few more months you will have to wait. Stay with us, Gareth,


because we'll come back to that. At the start of business this


morning members paid tribute to the former Irish Minister for finance,


Brian Lenihan, who died last week aged 52. He fought a brave battle


against pan country attic cancer. On behalf of the SDLP and at a


personal level I wish to extend our sincere sympathy with Brian


Lenihan's wife, Patricia, on this sad and untimely death of a person


who had yet so much to safer. To his entire family circle and to his


party, Fianna Fail, for whom he dedicated so much and gave so many


of his time. To his many friends, friends whom he had both cross-


party and indeed outside politics. I sympathise. A true politician and


a gentleman. He bore a great burieden of course


during the great -- burden of course because of the state of the


economy and the Irish Republic and at the same time because of the ill


health he suffered. And yet in all of dealings I had with him he


always had that bouncy optimism, both in terms of his own health and


things were getting better and he was recovering, and also in terms


of what could be done for the economy in the Irish Republic.


think he will be a huge loss. Apart from being a first class politician.


He was a very decent human being. He was very affable. He was good


natured. He was very kind hearted, and he was always willing to


thereon the debates and discussions that were taking place. I think he


will be sorely missed, and I think all of us who worked with him in


the past will remember him as someone who made a contribution, a


positive contribution to life in this island. When he first made the


public announcement of his illness in late 2009 he won admirers from


all sides of the Dail, while battling a personal struggle for


his survival. On behalf of the Ulster Unionist Party I would like


to convey my sympathies to his wife, children and the family circle.


speaks volumes that he was there to do the best conceivable job for his


constituents, for his party, for the people of Ireland and, as


others have said, for recognition of the responsibility. He will be


sadly missed, because political life could do with many more people


like Brian Lenihan to carry that sense of obligation, that sense of


commitment, alongside that sons of good humour and partnership and


willingness to relate to other people. I wish to express the


condolences of myself and the Green Party to Brian Lenihan's family.


Cancer has taken from us talented politician but perhaps more


importantly at the young age of 52 a son, a husband, and a father.


Economy Minister Arlene foster was answering questions this afternoon,


but first off it it was new Minister who has joined his party


leader at the executive table. The alliance member for North Down is


now in charge of the department of employment and Learning and his


Question Time was about one thing: tuition fees. At present in


Northern Ireland universities have to find savings of �28 million over


the next two years. That amounts to a 12% cut in terms of the public


support that we give to those universities. Already that comes at


a time when the levels of investment in universities in the


rest of the UK are increasing. We do have a very strong record in


Northern Ireland of having two world class facilities and it is


important that we maintain that and do not fall behind what's happening


in theest of the UK. If the �40 -- in the rest of the UK. If the �40


million gap has to be passed on the universities that would have


catastrophic consequences for them and would entail a reduction in the


number of students and the closure of a number of departments. It


would be difficult for us to sustain an argument that we had


world class facilities. We are trying to give out a message that


Northern Ireland is open for wis. - open for business. What they will


be looking for is a guarantee that we will have highly skilled


workforce and that includes highly skilled graduates through our two


universities. Thank you Mr Deputy Speaker, does


the Minister not agree the onus should be on the universities and


the colleges to ensure that they are operating a streamlined


management structure where it is efficient and also before he would


ever consider going to the executive that the department of


employment and Learning itself should also be operating


efficiently, and this shortfall in funding is met internally and by


the colleges and universities themselves? I agree with the thrust


of what the member is saying. Efficiencies are important in terms


of my own department I am wholly committed to that. I know both the


universities are equally committed to finding efficiencies themselves.


It is important to put down a marker that universities aren't


there simply to act ads companies trying to drive out costs to the


lowest common denominator. They are there to make an investment in


terms of the future of the society as a whole. There is this notion


out there as well that both universities are sitting on some


pile of reserves that we can tap into to address. This now, I've


asked my officials to drill down and test those argument fully and


spoken to both Vice Chancellors, who are prepared to co-operate with


my department examining those types of arguments. Both universities at


the moment do have reserves but these are committed to capital


investment. A lot of that is contractually committed as well. It


is important that members are aware that when talking about the use of


reserves to plug a gap this, �40 million issue is a recurring cost


throughout every year. You can only dip into rerves once. Then they


were exhausted -- reserves once. Then they are exhausted.


Then it was on to enterprise, trade and investment. When asked about


inward investment, the Minister was pleased to have good news to report.


In relation to the current market, obviously it remains quite volatile.


However, the pipeline of new projects remains good, particularly


I have to say in the financial services, ICT and software sectors.


Invest Northern Ireland are encouraged by the level of interest


in Northern Ireland. That's something we'll continue to work on.


In fact the potential Northern Ireland office's new business is


out of this world. Cyber connectivity is important to us.


That's why Project Kelvin linking us to America was such a key


investment force. We now have quicker connectivity between New


York and Northern Ireland than New York has with San Francisco. That's


something we should be proud of. Aligned with that when we get


people to connect into Northern Ireland we must have the


connectivity within Northern Ireland. That's what the member is


referring to. But it was back to Earth with a bang with this MLA


crying foul on the lack of funding for the Milk Cup football


tournament. Very tox press disappointment that you have no


good news for the Milk Cup. With Minister for oversight with the


tourist board did you agree with their decision, which seems to


beggar belief that Northern Ireland Milk Cup could only score half the


marks available on branding as a Northern Ireland venture? If you


don't agree, what steps will you take to make sure that the great


wrong done against Northern Ireland Milk Cup is righted? I thank the


member for his question. One key factor in why the Milk Cup and the


Foil Cup didn't score highly is because they are primarily sporting


events. Notwithstanding the fact they do bring a number of tourists


to Northern Ireland and the greater north-west. Because of that and


because my good friend and colleague Gregory Campbell has been


lobbying me in relation to this issue, I have asked my officials to


discuss alternative funding arrangements with the department of


culture, arts and leisure, and Sport Northern Ireland. But I do


need to say that the long-term sustainability of both events has


to be considered. That's key noint all of this. Certainly we'll look


to be positive and find a solution in relation to this year but in the


long term public funds cannot be permanently guaranteed for specific


events. Therefore we need to look to a plan in relation to the medium


to longer term. In relation to this year I've asked officials to have a


look at this matter. If you want to see more from


Question Time or indeed anything else that's been going on in the


chamber or committee, go on-line to The finance Minister took up quite


a bit of Assembly time today. He had to ensure he had the legal


right to spend all that lovely money, and once the budget was


mentioned it opened up a raft of complaints, but as usual Sammy


Wilson had his answers ready. When I caught up with him to talk about


future plans it was mistakes of the Some people make mistakes in their


accounts or bills came in after, in relation to single farm payments


and finds from the European Union. And it came in after the money had


been agreed. That's what is called XS accounts, and, in some cases,


because mistakes were made, we asked to to make sure that doesn't


happen again. Other cases were because they couldn't have foreseen


the money at the specific time the money was given to them. What


mistakes were made? In one case, a- was put on instead of a+. Therefore,


we got a different amount the agriculture department bid for.


Someone else had a bill as a result of EU fines, and therefore had to


make money available for that and there was a mistake in the


teachers' pension scheme, �3 million. Fortunately, we had an


underspending, and therefore we were able to facilitate the


mistakes but, really, it shouldn't happen. And I hope systems have


been put in place to make sure it doesn't happen again. What about


the issue of you revisiting the Budget? It was pushed through late


in the last term. Do you need to revisit it? No, the budget was


agreed, I believe, and it was the right Budget. It hit all right


priorities. The economy, providing money for the health service, and


helping the disadvantaged. But I always said that the Budget would


be a living document because we do have, over the next four years,


opportunities to look for new revenue streams. We couldn't have


realised immediately or in new ones which will come on board, but we


are good opportunities with political decisions being made to


baps make some savings on the cost of government, for example, and


also savings coming through mean we will have more money to allocate.


Over a four-year period, there will be additional money hopefully


available and the pressures departments are finding and we will


build up provide money for them. �40 million, a hole in the budget


of the employment and learning department. If you don't increased


tuition fees, your party promised it wouldn't do that, so is the


minister going to get the money to ensure he doesn't have to push


tuition fees up? The first of all, I don't want to pre-empt the


consultation. It will be completed in a few years' time. It will be up


to the minister to decide what he wants to do in relation to that,


and he will then bring it to the executive. People say they don't


want to see an increase in tuition fees. If that's the case, they


simply can't leave him to find the money. I think he will be at this


stage saying, it that the decision of the Assembly and the executive,


where is the money coming from? I accept, if that happens, it will be


a pressure, and we will have to facilitate it. Students are facing


exam pressure this week and they would like to know they went up to


get an extra �1,500 next year, so why won't you give them a broad


hint, they won't have to pay more money? First of all, they won't,


because any decisions will not apply until next year anyway.


That's the first thing. Secondly, I can't pre-empt what all of the


parties on the executive are going to do. We are only one party out of


five. We have said that, as far as we are concerned, fees should not


increase, but we will wait to see what recommendation the minister


brings forward and the executive will decide. I don't think anybody


on the executive would appreciate the second-guessing what the


Assembly will decide on this matter. If it comes to the crunch, and you


have the money, tuition fees will stay down? As far as the budget is


concerned, no decision was made on tuition fees, there was a


consultation document which went out, and one of the options and


that was, fees would go up to I think it was �4,500. I can't


remember the exact amount of money. Until that was decided, no money


went into the budget for it. The minister made it quite clear, there


is no money in his Budget at present for the freezing of tuition


fees and the executive and the Assembly makes that decision. Until


then, we will have to decide where the money comes from. Sandy Wilson


wasn't giving too much away their the tuition fee hikes are not


popular at Stormont and the post them is the chairman of the


Department of Employment Committee, who joins us now. Have you any


insight into what the minister might do on this issue? We have had


some discussions with them and he did say that the political reality


is that given that the DP and Sinn Fein are allocated that they will


be no increase, that probably the way it's going to go, but it will


leave a huge black hole in the finances of both universities and


colleges. �40 million is what the minister these to ensure there is


no hikes, but that money will have to come from another department, so


what do you sacrifice for it? said to Sammy Wilson today, the


first mistake gave a commitment that money would have to be found.


-- the First Minister gave a commitment. If we don't find the


money, you risk the reputation of our universities, and that could


affect research funding and all sorts of things, so we have to be


prepared not to sacrifice the future of young people. Gareth,


this lot of speculation in the press so that students have it too


easy, they spend their loans on things like drinking in the pub and


taxis. What do you say to those critics? When we see first hand,


students and a serious financial difficulty currently. There's


15,000 undergraduates in Belfast, and the commercial debt owned by


them is estimated at �100 million. Indeed, the total debt of graduates


from our institutions within Northern Ireland is �1.3 billion of


government sponsored money, so there is a major issue here. The


week before the election, he made a statement saying we all agree on


the importance of keeping fees at the current levels and we are


committed to that so I would ask him before he takes any look at any


proposals on the table, what has changed between now and then? He is


in office and I would ask him to remain true to oneself and not into


a modern liberal Democrat here in Northern Ireland. The consultation


closed on Friday but a department needs time to sift through them.


What I have asked for because it's very important, is forced to have a


debate in the Assembly and that will take place in the last week of


the Assembly. The consultation will be before the committee the week


before that. If you were betting on this issue, would you say it's very


unlikely tuition fees would go up? Yes, that's what I think but what


is now emerging, and you heard it in the Budget debate today, the


money will have to be found from somewhere. It's not just for �2


million, but �28 million of efficiency is. We are facing a sick


of it and redundancies in the university sector and the prospect


of closing one of the campuses of one of the universities. Gentlemen,


we have to leave it there but thank you very much. Time for a look at


some of the committees. Little by Earsham from the general public,


but there are an essential part of the Government here. Especially if


they do their job properly. Keeping an eye on their ministers, so we


start with the Health Committee and the new minister who was quizzed


about security breaches on the side of the old Beaver Park Hospital.


This is a matter for the Belfast Trust. Why, six or seven years


after his it no longer being used, we are selling the building? It has


had a 22.7 acres identified. It could have been used for


development of homes for people. This is beyond me. I think it


demonstrates poor management that we still own a property,


particularly after coming out of the boom we just had. One can only


imagine what that land in south Belfast would have been worth in


2007, so instead of sitting on a problem we should have had, money


could have come back into the estate. Obviously, that's not the


case. Whatever we sell it at now, will be after reduced value to what


it would have been sold in the later period. In terms of security


breaches, first of all I deplore the security breaches which have


taken place. I don't think the individuals involved, taking other


people's information and posting it on the internet, and selling of


information, are behaving in any way acceptable. But I also have


concerns that the breaches took place in the first instances. It's


hard to see not a sight of that size. And I understand that, at


this moment in time, the Belfast Trust are reducing the security on


the site, how best to manage the situation now. But I think that it


is a situation but we should never have been in in the first instance.


Obviously, what you're saying in relation to disabled people, they


won't be discriminated against in the new regime, the new regulations,


but according to the report, they are being discriminated against so


what are you doing about that as a department? It was quite clear that


private operators said they would have to bring in a six-seater


minibus and that would be an extra cost for everybody. It didn't


matter whether they had a disability or not. There was a


charge for that. The disabled person didn't ask for a six-seater.


They asked for a taxi. At the minute, there's no way to get an


individual taxi driver behaving in that way and they shouldn't be.


It's a matter of general law. You cannot just go where the person


simply because they have a disability. At the present time


with enforcement officers, unless he's committing a specific taxi-


driver offence, his cars not roadworthy etc, I don't think


there's a lot enforcement officers can do it against bad. There could


be a complaint to the quality commission and that taxi driver


could go into trouble. Would tax the operating licensing, it brings


in a regime which operators are to be responsible for their drivers.


There have to operate the business properly, reasonably, lawfully. If


they allow drivers to do that sort of thing, we will stand down hard


on the operator, and say, you have to bring your drivers in line. And,


if you don't, you will lose your licence. Now for the latest in


gossip and concerns involving our MPs. I caught up with Mark


Devenport. He detected some discontent over the DUP and Sinn


Fein plans to create a new post, principal Deputy Speaker. I asked


him what all the fuss was about? This is about the DUP trying to


keep good way promise which Ian Paisley made to Sinn Fein last time


around when the Speaker got his job ante so that the UUP would support


a nationalist Speaker, Sinn Fein speaker, in the future. Willie Hay


is now back in the job, but the compromise has been but they said


this job would rotate halfway through this is humbly and we're


expecting the current deputy to get it but as part of that deal, Sinn


Fein is requiring Francie Molloy gets enhanced status so her


enhanced if -- the new job has caused annoyance to the other


deputy speakers. Why is no one happy? They think there's no need


for this new job. Francie Molloy is a person likely to get it above the


other deputy speakers. So what they are saying that, instead of as


being a job simply kept for Sinn Fein, it should be rotated amongst


the parties. I don't think they will get that through but it is


sick of the Kent the Ulster Unionists had joined with Alastair


in pushing this motion and amendment tomorrow. Away from here


today, the British and Irish parliamentarians were addressed by


the to shock. Yes, he was picking up from the Queen's visit saying


that now there has been a healing of old wounds between Britain and


Ireland and they can move on in their relationship, be on the


presuppose says, trying to confront the global financial crisis


together. -- beyond the peace process. But he did talk about his


being significant, the termination of the Irish Republic, to hang on


to its low corporation tax rate, which is something people here are


advocating we should match, although there was controversy


between the politicians about that over the weekend.


Well, corporation tax is a big issue but so student fees. Do you


think kick-starting the Northern Ireland economy shouldn't just


focus on corporation tax but a package of measures is required,


something to help students perhaps? I think last year and the last


programme for government, we saw investing in a knowledge-based


economy for the future of Northern Ireland about important ribbon Ford.


We do one thing Northern Ireland exporting talents elsewhere, going


to Europe, Australia, America, and bringing their talents away. Some


people may go away and then come back and invest them back into


Northern Ireland and that's what we need. We need more investment


within the future of the generations in Northern Ireland. We


don't want people to mortgage their future away with crippling debt and


a tuition fees. What advice do you have for the ministers including


the student minister? Invest in the future of Northern Ireland and take


stock of what is important. For Trade and Investment and business,


enterprise, and education, not only primary, secondary but higher


education. And also a question of whether education should be


monitored by one department. Very briefly, you're leaving your job at


Queen's now and you're not attended by a going into Assembly politics?


Not at the minute. This is an example of the concerns out there.


I'm going to do a postgraduate in England, so currently, an


undergraduate degree is not enough for students to get a degree so


they have to go elsewhere to get a postgraduate degree so I would last


Assembly to take that into account as well. The we wish you luck on


that, Gareth. That is all from Stormont Today. We are back


A political programme focusing on the day's events at the Assembly and Northern Ireland Executive. Martina Purdy 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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