15/10/2012 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:


The controversy surrounding the opening of Northern Ireland's first


private abortion clinic. The Health Minister warns that the law on


abortion isn't toothless. If some people that they can get away with


not observing it, they may find that the law is not a paper tagger,


but one with a lot of teeth. I would caution any physician who


would seek to challenge the law. Plus, getting on his red and white


jumper - one MLA reveals his struggles with the Education Bill.


This bill is a sort of where's wally for every politician. We have


to search through it from top to bottom, from word to word to try


and understand what it means. Ulster Bank chiefs are summoned


back to face MLAs. It's true that the incident was a major disaster.


There's no doubt about that from the bank's perspective.


The imminent opening of a private abortion clinic in Belfast this


week was the subject of an urgent oral question by the TUV MLA Jim


Allister. Mr Allister asked the Health Minister, Edwin Poots, if


the Marie Stopes clinic will be monitored to ensure what he called


"strict compliance with the law on abortion". First and foremost, all


health and social care organisations must comply with the


law in Northern Ireland. The current framework, the health and


personal Social Services quality improvement and regulation Northern


Ireland order 2003 is an didation - - additional safe guard which is


Aprillyable. Dlrb applicable. I have asked whether the current


regulations apply to this establishment and if not to require


amendment. Is it not the case that the current RQIA monitoring


arrangements by virtue of the manner in which they're constituted


and the powers given would ensure only that the unborn or killed in


hygienic conditions and would not address the wider concerns of how


many abortions will be conducted in this clinic, on what basis they


will be conducted, will the basis be verified and transparent? And


how it will be seen that all of those matters are in entirely


within the law in Northern Ireland on abortion? As the minister on


this issue will he give assurance that those are the matters at the


end of that exercise will be addressed? The member will recall


that in August I confirmed that officials were developing a data


collection system to collect robust statistics on terminations taking


place in Northern Ireland. It is my intention that all terminations


taking place will be recorded by this system. So work is still


ongoing on this matter. Can the minister outline to this House in a


time frame for the publication of the guidance on the issue and if he


can detail the rationalal of the delaying guidelines? Unfortunately


I can't. The truth is that the guidelines have been produced twice


and they have been take ton court twice and the judicial reviews have


been upheld twice, once by those who were supporting abortion and


once by those opposed to abortion. There is, it is a huge legal


minefield. If individuals Carrie out terminations of pregnancy,


which are outside of the legislation, then they are breaking


the criminal law and in breaking the criminal law, they are subject


to a sentence of up to life imprisonment. To that extent, I


think those who are engaging in the clinic would be well advised to


observe the law and I know that some journalists might be it's a


paper tagger, but that's because it has been largely observed. If some


people think they can get away with not observing it, they may find


that the law is not a paper tagger, but one with a lot of teeth. I


would caution any physician who would seek to challenge the law.


Given the fact that this organisation has come to Northern


Ireland quite quietly and quickly, does the minister, could he explain


why if his department knew why guidance and clarification was not


issued, as soon as the minister and the department was aware of this


group coming to Northern Ireland? The clinic itself may have been


capable to be regulated, it depended on the nature of the work


and indeed of those who were carrying it out and could only be


properly assessed whenever we actually got to this point. Which


is somewhat unfortunate. What we will seek to ensure that in


Northern Ireland the law is not broken and we have made very clear


how the law stands in Northern Ireland on abortion. Could I ask


the minister whether or not he agrees with the current law that


exists in Northern Ireland? And if so, given that there are documented


cases of women being unable to access services on the NHS, due to


the lack of guidelines, for doctors, does he not agree then that there's


nothing to fear about the clinic and indeed, does he welcome it in


that it will ensthaur women are able to access Health Services that


they're entitled to under the existing law? Well, over the course


of the last 45 years, since the 1967 Abortion Act was passed in


England, Scotland and Wales there's been 6.4 million abortions, over


10% of the existing population in GB. If we were to equate that in


Northern Ireland with a population of 1.8 million, it would equate to


around 200,000 abortions. Regrettibly I understand there has


been up to 50,000 women who have travelled to England for abortions.


But the figure left between that is 150,000 people who are alive in


Northern Ireland, who may not, Mr Deputy Speaker, have been alive.


I'd expect around half of those are women. Whenever you talk about


choice, they're living a life where they have the choice to marry, to


have children, the choice of what work they do, the choice of what


education they do. Had they been aborted, they wouldn't have any


choice in life. The Health Minister, Edwin Poots. The abolition of the


education boards and their replacement with a single Education


and Skills Authority is the key element of the Education Bill,


which was voted through overwhelmingly on its second stage


on the floor of the house this evening. The bill is supported by


both Sinn Fein and the DUP, with the Ulster Unionists the only one


of the main parties opposing it. This day has been a long time


coming. The need for reform was recognised as far back as 2002. In


my view, education is too important to wait any longer and the bill


sets out the overall aim of education to contribute to the


spiritual, cultural, social, intellectual and physical


development of children and young people and of the community at


large. The board system is ageing. The model is no longer fit for


purpose. We as elected representatives in this House have


an opportunity to replace it with a model to meet the needs of our


communities, children and young people and our economy. We must


seize that opportunity. I think it would only be right and proper that


we place on record our appreciation and thanks to those who threw many


difficult and challenging years in education, in our education and


library boards have provided a service to our educational family.


It has not been easy. They have gone through a multiplicity of


changes. They've had various direct rule ministers and initiatives. Of


course, I think it would be fair to say that we need to remember where


ESA comes from. I'm glad that ESA didn't have its creation in the


normal political structures, but ESA had its Genesis in the


Department of Education. Given the past record of Sinn Fein, we must


treat this bill with healthy mistrust. Given that the last


Education Minister seemed to list ton no-one, and that the department


often seems to be of that mind too, the Ulster Unionist Party are


opposing the legislation. This bill is a sort of where's Wally for


every politician. Swre to search through it from top to botd om,


from word to word, to try and understand what it means and why


it's been written in such a way. Hidden in every clause, sentence


and schedule could be a Wally of hidden Sinn Fein chicanery. There


is a case for change. The ESA journey has been a long one. No-one


will argue with the review of public administration which was


launched in 2002, with the aim to deliver modernisation and reform


across the public sector. RPA suggested the need for a new single


education and skills authority. It seems to make sense when you


compare Northern Ireland with say authorities like Birmingham. Just


one cautionary note, Northern Ireland is not Birmingham. It took


years to get the executive, to get it to the executive and the sharp


contrast it flew through the executive. It would lead one to


speculate whether some sort of a deal was done. The SDLP's Sean


Rogers. Our Political Correspondent, Gareth Gordon, is with me now.


Gareth, let's stay with education, first of all. This debate over ESA


has been around for a long time. very long time indeed. In fact the


idea of one single authority to replace the five education and


library boards was first mooted around ten years ago. It was due to


become law in January 2010. It became one of the prime examples


used by Stormont's many critics to flag up what they would say was the


executive's failings. Some months ago we were told the parties had


reached agreement, just last month the legislation was passed by the


executive. Today, it had its second reading in the House. That's why


MLAs were debating it. It passed comfortably by 77 votes to 15. The


Ulster Unionist Party opposed it. It was a pretty convincing result.


So does this mean the Education Bill in its present form is


effectively over the line? Well, if it was over the line, there would


be no point in committees. Now it goes to the committee stage. It


will face scrutiny there. There are some people think the whole thing


is much too big, it's a bureaucratsic monster which will be


beyond the control of politicians. The Education Minister denied that


very strongly today. The DUP had big concerns, certainly they had


big concerns about a lack of safe guards for the control sector


within the legislation. They feel that has largely been dealt with by


the establishment with something called the control schools control


body. They're unhappy with special clauses for the Irish language. The


fact there are fewer points of contention is illustrated that the


debate was due to go on for an hour-and-a-half more than it did go


on. The Health Minister, Edwin Poots, certainly made his views on


the opening of a Marie Stopes clinic in Belfast crystal clear


There was a lot of emotion today. We didn't hear anything new. Edwin


Poots warned the law is not a paper tagger and the clinic would be well


advised to observe the law. They say they will fully observe the law


as it is anyway. People here will be watching to see what happens. It


opens later this week. This is far from over. Thank you.


The first-ever housing strategy produced for Northern Ireland was


launched by the Social Development Minister. Nelson McCausland told


the Assembly there will be a fundamental review of how social


housing is allocated. The strategy articulates for the first time what


we see as Government's three main roles in relation to housing and


these are, firstly, to help create the right conditions for a stable


and sustainable housing market that supports economic growth and


prosperity. Secondly, to provide support for individuals and


families to access housing, particularly the most vulnerable in


society. Thirdly, to set minimum standards for the quality of new


and existing homes and for how rented housing is managed. The


strategy sets out how a plan to fulfil these roles under five


themes. These are: Ensuring access to decent, affordable, sustainable


homes across all tenures. Secondly, meeting housing needs and


supporting the most vulnerable. Thirdly, housing and welfare reform.


Fourthly, driving regeneration and sustaining communities through


housing. Fifthly, getting the structures right. The economic


context in which I am launching this strategy is clearly a


challenging one. The Northern Ireland Housing Market is emerging


from a turbulent period. There are hopeful signs that the market is


beginning to stabilise with prices now at more sustainable levels. I'm


keen to do more to help create the right conditions for longer term


market stability. Addressing the supply issue won't be easy. I'm


keen to work with the private sector and others to identify and


develop viable solutions and today I am announcing my intention to


establish a housing supply forum for this purpose. I'm also keen to


maximise the number of new social homes we can bring forward within


the budgets available. Building new social homes will help us both meet


housing need and have a significant positive impact on the construction


industry and the multiplier effect on the economy in general. My


strategy contains proposals to make more effective use of existing


social housing stock. Undertake a fundamental review of how we


allocate social housing, improve the way we support people to live


independently and do more to prevent homelessness. Does the


Minister have any intention of seeking additional funding from the


Executive to enable the construction of more, much-needed


social homes than currently planned and budgeted for? The priority for


me at the moment is to make sure that the money that has already


been allocated to the Housing Executive is used and we do not end


up in a situation where there is an underspend. That is a


responsibility that we are putting clearly to the Housing Executive


and to the Housing Association. There is money in the Budget. I


want to be sure that all of it is spent.


The Social Development Minister, Nelson McCausland.


The First Minister, Peter Robinson, provided an update on what the


Executive is doing to try to resolve the contentious issue of


parades. First though, Junior Minister Jonathan Bell was asked


about funding for a programme promoting development in ethnic


minority communities. I am pleased to be able to advise the member


that an extension to the current minority ethnic fund will commence


with immediate effect and run until 31st March 2013. The information


was conveyed to the minority ethnic sector last week. The extension


will allow for engagement and consultation around the development


of a racial equality strategy and how it relates to a longer term


fund. Officials will be meeting to discuss the fund and the strategy


itself. Thank you, Mr Speaker. Thank you to the Minister for


conveying this very good news. Unfortunately, this fund really has


been granted on a six-monthly basis in the last year-and-a-half. I


would like to hear an assurance from the Junior Minister that from


next April that this fund will continue but will continue on a


much-longer basis in order to provide that continuity and that


certainty for the sector? We are still working with the sector on


the racial equality strategy and what they specifically want out of


the fund because we want the strategy and the funding to be


interconnected so they can develop both what the ethnic minority are


reflecting they need and the support requirements they have.


Thank you very much, indeed, Mr Speaker. Can I welcome the Junior


Minister's news. Unfortunately, minority ethnic communities still


remain the target of vile racism by certain in our sections. Will he


add his voice to all the other people in the community who are


asking for any information out there to be passed on to the


police? I fully talk about any form of criminal behaviour to do with


racism, whether it is homophobia, racism, attacks on people's homes,


attacks on people's property, attacks on people's ethnic heritage


and life, that goes without saying. There has been a discussion at


Executive level on the issue of parades and associated protests. At


the last meeting of Party Leaders we discussed the best approach to


establishing the views of all the stakeholders. Suggestions will be


brought to a further meeting on the best process to advance the issue.


The right to assembly, the right to express cultural identity, the


right to protest and the rights of those living and in proximity to


parades are the right to protest. The Deputy First Minister and I


have met with various participants on both sides of the argument and


we remain committed to facilitating discussions in any way that is


helpful. We have indicated our determination to agree a process on


taking this complex issue forward before the year ends.


Thank you very much. I thank the First Minister for his statement.


Will he also give a commitment the OFMDFM will consult with all


parties that any alternative brought forward for the Parades


Commission is not that that was worked out coming from the


Hillsborough Agreement? Well, I would have thought that we were


consulting with all parties when we talked to Party Leaders unless the


member is saying Party Leaders aren't representative of the party


that they lead? So I hope we have met that. Of course, the parties


are all represented on the Executive as well. There is no


intention on the part either of the Executive or of the Party Leaders


to stifle discussion and debate. We want it to be as wide as possible.


We want to encourage people to take part and that is why we are looking


at what the processes will be so that people can feed into those


processes. The First Minister, Peter Robinson.


The Agriculture Minister was also facing questions at the dispatch


box today. Here's Michelle O'Neill outlining why she has opted to


maintain the Agricultural Wages Board. The Agricultural Wages Board


structure is a valuable forum and importantly is used as a benchmark


for the wider agri-food industry. I launched a public consultation on


the review of the board structure. I gave careful consideration to the


responses received. I believe the decision I have now reached is in


the best interest of agricultural workers here. It will now continue


to protect the rights of low-paid agricultural workers by ensuring


enforceable employment conditions which can only have a positive


impact on the sustainability of the rural economy. Can the Minister


tell the House how much the Agricultural Wages Board has cost


the taxpayer? I can advise the member the cost of maintaining the


Agricultural Wages Board has been somewhere in between �20,500 and


�26,500. It's helping us to retain skilled individuals who want to


work in the industry and helping us to attract people into the industry.


The reality is the agri-food sector is continuing to do well. We have


to continue to make sure we have the people who are available to


work in that industry and this is a way to protect those workers. I


appreciate that managing slurry can be challenging. However, since the


closed period was introduced farmers have worked hard to protect


water quality. There has been significant investment in new


slurry storage tanks and slurry is being used more efficiently.


Farmers have been investing in advanced slurry-spread machines.


These machines provide more flexibility in the slurry-spreading


process and deliver a range of productive and environmental


benefits. The scheme has provided �2 million for over 200 of these


advanced red machines. Water quality in our rivers is improving


and it is important farmers keep up the good work. Can I ask if she has


any discussions - has had any discussions with the Health and


Safety Executive associated with farmers not being able to spread


slurry on to their fields? There's ongoing work with the farming


community in terms of preparing for the closed period and for the


difficulties they might find themselves in. DOE are the


enforcers so we have to continue to work with them. I haven't met HSE


on this issue. But anybody who is involved in this area of work


regularly engage with each other because it has to happen.


The Agriculture Minister, Michelle O'Neill.


The Enterprise and Finance Committees held a joint meeting


last week. They were being briefed by the Ulster Bank regarding the


compensation scheme following its systems failure earlier this year,


as we can hear now in our weekly look at committee business. All our


customers are being returned to the financial position they would have


been in had the incident not occurred. We have provided redress


of over �18 million to nearly 300,000 customers in Northern


Ireland. What happened over summer was unprecedented in the RBS Group.


The level of service our customers experienced during this period was


unacceptable and it caused widespread frustration and


inconvenience. It's true that the incident was a major disaster. It's


also clear that we had issues with regard to the contingency plan


relating to our systems operating as they should have. The last


meeting was on 5th July. And one of the issues was raised then, was the


issue of compensation. That particular session was watched


intently by both members of the public and the media. What we were


told then was in regard to compensation - you said we will get


something finalised in the next two or three days so that is the end of


this week or early next week. We left that meeting and the media and


the public were under the impression that within a few days


we would have a compensation scheme in place. So one week passed, two


weeks passed, three weeks passed, four weeks - eight weeks passed


before something was eventually published on 31st August. I think


that is scandalous because there was obviously a lot of difficult


questions at that time that were given by members. We felt extremely


misled by those comments in July and August. When I came before you


in July it was our intention to launch the redress programme


reasonably quickly. And we thought we could. But then as we got into


the complexity, we decided to go into a more broad consultation


process. You shouldn't have given that commitment if you had an


understanding of the situation which most of us did at that time,


you should have been honest and said, "We don't know when a redress


scheme will be put in place." I got the impression at that time on 5th


July there was already a habit from Ulster Bank of giving the


impression to ourselves and the media that something would be in


place next week, or the following week, so we were being thrown a


line. I think that is unacceptable. I understand your views. As I was


saying, we decided to go into a wide consultation process, which we


did. We met with quite a number of bodies. We took feedback. That took


us a number of weeks. When the programme was ready, we launched it.


As I said, since that date, from what we are seeing so far, it's


gone reasonably well. Why would it be that the FSB, a significant


organisation, make the words, make the comment, "the general


perception of the compensation element is that it is derisory"?


believe the reason that term come up and come out in the first day we


announced it is because the focus went straight to the �20. We have


said already that �18 million has been given to 300,000 customers.


That's �60 per customer. Stephen Cruise of the Ulster Bank


ending that look at the joint meeting last week of the Enterprise


and Finance Committees. Gareth Gordon is with me once again.


What is likely to catch our attention tomorrow? Mark, our


health correspondent has uncovered some shocking management practices


going on at Northern Ireland, the Northern Ireland Fire Service,


including today the fact that a number of unapproved bonuses were


paid to senior officers. The Health Minister will make a statement on


the issue in the Assembly tomorrow and that MLAs will get a chance to


comment. There's also a debate up here on the... They are calling on


anyone with information to give up on this harrowing chapter of our


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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