18/03/2014 Stormont Today


18/03/2014

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 programme: With

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council elections around the corner, the Assembly devotes two days to

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debating local government. Many people told us we wouldn't get to

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this point, that it would never be delivered.

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The Environment Minister expresses his dissatisfaction with the closure

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of the Driver Vehicle Agency in Coleraine. I am bitterly

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disappointed and angered by this decision which represents nothing

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more than a narrowly focused cost-cutting exercise made at the

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expense of high quality public services.

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And joining me with his views, the News Letter's political

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correspondent, Sam McBride. Today saw the start of a mammoth

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two-day session devoted to the consideration stage of the Local

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Government Bill. With 115 amendments to get through, the Assembly will

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sit again tomorrow. Much of today's debate concerned Alliance amendments

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allowing for photography and audio debate concerned Alliance amendments

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transparency'. Amendment 22 introduces a new clause seeking to

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require councils so far as is practical to make audio recordings

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of those parts of any council meeting excluding committee or

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subcommittee meetings which are open to the public. Such an approach can

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assist and provide clarity on the discussions that take place and help

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to support the new ethical standards framework by removing doubts over

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comments made. It is of concern that currently too many of our councils

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operate in a way which is not open and transparent to local residents.

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We too often see councils which seem convinced it is better to keep

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decisions quite and avoid too much fuss. A prime example of this is the

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existing council which has asked journalists to leave and regularly

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frustrated residents trying to observe council proceedings. Even if

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they are not disrupting proceedings in any detrimental way. It is also

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crucial that people are able to access minutes, agendas and

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background papers online so that we can take advantage of modern

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technology to disseminate information more widely and more

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quickly. Our amendments seek to make sure this is possible and taken

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together will increase transparency and access to information. Though

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review of the meetings except for small sections if we are in legal

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advice or getting closed section, a record for members. Why would we not

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want and welcome the openness and transparency and moving away from

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the idea of councils, councillors in a smoke-filled rooms doing

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the idea of councils, councillors in deals? The pro-smoking wing of the

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DUP has been extinguished now but I am not surprised they would still

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want, why they are fearful of the openness. Many people told us we

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wouldn't get this point, people told us our PA would never be delivered

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and while it sat on the shelf for too long, I think once the SDLP

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ministers came into office, the process moved very quickly and I

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think we're finally at a stage where we will have elections to new

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councils and a whole new era in terms of local government. The SDLP

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had reservations around some of the decisions that were previously taken

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by the executive around numbers of councils and everything but win

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assured we are absolutely committed to delivering what is an opportunity

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to have a once-in-a-lifetime review and change in terms of how we

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operate councils. Clearly this bill has come a long way, it is 14 years

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since the proposal was started off back in the year 2000 but we are

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where we are at this stage now. I would like to put on record firstly

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my somewhat this appointment at the bill coming at such a short notice

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last week and members and parties only had a day and a half to put

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forward their amendments. On Amendment 22, there seems to be a

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couple of issues, there does seem to be a high level of disparity of

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information in terms of the cost of this. It goes beyond getting the

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equipment, it goes to the use of the equipment, the maintenance and

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according to this, the publication of the recordings and websites. The

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reality is this is not just going to be a cheap solution and

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reality is this is not just going to ratepayers. I have heard some say

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suggesting that each council decide that themselves. Well, I must say I

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think that would be a recipe for grievance. Because take my

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constituency which will be in two different areas, are my constituency

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in Ballymena to be afforded the option of audio recording of the

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Antrim council so they can see and hear what is said or as my

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constituency in Ballymoney, are they to be denied the facility? I was

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asked if I would assist with the cost of these sound systems to local

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government. If they are only ?160 I might but however I would not be

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appropriate to fund this from a central government budget, the

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recording of proceedings would be for the benefit of the ratepayers of

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a council area therefore the cost should really be met through rates.

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The Environment Minister, Mark H Durkan. Sam McBride from the News

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Letter is with me. Why so much focus on audio recordings of proceedings

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in future, first of all? Well, it is about setting the rules

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for the new councils, they will have considerable new powers, planning,

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that has enormous significance in financial terms for developers,

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there were fears about the potential for corruption, in situations where

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political parties don't have to reveal funding. This was the

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Alliance party trying to play ground rules to be as open as possible

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about what takes place. Also, potentially a bit of a look at the

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future where newspapers and journalists and they are few on the

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ground so some meetings may not be covered by anyone so if there is no

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record of what is said, what the situation could be?

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This mammoth debate caught some Members by surprise. How

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so? Well, it seemed to come out quite quickly last week that this

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was to take place today and tomorrow. Tomorrow's sitting was not

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timetabled at the start. Tom Elliott mentioned they had a day and a half

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to get some amendments together, that fed into the fact many parties

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had no amendments. I was surprised big parties like Sinn Fein had no

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amendments whatsoever. The TUV to Jim McAllister are generally keen to

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tie things into legislation and they had no amendments. They may bring

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some late on. Even the Green party have raised issues about this bill,

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Basil McCrea, those people did not have anything to add. Many spoke but

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were not proposing anything. It's an important piece of

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legislation, clearly but the local elections are happening, whatever

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the outcome of the next two days on 22nd May. You could forgive people

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at home for being confused, couldn't you? Exactly. One irony is whether

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the bill goes through now or not, the elections will go ahead. That

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has been made clear. This process has been dogged by delays and

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changes and U-turns and different boundaries and members of councils

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so the public could be very confused, any journalist could and

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politicians as well! It is a clear that the election will go ahead. The

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councils will meet for if -- for a year.

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Quite dry so far today. Tomorrow is likely to be a lot more interesting,

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isn't it? Yes, the issue of flags and outside council headquarters and

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how many days, there may be some heat in a debate but it will not go

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far because SDLP and Sinn Fein concern has neutered that debate.

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While there will be debate in the chamber, it will not come to much.

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Sam, for now, thank-you. close Northern Ireland's Driver

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Vehicle Agency, with the loss of 300 jobs. Mark H Durkan was responding

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to an Urgent Oral Question tabled by Sinn Fein's Cathal O Hoisin. I am

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bitterly disappointed and angered by this decision which represents

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nothing more than a narrowly focused cost-cutting exercise made at the

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expense of high quality public services, jobs and to the detriment

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of the local economy. I am also extremely angry at the timing of the

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announcement, in spite of assurances from ministers that I would be

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informed in advance of any announcement and notwithstanding

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that I made myself available to discuss this critical issue with

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ministers at any time. It's disgraceful the announcement was

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made whilst I was out of the country. For any of the members of

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staff fortunate enough to be redeployed to other civil service

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posts, what is unacceptable travel for those felt appropriate in the

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civil service regime that they can travel? A lot of the workforce, the

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bulk of whom are located in Coleraine, many work in part time

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hours so therefore a reasonable travel distance will not be that

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great for quite a lot of these employees. I believe we have to be

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creative, myself and my executive colleagues in looking not at what

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staff can be deployed to but at the work which can be redeployed to

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staff. Can I ask what lessons can be learned? Well, I think it says a lot

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about what weight Westminster puts on what happens here in the North,

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about what weight they put on us as a devolved institution, when our

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about what weight they put on us as Minister. We were

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about what weight they put on us as decision would be taken at the

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highest political level. The Environment Minister making very

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clear his annoyance at last week's DVA job losses. The Regional

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Development Minister faced questions today, and proceedings were

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dominated by the A5?Londonderry to Aughnacloy. Sinn Fein's Declan

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McAleer asked the minister for an update. There are four reports in

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total dealing with nine different environmentally sensitive sites.

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These reports will be the subject of a consultation exercise, expected to

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be completed in 2014. A review of the matter is completed in the

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environmental statement is ongoing, and will lead to the publishing of

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an updated environmental statement which will also require a public

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consultation exercise. A direction order will also be reviewed and

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published at the same time, as part of this process. While I would

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emphasise that I cannot in anyway pre-empt the outcome of a public

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consultation exercise, an outline programme has been developed. Can he

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give any reassurance that the department is so committed that this

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project will not fall by default? I am grateful for his supplementary.

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The member will know that the executive remains omitted to this

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scheme, and indeed, the department continues to carry out all necessary

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work. I did indicate that I cannot in any way pre-empt the outcome of

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particularly the public consultation exercise. I have indicated the range

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of activities which will be necessary to keep the project

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moving. Financial considerations of course are a slightly different

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matter, perhaps more context, -- complex,

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matter, perhaps more context, -- determined. But as it stands, the

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department continues to work through this scheme. We continue to tackle

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the areas of concern which Mr Justice Stevens outlined. I

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appreciate that mistakes occurred with your predecessor, the Sinn Fein

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minister, but in terms of accountability, ultimately, who was

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responsible for the failure to deliver on the FSA project, and

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would your department be giving any further thought to keeping some of

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those environmental assessments in house, within the Executive? I am

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grateful for the simpler mantra question. I think there are issues

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-- supplementary question -- which members of this House and the

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general public deserve explanations for. We are not at the final stage

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of either report. Preliminary results, however, we have sought to

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implement, as we move forward not only in this scheme but on other

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road schemes. That was Danny Kennedy on the lessons learned so far on the

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A5?Londonderry to Aughnacloy Road scheme. Three times a year, the

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Assembly Commission gets the chance to answer questions on the floor of

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the chamber. It has the responsible at the of making sure the Assembly

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has the property, staff and services required to carry out its work. In

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terms of the oversight of expenditure, does the commission

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have any oversight of the shameless squander that we saw over the

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weekend, when the Committee On The took themselves, five members, to

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Washington as part of that particular jamboree, and spent a

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large amount of money, three of them from one party, one might add, to

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look at a document on ethics. from one party, one might add, to

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committee any oversight on squander by committees in this house? I am

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not sure whether I thank the member for that question or not. The simple

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answer is, no, the commission does not have that responsibility. The

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commission in May 2013 determined that questions would be answered in

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the language in which they were received. In effect, this means

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questions are responded to in English only. E speaks Irish. Would

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the member not agree with me that some members are excluded from using

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Irish here, as a result of the Assembly Commission's policy of not

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taking written or oral questions? With respect, there seems to be a

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degree of misunderstanding. The procedures are that if somebody is

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speaking a language other than English, they have to provide their

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own simultaneous translation. As regards to written answers, those

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are not actually determined in terms of the way they are received by the

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commission. If I picked up the member correctly, it was with

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reference to the member submitting what he was referring to. It is not

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the responsible at the of the commission to determine the

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procedures, in relation to the submission of questions to the

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Assembly. That is a matter determined by the business office,

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not a matter for the commission. That was Peter Weir, who sits on the

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Assembly Commission. Fuel poverty was on the in tray of the Social

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Development Minister, as was housing needs in West Belfast. As of

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December 2013, the number of applicants on the housing waiting

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list for greater West Belfast, covering West Belfast and other

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areas, stands allegations, which include the

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reallocation of existing housing stock and the development of new

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social housing. Projected social housing need requirement for greater

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West Belfast for the five year period up to 2018 has identified a

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requirement for 2524 new social homes. Can I ask the minister, given

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those figures, with something like 1000 families on the waiting list,

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people living in hostels, clearly those figures will not meet the

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need, in fact, will fall considerably short of that need,

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given the fact that there is available land on some of those what

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we call peace lines. Can he give any assurance other than what he has

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already given today to those people who are on the waiting list, many of

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them waiting in housing stress, to those individual families? The

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waiting time is actually not dissimilar to what it is in west

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Belfast. We must remember the whole issue, across the province. As

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regards West Belfast, I have identified the fact that there is an

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issue around the shortage of land. Certainly, that particular site is a

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very substantial site. It would accommodate quite a number of

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houses, several hundred houses. And therefore I think it is an important

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one. I would hope that people will support that. It would provide 196

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new social homes, together with giving 48 families the opportunity

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to own their own home. But it has run into community and political

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opposition. Does the minister believe that he and his department,

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as well as his predecessor, did all that they could to alleviate fuel

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poverty, the seemingly negligible impact that

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we have had? In terms of the warm homes scheme, the boiler replacement

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scheme, double glazing, energy efficiency, thermal in Cilic and of

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housing, all of these things contribute towards improving energy

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efficiency. -- thermal insulation. However we are very much depending

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in Northern Ireland on oil as our main source of fuel. We are very

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different from Great Britain, where there is a heavy reliance on gas,

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which is cheaper. This is not something just for one department.

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My colleague has been very proactive in terms of taking the gas network

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to the west of the province, because that is an area where there is a

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particular need, and access to gas will make a big difference. The

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future of the long-awaited police, fire and prison training college

:22:30.:22:35.

project at Desertcreat was the subject of an urgent oral question

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today. Sandra Overend asked for an update

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after it had been reported that a contractor had pulled out of the

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project. The board was made aware that a preferred bidder was

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experiencing pressures within the supply chain regarding the tender to

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build new college. There were a number of media reports on the

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issue, the position remains that the preferred bidder has not withdrawn

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its tender, and discussions between them and the programme team are

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ongoing. It would not be appropriate for me to comment any further, due

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to the commercial sensitivities. It seems that the options are either

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cutting back on the cost of the project, meaning it would no longer

:23:17.:23:20.

be state-of-the-art, or finding additional money. What is the

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minister's preference, and also, what is the likelihood of the

:23:27.:23:29.

project needing to be tendered again? Well, Mr Speaker, I said the

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current process is under way. The specific issue which she raises

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about functionality, a significant amount of cost has been taken out

:23:42.:23:45.

recently, something like ?20 million, but I have been assured by

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the programme board that this has not affected the functionality of

:23:49.:23:50.

the college, it has been simply not affected the functionality of

:23:51.:24:02.

value for money. The design team has cost in the region of ?8.5 million,

:24:03.:24:07.

of which ?6 million has been paid already. That company has admitted

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failure in underestimating the costs. What assurances has the

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minister received that this project can actually be delivered, given

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that it now stands at ?157 million, when it was originally ?140 million?

:24:22.:24:26.

Does he share the view of Judith Gillespie, in charge of this

:24:27.:24:30.

project, who told the committee in August that this was still a viable

:24:31.:24:34.

programme? I share the concerns raised about the issue of the

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inability of consultants to get their work right. I understand that

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the programme board is taking legal advice. That was the justice

:24:45.:24:49.

minister, David Ford. The Assembly page tribute earlier to the life and

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achievements of Lord Ballyedmond, who died in a helicopter crash in

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Norfolk last week. The SDLP's Sean Rogers brought a matter of the day

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to commemorate the leading businessman. Northern Ireland is

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poorer following the death of Lord Bali. Our thoughts and prayers are

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with the wider family at this time, -- Lord Ballyedmond. And also with

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the families of the other people in the helicopter who lost their lives.

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It is important that that goes on the record. The cars he was a true

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friend of this Assembly. Through his personal drive, his determination

:25:34.:25:37.

and single-mindedness, he made nor broke a world leader. The only

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home-grown veterinary, pharmaceutical company, based in

:25:43.:25:47.

Uri, exporting to over 120 countries. As a young boy who lost

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his father very young in life, his mother set aside what money they had

:25:55.:25:58.

to educate her children, and after he left school and went to America

:25:59.:26:02.

for a short number of years, he came back and started selling drugs

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basically out of the boot of a car. And from

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Ireland. I would like to join with other MLAs who have paid tribute to

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Lord Ballyedmond and Declan small, and the two pilots. This is a loss

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for their families and a loss for Southdown. He was what Northern

:26:27.:26:33.

Ireland needs more of. He was a business entrepreneur, someone who

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created wealth and provided jobs, most especially, jobs in my

:26:36.:26:52.

constituency, and in particular, jobs in Newry. Because of what he

:26:53.:26:59.

did in the area, other companies were attracted into the area, and

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the town is enjoying prosperity which we could not have invaded 40

:27:03.:27:08.

years ago. Tributes there to Lord Ballyedmond, who died last week. I

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have been rejoined by Sam McBride. Yes, he really tried to make the

:27:17.:27:22.

point that with Stormont annoying Westminster, over the issue of

:27:23.:27:24.

welfare reform, refusing to implement it, really they were not

:27:25.:27:29.

expecting any favours from Westminster when they needed

:27:30.:27:31.

something like the jobs saved in Coleraine. Whether that had any

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impact on the decision, who knows? But I think that there is a weaker

:27:38.:27:41.

hand, I suppose, for Stormont to play on issues like this, because

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they have been so incredibly sluggish to make any kind of

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decision on welfare. We discussed earlier that tomorrow is likely to

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be lively in the chamber, with the second day of debate on the Local

:27:55.:27:59.

Government Bill. Do you get the sense that members are moving into

:28:00.:28:04.

election mode? I think they are very quickly moving into election mode.

:28:05.:28:08.

One reason there might not have been so many amendments today was because

:28:09.:28:12.

some parties were still selecting candidates for going through

:28:13.:28:15.

election literature. I think the issue of flags tomorrow will be an

:28:16.:28:17.

issue for the public, and in issue of flags tomorrow will be an

:28:18.:28:26.

there is an amendment from the Ulster

:28:27.:28:29.

there is an amendment from the issue of rates, which will have a

:28:30.:28:32.

begin practising areas such as Castlereagh. It will have a real

:28:33.:28:45.

impact on people's pockets. We will leave it there. Thank you, as ever.

:28:46.:28:52.

Don't forget, the debate on the Local Government Bill continues

:28:53.:28:55.

tomorrow, so we will have a special edition of the programme tonight on

:28:56.:28:59.

BBC Two -- tomorrow night on BBC Two at 20 past 11.

:29:00.:29:02.

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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