18/03/2014 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 programme: With


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


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


this point, that it would never be delivered.


The Environment Minister expresses his dissatisfaction with the closure


of the Driver Vehicle Agency in Coleraine. I am bitterly


disappointed and angered by this decision which represents nothing


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


expense of high quality public services.


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


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


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


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


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


allowing for photography and audio debate concerned Alliance amendments


transparency'. Amendment 22 introduces a new clause seeking to


require councils so far as is practical to make audio recordings


of those parts of any council meeting excluding committee or


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


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


to support the new ethical standards framework by removing doubts over


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


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


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


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


existing council which has asked journalists to leave and regularly


frustrated residents trying to observe council proceedings. Even if


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


crucial that people are able to access minutes, agendas and


background papers online so that we can take advantage of modern


technology to disseminate information more widely and more


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


together will increase transparency and access to information. Though


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


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


want and welcome the openness and transparency and moving away from


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


had reservations around some of the decisions that were previously taken


by the executive around numbers of councils and everything but win


assured we are absolutely committed to delivering what is an opportunity


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


appropriate to fund this from a central government budget, the


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


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


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


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


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


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


that has enormous significance in financial terms for developers,


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


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


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


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


future where newspapers and journalists and they are few on the


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


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


This mammoth debate caught some Members by surprise. How


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


legislation, clearly but the local elections are happening, whatever


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


councils will meet for if -- for a year.


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


bitterly disappointed and angered by this decision which represents


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


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


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


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


informed in advance of any announcement and notwithstanding


that I made myself available to discuss this critical issue with


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


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


staff fortunate enough to be redeployed to other civil service


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


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


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


hours so therefore a reasonable travel distance will not be that


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


highest political level. The Environment Minister making very


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


Development Minister faced questions today, and proceedings were


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


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


total dealing with nine different environmentally sensitive sites.


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


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


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


an updated environmental statement which will also require a public


consultation exercise. A direction order will also be reviewed and


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


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


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


give any reassurance that the department is so committed that this


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


The member will know that the executive remains omitted to this


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


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


particularly the public consultation exercise. I have indicated the range


of activities which will be necessary to keep the project


moving. Financial considerations of course are a slightly different


matter, perhaps more context, -- complex,


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


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


the areas of concern which Mr Justice Stevens outlined. I


appreciate that mistakes occurred with your predecessor, the Sinn Fein


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


terms of the oversight of expenditure, does the commission


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


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


Washington as part of that particular jamboree, and spent a


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


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


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


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


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


commission in May 2013 determined that questions would be answered in


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


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


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


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


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


degree of misunderstanding. The procedures are that if somebody is


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


own simultaneous translation. As regards to written answers, those


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


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


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


the responsible at the of the commission to determine the


procedures, in relation to the submission of questions to the


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


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


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


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


December 2013, the number of applicants on the housing waiting


list for greater West Belfast, covering West Belfast and other


areas, stands allegations, which include the


reallocation of existing housing stock and the development of new


social housing. Projected social housing need requirement for greater


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


very substantial site. It would accommodate quite a number of


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


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


new social homes, together with giving 48 families the opportunity


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


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


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


poverty, the seemingly negligible impact that


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


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


housing, all of these things contribute towards improving energy


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


project at Desertcreat was the subject of an urgent oral question


today. Sandra Overend asked for an update


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


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


experiencing pressures within the supply chain regarding the tender to


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


the programme board that this has not affected the functionality of


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


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


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


failure in underestimating the costs. What assurances has the


minister received that this project can actually be delivered, given


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


to commemorate the leading businessman. Northern Ireland is


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


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


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


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


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


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


home-grown veterinary, pharmaceutical company, based in


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


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


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


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


basically out of the boot of a car. And from


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


point that with Stormont annoying Westminster, over the issue of


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


expecting any favours from Westminster when they needed


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


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


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


they have been so incredibly sluggish to make any kind of


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


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


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


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


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


some parties were still selecting candidates for going through


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


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


there is an amendment from the Ulster


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


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


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


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


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


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


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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