21/01/2014 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 on the programme: The


Finance Minister talks tough to Sinn Fein on welfare reform.


The move forward on the basis on a package of measures that will take


away some of the worst effects that people will suffer. Let him think


about the effect he has having right now.


Requests from the Speaker's chair meet with a frosty response during


Question Time. Could I have a question please shortly all we will


move on. I will set down. I do not like where you are doing this. --


sit down. And I'm joined by the Newsletter's


political correspondent, Sam McBride.


Money was top of the agenda at Stormont today as the Finance


Minister divvied up his loose change. The health department was


the big winner, with an extra ?30 million being allocated to help deal


with winter pressures. There was also extra money for improvement of


the road network and the expansion of the University of Ulster in


Belfast. But it was welfare reform, or rather the lack of it, that was


first up. Before I go on the allocations made, I returned to the


welfare reform issue. I am hugely disappointed that no progress has


been made on this. The executive had no option but to set aside ?50


million to cover the cost of financial penalties for the


remaining three months of this financial year. This in effect as


one executive colleague described it is dead money, returning to the


Treasury, which is now unable to be spent on services that benefit us.


Those who resist the inevitability of welfare reform can answer why our


health budget, our roads budget or our schools budget has to lose out


this year and potentially next year as well. The -- the Department of


Health will receive an allocation of ?30 million towards key health care


pressures. Whilst there are further significant pressures, I have made


it clear to the health Minister that I expect his department to contain


the remaining costs. That said, this allocation will help to alleviate


the significant front line pressures that have emerged during 2013, 2014.


It will pray a critical role -- play a critical role -- in those issues


affecting patients and the elderly population, and benefit the large


number of patients and service users. The Department for reach


another look -- development -- regional development was allocated


money to maintain our road network and improve local bus stations. The


Department for agriculture will receive ?3 million for expenditure


disallowed under the current Common Agricultural Policy. The executive


agreed a further ?3.3 million under the rule development programme. The


executive agreed to provide capital thundering to the University of


Ulster through a system financing their greater Belfast development


scheme. -- funding. It is my party's view that in terms of the


?15 million of welfare money the Minister refers to, but is not dead


money, that is still in the black -- pockets of many low incomes -- low


income people, and is more likely to be spent, so that money is not dead


money, but money that is quite important to the local economy. The


reality of what we have had to do today in making provision of ?50


million, which will rise to ?200 million, is to deny that money from


some of the very same people the member tries to speak very fondly


about. By taking ?50 million this year away from expenditure into


health, that we can put into education and elsewhere, is denying


some of the very same vulnerable people key services that they


require on Ady today basis. So whenever the member and his


colleagues deny the inevitability of moving forward, they move forward on


the basis of a package of measures that will take away some of the


worst effects that vulnerable people will suffer. Let him think about the


effect he is having not in the future, but right now. I will be


interested in the Minister's understanding of what is and is not


happening at the Maze site and what -- and the reasons why. What goes on


at the Maze site is not a direct responsibility of my department, I


have to deal with as I have in this set of circumstances. The reality of


no progress on a particular project. That is a question better


put to those who are responsible, that being the first Minister and


Deputy first Minister. It is unfortunate that we are not able to


progress with the full potential of the development of that site. I


appreciate there are huge sensitivities around certain aspects


of that area, but I think the member I am sure would agree with me that


beyond one particular project earmarked for that site, there is


huge economic and social benefit for Northern Ireland.


Simon Hamilton. I'm joined by the Newsletter's political


correspondent, Sam McBride. Failure to deal with the issue of welfare


reform remains a huge issue, and the costs of that as the months unfold


were laid before the house today. Yes, it is about ?5 million on


month, and that figure was first raised last summer. It was to try to


joke people into some sort of sense of urgency about this issue. --


jolt. Now we are getting close to where the cuts are going to come,


perhaps more so. But I suppose ?5 million is a substantial sum of


money, and it will necessitate cuts in other areas, but in the grand


scheme of things in our budget of many billions of pounds, it it is


for a few months I think we can certainly live with that, and after


the election I think it would be used to compromise on this issue.


You can understand the logic of that if it is for a few months, but Simon


Hamilton made it clear that it becomes very expensive. ?200 million


perhaps in two years' time. There was a lot said today about the extra


?30 million for health, it is not long before it matches up.


Absolutely. I think ?3 million to health was pretty significant in the


context of what was being divided up, but immigrant scheme of things


it is not massive. It is going to be interesting to see whether Simon


Hamilton as a massively different personality to his predecessor is


able to make process -- progress in this area. If he had been there


today I think he would have been confrontational about this. He would


have been spoiling for a fight perhaps with some of those he thinks


are holding this up. Simon Hamilton's approach is more of


gentle persuasion. The Finance Minister was back on his


feet facing questions from the floor in the afternoon. The behaviour of


banks and addressing income inequality were in his in-tray, as


well as more on welfare reform and the penalties handed down by the


Treasury. I met with the Chief Secretary to


the Treasury on 18th November, where he reinforced his intention to


enforce penalties should the Northern Ireland Executive and this


Assembly not progress the welfare reform bill by January 2014. As the


member we know from the January statement earlier, I have had to


make a provision of ?50 million for penalties we will incur this year.


The Northern Ireland welfare reform bill remains stalled, and Mini to


progress it as a matter of urgency to avoid any further fines. -- we


need to progress in. I am indebted to the Minister for his answer. I


did hear what I thought was a Mini forewarning about the rolling on of


debts or call ups by the Treasury which could end up in ?200 million


if we do not use something about this.


However, since April 20 -- 2007, prices have risen but 18%... Can we


have a question, please? Could we have a question, please?


Can I repeat where I was, in the middle of a question? Could I have a


question or we will move on. I tell you what, I will sit down. I do not


like the way you are doing this. What discussions has he had locally


with the Ulster bank, the RBS and the appropriate Treasury Minister to


ascertain what can be done to prevent more companies being forced


out of business by the seizing of assets. Evidence albeit anecdotal


coming forward from various companies of what they might


describe as sharp practice from some of the banks who were seizing the


assets, putting them out of business in order to repair their own balance


sheet. I would add that that is anecdotal, we get some of that


evidence coming through the Department, it is hard to assess


whether it is true or accurate because we do not have a full view


of everything. Lawrence Tomlinson carried out a review on behalf of


the business secretary Vince Cable, it's happens am meeting with him


tomorrow. -- it so happens. Since his report was published, we have


had some people raising some particular concerns about the


practice the banks have with them. I have passed that along, and there


are various enquiries following on from Lawrence Tomlinson's report,


and I will engage tomorrow on how we can feed any Northern Ireland


evidence into that. If individual members have evidence of sharp


practice, I am more than happy to channel but on anonymously through


the appropriate authorities. How does the Minister proposed to


address the challenges of income and equality? This is a problem that


Northern Ireland has faced for a number of years, and will not be


simply or easily resolved by me or anybody within the executive. Most


economists talk about an imbalance between Great Britain -- the rest of


the United Kingdom and Northern Ireland. If you go south of the


border you would see incomes and disposable household income is


higher must say, than in Dublin and the West of Ireland or Donegal or


somewhere like that. It is not an easy thing to address, but this is


where the executive's economic strategy comes into play, focusing


not just where -- on why it is important to get jobs into our


economy, and I welcome the significant progress made by the


jobs fund that the economy Minister announced yesterday. But we need to


continue to pursue trying to attract new businesses into Northern


Ireland, existing businesses, to encourage them to move into sectors


where the average wage is higher. Simon Hamilton. The Environment


Minister Mark H Durkan, also faced questions today and the continuing


delay in the publication of the Belfast Metropolitan Area Plan


dominated proceedings. Mr Durkan told the Assembly that the


construction industry and many other businesses depend on getting the


area plan up and running. The planning appeals commission


completed an independent public inquiry into the draft Belfast


Metropolitan Area Plan in 2008 and sent its report in stages. My


predecessor published all these reports on the draft plan in June,


2012. My department has now completed its scrutiny of these


reports and all other material considerations and has finalised the


draft plan for publication. My department submitted the map to the


Department for regional development for assessment of a planned against


their strategy 35 and I can confirm the plan was awarded a certificate


of general conformity on the 21st of October last year. I recognise the


importance of this plan for future development the region and the need


to ensure it is adopted and published in its final form as soon


as possible. I have sought the agreement of my ministerial


colleagues and my department now adopts and publishes the plan. Has


the Attorney General advised the Minister that the Belfast


Metropolitan Area Plan is a crosscutting issue and would require


executive approval? I am aware of the view that the map is a


crosscutting policy issue and therefore the view that it does need


executive approval. I have outlined in my initial answer that I have


sought the approval of my ministerial colleagues to proceed


with publication, particularly given uncertainty that the delay on


publication is causing outside that developers, businesses and so many


others. What abuse have been expressed by the business community


in respect of the adoption of the plan Which? what abuse have been


expressed by the business community in respect of the adoption of the


plan? Some have grave concerns over the continued delay. Many


house-builders see the adoption of it as critical to the recovery in


their sector to the workforce can only be sustained by the continuous


supply of planning approvals. A substantial number within the


business community, including builders, have participated in the


planning process since its initiation and it is no exaggeration


to say that millions of pounds have been invested by those participating


in the public inquiry, engaging specialist consultants and legal


advisers, undertaking specialist studies and submitting evidence to


the inquiry in order to secure the zoning of land for housing and


employment. Whilst he released by my predecessor of the report -- whilst


the release of my predecessor of the report, that has provided some


assurance, but many builders supported by their banks through the


most severe recession in living memory are now under severe pressure


from those banks to deliver on these sites, to recover significant sums


invested in the process. I believe we have a duty of care to those


people and therefore that is why I am determined that it should be


published as soon as possible. Mark H Durkan. Sinn Fein has called on


the environment minister to bring forward changes to the law to help


rural dwellers. It is difficult for non-farmers living in the


countryside to get planning permission for new houses. What are


your issues surrounding current planning policy Western Mark --


current planning policy? There is some provision. If a young person in


a rural area at this time beyond the development limits of a village or


town wanted to build a bungalow, a single dwelling in the countryside,


it is almost impossible. They don't even apply nowadays. I was a


councillor between 2000 and 2010 and I attended hundreds of site meetings


where young people were applying for a single House in the country and


they either got it or did not get it but now they do not apply. If every


young couple in the countryside wanted to build an additional


bungalow, you could not cope with the demand. There have to be


restrictions for that reason. I accept that. I am not for unfettered


free for all bungalow blight. Think about it. If a site in the


countryside can be integrated with vegetation, vegetation around the


House, or arising landform behind it, if you can achieve... If you can


address road safety concerns... Sometimes there is such a thing in


the country as a good side. At the minute, it is almost as if they are


all bad. You must be talking about relatively small numbers. Most land


in the countryside is owned by farmers and limited the element is


allowed on agricultural land. The previous planning legislation has


been relaxed and a lot of people see it as sensible progress. Most people


who live in a single House in the countryside would not have room for


a site for an additional House. What is rural? Anything in the North


outside Belfast and Derry is rural. There is a perception in Belfast if


you are from outside of fast that you are a farmer. You might not be.


You could be a plumber, a childcare worker, solicitor. You are not


likely to be a landowner. Very often a family could give to a family


member smallholding site and it can be built upon. I have a good memory


of a particular site in my time as a councillor on the mountain and I


remember a man had gifted a sight to his daughter. In the background was


these overwhelming wind farms and yet the girl in question was not


being allowed... She was a teacher and she was not going allowed a


single dwelling in the countryside. Integration could be achieved.


Nowadays there is a presumption against of element in the


countryside and I am saying some sites are good sites. I want to open


up possibilities for some young people in Australia at this time who


have emigrated for work I want them to come home and live where they are


from. There was an SDLP amendment and you backed it. Is there a way


forward that everyone can agree on? There is. We were pleased to accept


the amendment. We put on the motion but we were happy to accept the


amendment. In the spirit of things today, we knew it was more likely to


achieve maximum consensus. We want to open up greater opportunities for


people to build in the countryside. Thank you very much. The culture


minister reported back to the assembly on recent meetings with the


ministerial Council today and plans to extend the island's canal


network. Planning approval has now been


received regarding the project to reopen the canal. Does the Minister


have a definite time frame for that to happen?


I thank him for his ongoing interest. As I have stated


previously, given the fact that this is a very significant project for


both governments, a certain timeline has to be considered which is based


upon the availability of funding. There are certainly options around


funding availability... It has dictated the timeline. For example,


a single design and construction contract can take up to two years.


Three or four smaller contracts spread over a period of three to


five years is an option as well as a large number of small contracts of


over a period of six to eight years. Looking at strategic direction for


waterways and the need to explore and optimise opportunities to earn


income... I also note and welcome the adoption of three new


publications. Does she believe that those initiatives have been


successful in terms of uptake as far as the number of users on the canal


is concerned? What effect has that had in 2013 on the increased


earnings? Thank you. I think him for his question -- I thank him for his


question. It has been very significant work, and I want to use


this opportunity to congratulate the partners as well. The waterways


Ireland does not have enough money, like many of our bodies, it does not


have enough money to meet the things it wants to do. But one thing about


these publications, it reflected the opportunities for people who live


and work on the waterways to make income. That is to be welcomed. I


would like to see that developed to ensure that not only is it


maintained but that they have additional earnings and additional


employment opportunities for the years ahead. Party leaders met again


this afternoon to discuss draft seven of the Richard Haass


proposals. One of the leaders ventured out to talk to the press


afterwards. He was heartened by the meeting. Another very useful


meeting. Two hours of intense discussions. I am heartened. We are


all coming from different positions. We all have different political


pressures on us and we have different needs. But I feel we fully


recognise the gaps are there. We recognise the difficulties. There is


the space for us to get a bridge over the difficulties, I have no


doubt. If I did not believe they have the will to do a deal and I


would not be wasting time. I believe I have trust and confidence in other


political leaders and I believe that we can do a deal. We are here as the


SDLP looking quite simply to make progress on the stuff that was


broadly agreed in the Richard Haass progress. A lot was agreed there. We


want to see the legislation moving, or at least the beginnings laid. We


want to see resolution. The SDLP leader. Sam McBride has rejoined me.


An optimistic note. It is interesting that nobody else was


prepared to come out and talk to us. Martin McGuinness obviously came out


and did a lot of talking last week and that did not advance the process


even though it was interesting for journalists and people trying to


work out what is going on behind the scenes. I think Alistair MacDonald


was very optimistic but the still be have been relentlessly optimistic


throughout the entire process and it has not got us very far. At various


points, other people have also suggested we on the cost of


something. I do not think there is massive belief that prior to an


election there would be a breakthrough -- other people have


suggested we are on the cusp of something. No one is suggesting


there were about to change their position. It seems the process is


beginning to take shape. Next week's talks will be expanded to a


party leader plus another colleague plus a note taker. Potentially 15


people in the room next Tuesday afternoon. Depending on how you look


at it, that is either good or bad. I am not sure it will increase the


chances of consensus. The parties will be reluctant, particularly


Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness, they will be reluctant


to admit it has failed. It will probably drag on. I do not think


there is any real suggestion that on the key issues that are dividing the


parties that they are prepared to compromise this close to an


election. Martin McGuinness has said in the past, we are not getting into


when negotiating process and this will be kept at leaders level. Now


it is being extended. Alistair MacDonald today knows, is


interestingly used the term negotiations -- Alasdair McDonnell


today used the term negotiations. It may have is been significant. It may


have been a slip of the tongue. Who knows. It begs the question of after


months of going through these issues, why would they suddenly now


without the outside help of Dr Richard Haass be able to bridge the


gap that Alasdair McDonnell says still exists? What is your view on


the involvement of the two governments and the Americans?


Alasdair McDonnell would say that the Americans are determined it


should we pushed forward. It is very counter-productive for Martin


McGuinness and other people to quietly suggest that the Americans


are upping the anti-on this issue and might not invite our leaders out


to Washington for St Patrick's Day. I do not think that outside pressure


will cause great concern. There will be a little bit of embarrassment,


but it is not going to win them votes and that is what they are


thinking about at this point. The other big story of the week, of the


fortnight really, the interview with Ian Paisley. Is it done and dusted?


Can the DP move onto the next stage of politics in Northern Ireland --


VDU P. It is certainly not done and dusted. What came out last night and


the massive audience that saw it, I just do not think it will be raised


from people 's memories for quite some time. It has blown apart the


idea of something that was united behind the scenes. But the reaction


has been really pretty negative towards Ian Paisley insofar as there


has been reaction. There is still a son -- a stunned silence. A lot of


sadness. They cannot believe what he has said and how he has said it.


Fascinating situation. Thank you very much for joining us as ever.


That is it that night. Don't forget to join me on Thursday. Until then,


from everyone in the team, good night.


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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