24/04/2012 Stormont Today


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

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Welcome to Stormont Today. While James Murdoch creates a buzz at the


Leveson enquiry and Russell Brand talks drugs and addiction to MPs,


here at Stormont it is more sedate, with fuel duty and further


education dominating the day's business. Stephen Farry issued a


warning about his doomed department. If we split it up there is a very


bake danger that we plunged -- large danger that we plant are


cutting edge at this difficult time. If I sound breathless it is because


I am. Business has motored along What is going to happen to the


Department of Employment and learning has been vexing those in


the education sector since it was announced it was being scrapped. It


featured probably today. Professor Tony Gallagher is pro-vice


Chancellor at Queen's University. Where do you favour the Department


going? Do you want it split up? two vice-chancellors sport to the


implement committee very recently and they were very clear that it


makes sense for higher and further education to going together. There


is speculation it will not happen that way, there will be a division


by Sinn Fein. The DUP will get one hat and Sinn Fein the other.


primary interest is, we make a big contribution to the economy and we


hope whatever decision is made is made in the best interests of


Northern Ireland. You can see a logic for going either way. We


think the balance of the argument is clearly in favour of one, but


the decision should be made on good, solid economic ground rather than


political ground. What are the down side steered it goes into


education? The role higher education place in the economy


could get lost. We would be worried about the research agenda and the


link between academic research. There is a whole range of issues.


We already engage with the economic strategy and we would be worried


that would get lost if we lost it. Is there a concern because of the


changes to fees and how we are likely to see students not going to


England, is it a fear it is happening at the wrong time? There


is no doubt this change we are going through does create a lot of


turbulence in the systems. It makes life a bit more difficult. We have


a major contribution to make, both universities play a huge role. It


is important in these times that it is very tough and we must be given


the capacity to make that contribution. Ever wonder what is


going on during trade visits to foreign climes? Is it long lazy


lunches? Peter Robinson gave us a brief insight into that world of


high-level foreign travel during Question Time, but before that here


is the junior minister on his department's expected statement on


child poverty. We are eminently ready to produce the document and


bring it forward to the Assembly, and of all things to do with child


poverty, we are assessed against the United Kingdom medium.


Considerations are taking place from that figure of those living


within the 60% less falling in the Child poverty. If we take the


Northern Ireland figure, we have a success story to tell. It is a good


story to tell. It is cold comfort for those of the 19% and we are


determined to do all we can to eradicate child poverty. Onto the


foreign travels, and the First Minister outlines the meeting he


and the Deputy First Minister held in India and Dubai. The purpose of


the visit was to promote export growth and sustained development in


the Middle East and India. The visit provided an opportunity to


build on our growing reputation as a provider of quality products and


services. We used this opportunity not only to market Northern Ireland


as a place to do business but to assist local companies in building


an international wreck using an -- reputation. It also coincided with


the launch of a tourism promotion campaign for Northern Ireland in


India. All the meetings we participated in focused on building


trade links and further establishing our presence in both


regions. In Abu Dhabi, we met West the Crown Prince, and a higher


range of business leaders. In Dubai, more political leaders and business


executives, including local firms based in Dubai. One recently


secured a major contract to supply carpets to a big hotel in Dubai.


There was also a major trade mission made up of Northern Ireland


businesses, it visited India. The aim was to assist these local


businesses in developing an international presence and to grow


their businesses through exports. As far as investment is concerned


we spoke to a number of investors and we have high hopes that there


will be jobs come from that. Also the very important aspect of the


trade mission, local businesses here and in Northern Ireland were


looking to supply the Indian market and indeed a number of them have


very publicly indicated their support for the trade mission, and


while modesty alone forbids me from reading the comments they have made,


each one of them has indicated how helpful it was that the first and


Deputy First Minister were there, because it gave them introductions


at a much higher level than they could otherwise have had. We have


seen from that that we are much -- much higher numbers that attended


the resections. We have already seen instances upon which we would


regard the trip as accessible, but we look for more tangible terms in


the weeks and months ahead. Fellow international traveller Arlene


Foster was up for questions, and the session was dominated by the


questions of fuel, both legal and illegal. We know that fuel fraud


costs the United Kingdom millions of pounds in lost revenue, and


Northern Ireland alone as I understand from the Select


Committee is estimated to have lost �70 million in 2009 to 2010. That


is if you tonight of money and I believe there is a need to move


forward in relation to this issue and I only hope that either the


minister for justice has a look at this matter and perhaps the


Committee for Justice could also look into this in more detail to


see if there is something we can do, in Northern Ireland context.


understand there has only been some 47 prosecutions between 2001 and


2009 and millions of pounds are going into criminal gangs as a


result of laundering fuel. Would the minister not except that this


is something the Executive as a whole should be determining, which


minister is appropriate to take something forward and address the


issue so there is severe penalties for those dealing in this illegal


deal? With respect to the member, it is not my job to tell other


ministers had to do their job. If the member has an issue he wishes


to raise with the minister of justice he should do so. What about


security of supply? Whole northern Ireland fair if the tanker driver


dispute escalates? I'm sure the minister will agree it is vital to


have a positive relationship between government and industry,


and in that context, have any negotiations taken place in


Northern Ireland should something happen? As I indicated at that time,


when our national government was having difficulties with petrol


queues, the position in Northern Ireland is different from the rest


of the UK. There should be if the position remains the same, no


impact on fuel imports. There is no indications that fuel distribution


will be affected. Just one of the companies whose driver voted for


strike action is to beat in Northern Ireland, and the number of


drivers involved is very small. The distribution in Northern Ireland is


totally different from that which exists in Great Britain, and much


more fragmented, there is in excess of 15 companies distributing


product to filling stations and forecourts in Northern Ireland, and


many of them are locally owned and not therefore members of unions,


therefore I do not foresee that we will have any difficulties here in


Northern Ireland. The Deputy First Minister has found himself caught


up in controversy after reform right -- a former army intelligence


officer told the Smithwick Tribunal Martin McGuinness was involved in


the murders of two RUC men in 1989. They are investigating Garda


collusion in the IRA killings of Harry Breen and Bob Buchanan. They


were told Mr McGuinness was involved in authorising the attack,


an allegation he denied. That the Mall was not enough to put off Jim


Allister who attempted to raise the issue during Question Time.


that First Minister had an opportunity yet today to reflect on


the news from the Smithwick Tribunal that his deputy has been


named as somebody who ordered the murder of two police officers?


is not relevant. Move on. You may not offer how much longer at the


Department For Education and learning will continue to exist,


but despite this, Stephen Farry was focused on the future today as he


unveiled a new strategy for higher education. Our institutions play a


critical role in addressing the future Skill Needs and developing


the knowledge economy through research and development and


knowledge transfer. Accordingly, that strategy focuses on a lining


that need with a greater emphasis on economic liberalism subject. By


20th March 13, the universities will bring forward proposals for a


rebalancing the profile. In support of my department's skills strategy,


the strategy also headlines the need to increase the scale of this


current and future work force. Indeed, a major focus is on


insuring learners undertaking higher education course are


provided with the opportunity to avail of a work-related placement


while completing their studies. I want to ensure that our graduates


possess the employability skills they need to succeed in the job


market and to ultimately benefit our economy. Therefore by 2020, all


higher education students will have the opportunity to a veil of a work


placement. These additional skills will be accorded -- recorded by all


higher education providers through the higher education achievement


reporter. I will ensure access to higher education is maintained. I


recognise the differing regimes across the UK make increase


pressure upon local higher education places, sold by the level


of applications from Northern Ireland students to local


institutions has remained steady while it has dropped to


institutions elsewhere. I have however secured the resources to


facilitate an additional 700 places locally through to 2015. These will


all be in stems subject. My department will also undertake a


review of the current control and full-time undergraduate places.


This review will be published in 2016, and will feed into the


creation of a revised funding model that will support a flexible


lifelong learning environment including how we facilitate


expected increase in part-time MLAs were all very complimentary


about the strategy. No-one mentioned the elephant in the room,


the fact that we don't know what department will take on


responsibility for higher education until the curious member for north


Antrim asked this: Given that a lot of the higher education strategy


focuses around the needs of the economy, is this a very clear


indication perhaps the first indication from the minister, of


where he sees the functions of his department lie following the


dissolution? I pay tribute to his creativity. I want to say number of


things. First, I have already been clear on the record where I think


this debate needs to go and that there is a single overarching


narrative in my department, based around the importance of skills to


the economy. Whether it's higher education, further edge kaiction, -


- education, what we do with business or the employment service,


all those levers are directed towards the upskilling and


reskilling of the workforce in a competitive interNational situation.


Whether it's through a single department of learning or through


the department of the economy, what's critical is that we keep


that economic driver together and coherent. If we split it up,


there's a very real danger that we blunt our cutting edge at a time


where the future of the economy is most critical. However, I would


urge members to stop seeing any plots or subplots in anything we're


sending out today. This has been a deep, long-standing piece of work


within my department. What we have today before us is based on tierly


on the merits of the case and our best analysis of the future


direction of the sector. And obviously, as is the case in many


other societies, there needs to be a stronger economic focus within


the sector. It's not that that doesn't exist at present. We're


building and reinforcing it further. MLA's were complimentary about the


strategy, what do you think of it? We welcome it as well. This is the


first formal higher education strategy in Northern Ireland. The


minister has to be commended for bringing this forward. It fits with


the direction of travel in many ways around the importance of the


stem agenda, the role of higher education in raelaigs to the


economy, the need to address issues around the employability of our


graduates. They need to engage bet wer school to give young people


better education. There's a lot of this we've been working on for


quite a while. We're pleased to see it formalised. Is it innovative


enough, you mention stem subjects, science and technology, the things


that employers coming from foreign countries are saying that's what


they're looking for. Has there been enough planning, or should we


introduce things like lower fees for students carrying out those


subjects? There are other options to deal with at this point. If we


lowered fees in some areas it raises the question of cost some --


from somewhere else. There's a big push for direct investigation.


We're attracting a lot of finance companies. There are shortages in


the graduates for software engineering and programming. We've


been working with employers to identify those gaps to plug the


gaps as quickly as possible. In the digital economy, the labour market


changes very, very fast. The universities are trying to respond


as best we can. It's also important that schools become aware of this.


A lot of careers teachers in schools maybe aren't aware of the


sort of changes that are taking place in the labour market and the


sort of high quality, high value jobs that are now available in some


of the new industrial sectors to move away from the traditional


subjects we go for. We have the highest petrol prices in the UK and


they're about to rise again. Sinn Fein want the executives to start


negotiation was the Treasury to devolve powers. Such a move was a


step too far for members today. They backed a DUP proposal for a


rural duty relief scheme. We'll hear from Sinn Fein in a moment.


First what the other parties have to say? If I sound breathless, it's


because I am. Business in this House seems to have motored along


quicker than any of us thought today. I'm assuming we are taking


this power on the argument, we want to take the power to reduce the


levels of fuel duty. We're not talking about keeping it where it


is. Reducing it comes at a cost. And the estimated cost, because we


take it in a round �1 billion in fuel duty in Northern Ireland,


that's the contribution to the �27.5 billion that the Treasury


raises in the UK. Our contribution is �1 billion, it's one of the few


taxes where we pay more than our population share within the UK,


which is probably a reason why even in discussing it with the Treasury


they wouldn't want to give it up. We should set up a commission to


discuss the possible levers available to us and to examine them


on a cost benefit basis. That's exactly what I've said. I don't


think that is suggesting that one lever rather than another is a


panacea. I confirm that my party will be opposing the motion and I


acknowledge his belief that a 5p reduction could be sufficient,


sufficiently beneficial as to make the measures cost effective. I


don't accept that that's the casement Mr Hamilton mentioned that


the test of something like that could cost close to �100 million.


That's not feasible to do that. Those areas where there has been a


consensus of devolving here, there's been an economic business


case thought out. The passenger duty for long-haul flights, because


of the economic benefit that can flow from that and indeed, the


potential of revitalising our private sector economy through


corporation tax. Now, were we to get to the stage of that being


formally offered, there will be a cost involved in it. At this stage,


to take anything more on board could actually rule out that. So we


cannot overload ourselves. Let's face the fact that we will have a


cost to pay to deal with that and enable our economy to take off.


Let's not bring in uncosted, unplanned, uneconomic additional


ideas that have been thought up on the back of a fag packet. Joining


us now Sinn Fein. Are you disappointed with how things panned


out today? Yes, very disappointed. We were hoping that the particular


circumstances for families in the north of Ireland and for businesses,


particularly small businesses, in the north of Ireland, would have


been taken into consideration. What we were asking for was that the


fuel duty would be transferred so that the executive could set the


fuel duty. We see the powers, those economic powers not just in terms


of tax raising, but we also see them as levers for, to actually


promote economic growth. If you were going to take the power to


decrease fuel duty, wow have to find the money somewhere else. That


was the question that was asked time and time again today. As I


said, there's particular circumstances for families in the


north of Ireland. We live, first of all, in the mostly rural set.


People are dependent on their cars. Public transport is underdeveloped.


That isn't an option for a lot of people. Also the disposable income


of families here is the lowest on average right across Europe, if you


look at Britain and across the islands. How would you pay for


helping those families, that you want to help, they would have to


lose something somewhere else surely? Those families at the


moment are paying the highest cost across Europe for diesel. They're


paying the highest cost across the two islands for petrol. It's


already having a really difficult financial impact on those families.


Now what we're saying is that people will go across the border to


the south of Ireland and they will actually get their fuel there. So,


the in the longer term, having that higher duty on fuel will actually,


will actually stunt,if you like, our economic growth. But the


problem is... People won't spend. appreciate all those points, unless


you answer the question of where the money's coming from. That's the


point of MLAs and why they voted goodness it today. You're robbing


Peter to pay Paul effectively. say the same about corporation tax.


This is about starting with a debate around the transfer of


economic powers to this executive. Because we need to have economic


powers. It was said today there again, we're like a big Council. We


don't have the economic powers in order to create, first of all, set


taxation and set that. But also, to have the incentives in terms of


setting those taxation powers as well. And I also, I mean, I pointed


it out today, in 2008, we had the huge increase in the energy prices,


electricity and gas. We had like what was called a windfall tax of


�40 million, just on the increases over a short peer yofd time. That


all went back into the British Treasury. None of it came here to


be distributed for services in the north. So, we're very, very clearly


saying, there's particular circumstances here, families are


really feeling the financial difficulties of the high, really,


really high cost of fuel and cost of petrol and diesel. Therefore,


we're saying it has to be, the economic powers have to lie with


the executive. I wondered about your reaction to the allegations


today that Martin goodness Guinness was involved in the murders of two


RUC men? There's been a statement put out by our party this evening.


Basically, again, this man Martin Ingram, his credibility has been


already put into question. H -- he has openly admitted he was a member


of the British Security Service, who were involved in collusion and


murder of Irish citizens. I believe that the statement tonight covers


what you're asking me. I believe that this man is totally


discredited. I also, Martin has denied this. Thanks very much


indeed for joining us. There have been a lot of comments


lately about a lack of business at the Assembly. It seems MLAs


themselves have finally cottoned on. Martina explained to me earlier.


The business committee met today. They did agree the order paper from


the 8th, there has been discussion about the lack of business and how


thin that paper is. So the junior minister Jonathan Bell has been


asked by the Speaker's office and the business committee to find out


what's going on and report back about why there isn't more


executive business. Now, I asked for a comment from the speerblg's -


- Speaker office. The Assembly press office said they didn't


comment on internal matters. I put it to a senior member of government,


who told me there would be a lot of business coming down the line.


Assembly it seems is talking about closer cooperation with the United


States? Yes, according to the minutes it was agreed they should


set up an all-party Working Group on relations with the United States.


They feel this is an exceptional relationship and there's a number


of initiatives including one with Boston college. On an eight-month


trial basis they're going to look at this relationship, but of course,


it could become costly. They will review costs to see how much money


would be put into this. According to the minutes also Sinn Fein


suggested they should also look at the potential to develop


relationships between Brazil, Russia, India and China. It could


get very expensive. Justice has been in the spotlight, but there's


a new problem they're investigating, a rather unfortunate one. Yes the


maintenance men have been seen going into castle buildings for


some time. There's evidence of minimal vermin activity on a floor


in castle buildings. Steps are being taken to deal with the


situation. Lots of jokes about rats being left over from the Northern


Ireland office days. They have to be rehabilitated and not freed into


the community. I spoke it a member of the Justice Committee and he was


concerned about it. Some people might say it's an interesting tale,


on a serious note, I'm sure it's of great concern to staff that there


could be rats running through the building. Especially at a health


and safety level. Rats are notorious vermin and to have that


running through your place of work and all the damage and dirt that


brings with it, isn't very pleasant at all. It's something that the


department would want to get to grips with quickly. Helping people


with learning difficulties stand up for their rights was the subject of


an event here today. A shadow council has been set up by the CAN


group in Ballymoney, which helps people reach their full potential.


The visitors told their own personal stories, including one


young woman from Coleraine, who is a new mother of twins. She


explained how the authorities had tried to take the children away,


but with help from the CAN group, she's now the proud mother of a


seven-month-old son and daughter. Why is it important to be on the


Shadow Council? Because it let's you speak of your rights. People


will listen to you. Do you think it's important if you have a


learning difficulty that people do listen? No, they don't listen.


that how you feel? Uh-huh. In what way? You feel like you're not, you


feel like you can't, you're not as strong as what they are. Because


other people think they're better than others that they know what's


best. I'm from Coleraine. I work in recycling. I go to the base in


Coleraine. Why do you think it's important to be on the Council?


gives you confidence to speak up. Tony, one of the aspects that came


out of the strategy today was a more flexible pattern for stuepts.


How's that going to work? That's an interesting idea. They're talking


about allowing students to take degrees at their own speed and in


different places. You can no longer use the numbers as a cap on who's


going into university because it is so flexible. Have you to have a


different funding model. They say they need to look at both things.


It will be difficult. Thanks for joining us tonight. That's it from


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