26/02/2013 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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Welcome to Stormont today. Coming up: Debate and discussion over


flags has dominated political proceedings in recent months. Once


again it was the hot topic in the Assembly chamber. We come up the


Prince of Wales avenue. We come past car sons statue. We come in


under Britannia' lines. Poppies are sold in November. Yet our national


flag is not flown. We'll hear more on that topic from Alex Maskey and


Tom Elliott. The Finance Minister spells out the extent of our


financial dependence on Westminster. Will we ever get to the position we


don't have a deficit? I doubt it very much.


Since the flag decision at Belfast City Hall last December, the DUP


and the Ulster Unionists have been pushing for the assembly commission


to look at the issue of flags and emblems here at Parliament


buildings. The commission is made up of one member of each party, but


since December, the SDLP and Sinn Fein have boycotted it. These


parties want a new ad hoc committee to look at flags and emblems and


today they put forward a motion to that effect. The DUP before


Christmas were calling for a forum to discuss the issue of flags and


identity. Today, they have tabled a petition of concern in order to


block the establishment of such a forum. Seems to me that both


Unionist parties are letting themselves be led by the illegal,


anti-democratic protesters. Some of the staff in this building have


come to me saying they feel their traditions and identity have not


been respected. They do not work in a neutral environment. And they


feel discriminated. Would you allow a situation where a member is


making reference to members of staff in this House and I ask the


Speaker to rule on this issue and I ask the member to withdraw what is


a scurrilous and a very dangerous position. On the point of order,


there is a mechanism outside the chamber if staff have a problem


with this building. I would be careful and caution members on


drawing staff into a political situation. We come up the Prince of


Wales avenue. We come past Carson s statue. Poppies are sold at every


entrance during November. Yet our national flag is not flown. Our


Irish language is not given the place it deserves. Our symbols, for


example the Easter lily, are not given parity of esteem. It's really


not conducive to good debate for the member or anyone else to wave


redundant documents from 15 years ago. That really isn't conducive to


where we are now and the progress that we need to make for the future.


The issue at the moment is this: That the factual position in law is


that Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom. Now I know the


member for south down doesn't like that, doesn't want that, but has to


accept that. Now that's the reality. It doesn't matter how many ad hoc


committees she wants established. It doesn't matter how many votes


she wants, that's the reality. A reflection of that reality is that


the flag of the United Kingdom flies in the Parliament of the


United Kingdom in London. Why do we need a new way of dealing with


these areas when we already have an appropriate mechanism? The


commission has attempted to meet on a number of occasions recently to


progress this matser with the SDLP and Sinn Fein also the Alliance


Party on two occasions boycotting the meetings. If these parties are


not prepared to discuss these issues within the context of the


commission meetings, then why should we expect any progress


within an ad hoc committee? My party is seeking to effect change


which is fair through reaching a consensus. That is why it is so


disappointing that others are not willing to participate through the


usual forum. We are all here to lead and this is what leading does,


by the setting up of this group. Not just looking singly at the


flags, but looking at emblems, symbols and language strategy, a


mature discussion in this chamber by all should take place and that


is how we demonstrate to those in the community and to the outside


world that this Assembly does not shy away from the difficult


decisions and that we are capable of maintaining political


recognition over the flags and symbols. Rpbgts I believe the


existence of an ad hoc committee and the work proposed for the


commission are not mutually exclusive. One might inform the


other. Therefore I'm content to support the motion. There is a need


for mature debate. No I won't give way. There is need for mature


debate. Order. The member shouldn't persist. We need to balance the


role of the commission where the members are to act with integrity


including political impartiality and with the views of members which


could be expressed viate committee. We should see this motion today not


as a threat but as an opportunity to look at issues which will allow


the Assembly to be' flected as an Assembly for everyone. Sometimes


people say also political traditions aren't represented here.


We need to deal with symbols an emblems. There's no reflection of


Irish Republicanism in this building. Will he give way? Yes.


am happy to see -- pleased with what the member is saying so he


could have an added minute. Could I just say to the whole House, I will


not allow members to abuse interventions. For allowing a


member an extra minute. Order, interventions should be making a


contribution to the debate. They should be genuine interventions. I


warn the whole House. I hope I don't have to warn the member again.


The speaker delivering a stern rebuke to the DUP's William


Humphrey for what he deemed an inappropriate intervention in


today's debate. And with me now Sinn Fein's Alex Maskey and Tom


Elliott of the Ulster Unionist party.Tom Elliott and Alex Maskey,


thank you. Your effort to establish this new committee failed today. Do


you accept the outstanding issues will now have to be dealt with by


the Assembly commission? All these things have to be dealt with. They


all are very important. I do think it's important to say that on a day


in which the Assembly was discussing the future of the


provision for social housing, the issue around school closures, all


these important mattersant highlight of the news coverage of


the Assembly is the issue of flags and emblems. That should not be the


case. They are very important. Yes, they will have to be dealt with.


That's why we were saying, let's set up an ad hoc committee, go and


have a rational, mature, informed discussion and then deal with all


the issues around flags and emblems and symbols and languages. Do you


accept now that the commission is the place, even though you don't


necessarily like it, that is the place where that debate has to take


place? Or what's your next move? a way, if those want, if the other


parties want to take it in the Assembly commission they'll raise


it and the commission deliberations will happen. Will you attend those


meetings, up till now you haven't? We'll see. As far as we're


concerned we will not be railroaded into continuing to have the


environment at Stormont representative of only one


community. That is not tenable. It's not sustainable or acceptable.


Therefore people think that by using the commission they will


railroad a one-sided reflection of our symbols and emblems, that's not


going to happen. You might have won the battle today, but you haven't


won the war. Well, what we need to recognise is we have a process for


dealing with these issues, through the commission. Just the same as we


have other committees in the Assembly to deal with these matters.


With respect, not if Alex Maskey and the SDLP and Alliance Party


don't turn up. The commission can't meet to discuss them. We did listen


to members Sinn Fein today saying we are all for democracy, bring it


on. That's democracy. That's how we work it. I didn't hear complaints


from Sinn Fein and others around the Belfast City Hall decision


simply because they claim that was democracy. We're in a democratic


process, so why not deal with it through that process? I don't see


what the issue is around the flag. We're part of the United Kingdom.


Everybody should recognise that irrespective of whether you don't


like it or not. We're part of the United Kingdom. I don't complain


when I go to the Republic of Ireland and see the tricolour


flying. If it was that simple, there wouldn't be the debate that


there is about it. It's much more complicated than that. It is, but


that's only because people want to make it complicated. I hear all


this about inclusiveness about democracy. Why don't they accept


it? They continue their cultural warfare. I have been in an ad hoc


committee that Sinn Fein and the SDLP established because they


wanted a working environment. Now they have put language things on


the paper. That's not inclusive. That's nonsense. He might have


difficulty in regard to his party. The DUP never accepted the Good


Friday agreement. When you read the agreement and understand it, it is


about respecting everybody's symbols and emblems. That's what


this discussion boils back down to. The Belfast City Council decision


was not a decision taken overnight. There's been years of discussions


in the City Hall as in other council chambers. That was a


compromise. This building and the parties in here have to work


together. Assembly commission, obviously as Tom may think, may end


up with a majority rule decision. That will not resolve the problem


of how we respect each other. can't agree on the issues of


emblems and symbols, but not only, that you can't agree on the


mechanism for discussing that to try to reach agreement. You say the


commission's the place, Tom Elliott, the commission is tasked with


ensuring the Assembly is provided with the property, staff and


services required for the Assembly to carry out its work. It's not


about debating huge issues. That is the place for it to be dealt with.


Why? That's what the commission does. I think we have to be clear.


Alex says... Briefly. Alex goes back to the Belfast Agreement. If


we want to quote that, that enshrines Northern Ireland as being


an integral part of the United Kingdom. Why can't his people


accept that until the majority of We all have to be respected.


Elliott and Alex Maskey, thank you. During last week's Budget Bill


debate, Sinn Fein MLAs clashed with the finance minister, Sammy Wilson,


over the size of Northern Ireland's subsidy from London. Sinn Fein says


it believes the size of the deficit may be exaggerated. And it had more


questions for Mr Wilson at Question Time this afternoon.


The purpose of the latest net fiscal balance report is to provide


a broad overview of the public sector finances in Northern Ireland


for 2006, 2007, 2010 and 2011. The report provides an estimate of


overall net fiscal balance position, which is essentially the difference


between Government expenditure and the revenue which is raised locally.


In that regard, VAT estimates is only an element. It is indicated in


the report, it is not provided for an accurate estimate of VAT, which


has been estimated it in the absence of regional data.


minister well known that income tax, VAT, corporation tax, estimated


makes that up. That is based on two surveys and in terms of corporation


tax, there is questions as to whether the headquarters of


companies are based here will affect those figures. Can I ask the


Minister does he agree the estimates are insufficient for the


Executive? Also there is a need for the minister and Executive to put


pressure on the Treasury to release more accurate figures? Of course,


not in all cases do we have the exact figures for revenue collected


here in Northern Ireland, and that is not of course just true for


Northern Ireland, it is true for other devolved administrations.


Does the minister had a strategy for reducing the fiscal deficit,


and what would be within that strategy? Of course, we don't want


to be reliant on subsidies from central Government, because of


course that leaves the Northern Ireland economy evict interchanges


at central Government level when it comes to fiscal decisions. The


reason why we have given primacy to growing the economy, especially


growing deprive its sector of the economy, is to reduce our


dependence upon the transfer of funds from Westminster, or from


parts of the United Kingdom to Northern Ireland. I would point out


to the member of course, we are not in a unique position here. Of all


the regions in the United Kingdom, only two are in surplus, the others


are in deficit. That is because economic activity is mostly


generated. Will we be in the position where we won't have a


deficit? I doubt it very much. I think it is nine other regions in


the United Kingdom also in debt as a because of their geographical


position, and it is difficult to attract investment and generate


economic activity, and that it will always be. That is the benefit of


being in the Union, we have that ability as part of a bigger


constitutional units, we have that ability for the weaker areas to be


helped out by the stronger areas. The finance minister, Sammy Wilson.


During health questions, the minister found himself dealing with


two highly topical issues - waiting times at the Ulster Hospital's A&E


department and the ongoing issue of horsemeat. Here is Edwin Poots


taking a question from Sinn Fein's Southdown MLA, Chris Hazzard, on


the horsemeat scandal. Can the Minister outlined who funds the FSA


here and who they are accountable to? The Food Standards Agency is


funded directly by ourselves, but it is not responsible to this


Assembly, as such. It is a body which is outside the Assembly. That


has been set up because of the issues that surrounded the BSE


problems. The lack of fate there was in politicians at that point in


time. And I note the party has been suggesting Food Standards Agency


should come under political authority. This is the same party


that called for an independent Environment Protection Agency just


a few years ago. It would appear the party has done somersaults on


this particular issue. Can I ask him to clarify what the position is


on the slaughter of courses in Northern Ireland? It is legal to


slaughter and sell horsemeat in the United Kingdom, provided it is from


an approved abattoir and an official stamp it is fit for human


consumption. There were horses killed in Northern Ireland up until


a relatively short time ago. Around 40 every fortnight. Those were


exported, and all of that trade was legal and legitimate. It was being


carried out properly. The company has since discontinued doing that


course of work because it was interfering with other aspects of


business. But there was no indication whatsoever, no evidence


of any kind which would indicate that particular horsemeat was


ending up in the food market. There has been a huge amount of testing


carried out. We are satisfied from a food safety perspective, this is


not a danger to the public. This is a labelling issue, an issue of


fraudulent behaviour and I trust people will be in court and charged


in due course over this. Some of them are very big companies. Let's


be honest, the need to be went after and pursued rigorously.


you are a work, the stuff that is in the media around the Ulster


Hospital, can you outline to me why patients were laying with the


ambulance crew for four hours, and the ambulance crew were held up for


four hours? If you can outline, was there a divert on by the Ulster


Hospital, and it the Ambulance Service put a divert on away from


the Ulster Hospital? There are diverts on an ongoing basis from


the Ulster Hospital to the Royal, and I will deal with that a little


more in a moment. There was 66 ambulances yesterday at the Ulster


Hospital. Last Monday there were 68 ambulances. Normally it is in the


50s. When you have ambulances are pulling up, you get 60% of patients


being admitted to the hospital. It has proved a very tight in terms of


the number of missions that it was taken place in the South Eastern


Trust area. There has been more medical admissions taking place of


the elderly population, and consequently the hospital is under


greater pressure. The Royal does take diverts from the Ulster


Hospital. It is something we need to give some consideration to,


because the Ulster does not have the capacity, it is the main


hospital. It does not have the capacity the Belfast Trust have in


terms of acute bed numbers. I think that we would do well to give some


consideration to the numbers of birds that are likely to become


available in the Ulster Hospital on a particular day, and if it is


recognised there is pressures on to put the diverts in at an earlier


point, to ensure the pressure is absorbed in a better way. We don't


want to see people waiting in ambulances outside hospital. It is


not the type of care this Assembly wants.


The health minister, Edwin Poots. Speculation about proposals for


reform of social housing has been unhelpful and perhaps uninformed,


according to the social development Minister. In a statement this


morning, Nelson McCausland, also stressed that change was needed in


order to deliver value for money. The housing Executive has a long


track record over the past 40 years of improving social housing stock.


My proposals for the form of social housing is about acknowledging past


achievements in terms of social housing provision while it is


focusing on future sustainability and delivery, for the benefit of


tenants and the taxpayer. The fundamental review of the Northern


Ireland Housing Executive by Price Waterhouse Coopers in 2011, found


the current model and structures no longer allow optimal delivery of


either strategic housing or landlord services. The general


consensus from a series of meetings from stakeholders, concluded that


do-nothing option was not a realistic solution. Over the last


few weeks, since I made the written statement, there has been a lot of


unhelpful and uninformed speculation about my proposals.


They are not about abolishing the Housing Executive, they are about


improving the structures for the delivery of those functions. They


do not herald large-scale job losses, as I made it quite clear


that staff in the housing Executive, currently delivering landlords and


none landlord functions, will still have to deliver those functions,


but in different, more focused and financially sustainable structures.


By the end of 20th March 15, I aim to have in place, a sustainable


housing system which delivers regional housing needs through


landlord structures and housing associations and which is


strategically Govan, and regulated. With regard to a rent setting


regime, I propose an independent setting rent Panel is established,


which will agree annual rent levels within the parameters of the fiscal


rental policy based on affordability, set by me as


minister and subject to scrutiny of the Assembly. In the establishment


of a regional housing body, I intend the current housing


Executive and on landlords functions will fall under the remit


of a Northern Ireland regional housing body. It is disappointing


he has said little apart from wishing to explore and develop


proposals are ready in scant detail. In 2012 the minister accused the


Housing Executive of having failed its tenants. I am sure he denied


his party and other reasons, will be sad to see it go? The issue the


Member refers to what comments I made about failures and


shortcomings in the Northern Ireland exec -- Housing Executive.


And I'm sure the concerns I expressed that time were shared by


members of all parties, right across the chamber, because there


were very serious matters in terms of the quality of the delivery for


tenants. And also serious questions with regard to the value for money


issue in terms of some of the management and maintenance contract


issues. The social development Minister,


Nelson McCausland. Now, Stormont will be few politicians lighter


next month as a posse of them heads off to the annual St Patrick's Day


festivities in Washington. But precisely how many should go from


the OFMDFM Committee was a source of disharmony at its meeting last


Wednesday. This is an annual picture that the Kennedy travelled


to Washington in and around St Patrick's Day. As I understand it


is normal an invitation is extended to ditcher and deputy chair of this


committee, whereas clearly, in paragraph two, in this instance the


invitation is to five members of the committee, the chair, deputy


chair and one representative from each of the other three parties. I


am just wondering if members have any views? It is up to the parties


if they want to send a representative. We are content to


discuss and do the same. Beyond the top sheet it you will see a draft


from the clerk. Which I suppose is a reasoned argument for accepting


the invitations. And on the back page, we can see a best estimate of


the implication for costs if we went with what has gone in previous


years, we're looking at 5,700, approx. If all five parties decide


to send a representative, that could trouble. I have read the


letter and I don't see any rigorous just to vacations from moving to


two to five people travelling. So, I would like the committee to reach


a decision and I have to say, I see no rationale for extending it to


fire people. I think on the one hand, nobody else does, because


they are representing their parties then fair enough. I wouldn't be


happy under the current claim to go to do not represent everybody. If


we can facilitate a representative of every delegation, leave it up to


the party whether they want to go or not. We had previously discussed


this with Danny Kennedy as minister for regional developments and we


have reached a decision were one or all of us would go, but not both


travel at the taxpayers' expense. Danny went last year as minister,


we took the view that it one of us was going this the it would be me


as capacity of the chair. But that is your party represented. I hope


you don't mind me telling you it is for information. You are entitled


to do that, obviously. Do you want to vote on the invitation to one


from each five? I think it is an invitation and if it can be a


facilitator to have a representative grouping, I think we


should consider that in a positive light but leave it to the parties


if they want to send someone on Oct. So the proposal is if it is left to


individual parties to decide if they accept the invitations he can


only extend to the chair, the vice- chair and one representative from


the other three parties on the committee? Should we have a


recorded vote of those who are in favour, please. Why do we need a


recorded vote? Because I would like a recorded vote so I know who I am


voting against? Do we have anybody in favour of the proposal? Yes.


against? Myself. I won't be travelling to Washington as chair


of this committee because I see no just a vocation for sending five


people, when in previous years, two seemed perfectly adequate. Does


that mean Danny Kennedy will now go? Note. As explained, you are


making a political point,. I am worried about the cost to public


purse and value for money. I made the point about you and Danny


Kennedy, you agreed one or other would go. You are now opting out.


With your party be represented in Washington? I need to be speaking


to a Danny. You said no, and minutes ago. You said does this


mean, I said no, because I cannot tell you that because I have not


spoken to Danny. The question you asked, does this mean Danny will be


going? You said no, he wouldn't. said no, not necessarily. I did not


hear that. The answer is No, not necessarily.


Mike Nesbitt and Alex Maskey in discussion at last week's meeting


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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