27/01/2014 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 in the next half hour: The


Deputy First Minister urges his Assembly colleagues, once again, to


get the ball rolling on the Haass proposals. What we need to do is


show the public right across society that we have the ability to tackle


these difficult issues. With under-18s to be banned from


buying electronic cigarettes in England, the Health Minister says it


could happen here too. I know these cigarettes are being used by smokers


as an alternative and it probably is a better alternative than smoking,


but I don't think it is any alternative to get youngsters under


18 hooked on nicotine. And our political reporter, Stephen


Walker, joins me to cast his eye over the day's events.


In what has become a fairly common stance for him, the Deputy First


Minister was again voicing his frustration at the lack of progress


over the Haass proposals. Martin McGuinness was on his feet during


questions to the Office of the First and Deputy First Ministers this


afternoon. While the past was a focal point, so too was the future


and who will be the Attorney General come May. The Deputy First Minister


will recall in the autumn that the First Minister said that he and the


Deputy First Minister will be reaching a


Deputy First Minister will be and what further information can the


Deputy First Minister give to this House? Well, I can give no further


information to the House other than to state the position that we


recognise that come May this year the position of Attorney General


needs to be filled. We've had a discussion about that in the course


of the last seven days. And we do hope to be in a position very


shortly to make an announcement. Given the issues that the Attorney


General has involved himself in, does the Deputy First Minister think


he has strayed outside his remit? When he was appointed we invited him


to undertake the nonstatutory role of adviser to the executive. He has


a range of responsibilities, 22-5 of the Justice Act 2002 requires him to


exercise his functions independently of any other person. There may well


be timed when the statutory role action ways that others might


consider unhelpful. And there may be times that we as an executive differ


from his views but it what be wrong to curtail his actions when had ea


acting in an independent statutory role. Both the Minister and the


deputy Minister will be aware that the evidence given by the Sisters of


Mercy nuns was described as haphazard and piecemeal. Will the


Minister be able to give her view as to where she sees obligations of the


institutions such as the Sisters of Nazareth in order to co-operate


fully with this inquiry? Well, just to say to the member, you've asked


for my view, and really there couldn't be anything more dreadful


than what those people had to go through, and particularly the


vulnerability of those children, because they had nobody to turn to.


Really, I have to say that anyone should be approaching this inquiry,


on should be approaching this inquiry,


evidence should be doing it with should be approaching this inquiry,


organisation they are from. Mr Speaker, can I ask the Deputy First


Minister, given our commitment to the ongoing Haass process, can the


Deputy First Minister outline his view on the next steps? Well, I


think the next steps are very clear and they are in the public domain.


The party leaders in the Assembly have met now and two occasions, will


meet again tomorrow. That will probably be a lengthier meeting than


the first two. I think there is a huge responsibility on all of us to


find a way forward on these three contentious issues. I think i in


incumbent on all of us to be positive and constructive and to


recognise that the lot of politician among the general public isn't


great. I find that embarrassing. I think that what we need to do is


show the public right across society that we have the ability to tackle


these difficult issues. We've tackled even more difficult issues


than this in the past. Our political reporter, Stephen


Walker, is with me. The Haass process came up again during today's


Question Time, do you detect any sign of significant movement there


at all? In a word, no. We are in limbo land. The Haass talks broke up


on New Year's Eve. We had a series of meetings in January. We've got


another meeting tomorrow. We are told that tomorrow's meeting will


last around four hours. That the will be the longest meeting sips the


talks broke up. Certainly talking to parties tonight there's no sense


that parties are coming tomorrow, there's no expectation there'll be


consensus tomorrow. The problem is this, there is no consensus on


what's contained in the Haass proposals and there's no consensus


on the way forward. And lack of consensus but clear tensions between


Sinn Fein and the DUP about what happens next as far as the proposals


are concerned? happens next as far as the proposals


they were highlighted, when you did happens next as far as the proposals


McGuinness, he talked about the Americans possibly, hoping this


process could be wrapped up by March, and he said he was fed one


that process. Peter Robinson gave an interview and said this wasn't Sinn


Fein's process and accused Martin McGuinness of being a dictator. He


said this was all about consensus and moving forward. This didn't


belong to one party but all five. That gave an indication of the gulf


that exists between Sinn Fein and the DU puxt. We'll watch tomorrow


afternoon's meeting with interest. In the meantime the Attorney


General's future was raised during Question Time. Yes, we had a


reference to it there with Martin McGuinness. We were told last year


this whole issue of John Larkin remaining as Attorney General, or


whether he would go on to another job, we were told this issue would


be wrapped up by now. You get a sense of frustration among


politicians that they want a decision and want to know what is


happening about John Larkin's future. He's been a controversial


figure. The controversial views on adoption and abortion. Recently he


gave an interview, talking about offences during the Troubles. I


think there was a feeling from some parties here, they want closure.


They want to know, is John Larkin staying? Or if he is going, what is


the the process for the next Attorney General? Are we clear what


timetable we might be talking about in terms of clarity, knowing if he's


staying or not staying, presumably they've got to put in place plans


for finding a successor? No-one has mapped out the timetable. What we do


know is his term of office expires in May. Here we are in January, so


if he was going, and there was to be a successor, clearly you would have


to have an advertisement, a short-listing, a process in place.


But as of yet we don't know anything about that. For now, thank you.


One of the biggest pieces of legislation facing the Assembly was


debated today - the Public Service Pensions Bill. The changes


debated today - the Public Service one from Jim Allister which called


for changes surrounding pension payments to the widows of police


officers who died while in service. Arguably this is the most


significant piece of legislation to come before this chamber thus far in


this mandate, and therefore it is important at this last stage when


amendments can be tabled that we can try to reconfigure the Bill as best


we can in the interests of the people that will be affected, the


230,000 people that will be affected by the Bill on the far side of royal


assent. What all that reveal me, Mr Deputy Speaker, is this House needs


to be vigilant about this pensions legislation, because the Treasury


and George Osborne and his team aren't finished with this yet. As I


say, we are talking about a small number of widows in very particular


circumstances, yet the objections from with Whitehall departments has


been that to amend the regulations would breech principles such as


retro specktivity and parity. The Minister hasn't found a resolution.


Mr Allister says the Bill offers an opportunity to address this issue


and the Alliance Party has sympathy with the widows. I've met with one


of the widows in this circumstances, who lost her husband, who was killed


because of the job le was doing. She had very I don't think children and


is now in a position where she would seek to remarry, but the financial


consequences of doing so are very severe. Therefore, has been stuck in


the position for quite a number of years now, wanting to do the right


thing according to her faith, because this individual is a


Christian and they want to honour those principles that she lives by.


But in doing so, these regulation would bring a great deal of


financial hardship in that particular circumstances.


Unaccustomed as I am that in respect of this particular


amendment. Let's be very clear, Mr Deputy Speaker, the purpose of this


amendment is to bring equality of treatment to all police widows.


Because at this moment in time, we have an inequality in regard to the


retention of lifelong benefits by widows, because since the changes


made under the new regulations of 2009, a new widow, to put it in


those terms, retains her lifelong benefits upon remarriage. I have to


say I welcomes amendments 15 and 19, the content of this proposed new


clause is something I understand the Minister of Justice has previously


been petitioned on by several representatives, including Mr Given,


who mentioned Diane Dodds and Geoffrey Donaldson and the Justice


Committee, and Mr Allister as well, to make a change for police widows


and widowers as well. It is gender blind in Northern Ireland. I


certainly can understand that and share Mr Allister's concern on the


inconsistencies between police pension scheme legislation in


respect of pensions paid to police widows and widowers on remarriage.


The regulations were less generous overall, provide for lifelong


benefits to be paid to the surviving spouse or nominated partner of a


police officer. I realise that what we have before us today is a


sensitive issue. It is especially emotive for those in the situation


who've lost a wife of a husband or a partner who served in the police. It


is patently unfair for the survivors of police officers, whether in the


royal Ulster Constabulary or the Police Service of Northern Ireland


to be treated differently. And that amendment from Jim Allister


was passed. You can catch up with the entirety of that marathon debate


on Democracy the entirety of that marathon debate


with England in the entirety of that marathon debate


Edwin Poots was speaking during Question Time, when he was also


asked how he would spend the extra money recently given to his


department by the Finance Minister last week. Can I ask the Minister to


detail how the ?30 million allocated in the January monitoring round will


be used? I thank the member for that question. There's a series of things


that we will have to invest in. As I indicated to the House, one of the


areas where we identified that we were having particular issues and


problems was in children identified as children at risk. I think it will


shock many members of the public to learn that we have hundreds more


children now identified as children at risk this year than we had last


year. I think that will be to do with the issues highlighted on


television, relating to Savile and many other personalities mostly


associated with the BBC. That has brought that to people's attention.


?5 million is being spent on that. There are a number of other areas,


including urgent care, including elective surgery and so forth that


we will want to continue to support, because we've been making a real


dent on many of the waiting times that existed. People are receiving


care at a much more appropriate time. There's a whole series of


things that we will be spending that money on. While we are continuing to


attempt to save money within the system, and that is always a


challenge to us, to ensure that we have as efficient a system as


possible. If we don't deliver efficiencies, we deny people


services, because we are spending money on things that are un. The


Minister will be aware that the Government at Westminster are


bringing forward an amendment to the children and families Bill that will


outlaw to sale of e-cigarettes to under 18s. What sacs will


outlaw to sale of e-cigarettes to will need to be looking at how we


can quickly assess the situation and carry out some movement on it. I


will speaking to my teenage daughter the other day and she was telling me


that lots of children in her school are using e-cigarettes. That's


something which I would be most unhappy with. I know that


e-cigarettes are being used by smokers as an alternative, and


probably it is a better alternative than smoking. But I don't think that


it is any alternative to get youngsters under the age of 18


hooked on nicotine. I think it is very, very important that we make a


full assessment of this and we respond quickly to it and I will be


looking closely at what Westminster is doing and see how we in Northern


Ireland can move this forward. The took industry -- the tobacco


industry has been very good at making smoking appear cool. I have


no doubt that people selling e-cigarettes will have no problem in


making it appear to be a cool thing to do. Anybody teen is a more


addictive substance than heroin. We really need to be challenging the


use of nicotine in such a way. We need to be discouraging people and


particularly our young people, because two thirds of smokers start


smoke whenever -- smoking is when they are under 18. We need to ensure


that we are getting the right messages out, and we are taking the


right actions to ensure that young people don't start smoking in the


first place and they don't believe it is cool, hip or trendy.


Health issues are very much centre stage in the Assembly this week.


We've just had questions to the Minister of Health, and today's


adjournment debate was on nursing staff levels in key hospital wards.


Meantime, tomorrow there are two more debates on the current


situation regarding Accident Emergency departments. With me now


is Janice Smyth from the Royal College of Nursing. Evening to you,


thank you for joining us. Good evening. Toe Ed a -- today's motion


on staffing levels called on evening. Toe Ed a -- today's motion


the Minister's going to make about increasing staffing levels in some


of our wards and in our communities. So you think there is movement there


imminently from the ministry? He hasn't quite spelled it out yet. He


hasn't given the detail yet but we've been involved in a piece of


work. The Minister was giving that due consideration, and in fairness


to him he was receptive to the concerns that we were raising, so we


are hopeful that this is going to be the start of putting some of those


things right. And is that a development that members of the


public will see when they find themselves visiting hospitals for


whatever reason? They are very quick to say when they see problems, do


you this I this could put those problems right? Members of public


are consistently saying that nurses are too busy. This work is starting


in general medical wards and general surgical wards in our hospitals


across Northern Ireland. So if there's additional resource to


increase the staffing in those clinical places, patients will see


it, relatives will see it, and it will improve patient care and


experience. We though that A departments have been at the


forefront of people's minds since the major incident at the Royal a


few weeks ago tnlt chair of the health committee said tonight in the


chamber that 36 people at that stage were waiting on trolleys in A at


the RVH. People will think, here we go again. 36 too many, and certainly


the nurses in that department have been raising concerns about that for


a considerable amount of time. There are real issues about our system and


how it is coping with the numbers of people coming through our


departments, and more importantly the availability of beds to put them


into to. It is not just the problems in A People are waiting on


trolleys because there aren't beds for them to go on to. That's right.


The beds are full and there's nowhere for patients to go. That's a


considerable problem and we've seen pressure developing in


considerable problem and we've seen department in the Royal


considerable problem and we've seen allocated an extra ?30 million to


the health Budget. Where do you think that money could best be


spent? Where would it help your staff members and members of public


who are trying to avail of the service? It would disingenuous for


me to say this can be fixed easily, but it can't. If some of that money


is to go to staffing, and I'm confident it will, it will make a


difference to front line nurses and the care they can give to patients.


There's a big er conversation we have about the services we provide


in Northern Ireland, and professionals, politicians and the


public need to have that conversation together. We'll see if


the conversation takes place. For now, thank you.


In this week's committee wrap we're looking at the issue of household


rates. Each council sets its own level of rates, so what happens when


the current 26 bodies are reorganised into just 11 in 2015?


Last week the Finance Committee was briefed by the department's head of


rating policy on the plans in place to deal with potential anomalies


when the new councils come into being. The first element and


probably the most significant of this is managing rates convergence.


And the development of a transitional relief scheme to


protectorate payers who would otherwise face sudden and excessive


increases by councils coming together and also by some rate


payers moving into Belfast from Castlereagh and Lisburn. Without


intervention, they could face significant increases in district


rates. So that's our objective. In terms of where we are, the executive


took the decision about a year ago I think it was to provide funding of


up to ?30 million in total to fund a transitional relief scheme. We have


decided and Ministers have decided that the best way of doing this is


to allow councils to strike their rates in the normal way, and for the


discount to be given to relevant rates in the normal way, and for the


rate payers on the face of the rate bill. So councils won't have to


strike differential rates to edge rates up top a common district rate.


That will be applied at a bill level by D P working with DOE. Our current


view is that we can develop a reasonably generous scheme in terms


of stepping increases over a three or four-year period and all the


modelling that we've carried out with colleagues in DOE suggests that


this is doable within ?3 million of funding. Our main concern is to how


we get this to operate alongside a domestic re-evaluation, which takes


effect on the same date. That's what's causing us a head ache at the


moment. I'm sure we'll be able to find a way around that. On its own,


a transitional relief scheme for RPA is both workable, deliverable and


affordable, in our view. In terms of the ?30 million for the transitional


scheme, can you elaborate on how that figure was arrived at? You said


you are reasonable assured that it will be within that... I don't know


what the district rates are going to be next year. That's a big unknown


and we don't know the impact of a non-domic re-evaluation. I think


that should do it. In terms of a scheme that will at least protects


rate payers from some - all rate pay here's would face sudden increases


as a result of councils coming together.


A snapshot of proceedings from last week's Finance Committee.


If you were watching last Tuesday's programme, you may remember this


exchange between the Deputy Speaker, Roy Beggs, and UKIP's David McNarry


during questions to the Finance Minister. I call


during questions to the Finance was a meaningful warning about the


ruling on debts or call-ups by the Treasury which could Ed up in 200


million if we don't do something about this. It is time we did do


something about it. Since April 2007 prices have risen by 18%. Can we


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


Can I repeat Mr Deputy Speaker where I because in the middle of a


question? Could I have a question please shortly or we will move on. I


will tell you what, Deputy Speaker, I will sit down. I don't lie the way


you are doing. This OK. Well, back in the chair this


morning, the Speaker, William Hay, referred to an "incident" last week.


I want to put on record my concerns about an exchange that took place


between a member and a Deputy Speaker during Question Time last


Tuesday. I have to say Hansard on this particular issue is not good


reading. It is not that long ago I reminded the House that the


authority of the chair is always the same, regardless of who is presiding


over business in the chamber. Members think that because I'm not


in the chair, they can be discourteous to Deputy Speakers and


challenge their rulings, they need to think again. Members though that


if they stray from the normal rules, they can expect whoever is in the


chair to intervene. The chair gives a direction, it should be respected.


And should not be challenged at any time. Certainly I will be keeping a


very close eye on this particular issue. Our political reporter,


Stephen Walker, is with me. What is this row all about? We can only


assume it is about that encounter that we just witnessed between


individuals. We can only assume it was this encounter between Roy Beggs


and David McNarry. What we do know, and David McNarry confirmed this, he


was trying to ask a question during the finance questions. There was a


preamble and Roy Beggs pushed him to come up with a question. I suppose


David McNarry was frustrated and he sat down and he complained about the


way he was being treated. And we had this intervention today from the


Speaker, saying there needs to be respect for the authority of the


chair. It is all a bit of a storm in a tea cup, but you get these things


in the cut and thrust of the debate. Nuclear tr nuclear -- David McNarry


believes that the reference was to him. Is he remorseful about Roy


Beggs? He feels he was being respectful, that there was a


preamble, and he was getting to his question, so he feels he was


behaving properly. Not the first time that the Speaker has issued a


warning to members. No, we had a warning last year when a number of


members were named, and a warning in 2010, so these things happen from


time to time. Willie Hay was making it clear there is a code and members


should abide by it. He said some members are more respectful to him


than they are to Deputy Speakers. He said it doesn't matter who sits in


the chair, there has to be respect. And the bottom line is the Speaker


is right even when he is wrong? That's always the joke isn't it?


David McNarry says he is going to have a conversation with the


speaker. The speaker has made his position clear, that he wants


respect from the members. I don't suspect there'll be a meeting of


minds during that meeting. You would like to be a fly on the wall


wouldn't you? That's it for tonight. Join me again tomorrow at 11.20pm on


BBC Two. 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.