27/11/2012 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 in Stormont Today. It has been an interesting days on the


hill as MLAs got their wrists slapped for wasting the First and


Deputy First Minister's the time. Having it is time for the Speaker


to consider penalising those members who did not turn up. Also,


the Agriculture Minister explains the measures taken to combat a


deadly trade disease. The Justice Minister response to concerns


following the murder of prison officer, David Black. Since I last


reported on this matter, a number of changes have been made to the


protection scheme and to the processes -- processes for officers


are leaving the prison service. joining us to share his sense dinks


-- his insights, the journalist Sam Dick bright.


-- Sam my pride. Question time at the Assembly is


the ideal opportunity for MLAs to hold ministers to account. Today,


that session became more about to was not in the chamber rather than


he was. The deputy brush Minister - - the Deputy First Minister spoke


out against the absent MLAs. Can he say how there has been a slippage


in the monitoring compared to other departments, and when that the


relevant committee will have insight to the up-to-date


information? There is not delay. There is ongoing monitoring of the


programme for government targets within the parliament. As I


understand it, the delivery plan has been given in its initial form


to the committee and I understand that officials are meeting with the


that officials are meeting with the that officials are meeting with the


committee tomorrow and will provide a more up-to-date delivery plan. As


far as the overall assessment of where we stand, I believe that a


meeting has been scheduled later today -- later this week to sign


off on the copy that will go to all of the department committees,


depending on the position of each of the ministers. I'm sure the


House is encouraged to hear that the First and Deputy First Minister


have received real-time information on the performance against the


Government targets. He will be able to confirm in real time terms that


used unemployment has risen every month for the past 12 months and is


now at a historically high level. - - youth unemployment. Maybe he can


tell the House what steps within the programme for government had


been taken to address it. I can confirm that around the world youth


unemployment has risen very considerably over the last few


months. It is a worldwide recession. If there is a global downturn, it


has an impact. That is why we have tailored the proposals we have


brought in, and they do not know what he is talking to the sky for.


If he is looking for divine intervention, I am happy to pray


with them. The fact is, we brought forward proposals which recognise


that there has been the need to increase skills available so that


people would be able to move into jobs when jobs became available. I


am convinced that the economic strategy of this Assembly is the


right one. I recognise that because of the problems with the downturn,


that there are immediate steps that we can take to alleviate some of


the hardships that have been felled and that is why we have taken the


immediate action of bringing those interventions forward. Far better


that people are acting than carping. Question number six. I hope we will


come back to the subject of members withdrawing questions without


notice being given before we stand. That is to be members during the


course of today. Corrals the First Minister what role he and the


Deputy First Minister might play if any at Beachy eight conference wed


comes to Fermanagh? -- can I ask the First Minister. Like him, I am


very glad that eg age will be coming to Northern Ireland, and


Fermanagh is the ideal place. -- the G8. Given the beauty of the


countryside, I think a landscape lends itself to the atmosphere they


would want to create. Of course, Northern Ireland will want to show


its -- showcase itself to the world when the attention is on that


conference. And we have discussed the issue with the Prime Minister.


Of course, there will be a role for Northern Ireland to play. It is


possible that some of the G8 leaders may decide to do something


outside the conference itself, and we would encourage them to do so.


Joe Byrne is not in his place. Tom Eliot, not in his place. David Mack


nori is not in his place. We have just witnessed a question-time or


where seven questions that were table for a response were not asked.


I understand that two were withdrawn but five other members


were not present to ask their questions. I think given the amount


of effort and time that is Putin to the work in responding to these


questions by civil servants, in particular, not to mention the work


of the First Minister, who has to stand up along with the Junior


Minister in his apartment, and given the workload, being in China


and Cardiff and all the other responsibilities that ministers


have at that level of government, I have to say I think it is a


disgrace that so many members were not present to answer -- and to ask


their questions. I figured is time consider penalising those members


who did not turn up. -- I figure it who did not turn up. -- I figure it


is time. Martin McGuinness not happy. Sam McBride is with me. Not


the first time that this has happened but today it was on a


scale that we have not seen before. Do you agree? The scale was


completely novel and a think, you got a sense in a clip of the chaos


behind the Speaker's desk as they called MLA after MLA. And clerk was


saying, not in his space, not in his place. It normally, in defence


of the MLAs, normally they do not get beyond five or six questions


because the ministers give long answers. Also, there is a clear


issue here, MLAs are not terribly excited by Question Time. They do


not rush to the chamber in the way that they do at the House of


Commons. I think that plays a part in it not being a compelling


spectacle. But they do not feel they have to be there for it.


was a call from the Deputy First Minister for the Speaker to look


again at the structure of questions and the way in which MLAs can


perhaps be persuaded to be in their seats. That needs to happen quite


quickly. I think it needs to happen urgently. Not just for the


credibility of the Assembly but I think it would improve the


credibility of the Executive if ministers were seen to be being


held to account by the Assembly and taking tough questions, topical


questions. At the moment, they tabled questions to Matt weeks in


advance and issues are often a lot out of date by that stage. It is


completely dated at this point. Shortly after as we sh -- shortly


afterwards we heard explanations for why some of the MLAs have not


been in their places. On a similar subject, can I apologise to the


House for my absence during question time. Personally, I accept


the rebuke and they do not think it was anybody's place for me to be


rebuked. I wanted to make that position clear. I do not think that


question 11 would be reached. I was absent with a reason but not an


excuse and I trust I will be indulged with a written answer.


With regard to the missing members, two Ulster Unionists were not in


their place and we would like to point out that they were serving on


the at hoc committee on welfare reform. I believe the party took


all reasonable steps to inform the business office that they would be


absent and as they have requested written answers in lieu of oral


questioning, I believe the Deputy First Minister is wrong to allege


that the work by officials will be wasted. It will not. The SDLP and


Sinn Fein have also sought to explain the whereabouts of absent


MLAs but Jim Allister focused his criticism on all end -- 0FN DSM. --


OFMDFM. It is rich coming from them. I have a sheaf of questions where


it has taken up to 16 months to get an answer. I have other questions


outstanding for 14 months. The last people to talk about penalising


anyone for failing to be there to ask him or question are those who


are serial offenders when it comes to refusing and failing to answer


dozens of written questions. Does Jim Allister have a point? To a


certain extent, yes. The MLA should have been in their place today,


despite whatever reasons they had. But, it has to be said, government


departments, in particular OFMDFM have been poor in answering


questions, sometimes some of the most difficult questions. Also,


Freedom of Information requests, which have previously had to go to


court to get the request after 360 days. That is pretty poor by any


standard. For now, thank you very much. The agricultural minister


reveal today that ash dieback, the tree disease, has been found a day


for the six sites here. Emergency legislation to combat it has been


co-ordinated on both sides of the border. These images show how it


can affect trees. The Minister was asked what else she is doing to


prevent the spread. Can the Minister outlined if the court --


the co-ordinated approach goes beyond the legislative processes


and what other implements are being used, apart from the Actual


emergency legislation? Ash dieback emergency legislation? Ash dieback


is a very serious disease with is a very serious disease with


devastating consequences and another committee is aware of that.


I am grateful for the support for the emergency legislation that were


brought forward. It is important that we take a proactive approach


with regard to this. In this instance, we have co-ordinated


legislation on both occasions, but I'm also regularly in contact with


the Minister responsible for this area of work. We are regularly in


contact every day on the phone. Officials are continuing engagement


and they have another meeting this evening. I think it is important


that we continue to work together. By way of an update, we have had


five recently planted premises confirmed to have cases. There are


another number of sites currently being filed up -- followed up as


part of this exercise. We have destroyed 4500 saplings, which


shows you the scale to date of the work we are involved in. As part of


the exercise, six premises have been confirmed to have the fungus,


bringing the number of positive confirmations to 11 across the


counties of Antrim and Derry and Down. I want to stress that these


are all recently planted sites, so they are relatively young. We will


continue that engagement and I will continue to engage with my


colleagues in Britain because they are obviously in a worse situation


than we currently are. We will have to continue all of that ordination


as we make our way through this path, and see where it develops in


Was there any discussion at your meeting about possible compensation


to those people who have suffered all will suffer in the future?


Compensation was not an area that was discussed. As I said, this is a


very serious disease and something that we are very much involved at


this moment in time in a process of ratification. We are fortunate in


that today, the confirmed sites have all come from one import of


plants. However, at this stage, I cannot say that that will be the


case going forward so compensation is not something I am concerned


with at this moment in time. I am concerned with eradicating the


disease, we keep the disease out and minimise the impact it has on


industry. He will be aware from presentations in the culture


committee on the devastating impact this can have, not just in people


involved in forestry but other industries.


The introduction of plain packaging for cigarettes and how it might


help tobacco smugglers was put to the Justice Minister during


Question Time this afternoon. First, though, with the recent murder of


David black by dissident republicans on their minds, MLAs


focused on the security of prison officers. My department in the


Prison Service or regard the safety and security of prison staff as a


high priority. The director-general has therefore already arranged for


all prison staff to be issued with advice on personal security and a


reminder of the need for vigilance, both on and off duty. My department


on the Prison Service will continue to work closely with the British


authorities -- appropriate authorities. I have met with


colleagues to discuss the current security situation and discuss what


measures are in place to protect prison staff. Since I last reported


to the Assembly on this matter, several changes have been made to


the Prison Service protection scheme and to the process for


officers leaving the prison service who wish to apply to have a


personal protection weapon. However, I trust members will agree that it


is not in the best interest of prison staff to discuss individual


details all the changes made to. A number of meetings have now taken


place between the PSNI and prison service senior managers and I'm


confident that appropriate and up- to-date advice on personal security


will continue to be provided to staff. I can also confirmed that a


watch with an in-built camera and recording facility was found on a


prisoner during a routine search at a prison on 18th October this year.


The prisoner concerned was charged under prison rules. Can the


Minister, without going in to find still, assure us that in regard to


firearm licensing, past delays will no longer be an issue in terms of


issuing and granting personal protection weapons? I thank him for


that point. I have received assurances from the PSNI about


speeding up the issue of the application for approval for


personal protection weapons for those retiring from the prison


service, and it will be done within the timescale of the notice


individuals will have on leaving. Could I ask the Minister, in his


review, touching upon the serious issue of security, as he reviewed


the arrangements for home security in respect to prison officers,


particularly in respect of those who were removed from behind


security scheme in terms of being told that it was their own


responsibility to pay for and maintain such facilities. --


removed from the home security scheme. Will heave reinstate that


scheme so that members might have the comfort of some security at


home? I have previously advised the house but I am happy to repeat


today that the protection scheme for officers' Homes has been re-


examined in recent weeks and it has been decided that where equipment


is being supplied, it will continue to be maintained, contrary to the


position best short time ago, so I believe the issue is already being


addressed. I am sure the whole house will find it disturbing that


one in five packets of cigarettes sold and Northern Ireland castles


to the eagerly and these are not subject to controls or regulations.


Treasury cannot collect any tax from them. The minister will be


aware that there is the push nationally and locally by some to


introduce plain packaging for tobacco products and health grounds


but would he share my concern that one of the unintended consequences


of this could be that it makes it much easier for criminal gangs


organisations to produce and distribute counterfeit tobacco


across Northern Ireland? I must dress that the issue of plain


packaging for tobacco is an issue for a colleague and I did not wish


to interfere. I saw at an event went for business groups last week


that the quality of printing on counterfeit goods is sufficiently


good that I am not sure it is a significant deterrent at this stage.


The could ask him directly, please, in his capacity as chair of the


organised crime Task Force, to confirm which paramilitary groups


he believes are involved in the Sale and distribution of


counterfeit cigarettes and other illicit material? I do not suspect


he expects that I have access to all the available intelligence in


the detail which he perhaps asked the question. It is her, however,


certainly the case that there are a number of gangs involved in tobacco


smuggling and counterfeit cigarette production who have links with


paramilitary groups, both republican and loyalist and it is


clearly an issue of concern to the society that level of ongoing


criminality. The Justice Minister. Funding is always a big issue up


here but today, MLAs were reaching out beyond Westminster to Europe.


Sinn Fein called for the Regional Development Minister to work with


the Irish government to advance the so called Prix identified projects


list for inclusion in the next round of EU funding.


European fund in the past has paid dividends and advantages to the


island of Ireland, particularly the South. Only for this European fund,


I do not think that the state would have been as competitive as it has


been. I know that there has been a downturn in the economy there but I


think if people all states... I think it needs to deal with its


infrastructure across the region. It is important to identify that


funding now because Ireland will become president in January and we


hope that the decision is made and agreed during that period. But as


somebody who travelled to Europe, to Brussels, as part of a committee


- and other members can confirm this - there are difficulties with


in Europe, having a vision of where Ireland is situated. They actually


thought that we were connected to the mainland of Europe. We had to


take out a map and show them that the blue stripe between us was


water. These were the people who were making the decisions as to the


next funding. Yet again, this motion farcically comes before this


House at a most unsatisfactory time. The list still does not include any


actual projects in Northern Ireland and they are only indicative


projects. Until regulations are settled, there will not be any


definitive list with actual projects. It will probably not come


to the house as a surprise that I have a different take on this


nation than maybe most of those who who have spoken today. Regional


funding in the EU is something which we are citizens of the UK


should examine very carefully because the reality is that it is


our own money that we are looking to recover park. When that funding


comes back, it is not Europe's money. It is not money that


somebody else has given to subsidise the United Kingdom. Far


from that, it is our own money being returned. But being returned


with all sorts of constraint upon it. And then we are supposed to be


great for and to speak about the largesse of the European Union for


being so graciously to give us back some of our own money. The projects


list does not really identify any specific projects. It refers to the


upgrading of the network on a pre- identified section from Dublin to


Belfast. In addition, I would wish to see opportunities for road


projects to be included on the list but I must Cathy at this by stating


that until there is more clarity around national and regional


capital budgets -- I must qualify this. A disability campaigner has


predicted that the introduction of welfare reforms will be


excruciating for disabled people. Michael Wilson of Disability Action


gave evidence to the OFMDFM committee. -- Monica Wilson. There


are a couple of areas. One is, there's no focus on older people


with disabilities, and they comprise a large percentage and


there is a direct correlation between age and disability. So we


think, although it may be presumed, we would rather see it as a more


formal approach and the massively important thing is that there is no


action plan. So if there is no action plan, there is no action, in


my opinion. There is no action plan? There is no action plan.


two-year strategy hardly seems worth the effort. I accept your


concern, don't stop the process. But for victims and survivors of


conflict, there is a ten-year strategy. Is there anything to stop


saying, we will plan to run this longer than 2015? The walls that


are between government departments are very difficult for stop for


example, the health and social care "transforming your care" document,


which is the Labour strategy on community care, most disabled


people already live in the community and to not have a good


service. So if the Health and Social Care Board is to ring of


physical and sensory disability strategy, there is the autism


strategy, there is a lot that needs to be joined up. They wrap pieces


in all of them that could make an action plan but at gathering is


OFMDFM's job, I pity him, -- I presume, and I think it would take


a reasonable amount of resources and this piece of work within


OFMDFM needs to be much better resourced. The strategy, even when


you get it, sits high above the ground and without smart targets


and an action plan, you do not actually achieve anything. And how


long will it take to compile an action plan, up when we are moving


into the second year? How long would it take you to devise an


action plan? Based on this? It would take to months' hard work.


your opening presentation committee said the environment is getting


worse for disabled people. Can you expand on that? We have been having


meetings. I will give you an example of a person. We have been


having meetings around Northern Ireland trying to support disabled


people and explain what the changes that are coming in are and when


they are coming in. At one meeting, a man was they who that not slept


for two nights because he was worried about losing his benefit


and that is not unusual. Our information advice service is


getting about 20% increase only on welfare reform. The issues around


welfare reform are many and complex and disabled people are not saying,


"don't adapt it, and, but saying that this is the wrong way to go by


just cutting people off." For example, if there was a check on me,


I did not be entitled to anything because I used a wheelchair. We


need to address the issues that make people like this. A 20% cut


will be excruciating for disabled people. If you look at the housing


issue, we have managed to get it changed from the spare room issue


so that a wheelchair user can have a care whether but, for example, if


you are alone -- a lone parent, you need someone coming for the weekend.


I understand the purpose but I do not think the purposes as preached.


But I think it is going to be disastrous because it is going to


put lots of resource needed in the existing services that are not able


to cope at present. We are going to have a disaster by next year.


Monica Wilson from Disability Action. A final thought, Sam, on


the subject of committees. A man who has been in the headlines a lot


recently, the Attorney General John Larkin, appeared before the just as


committed but we could not hear what he was having to say. It was


quite unusual. It happens quite often in councils were able send


out the press and members of the public to say they want to hear


something in private. It is not so common instalment and that has a


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.