29/01/2013 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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Hello and welcome to Stormont Today. Coming up on the programme:


The divisive issue of welfare reform was back on the floor.


Members debated a new report on the equality implications of the


Welfare Bill. In living document, as if like fine line -- fine wine


it would improve with age. We'll be speaking to two members of the


committee which put that report together.


And why a question on European peace funding provoked this


reaction from the Finance Minister. It does annoy me sometimes at the


kind of ill informed comment that comes from people that seek to


agitate when I hear this we get Proposed changes to welfare


payments have starkly divided the Assembly in recent months. The DUP


is broadly in favour of passing the legislation as quickly as possible


to avoid financial penalties from Westminster. Sinn Fein and the SDLP


are more hesitant, concerned that the changes will impact adversely


on the most vulnerable. Last year, the Assembly set up a committee to


examine the bill's implications on issues like equality and human


rights and today that committee's report was debated in the chamber.


One of the most significant aspects of the committee deliberation was


consideration of the way in which the Department for Social


Development had discharged its duty under section 75 of the Northern


Ireland Act 1998 to carry out an equality impact assessment offer


the Welfare Reform Bill. The department launched a public


consultation on its draft in 2011 and published a final version in


May 2012. Although many respondents indicated they were unhappy with


the assessment and the data on which it was based, the final EQ YJ


remained unaltered. The Department for Social Department --


development has acknowledged data deficits and proposes it should be


a living document. The committee shoot -- has been made aware of the


human rights implications at a more severe level of sanctions proposed


under the Welfare Reform Bill. Members were concerned that


sanctions should not be overly punitive or disproportionate


resulting in extreme hardship or destitution for some fun rebel


claimants. According to the committee, it has said that any


sanctions imposed should be mitigated to avoid the potential


for extreme hardship of children and lone parents or Tamas Fellegi


those with mental health issues. The committee is supportive of the


individual responsibility and encouraged people into work. The


new benefit that will replace benefits is working credit. There


were a number of anomalies highlighted to the committee and


the administration of this benefit. For example, the situation where a


claimant who was working no more than a few hours a week, in fact I


believe no more than one hour a week, will lose 100% of their help


with mortgage interest. This is a disincentive to work and runs


contrary to the rationale of the bill which is to encourage people


to come off benefits and seek work. I believe this report has examined


comprehensively the equality and human rights implications of the


welfare reform bill that we are in the process of implementing. I


would want to see a system that is accessible to all in a manner which


is easily understood and quick to complete. I want a system in which


people are not stigmatised for needing to access but that people


realise the system is a safety net and not as I have stated earlier in


the debate yesterday a viable career option. The fact is that not


everybody is going to be happy with the outcomes of welfare reform but


we strive to ensure that no one within our society is disadvantaged.


The Human Rights Commission said the commission notes the department


has not carried out a full EQ YJ in respect to race, religion and


sexual orientation. The equality commission criticised almost every


aspect of the Department's EQ I say. The failure to identify adverse


impacts, the lack of mitigation to address obligations under section


75, the Department's decision not undertake impact assessments and


run a -- relation to religion, sexual orientation and race. The


only people that tell us the bill is complied is the minister, his


department and political representatives. And when it was


exposed as less thorough and reliant on opinion rather than


evidence, they introduce the notion of a living document as if like


fine wine, it would improve miraculously with age. This is not


good enough. The minister and his department have been too quick to


accept the operation authority as no more than exercise in rubber-


stamping Westminster legislation. number of all -- examples have been


underlined with concerns. And we have concerns. We have reported in


several places there are concerns. I tell you, Mr Speaker, when I


asked the groups that came before us and one in particular, the most


vociferous group, could they point this to anything specific, anything


specific that breached human rights issues, they couldn't. There are


concerns. We have done that, but once you asked them where are the


specifics, they couldn't do that. I want to thank the groups that came


into the committee and the groups that wrote into the committee. It


is very unfortunate that the one organ of the Executive that is


supposed to look after equality issues didn't see fit to respond


adequately to the Adhoc committee. The only response they gave us was


a letter to say they wouldn't be respond in. It was one that was


thrown at the committee and it was one that I think was to all intents


and purposes a waste of time. There is no other way to save it. It is


not the chairman's fault or the staff fold. What we were doing was


repetition of what the DST committee were doing. There is not


a doubt that in fact that committee would have and could have and


should have been allowed to get on with their job and I see it as


meddling and interfering in the task that was consigned to them.


The concern of the impact to those with disability has not been


assessed. The view that it is 0 living document is remarkable. This


Assembly will be asked to pass massively important legislation


without even having quantified its adverse impact on our citizens. The


lack of a fall analysis of the impact on this region means this


Assembly will effectively walk into welfare reform with its eyes shut.


Just to pick up on Katrina Allen who excelled herself today, big on


rhetoric, low on content. She has disappeared again. It sounded to me


like an extract from some revolutionary Marxist magazine. I


have difficulty taking it seriously and I was disappointed that she


went down this road of those awful people in the chamber. Those awful


Unionists, those people are the only people with compassion.


The Social Development Minister, Nelson McCausland.


Listening to that, two members of that ad hoc Committee. Its chair,


Trevor Lunn from Alliance, and Paula Bradley from the DUP. Welcome


to you both. Trevor Lunn, we heard a flavour there of some of the


concerns the committee had about the equality and human rights


implications of the Welfare Bill. What do you think are the most


pertinent issues the Social Development Minister needs to


address? The equality impact assessment was a big issue for us.


There is no doubt it is not a complete document and they are not.


It was described as a living document which has to be updated


from time to time. Does it make sense? It does. It is ongoing. It


can be updated as time goes on. The major issue was that we were able


to look at the Bill before us. If there is trouble, it will be to do


with the regulations that followed. This is an enabling bill and the


real teeth will be in the regulation, so it is important they


are scrutinised as well. One of the main recommendations is the


sanctions which will be imposed on welfare recipients if they step out


of line. When these changes happen, what would you like to see in place


to mitigate those sanctions so that the most vulnerable are protected?


Well, the sanctions you referred to are those that would place people


into desperate need or destitution. That should not be too difficult to


provide a baseline below which people cannot go. I heard certain


members through the debate saying, and the minister refer to it, that


only one side of the house cared about these people but that is not


true. Isn't deliberations were very intense and concentrated. We were


aware everybody had concerns. We were trying to identify actual


breaches in terms of human rights and equality. And we couldn't find


any. Paula Bradley, we heard your party


colleague Lord Morrow describe the committee as a waste of time. Do


you agree? I personally did not find it a waste of time but that is


maybe because I sit on the Social Development Committee and I find


clarity in many issues. If you asked me if I found the committee a


necessary, absolutely. But not a waste of time? Not for me. But what


about the safe guards, the need for the most vulnerable not to fall


through the net. Do you think that framework can be put in place?


agree that we have a duty of care to protect the most vulnerable


within our Society and I said that I highlighted lone parents and


accessible childcare, so I believe we have to put certain


recommendations in place to protect those people. He also said today


that welfare should not be seen a fight -- as a viable career option.


Do you think there are people, for example, in your constituency who


do see it that way and how, in your view, will this bill tackle that?


It is something we have to tackle. On a personal level, I would like


to think that is not how people see it, that they do not see that the


benefits system is a viable option. But they need to be put right?


That's right. There are people fulcrum there is no alternative.


For the rest of their lives that will be dependent on this benefit.


They might be a bit depressed listening to what you have to say


because they've got no alternative. We still have to protect those


people. I assume you're talking about people with disablement and


welfare reform is there to provide for those people. Some of those


people are a little bit concerned that while that might be the


intention, that might not happen in practice. There are lots of


concerns and lots of fears. Some of those fears have been alleviated


and it is up to us to go through this book and make the


recommendations but make welfare reform work for those people.


that final -- thought, a job well done? I was satisfied with the


committee. There was an argument that the committee, the DST


committee, could have done this. It was the first time Stormont has had


an Adhoc committee set up for specific purposes like that. It was


a good decision? It was a worthwhile decision. It may have to


happen again. Maybe a standing Now we are a low tax committee,


that's the comments of Sammy Wilson. Mr Wilson batted any criticism from


fellow fellow Unionists who claim they get nothing from peace funding.


I am sure the minister heard, as I have complaints within the


Protestant community that it doesn't receive its fair share of


peace funding. Can the minister give a view on this, but also if he


has the figures, provide us with the precise percentage that the


Protestant community get with peace funding for its projects? Well, if


one looks at the various peace programmes that there have been one,


peace one, peace two, and peace three, the maximum that has has


been - I should the figures somewhere - the maximum which has


been drawn down by groups which come from the Unionist community


was was 47%. In In peace one, there was 44% uptake by groups from the


Protestant community. In peace two, it was 47% and although we are not


at the end of peace three, it is standing at at 46% and it is


something which concerned me and something which I have been saying.


You have to address and there has been considerable effort, I can say


this, I'm critical, but there has been considerable effort in trying


to get applications from the Unionist community and to work with


groups within the Unionist community. Groups where there is


areas where there is little capacity. Groups such as the Orange


Order, the various police organisations and I have got to say,


Mr Deputy Speaker, it does annoy me sometimes at the ill informed


comment that comes from people who seek to agitate when I hear, "We


get nothing." Let's just look at some of the money which has gone.


East Belfast, where some of this agitation has come interest. A


project there, a magnificent regeneration project, �6 million as


a result of money from peace three. The grand Orange Lodge for stepping


towards positive engagement has got nearly �1 million. The Grand Orange


Lodge, �3.6 million. The apprentice boys, �2 million. All of these


things going to Unionist orientated groups and I wish some of those


people who complain we get nothing would actually look at the facts.


When some members opposite talk about revenue raising powers, what


they are meaning is tax increases for hard-pressed businesses and


households across the Profferens and -- Province and that's not the


direction in which the Executive should be going and many of the


areas identified would come at a huge cost to the block grant?


I have made my position clear in the House and that's that I do not


believe we ought to be taking money from the public if there are ways


of making savings within the public sector that we have got charge of


at the moment. And for that reason, of course, we have frozen in real


terms rates this Northern Ireland - - in Northern Ireland and they were


frozen during the last period. I hear these things about the


assembly and taxes and everything else. We have got a very good


record, the best record, of anywhere in the United Kingdom of


where we have tax raising powers we have not exercised them to the


detriment of people in the middle of a recession and we ought to be


proud of that and it is something that those who continually complain


about the performance of this assembly ought to bear in mind. We


are a low tax assembly and that's the way I want to keep it.


We have an arrangement from place where any contract, construction


contract, which is worth more than �1 million and in which there is a


substantial amount of sub contracting in the contract and


providing it is actually one which is overseen by CPD, we are going to


encourage others to use the same projects. Once the money - the


money will go into the pro jet account -- project account and as a


result of the money going in, within five days of the money being


deposited. The sub contractors should be paid from that. So no


longer will the money go to the main contractor who may decide to


use it as working capital and hold back and hold back and pay the sub


contractors at their leisure and I believe this will be an important


development for helping sub contractors. It only applies to


those contracts which are put out by CPD. They have to be


construction contracts. They have to have a substantial number of sub


contractors in them and they have to be over �1 million.


The Finance Minister, Sammy Wilson. One-third of students who go to


university across the water return to work in Northern Ireland. That's


what the Employment Minister told the assembly today. Stephen Farry


was asked what his department is doing to attract more graduates to


come home? In the 2011 lsh/12 academic, one-third of academics


left this region to study at a higher education institution in


Great Britain. That in the main, those who opt for a university


place in Great Britain do so upon choice. The most important reason


cited was the student considered a particular institution as being the


best placed to undertake their course. Issues of location were


also important to the respondants. In that respect, a large number of


these students are determined leavers. Data on those who return


can be sourced from the higher education destination Surrey. This


survey -- survey. This survey survey shows over one-third of


people who go away to study return for work. 39% of Northern Ireland


domiciled full-time leavers from from higher education who studied


in Great Britain and were in employment six months after


graduation returned to Northern Ireland for work.


I am sure the the minister will agree we want our most talented


people to come back to Northern Ireland and the best way to do that


is having the graduate opportunities here and I know he


and other executive ministers are working hard to ensure those


opportunities exist. Can the minister outline the type of work


that his department do in going across to universities in Great


Britain and participating in jobs fairs or employment seminars to


encourage those graduates from Northern Ireland to return home and


seek to find employment back in Northern Ireland? There is a number


of issues that Mr Ross identifies there that we need to be minuteful


of. First of all, the effect of the executive's decision to freeze


tuition fees in Northern Ireland has been helpful in terms of


encouraging our students to stay in Northern Ireland. And if they stay


in Northern Ireland, they are more likely to build their career here


as well. We have sought to expand the number of under graduate places


in Northern Ireland and we have had the biggest rise in provision in


over a decade. All of those are in stem subjects. Could the minister


indicate how the pupils and students that go to Great Britain


to take part in degree courses fair compared with those that stay at


home both in terms of completing degrees and passing one?


We will come back to the member with the specific figures in that


regard. But it is worth stressing that the universe in Northern


Ireland have high retention rates. Overall, higher education in


Northern Ireland does compare favourably to higher education


elsewhere in the world in terms of retention as well. For different


reasons. If you look at somewhere like the United States, they have


low graduation rates because a lot of people drop out sometimes for


economic reasons. If you look at the Continental European model,


they tend to have a very flexible approach to entry where large


numbers of people will be enrolled and a lot of people drop out


whenever they discover the courses aren't for them. So the approach we


take within these islands is probably the best balance between


those different extremes, but I am more than happy to give the member


the detailed figures. Stephen farry. In a report last


October, the Prison Ombudsman criticised the Prison Service for


failing to investigate the death of a young man who took his own life


at Hydebank Young Offenders' Centre. Last week the ombudsman discussed


the case at the Justice Committee. On two occasions Samuel shef harmed.


He was -- self harmed. He was physically assaulted twice


seriously and in July 2010, Samuel was briefly kept in the healthcare


centre for what was described as respite from the bullying that he


reported was occurring on his landing. The investigation


identified that firstly numerous recorded instainss of Samuel being


subjected to at times serious verbal abuse and threats were not


investigated and did not lead to any action being taken. Numerous


allegations of bullying and noted instances of bullying were not


contrary to Prison Service anti- bullying policy. A security


information report was not completed and required referrals


were not made to the anti-bullying co-ordinator.


Bullying investigations did not take place or abandoned when Samuel


withdrew allegations even though it was known to staff that the


withdrawal was due to Samuel's concern that he would be subjected


to more severe bullying. Samuel was seriously assaulted on the 9 9th


October 2010 by inmates he told staff a number of times that were


bullying him. Staff seemed reluctant to raise bullying


incidents reports. Investigations into bullying and resulting action


were not effective. On a number of occasions there was no evidence


that recommended action was implemented by the anti-bullying


co-ordinator or by other staff. On 7th March Samuel was kicked and


punched by by two inmates. He was taken to hospital when he started


to cough up blood. The security staff and some prison staff


appeared to regard the bullying of alleged or committed sex offenders


as inevitable. A number of concerns were identified in connection with


Samuel's healthcare. It was found no mental health assessment took


place between August 2010 and Samuel's death in May 2011. It is


to note that there was evidence that Samuel's overall wellbeing was


significantly affected by the fact that because of paramilitary


threats connected with the nature of his charges, his repeated


attempts to find a bail address failed.


I notice items going missing and records not being kept and the sort


of things that you would anticipate to be happening as a matter of


course, not being done. Are you aware of any disciplinary follow-


ups as a result what was negligent behaviour? I am not. It is fair to


say that we were satisfied, we didn't believe there was anything


sinister. We think this was an efficiency issue in terms of the


information being lost. I agree it is not acceptable, but it is


exceptional that we have a problem getting information. It is better


than it used to be and generally speaking the efforts that are made


around record keeping have improved and generally don't create problems.


Trevor Lunn is still with me. There was a lot of discussion last week


about the leaked draft document. Your party removed itself from that


process and now you have published your own proposals about a shared


future. There is there has been criticism about your plans for


shared education, that target for integrated education. 20% by 2010.


Is that deliverable? If you look at it the other way around, Mark, if


the facilities were there so that everybody who wanted integrated


education to be facilitated, we would achieve that target in no


time. There is clearly a public demand for children to be


integrated in school, to be educated together.


Is there a great demand for it? I saw a representative of the


Catholic education system today today saying there is over capacity


within the integrated system. Not all integrated schools are fully


subscribed. Do that and you might be able to make the argument that


more places are needed, but when there are empty desks already, it


is hard to make the case? percentage of of empty sector and


the Catholic maintained sector is higher. In the integrated, it is


about 5%. You are talking about 80,000 empty desks. In a way that's


a different issue. We are talking about bringing children together.


There is lots of good reasons why they should be educated together.


The plans leaked in draft form last week. Can they come together where


people can have a better shared future? Well, we pro produced our


plans because the other process appeared to be going nowhere. We


stuck with it for a long time and we did our best.


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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