30/04/2012 Stormont Today


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

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Hello and welcome to Stormont Today. The sun has been shining, the


temperature is slowly creeping up but all the heat up here was being


generated in the chamber. The controversial topic? Tourism. And


has Stephen Moutray been watching the Quiet Man once too often?


Images of leprechauns and pipes of Dennis! -- pints of Guinness.


surely that's better than north of the border where apparently there's


not a lot to do. And with air passenger duty, fuel prices and


payday loans all featuring, my guest throughout is Antoinette


McKeown from the Consumer Council. Stamps, fuel, bus fares. You name


it and it seems it's going up in price. The Consumer Council's


tasked with standing up for our rights. Are you fighting a losing


battle? Consumers are really struggling at the moment. Only have


of us are keeping up with our bells at the moment. Energy has risen


over recent years. We pay the highest petrol and diesel prices in


Europe. We paid the highest car insurance in the United Kingdom.


People are paying up to �30 more for their weekly grocery shop. It


is painful at the moment for consumers. Was it a depressing that


MLAs voted against devolving fuel duty powers last week? We gave


evidence on that very issue last week. Our view is that our


passengers in Northern Ireland experience at double whammy. We are


an island of an island. We have a reduced cost when it comes to


travel. It is totally unfair that we have to pay a high EAP D. We


used travel as an essential part of family life, it is not a luxury. We


believe the costs of the rear passenger duty being removed is


actually not an opportunity cost. The Consumers' would have a 98.5 %


of travel between Belfast and Great Britain made by every day consumers.


We believe there is opportunity costs here when we only pay at 3


euros flat rate in the Republic of Ireland. And looking at the price


of food, is that something you can do anything about? Can you put


pressure on farmers or supermarkets, or what can you do? We have to make


sure that consumers have the skills themselves to manage their money


better. There is good news in that our Executive in Stormont has


agreed a commitment for Government to bring forward a financial


capability skills package. first item of business in the


chamber today was what is known as "matter of the day". This allows


members to speak on a topic which has just arisen - in this instance


it was the bomb discovered in Newry. After enduring 30 years of the


violence the general public, including De people of my


constituency, are utterly are repulsed by the thought of violence


being used here again. Violence has been rejected by people in both the


jurisdictions of this island. Those who seek to further their aims in


this way should listen to the people and desist from what they


are doing and do so immediately. It is a concern at the level of


sophistication in terms of this particular bomb. It is a concern to


this party as to how that has come about and we want to be assured


that the police are able to effectively combat the threat that


exists. We have shown commitment by giving additional funding to the


police. We want to be assured that the police are able to combat the


threat. When there is an honourable position where people can protest


they have a responsibility to offer a rationale. While no one has


claimed responsibility, neither have those who dissent from this


process offered any rationale behind these occurrences. They are


duty bound if they have a different means that what we are doing here


is so wrong or our engagement of the police or a political process


is so wrong then they have a duty to point out how instances such as


these are a potential alternative. The potential that best bomb could


have had is really just unthinkable. Can I join with others to thank and


express gratitude to the Army bomb disposal team, the PSNI and the


individual who raised the alarm may concern that the vehicle was


something that posed danger. Alliance party's Stewart Dickson


and the TUV's Jim Allister also condemned the attempted bombing.


The Finance Minister was flying high today as he outlined a


timetable for the the devolution of air passenger duty at question time.


But first it was Agriculture, and when it comes to the Rural


Development Programme, Michelle O'Neill has a problem other


departments would love to have. have �100 million left that we have


to spend before the end of the programme. For a variety of reasons


and things are improving. Some areas have welcomed and


constructively engaged with us. We have had numerous projects coming


forward. I have not closed any calls for further applications but


what is most important is that if we are sitting with applications


that need processed we must continue to work on and insure the


project continues. What lessons will be learned from the high level


of squander on administration in the present programme when it comes


to application in respect of the next? Will we then see a more


efficient process than what we have had under the present programme?


The member frequently raises the issue of administration spend and I


think it is fair to say that many programmes are being set up with a


higher percentage spend on administration in deep start. When


you look at the percentage spent from the beginning it does not look


particularly good but if we look at it again in 18 months we will be in


afar, far better position. The only power which is that of Diane will


be devolved to the Assembly will be for direct long-haul flights. If


long-haul flights want to come into Belfast they will be subject to the


scene changes we are proposing for flights to North America. We did


not seek wider devolution for a number of reasons, firstly a time


constraint, this was an issue we believed we had to deal with very


quickly or we would lose the New York flight. Secondly, there is the


cost element. If we had a wider devolution then be cost to the


block grant would have been that much greater. Though we have made


the point that generally hour passenger duty has and is currently


been applied by the Treasury at Westminster as having a damaging


effect on the aviation industry for the UK as a whole and will have a


long-term effect, I believe, on two of them and other economic activity


for the UK as a whole. Can the Minister tell us if his department


have had a chance to make any assessment of how other


jurisdictions deal with the air passenger duty and if there are any


lessons we might be able to learn? Other jurisdictions are not and


have not got themselves tied up with the environmental nonsense


which has driven beat the air passenger duty debate. In fact, it


is significant that there are very few other major economies that


hamper their economies and the airlines in the way in which the UK


Government is doing. This all goes back to the climate change act of


2008 and this idea that somehow or other by taxing our travel we will


save the world. I think that other countries have been cynical about


it. I do not believe this current Government actually believes they


will save this world by doing it but they will certainly fill the


coffers of the Treasury. That is what it is all driven by! I and


this DUP man did not expect the answer he got when he asked what


could be done about companies' advertising loans with extortionate


interest rates. That is what the Government are looking at when the


cap the interest rates etc. I am glad he has raised this issue of


how the media is used because, and he may not have realised, but his


own leader is actually guilty of some of what I would describe as


almost the promotion of loan shark type activity. May I note the words


during bpd loans debate during the Assembly when his leader, who was


not the leader then, but he said he would support the motion for or


fear interest rates and protection of consumers but until this weekend,


his own website was promoting cash genie which enabled people to


borrow between 75 to �750 at a snip, an average APR of 2339 %. Perhaps


he could take back to his own leader that I am quite happy for


the financial services are authority to deal with this issue.


The Consumer Credit good deal with this issue but maybe just by a bit


of self denial, his own leader who in the very week he was going to be


that poor families to seek -- to see how he could help them in the


current recession, was advertising loans for these families of more


than 2000 %, perhaps that is where Minister highlighted ap issue on


the website of Mike Nesbitt. He is not wear of any loan adverts being


on his website and it seems to be something that happens out of the


website own irs or who is running them out of their control. Is that


one of the difficulties with these short-term high interest loan, that


the availability of them, that people no matter where they r


whether it son the internet, the television the ath add vers are


coming thick at fast at you. Absolutely. The issue for the


Consumer Council is we have made a submission to the Office of Fair


Trading which is looking at the irresponsible lending guidance


which covers these types of hort term high credit loans. It is


important that we site this is a regulated industry, there is a


place for them, but the issue that the Consumer Council has concerned


about is bad practise where consumers are encouraged to rolling


the debt on. They are readily available. Quite often you can get


a loan within ten minutes. I would defy anyone to do a proper credit


check in ten minutes. They are extortionate rates. We would like


to see a cap. The cap seems to be the thing that would help people


not to get into huge amounts of debt. It is really important that


the regulation is working effectively for consumers and we


are doing work on their behalf within this regulated market.


some might say our MLAs are behind the times but no longer. The


Speaker ruled this morning that members can now use their tablet


devices in the chamber. While they are going hi-tech the Speaker


warned that old fashioned good manners must still apply. Some


members were Queen for the procedures to be reviewed so they


had the flex bill to keep in touch with pressing issues in their


constituencies and elsewhere. -- flexibility. However, I say to


member, the flexibility works both ways. Members should know that


currently if they want to speak in debates, they are expected to be


present in the chamber for opening speeches, and to remain for at


least two further speeches. Let me say this, I have watched all sides


of this House, for members come into this chamber who haven't heard


the opening remarks, of a particular debate, who get up on


their place, say what they are saying and then leave, and don't


even have the courtesy to wait at least to hear some of the debate,


and to hear other members speaking in a debate, in the chamber. Now


this is something that we are watching carefully, I can assure


members should it continue and it is all sides of the House, should


it continue I can assure members I will deal with the issue, because


it is totally wrong, and it is totally discourt US to other


members of the House and for this House, for members just to walk


into the chamber say what they are going to say and leave. They don't


really care what other members might say. Or don't care what the


motion or the business of the House S Well, you have been warned, the


Speaker is watching you! Let us take a look at the of work the


Stormont committees. Public accounts in a moment but first


finance it was Air Passenger Duty that had people worked up. One


witness wanted to know why we welcome oversea advice to,


encourage them to spend money and slap a tax on them as they leave.


There is a real sense of excitement in much of the tourist industry due


to the our time our place initiative and the activities that


are going on there. I will not list all of them, the Titanic Belfast,


the City of Culture, the police and fire game, they are all


contributing a sense of pride and profile, which is great. The small


businesses away from the big ticket attractions may not be benefiting


as much as they like. Some are saying they are not. There is no


doubt the tourism market is take off and the assembly has to be


commented for its invest fment that ambitious vision. Having attracted


tens of thousands of advice to, it does beg the question why do we tax


them to leave? That is what we are doing. They may not have paid a tax


to arrive here if they have come from outside the UK but we tax them


to get out. They have paid domthie, have spent money whool they are


here, they are our best marketing resource when they go back and


share their photographs and tell their stories, yet the last thing


we do is put a levy on them to get out of the country. We wouldn't do


it in many businesses. There have been many stories, if I wrap up,


about the option that people have to travel to Dublin airport as a


alternative looking at it as a hub there is a huge range of


destinations, but it, if we look at the following observation that


England's two main cities Birmingham and London are just over


100 miles apart. Yet in England they invest over �37 billion to


connect them. For the benefit of business and taking a very long-


term view of the investment. If we are serious about connecting


thierld with the rest of the world, we need to look at the pariers we


have put in place and set about removing them. If there is a report


from the Audit Office, 2000 9. It seems very strange, that seems


strange to yourself. I see the point you are make, it does seem


strange. What I will undertake is to find out precisely when files


were disposed of. That will be interesting and I mean, that


probably bow down within our own inquiries, it seems very strange


that this is a couple of times that, where departments have come up in


front of us, where the Audit Office seems to take an ap proech, and yet


files are destroyed. Not good enough. You said earlier Mr Ross,


you would say the sale was conducted in a professional basis.


Given what we have listened to over the last hour-and-a-half, are you


still of that opinion? Because this hearing's recorded in Hansard, it


will be a record for the future. Am I to go home this evening believing


that you're still of the opinion that the sale was conducted in a


thoroughly professional basis? And I want an honest answer, not the


one that was rehearsed before. would be on the view that is the


case that, the sale was indeed handled in a proetionfvingsl --


professional manner. That is about as depressing news I have heard


today. Because if you were to put together material on how not to do


something, this has to be it. I most certainly would not be giving


you my pig to take to market, because I am convinced you would


come home with no money. On the Air Passenger Duty, is this success


story for the Consumer Council, because you have been so closely


involved with the dedebate and putting pressure on the Government?


There has ban debate as to whether we devolve the passenger duty or


mot. What the Consumer Council has said we want to see the duty


established swre. A peripheral low care, interestingly there is a


precedent set for the Scottish Highlands and island. They don't


have to pay Air Passenger Duty on some flights because it is


recognised they are an essential part of life. The other issue is


that the Westminster government are investing �32 billion in high speed


rail, right across GB. That is a service that Northern Ireland


consumers are not able to avail of, so surely, if the Westminster


government can absorb 32 million for high speed rail they can absorb


60 million for Northern Ireland air passenger, that is a fight we want


to see the assembly take to Westminster. Do you they is one you


can win? Absolutely the argument is there, the evidence is there. Let


us have the fight. Now, all our MLAs want more tour lists to come


here don't they? If you had heard some of the deTait this afternoon


you might have had to think twice. There was talk of leprechauns and


one MLA said he couldn't find enough for anyone to do coming


other for a ten day break. It all happened when they were urged to


get behind the Gatherling. It can lead to future vents investment and


tourism in flow, this is a project not to be dismissed as some people


have, but one to recognise and seize upon. The City of Culture


2013 will be a massive boost to our economy. Both it and the world


police and fire games can be more successful than originally


anticipated, if taken as part of the home coming celebrations on an


All-Ireland basis. The motion before it is certainly tourist


orientated, but, but and I am not surprised in the view of those who


have proposed it, it is a very green motion. It is a case of the


SDLP using tourism as an excuse to peddle its Al Ireland agenda to my


mind next year's Irish home coming will be hugely sentimental, and


very Irish in a way that I for one cannot and will not identify with.


It is the sort of mother Ireland concept which conjures up images of


leprechaun, pints of Guinness, donkey, dancing at at the


crossroads, and thatched cottages. T the sort of stuff we see too much


of in retail outlets at our airports. I think the dangers in


propoeting the north separate to the rest of the Ireland not only


lie in confusion for visitors, but when somebody is looking at home on


a website about places to visit, particularly from like Australia or


America where there is a lengthy journey, most people will come for


ten days or a fortnight. Many visitors would find it enough


activities to justify staying Hoare for a week or fortnight. When I


hear so much self defeatism going on in the chambers before we me, we


have had Mr Flanagan, representing an area of Fermanagh, a beautiful


section of our land, of our province, and somewhere where you


could spend ten days, in Fermanagh. Without any problem. Here we have


him representing that area, and struggling to even stay in Northern


Ireland for ten days. I find that a shame. Tourism is about persuading


people from other places to come here and spend time and maybe spend


a bit of money. And enjoy it at the same time. It certainly not taking


a place of our choice for a week or ten days, which seems to be the


attitude emanating from some. I just despair, when I hear some of


the attitudes resonating round this chamber today. I despair generally


when we discuss tourism because frankly we don't have a clue, and I


would humfully suggest Mr Principle Deputy Speaker we are a liability


when it comes to creating tourism in the north. I find it difficult


from the chitering in the background, would it be possible to


deal with it? It is not something new. These schoolboys haven't a


clue. Civil Service bonus, a controversial speech by Martin


McGuinness and a Robinson come back, all in a day's work for Martina


said the Alliance partty is only borrowing the seat. It is not Mr


Robinson who is challenging Alliance in the next election. He


says he has enough to do and it looks like it will be Gavin


Robinson who is tipped to be the next Lord Mayor. He is a Belfast


councillor. Alliance has fighting talk saying like words like


borrowing the seat are the comments that cost hem in seat in the first


place. He has been causing a stir in London. It is right. Martin


McGuinness gave a speech this evening at the London School of


Economics in which he urned the British people to ensure that the


link with Northern Ireland and goodbye was broken. He said there


is no need for a Northern Ireland office and a Secretary of State and


those powers should be rans fered to store Stormont. He has announced


the DUP who have described it as nonsense. Some of the sib nicks


have said is Martin McGuinness talking tough on this, not just for


you know because he believed it but because he may believe it is


compromised. You have had your calculator out on the issue of


bonuses. In answer to a written question from Pat Ramsey the


Finance Minister said more than �600 thousand in bonuses was paid


out last year to civil servants. And that averages round �280


percivil servant. Pat Ramsey isn't happy. He thinks these bonuses


shouldn't be paid out, the concentration should be on good


wages for civil servant, and that he is not convinced that this is a


way of ensuring that lower paid civil servants are, you know get a


bit of a top up. He thinks the Department of Finance, which had an


increase in the number of bonuses should be leading the way as Sammy


Wilson is fond of lecturing other departments about. Tonight


something we haven't touched on. Public transport and Translink


announcing last week fares are going up 3% but the report that


said in the future they could be operating at a loss and potentially


fare also increase further. Yes, clearly we recognise the tran, --


Translink have challenges in their financial position and they have


tried to hold as many fares as possible and particular cashless


fares have not increased. It is a real worry for the Consumer Council,


we have a statutory role to respect public transport passenger, we are


asking more questions in relation to future ridess, but we would also


recognise that the more of us who use public transport, the cheaper


it become, the less traffic on the roads, the better that is for us


environmentally and the more traffic flows but we want to see


more done for the many people who have no choice but to use public


A political programme focusing on the day's events at the Assembly and Northern Ireland Executive. Tara Mills is the guide through the corridors of power at Stormont, and is joined by key people from decision makers to opinion formers to make the experience enlightening and entertaining.