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22 September 2016

Committee Chairperson, Linda Dillon, talks Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs

Linda Dillon - Chairperson of the Committee for
Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs  
As we enter a new Assembly mandate, the Agriculture, Environment and Rural AffairsCommittee (AERA) is set to face many exciting opportunities as well as its fair share of challenges.

Recent changes to the structure and responsibilities of a number of Executive Departments, including DAERA, has meant that we will effectively start afresh as an entirely new Committee with an extremely important and extensive remit. It is therefore essential that we take this time to re-evaluate how the Committee will work to best support our rural communities.

Agriculture remains one of our most important local industries and one that we are immensely proud of.  And with good reason; we produce some of the finest food in the world.  However, the recent volatility in the agricultural marketplace resulting in lower prices for our meat, dairy and arable produce has had severe consequences for many in our farming communities. The fact that farm incomes here, which are already lower than those in England, Scotland and Wales, decreased by 40% between 2014 and 2015, demonstrates the very real difficulties our farmers continue to face.

While global factors and fluctuations in the exchange rate will continue to be difficult to mitigate and will indeed often be beyond our control, my Committee will continue to advocate on behalf of farmers to ensure that they receive fair prices from processors and retailers.

It is also crucial that the Executive, which has recognised the agricultural sector as a key growth area and future driver for the local economy, continues to develop and sustain a proactive approach towards supporting and progressing the industry and the lives of rural dwellers. This will be of particular relevance following the outcome of the recent EU referendum, which continues to create a great deal of confusion and unease among those in the farming sector.

As the first Chairperson of the new Committee, balancing the needs of the agricultural sector and our farming communities, while at the same time strengthening our commitment to protecting and enhancing the rural environment, will be one of my top priorities.

Many would argue that the two do not always go hand and hand, but of course that would be too simplistic a viewpoint to take.  Advances in agricultural diversity initiatives and agri-environment schemes has provided new and exciting funding and business opportunities for farmers and rural dwellers; as well as helping to promote and protect our natural environment. There may still be some way to go in terms of developing a cohesive approach to integrating agricultural and environmental strategy and policy, but I am determined at the outset that the Committee focus will be on ensuring the best possible outcomes for both sectors.

Brexit will obviously be an extremely important issue for the Committee in the coming months and while we may have very differing views, there is a very real determination that we want to work together to ensure the best possible deal for farmers and rural dwellers.This will not be easy and I make no bones about that statement; the future of our relationship with Europe, as things stand, remains uncertain.

The Committee met with key stakeholders in the wake of the vote and were left in no doubt that there are very real concerns, not only about the future of farm subsidies and environmental protections, but also in terms of the impact possible trade barriers and export tariffs could have on the industry.

There is also unease among rural organisations on how Brexit could affect future funding to tackle rural isolation and deprivation.  The needs and interests of rural dwellers must be at the forefront of all future negotiations.  

As Chairperson, I welcome the fact that the Minister is establishing a senior team to consider the possible implications of Brexit. This is a necessary and proactive step and the Committee will carefully consider and discuss the team’s findings and recommendations.

There can be no doubt that Brexit will, for the foreseeable future, remain prominent on the Committee’s agenda, but we will also be meeting in the coming weeks to develop a range of key priorities for the coming mandate.

Central to the Committee’s objectives will be a commitment to meeting with and listening to as many of our stakeholders as possible. Whether this is through meetings, events or visits, I am determined that we will take every opportunity to connect effectively at a grass roots level and to deliver for the communities and indeed all of the people we represent.

You can follow the Committee on Twitter @NIAAgriEnvRA

This piece first appeared in Farm Week on 1 September 2016.    

The Committee for Health - What does it do and how does it work?

What is the purpose of the Committee?

Health is one of the largest departments in the Northern Ireland Executive. Its budget represents nearly half of the total budget for Northern Ireland.

The Assembly’s Health Committee is responsible for checking and challenging the work of the Department as well as playing a part in considering, revising and developing legislation (laws). The Committee also takes briefings from the Minister, Michelle O'Neill, her officials and other stakeholders, and carries out inquiries into matters of interest.

The Committee meets each week the Assembly is sitting and members of the public are welcome to attend.

How does it work?

Some of the areas that the Committee are responsible for are:
  • hospitals and social care;
  • dentistry;
  • the Blood Transfusion Service;
  • Fire and Rescue Service;
  • the Ambulance Service; and
  • all the regional health and social care trusts.

Who sits on the Committee?

There are 11 MLAs on the Health Committee.

Committee Membership

  • Committee Chairperson: Paula Bradley
  • Deputy Chairperson: Gary Middleton
  • Trevor Clarke
  • Catherine Seeley
  • Pat Sheehan
  • Ian Milne
  • Mark H Durkan
  • Jo-Anne Dobson
  • Robbie Butler
  • Paula Bradshaw
  • Gerry Carroll

How can I get involved with the work of the Committee?

If you want to get involved with the work of the Committee, you can respond to their inquiries, which will be published on their Committee page and read the Minutes of the meetings, as well as any Evidence Sessions. You may also request to give evidence, if you or your organisation is affected by the issues that the Committee is discussing, including Bill inquiries by contacting the Clerk of the Committee.

You can watch the Committee meetings on the live stream on the Assembly’s website and access the ‘Watch/Listen Again’ the day after the meeting.

You can follow the Committee on Twitter @NIAHealth

You can also contact the Committee by writing to the Clerk:
Eilis Haughey
Room 416,
Parliament Buildings,
Ballymiscaw, Stormont,
Belfast BT4 3XX

Email: Committee.Health@niassembly.gov.uk
Or contact Committee Members directly; you can find their details on the Committee page or on the Your MLAs page on the Assembly’s website.

20 September 2016

11 Essential Assembly Official Opposition Questions & Answers

1. What does Opposition mean in Northern Ireland?

On 17 November 2015, the First and Deputy First Ministers agreed a Fresh Start Agreement which agreed a framework for addressing some of the most challenging and intractable issues impacting Northern Ireland, following on from the Stormont House Agreement of December 2014. This included the issue of enabling a formal opposition, something that had not be envisaged in the Northern Ireland Act 1998 (which followed the 1998 Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement) or the St Andrews Agreement of 2007.

Briefly, the Official Opposition in the Northern Ireland Assembly will consist of those parties which would be entitled to Ministerial positions in the Executive but choose not to take these up. The Official Opposition will have enhanced speaking rights during Plenary business including (Fresh Start Agreement, Section F, Appendix F4 point (v)).

2. Is our Opposition based on John McCallister’s Bill?

No, the structures for the Assembly’s Opposition come from the Fresh Start Agreement of 17 November 2015.

3. Is there an official Leader of the Opposition?

No; the Fresh Start Agreement (Section F, Appendix F4 point (iii))) says that there will be no formal titles for those in Opposition, including for the leaders of the parties that make up the Official Opposition.

4. If there is no Official Leader who does lead the Opposition?

The structure of the Northern Ireland Assembly’s Official Opposition does not provide for any titles such as Leader/deputy Leader of the Opposition. The Fresh Start Agreement (Section F, Appendix F4 (iii)) acknowledges that titles may be conferred through custom and practice, but these are not official titles.

5. Does the Leader of the Opposition or Opposition parties have defined roles or extra funding?

Although there is no Leader of the Opposition, those in the Official Opposition do have defined roles. For example, a member of the Official Opposition will be the first contributor to a debate on the Budget and Programme for Government, after the Minister’s speech. The Fresh Start Agreement says that the Official Opposition has enhanced speaking rights for all Plenary business. In addition, parties belonging to the Official Opposition are entitled to extra financial and research assistance under the Financial Assistance to Political Parties.

6. Who is a member of the Opposition?

Members of the Official Opposition are those MLAs who belong to parties that are entitled to a Ministerial post in the Executive but have declined to take up these positions (see the Fresh Start Agreement, Section F, Appendix F4, point (i)). Parties which choose to go into Official Opposition must do so at the time they decline to join the Executive when d’Hondt is run.

Not all Parties are in the Official Opposition; any Party below the threshold for participation in the Executive cannot be part of the Official Opposition. The Parties that are outside of the Official Opposition are Alliance, Greens, People Before Profits, and Traditional Unionist Voice.

7. How does it differ from other legislatures?

Opposition takes different forms across the legislatures. To examine the various forms Opposition takes, the Assembly’s Research Services produced a Report in 2012 which formed part of a Report by the Assembly and Executive Review Committee.

8. Why did the Northern Ireland Assembly introduce formal Opposition?

The Assembly has been investigating opposition for some years; in 2013, the Assembly and Executive Review Committee completed a Review of d’Hondt, Community Designation and Provisions for Opposition. In 2016, the Committee carried out a Report into the Assembly and Executive Reform (Assembly Opposition) Bill which was before the Assembly, proposed by John McCallister (then an Independent Unionist member).

Although the Bill passed through it Assembly stages and received Royal Assent, the Assembly’s Official Opposition is based on the provisions in the Fresh Start Agreement.

9. Why didn’t the Assembly have a formal Opposition before now?

The structures of the Northern Ireland Assembly, including how the Executive is to be constituted, were originally set out in the Northern Ireland Act 1998 following the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement and amended by the 2007 St Andrews Agreement. These structures envisaged that all Parties eligible to take Ministerial posts (using the d’Hondt system) would take part in the Executive and did not set out any form of Official Opposition.

10. How will Official Opposition work in the Assembly?

The Speaker, in consultation with the Business Committee has agreed to schedule a minimum of 10 opposition days each Session. The first of these is scheduled for Monday, 26 September 2016.

An Opposition Day will consist of four hours of business, selected by the Official Opposition. Question Time will continue as normal, with questions being asked by all Members. Members of the Opposition will (as is usual during Question Time) be entitled to ask the first supplementary question on the first three questions put to any Minister during Question Time and the first Topical Question (more information can be found in the Fresh Start Agreement, Section F, Appendix 4)

11. Who decides what Opposition business will be scheduled?

The items for Opposition business will be selected by the Official Opposition and agreed with the Business Committee which is responsible for the scheduling of Plenary Business.

19 September 2016

What difference will the Official Opposition make to the Assembly?

Assembly Chamber
There has been one major change in how the Assembly works since the election in May, the introduction of an Official Opposition. Before the Fresh Start Agreement which was agreed in November 2015, Ministerial posts were allocated using the d’Hondt system and the Executive consisted of the four largest Parties (DUP, Sinn Fein, UUP, SDLP) as well as Alliance which took the Justice Department outside of the d’Hondt process.

Now, those parties (the Ulster Unionist Party, and the Social Democratic Labour Party) which were entitled to Ministerial positions in the Executive but chose not to take these up can form, and have formed, an Official Opposition. There will be no formal ‘Leader/deputy Leader of the Opposition—the Fresh Start Agreement did not allow for the use of formal titles.

Those Parties which are below the threshold for participation in the Executive, on the other hand, cannot be part of the Official Opposition and form an unofficial opposition; currently these are Alliance, Green Party, People Before Profits, and Traditional Unionist Voice.

What difference will this make? For a start, those MLAs who make up the Official Opposition will have enhanced speaking rights as stated in the Fresh Start Agreement. For example, a member of the Official Opposition will be the first contributor to a debate on the Budget and Programme for Government, after the Minister’s speech. These enhanced speaking rights will apply for all Plenary business. In addition, parties belonging to the Official Opposition are entitled to extra financial and research assistance under the Financial Assistance to Political Parties.

In terms of the way Official Opposition will work, the Speaker, in consultation with the Business Committee has agreed to schedule a minimum of 10 opposition days each Session. The first of these is scheduled for Monday, 26 September 2016

Opposition Day

An Opposition Day will consist of four hours of business, selected by the Official Opposition. Question Time will continue as normal, with questions being asked by all Members. Members of the Opposition will (as is usual during Question Time) be entitled to ask the first supplementary question on the first three questions put to any Minister during Question Time and the first Topical Question (more information can be found in the Fresh Start Agreement, Section F, Appendix 4). The items for Opposition business will be selected by the Official Opposition and agreed with the Business Committee which is responsible for the scheduling of Plenary Business.

And if you’re wondering why Northern Ireland didn’t have provisions for an Official Opposition before now, it was due to the way that the structures of the Assembly was originally set out in the Northern Ireland Act 1998 following the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement and amended by the 2007 St Andrews Agreement. These structures envisaged that all Parties eligible to take Ministerial posts (using the d’Hondt system) would take part in the Executive.

If you’re interested in seeing how Opposition will work, you can watch the first Opposition Day live via the Assembly’s website.

For more information read - 11 Essential Assembly Official Opposition Questions & Answers

15 September 2016

The Committee for Justice - What does it do and how does it work?

What is the purpose of the Committee?

Policing and justice were the last areas to be devolved to the local Government and deals with some of the most sensitive issues including ensuring that the Northern Ireland legal system delivers for local people.

The Assembly’s Justice Committee is responsible for checking and challenging the work of the Department of Justice as well as playing a part in considering, revising and developing legislation (laws). The Committee also takes briefings from the Minister, Claire Sugden, her officials and other stakeholders, and carries out inquiries into matters of interest.

The Committee meets each week the Assembly is sitting and members of the public are welcome to attend.

How does it work?

Some of the areas that the Committee are responsible for are:
  • courts, tribunals and the legal system;
  • legal aid;
  • prisons;
  • forensic science;
  • youth justice services; and
  • policing and community safety.
The Committee also works with a range of bodies, including the Public Prosecution Service, Victim Support, NSPCC, Organised Crime Task Force and the Police Ombudsman.

Who sits on the Committee?

There are 11 MLAs on the Justice Committee.

Committee Membership

  • Committee Chairperson: Paul Frew
  • Deputy Chairperson: Pam Cameron
  • Sammy Douglas
  • Michaela Boyle
  • Declan Kearney
  • Pat Sheehan
  • Doug Beattie
  • Roy Beggs
  • Alex Attwood
  • Trevor Lunn
  • Claire Bailey

How can I get involved with the work of the Committee?

If you want to get involved with the work of the Committee, you can respond to their inquiries, which will be published on their Committee page and read the Minutes of the meetings, as well as any Evidence Sessions. You may also request to give evidence, if you or your organisation is affected by the issues that the Committee is discussing, including Bill inquiries by contacting the Clerk of the Committee.

You can watch the Committee meetings on the live stream on the Assembly’s website and access the ‘Watch/Listen Again’ the day after the meeting.

You can follow the Committee on Twitter @NIAJusticeComm

You can also contact the Committee by writing to the Clerk:

Christine Darragh
Room 242,
Parliament Buildings,
Ballymiscaw, Stormont,
Belfast BT4 3XX

Email: Committee.Justice@niassembly.gov.uk

Or contact Committee Members directly; you can find their details on the Committee page or on the Your MLAs page on the Assembly’s website.