22 April 2015

Question Time: Regional Development - Tuesday 21 April 2015

How much does the Regional Devemopment Department spend on energy costs annually for street lighting? The Minister stated "to get the most competitive electricity prices for street lighting, a tender competition is run each year. The annual cost of electricity for street lighting varies from year to year, depending on the prevailing cost of electricity, the number of street lights and their wattage. In recent years, the annual cost has typically been in excess of £10 million. The out-turn costs for the last financial year, 2014-15, are not yet finalised, but I confirm that, in 2013-14, for example, street lighting electricity cost just over £10·6 million".

John Dallat, George Robinson and Maeve McLaughlin all questioned the Minister to outline his plans for ensuring that community transport remains an intergral component of public transport. The Mininster acknowledge the valuable services that the community transport operators provide to local communities and their members across Northern Ireland.But confirmed "Rural community transport partnerships can provide access to local essential services such as shopping, the post office or local health services, such as GPs, or they can link in with the wider public transport network to enable people to travel outside their local area. It is my intention, subject to EU rules and licensing arrangements, to continue to support those organisations. However, while I support fully the services provided by all community transport service providers, there will unfortunately be a reduction in the level of funding available. I have tried to minimise that, and it should be noted that, during my time as Minister, I have protected the baseline budget for community transport year on year and, where possible, supplemented it with in-year funding. I have been working intensively with officials to determine how best to spend the limited resources that are available to me".

During Oral Question Time the Minister was also asked about the East Antrim Cycle network, car parks and Places of worship signage. During Topical Questions the Minister was asked for an update on the proposed alleviation scheme for Queen Street Toome Road and Wakehurst in Ballymena,  for an update on the grass-cutting schedule for the Carnmoney area of Newtownabbey and for an assurance that there is fair and eqitable enforcement of parking regulations across our towns, cities and villages in Northern Ireland.

Question Time: Justice Tuesday 21 April 2015

What other budget-saving measures or revenue raising opportunities have been explored before consulting on the closure of courts? One of the topics discussed during today’s Questions to the Minister of Justice, David Ford. The Minister confirmed that the NI Courts and Tribunals Service “reviewed all areas of expenditure to minimise the impact of budget reductions on front-line delivery.” This resulted in £4.4m (equivalent to 10.8% of the budget) worth of savings being identified in existing contracts, reducing leased accommodation, the temporary closure of the Old Townhall Building in Belfast, staff cuts and reducing judicial expenditure. These savings will be implemented over the next two financial years. The Courts and Tribunals Service is also considering increasing court fees as a means of raising revenue. Mr Ford argued that the process of closing courthouses was not a decision but rather “a consultation on the back of a very difficult financial situation for the Department of Justice and the savings that have to be made across the Courts and Tribunals Service.”

During Topical Questions the Minister was also asked about lethal legal highs following the recent tragic death of young Adam Owens in Newtownards. Mr Ford was quick to extend his sympathies to the Owens family but pointed out that, as the Misuse of Drugs Act is not a devolved matter, he has limited powers when it comes to making these new psychoactive drugs illegal. However he has been working with local councils to use consumer safety legislation to address the issue and has been lobbying the Home Office in an effort “to get it to take the matter seriously”. Mr Ford intends to consult with the appropriate Minister after the Westminster elections “to find legislation that actually deals with the reality on the ground and the tragedies that people have suffered in Northern Ireland”, adding that, “we must not allow the niceties of legislation or the occasional changing of a molecule in the chemical composition to obstruct the efforts of law enforcement agencies to protect people”.

During Question Time the Minister also answered Members’ questions on Magilligan prison, legal aid, the pilot scheme for indictable cases and legislation concerning fatal foetal abnormality.

21 April 2015

Question Time: Health, Social Services and Public Safety - Monday 20 April 2015

Concerns around the number of patients urgently referred with suspected cancer are beginning their treatment within 62 days remains below the ministerial target of 95% were discussed during today’s questions to Health Minister, Jim Wells. Jo-Anne Dobson asked the Minister "does he think that that is an acceptable situation?" .Mr Wells stated " the short answer to the honourable Member for Upper Bann is "No, I do not think that it is acceptable. There is massive room for improvement, and, indeed, the board has set challenging targets for the trusts to meet in the coming year.

I emphasise that there are two targets: the 62-day target and the 31-day standard, which is the time between diagnosis and first treatment. In fact, the trusts are doing exceptionally well on that target. For instance, the most recent figures that I have are 91% in the Belfast Trust; 100% in the Northern Trust; 97·6% in the South Eastern Trust; and 100% in the Southern Trust. Those figures are for up until February 2015. The latest figure that I have for the Western Trust is for up until December 2014, and, again, it is 100%. Clearly, once a diagnosis is made, the clinicians are very quick to organise and deliver treatment. The problem lies after the earlier reference from a GP for diagnosis, where there seems to be a delay".

George Robinson asked for the Ministers assessment of cross-departmental support to address suicide and would he outline some examples of actions being implemented by other Departments. The Ministed said "I found the meeting last week to be very useful. There was buy-in from all of the Executive, which was shown by the fact that Minister Durkan, Minister Storey and Minister McCann were all present. If other Departments were not represented by Ministers, a very high-powered group of officials came along to represent them. We worked well together.

The main work of the group is to refresh and update the Protect Life strategy, which was rolled out over the last two years. The good news is that the number of suicides in Northern Ireland has dropped from about 303 in 2013 to a provisional estimate of just over 280 for 2014. That is despite a situation in other parts of western Europe where the numbers have inexorably grown. So, we believe that the strategy is working. Therefore, the various activities that have been carried out by the Departments have been successful. However, we cannot be complacent, because 280 — I think it is 286 — suicides have a hugely devastating impact on a society the size of that in Northern Ireland. It is reckoned that every suicide in the Province affects 60 people directly, because of the close-knit society that we have".

The Minister also answered questions on Oakridge day centre and Sleep clinics. During topical questions Mr Wells also answered questions on Post-mortem Services, Abortion Guidelines and how the Minister intends to support the Alzheimer’s Society’s Right to Know campaign, given that there are around 7,000 people with dementia in Northern Ireland who do not have a diagnosis, a quarter of people who are diagnosed receive no information and support and around 90% feel that the support that they receive is inadequate.

Question Time: Finance and Personnel Monday 20 April 2015

Finance Minister, Simon Hamilton, addressed the Civil Service Voluntary Exit Scheme during today’s Question Time. The scheme closed for applications on the 27 March 2015 and the selection process has now begun. Successful applicants will receive notification of an exit date and a quote from Civil Service pensions staff to help decide whether they wish to accept the offer. Staff will then begin to leave in tranches from September 2015 to March 2016. Maintaining business continuity will be an important part of the process and measures will be put in place to make sure vital posts will be covered. Over 7,000 applications were received – more than covering the estimated 2,400 required. However the process could be jeopardised by the stalling Welfare Reform legislation. As part of the Stormont House Agreement £700m has been promised as a public-sector transformation fund. A portion of this has been ear marked to fund the Voluntary Exit Scheme. Failure to agree Welfare Reform could put these funds at risk – “It is, therefore, imperative that we move forward with welfare reform and, indeed, all aspects of the Stormont House Agreement.”

The Minister also provided his assessment of the non-domestic rates revaluation. 73,000 business properties have been revalued using up-to-date market evidence to help re-distribute the rating burden in a fairer way. The new values will be used to calculate business rate bills from 1 April 2015. The Minister described the process as “the right thing to do and has helped to rebalance the rating system. We could not have continued to ask commercial ratepayers to pay business rates that are shared out on the basis of 2001 rental levels given the fundamental changes that have taken place in the way in which people live, work, shop and go about their business “. However the redistribution means that “there are winners and losers”. For example the revaluation may prove more beneficial to high street stores and town centres and less well for modern convenience stores and large edge-of-town food stores – “This reflects their success in the real world and mirrors the relative decline of many of our traditional shopping areas. At the end of the day, it is not LPS or DFP that decides who should pay more or who should pay less; the property market has already done that”.

During Question Time Mr Hamilton also discussed subcontractor payments, private sector wage levels, NI Water pay remit and peace funding applications.

15 April 2015

Question Time: Environment Tuesday 14 April 2015

Environment Minister, Mark Durkan, was asked how many planning applications for single wind turbines have been approved since 2005 during today’s Question Time. The number of single wind turbine applications approved from 2005 to 31 January this year is 2,212. This figure is for applications approved and does not necessarily equate to the number of single wind turbines constructed and operational, as the Department does not hold information on whether the permission has been implemented. The figures may also include renewals of planning permissions and changes to existing approvals, and may, therefore, equate to fewer than 2,212 individual sites. Mr Durkan believes “it is important that the right balance is struck between facilitating wind energy development in appropriate locations and protecting the exceptional quality of our natural environment. These are matters and issues that I considered in finalising the strategic planning policy statement (SPPS).”

During topical questions, Mr McAleer asked the Minister whether he is aware of reports in last week's 'Ulster Herald', which stated that raw sewage may have been leached into the River Strule for two weeks and, if so, what steps his Department has taken to investigate and remedy the situation. The Minister lamented that “this report will cause huge concern for the public around the issues that the Member has identified, as well as for me and my departmental officials. The incident to which the Member refers was first reported to the Northern Ireland Environment Agency (NIEA) on 8 April, and a local inspector investigated immediately. The inspector informed Northern Ireland Water about the problem, and it then carried out work to remove the sewer blockage that had caused the sewage overflow and had led to it going into the watercourse.

It is understood that there were difficulties in gaining access to the site. NIEA classified this as a low-severity incident, with localised impact on the River Strule. I am not saying that low impact is no impact, but fortunately, due to the swift reporting of the incident and the swift reaction to that report, a more major incident was avoided."

Throughout the oral question time period, the Minister also answered questions on how prosperity agreements can contribute to tackling climate change. the Carrier Bag Levy and Planning and Super-councils.