10 July 2014

Committee Publishes Report on Reservoirs Bill

The Assembly Committee for Agriculture and Rural Development has just published its report on the proposed Reservoirs Bill. The proposed Departmental Bill aims to ensure that local reservoirs exceeding 10,000 cubic metres in volume are managed and operated to safeguard the public and to minimise the risk of flooding.

The Committee report underlines a number of key concerns including the need for an audit on the current condition of reservoirs which will fall under the new legislation and the financial implications the requirements could pose for reservoir owners. The Committee Chairperson told us more about the report and the Committee's findings.

2 July 2014

Question Time: Health, Social Services and Public Safety Tuesday 1 July 2014

The Minister for Health, Social Services and Public Safety was again keen to stress the catastrophic potential consequences on the departmental health budget as a result of welfare reform penalties during today’s question time. The cut in funds could see serious implications such as “a pay constraint on hard-working staff, a reduction in the range or standard of services offered, the introduction of additional charges or co-payments for services and longer waiting times for scheduled care”. The Minister added that “the failure to agree welfare reform is unforgivable, as the financial penalties being imposed by the Treasury are surely better directed at meeting the real and pressing health and social care needs of some of the most vulnerable people in our society”.

The Minister also provided an update on the access to cancer drugs in Northern Ireland. In 2013-2014, £26.7m was spent on cancer drugs (not including other treatments such as radiotherapy). The Health and Social Care Board has informed the Minister that 98% of applications for unapproved drugs are accepted and more has been spent on branded drugs in the last three years meaning that we are not giving as much to pharmaceutical companies and are delivering more on the ground – removing from generic to branded drugs has the support of the Assembly.

Mr Poots also answered questions on the GP out-of-hours framework, healthcare providers to the armed forces, accident prevention initiatives and the Early Intervention Transformation Programme. Regular oral questions were followed by a fifteen minute period of topical questions which included questions on legal highs, prescription charges and cancer drug trials.

Question Time: Justice 01 July 2014

During Question Time the Minister of Justice responded to questions including Magilligan Prison; Parading; Victims of Crime; Juvenile Justice; PSNI.


The Minister reiterated his commitment to the redevelopment of Magilligan prison:
I said at that time that the completed outline business case will be submitted to DFP and it will be DFP's decision as to whether the business case will be approved for the rebuild.  Any approval will advise the availability of capital funding for the project.   The prison must remain operational during the redevelopment, and a combination of operational need and capital availability will determine the timeline for the work.  If approval is given and funding is made available, NIPS would plan to commence work at Magilligan in 2016.
On the issue of parading the Minister stated:
However, while it (the Parades Commission) is the only show in town, there is no alternative but for those of us who support the rule of law to accept that the determinations of the commission, whether appreciated or not, have the force of the rule of law.  Those who parade and those who protest should do so lawfully and peacefully in all circumstances.
The Minister was challenged on whether his Department will have the necessary resources to ensure that proper structures for a victims' charter will be in place once the Justice Bill is passed in the Assembly
I believe that...we are well on the way to having the necessary measures in place. Clearly, all these things cost a degree of money, but some of the proposals that we have had recently, such as the registered intermediary scheme, are in a position to be expanded because they are proving so successful, and the costs of that are being absorbed in the Department's budget.  We will continue to make progress, but we cannot give guarantees as to what the finances will be over the next few years.
During Topical Questions the Minister discussed Prison Service: Staff Entitlements; Policing and Community Safety Partnerships; Joe Campbell; Police Ombudsman: Funding Request; Parades: Criminal Justice Issues; Capital Works:  Business Cases; Legal Criticism:  DOJ; and Legal Aid and Coroners’ Courts Bill.

You can read the full list of questions on our website. The full transcript of Question Time is available to read in the Official Report.

1 July 2014

Question Time: Environment Monday 30 June 2014

Kieran McCarthy was keen to find out what plans are in place for the future of the Exploris aquarium during today’s questions to the Minister of the Environment, Mark Durkan. The Minister has submitted an urgent procedure paper (and a follow-up paper) to the First minister and deputy First Minister but as of yet the business case has still not been discussed by the Executive. The Department has also made a bid for £900,000 of capital funding in the June Monitoring round. Mr Durkan is also “committed to funding all reasonable costs associated with the seal sanctuary up to a limit of £120,000 a year”. He recognises the value of Exploris to the local economy and as an educational facility and assured “that I have done and will continue to do all within my power to ensure that the capital investment required to keep Exploris open is forthcoming from the Executive”.

The Minister also discussed the planning policy on wind energy and the prospect of harmonising the policy on an all island basis. The Minister is supportive of Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland working together saying it makes sense due to the shared strategic development issues. Mr Durkan acknowledges that wind energy development has been a controversial issue and has taken into consideration the public consultation on the single strategic planning policy statement and looks forward to the recommendations that may emerge from the ongoing Environment Committee inquiry into wind energy, hoping that it will help inform him on the best way to progress.

Mr Durkan also answered questions on the transfer of DRD functions to the new councils and Dereliction Intervention funding. During topical questions the Minister also answered questions on the Belfast metropolitan area plan, the relocation of planning service staff and the illegal dumping of tyres.

Question Time: Finance and Personnel 30 June 2014

The Minister of Finance and Personnel responded to a number of questions including the subjects of Public Procurement and Public Sector Reform.

When asked what proposals the Minister had on the removal of barriers faced by small and medium-sized enterprises when accessing public procurement opportunities, he stated:
Central Procurement Directorate (CPD), in conjunction with centres of procurement expertise (COPEs), has implemented a significant number of measures aimed at improving SME access. They include simplifying processes by focusing on the production of clearer specifications; standardising terms and conditions for all contracts; removing the minimum eligibility requirements for low-value supplies and services contracts; and awarding contracts on lowest acceptable price when possible.
The Minister was asked to outline how he intends to take forward his public sector reform agenda.
"The Executive recently endorsed my proposal to engage the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, more commonly known as the OECD, to conduct a strategic review of public sector reform in Northern Ireland...
"There are two broad areas that the terms of reference will enable them to look at in terms of reform in Northern Ireland...
"The first is in what might be described as cross-cutting areas and levers for making reform happen, which is things like procurement, HR policy, IT and digitalisation. The second area of work that I have also received support from Executive colleagues to look at is particular areas of policy."
During topical questions it was noted that over 25,000 people emigrated from Northern Ireland last year; the Minister was quizzed on photovoltaic payback and the use of renewable energy; meeting the governor of the Bank of England; the Family Law Review and finally the delivery of major infrastructure projects. You can read the full transcript on our website.