22 October 2014

Question Time: Regional Development Tuesday 21 October 2014

Minister for Regional Development, Danny Kennedy, discussed the success of the park-and-ride facilities at Sprucefield during today’s Question Time. The scheme was developed for the convenience of workers commuting to the City Centre and to ease traffic congestion in the area. The Sprucefield site is operating close to its 320 vehicle capacity and there are plans in place to extend the site to accommodate 650 vehicles. The Minister is also giving consideration to extending the M1 bus lane in an effort to reduce bus journey times and attract more commuters to the service. In the next few years there are plans for further park-and-ride facilities in Lisburn, Ballymoney, Whiteabbey, Cullybackey, Moira, Nallymartin, Portadown and Lurgan.

Mr Kennedy then answered David McNarry’s question about how much is spent on road maintenance in relation to the amount raised in vehicle road tax. Mr McNarry highlighted shortfalls of £44m and £23m in recent years that have not been re-invested on our roads, asking if the Minister will be making efforts to obtain the transfer of excise duty. The Minister declared that this was a challenge he would “have no difficulty in attempting, but I assume that it will mean that I will be actively engaged with DFP and Executive colleagues as we seek to make that change and see whether benefit could therefore be accrued”. The Minister also talked of the occasions when utility companies perform work on the roads but do not return the road to a satisfactory condition for taxpayers. Mr Kennedy said that “of course, if there are cases where the repair work carried out by any of the utility companies, or, indeed, anyone else, is found to be unsatisfactory or substandard, we are very active in ensuring that that work is done to an acceptable level, even if it means insisting that contractors return.”

During listed questions the Minister answered queries on the Belfast Rapid Transit System, the Borewell Scheme and street lighting. During topical questions the Minister answered further questions on the Magherafelt Bypass, gully emptying, security measures in car parks and plans for the growth of public transport.

Question Time: Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister Monday 20 October 2014

First Minister, Peter Robinson, described the devolution of Corporation Tax as a “key priority for the Executive to promote the growth of the local economy” during today’s Question Time. Devolving the power to Northern Ireland would provide the opportunity to reduce the Tax – a move that would encourage business in Northern Ireland as well as boost the chances of much-needed local and foreign investment. As part of the economic pact agreed last year, the UK Government committed to consider the devolution of Corporation Tax to Northern Ireland and a decision is expected by the start of December. The First Minister has had discussions with the Secretary of State and written to the Prime Minister in an effort to push the matter forward. Sammy Wilson expressed concern that some Parties’ refusal to enter debate on the budget would mean that, even if it is devolved, we wouldn’t be in a position to apply the desired reduction in the Tax. Mr Robinson echoed the sentiments saying that his fear is that the Treasury may withhold devolving the Tax power as they may be concerned that a certain level of fiscal management responsibility will not be met.

Junior Minister, Jonathan Bell, provided the House with an update on the delivery of Social Investment Fund projects. So far funding has been committed to 23 projects around the country totalling £34.4m. Pending the completion of final checks and the submission of letters of approval, it is anticipated that start dates will be announced shortly. Projects include a charity hub in the northern zone, a scheme for the long-term unemployed in the Londonderry zone and a community doctor’s surgery in the Belfast East zone. When pressed on whether the full £80m allocated for the Social Investment Fund would be honoured, Mr Bell said that “as far as I can be, I’m confident that the fund will be fully utilised”, pointing to a further 22 projects set for investment and the high number of viable projects in reserve should any of these fail to come to fruition.

During listed questions the First Minister also updated the Chamber on the potential usage of St Lucia Barracks in Omagh and the shared campuses as part of the ‘Together: Building a United Community’ programme. During topical questions the Minister provided updates on the current talks taking place regarding the future of the Assembly, welfare reform and the future of the Civil Service.

Question Time - Social Development Tuesday 21 October 2014

The Social Development Minister Mervyn Storey said the failure to come to an agreement over welfare reform could "ultimately lead to the doors being closed in this institution ".

He said that "the cost then to Northern Ireland of the imposition of a non-amended welfare reform, I think, is incalculable in terms of finance, and in terms of the impact that it would have in all of the communities that we all represent in this house".

The minister was also asked number of questions about social housing.

Asked about shared housing schemes, the minister said it would be wrong to attempt to "socially engineer" mixed housing projects.

During the 15 minute of Topical Questions to the Minister he was asked questions on the Belfast City Centre Regeneration Project, Housing Association Grant Rates, the Boiler Replacement Scheme and the Omagh Town Centre Master Plan.

17 October 2014

Shared and Integrated Education Top of the Agenda as Committee Evidence Sessions Begin

The Committee for Education launched its new inquiry into Shared and Integrated Education in September and this week saw the beginning of evidence sessions which over the coming weeks will help to inform and shape the Committees final report. The inquiry will examine how Shared and Integrated Education is delivered across Northern Ireland and whether there is a need for a formal, statutory definition of Shared Education. Members will also explore if there should be a legal obligation for its promotion and encouragement.

First to give evidence today were Ian Williamson, Principal of Ballycastle High School and Barbara Ward, Principal of Cross and Passion College Ballycastle. Both Schools have been involved in a successful Shared Education programme and were recently selected by the Department for Education as one of three local school partnerships to take part in the new Shared Education Campuses Programme.

Opening the evidence session, Barbara outlined the schools’ vision of collaboration which she noted had resulted in a more efficient use of resources and increased educational choices for pupils. She added that it had enabled both schools to better meet the needs of pupils and to cater to all ability levels.

The opportunity to provide additional training and qualifications in practical areas, such as agriculture, hospitality and media studies has also been an important driver in securing the success of the Shared Education Programme.

Ian and Barbara underlined both schools commitment to and place in the local community and the importance of nurturing skills to meet the needs of local employers.

The Committee was keen to tease out some of the factors that make this particular Shared Educational Programme successful. For example was geographical location important, given the fact that both Ballycastle High School and Cross and Passion College are in close proximity to each other? Both principals said that this was certainly helpful in the sharing of day to day educational experiences, but they added that Shared Education will only be successful in the educational and economic sense if it meets a real need. The training and development of staff was also cited as an important factor as was securing buy in and support from pupils, teachers and the local community.

The costs of running a shared education programme and whether or not this could impact on the continuing success of the Moyle partnership or any would be shared educational programmes was also queried by the Committee. Barbara noted that costs are a factor – but that the programme had benefited from Entitlement Framework funding, which provides students access to "a broad and balanced curriculum", as well as resources to support shared education. Funding and practical support from external agencies such as PEACE 3, the Sharing Education Programme and Peace, Inclusion, Reconciliation, Citizenship and History Project (PIRCH) have also been beneficial.

The Committee was also interested in how the schools brought parents on board? Both Barbara and Ian noted that it is made clear to parents that sharing can enhance their child’s experience at school, however both children and parents must have a choice and be comfortable with the sharing proposals, the schools do not take anything for granted. Barbara added that they have continually evaluated with parents, have set up focus groups and the feedback shows that no one feels the sharing should not happen.

The need for compromise was also raised – how do the schools agree on certain administrative issues for example? It was acknowledged by both principals that compromise was an important factor in the sharing process. Things like school holidays and staff development days had to be synchronised, close coordination in terms of timetabling and curriculum planning and the sharing of facilities have all arisen as factors to be considered and agreed upon. However, Barbara and Ian added that there has never been any need or wish to compromise in terms of the quality of education provision.

The Committee was also keen to hear how the shared programme worked in terms of bridging community differences. Barbara and Ian underlined the importance of nurturing mutual respect, of helping pupils to recognise that it’s okay to express who they are without showing disrespect or threat. Ian said that it was important to underline that the schools do not try to morph their pupils into something they are not and that within this particular context the students have developed genuine friendships and relationships.

You can watch Barbara and Ian’s presentation to the Committee below and read their joint written submission to the Committee.

While Barbara and Ian provided a very practical and personal sense of how the Moyle Partnership worked, Professors Colin Knox and Vani Borooah from the University of Ulster were also before the Committee to provide the theoretical context and findings from their research into Shared and Integrated Education.

Professors Knox and Borooah opened the briefing by discussing their research into Integrated Education, which included take up of places in Integrated schools and academic performance levels across the educational spectrum at both primary and post primary level.

Their research has looked at the differences between Integrated and Shared educational programmes and they were keen to highlight that both programmes have a place in the local educational system. They acknowledged that most research evidence on the impact of integrated education has tended to focus on reconciliation and societal benefits in Northern Ireland. They stated however that their research which examined variations in popularity across schools showed very clearly that parents choose schools largely based on educational performance. Professor Borooah noted “good results is the horse and reconciliation is the cart” and “primacy must be given to good results”.

The UU research on Shared Education indicated that pupils in this environment tend to do better academically. The evidence based on four selected primary and post-primary schools involved in the Sharing Education Programme concluded that  involvement  in  the  initiative  would  increase the likelihood of: getting good GSCEs; gaining fluency in a foreign language; and going to University.

However, both professors stressed that they did not see Shared and Integrated Education initiatives as competing. Factors such as geographical proximity, levels of cross community integration and interface areas are all important factors in the workability of Shared Education Programmes. They concluded that the new Shared Education Signature Project would be very important in terms of defining and setting goals for Shared Education as a whole.    

You can watch Professor Knox and Professor Borooah’s presentation to the Committee in full below and read their briefing papers to the Committee Part 1 and Part 2.

15 October 2014

Question Time: Health, Social Services and Public Safety 14 October 2014

The Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety, Mr Jim Wells MLA responded to questions on budgetary pressures; cancer services; the Ulster Hospital; Integrated Care Partnerships; and Seven-day Access to GPs.

The Minister told the house that his "Department has faced considerable financial challenges in 2014-15, with £160 million of additional resources estimated to be required to balance the books."

"The situation does not get any better in 2015-16, with additional pressures in the health and social care system of over £300 million on top of those pressures carried forward from 2014-15.  Those will be dealt with through non-recurrent measures.  The largest inescapable pressure in this is additional pension costs, estimated to be in the region of £90 million."

In response to a question on local cancer services, the Minister said:
"Over the past decade, we have witnessed significant progress in cancer provision in Northern Ireland, which has led to real improvements in outcomes for patients across a wide range of cancers.  A recent Europe-wide study shows that Northern Ireland cancer survival rates for lung, breast and prostate are the best in the UK."

However, "It is predicted that, by the age of 75, one in three in Northern Ireland will have cancer."

Members were also informed that the new cancer unit at Altnagelvin hospital will treat "cancer sufferers in places such as Donegal, Sligo and Leitrim [who] will no longer be forced to go the whole way to Dublin; they can go to Altnagelvin for their treatment."

Topical questions included: Ebola; Paediatric Congenital Cardiac Services; GP Workforce; Cancelled Operations; & Organ Donation.

You can read the full transcript on our website.