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20 May 2015

Question Time: Social Development Tuesday 19 May 2015


Ross Hussey asked the Minister for Social Development, Mervyn Storey for an update on the proposed personal independence payment pilot scheme at the start of Oral Question Time. The Minister stated "following the Stormont Castle agreement on welfare reform in December 2014, an amendment was tabled to the Northern Ireland welfare Bill that made provision for a pilot scheme to be carried out in advance of personal independence payments going live in Northern Ireland. It was passed by the Assembly at Consideration Stage of the Bill's passage, and, since then, my officials have been working to put in place the arrangements to implement that commitment".

The Minister was also asked for for his assessment of the funding pressures faced by the community and voluntary sector. The Minister explained that "as Minister for Social Development with lead responsibility for relationships with the voluntary and community sector (VCS), I am fully aware of the funding pressures faced by the sector. The voluntary and community sector is seen as a key social partner of government as we build a participative, peaceful, equitable and inclusive community in Northern Ireland. As you are aware, the strain on public finances in 2015-16 has been considerable, and that has impacted on the financial relationship between government and the sector. When finalising the budget for my Department, I instructed my officials to ensure that resource allocation decisions being made across the Department were prioritised, transparent, accountable and evidence-based. As Minister, I fully recognise the role of the voluntary and community sector in delivering so many necessary public services on behalf of government and the impact that reduced resourcing can have on those vital services".

During oral Question Time to the Social Development Minister Mervyn Storey, he was asked questions on Abandoned cars in Carrickfergus, the affordable warmth scheme and Social Housing in West Belfast. The Minister was asked about the Housing Executive Points system, the North West Development Office closure and the hugh pressure that will be placed on Newcastle and South Down as a result of Newcastle hosting the Irish Open golf tournament during the 15 minute period of Topical Questions.

Question Time: Regional Development Tuesday 19 May 2015


During today’s Questions to Regional Development Minister, Danny Kennedy, Cathal Boylan asked why bonus payments to manual grade Transport NI staff have been withheld in the past few months. Transport NI operates a productivity incentive scheme for its industrial staff. While the scheme does not allow for the withholding of productivity-related earnings, it does permit the reduction or recovery of such earnings “where workmanship has been found to be below the required technical standard or where higher productivity than the scheme allows has been claimed”. The rate at which these types of earnings has been recovered or reduced in the last few months has been no greater than normal. However, due to budget pressures, the Minister has had to scale back to a skeleton service which has reduced work volume in certain areas. This has then had a negative impact on the potential of earning productivity bonuses.

Transport NI have consequently sought to use the extra workforce capacity for areas of work that cost less in terms of raw materials and resources. Thus providing opportunities in which productivity bonuses might then be earned.
Ian McCrea asked the Minister about the recent news that Translink spent £170,000 on private taxi hire in the past three years, seeking assurances that every efficiency is being considered. The Minister revealed that he has been advised by Translink that the use of private taxi hire is closely monitored and “used only when it is the most economically viable solution”. Mr Kennedy did however acknowledge the public comment and concern over the matter and assured that he will “pursue the matter with Translink in the coming period”.

The Minister also answered questions on road and drainage networks, weed spraying, sale of reservoirs, speed limits and traffic flow.

19 May 2015

Question Time: Health, Social Services and Public Safety Monday 18 May 2015


Simon Hamilton faced his first Question Time as Minister for Health, Social Services and Public Safety and was asked about the Health budget and what his plans for funding are in the June monitoring round. Mr Hamilton described the 2015-16 budget as “exceptionally challenging” with “no funding to invest in a range of new service developments”. The Minister intends to bid for funding to avoid service consequences and provide additional services and treatments for patients. These include critical front line services in elective care, mental health, learning disability, specialist drugs, children’s services, Transforming Your Care, public health and unscheduled care. The Minister is concerned about the development of new services given that there is still £30-40m worth of unfunded pressures currently in the system (despite £160m of efficiencies already implemented). Mr Hamilton also conceded that the system as a whole may be in need of review saying, “I believe that we do need to make transformations in the way we deliver the services that our citizens require. There will be change, and sometimes that change will require difficult decisions.

Claire Sugden asked the Minister if he has any plans to increase the number of NI Ambulance Service (NIAS) personnel given the reliance on private ambulance services. Mr Hamilton disagreed that the NIAS rely on private ambulance services arguing that they are only used in exceptional circumstances such as the recent industrial action over the last few months. Even then, they were only employed for non-emergency calls so as to protect the capacity for NIAS staff to respond to 999 calls. There are currently 94 vacancies in the NIAS, mostly for emergency medical technicians. The Minister is confident that once these posts are filled (and 90 posts are currently awaiting the result of offers) the pressure on the service will be alleviated and will assist any concerns over current ambulance response times.

The Minister also answered questions on treatments for heart attack patients and the ban on blood donations from gay men. During the period for topical questions Mr Hamilton continued to answer Members queries on GP training places, residential care homes and home accident prevention.

Question Time: Justice - Monday 18 May 2015



In the light of the ongoing and serious problem of the sale of laundered fuel, Mr Irwin MLA asked the Minister for his assessment of whether current legislation is strong enough to deter a filling station operator from acquiring and retailing laundered fuel knowingly during today’s Questions to the Justice Minister, David Ford. Fuel excise evasion and the related legislation is a reserved matter and is the responsibility of HM Revenue and Customs and the Treasury. Between February and May this year, HMRC consulted on a discussion document relating to penalties, which is the first stage in a wider review aimed at making it hard for a dishonest minority to cheat the system, including, of course, filling stations selling illicit fuel. The Minister confirmed that "my Department and HMRC are organising a seminar on fuel laundering to be held in June. It will involve all relevant agencies and will be a forum to discuss whether there are areas in which more can be done".

Trevor Lunn asked the Minister what progress has been made in implementing those aspects of the Stormont House Agreement that fall to his Department. Mr Ford explained to the member "I am committed to implementing the elements of the Stormont House Agreement that fall to my Department as promptly as possible. Under the agreement, my Department is responsible for the establishment of the new historical investigations unit (HIU) and improving the legacy inquest function. The HIU will be an independent body to take forward investigations of outstanding Troubles-related deaths. The legislation required to set up the HIU will be progressed through a Westminster Bill. Drafting is at an advanced stage, and I expect the Bill to be introduced in Parliament in the autumn. My intention is to establish the HIU by summer 2016 and for it to be operational by the autumn of next year".

During Question Time the Minister also answered a question from Anna Lo on the Ministers assessment of the recent comments from the First Minister that termination for fatal foetal abnormality can be dealt with by guidelines rather than the proposed changes in law. The Minister said "the recent remarks by the First Minister on the subject of guidelines for abortion contradict previous statements by former DUP Health Minister Edwin Poots, when he said, on more than one occasion, that guidelines were unable to deal with cases of foetal abnormality and that such cases would require an amendment to the criminal law, which was a matter for the Department of Justice. It is therefore hard to understand the reasons for the First Minister’s comments".

Europe for Citizens

The Northern Ireland European Regional Forum (NIERF) held an information session on the EU funding programme ‘Europe for Citizens’ on 24 April 2015 in Belfast City Hall, where Bruno Denis from the DG Home at the European Commission provided a detailed overview of the programme.

The Europe for Citizens programme was created to foster citizen participation, particularly at a time when electoral turnout is diminishing and many EU citizens do not feel well informed of or involved in the EU.

The programme aims are:
  • To contribute to citizens' understanding of the EU, its history and diversity
  • To foster European citizenship and to improve conditions for civic and democratic participation at EU level
  • To raise awareness of remembrance, common history and values
  • To encourage democratic participation of citizens at EU level, by developing citizens' understanding of the EU policy making-process and, by promoting opportunities for societal and intercultural engagement and volunteering at EU level
For the 2014-2020 period, Europe for Citizens has a budget of €185million. The programme is highly competitive and previously, the UK has been underrepresented in successful projects. The programme consists of 2 strands – European remembrance; and democratic engagement and civic participation.



STRAND 1: EUROPEAN REMEMBRANCE

Eligible projects:
  • Projects reflecting on the causes of totalitarian regimes in Europe's modern history and commemorating the victims of their crimes.
  • Projects concerning other defining moments and reference points in recent European history.
  • Those projects must encourage tolerance, mutual understanding, intercultural dialogue and reconciliation as a means of moving beyond the past and building the future.
Applicant and partners:
  • Public local/regional authorities or non-profit organisations, survivors’ associations, and cultural, youth, educational and research organisations, associations of twinned towns. A project must involve at least one Member State, but preference is given to transnational projects.
Maximum eligible grant for a project: €100,000
Maximum project duration: 18 months

In 2014:
472 applications received (action grants)
36 selected (€3.1million)
8% success rate

STRAND 2: DEMOCRATIC ENGAGEMENT & CIVIC PARTICIPATION

Measure 1: TOWN TWINNING

Eligible projects:
  • Projects which bring together a wide range of citizens from twinned towns around topics in line with the objectives of the programme and its annual priorities.
  • "Twinning" understood broadly
Applicant and partners:
  • towns/municipalities or their twinning committees or other non-profit organisations representing local authorities. Minimum of 25 invited participants
Maximum eligible grant for a project: €25,000
Maximum project duration: 21 days (meeting), 9 months (eligibility period)

In 2014:
667 applications received
253 selected (€3.9million)
38% success rate

Measure 2: NETWORKS OF TOWNS

Eligible projects:
  • Projects in which municipalities and associations already linked by a series of town twinning cooperate / work together on a long term basis to explore common themes, share resources or interest, face common challenges.
Applicants:
  • towns/municipalities or their twinning committees or networks, other levels of local/regional authorities, and non-profit organisations representing local authorities
Partners:
  • as above + NGO. A project must involve municipalities from at least 4 eligible countries, of which at least one is an EU Member State and a minimum of 30% of invited participants
Maximum eligible grant for a project: €150,000
Maximum project duration: 24 months, at least 4 events

In 2014:
224 applications received
35 selected (€4.5million)
15.6% success rate

Measure 3: CIVIL SOCIETY PROJECTS

Eligible projects:
  • Projects promoted by transnational partnerships and networks directly involving citizens from different horizons, in activities linked to EU policies, with a view to giving them an opportunity to concretely participate in the EU policy-making process in areas related to the objectives of the Programme
Applicants:
  • non-profit organisations, including civil society organisations, educational, cultural or research institutions
Partners:
  • NOG or public local/regional authorities, town-twinning committees and networks. A project must involve organisations from at least 3 eligible countries, of which at least one is an EU Member State
Maximum eligible grant for a project: €150,000
Maximum project duration: 18 months

In 2014
538 applications received (action grants)
9 selected €3.6 million
5% success rate

Europe for Citizens – Case Study

Pat Mulvenna from the North East Partnership (NEP) gave a presentation with details of how the North East Partnership, a vehicle for local authority collaboration across Antrim, Ballymena, Ballymoney, Carrickfergus, Coleraine, Larne, Moyle and Newtownabbey, had participated in the Europe for Citizens programme.

NEP was one of 5 partners under the ‘network of twinned towns’ measure on the EUPLETT project. EUPLETT - ‘European Urban Planning via public participation and Local Empowerment in networks and Twinning Towns’ - focused on regeneration of town centres.

The five project partners who received funding of €25,000 each were:
  • Falkenberg, Sweden
  • Dubrovnik, Croatia
  • Schouwen-Duiveland, The Netherlands
  • K√łge, Denmark
  • Ballymena, Northern Ireland
The project objectives were:
  • Gather best practice in creation of vibrant small town centres
  • Increase no. of citizens involved in spatial planning
  • Increase awareness of EU policies and effects at local level
  • Increase competence in EU urban planning & policy via:
    • public participation
    • culture / art
    • spatial planning / environment and design
  • Create a genuine and dynamic network of twinned towns
  • Identify a minimum of 3 new projects ideas within EU 2020 areas
The NEP highlighted a number of key achievements as a result of participation in the Europe for Citizens programme
  • Developed excellent relationships with the project partners – leading to other contacts
  • Best practice visits and workshops in 4 locations
  • 3 conferences held
  • Better understanding of issues within each location
  • Website and blog
  • Youth competition
  • Working on potential future projects:
    • Graffiti Art project (Creative Europe)
    • Competitiveness of tourism focused SME’s (Urbact III)
    • Youth in Democracy (Erasmus +)
Further information