30 September 2014

Question Time Employment and Learning - Monday 29 October 2014

The Employment and Learning Minister, Stephen Farry, answered questions on a number of matters including obstacles to cross-border undergraduate education, work placements, and initial teacher education.

Phil Flanagan MLA asked the Minister for an update on his efforts to remove barriers to North/South mobility at undergraduate level. The Minister stated that " A key part of that project is addressing the relevant recommendations from the Irish Business and Employers Confederation and the CBI joint business council study of obstacles to cross-border undergraduate education.  In particular, my Department’s Careers Service continues to build the knowledge of its advisers to ensure that students are fully informed about opportunities in the UK and the Republic of Ireland. An anomaly on student finance has been resolved, and, since 2013, students from Northern Ireland studying in the Republic of Ireland have had access to a repayable student contribution loan and other financial support.

The assessment of number of work placements in the North Down area that are available to students at the South Eastern Regional College was another area the Minister had to answer questions on. The Minister said " According to the college, 1,141 students and trainees participated in work placements in the 2013-14 academic year as part of their programme of learning.  In addition, the college has extremely good working relationships with employers in its area and engages with over 5,000 employers to obtain relevant work placements as close to students' homes as possible.  The process of obtaining, monitoring and evaluating work placements takes significant effort from the college but is a key element of the student experience and an integral part of their study.

Further Education, Skills Training in West Tyrone, Student hardship Funds, Apprenticeships and Sign Language Classes made up the questions asked to the Minister during the 15 minutes of Topical Question.

Question Time: Justice Monday 29 September 2014

The Minister of Justice, David Ford, discussed the current level of criminal activity by dissident Republican groups during today’s Question Time. The Minister said that it is clear that dissident Republican and Unionist groups are continuing to carry out criminal activity such as drug supply, robbery, extortion and fuel laundering. Mr Ford declared that there is “a major gap in our ability to tackle serious and organised crime groups” which has led to his attempts to gain full authority of the National Crime Agency (NCA) in Northern Ireland. The proposal has the full backing of the PSNI, Home Office and NCA. The Minister hopes to come to an agreement with all political parties to bring this to fruition, citing it as the last chance to do so before trying to find other ways to plug the gaps in the system as “the consequences of failure to reach agreement on the operation of the NCA in Northern Ireland have already been felt across law enforcement”.

Mr Ford also discussed his plan of action to tackle the £340m annual cost created by alcohol abuse to the criminal justice system. The Minister has set out his action plan in the Community Safety Strategy and the over-arching strategic framework for reducing offending. The plans include the AD:EPT programme, a psychological and educational drug and alcohol programme for offenders and, at a local level, Police and Community Safety Partnerships deliver initiatives such as organising engagement with drug and alcohol related coordination teams and the ‘No Booze on Board’ campaign. The Minister conceded that “clearly, given the scale of the problem, there is much more still to do”.

The Minister also answered questions on animal cruelty punishments and the need for refurbishments at Magilligan prison. During the fifteen minute period for topical questions Mr Ford also answered questions on budget cuts for the ombudsman and policing board, abortion legislation and the drug problem in South Belfast. 

24 September 2014

Question Time Finance - Tuesday 23 September 2014

The finance minister said he was commissioning an investigation about the possible effects of welfare reform on Northern Ireland.

The finance minister said he was commissioning an investigation into the possible effects of welfare reform on Northern Ireland.

The Minister said it should be regarded as "an independent, authoritative view on best estimate given the figures that are there and the complexities that there are within of what the effects both good and bad would be, what the costs are, what the costs of an IT system etc might be".

Danny Kinahan MLA asked the minister about the transfer of taxation powers from Westminster.

Minister Hamilton said he had a shopping list and "at the top of that shopping list is corporation tax".

He said devolved control of corporation tax was a "sizeable, chunky" power, and the aspiration was more attainable than "moonbeams", such as income tax or VAT.

The minister said he believed the Executive was "incredibly close" to attaining corporation tax powers.

Fearghal McKinney MLA asked about preparations for the 2015-16 budget.

The Minister for Finance said he had prepared a paper for the Executive but it had not been discussed and the matter had become "bogged down" in the disagreement over welfare reform.

"We are now in an incredibly challenging position with regard to the 2015-16 budget".

The minister said that welfare reform was "absolutely core and central to the problems that we are facing".

Question Time: Health, Social Services and Public Safety Tuesday 23 September 2014

Megan Fearon asked Edwin Poots, Minister of Health, what measures he is taking to retain the highest proportion of health professionals qualifying from our local universities during today’s Question Time. Mr Poots declared his satisfaction with “a much higher percentage of local medical school graduates than in any other region of the UK” with 80% of doctor training places filled by graduates from Queen’s university, Belfast. And nearly £8m a year is invested in the post-registration training of nurses with a similar percentage (79%) of Queen’s graduates employed in Northern Ireland.

The Minister also discussed the prospect of pay restraint for health and social care staff. Pay restraint is one of the measures being considered by the Minister to address the current £140m funding gap in health and social care. In England, staff are receiving 1% or an incremental rise. Mr Poots would like to offer 1% in addition to the incremental rise but giving one or the other would save the Department £14.9m. How much the Department receives in the October monitoring round will have an impact on how much staff will receive, confirming that there will be a rise of some description and “whether it involves pay restraint depends on the envelope delivered to me by my Executive colleagues”.

Mr Poots also answered questions on mental health services in the Western Trust, the workforce planning action plan, duty of care and the pharmaceutical price regulation scheme. During the topical question period the Minister also answered questions on challenges at the Antrim Area Hospital, paediatric cardiac care and surgery, drugs for rheumatoid arthritis, consultancy services and the pressure on A&E departments during the winter months.

23 September 2014

Question Time Environment - Monday 22 September 2014

Environment Minister Mark H Durkan answered questions on matters including local government reform and fracking.

Shadow Councils: Branding

Ian McCrea asked the Minister what branding guidance or advice he has given to the new shadow councils.

My Department has not given the new councils any branding guidance or advice.  There is no legislative requirement for it to do so, nor, I believe, would it be appropriate.  The new councils require a strong corporate brand to enable their stakeholders to identify with them.  This makes it very much a local matter that councils are best placed to undertake themselves.

My Department does, however, have powers to change the name of a council.  Section 1 of the Local Government Act 2014 provides that the name of each council is the name of the local government district followed by the words “district council”.  Section 1 also allows the Department to make regulations to provide for the name of a council to be other than that provided for by section 1 of the 2014 Act.  I stress, however, that regulations of that nature would be made only at the request of a council and would permit the council to decide on a name that does not end in the words “district council”.

Section 51 of the Local Government Act 1972 provides that the Department may, by order made on the application of a council, change the name of the district of a council.  If a name change order is made under the powers conferred by that provision, the final two words of the council’s name must remain “district council”.

Planning: Policy/Area Plans

Ms Boyle and Mr McGlone both asked the Minister to outline the flexibility and discretion the new councils will have to interpret planning policy and influence the content of area plans.

The Minister stated that "From 1 April 2015, councils will have a statutory requirement to prepare local development plans for their respective districts.  A council plan will be made up of two documents:  a plan strategy, which is adopted first and which will set out the council's objectives and strategic policies for the development of its district; and a subsequent local policies plan, which will set out the council's local and site-specific policies and zonings.

In preparing their development plans, councils must take account of central government policies, such as the regional development strategy and the strategic planning policy statement (SPPS), and, indeed, of relevant European directives.  All this will be tested at the independent examination of the plan".

The Minister had to answer questions on the Transfer of Planning Powers, Donaghadee Second Commons and Enforcement cases within Councils during the 15 minute period of topical questions.