During topical questions to the Minister of Justice, David Ford, Dr Alasdair McDonnell asked for his agreement that it would be in everyone’s best interests that flag protests are suspended during the Haass process. While Mr Ford questioned whether this falls within his ministerial responsibility, he did agree that it would be beneficial for all protests to be suspended immediately “to allow this society to move on and to find a different way of dealing with the community problems with the past”. The Minister also stated his belief that the protests have had a more damaging effect on the retail trade in the city centre than the recession and that further problems in the run up to Christmas will be “devastating”.
Megan Fearon asked the Minister for an update on his actions concerning the recent revelations about the sexual exploitation of children in care. Mr Ford confirmed that, after a summit on child exploitation co-chaired with the Minister of Health and a special joint meeting of the Health and Justice Committees in September, an expert-led independent inquiry into child sexual exploitation will be established. Terms of reference will be agreed after the appointment of the independent chair.
The Minister also provided the House with an update on the terrorist threat approaching the Christmas period. Mr Ford described the threat level as severe, saying that the chances of an attack are highly likely. While the primary targets are police, soldiers and prison officers, he believes that the “terrorists are not concerned about the safety of anyone”.
Cathal Boylan was also keen to question the Minister on the proposed reforms for legal aid amid concerns that some people may be disadvantaged in the event that they require help. The Minister pointed out that the changes will result in an adjustment to the fees paid to lawyers and will not affect anyone’s eligibility for aid. He did concede that adjustments to financial eligibility tests will see a reduction from 43% to 35% of the population who will have access to assistance but countered that this is still higher than the 28% of the population eligible for aid in England and Wales.