Roy Beggs MLA asked acting First Minister, Arlene Foster, for an update on the outstanding issues within the Stormont House Agreement during today’s Question Time. Mrs Foster described the Stormont House Agreement as “a fundamental part of the current talks process” but was however unwilling to comment on current progress as talks are still ongoing. She did however confirm that talks have been occurring on a weekly basis since January 2015 and “good progress was made on a range of commitments, including those for which OFMDFM has responsibility.” The Minister did also warn that any agreement cannot progress until the issues surrounding welfare reform are resolved. Mr Beggs also expressed concern about the Departments Bill (to reduce the number of Departments in the Executive) which forms part of the Stormont House Agreement and the chances of it being enacted given the decreasing window for passing legislation before the end of the current mandate. Mrs Foster moved to ease concerns, saying that the Bill has already been drafted and a great deal of the administrative work to enact the changes is already at an advanced stage. Budgetary provision has also been planned for nine departments rather than the current twelve.
In light of the refugee crisis in 2015, Patsy McGlone asked what facilities are being made available to refugees in Northern Ireland, including the provision of advice. Mrs Foster revealed that the only programme under which Northern Ireland would receive refugees is the vulnerable persons relocation scheme. The Minister explained “that programme aims to relocate those who are most vulnerable and to resettle them in suitable locations where their needs can be addressed. Officials are making preparations to ensure that we are able to respond effectively to the needs of what will likely be a vulnerable group of refugees.” Senior officials are preparing to take forward arrangements and a strategic planning group has been established to prepare Departments on strategic issues and local implications. While the details of how the scheme will work here have not been finalised “the operational group is working to put in place arrangements to manage the arrival of refugees through the scheme. That will include the provision of appropriate services and support to facilitate their integration.”
During Question Time the Acting First Minister also answered questions on diversity champions, good relations indicators, Shackleton barracks and the Together: Building a United Community (T:BUC) strategy. During topical questions Mrs Foster also answered queries on the NAMA affair, paramilitary activity, the Arc21 incinerator in Hightown and corporation tax.