Friday, 5 December 2008

Questions, questions, questions

Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness have asked the Assembly’s procedures committee to cut back on the questions they have to answer.

Currently, in addition to written questions, the First Minister and deputy First Minister have to appear before the Assembly twice a month to answer oral questions for half an hour.
According to press reports this week, the duo now want this reduced to a monthly appearance before the Assembly.

To take a random sample, this coming Monday 8 December, the Ministers will appear to answer 20 questions, of which they may have the chance to answer maybe two or three in the 30 minute slot they, like all Executive ministers, are allocated.

Topics range from transfer of policing and justice powers through to asylum seekers and their children.

Of course, with transatlantic trips and the weekly media interview round slotting in the 30 minutes every fortnight must be tough, but is it tougher on the civil servants who must prepare briefings for the ministerial appearances?

£2.66 per constituent

MLA’s pay is, as always a favourite topic for radio phone-ins, with pundits and public alike decrying the salaries of our public representatives.

With the Senior Salaries Review Board announcing their ‘downgrading’ of the proposed pay rise for MLAs to 3.5% it emerged that part of the thinking was that the Assembly had restricted law making powers and that the number of constituents each MLA is ‘responsible for’ is less than other parts of the UK.

In fact the board has said that MLAs earn £2.66 per constituent compared with 60p per constituent for each MP.

But, away from the punditry the issue remains that MLAs are the lowest paid of the devolved administrators, perhaps opening the door for a debate on the quality of those seeking to be MLAs.

More to the point is the question of dual mandate…how many times can one person be paid to represent a constituent?

Quick Planning approvals

Under fire, Environment Minister, Sammy Wilson brought good news to those wilting under the wait for planning approvals, in Northern Ireland’s tortuous system.
Having cleared the issue of PPS14/21 up amid a flurry of interviews and staunch ripostes Mr Wilson has now opened up a pilot scheme to cut down on waits for planning approval for non-contentious applications.

This means that the bewildering delays faced by applications for, for example, temporary school classrooms or changes to a shop front display, can now be approved on average in between 16-20 days compared to the previous average of almost three months.

The scheme operates on the simple premise that if there are no objections to an application then it does not require to be tabled at a council meeting.

Good news for householders looking to improve rather than move, but there could be a sting in the tail…it will mean councillors will have more time on their hands to have a bun-fight over contentious applications. More grief for PPS21 applicants then?

Bush and the FM/DFM

As Dubya clears his desk and prepares to vacate the Whitehouse for Barack’s January arrival, he cleared time in his increasingly free diary to meet First Minister Peter Robinson and deputy First Minister, Martin McGuinness.

During their Transatlantic trip to see if they can drum up some potential investment in Northern Ireland, the pair also met New York Mayor, Michael Bloomberg, as well as several high profile city officials and Fortune 500 rich cats at a dinner of the most profitable companies in the USA.
There is no truth in the claim that when Robinson lent McGuinness a tenner he was declared the fourth biggest lender in North America…he was the sixth biggest lender.

Guns? What guns?

On Wednesday, the Westminster Government has given so-called Loyalist paramilitary groups another year to decommission their weapons, after their notable failure to do so over the past 14 years.

SDLP chief Mark Durkan rowed into the debate by saying this has to be the last chance saloon, while Junior Minister, Jeffrey Donaldson broadly agreed that the process couldn’t go on indefinitely.

Drawn into the equation were Margaret Ritchie’s funding decisions of the last year and the opinion of the Ulster Political Research Group.

The debate was somewhat undermined when the PSNI discovered viable explosive devices left by Loyalist paramilitaries near a BMX park this week.

Which goes to prove that the exchanged verbiage on Good Morning Ulster isn’t quite reaching the man in the balaclava…and exactly what sanction are Mr Durkan et al proposing if the Loyalists decline to decommission? A paramilitary wing for the Assembly?

New Tory link…where’s the New Labour link?

With David Cameron appearing at the Ulster Unionist conference to cement the electoral link with promises of potential Westminster ministerial posts, if the Tories win the next General Election, the promise of a say in reserved matters looms large in the political mindset.
This, of course, leads to the question as to the status of New Labour organising in Northern Ireland…of which there has been nary a whisper of late.

The problem seems to be there is no-one party for them to marry to. After all the SDLP is still being romanced by Fianna Fail, the DUP are too busy with dual mandates, the TUV at times seems to be crying into a right-wing wilderness, while Sinn Féin are not courting anyone unless they sign up in Irish.

That leaves the Alliance and the PUP as potential suitors for New Labour…can’t see Gordon Brown rushing into that marriage.

Education Bill Enters the Political Arena

The Education Bill is to be debated in the Assembly next week. The legislation is intended to provide for an Education and Skills Authority (ESA) which follows on from the Review of Public Administration (RPA) announced in November 2005. According to Education Minister Catriona Ruane – ‘affectionately’ known as Catriona ‘Ruin’ in DUP circles – the Department’s key priority is to streamline the administration of education and raise education standards in the ‘North’. Prior to the introduction of the Bill, debate has already been rife in political circles and indeed among the public as to what the new education system will look like post-2010.

Whatever the outcome, Chambré understands that Education Bill is set to have a lengthy committee stage, which will undoubtedly result in a significant number of amendments being proposed at consideration stage (report stage for those versed in the Westminster system).

169 days and counting

169 days and counting - this is the number of days that have gone by since the Executive has seriously considered the issue of fuel poverty.

It is estimated that fuel poverty is affecting at least 100,000 households across Northern Ireland. Given the temperatures in recent days it must be anticipated that a mixture of high energy prices and the weather will mean that many other households will be affected.
The Assembly was briefed on a very timely and valuable report by Professor Christine Liddell of the University of Ulster. In the report, which was commissioned by Save the Children, Professor Liddell writes that:

"The fuel poverty rate among families with children here is one of the highest in the developed world...Lone parent families are hardest hit."

So can our Assembly do anything about fuel poverty. For once the answer is yes.
The Minister for Social Development Margaret Ritchie has had a paper waiting to go before the Executive for several months. Elements of the paper will have direct financial benefits to the fuel poor as well as setting in place some measures to tackle the problem more widely. It was expected to be discussed at Thursday’s meeting of the Executive, however, it was not.

It looks unlikely that there will be any major announcement on this front before Christmas. Which with the usual delays could mean weeks if not months before the impact of any new measures to tackle fuel poverty is delivered on the ground.