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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.
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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 Comm...
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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.
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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.
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Question Time: Health, Social Services and Public Safety 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.
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Question Time: Agriculture and Rural Development Tuesday 28 April 2015

During today’s Question Time Michael McGimpsey asked Agriculture and Rural Development Minister, Michelle O’Neill, for her assessment of dog breeding establishments “given the level of greed, exploitation and downright cruelty” exposed in the recent BBC ‘Spotlight’ programme. The Minister is aware of the recent reports and assured that she is “committed to protecting and safeguarding the welfare of all animals, including dogs and pups”. Our dog breeding rules have the strictest controls in the British Isles. However “Legislation alone will not stop illegal puppy farming. That will take a concerted effort by the public, dog buyers, welfare charities and enforcement agencies working together to identify breeders, licensed or unlicensed, who put financial gain before the welfare of their dogs and pups. All evidence of illegal dog breeding should be reported to councils for full investigation. ” The Department is currently reviewing the implementation of the Welfare of Animals Act 2011 and an interim report of the review is out for public consultation. In light of the recent publicity the consultation period has been extended, allowing more stakeholders’ views to be heard.

Mrs O’Neill also provided an update on the roll-out of the new European Maritime and Fisheries Fund (EMFF), the successor to the European Fisheries Fund. Officials are currently working with colleagues in the Marine Management Organisation and DEFRA to ensure timely implementation of the scheme to support the fishing and aquaculture industries. The key to implementation is the approval of the operational programme which is being drafted by DEFRA and due to be with the European Commission in the upcoming weeks. The Commission will then work with DEFRA to ensure that the plan is approved by October 2015 at which stage the Department can then open the programme to applications for funding. The Minister is confident that all work will be completed on schedule.

Also addressed during Question Time was environmental engagement, the Rural Micro Capital Grant Programme and the Rural Development Programme. During the topical question period the Minister also answered questions on lamb labelling, the Strabane DARD Direct office, river pollution and the cost of DARD HQ in Ballykelly.
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Question Time: Office of the First and deputy First Minister - 27 April 2015

Patsy McGlone asked the First Minister, Peter Robinson, what more their Department can do to introduce affordably and flexible childcare during today’s questions to the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister. Mr Robinson revealed that he would like to give an overview of what his Department has already done. " The first phase of the Executive's childcare strategy was launched back in September 2013. It included a number of key first actions to address the main childcare needs that had been identified through research and consultation.

School-age childcare was the greatest area of need identified. The school-age childcare grant scheme, which we launched just over a year ago, was developed to create new high-quality school-age childcare places and sustain the places we already have. To date, the grant scheme has allocated £2 million to 50 successful school-age childcare projects. Those projects will sustain or create approximately 1,500 low-cost quality childcare places.

We expect to grant aid further school-age childcare projects before the summer and launch a third call for applications to the grant scheme in the autumn. This will result in further low-cost childcare places being created or sustained".

Junior Minister, Jonathan Bell, also discussed the sexual orientation strategy and confirmed that " work will continue over the coming weeks to develop outcomes and subsequent indicators with the project team. Once the draft strategy is finalised, it will be referred to the Committee for the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister for consideration, before seeking Executive agreement. A further 12-week period of consultation will then take place, and I anticipate that the sexual orientation strategy will be published after that final phase of consultation".

The First Minister was asked during the 15 minute period of Topical Questions about homophobic remarks made by DUP representatives in the last number of years, for an update on the implementation of the Stormont House Agreement and whether the First Minister believes that the outcome of the Westminister election will have any implications for the Executive's Programme for Government.
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Be the first to read the latest issue of our EU Matters Newsletter!

Going out this afternoon, this issue will cover:
Digital Single Market; 
Transatlantic Trade & Investment Partnership (#TTIP); 
roaming charges; 
#Google investigation; 
waste water legislation; 
meat labelling;
#INTERREG funding calls and more...

Sign up for the newsletter at: 
http://www.niassembly.gov.uk/assembly-business/eu-matters/
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The Northern Ireland Assembly and the Stormont Estate have been awarded the Business and Biodiversity Charter Platinum Award to recognise their commitment to the environment.
#niasusdev #biodiversity 
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Question Time: Justice - 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".
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Question Time: Culture, Arts and Leisure - Tuesday 28 April 2015

The majority of Oral Question time to the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure was taken up with questions relating to the development of Windsor Park. Mr David Hilditch asked the Minister for an update on the situation at Windsor Park. The Minister stated that "the Windsor Park project is currently under construction and work is progressing well. Reconstruction of the pitch, which commenced in May 2014, was completed in August last year. Demolition of the south stand is complete, and construction of the east and south stands has commenced and is, again, progressing well". The Minster was also asked that if extra money is required for Windsor park due to the rebuild of the West Stand can she guarantee that the remainder of the regional stadium money will still be available and will not be touched. The Minister revealed that the money for the rebuild of the West Stand will come from insurance and will not impact on the budget that has been set aside for Windsor Park and the development of the subregional stadia thereafter.

The Minister was also asked about Museum Literature and cultural balance, Angling is South Antrim and whether Libraries NI has presented any plans to relocate Enniskillen library to the old hospital site during Oral Question Time.

During the 15 minute period of Topical Questions the Minister was asked for her assessment of the EastSide Arts Festival, an update on the Cairde Teo group in Armagh and what tangible and actual steps she has taken to enable boxers from Northern Ireland who aspire to compete for Great Britain and Northern Ireland actually to achieve that aspiration.
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Marriage Equality

MLAs debated this Private Members’ Business Motion on Monday 27 April 2015.

"That this Assembly welcomes the marriage equality referendum in the south of Ireland; notes that a growing number of parliaments across the world have embraced, and legislated for, marriage equality; respects the rights of the religious institutions to define, observe and practise marriage within their beliefs; and calls on the Executive to legislate for marriage equality for same sex couples so that all citizens will have the same legal entitlement to the protections, responsibilities, rights, obligations and benefits afforded by the legal institution of marriage."

You can read the full transcript on our website: http://nia1.me/2l5 

#equalmarriageni   #marriageequality  
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Question Time: Social Development - Monday 27 April 2015

Mike Nesbitt asked Mervyn Storey, Minister for Social Development, on what dates, since 23 December 2014, did he or his officials meet with representatives of Sinn Fein to discuss welfare reform or any associated element relating to the Stormont House Agreement.The Minister stated " In the weeks immediately following the Stormont Castle agreement on welfare reform on 19 December 2014, the focus of my work and that of my officials was on the development of an Executive paper which set out the main terms of the agreement and the associated costs. Sinn Féin representatives were consulted on the content of the draft Executive paper as part of the normal consultation process. That paper was subsequently agreed at the Executive meeting on 22 January 2015". and Minister also confirmed that discussions continued during April but the level of engagement between the Minister and his officials and Sinn Féin representatives has reduced significantly.

The Minister was also asked what discussions he has had with ministerial colleagues to ensure there is a strategic focus on how departmental cuts are impacting on services provided by the voluntary and community sector during Oral Question time. The Minister revealed, "my Department is required to implement efficiencies in 2015-16, including in services provided by the voluntary and community sector. I undertook a series of formal and informal discussions with ministerial colleagues and MLAs on the proposed allocations to particular funding streams. A transparent, robust approach was undertaken aimed at maximising the delivery of high-quality services to the most disadvantaged and to ensure that available funding was prioritised against the highest-quality projects, where successful outcomes could make a difference to people's lives".

During Topicals Questions the Minister answered questions on, Empty Homes Stategy, Urban Regeneration Cuts in Mid Ulster, whether his Department plans, again this year, to provide a grant to Belfast Pride and how much the benefit uptake programme generated last year.
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The Northern Ireland Assembly is the devolved legislature for Northern Ireland.
Introduction
The Northern Ireland Assembly is the devolved legislature for Northern Ireland. It is responsible for making laws on transferred matters in Northern Ireland and for scrutinising the work of Ministers and Government Departments. The Assembly sits at Parliament Buildings, Stormont Estate, in Belfast. Members (MLAs) meet to debate issues; question Ministers; and make laws for the benefit of people in Northern Ireland. Each MLA represents her or his constituency, and there are 6 MLAs for each constituency.