City Deal? What City Deal?

To the naked eye, the announcement by the UK Chancellor in the Budget that a City Deal for Belfast would be progressed quite rightly led to aghast politicians in the West crying foul.

However, this is not a black and white issue, muddied further by Derry City and Strabane District Council’s followup press release that sought to calm freyed nerves by telling everyone that talks were already underway for a Derry City Deal. Great, right? Maybe.

I have three issues with this singular approach, though in principle if a Deal benefits the City, bring it on.

Firstly, City Deals are not a panacea. The National Audit Office in its report on the first wave of Deals identified problems with the more bespoke aspects of, in particular, Manchester’s deal. It had included an ‘earn back’ scheme which would allow the City to keep up to £900m of extra revenue raised from it’s investments over 30 years. However, two years after the announcement of the Deal, the Treasury, having dug its heels in, forced a different formula than earn back to be implemented, and this exposes one of my concerns – when a Deal is negotiated directly with the City Growth Unit in DCLG, that is really only the beginning. We then must wrestle with the Treasury, well known for being generous to Northern Ireland (not).

Secondly, and so far politicians through their faux outrage have failed to grasp, a Deal is between a city/region and the UK Government. Devolved governments in Scotland and Wales for example, have had some input, but a Deal hasn’t – and doesn’t shift devolved policy. Here we come to the crux of the matter.

Nearly two years ago, I brought you an internal document from the Economic Advisory Group – a group of experts that advise the now Minister for the Economy. In the document it described sub-regional growth as an ‘inefficient use of resources’ – thus killing any major shift in policy that would address the economic drift in places like Derry.

How then, can a City Deal endeavour to create prosperity in the West when the regional government rejects the need to do so itself? Bear in mind here, that the Executive was in place during this, so no excuses for parties

Thirdly, and I hope to be proven wrong on this, is the statement from Derry City and Strabane District Council on their negotiations for a Deal. In it, they refer to more student places at Magee – great. What I don’t understand is frankly how this will work. We have long been fed the notion that Stormont ministers need only click their fingers and create more student places, really because Magee expansion is seen as sexy and a vote winner. What you’re not told is that creating student places is a financial affair. Raising the MaSN level (number of students) means the Executive has to create finance to support those students, in student loans and other payments. Now, again we know from earlier that the Executive dont do regional growth so the question is – if a City Deal is struck, and Magee student numbers are part of that, will we be required to simply give a chunk of money to the Department of the Economy to do something for us they implacably disagree with?

City Deals are part of the solution, but only part. I would argue even more important than securing one is forcing a rethink on subregional growth. Without it, we are left with a deal that may well benefit the City, but will let our own administration officially off the hook in relation to its obligations to us in the short, medium and long term.

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PRISON SCANNERS: END OF THE ROAD

Plans to install body scanners in the republican wing of Magheraberry prison have been officially abandoned by the authorities, BtP can reveal.

The implementation of Recommendation 8 of the Anne Owers Report- which the then-Minister David Ford said would be brought into force, has been completely abandoned.

Confidential internal emails from the Office for Nuclear Development in the Department of Business in London who are responsible for liaising with the prison service on the scanners reveal that – in the words of an NI Prison Service official – the process has ‘ground to a halt’.

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In March 2015, Chris Grayling, UK Justice Minister announced that English prisons would trial x-ray scanners to combat the worrying drug problem throughout the Prison Estate.

In essence, Recommendation 8 has been delayed at this time for four years, now six years from the publication of the Owers Report, with no end in sight.  The Prison Service, rather that seeking actively to implement this crucial aspect of the Report, have relied on numerous UK policy shifts which have meant it could wash its hands of the responsibility of trialing the second stage of scanners which have the potential to address the concerns of Republican prisoners in Roe House, Maghaberry.

In January 2016, as part of a personal project to see the strip searching issue addressed in the Prison Estate after the production of the Anne Owers Report, I published what would be one of the first stories on this blog entitled ‘Prison scanners fiasco continues’ which can be read here.

Recommendation 8 of the Owers report states: ‘Efforts should be continued to see whether there is an effective and less intrusive method than full body-searching of ensuring that prisoners leaving and entering prison are not bringing in contraband.’

Following the publication of the report, the NI Prison Service announced that two trials involving electronic scanners to replace full body searches would take place.  The first, which began in September 2012, utilised a millimetre wave scanner, much the same as those used in airports such as Belfast International.

In February 2013, however, the Prison Service ruled out the use of this technology in prisons as it failed to detect contraband such as knives and scissors in an internal trial – the results of which were not independently verified.

The second, more complex trial was set to use a backscatter x-ray scanner and due to the range of radiation this involves, is subject to European legislation, namely the Justification of Practices Involving the Use of Ionising Radiation Regulations 2004.

This process involved the Prison Service applying to the now-Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy to use this technology in prisons.  They did this in May 2013.

By the time I had written the original blog piece, this had been set back, as the National Offender Management Service, which provides strategic management of the Prison system had said they would now make an application for the whole of the UK to use the scanners.

I had released confidential internal emails soon thereafter that would indicate the seriousness with which the NI Prison Service took its responsibilities for the implementation of Owers – the person who had been managing the process within the Service had left, and the proposals were no further forward.  Now it would seem that process is at an end.

 

EXCLUSIVE: North’s unemployment blackspot £50 million debt approved by councillors

The elected representatives of Derry City and Strabane District Council have authorised a group of financial loans that will see the local authority pay back around £20 million in interest over the coming decades.

Responding to a Freedom of Information request from BtP, the Council provided the list of all loans undertaken by local Council since 2011.  In total, 87 loans have been taken by Council over that period, totaling £31,999,688.

When interest is calculated for each individual loan and combined, ratepayers will pay back a staggering £50,415,645.49.

The purpose and amount of the loans vary – from a £4 million loan to fund Derry’s Guildhall restoration (which when paid will cost almost double), to £8,000 for ground maintenance equipment.

Councillors are given regular updates as to the ‘financial outturn’ of the local authority, having recently been given their most recent report only two days ago at the Governance and Strategic Planning Committee.

Minutes of a meeting of the Governance and Strategic Planning Committee held on 1st March 2016 (found here) show that members of every Party – and Independents on Council received and approved the financial report which includes the overall figure of loans at that time.

Present at this meeting were:

Councillor Carlin (in the Chair); Aldermen Hussey, Kerrigan, Ramsey and Thompson, Councillors Boyle, C Kelly, McGuire, McMahon, O’Reilly, Reilly and Robinson.

Non-Member of Committee:- Councillors Carr, Cusack, Donnelly, Gallagher, Hastings, D Kelly and P Kelly.

Minutes of the meeting show:

GSP70/16 Nine Month Financial Outturn

A Member of the Sinn Fein grouping in relation to the above item, noted the positive financial position of Council and thanked all involved for their hard work.

Rates have been increased twice in the last two years by the Council.

The loans provided to BtP exclusively, are as follows:

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DERRY: Where the economics are NUTS

It is probably impossible to discern how many times the tremendously battered cliché that a week is a long time in politics has been printed or spoken by journalists since it was used first by Harold Wilson at some point in the mid-1960s.

Was he still alive, I wonder how he’d respond to the question of how the last eight months has played out politically in Northern Ireland? ‘Interminable’, may have been his answer.

It wasn’t in the end interminable. Then again, nothing ever truly is. Instead the lifetime of the latest Assembly lurched, perhaps inevitably to a terminal conclusion.

At the tail end of those eight months a lot has happened in terms of political recrimination. That it was politically eventful in the wider sense not in doubt. But, actual wide ranging political progress, the whole point of devolution, has again been completely absent from ‘that hill’ on the outer edge of East Belfast.

And, time again may eventually also reveal whether the actual cause of the latest collapse of the Assembly. Was it caused by the scandal around RHI? Was it the glaring unwillingness of the DUP to truly grasp the essence of power sharing? Or was it because, seemingly at last aware of the grumblings within their grass roots about the ‘futility’ of maintaining the Stormont Executive, Sinn Fein implemented their right to pull the institutions down?

No matter the various theories on the latest collapse of Stormont, be they practical or ideological or a combination of both, the result remains the same. This day week, Thursday, March 2, the population of the North will be asked yet again to vote in an election to return representatives to the Northern Ireland Assembly.

Not even those standing in this snap election have the nerve to confidently predict that there will be a return to devolved government after the election. Given the pre-election dogma from Sinn Fein that there cannot be a return to the status quo, it is truly hard this time to see any last-minute miracle cure to resurrect power sharing in post-election negotiations. That too may be a matter of political practicality, it may even fall within the realms of pragmatism. The DUP for their part appear to remain as dogmatic as they were prior to the collapse. On the side lines the SDLP and UUP are taking part in some kind of unspoken pact in the hope that the electorate in their slightly more heated apathy opt for a more diluted version of Orange and Green.

Failure to resurrect the Executive will mean a return to direct rule from London enacted by unelected civil service mandarins posing as representatives of the Northern Ireland Office. I would suggest that in the dim corridors and musty side offices of Whitehall at the minute a lot of low profiles are being kept lest the dreaded call to collect a plane ticket to Belfast comes through on ‘one’s telephone extension’.

Should that likely eventuality arise, almost twenty years after the Belfast Agreement, from a nationalist perspective, the status quo will have returned.

This election, we have been told, is not one built upon a question on the constitutional position of Northern Ireland. It is one based on a need to seek to destroy corruption, to increase accountability, to ensure that revamped structures contain enough political mechanisms to provide mature and fiscally responsible governance. These mechanisms should also provide for avenues approaching proper power-sharing structures- so we are being told.

The fact is however that every election in Northern Ireland boils down to the consideration of the constitutional position of Northern Ireland. Let’s face it, if every election wasn’t like this to a certain extent we wouldn’t have found ourselves in this position yet again. It is a perennial and inescapable tenet of political life in this state.

Whilst this latest hiatus unfolds however, there are many issues that once more fall by the wayside in the distraction of the Orange and Green Punch and Judy show.

Note to self: (Wasn’t there a crocodile in that too if I’m not mistaken? He liked eating strings of sausages I recall. Hopefully, there were Moy Park products. Nothing wrong with that crocodile protecting the local economy, as long as he doesn’t want the packaging scribed in Gaelic).

Another perennial and inescapable tenet of life in Northern Ireland has, since partition, been the economic disparity east and west of the Bann. The monthly unemployment figures for Northern Ireland were released last week.

Desperate for credence politicians clung to the fact that the overall total for joblessness fell by 1,000. The tenth successive month that a drop had been recorded. That this happened at all in a state that must look increasingly laughable in international terms because of the failure of our ruling parties to achieve basic co-operation never mind attract inward investment, is of course laudable.

Yet again, we here in the ‘whinging west’ as we are apt to be known, found ourselves top of the scrap heap yet again. Derry City remains the worst unemployment blackspot once more with the jobless figure at 7%.

Following on from Beyond The Pillars recent piece on RRI (how revenue is generated and spent in Northern Ireland) (click here for the piece) and how the North West was basically ignored by these mechanisms we have a few more thoughts on the overall situation.

How, we are asking, did the Northern Ireland Executive deal with the idea of ‘regional disparity’?

This is the notion that the political leadership in this state attempted to look at developing economic growth across Northern Ireland on a more even handed basis and not just in the eastern section of the state, and more specifically Belfast City.

Whilst I was employed as a political adviser at Stormont in 2013, I penned a paper calling for an Independent Review of Economic Policy undertaken by the Executive in 2009. The 2009 approach taken had largely dictated the direction of economic policy from that point onwards and in effect consigned a flexible approach to the fiscal dustbin (click here to see the paper). Since that point also, the overall ignorance of the Executive to the needs of the North West has been staggering.

The Economic Advisory Group (EAG), a panel of experts that advised the then Enterprise Minister, Arlene Foster: “In summary we would suggest that promoting sub-regions within Northern Ireland should not be considered a high priority at this time.”

The letter to Mrs Foster from the EAG came in March, 2014.  Essentially, the EAG asserted that Northern Ireland must be viewed as one economic entity and that businesses would invest where they felt that their interests were best served. Furthermore, they contended that the Executive should not interfere with that overview by promoting investment in specific areas such as Derry.

This advice was duly adhered to by the Executive.

Beyond the remit of Stormont, the Westminster MP for Foyle, Mark Durkan, has looked at an alternative to locally ascribed sub-regional intervention under what is termed a ‘City Deal’.  This deal involves specific intervention to address economic imbalance within an individual geographical location.

Speaking in a debate on the issue just prior to the Assembly election last May, Mr Durkan said: “Listening to DUP MPs, it would have been easy to be lulled into a culture of contentment with all this talk of economic miracles and the economy going well, or, as the Deputy First Minister put it a few weeks ago, the economy being in a “happy place”. The reality is that in my constituency (of Derry) the jobseeker’s allowance claimant count is 10.3%, whereas the Northern Ireland average is 4.6% and the UK average is 2.5%. The 18 to 24-year-old JSA claimant count is 12% in my constituency in the North West, whereas the Northern Ireland average is 5.8% and the UK average is 2.9%. The disparities are similar in the child poverty rate.

“Although the emphasis in the previous Programme for Government, and from the UK government, has been on the need to rebalance our economy – the move on corporation tax is one part of that – we also need to rebalance our region. We need greater investment in the West and elsewhere. We cannot just have policies and benefits that concentrate on Belfast.”

“Will the (NIO) Minister tell us about some of the opportunities for the next Assembly to work with the UK government on city deals and enterprise zones? Those opportunities were available to us throughout the whole of the last Parliament, and the Chancellor of the Exchequer said that he would give Northern Ireland enterprise zones and city deals if he got proposals from the Executive – but proposals came only in 2014 and when one finally came it was for an enterprise zone in Coleraine. We still have no proposals for the areas that are most mired in high unemployment (not least Derry).

“Will any prospective city deal include support for further university expansion? Why could there not be a cross-border dimension? We have made a move on corporation tax, but if we are to learn lessons from the South, we must see that it is not just corporation tax that has underpinned its economic performance. It is also key investment in higher education and skills and in infrastructure. Those two things are missing in the North.”

In response to Mark Durkan, NIO Minister Ben Wallace MP replied: “The hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) is absolutely right to say it is very important to make sure that our economic development is balanced across a region or a country. We have to make sure that we always rebalance, and that we do so fully conscious that it is not always about one big city. I am delighted about the Republic of Ireland’s commitment on the A5 – after this election, we hope. The Northern Ireland Executive have already said that they are going to move ahead with the A6 and finish off the dualling. If we can get Derry and Londonderry much faster to get to, there is great hope. I hear the hon. Gentleman (Mark Durkan) loud and clear on the city deals and enterprise zones. I have already spoken to (his colleague) the hon. Member for South Down (Ms Ritchie) about how we can help to lobby and put together a bid. We will happily go with her to see the Chancellor and lobby for that, whether it is for South Down or Londonderry.”

This was almost a year ago. In the intervening eight months after the last Assembly election, no proposals on it were forthcoming. The likelihood of Assembly support for this proposal, which as you can see did not fall on deaf ears at Westminster, seems even more distant now given the latest political stagnation.

Oddly, despite the disintegration of the Assembly and the likely return of direct rule, BREXIT may offer Derry a chance to prosper. Whilst the EAG felt safe in their advice that Northern Ireland should be a single economic unit because specific regions are given classification that attracts investment and it classified here as one unit-this classification would be removed after Britain’s departure from the EU. This classification is called Nomenclature of Units for Territorial Statistics, or NUTS for short (no pun intended).

So, given this, Beyond The Pillars asked the Department of the Economy at Stormont: “If any discussions have been had between the Department of the Economy and the UK Government regarding the attraction of inward investment to sub-regional areas of Northern Ireland particularly in the event of the UK leaving the EU and the NUTS specification of Northern Ireland no longer being in place?”

We also asked: “If any discussions have been had between the Department of the Economy or Invest NI and the UK Government to allocate regions within Northern Ireland such as the North West with its own specific area, with its own inward investment priorities, such as a UK NUTS allocation for different areas within Northern Ireland as opposed to Northern Ireland being considered as a single unit for investment?”

What was the response to those questions?

It was: “No, we have no records that any discussions took place.”

In fact, continuing with their response, the Department said that the ‘UK’s Assisted Areas Map was is approved for the period 2014-2020.’

What is the Assisted Areas Map? Well, in essence,  it is a map containing areas where extra assistance would be available to businesses, which doesn’t even address the point made, but worse, also categorises the North as one whole area.

So, the Executive in the dysfunctional fashion only it can get away with, has completely overlooked any opportunity arising from the catastrophe that is Brexit, to facilitate growth in the North West – and look at the timescales, both the SDLP and SF were in the Executive at this time.

Earlier in this article I spoke about party political claims that next week’s poll is not an election about the constitutional position of Northern Ireland and how it is one that aims to straighten out the terms of governance if, and it is a big ‘if’, if there is a return to Stormont. In fact it is an election that is more than ever about the constitutional position of Northern Ireland, not just within the UK, but within Europe as well, simply because any new Executive must face the issue of Brexit head on.

Given, as shown above they haven’t even discussed these matters with the UK Government, this may be something worth remembering when you mark your ballot paper next Thursday.

DERRYS SPENDING NEGLECT LAID BARE

Tonight, given there’s an election in the making, I wanted to focus on my own patch – Derry.  This piece might be a bit technical in nature, and for that I apologise, but nonetheless the contents of it need to be said, for it is something that needs to be put in front of the noses of those parties who sit, and have sat, at the Executive in Stormont for the last decade.

Stormont gets its funding from three sources – the much-maligned ‘block grant’ of about £10bn per year from Westminster, the Regional Rate, which is part of domestic and non-domestic rates we pay, and the third, little known about, Reinvestment and Reform Initiative, hereafter referred to lovingly as the RRI.

Thew RRI is effectively a loan from the UK Treasury specifically for use in infrastructure projects; roads, hospitals etc.  It was created in 2003-4 to help modernize public services.  The Executive borrow from the Government to build infrastructure, seems fairly transparent.  If only.

The RRI allowed us to borrow £125 million in 2003-04 and, from 2014-15, a longer term borrowing facility initially capped a £200 million per year.  Bear in mind that the DUP, UUP and SF have all held, or hold, infrastructure portfolio or finance portfolio in the Executive in the last ten years.  SDLP held the DSD portfolio a number of times and Alliance held the Justice portfolio.  All sat at the Executive table.

Now that I’ve set the scene, the rest of the piece will be broken down into two sections – the ruin of the RRI, and what was actually spent, where.

Wrecked for political convenience

At this point I should remind you that the RRI is a loan mechanism, we pay it back every year to the UK Government – in 2012-13 we had to pay back about £100m per year, so it is something we all pay for – and it is there for infrastructure.

Here’s what is actually happening.

The Stormont House Agreement and Fresh Start Implementation Plan provided flexibility for the Executive to use £700 million of capital borrowing to fund a public sector voluntary exit scheme over a four year period, with £200 million in 2015-16, £200 million in 2016-17, £200 million in 2016-17 and £100 million in 2018-19.

The ‘Fresh Start’ Agreement also provided an additional £350 million of borrowing for infrastructure projects with a profile over four years with £100 million in 2015-16, £100 million in 2016-17, £100 million in 2017-18 and £50 million in 2018-19.

So, in essence, we have borrowed money earmarked for infrastructure in order to make people redundant – and added to that debt by asking for more loans to build the projects the loans were supposed to be for in the first place.

As part of this, I asked the Department of Finance to outline when, in the last five years, RRI money had been used to fund anything other than what it was intended for.  Here is their response.

“In 2010-11 RRI borrowing of £36.9 million was used to fund the costs of an NICS Equal Pay claim.

The Stormont House Agreement and Fresh Start Implementation Plan provide flexibility for the Executive to use £700 million of capital borrowing to fund a public sector voluntary exit scheme. In 2015-16 additional borrowing of £183.5 million was undertaken to make funding available for the voluntary exit scheme. The figures for 2016-17 will not be finalised until after the end of the financial year.”

So, more borrowing for a redundancy scheme.

Finally, I asked the Department of Finance a bit of an awkward question to allay any doubts, and deny any politicos out there the opportunity to spin the story.  If any reallocations of funds from the RRI have to be signed off by the First and Deputy First Minister.  Their response?

The use of RRI borrowing for non-capital purposes would be a matter for the Executive and may only be done with Treasury approval.

So now, for Derry’s share.  For the avoidance of doubt, I asked for a list of all projects across NI funded by the RRI, and some of them just don’t fit into constituencies, so any projects that have had any benefit to the City I have included, such as the Derry-Dungiven road, and North West Regional College funding although there is no proof that this was spent in Derry, but could have been spent in other campuses.

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5.42% of all infrastructure spending in the North since just 2011-12 has been spent for the direct benefit of the City.

I thought putting this in a small chart might help solidify it in your mind.

untitledThe blue, all of RRI spending in NI, with the red, that money spent in Derry.

Let’s get down to brass tacks.

What did Derry get?

In 2011-12, 16 projects were approved at a cost of £375 million.  Of these, 1 was primarily Derry-based, Gransha Mental Health unit, which received £6.9 million.

In 2012-13, 15 projects were approved at a cost of £151.8 million.  Of these, 3 were identified as being in, or of benefit to Derry – Gransha Mental Health Unit, A5 to Strabane and the Coleraine-Derry rail line, though this is mostly outside of the City.  In total, these three projects attracted £32.6 million.

In 2013-14, 13 projects were approved at a cost of £195.9 million.  Of these, 2 were Derry-based or of benefit to us.  Altnagelvin Redevelopment and the Coleraine-Derry line which both totalled £3.3 million.

In 2014-15, a massive 27 projects were approved at a combined cost of £259 million.  Of these, 2 were Derry based, or of benefit – Altnagelvin Redevelopment and the A5 Western Transport Corridor.  They totalled £11.35 million.

In 2015-16, 21 projects were approved at a total of £295 million.  Of these, only one was Derry based, Altnagelvin Redevelopment costing £4.5 million.

In 2016-17, a whopping 34 projects were approved at a cost of £136.3 million.  Of these, Derry had four projects – Altnagelvin Redevelopment, the A6 Derry-Dungiven, Coleraine-Derry line refurbishments and funding allocated to North West Regional College – although as aforementioned it is possible none of this specific funding was spent in Derry.  All of these cost £18 million.

Out of a possible £1.4 billion pounds of spending, Derry attracted £60.2 million.  

ALL major political parties, who are all running candidates in Foyle, were in the Executive during this time, indeed the Deputy First Minister and Environment Minister were from this City.

When the parties knock your door, perhaps you’ll ask them why 5.24% is good enough for Derry?

 

 

 

WWWWIPEOUT: BIG NAMES COULD FALL IN MARCH ELECTION

The implementation of the Assembly Members (Reduction of Numbers) Act 2016 took one seat from each of the NI Assembly constituencies, reducing the number of MLAs by eighteen.

I thought that given we are now in the midst of the ‘brutal’ election, I would see how the parties could perhaps be affected, and it will make difficult reading for some.  The methodology is simple – remove the Assembly member that was elected last in each of the constituencies in May 2016 and see how the parties stand.

It’s not exactly scientific, but given the unlikeliness of a seismic politic shift generally, and in most constituencies, it could well be a good barometer for the future makeup of the Assembly and the fortune of parties.

The data revealed some shocking names, big names, that would fall if the May 2016 election were re-run with five seaters across the board.

These are some of the well-known faces that would be wiped out.

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In total, the data, all from the Electoral Office which indicates the order of who had been elected in each constituency in May 2016, would leave the state of the parties like this:

Not particularly good reading for any party apart from perhaps the Ulster Unionist Party who would go from 16 MLAs to 15.

The DUP would take a dip to 33 but would still be over that crucial 30 member line that would allow them to deploy a Petition of Concern.  They would lose the Speakers seat in East Belfast.

SF would fall to 23 members, way off their current 28 – though it must be said that one of the seats they would be due to lose would be the North Antrim seat won by Daithi McKay in May 2016.

The continued fall of the SDLP will roll on, losing five seats and some big hitters like former Minister Alex Attwood in West Belfast, bringing them down to 12.

The UUP will lose one in Strangford, along with Alliance in North Down – albeit Stephen Farry, former DEL Minister and Deputy Leader of the party.

People Before Profit would be set to lose the seat in Foyle only won by Eamonn McCann in May 2016, though to put it in context they may well stay on two if the Carroll machine in West Belfast can clinch a second seat.

Constituencies

Here is the full list based on the sixth member elected in May 2016:

Belfast East: Robin Newton (DUP)

Belfast North: Nichola Mallon (SDLP)

Belfast South: Christopher Stalford (DUP)

Belfast West: Alex Attwood (SDLP)

East Antrim: Oliver McMullan (SF)

East Derry: Caoimhe Archibald (SF)

Fermanagh and South Tyrone: Richie McPhillips (SDLP)

Foyle: Eamonn McCann (PBPA)

Lagan Valley: Brenda Hale (DUP)

Mid Ulster: Keith Buchanan (DUP)

Newry and Armagh: Justin McNulty (SDLP)

North Antrim: Daithi McKay (SF)

North Down: Dr Stephen Farry (AL)

South Antrim: Trevor Clarke (DUP)

South Down: Colin McGrath (SDLP)

Strangford: Phillip Smith (UUP)

Upper Bann: John O’Dowd (SF)

West Tyrone: Declan McAleer (SF)

 

 

REMEMBER MILK TOKENS?

Remember these?

milk

Milk tokens. If you ever used these, it was probably because you or your family weren’t well-to-do.  In recent years, these have been transformed into ‘Healthy Start’ vouchers, though they are still given to people who are pregnant, or who have children under the age of four.  According to the Health Start Scheme, you qualify if you’re at least 10 weeks pregnant or have a child under four years old and you or your family get:

  • Income Support, or
  • Income-based Jobseeker’s Allowance, or
  • Income-related Employment and Support Allowance, or
  • Child Tax Credit (but not Working Tax Credit unless your family is receiving Working Tax Credit run-on only*) and has an annual family income of £16,190 or less (2014/15).

I decided to look a bit more into this and see how many vouchers have been given out to people locally – I remember them growing up in a working class area, so it would be interesting to see if these are still as widespread given the onslaught of austerity and the impact it is having on communities.

BtP asked the Scheme to outline how many vouchers had been redeemed in NI since 2007/8 when the milk token scheme was changed, and to outline the total cost of vouchers redeemed here in the same period.

Since 2007/8, vouchers to the value of £25.2m have been redeemed here.  Whilst this might seem a lot, the actual number of vouchers issued in NI since April 2008 shows the prevalence of these vouchers across NI.

From 2008 until 2010, one million vouchers were issued each year to recipients in NI.  From 2010 until 2013, this rose to 1.1 million.  The figure from 2014 until 2015 also 1 million.

Whilst the scheme is means-tested and for those on specific benefits, it could be argued that the number of vouchers issued to NI by the UK Department of Health in this period shows a steady uptake by those eligible and therefore a steady number of people primarily in working class areas in need of this support.

 

IS YOUR LOCAL HOSPITAL ASBESTOS FREE?

Following from the BtP investigation into asbestos in public housing (EXCLUSIVE: 70,000 NIHE PROPERTIES HAVE ASBESTOS) I decided to apply the same rationale to the next most important thing in the public service to readers – the Health Service.

I asked each of the respective Health Trust to outline how many buildings they have identified as having asbestos or asbestos-related material in the last five years and if there has been any work to remedy the asbestos in the same period.  We also asked that they identify the buildings.

Some were more forthcoming than others.

Rather than identifying every single instance of asbestos being found across sites in each Trust area, I am going to focus on primary sites such as hospitals, though many Trusts have provided a comprehensive list.

SEHSCT

The South Eastern Trust decided not to follow the request to the full, and did not outline specific sites or buildings where asbestos was found.  In its response, the Trust said that it had 176 properties listed with 261,084 square metres of accommodation.  It confirmed that approximately 75% of these contain a form of asbestos-related material.

In terms of removing the asbestos, the Trust told me it has an ongoing programme of works to survey its buildings and monitor the condition of asbestos.  During major construction /refurbishment works the Trust will remove asbestos and if possible deliver a clearance note for the building.

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The Western Trust complied fully with the request.  The Trust has 161 instances of asbestos across its estate, 28 of these have been treated or removed in the last five years.

Altnagelvin Hospital

The Trust has identified 27 places within the Hospital that have some form of asbestos.  These buildings include Trust Headquarters, the main kitchen, the Geriatric Unit, and outpatients/day surgery.  The Tower Block itself has had asbestos removed in the last five years.

Tyrone County Hospital

The Trust has identified 18 buildings within the TCH site that have asbestos, 3 of them have been treated within the last five years.  The main switch room, main boiler room and outpatients centre are all identified as currently having asbestos and not having been treated in the last five years.  The Main Hospital Block has been treated in the same period.

Tyrone and Fermanagh Hospital

The Trust has identified 30 buildings within this hospital as having asbestos, with 8 of these having been treated in the last five years.  The mortuary and water tower are on the list of those not treated as well as the Nurses Home, though the Main Building has been treated.

south_health

The Southern Trust has 162 instances of asbestos on its estate.  In their response, it outlined the site where the asbestos was, and identified the exact item it was found on.  It did not identify what treatment or when, if ever, carried out.

Craigavon Area Hospital

The Main Building of the hospital site has a large number of instances in the response, as well as ‘external areas’.

Lurgan Hospital

The Lurgan Hospital Ward Block shows a number of instances of asbestos, though we cannot determine if these have been treated.

South Tyrone Hospital

As with Lurgan, the Main Block of South Tyrone Hospital has instances of asbestos in it, though the treatment if any has not been identified.

Daisy Hill Hospital

Daisy Hill site also has instances of asbestos, and more specifically, the Nurses Home is affected.BHSCT

The Belfast Trust has identified 179 buildings on its estate that have asbestos – and has identified that 93 of these have been treated in the last five years, the most of any Trust.

Royal Group of Hospitals

The RGH have identified 42 buildings that have some form of asbestos in them, with 25 of these having been treated.  Broadway Tower and the Communications Building are two of those identified as not having had any work done in the last five years to remove asbestos.

Mater Infirmorum Hospital

The Mater identified 5 buildings  on its estate that have asbestos, 2 of these have had asbestos removed in the period.

Belfast City Hospital

BCH identified 13 buildings on its estate that have asbestos, with 6 of these having been treated.  Those that have not include the Transport department and Lisburn Road Childcare Centre.

Musgrave Park

Musgrave Park identified 16 instances of asbestos across its estate, half of these having been treated.  The Main Building, however, has not been treated in the last five years.

Northern-Health-and-Social-Care-Trust-logo

The Northern Trust were asked for the same information as all others on 31st May 2016, and took until October 4th to provide a response, somewhat outside the 20 days set out in law.

Holywell Hospital, Antrim

The Holywell site identified 9 buildings on their site that have had asbestos, all of these have been treated in the last five years.

Dalriada Hospital

The Dalriada site has identified two instances of asbestos including the Health Centre and Store.  Both of these have not been treated in the last five years.

Antrim Area Hospital

The Hospital identified 16 buildings that have asbestos, none of which have been treated in he last five years.  These include the Main Block and the Renal Unit.

Mid-Ulster Hospital

The Mid-Ulster site identified ten buildings with asbestos, 8 of which have been treated.  Those not treated in the last five years include the main ward block.

Whiteabbey Hospital

Whiteabbey identified eight buildings that have asbestos, none of these have been treated in the last five years.  The buildings include Social Services and Wards 9 & 10.

 

 

REVEALED: COST OF OUTSTANDING WELFARE LOANS

Given the increasing austerity measures in place locally and in Britain, I thought it might be interesting to put a figure to one small aspect of the welfare system to demonstrate the level of hardship being felt by many across our communities.  If you are a regular reader, you’ll know the posts on BtP often deal in tens of thousands up to tens of millions of pounds when we reveal spending here and there in the public service, but the figure I arrived at when finishing this piece shocked even me.

I asked the Social Security Agency, since 2011, to outline the liability to NISSA on currently unpaid crisis loans and other loans made to claimants, and to outline the number of cases currently in arrears by NI Assembly constituency.

Let’s deal with the basics first.  Crisis loans (due to end in a number of weeks) is described by NI Direct as being for when;

  • you don’t have enough money to meet your (or your family’s) immediate short term needs in an emergency or as the result of a disaster
  • think there will be serious damage or risk to your (or your family’s) health or safety without the loan

Budgeting Loans are for ‘if you’re on a low income and need help with certain important costs’.  Funeral Loans are there to help cover the cost of funerals.

As the names suggest, these loans need to be paid back and are taken from a welfare claimants income.

At this point it should be pointed out again that the figures included in this piece are not the total amount of loans made by NISSA to welfare claimants, it is the total cost of loans that have not been repaid (yet).

The second part of the response from SSA sets the context.  In outlining the constituencies with the highest number of cases with loans outstanding, we will see the names of constituencies all too familiar.

North Belfast comes top of the list, with 52,760 outstanding cases.

Next is West Belfast with 51,780 outstanding, followed unsurprisingly by Foyle, with 45,980 outstanding cases.

The South Antrim constituency comes bottom of the table, with 11,650 outstanding cases.

Now, to the figures themselves, which are provided below for each financial year.

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Remember, these are the value of loans outstanding, not issued.

These shocking figures in themselves demonstrate the inability of loan claimants to repay the loans to the Social Security Agency.

However, when we put all of the figures together, there is a truly frightening outcome.

There is a total of £451.8m of Crisis Loans outstanding across the North, £198.5m of Budgeting Loans outstanding and £44.6m of Funeral Loans outstanding in the last five years.

This comes to a staggering total of £694.85m – that is £694,850,000 or almost £1 billion.

 

REVEALED: STORMONTS SECRET CONTROVERSIAL ART CACHE

In September, I asked the Assembly to outline the following to me;

“The total value of stored artefacts, paintings and all other valuables held in storage by the Northern Ireland Assembly, including any past valuations from the past five years. Please include the number of items in total and broken down by item type i.e. painting name, etc.”

The focus of this was to reveal what artwork or artefacts the Assembly held in storage, as apart from those that are on display throughout Parliament Buildings.  As someone who previously worked in the building, this was primarily of interest because of the often one-sided use of publicly owned art in Stormont.

We have likely all seen the hanging portraits of former First and Deputy First Ministers during the news, or the sight of the pristine Senate Chamber, complete with throne.

The contents, however, of the stored artwork and artefacts raises the question of why indeed the Assembly continue to hold some of the items given their somewhat controversial nature, and why they have not been sold for the public benefit.

There are eight items currently in storage, with a valuation undertaken in 2013 placing these at £35,500 in total.

Three artefacts are valued at £24,000, these are;

Carved and painted model of Parliament Buildings centre section: £8,000.00

Table with map of six counties by Sir James Milner Barbour 1935: £10,000.00

A carved and gilded throne chair upholstered in red velvet: £6,000.00

Yes, you read correctly, the Assembly has a £6,000 throne in storage as well as what is no doubt a very expensive table.

The awkward nature of the items does not stop there.  Paintings of an illustrious former Lord Chief Justice of Northern Ireland are amongst the pieces, costing £2,000 as well as a portrait of Lord Craigavon valued at £3,000.

However, the most questionable holding of these pieces, seemingly hidden away from the public though owned by them, is a portrait of Sir Henry Wilson MP, valued at £1,500 and completed by H.W. Gates.

220px-henry_hughes_wilson_british_general_photo_portrait_standing_in_uniform

Sir Henry might be better known to followers of Irish history as a chief protagonist in the Curragh mutiny, where the Army refused to coerce Ulster into Home Rule.  Michael Collins referred to Wilson as “a violent Orange partisan” and he was later made a security advisor to the new Northern Ireland Government – in other words, he was anything but a liberal or supporter of equality in Ireland.

Why then, does the current Assembly and the parties therein permit such a divisive piece of art to be held in trust for the public in storage? Surely in this new era of devolved government following the New Start initiative, this piece of history should be sold by the Assembly and the proceeds used for some public good?

This required further consideration, especially when we take into consideration that all of these pieces are valued at a total of £35,500, but the cost of storing them over the last five years comes to a staggering £45,394.40.