Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 24 September 2014

Deal with our problems, MLAs told

The Stormont government was today told to start addressing crisis issues such as school transfer and the rocketing cost of energy after the Telegraph revealed that the Assembly has no legislative business in its in-tray after Monday.

A consumers’ champion and teachers’ leader demanded that ministers — who have not met in nearly three months — get together immediately to tackle a number of pressing problems.

The General Consumers Council and the Irish National Teachers Organisation both said government parties were ignoring problems which affected their electorate while it rowed over policing and justice and other issues. Their intervention reflects the deepening concern over “creeping paralysis” within the Stormont Executive which is spreading across civic society.

It is the result of the failure of the power-sharing administration to meet since June 15 — with its scheduled meeting for next week also remaining in doubt — which has now started to have a knock-on effect on the process of politics.

As the Belfast Telegraph revealed yesterday, after next Monday no legislative business has been tabled for the Assembly to deal with. But the First Ministers Office denies there is a legislative logjam developing.

The Irish National Teachers Organisation, however, said it was “shocking” that the Executive was not talking.

And the Consumer Council called for a meeting of Ministers to decide if cash aid can be got to families facing hardship from energy bill hikes in the same way as the recent assistance for flooding was distributed.

Chief Executive Eleanor Gill said the hope was that legislation could be avoided in the short term, though it may be necessary to deal with similar issues in future.

“We want to see if Ministers can apply imagination and innovation to use existing mechanisms to help people without the need for a legislative base,” she said.

“When it came to the recent floods, the Executive was able to get money to people through the local councils. In relation to the electricity and gas price increases, could it be they could use the Housing Executive to get people help, or the rates system, through rate relief?”

Frank Bunting, northern secretary of the Irish National Teachers’ Organisation, said: “The three month delay in Executive business is not the way any modern democratic country should be doing business. It is shocking that the Executive is not talking and business is not being done.

“We do need progress on school transfer. We need some consensus but if we cannot get agreement then we need to move on. Legislation has also not even been tabled yet for the new Education and Skills Authority.

"The whole summer was wasted but it is good to see that talks between the DUP and Sinn Fein are taking place now. The sooner the Executive gets down to doing some real business the better."

The calls to action came as sources claimed some progress is being made in the ongoing talks between the DUP and Sinn Fein, with Gordon Brown due to visit Northern Ireland on Tuesday for talks with the parties.

The two main parties have also played down, however, the significance of next Thursday, when the first meeting of the Executive for almost three months, had been envisaged.

First Minister Peter Robinson had warned of “serious consequences for the good governance” of Northern Ireland if the September 18 meeting did not take place. Sinn Fein has, however, refused to countenance Executive meetings since June until the devolution of policing and justice powers to the Assembly, and other issues — including a replacement primary schools transfer system, planning policy and the future of the Maze national stadium project — have been dealt with.

Apart from the education issue, incremental progress is said to have been made on the way a department for policing and justice might work.

A spokesman for the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister defended the government’s record to date.

He said: "Executive business is ongoing in the Assembly and notably debates will take place on two significant pieces of legislation on the first sitting day of the new Session, these being the Diseases of Animals Bill and Presumption of Death Bill.

“The Building Regulations Bill is soon to have Consideration Stage and four Executive Bills are currently being scrutinised by Assembly Committees. In total 17 Bills were introduced during the 2007/2008 Assembly Session compared to the 15 which were announced in October last year.”

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