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On the Hill: First Ministers Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness answer 2,300 MLAs' questions

Our Political correspondent takes a weekly look behind the scenes at Stormont

By Noel McAdam

They may not be on the best of terms right now, but Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness are at least, at last, answering some questions.

Or at least answering questions about why they are not answering questions.

Amid the swirl of constant rows over peace and reconciliation centres, welfare reform and (this week) the failure to elect the Assembly's Speaker, it seems the First Ministers have answered some 2,300 questions from MLAs over the last three years.

But only about a quarter of them are arriving on time. New figures obtained by the Assembly's business committee show that the worst offender by far is their office.

Almost three-quarters of the questions (73.9%) between January and the end of July this year were late – and the previous four months, September through to December last year, was marginally worse at 74.1%.

Then when it comes to so-called 'priority' written questions, the level of late replies goes up to between 95.5% to 100% over the 10-month period.

The next worst department is Sinn Fein Minister Caral Ni Chuilin's Culture, Arts and Leisure, where the figures for the two time periods are 37.7% and 32.7%. Close behind come DUP man Simon Hamilton's Department of Finance (between 25% to 40%) and the SDLP Mark H Durkan's Environment department (22% to 24%).

And the Assembly Commission, which is responsible for the day-to-day running of Parliament Buildings, sets a bad example itself over the 10 months, with 35% of questions receiving late replies.

Some Stormont sources put the problem down to the level of questions MLAs are asking, with claims that many of them are unnecessary or duplicated.

But Mr Robinson and Mr McGuinness' office told On the Hill: "It is not always possible to respond to questions in the terms requested as, apart from the volume of questions itself, each question will have different implications in terms of researching and preparing an answer.

"Delays can therefore arise for a variety of reasons, including the nature of the question, the range and complexity of information requested and the unique nature of our responsibilities which require joint consideration and agreement on an appropriate response."

However, business committee member Stewart Dickson told On the Hill: "It is appalling that over 75% of questions submitted to OFMDFM were not answered within the required timeframe.

"Answers should be provided within 10 days. However, I know that it is common for OFMDFM to delay answering questions for months. There are even a number that remain unanswered years, (which is) nothing short of a display of contempt for MLAs and the democratic system by the First and Deputy First Ministers."

Five things we learnt this week:

1. Northern Ireland had almost 1.2 million visitors from Britain last year — an increase of 13% on 2012, Tourism Minister Arlene Foster revealed.

2. A Europe-wide study shows that Northern Ireland cancer survival rates for lung, breast and prostate are the best in the UK, new Health Minister Jim Wells said.

3. Environment Minister Mark H Durkan said evidence suggested that the more hard-hitting TV adverts on road accidents are, the more impact and influence they have on drivers' behaviour.

4. £30m will be available to help cushion rates rises in any of the new council areas, but details on how it will be paid are being finalised.

5. Following the 900-plus jobs loss blow, Employment and Learning Minister Stephen Farry and Industry Minister Arlene Foster are to visit the JTI Gallaher plant at Lisnafillan, near Ballymena, to meet management, unions and staff.

Five things we expect next week:

1. DUP chairman Lord Morrow’s human trafficking and exploitation Bill reaches the key consideration stage when it will be examined in detail.

2. MLAs will debate the latest phase of the raft of legislation needed to underpin the 11 new councils which go ‘live’ in April.

3. First Minister Peter Robinson will be asked for a progress report on the planned shared campuses which form part of his ‘Together’ shared future strategy with Martin McGuinness.

4. Allocations of social housing in central Belfast and plans for the Girdwood site in north Belfast are among issues facing new Social Development Minister Mervyn Storey, who replaced Nelson McCausland.

5. Amounts being paid out in overtime to PSNI officers will be raised with Justice Minister David Ford, who will be asked how he plans to tackle it.

Star MLA: Stephen Farry Alliance

The Employment and Learning Minister spent almost 16 hours travelling last week — just to get to an Executive meeting. Mr Farry flew from back from a trade mission in San Francisco, via Chicago, and then Dublin, albeit on business class. But after attending the extra session on the Budget crisis, he grabbed a few hours’ shut-eye and then flew back for the next engagement in New York.

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