Tuesday, 7 April 2009

All go at NIGAG

All systems are go at NIGAG...new comittee after last month's AGM, and a busy schedule of events to be announced soon.

In the meantime on May 1st outspoken Environment Minister, Sammy Wilson, will be the latest in the NIGAG Meet The Ministers series. Details soon.

In the meantime, as one of the more tech savvy MLAs you can catch some of Sammy's views on his Youtube channel to prepare and maybe stock up on some questions. View it here

Tuesday, 27 January 2009

Accessible Assembly....what's that

IT has long been a bugbear of NIGAG members that access to our beloved Assembly has been less than perfect, both in reality and in cyberspace. Thus NIGAG committee members and others have been trying to improve that access. Below is a section from yesterday's Hansard that provides some information on that access (Although I wonder if they equate web hits with website visitors as they are two very different measurements!)

Enjoy reading below!

Public Access to Assembly Business
2. Mr McKay asked the Assembly Commission what it has done to increase the coverage and availability of Assembly business to the public through all forms of media. (AQO 1921/09)

Mr Moutray: The Assembly Commission, through its engagement strategy, is making strenuous efforts to ensure that the business of the Assembly is available to the public. The Assembly makes use of a range of media, including the Assembly’s broadcasting service, internet site and printed publications. In addition, the Assembly works closely with the broadcast and print media to ensure that the business of the Assembly is communicated widely and effectively.

Since the beginning of the 2008-09 session, there have been 33 press releases relating to Committee and Assembly Commission business, and seven public notices have been placed in regional and local newspapers to inform the public of Committee meetings that were to be held outside of Parliament Buildings. For all Committee meetings that are held outside Parliament Buildings, Media Services works with the local media — newspapers and radio — to publicise the work of the meeting, to encourage attendance and to inform the local community.

From 1 January 2007 to 31 December 2007, there were over 7 million hits on the Northern Ireland Assembly website. That figure increased to over 9 million in 2008 — a substantial increase of 2·5 million hits. Furthermore, 17 Committee reports were uploaded to the website to provide public access to Assembly business. In addition, Media Services receives an average of 60 public enquiry calls each week and answers approximately 50 web mail enquiries per week, thus providing information for people across Northern Ireland.

The Assembly Commission has also taken action to improve access to the Hansard report. Now, the Office of the Official Report places on the website the first edition of each sitting day’s plenary proceedings on a phased basis, and a draft edition of the Official Report is published no later than three hours after the House rises. That enables the public to access the work of the Assembly within hours of business taking place. The revised Official Report is on the website by 10.00 am the following day.

The Education Service — one of the units within the Assembly’s engagement directorate — is also involved closely in promoting the work of the Assembly to the public. It has its own website, which is tailored to the requirements of the Northern Ireland curriculum, and publishes leaflets and other resources that can be accessed by the public and which are tailored for use by schools, youth groups, further education institutions and universities.

From 1 September 2008 to 20 January 2009, 162 groups availed themselves of education programmes. That represents over 5,000 participants, and 77% of those came from the primary and secondary sectors.

Mr McKay: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I thank the Member for his comprehensive answer. Has the Commission considered placing Assembly coverage on video-sharing websites, such as YouTube? The Assembly Commission should ensure that the public is provided with as many avenues as possible to access coverage of the Assembly. A number of businesses, NGOs and individuals use those websites already. It is accessible not only to thousands of people locally, but to millions worldwide, and the Assembly should be doing more to ensure that coverage of Assembly business is put on the Internet in that way.

Mr Moutray: The priorities for the Commission are to make available video content from the Assembly website, and to improve coverage of Assembly proceedings through the existing terrestrial and satellite channels. In the medium to longer term, the Assembly will engage with Ofcom to consider how the coverage can be improved yet further.

Mr B McCrea: Given the success of ‘Stormont Live’ despite its rather restricted timing, has the Commission considered making available a dedicated Assembly satellite channel? [Laughter.]
That would allow people to see every scintilla of proceedings in all their unadulterated glory? It strikes me that the House has all the makings of a good soap opera; people know all the characters. I am making the serious point that people are interested in what we have to say, and they like to see us at work. Some people watch the streaming video of debates on the Internet, but that service is intermittent and not totally satisfactory. Will the Commission consider making available a dedicated Assembly satellite channel that could possibly be shared with other legislatures and the councils?

Mr Deputy Speaker: At last; a cure for insomnia.

Mr Moutray: I am sure that the Commission will take on board the Member’s comments and get back to him.

Mr Deputy Speaker: Question 3 has been withdrawn.

Visitor Access and Orientation

4. Mr McElduff asked the Assembly Commission how it plans to manage (i) accommodation for visitors to Parliament Buildings to ensure easy access to catering facilities; and (ii) signage and information to enhance visitor orientation. (AQO 1923/09)

Mr Neeson: Since September 2008, the Assembly’s gift shop, which is beside the reception area, has provided a hot beverage service for all visitors to the Building, and facilities branch has introduced light snacks, such as tray bakes, to accompany the hot beverages. Immediately on entering the Building, signage informs visitors about that catering facility. The engagement strategy includes several proposals to improve visitor orientation: the provision of a public cafĂ©; the renewal of all visitor material; the enhancement of visitor orientation and information through the provision of improved signage and increased staff intervention externally and internally; and that all visitor-facing staff attend or receive a daily briefing.

In August 2008, facilities branch also devised information cards to be used by security staff at reception when welcoming visitors to the Building. The laminated cards highlighted various key facilities on entering Parliament Buildings and are available in 11 languages. Furthermore, plans are in place to erect external signs along the front perimeter fence at the east and west entrances, and along the access road to the east side of the Building. Those signs will provide visitors with a range of information, including opening times, security contact details and directional arrows to assist access.

Mr McElduff: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I take this opportunity to praise Eurest, the company that provides catering in the Building, for doing a great job. When I asked the question, I was unaware, as would many Members have been, that the hot beverage service was available in the shop beside the front door of the Building. The casual visitor to the Building has a restricted experience.

Mr Deputy Speaker: Order. That is enough advertising for Eurest; ask your question, Mr McElduff.

Mr McElduff: I seek assurance from the Commission that the issue will appear consistently on the agenda. It can be difficult to attract causal visitors from west of the Bann, but when they come, they want as much free movement as possible throughout the Building and access to the excellent catering arrangements that the rest of us enjoy.

Mr Neeson: I assure Mr McElduff that the signage at the entrance to the Building directs people to the new facility. It is worth bearing in mind that the Commission is reviewing the provision of facilities for visitors to the Building. I stress that one of the Commission’s main aims is not only to increase the outreach process but to improve it. I assure him that we continually keep all such issues under review.
4.15 pm

Mr K Robinson: I am heartened to hear that the website is receiving about 9 million hits and that our tray bakes are about to take off as well — hopefully to the same height.

Has the Commission considered the better management, or extension, of our car-parking facilities — which are under considerable strain, perhaps due to the success of our visitor programme — so that Assembly staff can enjoy a reasonable working environment by having guaranteed parking spaces?

Mr Neeson: Mr Robinson has raised an important issue. He will be aware that the number of car-parking spaces was increased last summer. The Assembly Commission is aware of the need to develop good access to the Building. However, car parking for staff at Parliament Buildings is the same as that for staff in the rest of the estate, and it is a case of first come, first served.

Mr Deputy Speaker: Question 5 has been withdrawn.

Committee Rooms: Upgrade

6. Mr Ross asked the Assembly Commission what plans it has to upgrade Committee rooms in Parliament Buildings. (AQO 1925/09)

Mr Neeson: As outlined in question for written answer 2970/09, following queries by Members over the past two years, the Assembly Commission tasked the building management branch, the Information Systems Office, the Chairpersons’ Liaison Group and the central Committee office with trying to identify the facilities required by Members in Committee rooms. A project has been initiated by the central Committee office of the Clerking and Reporting Directorate to implement the recommendations agreed by the Chairpersons’ Liaison Group.

An accommodation audit of Parliament Buildings is due to take place shortly, which will look at the current use of all rooms and consider options to ensure that the space is being put to best use. The audit will examine the size of Committee rooms, their usage and their facilities.

As part of the Assembly’s engagement strategy, the Commission intends to develop an additional Committee room in Parliament Buildings, which will have videoconferencing facilities and more seats for members of the public. Further to that, there are plans to implement improved audio and video broadcasting facilities in all Committee rooms, together with live streaming and recorded broadcasting of all Committees in public session, which will allow more members of the public to attend meetings virtually.

Mr Ross: I am encouraged by the Member’s response, particularly with regard to having cameras to stream live Committee events. All Committee members will appreciate witnesses having the facility to make PowerPoint presentations. Can the Member give as an indicative time frame in which Committee rooms will be modernised?

Mr Neeson: As I said in my initial reply, the Commission is carrying out an audit of all the rooms in the Building, from the first to the fourth floors. Last week, the group that has been established to carry out the audit had its first meeting. It is hoped that the audit will be finalised by the end of March.

The issue of PowerPoint presentations is continually being looked at. The Assembly Commission wants to further develop and enhance IT services in the Building, and that work is in progress.

Friday, 23 January 2009

Gearing up for a busy 2009

NIGAG is gearing up for a busy 2009, with a series of events already being pencilled in for the diary. on February 20th Environment Minister, Sammy Wilson will address a question and answer session at Parliament Buildings. If you haven't received details yet, head over to the NIGAG website for more information.

Speaking of the website...a much overdue refurbishment of the site was discussed at this week's meeting. Work to update the site will get underway in February/March - we'll keep you posted.

The AGM date is being finalised for February, guest to be confirmed soon.

For those of you with an interest in study trips, two are being planned - to Wales and Leinster House.

The Leinster House date is to be confirmed, while the Welsh trip is on March 2nd and 3rd. Highlights include the annual Public Affairs Cymru dinner (speaker Lembit Opik), a tour of the Welsh Assembly, and talks on lobbying in Wales.

Stay tuned for more information

Friday, 12 September 2008

Sir Reg and NIGAG

IN the latest of NIGAG's Meet the Ministers events, Minister for Employment and Learning, Sir Reg Empey, addressed NIGAG members at Parliament Building's Long Gallery.

Below is the DEL press release for the event.


Sir Reg Empey today set out the key priorities for, and challenges facing, Northern Ireland’s employment and learning agenda.

Speaking to the Northern Ireland Government Affairs Group, Sir Reg drew attention to the vital importance of the economy to delivering a peaceful, fair and prosperous society.

He emphasised the significance of providing Northern Ireland’s workforce with the skills needed to meet the demands of a modern economy and tackling the problem of high economic inactivity amongst people of working age in Northern Ireland

Sir Reg said: “We will need more people in work and more people equipped with the skills for the economy of the future, skills that can transfer and be built on as the years go by. If we are going to compete internationally, people will need to be encouraged to learn throughout their working lives and given the education and training opportunities to help them get a well paid, fulfilling job.

“I want to help unlock the talent in the people in our community and enable them to make the most of the potential they have by focusing on their individuality and improving their motivation. If we do this I believe we will go a long way to creating the sort of economy and society we all want to see.”


1. The Northern Ireland Government Affairs Group (NIGAG) was formed in September 1999 with a view to providing a forum for those with an interest in government and political affairs in Northern Ireland.

2. Sir Reg was speaking at one of NIGAG’s meetings in its “Meet the Ministers” programme.

Tuesday, 29 April 2008

The view on photography...

Following controversy earlier in the year Assembly rules were amended about photography within Parliament Buildings, which of course caused problems for organisations - many of whom were NIGAG members - holding events in, for example, The Long Gallery.

In yesterday's Plenary Session, the issue arose during oral questions to the Assembly Commission. Here's the transcript from the Official Report:

Ban on Cameras

4. Mr O’Dowd asked the Assembly Commission what steps it is taking to remove the ban on all cameras being used in Parliament Buildings. (AQO 3158/08)

Mr A Maginness: Arrangements for photography and filming in Parliament Buildings were revised on 6 March 2008.
Those arrangements stated that no photography or filming was to be allowed in the corridors or in any other area in Parliament Buildings — other than in the Great Hall — without the prior agreement of the Assembly Commission.
Subsequently, at a Commission meeting held on 24 April 2008, it was agreed that those restrictions should be amended. Accordingly, filming and photography will now be permitted in public areas of the Building, provided that the sponsor required was present at application stage and that this satisfied the criteria for the organisation of events.
Filming and photography are also permitted in accommodation relating to Speaker’s events and to Commission, Executive and Committee business. Detailed guidance, providing further instructions on the outworking of this decision, will be issued to all Members and to Secretariat staff at the earliest opportunity. The amendments to the rules were agreed to promote the strategic objectives of the Commission on the engagement of and outreach to the community.

Mr O’Dowd: The objective of the Commission to be open and transparent to the public is being hindered by those rules. If I saw someone taking a photograph in the hall outside a senior Minister’s office, should I report it to the Commission? I ask the Assembly Commission to review that rule and allow the media and the public full and open access to Parliament Buildings.

Mr A Maginness: The rules have been amended and the Commission will keep them under consideration. I note the point that the Member made, and I am certain that the Commission will attempt, in due course, to accommodate his points.

Mr Ford: Mr Maginness referred to the revision of the recent March rules with regard to photography. The March rules also included the requirement that events be authorised by three different Members, including one from each of the two principle designations. Has the Commission taken a view on the equality aspects of that decision? At present, members of the United Community Group require two signatures from outside their group — and from the two designations — while all other Members require only one signature from outside their own group.

Mr A Maginness: There was some discussion on that issue at the last Commission meeting; it was raised by a Commission Member and also in a letter from the Chief Whip of the Member’s group. The Commission will endeavour to address the Member’s points.

Mr Ross: During the period of the ban on photography and filming in Parliament Buildings, how many individual MLAs or Committees sought permission from the Commission to film in restricted areas of the Building?

Mr A Maginness: That is not a question that I can answer at present. However, the Commission will provide a written response to the Member.

Friday, 18 April 2008

Ritchie speech

As you may know Minister for Social Development Margaret Ritchie was the latest in the NIGAG 'Meet the Minister' Series. In a wide ranging discussion, Ms Ritchie fielded diverse questions on housing, the Charities Bill and social exclusion.

For those that missed the event (and for those NIGAG members with short attention spans, or who left notebooks at the door) Ms Ritchie has forwarded on to us the text of her speech, which you can read below.


Good morning. I want to thank everyone for their welcome this morning, and thank Will and NIGAG for inviting me.

I am delighted to be able to join you here at Stormont because I believe that the creation of your organisation, and its subsequent growth and development, is in fact another positive sign of the changing face of politics here - and of the maturing of our political system.

In the past year government has been transformed and with that has come a transformation of expectations, possibilities, and access.
It has also, I would suggest, and you might agree, transformed the prospects for the development of professional political and public affairs consultancy. I hope it is good for business!

But let me be candid here. I believe that the lobbying of politicians and government institutions is an entirely proper and legitimate activity. I support the role that the professional political strategist and the Public Affairs advisor can play not only in representing their clients but in bringing stakeholder insight and perspective into the policy-making process.

There are occasionally a few who let standards slip – usually by straying just a little too far from the truth – but I believe the public affairs profession in Northern Ireland sets a high standard. I believe also that your foresight in forming NIGAG and your commitment to the Code of Professional Conduct augur well for the future.

So I am glad to be here.

I would like to reflect for a moment or two, on the past year and look to the future and then I will be happy to take some questions.

For me, at a personal level, the past year has been humbling,
And probably the most fulfilling and certainly the busiest of my working life. It has not been without its difficulties and its challenges but it has given me a tremendous opportunity to do what I, and many other people, entered into politics for… to change things for the better.

If ever there was a group that has been following political events it is probably this one, so I can assume that you already know the ins and outs of the processes of government and much of the policy. Suffice to say that the Programme for Government has set the broad agenda for the Executive for the next three years. And it is against that agenda that the Executive and we as individual Ministers will be judged.

I firmly believe that my department – which is the biggest in terms of staff numbers – and probably the most diverse, offers the greatest potential within Government, to deliver real opportunities and real change for people.

We have housing - the Housing Executive and the Associations, co-ownership (which I shall return to) and all the policy. We have urban regeneration, community development and the voluntary and community sector. We are also responsible for liquor licencing, charities, and the regulation of gambling. On top of that, DSD has the Social security Agency and all its attendant services. The Child Support Agency as well.

There is a lot I want to see done in the relatively short time available and for me the key word is delivery.

As I see it, the focus over the next few years in my area of responsibility needs to fall on three broad themes:

· First, investment in Social and Affordable Housing and the need to tackle the housing crisis;
· Second, helping to build communities, tackle disadvantage, and encourage social responsibility,and
· Third, creating vibrant cities, towns and urban areas.

This means we need to see many more affordable and social homes going up - and homelessness coming down. And more mixed tenure and Shared Future housing.

I want to get to grips with fuel poverty, multiple deprivation, and see more child maintenance flowing to more children;

At the same time I want to see fewer people dependent on welfare benefits and more people employed.

The work of my department must play a major part in growing the Northern Ireland economy through the regeneration efforts with communities and in towns and cities we want to see more people sharing in the benefits of our growing economy. And Communities finally liberated from paramilitary domination.

I want to see all of these things because they are important to the people in the communities I serve.

Even within my primary themes there must be some priorities. For me Housing has a fundamental place in what I want to achieve as Minister for Social Development and you will hear me say it many times that it is my top priority.

. And it is around delivering on my New Housing Agenda that I would like to say a few words that I hope will illustrate what we are able to do under devolution that have not been possible under direct rule.
As I speak there are over 38,000 people on a waiting list for social housing. Over 20,000 of them are assessed as being in “housing stress” and over 9,000 are officially homeless. At the same time average house prices are still 9 to 10 times average salaries, denying many the chance to get on the housing ladder.

And the global credit crunch is making life difficult for many who have managed to buy their own home or who want to move on.

Add to that the rising cost of oil and gas and the need to improve the energy efficiency of our homes and you can see the kind of challenges we face on the housing front.

Happily, at this stage, I have done the research, I have commissioned the experts and gathered the ideas. And at the end of February I was able to set out a New Housing Agenda for the coming years that I believe can bring real solutions to real problems

At the core of the New Housing Agenda more homes will be built - at least 5,250 in the next three years. Homes that are currently empty will be brought back into use. With the help of the Minister of the Environment, I intend to introduce a developers’ contribution requiring future private developments to include a proportion of homes for social and affordable housing.

Plans will see existing social housing tenants given the chance to buy a stake in their homes and changes in the Northern Ireland Co-ownership Scheme will make it more attractive for first time buyers
– and just let me a say a few words about recent coverage on co-ownership. There has been no cutback in funding; the scheme has not closed; it is a success but is already dealing with sufficient applications to use up this year’s available budget. The scheme started this year with a grant of £15million which was a very substantial increase in funding. I have given it substantially more funding than it was getting in previous years. DSD grant, and external sources of finance, will help 500 people onto the housing ladder this year, which will achieve the target set out in the Programme for Government. -
A new code for sustainable housing and a new procurement strategy will increase the energy efficiency of new social houses whilst driving costs down and I will also be putting real money into tackling sub-standard housing though schemes like that in the Village. In terms of the environment my department is also committed to delivering annual energy efficiency improvements in 9,000 fuel poor households and even more ambitiously I have announced an intention to undertake a £40million regeneration project at the former Grosvenor Barracks in Enniskillen which will include the delivery of the first Eco-village in the North.
The time available today does not allow me to cover everything that I am taking forward in housing or the range of other work that I am delivering across the range of my responsibilities – in child support or Neighbourhood Renewal or urban regeneration or in many other areas.

My point is not to provide an exhaustive list of the type of work that we are doing but to try to emphasise that under devolution we are in a different place where we can really make a difference for our people.

While we in the Executive are all in this together there is however, one element that I think will differentiate my work as Minster.

Now that we have some political stability at last we can get the economy moving. But for me the big challenge is to transform our deeply dysfunctional society. Although the armed campaigns are over, we are more divided than ever in housing and education and there is still much bitterness and hatred.

We now need to build a Shared Future. An uneasy co-existence is not enough. In every area of my responsibility I will be placing Shared Future right at the heart of policy and delivery. It is a huge challenge but for me it is the only way forward.

We cannot simply wish for a Shared Future, we have to build it.


Wednesday, 16 April 2008

Social Development minister addresses NIGAG

Social Development Minister, Margaret Ritchie, today addresses NIGAG at the Long Gallery, Stormont.

This is the latest in NIGAG's Meet The Minister programme, more of which available on the NIGAG website.

Details of the grilling Ms Ritchie faced later...