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...

Friday, 11 April 2008

Busy time ahead

It's been a busy time of late with NIGAG, with recent events including the presentation by NI Ombudsman, Tom Frawley, and the NUJ/NIGAG event at the NUJ conference.

But even busier times lie ahead!

On Wednesday of next week Minister for Social Development, Margaret Ritchie, will about her role and participate in a Question & Answer session with NIGAG in the Long Gallery, Parliament Buildings.

The event kicks off with coffee and scones, with the Minister's presentation beginning at 10:00am.

More announcements soon....oh and by the way, the NIGAG website has been updated to include the new committee.