DUP Meets With FG Wilson PDF Print E-mail

The three DUP East Antrim MLAs Sammy Wilson, David Hilditch and Alastair Ross met in July with senior management at FG Wilson in Larne.


"We welcomed the opportunity to meet with senior management at FG Wilson in July, to receive an update on the current situation and question management about the job losses, the timing and the consultation period. During the meeting we asked where the job losses would occur, and which production lines would be effected, as well as ascertaining what support has been offered by the Department for Employment and Learning as well as Invest NI.  

We also reassured the company of our support and offered assistance in getting government to support the company maintain competitiveness internationally in these challenging economic circumstances. FG Wilson is a hugely important employer in the East Antrim area, and it is important that management, workers and government work together to ensure the continued sucess of the company."


Hilditch Supports The Budget Bill In Its Final Stage PDF Print E-mail

I support granting the Bill its Final Stage. As in recent years, tough challenges are ahead in this, the second year of the budgetary period 2012-13. Members have engaged in and given their views on the process over the past few weeks at Committee level and on constituency issues. This year, like last year, much of the focus during the Bill’s progression surrounded the need to review, update and modernise the financial and budgetary processes. I welcome that work, which began in the previous financial year, and the valued contributions of many key stakeholders. We look forward to its conclusion, hopefully within this mandate, and to putting a local governance footprint on a process that demands transparency, clarity and accountability.

This is the second year of a four-year Budget, and that, in itself, brings significant external economic and financial challenges in this period and beyond, which are added to by the crisis in the euro zone and the banking sector. Although most Departments appear to have performed decently, we do not deny the difficulties that they face in the year ahead. They seem to be focusing more on the core issues; for instance, average admin expenditure has fallen by 6% across Departments, despite no targets being set. Hopefully, that suggests that a determination exists to cut unnecessary bureaucracy and to encourage a culture of belt tightening.

I previously welcomed some outcomes of the Budget that directly affected my constituency, and I do not wish to cover that ground again. However, I welcome some of the departmental initiatives, such as small business rates relief, to help businesses during the current downturn. It appears that 8,200 businesses through all constituencies will benefit from this year’s extension of the programme.

Will the Minister clarify the situation regarding the PSNI staff equal pay claim, an issue that is raised on an ongoing basis? Week to week, there again appears to be a lot of confusion, misunderstanding and, indeed, misinformation out there on the issue. Further to that, is there Budget cover for any potential settlement and who is responsible for dealing with this matter?


Speaking on The Budget Bill PDF Print E-mail

Speaking on the floor of the Assembly on Monday 25th of June David Hilditch (DUP) said

I support the Budget Bill and the agreed principles within it, although I do appreciate that there are various views on how some of the departmental budgets are spread and distributed throughout.

With the economic difficulties that we continue to face in every sector, it is crucial to support the process before us as we attempt to balance our economy. I am pleased that the issues that dominated last week’s Estimates debate have been resolved, and, as a member of the Finance and Personnel Committee, I am pleased that the battle lines that had been drawn were quickly erased. Peace broke out, but not only that, a way forward was found.

Hopefully, that joined-up working can continue throughout this budgetary period, as this Assembly strives to improve the financial process and we look forward to the outcome of the Budget review work and the financial review process. That said, I do welcome the provisional out-turns of each Department and the work that has gone on in Departments, particularly aided by the useful and sensible approach in the monitoring rounds, with Departments reaching their targets and achievements. I hope that will continue over the budgetary period and, indeed, the mandate.

 The Committee has undertaken considerable work, and I will not go through that again, as it has been highlighted by other Committee members. Previously, I had highlighted, within this year’s spend and Budget, some of the benefits of devolution locally and some of the issues that Members would be supporting and lobbying for. I welcome some of the DRD's major infrastructure projects being delivered through this year’s spend in my constituency, such as the A2 and A8 projects; the major environmental improvement schemes that are under way in town centres throughout the Province through DSD, in conjunction with other measures that the Finance Minister has initiated to help our retail and small businesses; and the stadium projects that will progress our main sports. I, personally, hope that many others will benefit from these schemes as they progress and that DCAL will not inadvertently create a hierarchy of sport. I am confident that it will not.

There are, however, some areas of the Budget that cause me concern in relation to local delivery. One is the reduction to be borne by the Northern Ireland Environment Agency in the Department of the Environment. Over time, in my constitunecy, I have witnessed a reduced service delivery on the part of that agency, specifically in the section that deals with monuments and buildings of special interest — our built heritage. I refer, in particular, to a landmark on Belfast lough, Carrickfergus Castle. We have just learned that, due to this year’s financial projections, the very popular Lughnasa Fair, which attracts tens of thousands of people to the area, has been cancelled to provide a saving to the agency. This is purely a budgetary decision, and it has been met locally with disbelief. It is a major blow to the town, although that is perhaps not surprising, as we tend to play second fiddle to the only other walled settlement, Londonderry, when it comes to financial assistance for this type of cultural-heritage budgetary support. I hope that finance can be found in one of the monitoring rounds to reinstate that popular festival, which celebrated its fortieth anniversary last year. There are other issues about the castle and its fabric, parts of which are in urgent need of replacement. However, as those are not in this year’s spend, I will leave that argument for another occasion.

I would like to touch on a number of other areas of the Budget, one of which is the continued provision of effective firefighting and rescue and fire safety services. I pay tribute to those involved in that for their sterling work in the dangerous environments that they have to attend. That is an area of the Budget where we are witnessing a reduction. I am not saying that it cannot meet its requirements and needs, but I would like the Department to take a look at the provision of the service in greater Belfast locations and at getting the right balance between the work of the full-time and part-time service. I believe that such an exercise would be of benefit to that particular budget.

I note the uplift in the budgets for the Northern Ireland Commissioner for Older People and the Northern Ireland Memorial Fund. I welcome that and look forward to further detail from the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister over the coming months.

I support the Bill.


Supply Resolutions: Main Estimates 2012 -2013 PDF Print E-mail

I support the motions before the House today, and I do so as a member of the Finance and Personnel Committee, which has been continuously looking at the situation and has received briefings from officials over the four-year Budget period thus far.

As an individual constituency MLA, I have taken a close interest in the financial planning process that has involved the four-year Budget being set and the agreeing of the finance to be spent, and there have been changes over the past 12 months. My constituency and others are affected by those matters, and Committees will discuss those issues at their meetings. The House has been made aware of and informed about that over a period of time.

Today’s debate takes place, once again, with the backdrop of the economic difficulties. The difficult times continue for everyone. It was the same at this time last year and, if we are honest, will be the same for some considerable time ahead.

However, it is the job of government to see the country move forward, react accordingly and attempt to keep it moving forward. This is what the House is attempting to do by giving legal approval for the spend set out in the Estimates. I am content to do so, while joining the Minister, the Department and most Members to strive for the continual improvement of the financial planning process, the Estimates process and the budgetary process, which have been discussed at length in the Finance Committee. That will be ongoing for some time yet. Hopefully, an end will be reached, when an open and transparent process will be in place to everyone’s satisfaction.

Two Excess Votes are before us, for the Department of Culture Arts and Leisure and the Department for Social Development. As a member of the Finance Committee, it was clear to me that the proper processes had been followed and that the appropriate approval had been sought. We will support the motion with that knowledge and in the knowledge that the Committee was fully informed and that it communicated with the relevant Committees. The budgetary process and the Estimates are the result of much consultation and input from the many sectors in Northern Ireland, and I hope that, within hours of today’s sitting, the process can proceed as envisaged with as little discomfort as possible. We have already agreed the Budget, and many of the limited changes that have been agreed have been before the House. Hopefully, we can move forward after today.

I welcome the funding that is made available in the Estimates for both the major road schemes in my constituency, the A8 and the A2. Both schemes awaited approval for many years under direct rule, especially the A2 plans. The ideas and communications on that go back to the early 1960s, so we are delighted to see funding for that contained in the spend. Anyone who travels on the A2 from Silverstream to Seapark — Ministers have done so in recent times — will be aware of the problems of commuters and of the plight caused by a number of homes and properties having been derelict for a time, with a whole community displaced. This year’s spend will be welcomed in that area for that reason.

The Budget for the year ahead will also present some difficulties and challenges, because the A2 scheme is a £60 million project. A number of sections in Departments will need to collate information to make the situation bearable for folk who live in the area.

Having served on the Committee for Social Development, I share the Minister for Social Development’s enthusiasm for and commitment to urban and town centre regeneration. That is reflected very well in the spend for the coming year. The Department has been responsible for the creation of a number of master plans in towns and villages throughout the Province and has budgeted accordingly. That spend should be commended, because there were doubters at the time.

I particularly welcome the major environmental improvement schemes throughout the financial year, and I cite as an example the one in the town of Carrickfergus in my constituency. A partnership between the local council and DRD brings together some £2 million for the project, and, again, that is reflected in this year’s spend. That is notwithstanding the help with rates that the Minister and the Department, in trying to help town centres, are providing to small businesses. I totally agree with the Minister’s sentiments about putting the heart back into our cities and town centres. We must maximise the financial resources that are available through partnership-working with Departments, agencies and, indeed, the private sector, which is pretty enthusiastic about that area of work. Many of our older, historic towns have large portions of abandoned land and vacant properties. The master plans that we are funding and the streetscapes that we have budgeted for and that will soon kick in are a catalyst for regeneration. I particularly look forward to the completion of the regeneration schemes. In some areas, housing lists are excessive, and opportunities exist to encourage some development of domestic housing in town centres, especially development above premises and of courtyards, which is envisaged in some of the schemes. I can but encourage a continuation of the financial planning around such issues.

I am a member of the Culture, Arts and Leisure Committee, which includes among its responsibilities the delivery of sport throughout Northern Ireland. Through our devolved Government, much has been delivered in that sector over recent years, but much more work needs to be done on the ground now that we are up and running at Stormont. However, there is some concern that the Budget, as it sits, will deliver projects at the high end of the scale. Although that will certainly benefit our elite sports people and athletes who are in the news, those at the grass-roots level may continue to suffer and struggle a little.

Clearly, the new stadium projects for the three main sports will eat up a lot of the capital. With proper planning, they can become vibrant centres for their sports, and their hinterlands will also benefit from the spend, part of which will be in this year. Indeed, not redeveloping Windsor Park may have resulted in our national team having to play home games outside Northern Ireland. However, we must be careful not to create a have and have-not hierarchy in sport. I have previously stated in the House that sport has gone through some difficult times in the past 40 years and that its survival is due, in no small amount, to the many volunteers and administrators who give of their time and energy in the cause of their sporting disciplines and clubs. It is clear, however, where the investment has been, to date. I know and have witnessed from my work outside the political arena that that has been partly, or initially, down to, for instance, health and safety issues, particularly in stadiums.

In trying to cover those three areas, I am happy enough that the Estimates before us move forward, and I hope that the problems outlined by some of our other colleagues in the Chamber can be overcome within the next few sittings.


Asking the Regional Development Minister for his Assessment of the TaxSmart Initiative PDF Print E-mail

During Assembly Question time David Hilditch asked the Minister for Regional Development for his assessment of the TaxSmart initiative. (AQO 1890/11-15)

Minister Danny Kennedy (UUP)

DFP corporate human resources, in conjunction with my Department, has been developing a TaxSmart scheme for the Northern Ireland Civil Service. TaxSmart is a salary sacrifice scheme that allows staff tax and national insurance savings by paying for their annual bus travel card from their gross salary over the year. The development of the scheme is at an advanced stage, and it is planned that the scheme will be launched in the coming weeks.

I attach great importance to encouraging more of the general public to travel by public transport, and I support the TaxSmart initiative.

David Hilditch (DUP)

I thank the Minister for his answer. Will he, through the Department, consider supporting an extension of the scheme to include rail users? Will he encourage greater usage and greater uptake from Departments?

Danny Kennedy (UUP)

I thank the Member for his supplementary. I am happy to look at the suggestion that he makes. Much of this will, of course, be dependent on finance and all of those issues. I will seek to reply to the Member in writing.

Sean Rogers (Social Democratic and Labour Party)

Minister, thank you for your responses thus far. What are you doing to ensure that employees and employers know about this scheme?

Danny Kennedy (UUP)

We are trying to notify staff about the scheme, and arrangements are in hand to promote it, pending its introduction. It is evident that DRD and DFP staff will be facilitated first, with the other Departments following on a phased basis. However, all staff in the Northern Ireland Civil Service will be in a position to participate in the TaxSmart initiative by the autumn.


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