Questioning the Minister of Finance in Relation to Invest NI PDF Print E-mail

During Assembly Question Time, David Hilditch asked the Minister of Finance and Personnel: 

With regards to the private sector and the need to grow that sector. Does the Minister have any further comment on the Invest NI decision? 

Sammy Wilson  (DUP)

It is unfortunate that the money that Invest NI had been hoping to spend on job promotion has not been fully spent this year. Of course, that is not a reflection on the work that is done by Invest NI and by the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment; it is because a lot of that funding has to be matched. If firms cannot find resources, get money from banks or, in some cases, do not have the confidence to invest, there is not a great deal that can be done about that. I want to make it clear to the House that we have reallocated the money to projects that will create jobs. Job opportunities will not be lost as a result of the money not being spent. For example, when we put money into roads maintenance or the thermal insulation of Housing Executive houses, that creates jobs in the construction sector. When we put money into DEL for the Steps to Work programme, that brings people into training and gives them job opportunities and the ability to move into longer-term employment. It is not the case that money suddenly drops into a hole and there is no job creation from it; we are simply moving it from the DETI budget to other budgets, and different kinds of job are being created.


David Hilditch Raises Oral Question In Relation To Quarry Cottages, Whitehead PDF Print E-mail

David Hilditch asked the Minister of the Environment for his assessment of the effects on the environment of the coastal erosion at Quarry Cottages, Whitehead, Carrickfergus.    

 Alex Attwood (Social Democratic and Labour Party)

I thank the Member for his question. I know those cottages because I did not live very far from them and I worked in that area. I am also aware of the localised erosion that impacts on the small number of local residents who use the pathway. At this stage, my advice is that there are no significant environmental consequences but I would like to hear more from representatives of the area


I thank the Minister for his answer. The question was tabled to highlight the predicament and, perhaps, frustration of residents where the vital link to the town of Whitehead is now down to around 15 in of a path and in a dangerous state. I was wondering whether the Department could help by maybe at least getting some stakeholders together to try to come to a resolution. I know that it is probably a cross-departmental issue, but since it began with coastal erosion, I was hoping that the Department of the Environment, would take a lead.


Alex Attwood (Social Democratic and Labour Party)

It would be difficult for me to take a lead on that matter because it does not technically fall to my Department. I will, though, bring it to the attention of other Ministers and Translink in particular. Given that there is a railway line along the Antrim coast from Carrickfergus to Whitehead and beyond, and given the need to maintain that, which is the single biggest asset of the coastline in that area, I will bring the matter to Translink’s attention to make sure that it is aware of the erosion and to determine what remedies, if any, it thinks appropriate.


Speaking On the Pay Day Loan Motion PDF Print E-mail


I welcome the fact that we have been able to bring this matter forward today, as it coincides with the time of year when demand for a short-term loan system is at one of its highest levels, as has been stated. I welcome and note the comments of colleagues so far. We need to get a handle on the current situation.

This type of business is nothing new. It has existed one way or another through the ages. However, where we currently sit, it is probably at its most expansive ever, with the marketing side of the business flooding our society with material. Quite frankly, it is in your face daily. We heard the statistics that Mr Nesbitt gave.

The motion is pitched at just the right level. Although we are aware of our responsibilities in the devolved Administration, we have concerns and it is imperative that we engage with Her Majesty’s Government and the Financial Services Authority on this matter to ensure fair interest rates and protection for people who engage with those companies.

Regulation is crucial. Since the motion was laid in the Business Office, I have had the opportunity, on several occasions, to engage with folk who are users of the short-term payday loans system, and I have seen how it impacts on their lives. That is from a negative and dire situation through to, perhaps, a lesser percentage of people who make it work for them in a positive way but with strict discipline and controls on how they manage their personal situations. Unfortunately, not everyone falls into the latter bracket and, more and more, it is the desperate, needy and most vulnerable with spiralling debts who are drawn into the system by taking out expensive short-term payday loans, trying to give themselves a breathing space and a short period of reduced pressures. However, they are building on an already weak financial foundation and are putting off the inevitable collapse.

Most of us will have a fair insight into the extent of the problem through the issues and related matters brought to us through our constituency offices. Although I mentioned people who use the payday loans system to their advantage in a calculated, measured and disciplined way, it is due to our concern for those who are desperate, victims of the economic climate and the credit boom of the past era, whose circumstances are now spiralling out of control, that we support the motion. It is clear that it is the despairing group of people that I mentioned who are being targeted, and we are concerned at the number of companies that have sprung up across Northern Ireland recently at a somewhat hurried and aggressive rate.

We have established that banning such shops and their services will not get rid of the need of those who want to borrow small amounts of money nor will it solve any of the problems of those who are in financial distress. In fact, throughout November, those shops and on-line services saw a 23% increase. Banning them would just mean that people who are struggling would go to informal loan sharks, who make the payday loans companies look like angels. There is no regulation of those loan sharks and, obviously, they resort to other means to get their money back.

A better solution would be to ensure that fair interest rates and protection are offered to people taking out such loans. Bankruptcy or binding arrangements on creditors could also be made much easier. In that way, lenders would take more care and time in giving credit to people who cannot really afford it. It is absurd that those shops can apparently make a decision on who to lend to within an hour of an application form being submitted.

I urge the Executive to protect vulnerable people and to be mindful that the Christmas period will force even more low earners further into debt. Anyone in negative equity or in a job and struggling with their debts should, perhaps, be filing for bankruptcy and not borrowing more. It is essential that appropriate action is taken now to ensure that the right advice is given to find a sensible long-term solution to the debts in our constituencies. Borrowing more with high interest rates is definitely not the answer, however small the amount.

We need to get the message out that people need to keep well clear of payday loans. We need to instil an attitude of, “do I need it right now or can I get it in two to three months’ time when I have saved for it?” There is fierce marketing of payday loans, and we have seen the shop-front advertising of the money shops, gold shops and cash converters. Those, and the online services being advertised, need to be addressed sooner rather than later.

We want to ensure that vulnerable people are properly protected, and the Executive are working with the financial industry and consumer organisations to ensure that people have the protection that they need. I support the motion.


INTERREG Funding PDF Print E-mail

David Hilditch Questions the Finance Minister on INTERREG Funding 

I thank the Minister for his answer to the Chair’s question; I, too, want to touch on the fact that around £35 million of INTERREG funds is potentially at risk of being lost. The Minister has outlined what has been done, but will he tell us what ongoing efforts will be made to ensure that Northern Ireland’s economy does not lose those vital funds?


·SSammy Wilson (DUP)

I outlined some of the things that we have already put in place and intend to follow through with SEUPB. At the meeting, there were fairly robust exchanges with SEUPB officials to ensure that they were clear about our concern, which the Member mentioned, that we do not see a penny of that money lost as a result of applications not being dealt with on time. I have also spoken to Ministers about the need for their Department, if it is the sponsoring Department, to ensure that there is no delay once applications go to it. I have written to one Minister about that, and I have spoken with other Ministers


Assessing The Northern Ireland Housing Executive Contractors PDF Print E-mail

During Oral Question time at the Assembly David Hilditch asked the Minister for Social Development to outline how contractors were assessed for suitability as part of the tender process to award maintenance contracts for the Housing Executive. (AQO 951/11-15)

Nelson McCausland (DUP)

The Public Contracts Regulations 2006 and Northern Ireland public procurement policy determines how the Housing Executive decides on the suitability or otherwise of contractors by way of pre-qualification questionnaires. Those test the final capacity and the technical and professional ability of contractors to carry out required works or services. The criteria for the selection of suitable tenderers may include, for example, construction line category value, annual turnover, experience, management structures, and health and safety procedures. Those criteria may be tested by way of a pass/fail mechanism or scored with relevant thresholds attached. Those contractors that are deemed suitable will then be invited to tender by the Housing Executive.

David Hilditch (DUP)

Like other Members, concerns have been raised with me by constituents. Will the Minister tell the House how the Housing Executive monitors the quality of the work that is undertaken by contractors?

Nelson McCausland (DUP)

That is a very pertinent question, and it goes to the heart of the recent issue of maintenance contracts in the Housing Executive. We recently appointed ASM to undertake a forensic examination of Housing Executive response maintenance contracts, and I expect that report to be completed by June. It is vital that we get to the heart of how those contracts are managed, monitored and delivered.

There was an issue some time ago with one particular contractor, but I have received complaints — I am sure that most MLAs have — from constituents about the problems that they are facing with other contractors. I still have reservations about the quality of some of the work that is being undertaken, particularly in light of the refurbishment of just four homes in lower Oldpark last month by a Housing Executive contractor. I mentioned that as an area that we are focusing on. The quality of the work that was initially undertaken was simply unacceptable, but more worryingly, it went under the radar of the Housing Executive until the local community invited my officials to see the homes for themselves. Although immediate work was undertaken to put right the many faults once my staff had identified them, that poor workmanship should never have been allowed to happen in the first place, and it should not have been left to the local community to inspect and report back after it had been allowed to happen.

Another example was brought to my attention yesterday of a house in another estate that was about to be handed over to a tenant. Officials told her that everything was well and that the house was in order to move into. However, photographs that were taken of the house yesterday show a heater in one room without a knob on it. I would have thought that it is a good idea to have knobs on heaters so that they can be switched on, but perhaps that does not occur to some Housing Executive contractors. There are a lot of questions still to be addressed about Housing Executive contractors.

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