Agriculture Committee visit Ballymena Agriculture Show

The Northern Ireland Assembly’s Committee for Agriculture and Rural Development set up shop at the Ballymena Show on Saturday 30th May 09.

Thomas Burns said that being part of the show was a way of bringing the Assembly to the people, the well attended Ballymena Show being the ideal place.

It is important to take note of the concerns of the rural community, said Francie Molloy, and meeting people at this kind of show gave the committee the chance to meet with people they otherwise might not get a chance to.

Trevor Clarke said the committee would take back with them the concerns of the farming and rural communities to see what can be done for them.

Tom Elliott expressed his concerns at the problems being put to the committee re Dairy farming and also the fall in the number of full time farming.

Finally Committee Chairperson William McCrea said that although 98% of its meetings were held in public coming to the Ballymena show allowed the committee to find out the concerns of a greater number of the people.

Why would Sir Alan choose you

In a light hearted close to the Ballymena proceedings, Eamonn Mallie asked the panel what individual qualities they had that would make Sir Alan Sugar sit up and take notice.

Which MLA do you think would make the grade as Sir Alan’s next apprentice?

Extending Committee outreach online

The panel were asked what plans the Assembly has to live stream committee meetings online. The DUP’s Mervyn Storey noted that the current infrastructure existed to live stream Plenary sessions. The discussion went on to focus on the issue of adequate committee space within Parliament Buildings with Sean Neeson from the Alliance Party pointing out that an accommodation audit was ongoing. The UUP’s Reverent Robert Coulter, a member of the Assembly Commission, noted further that as well as the website, Commission members were looking at several ways to better engage with the public.

Are you aware that all Plenary sessions are currently streamed live on the Assembly website? If Committee meetings were available to live stream do you think this is something you would regularly access?

Need for committees to better inform the public

An audience member in Ballymena noted that, while the Assembly seemed determined on its project of outreach and engagement, Committee output via the Assembly Website does not provide enough help in alerting the public and permitting them to inform upcoming Committee business.

Assembly Commission member Reverent Robert Coulter UUP noted that the Assembly Commission is aware that there are problems in this area and agreed that the Assembly do need to do more to inform the public.

Do you find it difficult to interact with the Assembly? What additions and/ or changes do you think should be made to a new Assembly website to make it more user-friendly?

Does the Assembly voting system polarize the people?

A question on whether or not the current Assembly voting system institutionalised the polarisation of the two communities in Northern Ireland provoked general consensus among panel members. The UUP’s Rev Robert Coulter summarised the general feeling best by stating that “…you can’t change hundreds of years of history overnight”.

Sean Neeson was however a notable exception to the consensus, citing that as a member of the Alliance Party, he felt the current system of registering as Unionist or Nationalist perpetuated sectarian politics.

Do you think changes should be made to the Assembly voting system to allow parties to register as issue based rather than along current lines of political affiliation/ideology?

Help for small and medium sized businesses

A Ballymena business man was keen to gauge what, if anything, the Assembly was doing to reduce costs for small/medium sized businesses. In light of the current economic climate this was a pertinent subject and not surprisingly all panel members were keen to put their points of view across.

It was the general consensus that the current bureaucracy and mandatory adherence to a large number of policies was pricing small businesses out of the marketplace. The SDLP’s Declan O’Loan, who is also a member of the Committee for Finance and Personnel, advised that there is an upcoming Committee enquiry into public procurement which he felt would make a positive contribution to helping local small and medium sized businesses.

Small/medium sized businesses account for 70-80% of the entire Northern Ireland economy, what steps to you think the government should be taking to ensure the survival and future growth of indigenous small businesses?

What can be done to alleviate fuel poverty?

An audience member in Ballymena asked the panel what if anything was being done to address the issue of fuel poverty. Mervyn Storey from the DUP noted that that a recent voucher scheme organised by Ballymoney District Council had been very successful. The Alliance Representative Sean Neeson highlighted that the issue was not just about increasing fuel benefits but the providing help for more energy efficiency initiatives.

Do you think recent government funded initiatives have gone far enough towards alleviating fuel poverty?