Asda’s Black Friday – The Great PR Disaster

Asda’s “Black Friday” debacle in Northern Ireland was such a comprehensive PR disaster that it is worthy of further analysis – if only because it is remarkable how often large, well-resourced businesses display such a lack of understanding of how to deal with crises.

It appears to demonstrate a level of incompetence in media relations which, on the face of it appears incomprehensible.

To briefly reprise: the company decided to replicate the American tradition of creating a “Black Friday” shopping spree by widely advertising a range of goods that would be on sale at their stores at massively discounted prices from 8 am last Friday morning.

The campaign was backed by a significant advertising campaign and PR push. The objective was to create a shopping frenzy to stimulate pre-Christmas sales.

The day before the sale PR people representing Asda lobbied Wendy Austin’s flagship BBC Radio Ulster’s Talkback Show to be given airtime to promote the sale.

Promotional activity was effective in so far as crowds were beginning to gather outside stores across Northern Ireland in the early hours of Friday morning.

But when the “sale” began it immediately became clear that there were very limited numbers of goods on offer, and in some stores at least some goods advertised were not available at all.

The result was predictable: as it became clear that hundreds of shoppers had queued for hours and were about to be disappointed angry scenes developed. In the West Belfast outlet this descended into chaos, with one woman who had queued from midnight, suffering a broken arm in the fracas. Shoppers in several stores reported that there was no security and that management did not make themselves available to deal with complaints.

Within minutes the story was breaking across social media and making headlines in the regional press. The BBC went big onit, with Talkback devoting half an hour to the issue. Wendy Austin pointed out that although Asda had been very keen to talk about Black Friday the previous day, they were refusing to go on the airwaves to talk about the carnage. Thirty minutes of extremely damaging publicity resulted, with some callers stating they would never shop at Asda again. A statement was read out from the company which characterised the sale as a success.  “This is the first time Black Friday has been done on this scale in stores across the UK and our customers were eager to take advantage of the great offers available to them…”

It struck entirely the wrong note. Meanwhile Asda itself which was tweeting merrily about Black Friday the day before was getting traduced both on traditional and social media across the UK. It was a classic disaster. There was even talk of potential prosecution for the company for allegedly advertising goods which were not on sale.

So what went wrong, and why and what should the company learn from this?

First, when you are planning a major event you have to do a thorough risk analysis and put in place communications strategies should things go wrong. So were adequate numbers of goods despatched to Northern Ireland stores? What was the company going to do and say if this turned out not to be the case or if some goods were missing? What measures were taken to ensure good order amongst shoppers and preventing a frenzy if large crowds turned out?

And if things did go wrong what was the company going to say, and how fast could it get its message out? Big retailers have large customer bases and the widespread use of social media means that negative feedback can reach many thousands in seconds and reputations can suffer huge damage unless companies are in a position to respond quickly.

All of what happened was easily foreseeable and yet it does not appear to have been prepared for.

And that’s before we get on to the issue of who was going to deal with any potential negative comments. The company had prepared someone to go on radio to promote the event, but could not respond when asked to put someone up to explain what went wrong. That is a cardinal sin. Every organisation should have people trained to deal with crisis communications. When something bad happens you cannot tolerate a situation where executives are all hiding under their desks, waiting for the storm to pass. The public know when this is happening: it just makes a bad situation so much worse.

There is, of course, another potential explanation for the affair. Given experiences in the USA it was highly conceivable that there would be pandemonium in stores over here. Could it be that this was envisaged and that the company might have thought that would be a good thing and it was just that they hadn’t quite anticipated the level of mayhem that resulted or else felt that that was not their responsibility?

If so they are taking consumers for fools. Everyone likes a bargain and enjoys the sales. Nobody likes being manipulated into queuing for hours for goods which are no longer on the shelves. Nobody likes being stripped of their dignity trying to get a good deal during recession. People don’t forget this sort of thing very easily. Nor should they. Asda played to the worst aspects of human nature and are reaping the consequences for a shameful, cynical and manipulative exercise. It will be interesting to see if they repeat it next year.



Stormont on Friday: Education of Educators, Careers Support that Works and Accessing the Past

A select review of Northern Ireland’s political discourse from the past seven days

We spend all week with an eye on Stormont, writing reports and helping clients get their ideas off the ground, while getting to know the many to-ings and fro-ings within the House on the Hill; certain issues get a good showing in the media, others not at all, while the coverage of some focuses only on limited aspects of the debate. Here we provide summary bulletins on some of the latest party arguments and positions.


Learning to teach effectively? DE Minister John O’Dowd updated the House on recent North/South Ministerial Council discussions on education, involving both his department and DSD. He said the future work programme had been agreed, including joint initiatives on: underachievement and disadvantage, inspection reports on literacy and numeracy, and promotion of good school leadership. The Minister also praised continuing efforts to make it easier from teachers from each jurisdiction to find work in the other, with clearer guidance on qualifications.

The UUP’s Danny Kinahan said further developments were keenly anticipated, including on literacy and numeracy, before asking about the findings of the cross-border planning survey, with Mr O’Dowd answering that no agreement had yet been made to progress the survey, which he hoped will happen soon.

The DUP noted the lack of a “clear and consistent academic standard of assessment in primary schools”, saying this was an issue for people moving over the border. The Minister said those comments would be passed to the joint working group, and that he wants both teacher and pupil qualifications at every stage of education to be able to pass seamlessly through all UK and Ireland jurisdictions – before assuring the SDLP that collaboration on best practice in school leadership is ongoing.

Jim Allister of the TUV pointed out the absence of “focus on traditional teaching methods” in the statement, before asking if the Social Development Minister is in accordance with educational policy. Mr O’Dowd said current policy is in line with the best modern research, and refusal to accept this will mean mistakes of the past are repeated.


Does careers advice work? Committee for Employment and Learning chair, the UUP’s Robin Swann, brought a motion calling for the implementation of recommendations from a new CEL report into careers education, information, advice and guidance. He raised committee concerns about employment and employability support – saying, while there are some positives, provision could be improved in every area, and that it should tally better with what employers are looking for in the modern working world.

Sinn Fein raised concerns about the existing skills gap, saying the Careers Service must steer people towards areas where jobs are more plentiful. Sean Rogers of the SDLP said advice should begin in primary school.

The DUP said there should be more cooperation between the wide range of bodies who deal with career support, noting particularly help for those with disabilities, while there should also be consistency across all provision – something with which Alliance agreed, pointing out disparities in the advice handed out by different schools.

DEL must do more to encourage parents to talk up the benefits of technological careers, according to NI21, while universities need to engage with businesses as well as students. Minister Dr Stephen Farry welcomed the report. Motion passed.


Is PRONI user friendly? During Question Time with the Minister for Culture, Arts and Leisure, it was pointed out by UKIP’s David McNarry that over three-quarters of all users of the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland (PRONI) are researching family history, while local history, academic and business research only total 8%, before he asked if the service was reaching its target market. Minister Ní Chuilín said the service is aimed at anyone who wants to access its archives, and that it received 10 million visits to its website and 17,000 people on site in 2012-13, adding that she would like more people to use it to learn about their family trees, but that she does not want to be “prescriptive”.

The DUP asked if more people should be using it for local history, given the number of groups in NI dedicated to such studies, with the Minister saying she was in “total” agreement, and that she is keen for that figure to increase. Sinn Fein asked if enough was being done to attract those who aren’t family historians, with Ms Ní Chuilín saying she is confident that is the case, before assuring the SDLP that the new Titanic Quarter site has, from anecdotal evidence, proved more accessible to those wanting to use the archives.


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What We Could Learn From Scotland

saltire-flagThere has been much speculation in the media this week about what Scottish independence would mean for Northern Ireland. To date there has been no analysis of the debate itself and what lessons we could learn from it.

In Northern Ireland the “national question” is mostly, if not exclusively, about national identity. So the debate, if you could even call it that, is about what the media generously calls “cultural issues” and “matters of national identity”.

So I fly one flag and you fly another. So we’ll take yours down because it does not reflect our culture. And where we live we paint our kerbstones so people will know we are British. And we even argue about the other side’s right to a distinct identity: “Ireland for the Irish”, “Brits Out” on one side and “Northern Ireland is as British as Finchley” and “if you don’t like our benefits, go live somewhere else” on the other.

We’ve become trapped in this, it is all pervading and tribal, and as a result there has been little if any rational debate about the benefits or otherwise of remaining in the union. When you pause to think about it, after all the bloodshed and trouble that is genuinely astonishing.

One lesson we could learn from the Scots is to take the debate to an entirely different level, a rational one, where the central issue for the voter in Scotland as to whether or not to opt for independence will be “Will I be better off as a result?”

The Scottish National Party’s paper on independence sets out to demonstrate that an independent Scotland would be more prosperous. And it is interesting to note that it tries to appeal not just to its core voters but to give comfort and security to people of a unionist disposition. So the Queen would remain head of state, and if it can be negotiated the pound would be retained: there would be no change to the union flag and it would be okay to fly it in Scotland.

The SNP clearly understands that no matter how proud a Scot you are, unless you feel that you are going to be better off under independence, you are unlikely to vote for it. So, yes there is an emotional undercurrent to it all, but the primary arguments are about the economy and we are set for a proper debate.

In Scotland there are issues about how taxation would work, the banking system, what would happen to the that country’s involvement in NATO, the possession of nuclear weapons, membership of the European Union, the currency to be used, even what would happen to the BBC. The SNP’s paper runs to many hundreds of pages laying out its position on all these matters and more.

Scottish unionists are already joining the debate this week, challenging assertions, and their case is equally plain and simple: Scotland would be much better off remaining in the UK and the SNP’s course is irresponsible, ill-thought through and ultimately damaging to citizens’ well being. And they seek to persuade the proudest of Scots, to be so within the UK.

This, of course, is politics so there will be plenty of dirty tricks and emotional displays along the way, but the tone set from the outset is as different as it could possibly be from what passes as political discourse here.

There’s a lot that could be learned from this in both camps in Northern Ireland, especially unionists. The biggest difference between the two jurisdictions is, whilst Scotland is a net contributor through taxes to the Treasury, the situation in Northern Ireland is completely different: we have a fiscal deficit of around £10 Billion, the equivalent of more than £6,000 for every citizen. In business terms Northern Ireland makes heavy losses every year and whoever takes it on is going to have to pick up a massive tab.

The economy in the Republic is only just starting to recover from collapse and could not afford this, even if it wanted to. So who pays? This has never been satisfactorily answered by nationalists. Why should the British or the Germans meet the shortfall? There would be no votes in that! Also what would happen to the Northern Ireland Health Service, the Benefits System, schools, public housing? Would the first action of a united Irish government not to be to cut back on everything in order to balance the books? What would happen to our political institutions and how would an all-Ireland parliament work, and, within that, how would the interests of people in the north be secured?

Demographics are changing in Northern Ireland: there will be a time when Catholics are in a majority. Sinn Fein want to have a border poll, and will continue to press more vociferously for one as the population continues to shift. Do we want these matters to be decided on a sectarian head count?

Or is it time that we started to put our debate on a rational footing. The electorate is already moving in that way. There are significant numbers of voters from a Catholic background who tell opinion pollsters that they have no current appetite for a united Ireland.

The reality is that for the rational nationalist a united Ireland is an aspiration, not something that is achievable in the short, or even medium term. The present system is much preferable to the economic chaos that would ensure were unification to be voted through.

Which brings us back to “cultural issues”, the key to ensuring the emergence of rationalism in politics is to concentrate on issues that really matter: the wealth and well-being of people who live here, regardless of their background or beliefs.  And the paradox that the more unionists concentrate on flags and emblems and the assertion of culture, the less they are likely to win over the support of those they will need, when their traditional support is no longer in the majority.



Stormont on Friday: Low Survival Rates, Deaths in Custody, and Waiting for SIF


Health Minister Edwin Poots
Health Minister Edwin Poots

A select review of Northern Ireland’s political discourse from the past seven days
We spend all week with an eye on Stormont, writing reports and helping clients get their ideas off the ground, while getting to know the many to-ings and fro-ings within the House on the Hill; certain issues get a good showing in the media, others not at all, while the coverage of some focuses only on limited aspects of the debate. Here we provide summary bulletins on some of the latest party arguments and positions.

Community revival? Health Minister Edwin Poots this week launched a consultation on a community resuscitation strategy, aiming to boost public skills in CPR and early defibrillation, noting that only 10% of people who suffer an out-of-hospital heart attack in Northern Ireland currently survive.

The Minister pointed out that, with 1,400 such attacks happening last year, raising the survival rate to 20% could save over ten lives a month – and is requesting feedback on how best to roll-out training for members of the public.
Sinn Fein asked if areas of higher deprivation, where heart trouble tends to be more common, would see extra provision, with the Minister saying health inequalities must be challenged, before pointing out the increased incidence of known causes of cardiac problems associated with such areas must be tackled. The DUP asked if current provision is “adequate”, with the Minister saying community schemes have seen great results elsewhere.
The UUP asked about support for voluntary groups set up to assist in areas relatively distant from medical services, with Mr Poots saying there is money set aside for that sector. Alliance’s Stewart Dickson asked how the Minister would tackle reluctance to use the many portable defibrillators, in places such as supermarkets. The Minister said these are a huge asset and, although no records are kept as to numbers in circulation, around 1,000 are thought to be available throughout NI and, while training programmes will focus on CPR, these machines are of no benefit if they are unused. The SDLP noted deaths among young people playing sport, and asked what plans are in place to advertise the campaign, to which Mr Poots said he was open to ideas.

Lessons learned? Following a DUP question concerning the death by hanging of a prisoner on suicide watch in Maghaberry, Justice Minister David Ford said 43 of 44 Prisoner Ombudsman recommendations from a report into the 2009 incident have been implemented by NIPS, with the sole remaining suggestion decided against by officials.
Sinn Fein asked if the death could have been avoided, with the Minister saying the number of recommendations received and accepted shows mistakes were made. The SDLP asked what further steps are being taken to ensure prisoners with mental health problems get treatment, with Mr Ford saying this is being taken “very seriously” with the oversight group received input from, amongst others, the South Eastern Trust. The UUP asked for details of the mental health and overall health budgets for NIPS, and were told this is a question for the Health Minister.

And, finally? During Ministerial Question Time, the First Minister Peter Robinson revealed a large portion of the £80m Social Investment Fund, first set up in 2011, could finally be distributed, saying around half the money has now been earmarked following approval of applications from various groups, with confirmation set to be received within weeks.

SDLP leader Dr Alasdair McDonnell asked if money was being allocated on objective need, with Mr Robinson saying addressing need was “the whole purpose”, but that the different sizes of each investment zone within the scheme had made measuring objectivity difficult.

Following a DUP question on the total figure applied for, the First Minister said around £130m worth of projects had been requested, so decisions have to be made on “robust” arguments, adding that he and the deputy First Minister were considering whether to set up a scheme for smaller grants additionally. Sinn Fein asked when the funding will be release, with Mr Robinson saying there is no reason money cannot find its way to schemes immediately.

Putting Victims First

I don’t think even the most experienced politicians from either community ever really expected it to be so difficult to “deal with the past. “
Here’s why it is proving so intractable.
First let’s nail an issue which must cause real anger and frustration to victims: this notion that addressing their concerns is actually “dealing with the past”
Of course if, for example you blew someone up in 1974, the incident was in your past. You may well regret it, and you certainly don’t want to be reminded of it regardless of whether you were convicted of the offence or not. But if you were a victim of the blast and, for example lost a leg in the incident you’ll still have just one leg now, and so from your perspective this is not a past but a present issue. You probably live with constant pain, and the injury has affected your career, your family life, everything. And if you were blown up in 1974, then any compensation you received will have long since run out because, to be brutal about this, the authorities were not expecting you to live this long. It is the same for the bereaved: their loved ones are still dead and that’s as true today as it was when they were killed.
So the notion that victims issues are in the past is a lie and a dangerous one at that because it plays into the hands of all those who would rather forget the terrible things that they did and walk away from them.
And there are plenty who would prefer to avoid all talk of what went on in a vicious, dirty conflict, made all the more spiteful in such a small region where victims and killers often lived just a few hundred yards apart. Yes victims are a real problem for these people because they bring “the past” right into the present. They’ve been ignored for too long, regarded as an embarrassment for too many and have also been quite shamelessly used whenever it suits one side to kick another.
In such an important debate we must be even handed. It’s not just paramilitary organisations who caused suffering and loss and pain. State forces did as well, both directly on occasion and by collusion with “pro state paramilitaries”. Today none of these groupings have any real appetite for addressing victims’ issues, it’s not difficult to see why: and it is not difficult to follow the argument that opening all this up would seriously, perhaps even terminally affect the peace process.
You can add to that the unusual circumstances in which our conflict ended. It was not a victory for either side but peace arose from stalemate. During the conflict State forces pursued paramilitaries who fought each other and the State and also committed bombings and other outrages that affected the broader population both here and in Britain. Peace effectively meant that the police would stop locking up paramilitaries who in turn would stop shooting them, each other and the broader community. The nature of the Good Friday Agreement therefore militates against a thorough investigation of what went on during the conflict. It was about ending violence and under its terms, prisoners were released early into the community and victims were exposed to the potential trauma of seeing the person who had caused them suffering in the check out queue of the local supermarket.
So where does that leave us today? Too close a scrutiny of the past does bring with it great danger. If, for example, there were to be rigorous police investigations of old IRA outrages and they were to lead to mass arrests, republicans would doubtless argue that the “Brits have resumed the war”. That’s why republican “ex combatants” have a rule that although they will talk about incidents where they have been convicted, they will not discuss their involvement in incidents for which they have not been. Under the present arrangements they will not be open and transparent about what they did and why and without either fresh evidence or a new approach to these matters they never will.
On the other hand endless inquiries of State outrages provokes unionist anger, not because unionists are seeking to defend the indefensible, but that it seems extraordinary for retrospective investigations into Army misdeeds whilst paramilitary murders are apparently ignored.
All of this before you go on to define a victim: a hugely charged and emotive issue in its own right and one on which there is no political consensus.
Attorney General John Larkin’s intervention this week, provides one solution. By drawing a line over what happened before 1998 all those difficult issues would be overcome. I disagree with those who think his intervention was ill-timed and ill-judged, although it does raise legitimate questions about his function. I don’t believe he has the answer, but I think it is important that someone has raised the profile of the problem at this time.
It is of critical importance that we do address this problem and that momentum and impetus is injected into the Haass talks, which is examining this crucial issue.
I’d prefer us to be putting victims at the heart of all this. All victims are different: their circumstances are different and they react differently to their pain. But what they have in common is that they have been ignored, and put to one side.
What we need now is a mature and sensible debate about how we deal with these extraordinarily difficult and sensitive matters: and at the heart of the debate must be the victims themselves. A solution that does not factor in their views and also substitute proper compensation for the current derisory arrangements is not a solution. They are not part of the past, they are part of the present, they are not going anywhere and their voices must no longer be ignored.

The Media and Child Sex Abuse

Almost unremarked in the furore about the child sex abuse claims that are emerging about stars from the world of showbiz and rock is the sea change in the attitude of the media to child exploitation.
Yesterday I was genuinely shocked to discover that one of my favourite musicians had become the latest from the music industry to be accused of child abuse.
Roy Harper was never a big name himself – but amongst rock stars he was a legend: for me he was the greatest of all English singer song-writers: a brilliant acoustic guitarist with a soaring voice who sang with great anger about injustice.
He was extraordinary live, but he was very much a cult artist, and never made the charts.
For those who have never heard of him, here he is performing Hangman, very apt in the circumstances as it is about a condemned man’s last reflections from the gallows: a haunting and devastatingly bleak song.
I have no idea whether Harper is guilty or innocent of the charges laid against him, and I make no comment whatsoever about that but the case raises very disturbing questions for me about how the media, indeed much of society viewed child sex abuse at the time that I myself was under the age of consent.
Last night I was flicking back through my Harper albums because I had a vague, but unsettling memory.
And yes, there it was: on the 1974 album Valentine a song called Forbidden Fruit, which is dedicated to Lewis Carroll and is about a 13 year-old girl. It opens with the lines: “Baby won’t you play with me, Games that no-one else can see.”
I was very young when I bought the album and would not have noticed the significance of it at the time. I’m not going to quote the rest of the lyrics but they are easily accessed online. I’m sure anyone concerned with child protection issues would be aghast if any artist anywhere were to release an album containing such a song, regardless of whether the events described were fact or fantasy.
And doing a little bit of follow up research last night I came across an interview Harper did with Melody Maker just before the album was released in which he is quoted as saying: I’m into the beauty of the young female, and the older I get, the more fascinated I become.”
“That’s probably true of most men, but I’m totally honest about it. That song’s an absolute admission if you like. I mean I’m a great man for women, full stop, but let’s not get hung up here. Let’s just say that Forbidden Fruit is way way over the top of Mrs Mary Whitehouse…”
So in 1974 a musician releases a song about under age sex and apart from a fawning interview in the music press, there’s absolutely no reaction for almost 40 years! Extraordinary. Just imagine what the Daily Mail would have to say about that issue today! Harper would have had the press camped outside his door for weeks.
And that made me think a little more: also in my album collection is Blind Faith’s sole album released in 1969. Blind Faith were not obscure like Harper they were an international “super group” featuring Eric Clapton, Stevie Winwood and Ginger Baker, and the album topped the charts in both Britain and America. The cover features a topless 11 year-old girl holding an aeroplane – I’d never really thought about it before, but I’m disturbed by it now.
In 1968 the American band the Union Gap was introduced on Top of the Pops by Jimmy Savile to perform their number one hit “Young Girl” in which a man bemoans the fact that his girlfriend is under the age of consent and references the “come on” look in the girl’s eye. There was no furore, no outrage from the press. Nothing.
Looking back it seems so perverse: the year before the Rolling Stones were ludicrously forced to change the lyrics of Let’s Spend the Night Together, to “Let’s Spend Some time Together” before being allowed to perform on the Ed Sullivan show. Says it all about the standards of the time really: encouraging casual sex was not allowed, lusting after minors was. Throughout this period The Sun newspaper was regularly using topless pictures of 16 year-olds on Page 3 (The age was  increased to 18 by the Sexual Offences Act as late as 2003).
And in 1976 the National Council for Civil Liberties (now called Liberty) made a submission on criminal law which stated: ”Childhood sexual experiences, willingly engaged in with an adult, result in no identifiable damage.”
What was really needed, it argued, was a change in the attitude that assumed that all cases of paedophilia resulted in lasting damage. Which, of course, completely fails to  factor in the entire concept of “age of consent”!

Now as police investigations move on from showbiz and TV studios to the wilder shores of rock and roll and of backstage parties, groupies and hotel rooms we can expect much more to come out.

Regardless of the guilt or innocence of Harper, which is for the courts to decide, we can expect to see much more famous elderly stars facing police investigation and the courts. .



The Week at Stormont: Young Hearts, Winter is Coming and Care Bill

political monitoring StormontA select review of Northern Ireland’s political discourse from the past seven days

We spend all week with an eye on Stormont, writing reports and helping clients get their ideas off the ground, while getting to know the many to-ings and fro-ings within the House on the Hill; certain issues get a good showing in the media, others not at all, while the coverage of some focuses only on limited aspects of the debate. Here we provide summary bulletins on some of the latest party arguments and positions.


Home is where the heart is? Edwin Poots answered several queries on child heart services during his turn at ministerial question time, saying a decision on whether and what surgical procedures will continue in Belfast has not yet been made.

He told Alliance’s Chris Lyttle that discussions continue with Dublin about a two-site model covering both NI and RoI, and accepted the distress caused to families by uncertainty after some services were halted over a year ago.

The Minister reassured DUP colleague Ian McCrea that similar systems overseas already up and running were being examined, and told Sinn Fein that the announced new Belfast Hospital for Sick Children had been designed with cardiac services in mind – assuring the SDLP that he wanted to see a continuing surgical presence in NI.

However, the Minister expressed some regret when the UUP asked when the new hospital will be open, saying a 2019 date “is a reality that I have to accept”.

It’s a wrap? Alex Easton of the DUP proposed a review of insulation used in Housing Executive (HE) properties after a South Eastern Regional College review found a sample of homes had serious flaws in their cavity wall insulation – contributing to NI’s high rate of fuel poverty and contributing to excess winter deaths – noting that we suffer more of those than Finland, where seasonal temperatures reach -50°C.

The Greens’ Steven Agnew put forward a popular amendment calling for assurances that any materials used “are environmentally sustainable and provide value for money over their lifespan”. Sinn Fein offered support, but warned many homeowners and private renters have been left in the lurch and fuel poverty is rising, while the UUP agreed this was vital, saying it is the difference between being in and out of fuel poverty for many.

The SDLP said it should be examined as part of an overall home heating strategy. Minister Nelson McCausland pointed to current plans to improve efficiency in all HE stock, an ongoing survey into cavity wall insulation, and an examination of external insulation to help no-fines homes. Motion and amendment passed.

One less hole in the net? Another Commons statute extended to NI, when the Health Minister brought forth a Care Bill legislative consent motion, which means UK health trusts now must give immediate support to people from other GB&NI jurisdictions who are in their area receiving independent help from a business that subsequently fails.

Sinn Fein’s Maeve Maeve McLaughlin backed the motion on behalf of the Health Committee, noting it will assist older and more vulnerable people, especially with continuity of care. Alliance was also supportive, the DUP said it was especially important due to the recent hardship experienced by some independent care groups, and the UUP praised the benefits for those with elderly relatives receiving support on mainland Britain. Motion passed.


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The Lyric, Our MLAs … and that Scaffolding

political monitoring StormontHere is some free advice for civil servants and any bosses out there whose organisation has been funded by public money. If you ever get invited to appear before the Public Accounts Committee, be afraid, be very afraid.

An important function of the MLAs we elect to represent our interests is to hold public bodies to account, scrutinise their actions and to highlight failings and demand change. Much of this work is done through the committee system and the star performer to date is the Public Accounts Committee.

One of its main functions is to study reports written by the Northern Ireland Audit Office which are often concerned with the efficiency and effectiveness of public spending.

Sometimes committee hearings can be a little shambolic, with members asking very similar questions, showing no evidence of co-ordination or, indeed in-depth knowledge of the subject, so people summoned before them can get an easy ride, side-stepping the awkward questions and bamboozling the committee through their greater grasp of the issues.

That’s not the case with the PAC. Committee meetings are very effectively chaired, members from all parties work well together, following up questions insightfully, putting relentless pressure on the people they are questioning, and this year alone they have put together a series of reports all of which ask serious questions about failings in how are money is being spent.

Recently there have been damning reports on the Housing Executive and the Fire and Rescue Service. The most recent is this week’s report into spending on major arts projects in Northern Ireland, including the Grand Opera House, the Lyric, the Crescent Arts Centre and the MAC.  The projects cumulatively ended up costing £103.4 million, 32 per cent more than the original estimated cost of £78.5 million. There were also significant delays, the biggest being 31 months in the delivery of the Crescent Arts Centre.

The report goes much further than damning the Department of Culture Arts and Leisure, the Arts Council and the Central Procurement Directorate (responsible for overseeing public sector tenders). It even suggests that the awarding of the construction contract to the Lyric was rigged.

It is an explosive document which raises serious questions about how the public sector has been managing big construction projects: the levels of scrutiny it applies to cost overruns, how and why independent consultants have been used when the government has its own procurement unit and whether civil servants treat public money in the same way as they would treat their own.

I have no insight into whether the charge made in the report that the Lyric contract was rigged or not – an allegation that the theatre rigorously denies. But the committee hearing that examined the issue before the document was compiled makes for a great read – MLA after MLA goes on the offensive. Here is just a small extract, where Michael Copeland, Member for East Belfast, is asking Stewart Heaney, divisional director of the CPD to explain how and why the successful bidders for the Lyric contract Gilbert Ash had removed the price of scaffolding from their tender:

Mr Copeland: “I want to come back to the issue about scaffolding. I am still unclear about this. At the time at which the final contract was accepted, the scaffolding costings must have been moved. They disappeared.”

Mr Heaney: “That is right.”

Mr Copeland: “How could you give a contract to any company that was proposing to build a project the size of the Lyric without scaffolding?”

Mr Heaney: “That is partly down to the form of the contract. At this first stage, the contractors were bidding on their overheads and profits and costs against a cost plan provided by the consultants. The second stage was then to work through that design with the contractor and, having tendered specialist subcontract packages, put the whole cost together. Because we do not have the tenders, I do not understand why the consultants chose to take the scaffolding out, other than because they intended they intended to then —“

Mr Copeland: “Reduce the price by half a million pounds or so.”

Mr Heaney: “I think that they intended to take that forward as a subcontract package.”

Mr Copeland: “Has any effort been made to contact the other companies that did tender to see whether they still have copies of the tenders that they sent in?”

Mr Heaney: “CPD has not contacted them but, as I understand it, as part of the audit report, contact was made with the other contractors to see whether the tender reports were available. By that, I mean, the internal audit.”

Mr Kieran Donnelly (Comptroller and Auditor General): “We are not clear as to whether the original —“

Mr Copeland: “I will tell you it straight. If I had tendered for that and seen that outcome, I would have had my copy of that tender in my briefcase and gone to my lawyer before the sun set on that day.”

It’s brutal stuff, all available via the Assembly website here scroll down below the report for the committee hearing. It is compulsory reading for anyone interested in how public scrutiny is beginning to unfold in Northern Ireland.

The Week at Stormont: Schools Enrolment, Mental Health and Blood

political monitoring StormontA select review of Northern Ireland’s political discourse from the past seven days
We spend all week with an eye on Stormont, writing reports and helping clients get their ideas off the ground, while getting to know the many to-ings and fro-ings within the House on the Hill; certain issues get a good showing in the media, others not at all, while the coverage of some focuses only on limited aspects of the debate. Here we provide summary bulletins on some of the latest party arguments and positions.

How best to help our kids at school? The DUP’s Mervyn Storey said enrolment policy must be reviewed so oversubscribed schools can ensure local children learn close to home, with the MLA calling current policy “doctrinaire” and saying the ongoing “phoney” area planning process should cease.
SDLP and UUP members offered their backing, the latter saying current planning is aimless. Alliance also voiced support, saying the Minister’s current temporary variation policy addresses problems that are present “every year” due to overly-rigid guidelines for schools.
Sinn Fein supported the motion, but disagreed with DUP and UUP analysis of current policy, adding that area planning and ESA will improve the situation for children, noting that 98% of children currently are placed in a school chosen by their parents. Education Minister John O’Dowd said the motion was another example of criticism without suggestions for an alternative policy. The motion passed.
Healing through remembering, or healing through healing? One of the worst legacies of the Troubles is NI’s shocking rates of mental health problems. UUP leader Mike Nesbitt followed up on a speech from his party’s recent conference by asking the House to support construction of an International Mental Health Centre.
The SDLP indicated support for such a project, but also called for better mental health services generally – as did Alliance members who, along with NI21, expressed fears the centre was being proposed as an effective alternative to a peace and reconciliation centre at the Maze, saying it should not be a case of one or the other.
Sinn Fein supported the motion in principle, but said such a project required more clarity and development of fine detail. DUP members, as well as Health Minister Edwin Poots, said improved provision is vital but that money is limited, and that the proposed centre sounds a lot like the Northern Ireland Centre for Trauma and Transformation, which closed a few years ago after low demand. The motion passed.
Safety first, or something else? The ban on gay men donating blood should be lifted, while the Health Minister should restore public trust in his treatment of personal equality, according to a Sinn Fein motion, with Maeve McLaughlin noting the court ruling that the block was “irrational” and that the Ministerial Code had been broken.
The UUP suggested an amendment to the motion, placing strict limits on any prohibition, in line with other jurisdictional policy, while the Green Party’s Steven Agnew proposed the Minister should resign if he was unable to comply with statutory duties.
The DUP said public safety was the primary concern in this matter and that this should not be lost in the “hysteria” of the debate. The SDLP agreed that safety comes first, adding that countries including the USA and Canada have policies similar to that currently in NI, but supported the motion because it is proven scientific best practice, while Colum Eastwood added that the Assembly was “out of touch” on LGBT issues.
Alliance and NI21 backed the motion and amendments, while the TUV’s Jim Allister supported the Health Minister, who said his decision was made with public safety in mind. The amendments and motion passed.

Want in-depth monitoring of Northern Ireland politics? Just get in touch with Ryan Miller


Poots: Stronger or Weaker After All the Rows?

Last night I joined Alex Kane for a debate with Paul Clarke on UTV Live about the impact of all the recent controversies on Edwin Poots’ position as Health Minister.
I believe that the rows over abortion, the blood issue and his attack on Gerry Adams actually strengthen rather than weaken his position amongst core supporters.
It is certainly interesting to note that there is still no sign of the re-shuffle that we were all anticipating with Jim Wells taking over the health brief.
He’s certainly provoked a huge backlash with his views on homosexuality and abortion, and the petition to get rid of him grows by the day. But has that had any impact on his standing in his own party? If so I’d be very interested in seeing the evidence …