Saturday, 29 March 2014

Robin Hood - Misunderstood

Over a month ago I published an article entitled Dun do bheal (Shut your Mouth). In the article I commented on a report published by the Northern Ireland Audit Office that stated the total estimated PFI ( Private Finance Initiative) committed payments relating to the 39 PFI contracts (including two Derry schools) in Northern Ireland is £7.2 billion.

The current cost of PFI contract payments is approximately £250 million per annum. Private Finance Initiatives otherwise knows as a Public Private Partnerships are a way of funding public infrastructure projects with private money.

The report went further and stated that Stormont 'does not have a published and transparent borrowing strategy, which sets out to ensure that the total capital investment remains within affordable and sustainable limits.' What this means is that the politicians are borrowing huge sums of money, with huge interest payments that we the taxpayers are footing the bill for.

In 2012 Ms Ruane opened the new St Mary's college saying 'This purpose-built accommodation represents a £19 million investment in the North West. The facilities provided will benefit not only pupils today but for generations to come.” Her party colleague and former Education Minister Martin McGuinness said 'This is a very special occasion for me personally, this is a good day for the city and the school community.'

On first glance it would seem that these are two success stories, however what Ms. Ruane failed to mention was how much these two new schools would cost the public. Now before anyone thinks as a mother of three children all between primary and secondary school that I would begrudge one penny of investment into education, think again. The thing is I don't want my children paying for the extravagance of Stormont politicians who are happy to borrow millions to modernise some schools when other schools are seriously lacking and some earmarked for closure.

The fact is that the joint cost of building these two schools was 45 Million pounds – the end cost to the public purse (the money you pay through rates and taxes) is around 185 Million pounds – That's 140 Million pounds extra. And this is because these projects were financed through a Private Finance Initiative.

We could all furnish our homes with the finest of items, the most hi-tech 3d 60” tv, have a the most expensive car that credit can buy, but we all try to live within our means. This is something that seems to escape those in Stormont because the two Derry schools mentioned are just the tip of the iceberg.

On 25th March the Belfast Telegraph published figures detailing a list of projects paid for through Private Finance Initiatives, it listed their actual costs, and what will be the end costs. 
Figures published by the Belfast Telegraph

Just two weeks ago I published an article entitled 'At least Dick Turpin wore a mask!' which was about how people are being taken to court because they have fallen behind with their rates payments. In the article I highlighted how rates are a type of property tax which provide funding for public services and how 15% of people in the Derry City Council area are in rates arrears.

In light of the article I published, I was contacted by a young mother from the Waterside area of the City, she was distraught. Similar to the friend I mentioned in the earlier article she had received a letter threatening legal action because she had fallen behind with her rates. She explained that whilst in the process of making up the payments she had missed she had been taken to court & a judgement granted against her. The letter she received terrified her, the language used included the phrases 'seizure of goods', 'bankruptcy' and being subject to 'substantial costs' and that they could apply to the High Court for 'possession & sale' of her home.

I rang Land and Property Services for this girl and explained her situation, the employee I spoke to was very helpful and pointed out that the letter was merely a formality. He then went on to explain that the debt outstanding from this financial year would be added to the girl's next rates bill which would also include court costs.

So whilst the rate payer struggles to make ends meet, Stormont can run up Billions of pounds in debt, debt that our children will probably end up having to pay through their rates and taxes, yet here  a young family are put through the wringer, threatened with all sorts of legal actions for around what one party calls an average industrial weekly wage.

It must be great being a politician, you don't have to live in the real world, money is no expense because it's not your money – your time in office is just one big expenses paid junket.

Thursday, 27 March 2014

The state of this place

North Korea's Fashionista
I have just read a BBC news article on how men in North Korea are required to get a haircut similar to that of their leader Kim Jong-un. Until recently people in North Korea had to choose their hair-style from a choice of eighteen styles for women and ten for men, but now they have to do what they are told, with no mechanism for appeal. This is the same North Korea that the United States Government says has 'draconian internal control mechanisms' and that the 'regime’s greatest security concern is opposition from within'.  

At this point I suspect you're reaction is one of disbelief or you may be wondering, what's she on about or if this is some kind of joke? Well it's not!

As we are on the subject of dodgy haircuts and draconian dictators, the British Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Chipping Barnet M.P. Theresa Villiers comes to mind. Theresa Villiers has had her Lawyers submit a legal application for a civil case in Northern Ireland to be held in a secret court for the first time.
The MP for Dodgy Barnet

Villiers' legal team are to ask the High Court in Belfast to impose Closed Material Procedure (CMP) restrictions in a legal case. The case in question is being taken by a former republican prisoner who is suing the Secretary of State for unlawful detention.

In the event this application is successful it must be asked will this become the norm and will it set a precedent which will allow all cases involving the state to be heard behind closed doors, as there are a lot of cases in which the states methods could be challenged in open court, and that's something they don't want!

The Justice and Security Act (2013) introduced last summer extended the use of secret courts to include civil cases in England. The secret justice bill was widely opposed by many MP'S in England who claimed this type of practice has no place in a democracy and that the practice resembled that of repressive regimes and tyrants. More than 700 people from the legal profession including 38 QC's signed a petition demanding the bill be scrapped stating it was 'dangerous and unnecessary; and that it would 'fatally undermine' the fairness of court hearings.

To try and deflect criticism of their use of secret courts, being magnanimous the British allow a defendant to have a state appointed advocate. This state-approved and appointed employee is forbidden from discussing any 'sensitive material' that may be produced in court. The person subject to Closed Material Procedure is not allowed to access the evidence against them or to challenge the evidence produced by government agencies such as Mi5. If the defendant wins the case the judge cannot explain how he came to his decision.

'The great majority of national security agents will be run by the PSNI, under the strategic direction of the Service, mirroring the arrangements the Service has with the police in GB.
                                                                                                                 Annex E St Andrews Agreement

At this juncture bear in mind it was agreed by Stormont Parties at the St Andrews talks to give Mi5 increased powers, and also worth mentioning is a certain Lyndsey Robb. Robb was a convicted Loyalist gun runner who was able to give secret evidence in a case against Lurgan man Colin Duffy.

During the trial Robb was identified only as witness 'C', as a result of Robb's evidence Duffy was given a life sentence, which was only overturned when it was established that Robb had no credibility (and was a convicted terrorist) – and here is a crucial point, it has been a long established fact that the British Government and its security services have been involved in many unsavoury acts. What is to stop them having evidence against someone provided behind closed doors, by an unnamed witness of Robb's ilk, they had no problem doing it in open court, so we can only guess at the injustices that could be carried out with no oversight or public scrutiny.

The bottom line is that the use of 'closed material' procedures denies you the right to build a defence or challenge the evidence against you. How do you defend what you can't see? Or is that the objective to cover things in a cloak of secrecy otherwise known as the national security card. How do you know someone providing evidence against you isn't a loyalist or someone on the payroll of the security services, or if any evidence exists.

As was seen in the recent case of Martin Corey (former life sentence prisoner) the Secretary of State sent him back to prison on the strength of closed material evidence.  Martin Corey served a three and a half year sentence despite, being bailed by the courts, having no charge against him and was later released under strict bail conditions. It is extremely frightening that the British Secretary of State can overrule the judiciary and begs the question, why have a judicial system if a politician, and one with no mandate here in the North can veto its decisions?

In the cases of former life sentence prisoners the British Secretary of State claims to take her advice from the Parole Commission for Northern Ireland. The Parole Commission are a group of political appointees who operate behind closed doors, they are selected by the Secretary of State and the Northern Ireland Justice Minister. However it should be noted that whilst the British Secretary of State may take advice from the Parole Commission she is not bound by their advice.

In an amendment to the Life Sentences (Northern Ireland) Order 2001, it enshrines the British Secretary of State’s right to use ‘Secret Evidence’ to detain anyone. This amendment also provides the right for the British Secretary of State to overrule the NI Justice Minister, so why have a Justice Minister, unless it's  purpose is to provide an illusion.
Vorster - Is this an Ambush?

John Vorster a former South African Justice Minister and proponent of apartheid once said he `would be willing to exchange all the 'South African' legislation of that sort for one clause of the Northern Ireland Special Powers Act.' I'm sure Mr Vorster would feel a certain kinship with the current regime here if he hadn't shuffled off this mortal coil and I'm sure Kim Jong-un would be so proud of the regime here in the North, so the next time you think of draconian legislation or dodgy hair cuts don't think North Korea, think Northern Ireland.

Saturday, 15 March 2014

At least Dick Turpin wore a mask!

A few weeks ago a friend of mine rang me deeply distressed about a letter she received in respect of her domestic rates bill. The letter instructed her to attend a court hearing regarding her non-payment of rates.

Rates are a type of property tax which provide funding for public services. Rate payments are levied between district councils and central government. I should mention that this girl in particular missed payments which totalled just over £200 due to unforeseen circumstances. My friend's dilemma led me to seek information through Freedom of Information Legislation on the level of rate arrears across the Derry City Council area.

The 2011 census stated that Derry had 40,779 households, so keeping that figure in mind here is the information I received:

As at 31st March 2013, a total of 6,241 Domestic Occupancies in the Derry District Council area had some rating debt outstanding.
In 2012/13 a total of 2,146 processes in Debt Proceedings were issued to Domestic ratepayers in the Derry District Council area.

In 2012/13 a total of 1,145 Decrees in Debt judgements were made in relation to Domestic ratepayers in the Derry District Council area.

With over 15% of people in the city in debt because of their rates I would question the audacity of Derry City Council in announcing a rate increase of 2.58%, this being the most recent in a succession of rates increases year on year for the past 5 years. Derry City Council have tried to put a positive spin on this by declaring, it works out at approximately £20 of an increase per house.

A £20 increase may seem trivial to those in council but in this town where every third child is living below the breadline this money can be the difference between children having dinner and going without, it's a weeks electricity, or in some households two pairs of shoes.

'In-work poverty now outstrips workless poverty'

In a 2012 Joseph Rowntree Foundation report “Monitoring Poverty and Social Exclusion in Northern Ireland” there was an examination on the impact of the economic downturn on households in Northern Ireland since 2009.
The report stated that half of the 120,000 children living in poverty are living in households with at least one working parent. It also highlighted how over a fifth of NI pensioners are living in poverty and how the number of retired households living in poverty had increased from 55,000 to 70,000. 
The annual 'Monitoring Poverty' report, written by the New Policy Institute (NPI) states that 6.1 million people in poverty are in working households. Excluding pensioners, in-work poverty now outstrips workless poverty at 5.1 million households. 
According to new research the lowest earning 10% of the population here in Northern Ireland have experienced consumer price inflation of 40% in the decade up to 2013 which is an estimated £1000 annually. So those in council who feel this increase is only a mere £20 should maybe add this £20 to the £1000 cost of living increase and keep in mind that as the cost of everything rises the wages and benefits remain the same. I wonder when striking their rate did DCC consider the 300,000 households in Northern Ireland in Fuel Poverty? Shocking figures show 70% of people in Northern Ireland cut back on food to pay energy bills?

Two weeks ago (2nd March 2014) figures were released that 41% of Northern Ireland homeowners (mortgage payer) are living in negative equity. In the recent BBC report it said that about 68,000 people in Northern Ireland are struggling to cope with mortgage payments. So again why rise Rate payments?

Whilst people who are in domestic rates arrears are home owners  this increase may also mean an increase in housing rents. People living in rental properties pay rates through their rent, so if their cash payment or housing benefit falls short of this estimated 2.58% this could mean they will have to raise the extra money to meet the shortfall.

Derry is an unemployment blackspot with 8.6% of the population reliant on Job seekers allowance. The promises of how the UK City of Culture would bring an estimated 3000 jobs have since been proved a nonsense. Conal McFeely of Creggan Enterprises told the BBC "Whilst we had great marketing around City of Culture it has had no impact on jobs, The jobs situation has actually got worse.”

When the rates increase was announced it was revealed that the annual subvention at the City of Derry Airport would be increased by 4.7%. The city of Derry Airport currently receives an annual subvention of £2 million. In attempt to make this revelation palatable SDLP councillor Gerard Diver said it was the first rise in a number of years.

Last year it was feared that jobs could be lost at City of Derry Airport as the UK City of Culture celebrations made "no significant impact" on passenger numbers. The airport director Damien Tierney said "2014 will likely be problematic as I think we will lose anumber of flights in the summer period." Yet Derry City council increase the subvention by 4.7%.

In the run up to the the city of culture Derry City Council in conjunction with the DOE established the 'DERELICTION IMPROVEMENT SCHEME'. This scheme was set up to disguise the wreckage known as the economy, some of this saw buildings in the city centre receiving face-lifts, other properties had false fa├žades put on them to disguise the fact they were derelict or in disrepair. 

I have personally have no problem with rates relief being given to small struggling businesses or money being spent  that will benefit us long-term however I do have an issue with money being spent to cover over the cracks. When reading through the figures on the DERELICTION IMPROVEMENT SCHEME one figure in particular caught my attention. This figure was in reference to the money spent on clearing the former Tillie & Henderson factory site which was demolished in 2003 due to safety concerns, without permission, following a series of fires.

The 90 Million Pound Man
The Tillie and Henderson site is owned by none other than Lord Rana one of Northern Ireland's best-known businessmen. Rana who has an estimated personal wealth of 90 MILLION POUNDS  had plans to build a hotel on the site. Yet Derry City council from our pockets paid £80,675.30 to clear what was technically Lord Rana's mess. And if it wasn't bad enough that ratepayers money was used to tidy up Lord Rana's mess. In 2011 multi millionaire Rana said that the development of the Tillie and Henderson site was 'dependent on funding from Invest Northern Ireland.' 

If a council litter warden catches you dropping litter you get fined somewhere in the region of £75 and if you're £200 behind with your rates you can be taken to court. In contrast if you allow a landmark building to go to wreck & ruin a building which is then demolished for public safety at the expense at the tax payer you qualify for over EIGHTY THOUSAND POUNDS of ratepayers money to clean up your mess. Must be great to be a millionaire Lord!!!!

Here's some more food for thought!
Cast your mind back to the Olympic torch procession through the city and the party that followed. This cost the ratepayer a massive £80,902, this does not include policing costs.

The Clipper Round the World yacht race visited the city in 2012, but the city's Mayor and council officials are still being sent to the various port the race is going to this is costing the ratepayer £76,000.

Former Westlife star Shane Filan was paid a massive £10,000 for his appearance at the first City of Culture legacy event which involved him singing two songs.
And lets not forget a study by Price Waterhouse Cooper found that "significantly more" of Derry City Council's staff earned more than £50,000 per year than in other "similarly-sized" councils.

Derry City Council guaranteed Ryanair more than One Million Pounds in a five year marketing agreement to fly into City of Derry Airport. Something they tried to hide and ended up in court after defying an information commissioner ruling that the information was in the public interest.

This is the same Derry City Council which paid more than FIVE MILLION POUNDS to buy and demolish 17 homes next to City of Derry Airport to make way for a runway safety extension, that was never built.

It would seem money is no object to Derry City Council, especially when they're spending ratepayers money. These days I manage my money carefully prioritising the important things which is no easy task given that the cost of essentials has increased, yet it would appear my rates are being spent recklessly by my local council who now require an extra 2.58%. The only difference between Derry City Council and Dick Turpin is Mr Turpin had the decency to wear a mask when he demanded money from people.


A Derry Mother AKA ratepayer!


Saturday, 8 March 2014

We're not gonna take it...

With the Local Government Elections fast approaching it's time for the election candidates to set up shop and sell themselves to the public. Why should I vote for you? What are you gonna do different from all the rest? I don't care how many times you're posing in the paper, I do care about you doing what you say you're going to do.