The Business Committee has agreed to allow up to five hours for the debate. The First Minister and deputy First Minister will have up to one hour to divide at their discretion between moving and winding on the motion. All other Members who wish to speak will have 10 minutes.
I beg to move
That this Assembly endorses the Programme for Government 2011-15 agreed by the Executive.
On 17 November 2011, the Northern Ireland Executive launched the draft Programme for Government for consultation. At that time, I said that this blueprint reflected our intention to take responsibility for our future, our intention to modernise and reform and our intention to move forward as one community. I reaffirm those intentions today. Today, we seek the endorsement of the Northern Ireland Assembly for our proposals and for the Programme for Government. It is the responsibility of those elected to office in Northern Ireland to lead, but it is also our responsibility to listen. Having listened to the people of Northern Ireland through the consultation process, we have improved and added focus to the initial document. Today, we are determined to finalise and pass this Programme for Government, but, even more importantly, tomorrow and in the days that follow, we will deliver it.
This is an exceptionally important time in Northern Ireland’s history. We have put the conflict of previous decades behind us. Now, we must focus on tackling the everyday problems that each society throughout the world has to face. We have a genuine decision to make: we can either continue to contain and manage our problems, or we can seek to resolve them and, in doing so, decide to take our place on the world stage. For our part, that decision has already been made, and delivery has begun.
This year will be our time. To demonstrate that, we have a stunning series of events planned that will attract people from every corner of the globe: the opening of the new Titanic visitor centre in Belfast; the opening of the Giant’s Causeway visitor centre; the centenary of the Titanic’s maiden voyage; the opening of the MAC, Belfast’s new arts centre; the Olympic and Paralympic Games 2012 torch relay; the arrival of the Clipper Round the World Yacht Race to Londonderry; the fiftieth Belfast Festival at Queen’s; the Irish Open at Royal Portrush; and, to add flavour to the year, we start a decade of significant centenaries reflecting our historic shared differences.
We are not a people given to hype or hyperbole. Our scepticism is a healthy characteristic. However, let me be absolutely clear: these will be events of genuinely international interest built on a globally important heritage — events that will look forward as well as back. This is our opportunity to showcase everything that is good about Northern Ireland and all the potential that lies ahead of us. In particular, the events represent incredibly important opportunities to highlight the talents of our people. We have absolutely no reason to feel inferior when it comes to our capabilities. Northern Ireland people are second to none. The incredible success of our movie stars such as Liam Neeson, Kenneth Branagh, Stephen Rea or Ciarán Hinds reflects the professionalism and hard work of those individuals, as well as the humour, culture and shared heritage of the community that nurtured them.
The question is how we build on the deep reservoir of talent that exists here. The challenge must be to create a society that can bring people together to push in the same direction for the common good. There is no reason why that cannot happen, and the Programme for Government sets out a route map to achieve that.
People from here have already had a large impact across the world. For example, people of local stock helped to build modern America. Look at that long list of US presidents whose lineage is traced back to Northern Ireland. Think about international sports stars such as Graeme McDowell, Rory McIlroy and Darren Clarke, who, today, compete with the best in the world and, time after time, win. For centuries, people from here have gone elsewhere to make their mark. The challenge before us is to create the opportunities that will encourage our citizens to root themselves right here.
For every superstar, there are many tens of thousands of unsung heroes contributing huge value through business, working in our hospitals or schools or supporting the most vulnerable in their communities. It is those so-called ordinary people who will transform our society. That is why it was so important to listen to the opinions coming from Northern Ireland’s grass roots while we finalised our Programme for Government. Following the November launch, we undertook an extensive programme of engagement with the public and key stakeholders. During that period, we issued around 1,000 documents, received more than 430 responses and held or supported 20 events. We took heed of what we heard, and we are confident that the finalised Programme for Government presents a real and viable business plan to move us forward, grow our economy and achieve the social changes that are necessary to ensure that our community — a single, unified community — moves from strength to strength. For example, the final version of the programme draws out the top priorities identified during the consultation, namely the promotion of over 25,000 new jobs; £1 billion of investment in the Northern Ireland economy; increased visitor numbers and tourist revenue; supporting young people into employment by providing skills and training; and reforming and modernising the delivery of health and social care.
Before I talk about the outcome of the consultation in more detail, I would like colleagues to take a step back for a moment and think about what this programme means for our people. In simple terms, people want delivery. They want delivery on the ground that they can see, feel and understand; they want good jobs; they want to live in safe, peaceful and clean communities; and they want to know that they will receive effective services when they need them. Put simply, people in Northern Ireland want exactly the same things as everyone the world over hopes for — a good quality of life for themselves, their family and their community. The Programme for Government is, therefore, vital. It is a statement of genuine intent that sets out a road map for reform that will lead us to the future that our citizens desire and deserve.
The draft programme had a strong emphasis on the economy, and we will return to that theme tomorrow, when we hold our debate on the economic strategy. As it stands, the final version of the Programme for Government retains a similar emphasis, and I make no apology for that. People need to have the chance to contribute through work. We need opportunities that can motivate everyone and enable them to create the value that they, their families and their communities need. It is good for their health and well-being, good for their community and good for the economy as a whole.
A commitment to promote 25,000 new jobs, therefore, remains at the top of the agenda, along with commitments to support young people into employment by providing skills and training; to support £300 million of investment by businesses in R&D, with at least 20% coming from small and medium-sized enterprises; to press for the devolution of corporation tax and reduce its level; to include social clauses in all our public procurement contracts for supplies, services and construction; to aid the liquidity of small and medium-sized enterprises through a £50 million loan fund; to deliver at least 30 schemes to improve landscapes and public areas and promote private sector investment in towns and cities; to ensure that 90% of large-scale investment planning decisions are made within six months and applications with job creation potential are given additional weight; to introduce an extension of the small business rate relief scheme to 2015; and to eliminate air passenger duty on direct long-haul flights. However, we have gone further. The final Programme for Government includes enhanced commitments on the economy, including commitments to achieve a £375 million injection through foreign direct investment, which is an increase from £300 million in the draft programme, as part of a £1 billion investment package, and to facilitate the delivery of the Executive’s 20% target for increased drawdown of competitive EU funds. That is a new commitment. The final Programme for Government also includes commitments to increase the value of manufacturing exports by 20%, which is an increase from the 15% commitment in the draft programme; to raise visitor numbers to 4·2 million, which is an increase from 3·6 million in the draft programme; and to increase tourist revenue to £676 million by 2013, which is an increase from the £625 million committed in the draft programme.
The message is that we have listened to what we have been told. It is clear that a strong economy is needed to drive social change. People need to be empowered to lift themselves and their families out of poverty. Delivery will also require investment. We will return to that in more detail in coming weeks in the debate on the investment strategy, which was the third document we launched for public consultation back in November. All of this will require a huge, concerted effort by everyone. Our economy will grow only by developing people and empowering them to deliver the necessary growth. We need to foster business entrepreneurs, social entrepreneurs and capable employees who can work with international companies. However, creating that level of opportunity will be difficult when 28% of children are in a low-income household. Economic measures will not be able to deliver all the change that is needed. Thriving economies help to create healthy communities, but healthy and peaceful communities are also a very important precursor to a strong economy.
We are determined to work together across government to make a real impact on the divisions that have blighted our community. That is why we have developed the Delivering Social Change delivery framework. The reality is that we cannot continue to address the so-called intractable problems of poverty and social inclusion using the methods employed in the past. We have too many strategies, too many policies and too many action plans, many of which refer to work already proposed or under way and do not add real value. The difference with this new approach is that we are not interested in producing vast and unwieldy documents for their own sake. We want to pursue a smaller number of additional objectives; for example, flagship projects to support early interventions where children are at risk of harm. The key will be to introduce a systematic roll-out of programmes that can make a difference across all areas. The development of Delivering Social Change demonstrates the value of listening. People told us that they expect to see Departments working together effectively and transparently to make a difference.
We paid attention to concerns that the needs of key groups, such as victims and survivors, were not fully reflected in the draft. We decided that a new approach would be required that would enable us to focus the £80 million social investment fund, the £12 million childcare fund and the other available resources on the actions that can impact most effectively in the long term. We will look carefully at what that means for existing commitments to produce action plans. In future, our primary focus will be on actions, not plans.
This systematic, outcome-focused approach will also apply to the other pledges in the Programme for Government. Although we need to focus on the economy, the Programme for Government is full of commitments that are essential if we are to achieve the necessary transformation in quality of life for our citizens. Important examples include promises to introduce and support initiatives aimed at reducing fuel poverty across Northern Ireland, including preventative interventions, improved thermal efficiency of Housing Executive stock and ensuring full double glazing in its properties. Other examples include the establishment of an advisory group to assist Ministers in alleviating hardship, including any implications arising from the UK Government’s welfare reform programme, and the development of the One Plan for the regeneration of Londonderry, incorporating the key sites at Fort George and Ebrington. I am particularly pleased to see a new pledge to improve patient and client outcomes and access to new treatments and services and the expansion of the existing commitment on educational achievement at GCSE to include improvements not only for young people from a disadvantaged background but for the wider population, given the need to restore our international position and address underachievement.
I have already made my views clear about the desirability of bringing our community together through education. I am particularly pleased to say that three critical commitments remain in the finalised programme: first, to establish a ministerial advisory group that will explore and bring forward recommendations to the Minister of Education for the advancement of shared education; secondly, to ensure that all children have the opportunity to participate in shared education programmes by 2015; and, thirdly, to increase substantially the number of schools that share facilities by that same year. These are real commitments, and, together with a new pledge to actively seek local agreement to reduce the number of peace walls, alongside the development of our CSI strategy, I fully expect to see this society coming together in new ways to deliver the shared future that we all want. I believe that this demonstrates fully that the Executive have listened to their consultees and that the Programme for Government has been improved as a result.
We recognise that the draft programme is significantly shorter than its predecessor, containing as it does 76 commitments, compared to almost 400 previously. Some of those consulted felt that 76 commitments were still too many, while others highlighted the desire to address key gaps, including the aspiration to place greater emphasis on the needs of children, older people and those with disabilities.
What has come across very strongly from this exercise is that, although people are generally supportive of the programme, they are much more focused on delivery. They want us to listen, but they want to see results. They want tangible transformation, not endless analysis. In that context, I thank the Committee for its work on the programme. I am very grateful to it and the Chairman for the work that underpins the Committee’s conclusions. We will seek to fill all the gaps that were identified through that engagement, either through the amendments to the programme that we have already made or as we move forward with implementation.
I am also happy to confirm that we will put in place arrangements to ensure that rigorous delivery plans are in place to meet our commitments. Those will be the subject of progress reports, which will be published annually, together with mid-year performance updates. The last time I addressed the Assembly on the draft Programme for Government, I said that we were on a new journey in a new era of devolved government. For the first time in a generation, we have completed a full Assembly term and have begun the job of building a better future. By the time of the next Assembly election, we will be judged by the electorate on our delivery. I believe that, through this Programme for Government, we can and will deliver a better, brighter and more prosperous Northern Ireland. I am determined that that delivery should be visible straight away. Indeed, we have been delivering impressively and at a significantly greater pace, especially since the Assembly election. This debate is a vital step in the process. Members will be aware of the issues that our citizens experience on the ground. They see and feel at first hand the impact of the economic downturn and the tightening of public resources. Members will, no doubt, have views about the commitments that are set out, and many may not always agree on those priorities. Therefore, it is important that Members use this opportunity to inform the process. However, when the debate concludes, let us be in no doubt that this programme must be implemented.
I look forward to seeing the Executive’s commitments delivered, and I look forward to working with all Assembly Members who want Northern Ireland to move forward to make that happen. I commend the motion, and I commend the Programme for Government to the House.
I thank the First Minister and the deputy First Minister for bringing this forward and for briefing me this morning on the aspects of the Programme for Government. I speak on behalf of the Committee for the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister. Members will be aware that the Committee took the lead in co-ordinating the responses of Statutory Committees to the Programme for Government and sought their views on it, with particular focus on three specific areas: gaps in the Programme for Government; comments on the milestones and outcomes of the departmental commitments; and monitoring progress. I am sure that the Chairpersons and members of other Committees will give their views.
The Committee was briefed by the First Minister and the deputy First Minister on the draft Programme for Government on 14 December last year. The Committee also held round-table discussions to seek the views of the commissions that fall within OFMDFM’s remit: the Equality Commission; the Commissioner for Children and Young People; the Commissioner for Older People; and the Commissioner for Victims and Survivors.
Members will be aware that the Committee has not had an opportunity to consider or comment on the final version of the Programme for Government that we are debating today or the changes from the draft. However, the Committee welcomed the five strategic priorities in the draft Programme for Government, which are now in the final version.
I shall begin by considering gaps in the Programme for Government, some of which have been addressed. The Committee for the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister wanted to see greater reference to Europe in the Programme for Government, and the addition of the Executive’s European priorities in the final Programme for Government’s building blocks for priorities 1, 2 and 3 is welcome. The Committee also welcomes the inclusion in priority 1 of the final Programme for Government of an additional specific commitment on the Executive’s 20% target for increased drawdown of competitive European Union funding that it had asked OFMDFM to consider.
The Committee commented on the cross-cutting nature of the priorities and wished to see more detail on how Departments’ progress will be monitored to allow for effective scrutiny, particularly in areas such as poverty and social exclusion, and the integrated childcare strategy. I note that the final Programme for Government includes more detail in priority 2 about structures to co-ordinate Departments working together to tackle poverty and social exclusion, namely the Delivering Social Change framework. The Committee considered correspondence about the DSC framework from the First Minister and deputy First Minister at its meeting last week and agreed to request an oral briefing on it. We look forward to learning more about how it will deliver effective, cross-departmental working.
The Committee asked that consideration be given to including Northern Ireland-specific targets in the Programme for Government in addition to the UK-wide targets in the Child Poverty Act 2010. That would allow for monitoring of progress on child poverty locally and contribute towards achieving the UK-wide targets. We do not feel that has been significantly addressed in the Programme for Government document because we believe that the UK targets could be met without any improvement in the Northern Ireland targets. That is why it is important that we see localised Northern Ireland targets.
The Committee’s report also highlighted the need for detailed delivery plans. The Committee was briefed by officials on the 2008-2011 Programme for Government delivery report at its meeting last week. We learned that Committees will have an opportunity to comment on the draft delivery plans of their respective Departments, and OFMDFM plans to bring that forward to monitor progress and delivery of the Programme for Government.
The Commission for Victims and Survivors felt that there was insufficient reference to dealing with the past, a problem that has continued to plague society in Northern Ireland and, it appears, will continue to do so. The commissioners also felt that a commitment in the Programme for Government to continue to develop services that address the needs of victims and their families would have afforded recognition to victims.
The Commissioner for Older People felt that the draft PFG did not sufficiently address the significance of an ageing population, including its significance for Northern Ireland’s workforce and as a key consumer of health and social services. The commissioner also felt that increasing pensioner poverty, including fuel poverty, should have been referenced in the Programme for Government.
The Commissioner for Children and Young People believed that there were significant gaps in the draft Programme for Government in a number of areas, including early intervention, family support, mental health, play and leisure participation, safeguarding children, post-primary transfer, special educational needs, children in care and children with disabilities.
The commissioners gave a broad welcome to the proposal to legislate to extend age discrimination to the provision of goods and services. The Equality Commission and a number of Committee members highlighted the need for legislation on race and disability to be brought up to date with developments in the rest of the United Kingdom. The Committee asked OFMDFM to consider bringing forward a flexible framework capable of reflecting change and best practice in relation to disability and race. I am sure that the Committee will wish to return to that issue when we have more detail on the measures to promote the rights of people from an ethnic minority background, which has been inserted in priority 2 of the final Programme for Government.
On legislation generally, I note that the concluding sentence of annex 1 of the PFG now states:
“It is intended that this Programme for Government will be supported by a legislative programme that complements its delivery objectives.”
The Committee’s report stated that it would like to see a commitment to the publication of a rolling legislative programme and more information on legislation that has been agreed. This is an issue that the Committee will return to, and I raised it with the First Minister and the deputy First Minister just this morning. I understand that they may have some suggestions on how to improve that.
The Committee heard evidence relating to unclaimed benefits, particularly for older people, and it would welcome a mechanism whereby an individual’s inquiry about a particular benefit entitlement would be the trigger for the provision of advice and a check on his or her other benefit entitlements.
The Committee wishes to see the issue of peace walls considered in consultation with the affected local communities from the outset. No doubt, the Chairperson of the Justice Committee will want to comment further on what is in the final version of the PFG.
The Committee has reservations about the red/amber/green system of recording progress. The Committee for Finance and Personnel provided us with a PEDU briefing on the monitoring arrangements for PFG at our meeting on 7 March, and we will consider that again this week.
The Committee is keen that the system of monitoring departmental progress reflects what is happening on the ground, with regular reporting to Committees.
I will now reference some issues that the Ulster Unionist Party and I, as a member, have. We have been informed this afternoon that there were 430 written responses to the PFG, and I assume that civil servants and, indeed, Ministers have been working overtime in the past couple of weeks to bring forward the final PFG. My party and I welcome that, because for the past 12 months, we have been calling for a Programme for Government to be introduced. We also welcome the fact that it has been brought forward at this level.
In respect of corporation tax, I understand that the joint ministerial working group had its second meeting on 7 March. Given that the PFG sets out that an Executive announcement on the rate of corporation tax for Northern Ireland will be made in 2014-15, I am keen to know what progress has been made in identifying the cost to the block grant, as that is the first step in the process.
As regards the development of the Maze/Long Kesh as a regeneration site of regional significance, the Ulster Unionist Party wants the site to be taken forward in a practical manner through, for example, the relocation of the Royal Ulster Agricultural Society and the Ulster Aviation Society. However, we do not support the allocation of substantial European funding to a conflict resolution centre, which is offensive to many victims. I note that, on page 33 of the PFG, there is a reference to private sector development at the Maze/Long Kesh site. I am keen to get some more information on that from the First Minister and deputy First Minister.
I also note on page 34 that the references to Ilex are missing even though references to Fort George and Ebrington are still included in the final Programme for Government.
As Chair of the Education Committee, I am pleased to be able to contribute to the debate on the Programme for Government. My comments are intended to be an overview of the issues that were raised with us during our consideration of the PFG. The Committee for Education welcomed the opportunity last year to respond to the consultation on the draft Programme for Government. The Committee gave the programme due time and consideration and wrote to stakeholders inviting them to comment and encouraging them to respond to the main consultation by OFMDFM. The Committee is disappointed that despite the consultation exercise, there have been minimal changes on education to the final Programme for Government and feels that the stakeholders could have been listened to in a more appropriate manner. Although the Committee welcomes the PFG in principle, it has some reservations about the Department of Education’s ability to deliver on it.
The Committee notes that the only milestone that references secure funding relates to the Lisanelly complex in Omagh. The Committee believes that other programme initiatives should have a similar commitment if the PFG is to be successfully delivered. There is often a sense that Departments fail to carry through agreed policies with a sense of urgency. The Committee believes that the Executive should be required to produce a 10-year strategy for children and young people, rather than piecemeal policies that are introduced and scrapped in a short time.
The Committee recommended that the Programme for Government should include an objective to get the supply and demand of teachers into reasonable equilibrium by 2020, coupled with the strategic teacher workforce development plan. Given the many concerns out there, especially among teaching staff, that issue needs to be addressed urgently.
The Committee has also been made aware of concerns around schools being expected to deliver savings in an already constrained economic climate. Budget reductions are leading to sustained pressure on class sizes, redundancies and school projects that require financing. Given those concerns, particularly about financial structures, we have serious worries about pupil:teacher ratios and how they will impact on attaining and achieving certain other elements of the Programme for Government, which I will deal with in a moment.
The Committee recognises the fact that the Executive face financial constraints and challenges. Consequently, all Departments must make best use of their allocated resources. It is vital that the education of children and young people does not suffer. We need to ensure that we do all that we can to protect the valuable service that schools continue to provide in Northern Ireland.
In general, the Committee is disappointed that there is no requirement on Departments to collaborate on or achieve outcomes that are relevant to two or more Departments. That should be expected as an efficiency measure. The Committee calls on the Executive to take a more thoroughly co-ordinated and consistent approach to cross-departmental policy development. The Committee would also like a requirement on all Departments to publish an implementation plan that is linked to the PFG. In that regard, I welcome comments that were made earlier by the First Minister in his opening statement, when he mentioned plans to produce a delivery plan. The expansion of that would ensure that there is a delivery plan by which we could judge how Departments, particularly the Department of Education — I speak as Chair of the Committee for Education — deliver against the Programme for Government’s objectives.
The Committee believes that the Department of Education should plan children’s education from nursery through to further education. In that vein, literacy and numeracy should be dealt with as a continuum from early years to the adult learner. The current split between the literacy and numeracy strategy, which has been developed in the Department of Education, and the essential skills strategy in the Department for Employment and Learning is unhelpful and, indeed, has created considerable challenges.
Going a step further is a joint 14-to-19 years policy, agreed with the Department for Employment and Learning, to ensure that, at the interface between formal education, further and higher education and employment, there is a focus on the economically necessary skills, subjects and courses that will contribute to rebalancing and rebuilding the Northern Ireland economy. In that regard, I particularly welcome the Programme for Government’s commitment to increase uptake in places on economically relevant courses in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects. That will make an invaluable contribution to ensuring that relevant skills are available to young people in order for them to contribute to the economic well-being and prosperity of Northern Ireland.
Although the Committee welcomes the commitment to ensure that at least one year of preschool education is available to every family who wants it, it is disappointed that the Department of Education did not go the extra mile — no pun intended — to include a commitment that those places will be within a reasonable and manageable distance of the family home. Of course, Members will remember that, not many months ago, we all faced situations in our constituencies in which places were offered some 50 or 60 miles away. That is not the best way to provide a local service for local communities.
The Committee welcomes the Department’s commitment to improve overall achievement in GCSEs, particularly its focus on young people from disadvantaged backgrounds. In addition, it would have liked a commitment to improve the achievement of multiple underachieving groups, rather than just that targeted group, as all young people deserve an equal opportunity to gain a high-quality education in Northern Ireland.
The Committee accepts that the schools estate in Northern Ireland requires auditing and rationalisation and is well aware of work that the Department is undertaking on viability audits and its commitment to shared education, which includes increasing the number of schools that share facilities by 2015. However, it would have preferred the inclusion of a commitment on the community use of schools, which has been mentioned in most significant audits of the Department from time to time, alongside commitments that are already given in the PFG.
The Committee urges the Department and the Executive to carefully manage the information that is released to school leaders and the general public in order to minimise the risk of scaremongering because schools may be labelled as failing in a report, yet provide a quality service to our young people.
The Committee recognises that the commitment to create the Education and Skills Authority promises a structural change that aims to make a contribution to the delivery of high-quality and efficient services. I note that the Department is committed to establishing ESA by 2014-15, and that that pledge is contained under priority 5 of the PFG. However, I want to make it clear that the Committee will not be rushed into pushing the Bill that will create ESA through the House. It intends to take every opportunity to discuss that important legislation and to give it the priority and consideration that it deserves.
The Committee believes that there is little point having commitments and milestones unless there is a robust monitoring process to ensure their implementation. The commitments outlined should be captured through measureable performance indicators, and the Committee has suggested that quantifiable indicators should become the composite basis for monitoring progress on the delivery of the PFG. For instance, there is no indication — it is a matter of serious concern — of how the Department of Education and its body the Education and Training Inspectorate will measure whether literacy and numeracy levels have improved or whether additional resources have been successfully targeted. I ask respectfully that that issue is taken seriously. If we are to attain the objectives for literacy and numeracy, we have to ensure that we can adequately measure the outcomes. It is a critical issue in education. The Committee suggests that the Department should develop a detailed road map —
— with specific timelines that indicate how each stated milestone will be achieved. As Chair of the Education Committee, I commend these comments to the House.
Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Gabhaim buíochas leis an Chéad-Aire fosta. I thank the Minister for his opening statement and welcome the opportunity to contribute to the debate. The Committee for Finance and Personnel gave its response to the draft Programme for Government through the Committee for the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister in February.
From a finance and personnel perspective, the main focus of the Programme for Government is on growing a sustainable economy and investing in the future. The specific issues within those that I wish to concentrate on are the devolution of corporation tax, air passenger duty for direct long-haul flights, the extension of the small business rate relief scheme and the large retail levy, and the use of social clauses in public procurement contracts.
The devolution of corporation tax is a key commitment in the Programme for Government, which will go towards rebalancing the economy. It has the support, I believe, of all the parties in the House and the British Secretary of State, yet, at times, progress on that issue has been frustratingly slow. The Chair of the Committee for the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister referred to the meeting of the joint ministerial working group on 7 March, and the report of that group will be of interest to a number of Committees. It is desirable that we have some clarity and focus on what the cost to the block grant will be, how that will be calculated with the Treasury and what agreements have been reached. We have heard wildly varying figures over the past number of months, and we want some clear sense of what formula will be used to agree the cost to the block grant of devolving that power. We also need a clear analysis on its affordability and the fair arrangements for the implementation of corporation tax powers once they are devolved to the Assembly, and some focus on the administrative changes and legislation that will be required. I realise that it is a fairly detailed area of work. However, there has been some concern not only in the Assembly but in the broader community and the business community that things have moved slower than was anticipated.
Members will be very much aware that investment decisions are taken on the basis of confidence, and I think that in progressing the discussions on corporation tax, we have to be mindful of instilling some confidence that there is momentum in the process and that it is leading us towards a satisfactory resolution of the issues.
The removal of air passenger duty on direct long-haul flights has been supported across the Chamber. The devolution of those powers will be in a Westminster Finance Bill in 2012. The Finance Committee will have a scrutiny function in the legislative consent motion that will implement that change here, and, obviously, the motion will be debated in the Assembly. Although it is a much smaller, but vital, issue for investment and direct linkages, particularly to North America, its importance is that, in some ways, it will set a template for the Assembly’s handling of the corporation tax issue. There are useful lessons that can be road-tested when the air passenger duty legislative consent motion comes before the Committee and the House.
The small business rate relief scheme, to which the First Minister referred, and its consequence for the large retail levy, is another area of DFP interest in the Programme for Government. There is a very strong understanding across all parties and all Members of the difficulties that small local businesses, town centre businesses and small rural businesses are facing, and we are all seeing the increase in the numbers of boarded-up shops on high streets and in villages across the Six Counties. There was a strong desire among all parties and all Members to try to find some measure to assist the sustainability of small local businesses, and, in that sense, the Department of Finance’s approach was to increase the large retail levy and to use that money to offset and assist the extension of the small business rate relief scheme. There was a clear recognition that that was a fairly blunt instrument with which to deal with the situation, but nonetheless, the matter was well debated here, and the Committee for Finance and Personnel carried out a substantial amount of work on the issue through its engagement with stakeholders.
Although the legislation was brought to the House under accelerated passage, the debate on it was substantial. There are clear commitments, from DFP’s perspective, that need to be adhered to for the 2015 non-domestic rates revaluation and for reviews on the effectiveness of the small business rate relief scheme, and we will work with the Department to ensure that that happens. Hopefully, it will bring the commitment in the Programme for Government into a more regulated form of assisting small businesses and of rates overall, which can direct interventions where the Executive feel they are necessary to sustain the local economy.
The First Minister also referred specifically to the use of social clauses in procurement contracts. That, again, has strong support across all parties in the Assembly, and there is a strong sense that our public spending gives us the ability to effect positive social and economic outcomes and positive local outcomes. The assurances in the Programme for Government on that are very welcome, as is the practice across some Departments, but there is a concern in the Committee and beyond that some Departments seem to believe that references to equality or health and safety measures can somehow cover their commitment to use social clauses in contracts. Social clauses should become the norm in contracts.
There is a clear expectation across the Chamber that what we have considered to be social clauses are those that deal with issues such as apprenticeships, the long-term unemployed and environmental outcomes. There is work to be done by the Central Procurement Directorate and the Executive to give us a clear definition of what we consider to be social clauses. That will ensure that no Departments escape the proper development of social clauses by referring to equality or health and safety issues and by including them as a box-ticking exercise to show that social clauses have been in a contract. The commitment to that is welcome, but I think that there is a need for clarity and consistency across Departments to ensure that we have the proper outcomes and that what we collectively consider to be the proper usage of social clauses to achieve positive local, social and economic outcomes is being delivered consistently across all Departments.
Those are just some of the issues that are of a DFP interest. I welcome the tabling of the motion, and I look forward to the rest of the debate. I encourage support for the Programme for Government.
I welcome the opportunity to speak on behalf of the SDLP in recognising the Programme for Government, which has been somewhat long awaited. I have to draw a contrast between the very short turnaround period from the closure of consultee reports with the eight months to one year that was required to look at that which followed the cohesion, sharing and integration strategy. Let us hope that the short time period does not reflect a lack of commitment by the Executive to listen to what the stakeholders had to say about the Programme for Government. After all, it is a three-year Programme for Government at a time of severe hardship when many people are crying out for help. It is a time when people are hoping that devolution will make a difference to their lives.
The document contains a number of good points. Some of the positive elements include challenging targets in tourism, and I note with interest how the First Minister lauded, quite properly, our sporting and movie stars who have achieved world-class status, prizes and recognition. I contrast that with the slashing of the DCAL budget, and I wonder whether that is the best way in which we should be nurturing in our young people ambitious targets for hero worship. They want to follow their stars but lack the financial assistance to reach that acclaim and those targets.
The Programme for Government also includes a financial capability strategy, and we are happy that that has been taken on board. In our party’s contribution in response to the draft PFG, we had asked for that. Social clauses are also included, and a lot of work is to be done around procurement and in educating some of our smaller firms and businesses in how to secure tenders for government work in particular. The inclusion of the social clauses will provide an opportunity to assist the needs of our long-term unemployed, and I look forward to the working out of those.
As the First Minister referred to, in comparison to the draft Programme for Government, there are more specific targets and measures on combating fuel poverty. The extension of the social protection fund is very much welcomed, although I am not sure which pot of money that has come from because, initially, there was only £20 million for that in the first year. We will wait to hear from the First Minister or others about where that money is coming from.
There are too many other concerns. The document contains no legislative programme to ensure implementation and delivery. It is unclear where it links with the finance programme. It is too vague on key commitments, detail and measurable targets, and those comments have been made not only by the SDLP but by many stakeholders, including in response to the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development’s lack of commitment to the eradication of TB and on the comments that the Chair of the Education Committee outlined on the pressures facing the education sector following CCMS and the viability —
I thank the Member for giving way. Will she give consideration in her speech to how the Programme for Government could provide, or whether it provides, solutions to counter the impact of welfare reform proposals, the projected increases in fuel duties in next week’s UK Budget, the rising cost of energy prices, the general economic recession and, shall we say, the unintended consequences for communities and individuals?
The Member makes a number of good points about welfare reform and the impact that it will have. I will come to that in due course.
The target to create 25,000 jobs is but a drop in the ocean given that the unemployment rate is over 60,000. Some commentators suggested in the media over the weekend that Northern Ireland remains the worst for rising jobless totals, the number of home repossessions and the fact that there is no security blanket for those who are at risk of losing their home, unlike in parts of GB where there is some mortgage relief.
Many people who have probably worked all their life and have now become unemployed will, for the first time, be recipients of welfare reform, never mind those who have had to depend on it for many years. The SDLP, as a party, is very concerned about the lack of vision to deal with the proposed welfare reforms and the economic recession that we are still in. In fact, as I understand it, the North is the only part of Northern Ireland and GB that is still in a recession. [Interruption.] No, I am quite sure what I need; I do not need any help from across the way.
The coalition Government’s welfare cuts and major aspects of their welfare reform agenda are having, and will continue to have, a significant detrimental impact on our community. Worryingly, given the potential impact of welfare reform, the document contains only one substantive reference to it. As part of a wider, laudable but immeasurable commitment to alleviate hardship comes a commitment to establish an advisory group to assist Ministers. That is the only proposal that the draft Programme for Government has for that area. The SDLP believes that given the grave nature of the welfare reform proposals for Northern Ireland, especially when taking into account our historically high levels of disadvantage, the Executive must ensure that they make opposition to the damaging aspects of welfare reform the highest priority and pursue all possible legal and operational flexibilities and financial support to mitigate the impact of welfare cuts and changes imposed on Northern Ireland. To assist people to cope with the change to universal credit and to deal with debt, the Programme for Government should include the development of a financial capability strategy. Northern Ireland is the only region undergoing welfare reform, and I welcome the fact that the strategy will be in place. I hope that we see an action plan in the medium term.
A number of Members have commented on childcare and child poverty. There is nothing in the draft Programme for Government to give one confidence that the Executive will deliver on promises that they made in the previous Programme for Government, bearing in mind that only 40% of the targets in the previous Programme for Government were met. Perhaps that really underscores why there are fewer measurable commitments in this Programme for Government. You really do not want to stand up many of the Departments to proper scrutiny.
As we know, there are also huge changes to the public sector through the threatened closure of many of our schools and colleges and the closure and termination of many of our services in the health and social care sector. That is a major concern. The Executive have, for a long time, been kicking many of the tough decisions down the road, but this Programme for Government is not ambitious and does not reflect the concerns that many people have. This Programme for Government has not given much commitment to the rebalancing of the Northern Ireland economy, other than the talk about corporation tax. There is a lack of other ambitions on tax-varying powers and, indeed, no ambition about how to raise some of the funds that are required.
I thank the Member for giving way. Would the Member consider it helpful if, in their winding-up speech, the First Minister and deputy First Minister could provide us with an update from the ministerial working group on rebalancing the economy, which, I understand, met last week, and an update from the joint consultative committee, which will have dealt with the disputatious nature of the £18 billion that was supposed to be part of the capital dividend for devolution and would very much have contributed to our local economy and pump-primed the construction industry?
I support the motion and welcome the publication of the Programme for Government. It is vital for any Government to listen to the concerns of people and to clearly communicate a vision, priorities and commitments to provide direction and hope to a community. I believe that the Programme for Government will provide a platform for the talent, enterprise and endeavour of our people to drive social and economic change in Northern Ireland.
Admittedly, our system of mandatory coalition government is unique and not always conducive to joined-up delivery, so I welcome the cross-cutting nature of each of the five main priorities in the programme, and I hope that they will encourage more collaborative and cross-departmental delivery. The Alliance Party would go further to ensure joined-up government by placing a statutory duty on Departments to co-operate. We believe that that legislative duty would further promote joined-up working for vital policy delivery in key areas.
We are all Members of a legislative Assembly, so I share concerns about the absence of a legislative programme in the document. The Programme for Government makes frequent reference to strategies but few commitments to specific legislation. Although strategies and action plans are, of course, central to policy delivery, there are key areas where legislation is essential. The Alliance Party published a legislative programme identifying Bills that the Assembly could bring forward, including a shared housing Bill, a comprehensive languages Bill, a single equality Bill and a single mental health and mental capacity Bill. Other organisations have also identified areas, such as race relations and disability rights, where legislative change is urgently needed to ensure that people in Northern Ireland have the same protection as that served to the rest of these islands.
I do, of course, welcome the priority that the Programme for Government has placed on our economy. It is clear that we must work together to rebalance our economy and deliver long-term, sustainable economic growth and job creation for Northern Ireland. I particularly welcome commitments to increased investment, to prioritising skills delivery, to increasing qualifications and to increasing the uptake of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects. Those commitments are vital if we are to create the relevantly skilled workforce and attract the investment needed in Northern Ireland.
I also welcome specific measures to support economic growth, including the extension of the small business rate relief scheme, support for social enterprise and efforts to maximise the excellent tourism product that we are able to offer on a world stage. It is also important that we offer hope to our young people. We have an Executive strategy for employment, education and training for our young people, and the Minister for Employment is working hard to deliver a specific youth employment intervention programme with the support of the Minister of Finance. We need action on those areas urgently.
Another key aspect of rebuilding our economy and welfare reform is to help people back into work. A significant barrier to employment for many people is the lack of affordable childcare in Northern Ireland. I therefore welcome the commitment to deliver the long-overdue childcare strategy. However, as with other strategies, such as that on child poverty, it is essential that there is no delay in bringing forward action in that area. I also hope and expect that any childcare strategy and action plan will seek to raise awareness of childcare voucher schemes and promote the uptake of the childcare element of working tax credit, almost £6 million of which, it is estimated, could be going unclaimed each year. Promoting awareness of assistance that is already available but underutilised is a cost-effective way of encouraging parents back into employment.
Thankfully, we in Northern Ireland are living longer. I would like to see older people given greater recognition in the Programme for Government. Poverty and social exclusion among older people are serious issues, and, every week, approximately £2 million in pension credit could be going unclaimed. That is money that could mean the difference between living above or below the poverty line and could benefit the health and well-being of older people but which is lost from our economy.
I thank the Member for giving way. Does he agree that it was rather disappointing to hear only last week the Minister for Social Development suggest that another look might be taken at senior citizens and their SmartPasses? In other words, the free travel arrangements could be taken away from some of our senior citizens, which would be to their detriment.
I also welcome the commitment to implement reforms to our social care system. It is vital that those reforms ensure that social care for our older people is based on rights, entitlements and fairness. Investing in preventative measures ensures that older people can remain at home rather than be admitted to hospital.
As a member of the Alliance Party, I welcome that the Programme for Government makes building a strong, shared and united community a key and explicit aim. My party has stood for cross-community co-operation and has highlighted the human and economic waste that division causes. We will continue to hold the Government to account for their practical action in pursuit of a better and shared future for all. I believe that the Programme for Government could have explicitly acknowledged that the duplication of services is no longer sustainable or acceptable in a united community.
I am grateful to the Member; I will not take up much of his time. I agree with and have great sympathy for his point about shared services across the community. In the real world, however, will the Member explain how that can be implemented in a divided city such as Belfast?
I thank the Member for his intervention. That might be for a whole other debate on another day, but I appreciate that there are logistical challenges with the issue. However, we need to put clear actions in place to do that.
I welcome the long overdue commitment to make the Education and Skills Authority operational by 2013. The target date that the previous Programme for Government set for the establishment of a single Education and Skills Authority was 2009. My party consistently called for the establishment of a single body and campaigned for increased sharing and integration in the education system. I do not believe that it is sustainable or desirable to keep our children segregated in our schools. Therefore, I reiterate my concern that the inclusion of the controlled and maintained sectors is explicit in the proposed Education and Skills Authority, but I have yet to see any clear reciprocal mechanism for the integrated sector. That has not done too much to address doubts about the Executive’s ability to deliver not just words but concrete action on a shared future. Unfortunately, the Programme for Government also fails to resolve the unregulated post-primary transfer. I think that most of us agree that we will continue to fail our children and young people every year until the issue is addressed.
I endorse the Executive’s commitment to develop long-term approaches to deal with issues such as fuel poverty. Although the one-off payment that the social protection fund provided was of assistance to many vulnerable people this year, it is essential that more sustainable long-term measures are developed, including investment in double glazing, energy efficiency and environmentally friendly heating and insulation, which has been mentioned.
The Alliance Party’s priority commitment remains the delivery of a shared and better future for all in Northern Ireland. Therefore, I welcome the commitment that the programme gives to the delivery of an overarching cross-departmental strategy to build a cohesive, shared and integrated community in Northern Ireland. A devolved Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister has yet to deliver on that issue. I sincerely hope that the Executive can be the first to action meaningful and fundamental change in integrated education and mixed housing and that they can deliver shared public space in Northern Ireland for all to enjoy. I also believe that, if we are to build a united community, we must deal with our past, which has a profound impact on our divided present.
I welcome the work to complete more ambitious targets for delivery. They must be measureable and monitored in an open and transparent manner. Although I have expressed some concerns —
— about how we would do things differently, I broadly endorse the Programme for Government, and I commit to encouraging an approach and ideas that breed delivery on, and a strategic direction for, the rebuilding of our economy.
I am pleased to speak in the debate as Chairman of the Justice Committee.
The Programme for Government sets out the Executive’s key priorities for the next four years, and I welcome the commitments that have been included in relation to improving the justice system for all our citizens. Of great importance to the public is the level of crime, particularly serious crime — the fear of which can have a huge impact on people’s lives — and antisocial behaviour, which people often feel is not tackled quickly or robustly enough. That is recognised in the Programme for Government, with the inclusion of commitments to reduce the level of serious crime and to tackle crime against older and vulnerable people — through more effective and appropriate sentences and other measures — and to improve community safety by tackling antisocial behaviour. It is important that progress is made in these areas to ensure confidence in the criminal justice system. The Committee has also highlighted the need for targets to reduce serious crime to be consistent with the policing plan for 2012-15.
I welcome the commitment to take forward any necessary changes to tackling crime against older and vulnerable people by imposing more effective and appropriate sentences, as part of the Department of Justice’s legislative programme. The House has previously debated the issue of attacks on the elderly, and it sent out the clear message that attacks on the elderly should not and will not be tolerated, and the Programme for Government takes action on that.
The Committee is due to receive a briefing on the draft community safety strategy before the end of March, and it will no doubt want to be satisfied that robust measures to tackle antisocial behaviour are included in the strategy to ensure that the Programme for Government outputs and milestones in that area can be delivered.
I turn to the three major, independent reviews undertaken in the justice system in the past 18 months: the reviews of prisons, youth justice and access to justice. These will be key pieces of work for the Minister and the Department, in which the Committee intends to be closely involved, over the next three years.
The reform and modernisation of the Prison Service has commenced, and the Committee has been receiving regular briefings from the director general of the Prison Service and his senior officials on progress in delivering the strategic efficiency and effectiveness programme and the recommendations in the prison review team’s report. The Committee has also been kept fully briefed on the progress of the Prison Service exit scheme and recruitment competition for new custody officers, both of which are delivery milestones in the Programme for Government 2012-13.
I will speak briefly as a member of the DUP. On the issue of Prison Service emblems, name and badge, which was raised in the House by the Minister of Justice, our party has made it clear that we will not allow any change to happen. That was clarified at Committee, when the director general made it clear that this is not part of the reform programme that he is taking forward. It is an issue that will not be coming to the table, because we will not be allowing it to be dealt with. If officials in that Department do not understand how the St Andrews Agreement accountability measures operate, I would like to think that Members should be able to understand how those measures work.
The exit scheme — I have declared an interest on numerous occasions because I have a family member in the Prison Service — was highlighted again at Committee last week. The Committee has concerns about the way in which the scheme is being handled by the Prison Service. Staff were told that they would be allowed to leave with dignity and respect. However, it is unacceptable that the 323 officers involved do not know if they will get out or when they will be told. The Committee has told the Prison Service that that needs to be resolved, and, indeed, I have spoken to the Minister a number of times. Staff were already demoralised. They are even more demoralised now because of the way that the scheme is being handled.
The issue of the very recent resignations of the director general and the change manager and the likely impact on the delivery of the programme were also highlighted at the meeting. The Committee has requested a detailed implementation plan with specific timescales and will use it to monitor progress closely, particularly in relation to the delivery of the commitments in the Programme for Government in that area.
In relation to the review of access to justice and the review of youth justice, the Committee is expecting details of how the Minister intends to take them forward. It will wish to scrutinise those proposals and the associated action plans, and will want to discuss them with the Minister.
The Committee welcomes the inclusion of a commitment to reduce the number of peace walls but has emphasised that it is a very sensitive issue within communities. Progress on this must be based on a willingness from the local community to engage and it must be taken forward at a pace with which a particular community is comfortable, if the desired outcome is to be achieved.
I am grateful to the Member for giving way and I welcome the comment he has just made. When politicians make comments from their ivory towers about peace walls being removed from interfaces, the people who have to deal with the daily difficulty of living there are frightened to the core. It is grossly irresponsible of politicians to do that. I welcome the Member’s comments.
I agree with the Member entirely, appreciate the constituency that he represents and the active work that he is involved in on this issue. He brings expertise to the House in that regard.
With respect to capital projects, the Committee welcomes the inclusion of a commitment to construct a new police, prison and fire service training college at Desertcreat, and for it to be substantially completed by 2014-15. Having pressed the Department for progress on a number of occasions, the Committee also highlighted the need for the procurement contract to include social clauses so that the local community can benefit from that project.
I turn to the delivery of the Programme for Government. The Committee will regularly monitor the performance of the Department of Justice against the relevant commitments and milestones in the Programme for Government. Further consideration may need to be given to how progress on the delivery of the inputs required from other Departments to achieve some of the Department of Justice’s commitments and outputs, such as improving community safety by tackling antisocial behaviour, will be monitored and measured. The Committee will wish to keep that under review.
I will now briefly make comments in my capacity as an MLA for Lagan Valley. I welcome the recommendation for the development of the Maze/Long Kesh site. That site is critical, not just for the people of Lagan Valley, but for all of Northern Ireland. The Programme for Government recognises that regional significance. We must not allow the future development of the site to be held hostage by its past. Proposals for the site have been taken forward from when David Trimble was First Minister. David Trimble appointed David Campbell to be the chair of the Maze panel, and he is UUP chairman to this day. In those proposals was the recommendation to deal with the retained element of the site. The Ulster Unionist Party supported it then, it was chaired by David Campbell, and now that party seeks to play politics with that issue. Given the number of members of my family who served in the Prison Service, I understand more acutely than most the sensitivities around this issue. David Campbell got it right when he chaired that body. He put in specific recommendations that it should be neutral, and all of that. Therefore, there will be no glorification of what happened at that site. Quite the opposite: what happened was wrong, and the message that it was wrong should be told. To cynically use victims in the way in which the Ulster Unionist Party now uses them is reprehensible.
I thank the Member for giving way. Does he recognise and accept that the original proposals for the Maze were for a huge development, including proposals for a multi-sports stadium and other developments that will now not happen?
I do not know whether that has changed the position of the Ulster Unionist Party, which appointed the chair of the body that put forward proposals to ensure that the site would be dealt with sensitively. The Member’s commentary is, in my view, a poor reflection of where the Ulster Unionist Party was in regard to the development of the site, and where it is today. This site must be developed; it has to be developed.
I remind the Member that many in his own party expressed serious reservations about that site. In fact, they characterised it as being a shrine to terrorism.
My party has made it very clear that this cannot in any way be a shrine to terrorism, and the mechanisms that are in place ensure that that will not be the case. To play politics with that issue now, however, and the way the Ulster Unionist Party is handling this, is reprehensible and it should not be doing it in the way that it does. Indeed, the leader —
Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I speak as the Chair of the Social Development Committee. Obviously, the Committee came at this from a number of perspectives. Of course, every party and member around the table had their own views, and we took great care to try our best to consult a wide range of stakeholder organisations, which themselves had considerable expertise in a number of the fundamentals in the draft Programme for Government.
The Committee took the view in the early part of its discussions that there were concerns about when the draft Programme for Government was brought forward and the relatively short time within which it could then be fully considered. As I said, however, the Committee then endeavoured to consult as wide a range of organisations as it could, and that was done with integrity and productively.
The Committee acknowledges that the draft Programme for Government was set against the backdrop of a considerable reduction in the block grant that the Executive were anticipating. Therefore, it very much welcomes the fact that the Executive have agreed to take a number of important mitigating actions to minimise the impact that the cuts to the block grant would have, which were important to try to offset those impacts on the most vulnerable and disadvantaged.
Against that background, therefore, and particularly within our remit, the Committee welcomed the emphasis in the Programme for Government document on tackling disadvantage and was very glad to see that that formed part of priority 2 along with key health and education issues. It was important for the Committee that the Programme for Government, therefore, recognised that disadvantage is not about just economic disadvantage, because poverty brings with it disadvantage in health, education and, of course, equality of opportunity. Therefore, we welcome the fact that the Programme for Government establishes a framework within which our young people especially have more opportunities to end that cycle of disadvantage. So, the Committee was glad to see that equality was a guiding principle underpinning the rebuilding of the economy.
There were a number of concerns in respect of housing, not least that the target in the draft Programme for Government was for the provision of 8,000 social and affordable homes. Members expressed the view that that was not enough given the thousands of people on the waiting list. In fact, we believe that up to 20,000 are categorised as being in housing stress. Nevertheless, the Committee took the view that that is an important start and is a target that must be met.
We are keen to continue to engage with the Department on an overall housing strategy. The Department came forward and said that, obviously, we need to have an overarching housing strategy that will encompass social housing, the private sector and housing associations. That is an important development that we look forward to engaging on with the Department in the very near future because we have to address the critical issue of housing need.
Fuel poverty is an important issue for all of us and it was certainly an issue that the Committee recently took on board as a serious initiative. We will soon be coming back to the Assembly with our final report into the work that we have begun on fuel poverty. We clearly recognise that, although the Department for Social Development (DSD) has the lead within the Executive to tackle fuel poverty, it is a multi-agency and cross-departmental responsibility. Therefore, we want to see —
I thank the Member for giving way. Does he agree that the initiative that the Social Development Committee took to bring the various sections of government and heads of Departments together was very successful? We have to ensure that Departments work together if we are to have a Programme for Government that will have the biggest impact.
I thank the Member for that. I think that the initiative we took, although it dealt specifically with fuel poverty — I remind Members that we brought together eight Departments, eight Committees, 30-odd stakeholder organisations and, at one event, more than 90 people, all at relatively senior levels in their Departments, Committees and different organisations — was about tackling fuel poverty at source and putting the spotlight on that issue as best we could. More importantly, it was about bringing forward constructive ideas. Also, it was to show, when we hear people saying that things have to be joined up, that the Assembly has to be joined up as well. It is not enough for us, as Members, to say that Departments have to be joined up or that others have to be joined up: we, as an Assembly, and particularly in Committees, have to demonstrate that we can be joined up when it comes to cross-cutting issues. I thank the Member for drawing attention to that matter.
We recognise that there are commitments around what are described as a range of initiatives to tackle fuel poverty in the Programme for Government, and we would like to see those teased out and clearly focused in the very near future.
As far as social enterprise, or the third sector, is concerned, we are very concerned to protect what is a very important sector. We all know that community organisations and other stakeholders play a very important part in general society, and we want to see as much work as possible being carried out by the Department to support that sector on a longer-term, sustainable and strategic basis. So, we look forward to working with the Department and the broader community and voluntary sector to ensure that we maximise the asset that is there for all.
I must also mention welfare reform, because it is clearly an issue that will fall directly into our laps, as a Committee, in the very near future. All parties are very aware that there may well be, and likely will be, some very seriously negative impacts on the people we, collectively, represent. Therefore, we welcome the fact that the Executive have established an advisory group, which will work with the Executive to see where we can take measures to alleviate the worst aspects of this particular welfare reform agenda, as it is called: many of us call it a welfare cuts agenda. With the advisory group, and with close scrutiny of the Bill, the Committee believes that it can work with all concerned to try to protect the most vulnerable and most disadvantaged.
In conclusion, the Committee for Social Development will engage with the Department. The Committee had an issue initially with the draft Programme for Government in that some people felt that it did not carry enough milestones, targets and objectives on a kind of hard, task basis. At the same time, the Department has very firmly given us a commitment to bring forward its implementation plan once the Programme for Government has been agreed by the Assembly and the Executive. We look forward to working with the Department when it brings forward its implementation plan. We will work with the Department on that plan very constructively and robustly to ensure that the objectives and targets set out in the Programme for Government are delivered for all of the people who we, collectively, represent.
Finally, speaking as an MLA, my party and I accept that there are difficult and challenging times ahead. However, the Executive are committed to doing what they can to develop measures to build the economy, help people into work by creating jobs and work with all of the very important stakeholders who are working at the coalface, whether it be in welfare reform, education, health and all of the other very important community assets.
(Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr Beggs] in the Chair)
We look forward to the development of the Programme for Government. We know that it is set against the very negative financial backdrop of the cuts that have come from London. Nevertheless, I wish the Executive well in meeting those challenges. I have no doubt that there is enough innovation, drive and commitment in the draft Programme for Government that, if it is carried through and delivered on, we will make lives a bit better for the people we represent.
I rise as Chairperson of the Committee to present the Committee’s view on this Programme for Government. As part of the Committee’s scrutiny process, we met Minister O’Neill and her officials on 14 February, when she outlined the Department’s input into the draft Programme for Government. I and other Committee members shared a number of concerns with her. The Committee then met departmental officials on 28 February to further discuss the draft Programme in greater detail, and a number of concerns were raised by me and other Committee members.
Those include what the Committee considers to be serious omissions, particularly around the eradication of bovine TB, forestry issues, countryside management and Europe. I will come back to those issues shortly, particularly to bovine TB.
The four DARD commitments that were outlined by the Minister and her officials are to bring forward a £13 million package to tackle rural poverty and social and economic isolation in the next three years; to eradicate brucellosis by March 2014; to develop a strategic plan for the agrifood sector, in conjunction with the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment; and to advance the relocation of the headquarters of the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development to a rural area by 2015. I shall take each target in turn and present the Committee’s view.
I noted that the target on rural poverty and social and economic isolation is under priority 2. The Committee welcomes the capital injection on that issue and recognises the fact that the Department has launched the rural poverty and social isolation framework, which outlines the priority areas and actions that the Department will lead on to address those issues. From the briefing by the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development, the Committee understands that the programme target is to build on the work undertaken in the previous Programme for Government. It is also part of the wider rural development programme. The Committee hopes that the actions identified by the Department are realised and that it is not a case of funds being soaked up by the administration of the scheme rather than actual investment in the rural economy. The Committee also asked about how that aspect of the Programme for Government will be aligned to the targeting social need strategy. We look forward to seeing the development of working documents and action plans for delivery in the near future.
Although I welcome the target of the eradication of brucellosis by March 2014, it is worthy of note that the last confirmed case of the disease was recorded in July 2011. There has been a steady decline since 2008, which is progress towards being brucellosis-free, and the Committee supports DARD in that. It is a terrible disease and is totally deserving of being a Programme for Government target. The Committee fully supports the Department, the PSNI and the industry in the identification and prosecution of the minority who deliberately infect their livestock to gain a financial advantage. Officials outlined the cost to the economy of a brucellosis outbreak, which would be between £10 million and £20 million. Becoming brucellosis-free will also free up staff, vet time, resources and administration support that can be directed elsewhere — to bovine TB, for example.
All in all, there is a broad welcome for the target. However, the Committee is extremely concerned and disappointed that no targets have been set for the eradication of TB. It is hard to comprehend how an issue of such magnitude has been omitted from the Programme for Government. The fact that it was included in the previous Programme for Government with a target of reducing the annual herd incidence of TB by 27% adds to the confusion being experienced by the industry. When pressed on that in Committee, departmental officials admitted that it was not included because they could not find a SMART target that they could commit to. They stated:
“We could not come up with a target that we could achieve, deliver or aspire to.”
Additionally, Minister O’Neill said that she was not confident that TB could be eradicated in the Programme for Government timescale. That is simply not good enough. Just because something is hard does not mean to say that it should not be included as a target. The Committee firmly believes that, if officials put their minds to it, they could come up with SMART targets on the reduction and progress to eradication that could be achieved in the timescale.
One wonders what the Department’s mindset is when it has decided not to include it, bearing in mind the Public Accounts Committee’s report on the control of bovine TB in Northern Ireland, published in June 2009, which stated that £200 million of taxpayers’ money had not been explicitly aimed at the eradication of TB and that the Department had failed to meet the challenge. The Committee calls on the Department to develop a more strategic approach to tackling bovine TB, with a clear focus on the reduction and eradication of the disease. That will help to bring Northern Ireland in line with the vast majority of the rest of Europe. We expect to see greater urgency in the Department to achieve that. In fact, I call on the Minister and the Executive to consider adding that as a priority to the Programme for Government.
The development of a strategic plan for the agrifood sector in conjunction with the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment is a good example of joined-up government, which the Committee welcomes. The agrifood sector contributes in excess of £3 billion to the economy. It employs almost 100,000 people and is the only sector to have shown sustained growth over the past few years. The Department has advised that it plans to develop the current Focus on Food strategy. The Committee has concerns that the Republic of Ireland has already published its 2020 strategy and feels that the Department is lagging behind in the development of the strategy and has displayed a lack of ambition and drive at a time when the agrifood sector has such a positive future.
I welcome the opportunity to intervene on that point. Our party held a conference on the agrifood sector only last week, and we learned that we are some two years behind the South of Ireland. There is no mention in the document of the lifting of the milk quota or CAP reforms and the implications that that will have for agriculture. Does the Member agree that that is a serious omission by the Minister?
Thank you for your intervention, and thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker, for allowing it. Yes, I do. It is something that the Minister must take very seriously. Of course, we cannot include everything in the Programme for Government. This Programme for Government is set in a very focused and directed way, and we welcome that, as does, I am sure, the Assembly. However, there must be an onus on Departments to make sure that they include everything that will have the greatest impact on our people in Northern Ireland.
It is difficult to comment on the Department’s target regarding the construction and refurbishment of a hypothetical building in a hypothetical location by 2015. Although the Committee would welcome investment in the construction industry, which is very important and is dear to my heart, it has concerns that the estimated £26 million costs will not be sufficient to complete the project. We await sight of the business plan to ensure that targets and budgets are achievable.
The Committee has also expressed concern that each of the four targets will not have an adequate budget allocated to it and that a bid for additional resources may have to be made. The Department has advised us that, as yet, no money has been set aside or identified for two of its targets. That is a major concern for the Committee, particularly given the financial constraints that we face.
The Committee feels that the targets identified by the Department are not challenging enough. The Department has chosen the easy option and has chosen to omit real and meaningful targets, such as the eradication of bovine TB, which, to me, is critical to the health and well-being of the farming and agriculture industry in the future.
The Committee also understands that the detail of other missing priorities, such as targets for forestry, will be in the 2012-13 departmental business plan. The Committee hopes to look at that plan post Easter and will seek to guarantee that it will contain significant and quantifiable targets.
Does the Member agree that the legal cases that are going on now in England and Wales could have a bearing on anything to do with the bovine cases here?
I thank the Member for his intervention, but I do not accept that. The legal aspect centres on only one element of an eradication plan and relates to reservoirs and wildlife. There is still so much more that the Department and the Minister could do to tackle bovine TB, and I would like to see it happen.
I speak as our party’s education spokesman, but, first, may I give an overarching welcome to the arrival of the Programme for Government to the Floor? We need not rehearse the importance, relevance and timeliness that we attached to devising a Programme for Government; that is well documented.
We now move to the fact that, once this is agreed, as it undoubtedly will be, delivery becomes king. I noted with interest the comments that the leader of the Democratic Unionist Party made at its last party conference, in La Mon. He said:
“People want to see the Executive taking decisions and making a difference. That’s what we are elected to do. The new imperative is getting things done.”
I could be churlish and wonder what the imperative was under the last mandate, but the new imperative is getting things done, which is to be supported, as are his words in opening the debate that we must achieve delivery in a way that is seen, felt and understood on the ground. We will have no difficulty supporting that.
Please allow me, however, a moment of scepticism about the measures of delivery. Last week, as we reviewed the performance of the previous Programme for Government with officials at the Committee for the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister, we discovered that the traffic light system of red, amber and green, which had been the original measure of achievement, had been amended, and a fourth category of amber-green inserted between amber and green. It seems to me that that greatly impacts on the percentage of measures that could be described as achieved. I believe that one member mentioned the word “gerrymander” at that Committee meeting, but I will leave it there and move on.
I want to spend the rest of my time addressing the Programme for Government under the theme of education, focusing on three areas: the point of education, the schools estate and special educational need. It may seem a little simplistic to say that I want to talk about the point of education. However, having been party spokesman and Deputy Chair of the Education Committee for only five weeks, I am already very clear that you can spend long hours debating education without ever mentioning pupils. I want to mention them now.
In a former life, as a school governor, I was sometimes asked to speak at open days to prospective parents and pupils. I used to talk about the spark that lies within every child, without exception. It is a spark of ability, creativity and talent. Our job is to find that spark and not get hung up about whether it is academic or vocational, sporting or artistic. We simply need to find it and give the child the tools to grow that spark into a passion for learning and for life. Last year, I was delighted to come across a book called ‘The Element’, written by creative thinker Sir Ken Robinson, who, I believe, has previously advised the Department for Employment and Learning and is currently advising the Ilex project in Londonderry. Sir Ken’s ‘Element’ is my spark. I hope that, as we go forward with the educational elements of the Programme for Government, we can bear in mind that that spark is king to the future of our children.
Sir Ken also addresses post-primary education and how you transfer in a way that the Programme for Government does not. I commend this thought to you: what we need to do is address the question of post-primary transfer and recognise that, under the 11-plus, we asked the wrong question of our children. Previously, we asked them, “How intelligent are you?”, and then determined to measure that in the narrow ground of their academic ability in maths, English and science. Sir Ken says that that is the wrong question. The right question is “In what way are you intelligent? Are you academic, vocational, sporting or artistic?”.
I suggest that there is, perhaps, more hope of agreement in the House than some people might imagine about the future of post-primary transfer. I will quote the Education Minister, speaking in the Chamber on 13 December last year:
“I am not fixated on the title that a school wishes to give itself. It can call itself a grammar school, high school, college; I am not fixated on its title.” — [Official Report, Vol 70, No 2, p85, col 2].
He goes on to say:
“I want to see an education estate that is open to all young people and centres of education that do not ask children at the age of 11, ‘are you clever?’, but ask, ‘how are you clever?’ It is the duty of educationalists to grow that acorn and to light the spirit of education in every pupil.” — [Official Report, Vol 70, No 2, p86, col 1].
I suggest that there is not much between what the Minister said in December 2011 and what I say in March 2012. Think only of Rory McIlroy, who attended a grammar school a few miles from the Building. Had he been forced to complete only an academic education, only the Members for North Down might know him as perhaps an up-and-coming solicitor in Holywood and not a global superstar.
I move to the schools estate, where there is a real challenge of delivery, with four systems and an incredibly complex map of governance. My party supports a two-phased move to a single system of education, with a middle ground of shared resources. I recognise and applaud the commitment in the Programme for Government to a greater emphasis on sharing resources. However, there are no real targets, and I would like to see more as we move forward. I also recognise the need in the House to set the strategic direction for shared resources and to open the way for local solutions to make it happen. We must recognise that people and communities are likely to move forward at different speeds and at different times. In evidence to the Committee for the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister, the First Minister said:
“We also see education as a way of tackling the divisions in our society. That is why we have committed to establishing a ministerial advisory group to explore and bring forward recommendations to the Minister of Education on how to advance shared education.”
I would like to see that ministerial advisory group up and running, its terms of reference and the timescale for it to report.
This party will support the establishment of the Education and Skills Authority if it is a better way of administering the schools estate, but not if it is a back door to social engineering.
My third point relates to special educational needs. I am surprised that it has become the biggest issue for families who have approached me for advocacy since I joined the Education Committee. Several primary-school principals have taken me into their study and produced the manual from the Department on special educational needs. It is a big manual containing 439 A4 pages, and it is handed to teachers with this instruction: “You decide. You make the call”. It seems to me that the head teachers to whom I have spoken are unanimous in feeling that it is not a manual to help them but a way for the Department to displace responsibility and put it on the shoulders of hard-pressed senior teachers in our schools. Teachers in one primary school in my constituency in the main town of Newtownards informed me that they had 50·2 hours of educational psychology assessment time available to them this year and asked how they were supposed to divide that up when they probably needed 100 or 150 hours to do the right thing by all their pupils.
My colleague Michael Copeland from East Belfast has mentioned and has now proved that some educational psychologists use a stopwatch in assessing the needs of children with special educational needs and that the stopwatch is turned on and off even for a short telephone conversation. I say this to the House, particularly those who were against the 11-plus transfer system on the grounds that it was the equivalent of child abuse: beware that how we assess special educational need is not the new 11-plus.
I conclude with these overarching remarks about the Programme for Government. Whether it is education, the economy or the health service, let teachers teach, let doctors and nurses tend the sick, and let business people do business. Let them generate wealth, jobs and the tax revenue that will fund excellence in our public services, and — let us not forget — our salaries.
Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I thank the First Minister and the deputy First Minister for bringing this debate to the House. I speak today as the Deputy Chair of the Committee for Regional Development and base my comments on the Committee’s report ‘Response to the Consultation on the Draft Programme for Government 2011-15, the Draft Investment Strategy for Northern Ireland 2011-21 and the Draft Economic Strategy’, which was published on 25 January this year. I will restrict my comments to those relating to the motion.
The Programme for Government contains six commitments that fall to the Department for Regional Development. The first commitment is to progress the upgrade of key road projects and improve the overall road network to ensure that journey times on key transport corridors reduce by 2·5% against the 2003 baseline by March 2015. The second is to ensure that there will be no additional water charges during this Programme for Government period. The third is to upgrade the Coleraine to Derry railway line. The fourth is to invest over £500 million to promote more sustainable modes of travel. The fifth commitment is to create the conditions to facilitate at least 36% of primary-school pupils and 22% of secondary-school pupils to walk or cycle to school as their main mode of transport by 2015. The sixth is to maintain a high quality of drinking water and improve compliance with waste water standards by investing £600 million in water and sewerage infrastructure. With your permission, a LeasCheann Comhairle, I will briefly address each commitment.
I am delighted that there has been significant progress towards the first target — the progressing of key road projects — following the announcement of £330 million, £105 million and £57 million to the A5, A8 and A2 networks respectively. That will make a major contribution to the economy in the North as a whole and, in the case of the A5, to the north-west in particular. It is estimated that the multiplier ratio is 3:1, meaning a financial injection of nearly £1 billion. Although that is welcomed by all, it is important to note that the target to reduce journey times by 2·5% against the 2003 baseline was deficient in two ways. First, targets exist for the reduction of journey times through the upgrading of key roads while no targets are in place to improve public transport times, where it is claimed that journey times are increasing. Secondly, the reduction of 2·5% was against a 2003 baseline rather than a more recent starting point. That was not seen as significantly challenging to the Department.
The commitment to ensure that no additional water charges would be levied during this Programme for Government period was welcomed by organisations representing the public but caused concern to those charged with delivering and scrutinising the water and waste water targets. These concerns did not necessarily centre on the fact that charges would not be applied but on the governance processes resulting from NI Water being designated a non-departmental public body for accounting purposes. It was argued that that came with constraints that impact on NIW’s ability to deliver priority works and maximise efficiencies and performances for customers. In addition, there was a concern that funding did not appear to be adequate, with consequent risks for future levels of service and the potential for EU infraction. Undoubtedly, those are serious concerns, and the Committee will wish to receive the Minister for Regional Development and his officials to commence discussion on the governance arrangements of NIW in the very near future.
The third pledge is to upgrade the Coleraine to Derry railway line. Again, we have seen some early commitments to that upgrade with emergency remedial works being undertaken to ensure that an important section of the track is available for the majority of the City of Culture celebrations. I commend the Minister for Regional Development for his engagement with the Committee in that respect. We hope that the full upgrade can be completed as soon as possible, bringing about further improvements and improved connectivity between the north-west and the remainder of the cities and towns in the North and in the South.
The fourth commitment is to invest over £500 million to promote more sustainable modes of transport. The Committee heard that there appeared to be a conflict between the sustainable transport objectives in the Programme for Government and those contained in major existing policy documents, such as the regional transport strategy, particularly with regard to the fact that the budget appears to be moving away from the 65:35 funding split between roads and public transport. It was suggested that only approximately 14% to 15% of the budget would now be available for investment in public transport and that the investment of £500 million would be used to maintain passenger numbers at 77 million per annum. That target has been in place since 2008 and was said to be indicative of the fact that the Programme for Government merely sought to maintain the status quo and would not create the environment and circumstances that would bring about a significant modal shift away from cars to public transport.
The fifth commitment seeks, by 2015, to create the conditions to enable at least 36% of primary-school pupils and 22% of secondary-school pupils to walk or cycle to school as their main mode of transport. That is universally welcomed, and the Committee was able to see the potential for such a target when it witnessed pupils at Gilnahirk Primary School take part in the Bike It programme. The one criticism of the target was that it restricted itself to the education sector and did not expand into, for example, the commute to work.
The final target is to maintain a high quality of drinking water and to improve compliance with waste water standards by investing £600 million in the water and sewerage infrastructure. I covered the concerns about the governance of NIW earlier and will not recount them again. However, the levels of funding identified in the Programme for Government and ISNI caused grave concern, as they will drop significantly up to and beyond 2015. Funding is currently at £188 million per annum. However, it will drop to £167 million per annum by 2015 and will drop again to £100 million per annum for the period up to 2021. It was estimated that it costs up to £80 million per annum just to maintain the base asset, and that leaves very little to invest in infrastructure, particularly given the lack of opportunity to carry capital funding over the financial years.
A number of respondents stated that the milestones and outcomes accompanying the commitments were not SMART and were vague and unambitious, which would, therefore, lead to difficulty in assessing progress. Again, it was felt that an opportunity had been lost to use appropriate milestones to drive the Programme for Government commitments, resulting in a tick-box exercise rather than a meaningful analysis of progress. It was seen as a priority that clear, measurable and ambitious targets were needed for each commitment. It was seen as important that the delegation of Executive commitments to individual departmental corporate plans should also result in meaningful, measurable and ambitious targets and outcomes. The Committee for Regional Development —
— is due to receive the departmental senior management team on 27 March, and I assure the House that we will seek to ensure that the corporate plan contains meaningful, measurable and ambitious targets.
This is a curious piece of political retrofitting. The normal thing is to have a Programme for Government and then a Budget. However, we have done it the other way round, and we are now trying to retrofit a Programme for Government to the Budget. That, of course, is not a satisfactory way to do business. Putting the cart before the horse is certainly not an efficient or effective way of conducting our affairs in the Assembly or the Executive.
Ten months after the election, we have a Programme for Government. Surely, that is a serious criticism of the Executive.
That having been said, however, my party welcomes the fact that a Programme for Government has now, finally, been produced and is subject to scrutiny and debate. One could not object to many parts of the programme; in fact, one would support them. It is a motherhood-and-apple-pie approach to government and government programming. One cannot object to much of the document’s details, and my party broadly agrees with its five priorities. However, we are, rightly, concerned about the lack of detail that is provided on each of those five priorities, the vagueness of many of the key commitments in each priority area and the lack of measurable targets in the document.
That has been reflected throughout the debate by other Members. Mr Frew said that agriculture targets are not challenging enough; Mr Nesbitt said that there are no real targets on education policy; and Mr Mervyn Storey, who also spoke from an education perspective, said that there is a lack of measurable targets in that Department’s area of competence.
One could look throughout the document and see a lack of measurable targeting. If there is to be a Programme for Government, it needs to have measurable targets. One must be able to say that because one is approaching a particular point in time, one will, therefore, have achieved a particular target. That is remarkably absent throughout the document.
Other issues are absent from the document that should be contained in it, such as mortgage relief; there is no commitment to a mortgage relief scheme. Indeed, recently, the Social Development Minister, Nelson McCausland, announced officially that there would be no mortgage relief scheme. Unlike his unofficial announcement on travel passes for over-60s, that was an official announcement.
Does the Member agree that the position of the current Minister for Social Development contrasts with that of his predecessors, who gave a commitment to provide for a mortgage relief scheme?
Indeed. I am grateful for that timely reminder. The previous Minister gave that commitment. I assumed that there was consensus in the House in favour of it. I am not certain whether the Minister has gone on a solo run again. Perhaps, the deputy First Minister or, indeed, the First Minister can advise us on that.
On welfare reform — one of the most far-reaching policies to affect Northern Ireland and the Executive — there is an absence of any plan to counteract the serious impact of those reforms in Northern Ireland, and there is faint-hearted opposition from the Executive to those so-called reforms, which have been imposed on us by the Conservative Government at Westminster. There is no planning, and no account has been taken in the Programme for Government to deal with the adverse impact of welfare reform.
Again, with regard to social development, there is a commitment to provide 8,000 houses over the next three years. If one looks at that, however, one sees that it does not mean 8,000 newbuilds. It means, perhaps, 5,500 or almost 6,000 newbuilds. The rest will be affordable housing.
Affordable housing is welcome and one cannot object to it but it should be separate from newbuild social housing. Newbuild programmes have a huge multiplier effect on the overall economy, and it is through such programmes that we will stimulate our economy. However, they are absent from this document, and we are not maximising the potential that we have in that area.
There is a passing reference to and commitments to renewable energy, and those are also to be welcomed. However, you do not sense that the Executive are taking up the challenge on renewable energy or that they really understand the massive potential that it presents to the Northern Ireland economy.
The green new deal has disappeared below the floorboards. Where has it gone? Is there any serious commitment on the part of the Executive to the green new deal? The green new deal could transform our energy consumption and create a situation in which private and public housing can become more energy efficient and save our owner-occupiers and tenants an endless amount of money. Fuel efficiency is the one instrument that we have to counteract fuel poverty in Northern Ireland, yet it is absent from the Programme for Government.
There are vague aspirations in the document, but no tight targets or direction have been given. For example, there is nothing in the document that takes account of the expanding needs of older people in this community. Those needs are expanding year by year, and no sector has a greater need than our older people. There is also nothing of any substance in the document for victims of the past or for victims of crime. There is very little by way of a serious impact on the whole area of victims.
We can also look for a reference to the European dimension. There is a mention of that dimension, but it is vestigial and non-substantive, and there is no real engagement with the European institutions or any attempt to energise our politics to make them Euro-friendly. However, that is hardly surprising, given that the parties of the First Minister and the deputy First Minister are antipathetic to Europe. You cannot be surprised by the lack of a vigorous pro-European approach from those parties.
No, I am nearly finished.
Where is the North/South dimension in the Programme for Government? There is no serious expansion of the North/South — [Interruption.] I hear that Members on the DUP Benches agree with that, but there must be progress on that.
There is enormous economic potential to be gained from us working together, North and South. We must work hard to develop that dimension.
The Committee first considered this matter on 15 December 2011, when it received correspondence from the Committee for the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister asking for the views of the Statutory Committees on the draft Programme for Government and draft investment strategy for Northern Ireland.
Recognising its importance, and in anticipation of receiving that correspondence, the Committee had agreed to write to all the DCAL arm’s-length bodies to seek their views, particularly about whether they felt that any gaps existed, and for their comments on milestones and outputs and on how best to monitor progress.
The Committee received and considered responses from six arm’s-length bodies: the Arts Council of Northern Ireland, Foras na Gaeilge, Libraries NI, NI Screen, the Northern Ireland Museums Council and Sport NI. It also took views from DCAL officials, focusing in particular on the Department’s commitments in the strategy and its delivery vehicles. The Committee noted with some concern that DCAL is responsible for the delivery of only three of the 82 commitments in the Programme for Government: namely, to support 200 projects through the creative industries innovation fund; to develop sports stadiums as agreed with the IFA, the GAA and Ulster Rugby; and to host the World Police and Fire Games in 2013. Although they appear significant, those three commitments form less than 4% of the Executive’s targets and are, in most cases, already well advanced. Although the Committee in no way underestimates the huge task that now faces the Department to successfully complete the implementation of the projects and notes the significant contribution that they can make to the Northern Ireland economy if success is achieved, it questions whether the three given commitments are sufficiently challenging for the Department over the 2011-15 period.
Looking beyond individual departmental issues, the Committee acknowledges that the main priority in the Programme for Government is to build a strong and vibrant economy and recognises the potential economic benefits of each of the given commitments. As I have already mentioned, the first priority set aside for DCAL relates to the creative industries. It is well documented and widely accepted that that sector has the potential to make significant economic and social contributions to society. However, in order that its capacity for job and wealth creation is maximised, it is essential that the correct supporting mechanisms are in place. Those mechanisms will need to ensure that conditions are right to stimulate industry growth and to maximise and harness economic benefits.
The Committee’s ongoing inquiry into maximising the potential of the creative industries is well placed to examine the policies, strategies and frameworks that oversee the development and growth of the creative industries and to determine whether they are effective and fit for purpose. The Committee recognises that the creative industries innovation fund (CIIF) is one such mechanism that supports the growth of our creative industries. Therefore, it welcomes the Programme for Government pledge for the continued support of 200 projects through the fund.
However, it is noted that the current fund allocation shows a 40% reduction over the previous one, with an allocation of just £4 million over four years as opposed to £5 million over three years in the previous fund. The resources pledged for the purpose are critical to the ongoing expansion of the creative industries, and the allocation is, perhaps, not truly indicative of the value of the fund in maximising the tangible economic benefits and growth in turnover among CIIF-assisted companies.
The Committee also acknowledges the contribution that the three sports stadia and the World Police and Fire Games will make to the economy. The stadia have the potential to attract increased revenue streams from spectators and the opportunity to create immediate benefits for the construction sector. Those projected benefits are, of course, in addition to the estimated £15·5 million that will be attracted from hosting the World Police and Fire Games. In the wider sporting arena, I want to acknowledge the addition of the target to support the successful hosting of the 2012 Irish Open and to secure a further international golf event. That will, undoubtedly, benefit the economy and boost our tourism numbers.
Although we are pleased to note the Executive’s intention to have a more focused and structured approach to the Programme for Government’s commitments and, as I have outlined, recognise the impact that the DCAL commitments will have, we are not convinced that they fully reflect the Department’s contribution to all five strategic priorities.
Some of the gaps that were identified when reflecting DCAL’s contribution include sports and museums. The question was raised of whether museums generally receive significant recognition. That is indeed a salient point. A review that the previous Committee for Culture, Arts and Leisure carried out found that the museums sector contributes £16 million to the economy and accounts for the top four tourist attractions in Northern Ireland. It is encouraging to see that the target for tourism in the final PFG has increased from having 3·6 million visitors to having 4·2 million, with an increase in revenue of a further £51 million. However, it is disappointing that the contribution of the museums sector to cultural tourism, particularly in view of the number of commemoration events that the museums sector will host this year, is not adequately reflected in the Programme for Government.
On sport, it was noted that the PFG fails to appropriately recognise the significant contribution of DCAL’s Sport Matters strategy, which addresses all, not just one, of the PFG’s priorities. In addition, other gaps were noted in grassroots sport, physical recreation, film, attendance at arts events, angling and the 2012 Olympic Games and Paralympic Games. Those were of particular concern, as that position appeared to be at odds with the previous PFG commitments. As the World Police and Fire Games and the three stadiums will be in Belfast, concerns were also raised that the Department’s commitments through the PFG were largely Belfast-centric. The Committee suggested that the Department will wish to satisfy itself that those commitments are equitable and benefit all of Northern Ireland.
With 85% of the Department’s work delivered through its arm’s-length bodies, some issues were raised about accountability and the delivery of the projects. As an example, CIIF is administered by the Arts Council in association with the Digital Circle and NI Screen, but delivery of the World Police and Fire Games is the responsibility of World Police and Fire Games 2013, and the three sports stadiums will be delivered by the IFA, GAA and Ulster Rugby. Responsibility and accountability for the delivery of each project lies with those bodies, while DCAL has overall responsibility for ensuring that appropriate systems, processes, policies and funding are in place. The Committee noted that DCAL must put in place the appropriate support and set targets and milestones for the delivery of those projects in line with SMART — specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and timebound — objectives and retain a robust oversight role. There must also be accountability at departmental level.
Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I welcome the opportunity to address the House as Chair of the Committee for Health, Social Services and Public Safety. Like other Members, I welcome the publication of the Programme for Government today.
The Committee took evidence on the draft Programme for Government from officials on 14 December 2011. One of our concerns at the time was that of the 76 key commitments, only five related to the Department of Health, yet, across all Departments, the Department spends over 40% of the total resource budget. I note that in the Programme for Government published today, there are now six targets for health. That increase is welcome, but there are still relatively few targets for a Department that is the size of the Health Department and that is responsible for the amount of money that it spends.
One of the Department’s commitments in the Programme for Government is to reconfigure and reform health and social care services. We know that that will be driven by the review of health and social care, which was published on 13 December 2011. When the Committee considered the draft Programme for Government, we were concerned that there did not seem to be a clear link between the Programme for Government and the recommendations coming out of the review. In particular, we could not see any evidence that the Programme for Government would be used to monitor or measure the changes that are proposed in the review.
However, I am pleased to see that in the revised Programme for Government, which has been published today, there is clear reference to the review of health and social care. In year 1, there is now a target to develop population plans to deliver a new model of care, as set out in the review. In year 2, there is a target to reduce the number of unnecessary days that patients stay in acute hospitals. In year 3, there is a target to secure a shift from hospital to community services, along with a shift in funding in line with the recommendations in the review. It is important that the review, given its impact on the future of health and social care, is placed firmly in the context of the Programme for Government.
The targets on allocating an increasing percentage of the overall health budget to public health have been changed. In the draft document, there were simply references to the additional amount of money to be invested each year, but we now have a target for year 1 of setting new policy directions to strengthen cross-departmental working. For year 2, there is a target to extend bowel screening to everyone aged 60 to 74, and in year 3, the target is simply to spend £10 million more on public health compared with in 2011-12. The Committee had asked that the targets should quote the increase in percentage terms as well as cash terms. Unfortunately, that has not been done, so we do not know whether £10 million extra on public health is a 1% rise or a 10% rise on what we are currently spending.
Under the priority of protecting our people, the environment and creating safer communities, there is a commitment, which was not in the draft Programme for Government, for the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety to improve safeguarding for children and vulnerable adults. That is a very welcome addition to the Programme for Government. Sometimes, the social care aspect of the Department can be overlooked, and we get too focused on health and hospitals. So, it is good to see that target included.
The Department is aiming to produce a joint strategy to address domestic and sexual violence and abuse in year 1. That will be an important step forward, and the Committee wrote to the Minister about that issue just a few weeks ago. There is also a target to develop an interdepartmental child safeguarding policy framework. The Safeguarding Board is due to be established in June and, hopefully, it will be involved in that work.
Under the priority for delivering high-quality public service, there is a new target of rolling out the family nurse partnership programme to a further test site. That programme is all about early intervention and support for young parents and children, and it is welcome as the Committee is firmly in favour of prevention and supporting people so that they do not end up needing services or end up in crisis further down the line.
In conclusion, on behalf of the Committee, I welcome the publication of the Programme for Government, and I assure the House that we will work closely with the Departments to ensure that they meet their targets.