European Priorities 2012-13
Jonathan Bell (DUP)
: With your permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a statement on the Executive’s recent European successes, including a major engagement event in Brussels undertaken by the Barroso task force working group, and to explain how those efforts have shaped the Executive’s European priorities for 2012-13, which are published today.
I am pleased to report that the past year has seen a substantial step-up in our collective engagement in European Union policies, funding programmes and networks. All Departments have been involved in the work, which has seen us raise our positive profile, commit additional dedicated resources to support our efforts and has helped us to achieve increased financial successes.
I turn to the European successes of 2011 and 2012. While the euro zone’s financial problems have been making all the headlines, this has been a hugely important year for us in Northern Ireland to be very actively engaged with Brussels as the first firm proposals and draft regulations for the next European funding period, which is 2014 to 2020, have emerged. Departments have been following the policy debates closely and working to ensure that the proposals, and the new funding programmes that will eventually emerge, accommodate our regional needs as fully as possible.
The Executive have strengthened their European support infrastructure to assist Departments in their efforts, funding nine additional European secondments that include four desk officers operating from the Executive’s Brussels office. Those desk officers are dedicated to supporting the Barroso task force working group and its four thematic subgroups. Since the desk officers took up their posts in early March, they have made a significant impact. They have opened new doors and helped Departments to engage more, maximising the benefits for our businesses and citizens over the coming year.
A significant and tangible outcome from our collective efforts can be seen in the increased drawdown of competitive EU moneys over the last year. The Executive set themselves a target in the Programme for Government of a 20% increase in EU competitive funding by March 2015. Over the past year — year 1 of the target period — Departments drew down £15·8 million of competitive EU funds, and that is an increase of £4·9 million over the 2010-11 baseline. That is an excellent start and provides a strong springboard for delivering even greater success across the remaining three years of the target period.
I turn to the Barroso task force and the context for the event. All those efforts culminated in a highly successful Brussels engagement programme by the Barroso task force working group between 27 and 29 March, under the chairmanship of junior Minister Anderson and me. We led a delegation of officials from all Departments to Brussels to engage in an extensive and comprehensive programme of meetings and discussions with the European Commission’s members of the Barroso task force. The purpose of the programme was to take stock of progress made to date against the Executive’s agreed priorities, to pursue current issues and to share our future strategic priorities with the European Commission.
It is an important time to make our voice heard in Brussels. For example, negotiations are currently under way on the size of the EU budget for 2014-2020. That will determine the amount of funding available for the next generation of EU policies and programmes, such as the common agriculture policy, the structural funds and the new research and development framework — Horizon 2020 — all of which will be highly significant for us. We must, therefore, continue to exploit the unique opportunities that are presented to us by the Barroso task force and opportunities such as our Brussels programme to identify fresh funding opportunities, to influence policy and, more generally, to further our interests in Europe to help strengthen and support our economy.
President Barroso has invested personally and politically in this process. In 2007, he was the first European leader to visit us following the agreement on the restoration of devolved government. He underlined the support of the European Commission for the peace process at an important time in our political and economic development, and he established a task force to enhance our engagement in Europe, reinforcing our newly-established political institutions. In December 2010, President Barroso again restated his personal commitment to us when he joined the First Minister and deputy First Minister in opening new premises for our Executive’s office in Brussels, and he reinforced and renewed the work of the task force.
In response, through the Barroso task force working group, we have built up a strong infrastructure, allowing us to work with the Commission task force to engage effectively in Europe and, through mechanisms such as the Programme for Government, mainstream Europe within the Executive and Departments.
The Barroso task force working group aims to promote participation in EU policy development that will benefit the region; engagement in European networks, allowing us to benchmark our performance and learn from best practice across Europe in the delivery of services to citizens and businesses; and drawdown of resources from competitive EU funding programmes, strengthening our economy and delivering competitive advantage for our businesses. Through the group and its various subgroups, we aim to harness European programmes and policies to help us make progress across a number of areas, including competitiveness and employment; innovation and technology; climate change and energy; and social cohesion.
Recognising the time-limited advantage that the Barroso task force offers us, we have — even in the current difficult financial environment — provided additional resources to boost the number of our Brussels-based officials and ensure that every opportunity for greater European success is being maximised.
In respect of our engagement and the outcomes from the Brussels programme, we have strengthened significantly our engagement with the European Commission, following and building on the previous visit to Belfast by the Commission task force in March 2011. While there, we were able to outline to the Commission areas where we have made significant progress against our targets during 2011 and 2012.
Our most recent visit to Brussels gave us once more an opportunity to express our appreciation for the work of the Commission task force, including the work of Walter Deffaa, who is the recently appointed director general of DG Regio. In addition, it gave us unprecedented access to Commission officials. Over three days, 54 meetings took place, involving 35 Civil Service officials from all our Departments. In addition, our Executive office in Brussels hosted a plenary session attended by over 50 officials from the European Commission and our own Departments. That focused on the current world and European economic context and the strategic thrust that will be necessary in 2012-13 to stimulate growth and help regions such as ours recover from recession. The session was chaired jointly by the lead Commission official on the Barroso task force and the head of the Executive office in Brussels and was addressed by the director general of DG Regio and the permanent secretary of the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment, David Sterling. The Brussels programme also provided junior Minister Anderson and I with the opportunity to raise specific issues of importance.
During the first six months of 2013, Ireland will take on the presidency of the European Council. As such, it is expected to preside over a number of key EU decisions, such as, possibly, the agreement of the EU budget, the future of the common agricultural policy and the cohesion policy. We used the opportunity of the visit to explore with the Irish Permanent Representation to the EU areas where we could contribute to, and benefit from, this important Irish presidency. For example, the possibility of secondments of our civil servants to Irish Departments was raised, following agreement in principle at a previous North/South Ministerial Council. One civil servant has already been seconded to the Irish Permanent Representation in Brussels to assist in the presidency. This is a rare and important opportunity for our officials to gain first-hand experience at a time when decisions will be made that will impact on us all for many years to come.
We met our MEPs Jim Nicholson and Diane Dodds, as well as staff from Bairbre De Brún’s office, and we briefed them on the recent work of the task force. Since the Lisbon Treaty came into force, the European Parliament has become a co-legislator in important policy areas such as agriculture and fisheries and our cohesion policy. That reinforces the need for us to work proactively with our MEPs in promoting our regional agenda.
As Ministers, we are keen to further our contribution to the EU’s efforts to increase its role in peace-building and conflict resolution throughout the world. The European Commission, in the Barroso task force report, committed to working with us to examine how that might be done. The European External Action Service, as the European Union’s foreign policy arm, is currently considering how the European Union can develop its role in that area. It is, therefore, an opportune time for us to join these discussions. This is particularly so in light of the EU’s recent decision to award £12 million towards the construction of a peace-building and reconciliation centre at Maze/Long Kesh This was of particular interest to members of the cabinet of Vice President Catherine Ashton, the High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, and to officials in the European External Action Service, with whom we had very positive meetings.
We also discussed these developments with Jane Morrice, one of our members on the Economic and Social Committee. Jane was rapporteur for her Committee’s formal opinion on the role of the EU in helping to resolve international conflicts. Her report lays particular emphasis on the relevance of our peace process to conflict resolution in other parts of the world. It was adopted by the Committee on 19 January this year and further underlines the potential for the centre at Maze/Long Kesh to play a major role in international conflict prevention and resolution.
We took the opportunity of our meeting with the Director General of DG Regio, Walter Deffaa, to discuss the future direction of European cohesion policy, including the possibility of a further Peace programme. In his role, Mr Deffaa will have an important influence in the current structural funds negotiations. We also discussed Commissioner Hahn’s proposal to host an event in Brussels to showcase projects funded by the Peace programme to a wider international audience, which is scheduled for early 2013.
With regard to departmental engagement in Brussels, just as structural funds are important to our future economic growth, so, too, are the many competitive EU programmes that are available to us now and in the future. Those opportunities were explored in some depth through a series of meetings with the Commission and our officials in each of the Executive’s policy priority groups. Those in the innovation and technology group covered topics such as the future funding programmes for 2014-2020, with a particular emphasis on supporting and growing our small to medium enterprises. They explored the COSME programme, the competitiveness programme for small to medium enterprises, which aims to provide support for entrepreneurship through better access to financial and enhanced support services, the regional smart specialisation strategies and Horizon 2020, which is the European Union’s future framework programme for research and innovation. Possible funding applications under the European innovation partnership were also explored, with a focus on agricultural productivity and sustainability.
Officials in the competitiveness and employment policy group discussed opportunities to address the EU-wide issue — an issue close to many Members’ hearts, including mine — of youth unemployment. They discussed also the current proposals to use uncommitted funding from existing programmes to address that problem. Their discussions also covered Erasmus for All, the new future programme for education, training, youth and sport.
That will replace the existing Lifelong Learning Programme. Other issues covered included the European social fund and vocational excellence.
Problems posed by an ageing population — we should celebrate having an ageing population — provided a particular focus for the social cohesion group’s policy discussions. Specifically, officials were interested in exploring funding for innovative approaches to the problem. They also looked for opportunities to share examples of local best practice in that area, such as the success with the creation of a Commissioner for Older People and our combined health and social care system. Other members of the social cohesion theme focused on funding opportunities relating to young people who are disenfranchised; justice; culture; and community-led regeneration. The meetings explored existing and future funding opportunities.
During meetings with the Commission, the climate and energy group members impressed with examples of how our experience could provide insight into a regional approach for the EU adaptation strategy and of how our approach to low-carbon technology and renewables could drive ambitious targets. Officials highlighted the Agri-Food and Biosciences Institute’s successful research into agricultural carbon sequestration and held constructive meetings on transport policy, including electric vehicles and the transnational funding of projects under the Trans-European Transport Network programme. For Members interested in finding out more, we will provide a more detailed report on the Brussels engagement programme, which will be laid in the Assembly Library shortly.
I now turn to our European priorities for 2012-13 and our next steps. As we move forward, it is important that we maintain the significant momentum that has been built up as a result of the Brussels engagement programme. Follow-up actions are being pursued, and bilateral contacts between Departments and the Commission services have been strengthened. Early reciprocal programmes by Commission officials are expected, and one has already taken place, dealing with health and the digital agenda.
Today, we published our ‘European Priorities 2011-12 Implementation Report’ and our ‘European Priorities 2012-13’. Both those documents can be found in the Assembly Library. Hard copies are available from the Business Office, and Members will be able to download them from the OFMDFM website following this debate. Their publication represents another tangible step forward and a restatement of the Executive’s commitment to that work.
Given our success to date, we will continue to focus on the four broad themes of competiveness and employment; innovation and technology; climate change and energy; and social cohesion that we adopted last year. Our aims and objectives have, however, been updated and aligned with European Union objectives for the current year, with the details we currently have on the 2014-2020 EU funding period and with our Programme for Government. As was the case last year, an implementation plan, setting targets for each of the objectives identified under each theme, is being developed. The Barroso task force working group will monitor progress quarterly and provide the Executive with a formal six-month progress report in the autumn.
Now that we have a reinforced infrastructure in place to support the drawdown of EU moneys, our intention is to build on last year’s success by broadening the range of competitive EU funding streams that Departments target and by working to influence the ongoing negotiations on key funding sources, such as the Connecting Europe Facility and Horizon 2020, which will be worth around €50 billion and €80 billion respectively.
During this year, we expect to consolidate our preparations for the new EU funding period so that, by the end of 2013, each Department will have a well-developed project pipeline in place, allowing them to tap in to the new EU funding programmes as soon as they are launched.
We also believe that our performance needs to be seen in context if our success is to be honestly and fairly measured. Our performance in year 1 has been good, but, on a relative basis, compared with other regions, the picture is still unclear, and so for the year ahead – year 2 – we will be placing greater emphasis on comparing our relative drawdown with the best performing regions in Europe. Engaging positively by extending partnerships and collaboration across all key policies and programmes will do much to make that possible and to advance our own learning and knowledge. We will also work closely with our MEPs and other representatives to the EU to exert the maximum possible influence on decisions in Brussels that are important to us.
In conclusion, the Barroso task force represents a significant political and resource investment by the European Commission in the region as part of its contribution to helping us maintain a momentum towards a peaceful and shared society and towards economic recovery. The Executive, in turn, recognise the need to match the Commission’s continued prioritisation of the region with an appropriate level of resource and effort. In so doing, we will realise the greatest benefits from our EU membership for our businesses and our people.
As junior Ministers with responsibility for that work, we will continue to encourage and support Departments in their efforts, helping them to implement their individual priorities and deliver even greater collective success, strengthening our economy, and building a shared and better future for us all.
Mike Nesbitt (UUP)
I thank the Minister for his update. Members will be aware that the Committee for the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister was one of a number of Committees to respond to Ministers on the Executive’s draft European priorities. An implementation plan was referenced on a number of occasions during that process and again by the Minister in the House today. Given that it is nearly June, can the Minister tell us when we can expect to see the implementation plan for 2012-13, and will he confirm that it will contain SMART targets?
Jonathan Bell (DUP)
I cannot give the exact date, because it is currently being developed by our officials. I welcome the constructive contribution that the Committee has made, and I hope that it will continue to help us to influence the budgets and the policy for the 2014-2020 period.
In terms of the SMART targets, I think we are meeting the first one by being strategic, because we are taking what President Barroso has committed and the interest that the EU is giving to assisting Northern Ireland, and we want to respond positively. As I regard it, we can either use the expertise of the European Union that President Barroso has offered us and all of that energy and talent, or, effectively, we can lose it.
In terms of the SMART target being achievable, the Executive have already responded positively. The Committee has seen where we have committed significant extra resources. They are measured against our own European priorities, and they are time framed, in that we are operating in 2011, 2012 and 2013, but we are also proactively looking towards the future, which is the 2014-2020 period. That is the time frame that we will be operating against, and we will build on the good contacts that we have already made. We will follow through on every policy and every programme that we think has even a modicum of success in bringing development and growth back to Northern Ireland from Brussels.
William Humphrey (DUP)
I have picked up the hint, Mr Speaker. I thank the junior Minister for his statement. I welcome his comments about tackling youth unemployment in north Belfast. It is a huge issue, and I welcome that being included in the statement. What is the junior Minister’s view on the outcome of European engagement?
Jonathan Bell (DUP)
The outcome is going to be, in a number of ways, what we have managed to draw down in additional funding, how that has stimulated growth and how that has affected areas with youth unemployment. I know that is of particular interest to him in north Belfast as he has invited me to visit projects aimed at tackling it. I welcome the energy that there is in north Belfast for tackling that critical issue.
When we look down at our programme of engagement, we are looking, as an Executive, at lifting and improving our European engagement. As I outlined, the success will be in the priorities that we lay down for 2012-13. In addition to the plenary session at the Brussels office, each of our four thematic groups — I will not go over them — had its own programme of meetings. There were 54 meetings across three days with Commission officials and 14 directorates general. I think that that will draw down success in and of itself.
The reason junior Minister Anderson and I were in Brussels was to support all Departments’ efforts in European engagement. The responsibility of the four thematic groups and the associated individual Departments is to ensure that the objectives identified during the programme of engagement are met. We will follow each of those programmes closely. We must not lose the momentum of the programme of engagement, and we are confident that all of our Departments will work to meet their objectives that were set out in the Executive’s priorities of 2012-13. As I said, a report of the entire programme is being prepared by officials, and we will place a copy in the Library as soon as possible for you to peruse.
Francie Molloy (Sinn Féin)
Go raibh maith agat. I congratulate the junior Ministers on the drive they have put in to the Barroso task force. Will the junior Minister tell us what the position is on Peace IV? Last term, I was at a meeting of OFMDFM with Lord Trimble, who was saying at that time that he would not support the future programme. We all know how important Peace funding has been to this programme and this Assembly; has that had any influence on unionism and the Conservative Government in their representation to Europe? What future do we have for Peace IV?
Jonathan Bell (DUP)
We are pressing very hard at every opportunity and in every meeting for Peace IV. I do not think anyone could point to one opportunity that we have missed to put that forward. Thank you for the warm remarks on the engagement in Europe. I know that the Member works hard, as will a future colleague of mine, Trevor Cummings, in the Committee of the Regions, and we look forward to that constant engagement of regional support for the work that we are doing.
We would welcome a further round of EU Peace funding very much. The work of peace-building is not complete. The recession has created future and further challenges, particularly among young people who we heard from earlier, for whom unemployment is increasing and there may be fewer opportunities for education and training. I fear that some evil groups within our society will seek to prey on those vulnerable young people. The particular content of any future Peace programme will be established through research and public consultation, and a further round of Peace funding could potentially focus on the needs of marginalised and disaffected youth.
Junior Minister Anderson and I recently had the privilege of handing out awards to a group from the Craigavon/Lurgan area, where a specific two-year programme was put in through Co-operation Ireland to help young people who were at risk and to give them a two-year development plan. Those young people were entrusted with something like half a million pounds of communications equipment. Not only did they complete their programmes; some of them have gone on to achieve full-time jobs.
We need to potentially focus on the needs of our marginalised and disaffected young people. Through the task force and direct engagement with the Commissioner for Regional Policy, Johannes Hahn, and in our dealings with Westminster and Dublin, we have pressed at every stage for a Peace IV programme. We are encouraged by the provision to fund peace-building actions in the draft territorial co-operation regulations that are published by the European Commission, and by the United Kingdom and Irish Governments’ declared support for Peace IV.
In pursuing that, we will seek to ensure that Peace IV provides additional funding to the region and does not merely displace other European Union funding sources. Junior Minister Anderson and I will continue to closely monitor the negotiations and will always lobby the United Kingdom Government through the Joint Ministerial Committee in Europe.
I thank the junior Minister for his statement. I welcome the fact that he stated that he intends to learn from the good example of the Irish Government in drawing down funding from the EU. How many officials do we have based in Brussels compared with the Irish Government?
Jonathan Bell (DUP)
I have a responsibility in Northern Ireland, but I do not have responsibility for the number of officials the Irish Government have. I thank Mr Eastwood for his positive comments about the engagement in Europe. I have shown conclusively where the Executive have put in additional resources. Even against the backdrop of a recession, we have put in four desk officers to cover the key areas. We will ensure, and have been ensuring, that those desk officers are fully and adequately resourced for the task that they are doing. We have already seen in year 1 that we are well on our way to not only meeting an ambitious target but, potentially, exceeding it. I will get you information on the precise number of officials that we have; I presume that you would have to ask the Irish Government to get the precise number of officials that they have. President Barroso has given us energy; we will match that with energy and commitment. We will leave no stone unturned in bringing back to Northern Ireland from Brussels the maximum amount that we can. I have put out the figures honestly and squarely; we are already exceeding the targets that we have set ourselves.
Chris Lyttle (Alliance)
I thank the Minister for his statement and welcome his positive endorsement of the potential benefit to our citizens and businesses as a result of engagement with Europe. I agree with the Chair of the OFMDFM Committee, however: in the absence of an action plan and targets, it is difficult to assess the full ambition of the plan. What existing and future European funding opportunities are available to assist our small and medium-sized businesses?
Jonathan Bell (DUP)
Sometimes, strategies and action plans are important — I will get that to you as soon as I possibly can — but the reality is also important; that was the “R” in the SMART targets that were set. The reality is that, under the first year of our watch, we have drawn down more than we wanted to. We will always take more than we want at every stage, and, in a situation that is very difficult — you see the situation in Greece and everything else — and constantly changing, we will seek to maximise and go beyond the 20% that we have set ourselves. We have done it in year 1, and we look to do it in future.
Mr Lyttle raised a vital question about the important issue of other European funding opportunities and securing greater EU financial support for Northern Ireland. The House will be aware that EU structural funds are allocated at national level and that we receive a fixed percentage of that amount. Scope to increase that funding is very limited, which is why we, as the Northern Ireland Executive, set a target for increasing our drawdown from competitive EU funding steams. The success in competitive European funding programmes takes time and sustained effort and requires us to network with other European Union regions to demonstrate our regional strengths and expertise and build on our experience as junior partners before we can seek credibly to lead in larger projects.
As far as small and medium-sized enterprises are concerned, we are developing our future research and development strategy. You have seen the Horizon 2020 proposals. Under those, we will allocate around 17% to small and medium-sized enterprises.
Moving on to the work that is being undertaken, DEL has looked at matching labour market supply with demands in Estonia. That has allowed it to explore potential project ideas and possible future partnerships. Where SMEs are concerned, in February 2012 DETI appointed a smart specialisation co-ordinator to lead the smart specialisation strategy for the region. DEL has established an EU framework support fund of £80,000 per annum to encourage our universities to apply for funding from framework programme 7 for research and innovation. In the area of SMEs, each Department has been actively targeting the current programmes in framework programme 7, including the trans-European Transport Network, known as TEN-T, the Progress programme and the European Union culture fund, and we are also preparing for the arrival of the next funding programmes. It is vital that the Northern Ireland Executive are proactive and seek, in the next round of funding programmes, including through Horizon 2020, to look at how we can maximise our drawdown from 2014.
I should also say in conclusion, Mr Lyttle, that junior Minister Anderson and I have been active in meeting European Commission officials in Brussels to discuss how we can contribute to and benefit from the 2012 European Year for Active Ageing and Solidarity between Generations. That is vital. For example, I was with the chief executive of the South Eastern Trust recently to discuss my constituency of Strangford, and I thought that we should celebrate and thank God for the fact that our elderly people are getting older. They have contributed a lot to society, and, as we have been seeing in the Pensioners Parliament, they have a huge amount more to contribute. However, because of the people who are living longer, we in Strangford have to prepare for a town that is equivalent to the size of a new Ballynahinch. We want to be proactive, and we have discussed with the European External Action Service how we might contribute and share our experience in Northern Ireland through supporting an enhanced European Union role in peace building.
George Robinson (DUP)
Will the junior Minister enlarge on what impact he believes our European priorities have had in 2011-12? What potential is there for Northern Ireland to benefit from developments in health, technology and innovation?
Jonathan Bell (DUP)
I am happy to do that, and, as I am conscious of the time frame, I will briefly report. There has been considerable success over the past year in engaging policy development, strengthening networks, and increasing the number of officials on secondment in Europe, as well as in a range of EU funding streams. We also hope that we have laid the groundwork for what we hope will be future success. We have nine more staff in Brussels than we did a year ago, and, as I said to Mr Eastwood, the four desk officers who took up post in March are providing dedicated support to deliver on the European priorities of 2012-13. A finance subgroup was established to deliver progress against the Executive’s Programme for Government target of a 20% increase in drawdown from EU competitive funding sources. It is important to note that, in comparison with the previous year, we have drawn down an additional £4·9 million in 2011-12. That is a fact. Northern Ireland applicants secured a total of €36·4 million from the seventh framework programme for research and development between the start of the programme in 2007 and the end of October 2011. We will be active in shaping and preparing for its successor programme, Horizon 2020, so that we can take it forward from 2014. I will pull back there, because I know that there are a number of questions.
Jennifer McCann (Sinn Féin)
Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I thank the Minister for his statement and for some of the very positive things that he said in response to other people’s questions, particularly on small and medium-sized businesses. Now that we have a better support mechanism over there, he will be aware that the Irish Government have taken 100 SMEs over to Europe to encourage them to build the capacity to draw down moneys.
Would the Minister be of a mind to do something similar with small and medium-sized businesses from the North?
Jonathan Bell (DUP)
It is a very well-made point. That is obviously a priority for DETI, but we have been keen, whether from a culture, arts or business perspective, to bring our businesses to the Northern Ireland Executive office and allow them to use the facilities to showcase their products. DETI has led a programme to maximise framework programme drawdown and has produced 18 recommendations designed to increase Northern Ireland’s success.
Part of that success has been in bringing over some of those local businesses as part of DETI’s international trade missions, and I welcome that. I know, particularly from the work of the First Minister and the deputy First Minister in Dubai, the United Arab Emirates and India, that the feedback from Northern Ireland’s businesses is that they got unprecedented access because of the opportunities that were afforded to them by the OFMDFM visits to the United Arab Emirates and India. Among its recommendations, DETI has included the appointment of a Horizon 2020 manager, hopefully in place by September 2012, and thematic leads based in our two universities.
The Member may also want to know that Commissioner Máire Geoghegan-Quinn will visit Belfast on 7 June to speak at the Collaborate to Innovate conference on FP7, the focus of which will be on encouraging greater small-to-medium-enterprise involvement in FP7 and Horizon 2020. Commissioner Geoghegan-Quinn will also meet the Executive subcommittee on the economy and separately with the First Minister and the deputy First Minister. In addition, she will visit the Agri-food and Biosciences Institute and the Northern Ireland advanced composites and engineering centre at Bombardier.
Jonathan Bell (DUP)
We will seek to secure not only that funding, but funding through every opportunity that we have. We have built up some expertise in Northern Ireland, which is regarded at a European level as a success. I do not say that lightly; I say because I sit in Brussels and I listen to what the commissioners are telling me. The First Minister and the deputy First Minister put in place a comprehensive role for the Commissioner for Older People. In many places across Europe, that legislation has been regarded as a success.
The relevant commissioners are looking to where we in Northern Ireland have already been successful in our work on active ageing and solidarity between the generations. We hope to have a number of events and have Northern Ireland’s good progress profiled. Take it from here that no stone will be left unturned in any of the funding streams. We have proven that already by the significant success that we have had in year 1.
Danny Kinahan (UUP)
I thank the junior Minister for his statement. I am very impressed by the number of meetings and discussions and the amount of research, but, until we get actions and timelines, we have really just got seven pages of waffle here. I want to focus on ERASMUS and the 50 officials who met to discuss the economic context and strategy. When are we going to hear, either in actions or summaries, what sort of skills and training we need to put in place in Northern Ireland so that there are jobs for our young people, whether in Northern Ireland, Europe or even globally?
Jonathan Bell (DUP)
I thank the Member for his positive remarks at the start, which I understand. He talked about waffle, but we have increased the amount of funding for young people in our area and increased the amount of growth opportunities for economic development in our area.
I used to sing a hymn during free school meals at primary school, Mr Kinahan. [Interruption.] I promise that I will not sing it now, but it spoke of the rich man in his castle and the poor man at his gate. Until I met you, Mr Kinahan, I did not realise that people in Northern Ireland still lived in castles.
Jonathan Bell (DUP)
We have drawn down more money from Europe and increased the amount of opportunities for our young people in Europe. Both of our universities, which are collaborating on the programmes that I have already outlined, are stepping up to the plate and will be disappointed with the Member’s description of their work as waffle.
Look at the Department for Employment and Learning and its work in the trans-European consortium, under the PROGRESS programme and in the New Skills for New Jobs project in July 2011. That project aims to contribute to the European Union’s effort to meet its ambitious employment rate target of 75% for women and men in the 20 to 64 years age group by 2020. I have already outlined the success in terms of additional drawdown.
In the area of youth unemployment, European funding has provided significant support for our Executive’s efforts to tackle directly youth unemployment and the issues of young people who are not in education, employment or training. That is addressed under the thematic group’s key aim, which is basically equipping our young people with the skills and the ambition that they need to contribute to the economy. European social fund assistance has been given to 82 voluntary and community sector organisations — there is an action — to support the employability of individuals who face barriers to participation in the workforce. Mr Kinahan, if you think for one second that supporting 82 voluntary and community sector organisations to help young people get employment and face and overcome the barriers to employment is waffle, you are very much mistaken. There are also a number of projects with a value of £10 million that are aimed specifically at re-engaging young people who are NEET. Priority one of the programme is to support 4,500 of our young people who are not in education, employment or training between 2007 and 2013. If you think that a target of supporting 4,500 of our young people is waffle, you are very much out of date in your castle.
The European social fund programme is supporting the Apprenticeships Northern Ireland programme, which offers the opportunity — [Interruption.]
Jonathan Bell (DUP)
It offers individuals the opportunity to train in their chosen occupation. For an Ulster Unionist to say that 82 voluntary and community sector groups and £10 million is waffle, you are so much out of date in your castle.
Pat Doherty (Sinn Féin)
“It is an important time to make our voice heard in Brussels.”
Is it the intention of the Executive to further strengthen our infrastructure in Europe, particularly in relation to accessing the Connecting Europe facility and Horizon 2020 funding sources?
Jonathan Bell (DUP)
I appreciate that the Ulster Unionists want to shout down £2·9 million, but that amount was delivered during 2011-12 for the TEN-T programme. The new draft TEN-T regulations are currently going through the ordinary legislative procedure in Europe, and DRD is doing all that it can to influence the negotiations in Europe to ensure the best possible outcome for Northern Ireland. For example — the Ulster Unionists should listen to this instead of trying to shout down their own Minister — DRD has been instrumental in securing amendments —
Jonathan Bell (DUP)
DRD has been instrumental in securing amendments in the Danish presidency’s general approach to the regulations, including an exemption from certain rail standards for isolated rail networks such as our own. If those amendments are adopted in the final regulations, they could save the Executive — I will finish with this — up to £1·5 billion in unnecessary expenditure. That is not to be shouted down.
Basil McCrea (UUP)
I wonder whether the Minister will deal with my question precisely or whether he will waffle. His statement referred to the world and European economic context and all sorts of financial interests. Did his colleague and he differ in their advice on the EU fiscal treaty? Will he care to tell us what the position was of the two Ministers on that important matter?
Jim Allister (Traditional Unionist Voice)
The aspect of the Minister’s Europhile statement that I wish to focus on is its trumpeting of the Provo project at the Maze. That was never troubled to be announced in the House —
Jim Allister (Traditional Unionist Voice)
Of course, it was once eschewed by the Minister’s party when his deputy leader said: “However it is dressed up, whatever spin is deployed, the preservation of a section of the H-Blocks … would become a shrine to the terrorists … That would be obnoxious”.
If wasting EU money —
Jonathan Bell (DUP)
The only person who is wrong, Mr Allister, is you. There will be no shrine, and there will be no “Provo project”. We need to be very careful. I met a number of victims yesterday when I was with the Royal Ulster Constabulary on its 90th anniversary and its 10-year celebration of the awarding of the George Cross. I know that it is politics, but we need to try to be sensitive and try not to take meaningless advantage when someone of your intelligence knows the difference. To try to play party politics with the needs of victims and survivors is very wrong indeed. There will be no shrine and no “Provo project”.
What Europe is looking towards and what we are looking towards is the success story that is Northern Ireland. It is a success story about how young people are today, Mr Allister, living with the lowest levels of violence in Northern Ireland than has been the case in the lifetime of anyone in this House. Should we not celebrate that success and the fact that our people and young people have the opportunity to live at a time when we have the lowest level of violence ever?
Contrary to what you are telling us, Europe is telling us that Northern Ireland is a real success story and that Northern Ireland can contribute to the building of peace, showing not only what we have done here but what we can do internationally. Our universities are telling us that they have an academic base and an academic infrastructure that can show to the world the success of peace in Northern Ireland. It can show not only what it has achieved but what it is currently achieving.
You said that my statement is “Europhile”. If bringing additional millions of euros to Northern Ireland —
Caitriona Ruane (Sinn Féin)
Go raibh maith agat, a Phríomh-LeasCheann Comhairle. I pay tribute to the two junior Ministers, and I wish my colleague Martina all the best in Europe. I have no doubt that we will all continue to work with our MEPs.
In March, the junior Ministers led a delegation of officials to engage with officials in the Commission in Brussels. Will you outline how the recent focus on this will ensure more funding for us in the North of Ireland?
Jonathan Bell (DUP)
There are four key areas, including competitiveness, employment and social cohesion. I will not go through them all in detail, because of what Mr Principal speaker is in charge of proceedings of the House of Commons in..." class="glossary">Deputy Speaker said about time. We have ensured that we have nine extra bodies and brains working on the project to ensure that we influence the budget, not only today but for 2014-2020. It is interesting that some of those with critical voices, having made their party political statement, have run from the Chamber. They are not interested in what we will do for 2014-2020, yet President Barroso, probably the most key figure in the European Union, said that he will significantly assist Northern Ireland. He has told us to use the resources and not lose them. We will engage directly with the Commission in Brussels. We will build on every good contact that we have achieved.
We will push every policy and programme area. We are exceeding our 20% targets. That is OK; we are happy to exceed them, but we will leave no stone unturned in maximising to Northern Ireland the benefits that we currently get from Europe.
Francie Molloy (Sinn Féin)
As Question Time commences at 2.30 pm, I suggest that the House takes its ease until that time. The next item of business will be Question Time. After Question Time, there will be a debate on the legislative consent motion on the Finance Bill.