It may be useful if I outline how I hope to facilitate this debate. To provide for the discussion of thematic issues, it has been agreed through the usual channels that we divide consideration of the draft programme into three sections.
After the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister propose the motion, section one will deal with chapters one, six and seven of the Programme for Government, covering the overall approach including external relations and style of operation. Section two will deal with chapters two and three covering equality, human rights, poverty and health. Finally, section three will cover the issues in chapters four and five, education, training, the economy and infrastructure.
While there will be three sections to the debate, the normal Standing Order, 17(2), will still apply and a Member may not speak more than once to a single motion, except for the Member who is moving the motion or winding up the debate. Members called during a particular section should speak to that section. However, they may make comments about any other part of the draft Programme for Government when they are called to speak. Indeed, if they have comments to make they will have to make them at that time as they will not be given a second opportunity to speak.
To facilitate the debate, at the start of each section I will call a Minister to speak, and at the end of a section I will again call a Minister, or Ministers, who may wish to comment on matters raised. All Members, including Ministers, but excluding the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister, will have the same amount of time, because I have had a large number of requests to speak. I have looked at those requests, and the indications from some Whips of the number of Members who wish to speak — although the indications I get at the start and end of debates often bear little relation to each other, which makes it hard to judge.
With 10 minutes for both the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister to open, there will not be more than five minutes for each other Member, including the Ministers, to speak during the debate — even with the extension into the evening. Had the previous motion fallen, there would have been even less time available.
I must rule that the First Minister and Deputy First Minister will have 10 minutes each to open, and time to wind at the end if they so choose. For the rest of the debate, those called will have five minutes. I trust that is clear. It is an unusual debate, but we are trying to work as closely within the Standing Orders as possible. If Members are clear, we will proceed.
I beg to move
That this Assembly notes the Executive Committee’s proposed Programme for Government; notes that it will guide the public spending plans for 2001-02 in the Budget; notes that the Programme for Government will be presented for the approval of the Assembly in the New Year, embracing public service agreements for all Departments.
Today’s debate on the draft Programme for Government is, arguably, the most important business we have transacted since this Assembly came into existence. That might seem a bold assertion, and I acknowledge that the debate may well lack some of the political pyrotechnics of other occasions, but it is, in my opinion, the most important meeting we have had to date. I say that because this debate represents the beginning of the maturity of the new politics that the agreement has achieved for Northern Ireland. It is, or ought to be, a new beginning.
The Programme for Government hopes to represent a contract between this Assembly and its Executive, and the people of Northern Ireland. It represents a statement of the policies and objectives we have identified as our main priorities for the months and years ahead. It will act as a road map, describing the direction in which the Executive hopes to take our public services. In this programme we have the coming to maturity of the work of devolved Government in Northern Ireland. It is our opportunity to start making a difference, to begin to put behind us the sterility and neglect of direct rule and to apply our imagination and energies to the good of all our people.
A number of Ministers will speak in greater detail about the aspects of the Programme for Government. The Deputy First Minister and I will speak in more general terms, providing an overview of the programme as a whole.
Our objective is to deliver a new beginning for Government in Northern Ireland — a Government that is responsive to the community it serves and in tune with the people who elected it. It will be a Government that will seek to provide new and better public services and opportunities for the whole community, Protestant, Catholic, those of other religions or of none. It will seek to provide new and better public services and opportunities for Unionists, Nationalists, Republicans and those of no particular political conviction, males, females, the young as well as the elderly, those of British or Irish descent and those who have only more recently come to live among us.
The Executive will endeavour to provide real, meaningful and effective Government for all of the people who make up our community. In doing so, we hope to see this community grow in its self-confidence and its economic and social well-being — a community that no longer looks exclusively in on itself but which is sufficiently confident to look beyond its own shores and play its part in the wider world, whether through business, education, culture or other endeavours.
The aim is to produce a Northern Ireland at ease with itself, an inclusive Northern Ireland, where all can feel they belong and where all can enjoy equal esteem. We also want to construct a more prosperous Northern Ireland, where everyone enjoys equality of opportunity and to move towards a world where there are jobs for all who are capable of work. We wish to help society to become more outward-looking, more confident about learning from others and more assured that it has much to contribute to the rest of the world.
The Programme for Government also demonstrates that the diverse parties which constitute the Executive have been fully able to work together constructively for the benefit of Northern Ireland. That co-operation is important in itself, but it is not enough. The final judgement on this programme will be made on the basis of what it achieves and whether what it contains can indeed make a difference to the lives of people across Northern Ireland.
The kernel of the programme is a list of 230 actions which the Executive propose to take after consultation and a vote in the Assembly. Many of these actions are specific and costed — policies for which funds are provided in the draft Budget, which the Assembly will also consider. Members will want to consider the details of these actions. All have budgetary implications, so any proposed changes need to be reflected in the consideration of the Budget, which we will debate tomorrow.
There is a great deal we wish to change, improve and develop, but major changes need to be carefully planned and require wide consultation. That is why the programme contains 15 reviews of policy covering a wide range of issues from selection in education to safety on the roads. As these reviews report and are implemented, we believe that the face of Northern Ireland will begin to change for the better and that the pace of change will accelerate.
The programme sets out the intentions of the Administration, and it is important that those aims are delivered quickly and effectively. Members and the wider public need assurance that the large amounts of taxpayers’ money being deployed here actually improve the services that people need. Our determination is to deliver the programme effectively and to be seen to be doing so, and that is reflected in an important administrative innovation, the public service agreements, to which all Departments will attach targets and timetables for their actions.
These public service agreements are being worked up and will be presented to the Assembly in the next debate on this programme. Their aim is to deliver more and better services to the public and to provide better value for money. As we said in our statement on 24 October 2000, these agreements will form a contract between individual Departments and the Executive. They will provide the transparency and accountability which was not adequately provided for under direct rule. They will form an important part of our new way of doing business, and they will create a culture change within the Government, focusing managers’ attention not merely on the inputs of financial resources but on the outputs of real services delivered to real people.
We are determined to improve the effectiveness of the Government, and this is reflected in the provisions contained in the programme to achieve joined-up Government. A joined-up approach was built in to the development of this programme, and, in particular, it defines our priority areas for action. We will develop this approach in the Executive’s own work, with Ministers working in sub-committees to develop cross-cutting policies in a much more coherent way and to ensure that a silo mentality does not inhibit their delivery.
Hence also our strong focus on the Executive’s programme funds. These are to be organised and agreed by the Executive as a whole. They will enable us to carry out much more effective cross-cutting work. They will also enable us to deal with major infrastructure and rural projects, to focus on the needs of children and to work on developing new policies in important areas, on improving the quality of service and on tackling the issue of social inclusion and community regeneration. In addition, as set out in the final chapter, there are a number of cross-cutting initiatives that can improve the effectiveness of the Government. These include the increased use of electronics to create new and more effective means of providing services to and information for citizens and to handle data and information within the Government. We also need to link this to the reform of public administration. We hope to have more details on the review in the coming months.
We must face up to the significant problems of finance too. We need to tackle the weaknesses of the Barnett formula, which does not always meet our needs. On the other hand, our ability to find innovative ways to finance public services must be integral to this strategy. We must examine if, for example, public-private partnerships and the private finance initiative are practical solutions.
Having dealt with those matters in general terms, I now invite the Deputy First Minister to give more detail on some aspects of the Programme for Government.
The First Minister has emphasised that the Programme for Government is an exercise in joined-up Government. It flows from the collective reflection and responsibility of the Executive and not from the entrenched individual interests of Departments. The Executive’s programme funds are perhaps the strongest example in the Programme for Government of our commitment to innovate and break away from traditional departmental approaches. The development by the Executive of a clarity of purpose, an overall vision and priorities and sub-priorities provides the framework within which Departments will implement the 230 actions through the operation of public service agreements. The Programme for Government has been constructed to unlock the energies and realise the economies that become possible when Departments and agencies work together to achieve an interlocking set of aims.
One important aspect of coherence was our determination to ensure that the concept of equality ran through the draft programme. Our commitment to equality is a promise to every citizen that he or she shall share in basic human dignity. This dignity rests not on possessions or position, but on the right to be treated as a person with opportunities equal to those of all others. Chapter 2 has a major focus on this theme, but equality will be delivered in all the programme’s areas. We hope, for example, to provide high quality education with equal access to all and tackle the unacceptable levels of ill health, which are closely linked with social disadvantage, through a public health strategy. These are two key objectives for this Administration. I believe that we have threaded equality into every relevant aspect of the draft programme. We look forward, at this consultative stage of the process, to taking account of the views of the equality groups and the Equality Commission.
A second element that has run through our thinking is realism: facing up to the real challenges that we face with the resources at our disposal and hence the parallel of the Programme for Government and the Budget. Not everything can be achieved as rapidly as we would like. We would like to do more in every area, and we are sure that the Assembly would wish to do more. For example, no one is content with the progress we are making in tackling Northern Ireland’s waiting list for health care and community services. Nor can we be satisfied with any of the objectives and targets that are in the Programme for Government. However, we must be frank about the reality, even as we aspire to overcome all of those problems. Let us not forget either that each year we will present an updated programme which will allow us to modify our approach in the light of experience. In the words of President Dwight Eisenhower,
"Plans are nothing, planning is everything."
I will now say a few words about the challenges which we face, especially those for which the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister have a particular responsibility. We have to face the reality of deep divisions in our society. It cannot be otherwise after centuries of division and 30 years of conflict. In particular, we recognise the need to put in place a cross-departmental strategy to promote community relations. New thinking, new energy and above all moral and political support must be given to this crucial activity. The promotion of a cohesive, inclusive and just society is a particular challenge for us, but it also applies to all modern societies as they deal with economic restructuring, growing individualism and the weakening of their traditional social institutions.
We identified a healthy society with a future for young people as a society that provides educational opportunities for all and creates jobs in the new economy — the key social issues to be addressed. Looking at the physical backdrop to economic and social activity, we identified the importance of a sustainable environment, the need for a new focus on the rural economy and the creation of a renewed infrastructure after the under-investment in recent years as major priorities.
Finally, there is the need to shape a society which will develop relationships and interact successfully with its neighbours — on this island, throughout Britain and worldwide. Chapters 2-6 of the document set out the detailed sub-priorities, programmes and actions that respond to those challenges. In our discussions in the Executive, we considered a variety of ways in which we could have described those priorities. Our conclusion was that we should limit the priority areas to five, each with a very broad approach. We decided that organising our work around those five priority areas, producing greater overall coherence for our policies while having a wider number of sub-priorities, would produce the right balance.
But public policy is not an exact science. We are a new Administration, operating in unique circumstances, trying to break new ground. We are open to hear Members’ views on whether this balance is correct or whether there are significant issues that need greater emphasis and future development.
Chapter 6 covers the fifth priority, namely ‘Developing North/South, East/West and International Relations’. There we have set out the ways in which the Executive will seek to work with other Governments and bodies such as the European Commission to realise the full potential of enhanced co-operation and maximise the benefit to Northern Ireland. The development of the global economy, the development of the European Union and the nature of many policy areas such as the environment, which, in essence, know no boundaries, require us to work on a much wider canvas than just that of Northern Ireland. Members may be interested to know that we have already sent copies of the draft Programme for Government to all of the Administrations with which we interact.
We need to seek the benefits of co-operation on the North/South, east-west axes as well as internationally. Whatever the short-term difficulties — and they must be overcome as quickly as possible — the Executive, as set out in the Programme for Government, are fully committed to taking forward the work of the North/South Ministerial Council.
I pay tribute to those Ministers and officials who have worked hard to get the new North/South bodies up and running. With devolution, we now have the opportunity to make our views known and to play our part with neighbouring Governments for our mutual benefit. While there is a wide range of east-west issues to develop, we have identified transport and the fuel tax problem as matters of particular importance to Northern Ireland. In addition, we will develop more effective links with the European institutions by establishing an office in Brussels, and we will develop our presence in north America.
Finally, we pointed to the important work that we need to do to improve the international image of Northern Ireland — we all know the legacy that our history has left in this area. If we are to prosper and gain investment and tourism, it is important that we act in a coherent way to improve our image.
I finish by emphasising the importance we place on the Assembly’s views and those of the wider community. I am disappointed that, to date, there has been a relevant absence of public analysis and discussion about the Programme for Government. I hope that today’s debate, involving so many Ministers and Back-Benchers, will help to stimulate wider discussion.
The draft programme was prepared by the Executive and is a document for which the Executive take responsibility. It provides the best structure for taking our work forward and for the important budgetary decisions that must be made next month. It is also a programme developed and approved through the Assembly process. The Executive look to Members for help to frame the document and guide its annual development. The agreement places responsibilities on us all to work in new ways to create a new approach.
Ours is a new and unique style of politics, and the programme must play a central role in this process. It is a working, developing document that must, and will, evolve. The input and approval of all Members is essential for the achievement of that evolution.
I welcome the opportunity to speak on the Programme for Government. It is another milestone on the road to developing good government in Northern Ireland. There are many hurdles to pass in order to overcome the legacy of direct rule and stagnated legislation and catch up with the remainder of the United Kingdom. Years of underinvestment are making it difficult in all Departments.
To most people, environmental issues relate only to birds, bees and trees, but in the Programme for Government, environmental issues cut across all Departments. On page 12, paragraph 1.8, ‘A Better Environment’ and paragraph 1.9, ‘A New Basis for the Rural Economy’ are worth reading, and I ask Members to read them. I was struck by the use of the word "sustainability" in paragraph 1.8. It is used many times throughout the document with regard to built heritage, natural heritage, agriculture, economy, rural life, countryside, air, land, and water quality. We must latch on to this term.
The awareness of sustainability is common to the rest of the United Kingdom. On 24 September, Lord Dubs emphasised the value of embedding nature conservation into other policy areas — particularly agriculture support and countryside management. He also said that the ability to achieve that would be an important test of whether things were developing in a sustainable way.
There are some high sounding words in the Programme for Government. Paragraph 6.9 on page 83 states
"A high quality environment and a modern water and sewerage network will be of benefit to everyone".
That sounds good but requires flesh on the words.
Page 54 states that the Executive will
"assist district councils in implementing acceptable measures for the disposal of waste".
How are the Executive going to do that? What direction will be given? Will district councils be given direction with advice and financial help? I am sure that councillors are awaiting an explanation.
Page 54 also states that the Executive will
"maintain effective arrangements for the treatment and disposal of sewage and sewerage sludge".
It is just not good enough to maintain the status quo. I wish to see treatment for phosphates in place at all sewage disposal works.
Page 54 also states that by the end of 2001 there will be a strategy in place which will, through advice and research, seek to reduce eutrophication levels. That conflicts with the action to maintain existing sewage treatment and disposal. Anyone living near Lough Neagh will be aware of that.
Pages 50 and 51 mention tourism. I welcome the fact that a start has been made to develop the different aspects of it. In paragraph 5.3.3 it states that in 2001 there will be a launch of water-based tourism programmes. However, it also states that by March 2003 a strategy will be prepared to develop the recreational potential of inland waterways as a tourist attraction. It is rather difficult to understand what is meant by this. Surely strategy preparation comes before action. A clear direction of action is required. Will that happen in 2001 or in 2003?
The word "sustainability" is used throughout the document. However, sustainability will be impossible if the funding for a sustainable environment is not made available. I noticed that bids for environmental programmes were not met and that therefore work on landscape protection and nature conservation will not be undertaken. The funding needed for sustainable built heritage has not been met, and this will have a detrimental knock-on effect on bids to other funding bodies such as the Heritage Lottery Fund. If the Programme for Government is to be effective on the issue of environmental sustainability —
I commend the Executive for bringing together the draft Programme for Government and for the consultation prior to its implementation. There are several key areas that I want to highlight.
With regard to the proposed Housing Bill, I am concerned about the introduction of a discretionary grants system in Northern Ireland. Such a system would leave the grants budget vulnerable. It would also be a difficult system to implement as regards the setting of eligibility criteria. This model, as implemented in England, is unsatisfactory, especially for those who live in unfit dwellings and are in dire need of improvements to their homes. The motto should be: if the system is not broken, why fix it?
There are two important exceptions to that. It is particularly important in my constituency of Fermanagh and South Tyrone that the matter of closing orders be reviewed. There must be a better way of dealing with the situation where the only option considered by the Housing Executive for many deserving cases is to place a closing order on a lived-in house just because the resident was not aware of the fine print in the application. We have the highest level of unfit housing in the British Isles. It is currently 17·5%, which is more than twice the Northern Ireland average. Since 1997, 307 properties have been subjected to closing orders in Northern Ireland, and 171 of those have been in Fermanagh. It is imperative that a more adaptable form of legislation is introduced for replacement grants. Also, under new legislation, all previous refusals should be reviewed to see if some of the deserving cases can be reconsidered for grant aid. After all, the Programme for Government states, among other things, that decent living accommodation will be provided for everyone.
The other grants issue that needs to be addressed is the eligibility requirement for minor works grants. The applicant must be on income support and must be over 60. There are many people outside that category who need repairs to their homes, but they find themselves excluded, particularly since the major cuts were introduced in the amounts payable for repair grants on the foot of environmental health notices.
I welcome the strong commitments to ensure that the Health Service caters for the needs of different users, irrespective of their backgrounds, and to modernise and improve hospital and primary care services. I want to see that commitment, particularly in respect of acute medical care, delivered at the Erne and South Tyrone hospitals. As I emphasised to the Minister of Health, the people of Fermanagh and South Tyrone are as entitled to these services as the people of Belfast, because the real test of rural proofing will be in the delivery of a decent health service to rural areas.
A further requirement for rural areas, and particularly for my constituency, is out-of-hours GP (general practitioner) cover. Presently, some people on the periphery have to travel up to 45 miles to get access to a GP after hours. While we all recognise that GPs need some time off, patients require a more amenable medical service. The Department should explore this issue in a cross- border context with the Department of Health in the South. We must find better arrangements, whereby GPs have their time off and the public has a satisfactory service.
With only five minutes at one’s disposal there is no time for detailed consideration of the Programme for Government. There is time only for a broad sweep of its content.
As I listened to the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister speak, I felt there was a real danger that they are starting to believe their own rhetoric. It was very high in its waffle content; indeed, almost as high as the Programme for Government itself.
Here is a Programme for Government that is full of platitudes and padding and general concepts and clichés, that are mainly shibboleths, but have very little substance. Everyone, as they go through the 80 pages of this Programme for Government — this first effort of devolution — will recognise that it is 90% packaging and 10% content.
The people of Northern Ireland are looking for more than just grand visions and fine words. They want to see something tangible happening on the ground; they want to see real proposals that will change their lives, rather than all this candyfloss that has been thrown into the Programme for Government. I recognise that there are great difficulties in a power-sharing arrangement. In any other Government, parties produce their manifestos; people vote for something to happen; and when the party that they have voted for is elected, they expect to see the outpouring of the manifesto commitments that have been made. However, when people have been elected with different manifestos, promising different and often contradictory objectives, clearly people do not get what they voted for, and a mishmash results.
This programme has been a year in the making. Governments at Westminster are ready to put forward programmes for Government within days of being elected. The same is true of the Republic, while Scotland took a matter of weeks. Here, we had to wait about two years — they certainly had the best of two years to think about it — only to get what is a very disappointing effort.
It really suffers from the "Nationalist psyche" syndrome, something that Unionists have noticed in previous negotiations. When Unionists go into negotiations, they want to do a deal. They want to get down to brass tacks and discuss specific proposals.
But not Nationalists — they come in and want to analyse everything. They then want to set out a whole series of principles, and once they catch people on their concepts and principles, there is only one conclusion left. I do not know whether the First Minister and his Colleagues have recognised that this is precisely what they have fallen into with this Programme for Government, particularly in the area of North/Southery. The Executive have produced a Programme for Government where North/Southery permeates almost every aspect of Government. It is oozing out of every pore of the Government. I think that the Unionist community in general will be very concerned when it starts to look at the detail.
The one point that I do agree with the Deputy First Minister on is in hoping that the public debate starts on this Programme for Government. I hope that people start to analyse what the Programme for Government is and where the Government are intending to take us all. The sorry specimen in front of us has very few innovative ideas in it. Because they want to show themselves as being dynamic and part of the whole development of the society, they look to the young and to economic development. The greatest disappointment for me is that there is no section for our senior citizens. There is nothing for them, apart from a few exceptions such as the proposal for free fares. I found it interesting —
Nuair a seoladh an Clár Rialtais, chuir mé barúil Shinn Féin in iúl, agus i rith na díospóireachta seo beidh ár bpáirtí ag cur a bharúil in iúl arís. Ach ba mhaith liom caint faoin dóigh a bhfuil an Chéad-Aire ag baint mí-úsáid as an chomhaontú agus ag baint mí-úsáid as a oifig féin. Tá sé ag baint an Chláir Rialtais anuas — ag iarraidh é a chur i leataoibh.
In my remarks today I want to concentrate on the role of the First Minister. When the Programme for Government was launched, our party detailed its views on it, covering both the positive areas and those areas we have reservations about. I listened with amusement to Mr Peter Robinson of the DUP. His party has had no part in any negotiations at any time in the last eight or nine years, and yet he can stand outside the process and complain about it.
The Programme for Government was launched here on Tuesday 24 October, and the Executive met that Thursday. The leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, on the very same day, wrote to the delegates of the Ulster Unionist Council. Here is the rub. We have to decide whether the Government is here or whether it is vested in the Ulster Unionist Council, which has met 22 times and which has threatened matters again, with yet another meeting planned for January. In his letter the First Minister said — and I paraphrase — that what is required is an exit strategy with a re-entry strategy. He accused his opponents in the party of having an exit strategy without a re-entry strategy. He then went on to give notice that he would outline a considered response involving suspension. He said that suspension was preferable and the only way to make progress —
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I would be grateful for a ruling on a matter. I am sure that there will be those in the Assembly who will be pleased to see Mr Adams expounding the virtues of joined-up Government, but to what extent are you going to allow people to discuss issues which are not directly contained in the Programme for Government?
It is certainly preferable that Members concentrate first of all on those aspects of the Programme for Government that are in the section under debate. That is what I have encouraged. I cannot stop Members ranging widely over the content of the Programme for Government, and I guess that some Members will want to make comments about the programme as a whole.
Given that they have only five minutes in which to do so, I think they would be wise to focus on the content. I will allow Members a fair degree of latitude within their five minutes, since the Programme for Government is wide-ranging in both its purpose and its content. Please continue, Mr Adams.
Thank you. I am dealing with the sustainability of this experiment. I am dealing with the sustainability of these institutions and, among other things, I am dealing with the refusal of the First Minister to nominate Sinn Féin members and with his taking away of the cross-border, all-Ireland strand. These are supposed to be interlocked and interdependent.
I am also dealing with the other demands which have been put forward by the First Minister; for example, a call for a moratorium on policing as well as a demand to change the remit of the decommissioning body, neither of which is within the authority of this Assembly or the office of the First Minister. I make all of these points because this is not joined-up Government. You cannot have an Executive or an Assembly putting together the type of Programme for Government which we are debating here today if the First Minister has already commenced an exit strategy and if — in his own words — he differs only from his party political opponents on a matter of tactics. In other words, he thinks they will collapse the institutions, and it will not be possible to put them back in place, while he simply wants to suspend them so that they can be restored.
The answer has to be made very clear. Any Government must be a Government of equals. That is of paramount importance. This Assembly has to be based on the principle of equality: the rights of all citizens, whether we disagree with them or not, must be cherished. All citizens have to have due entitlement to have their rights upheld — and they have to have their rights upheld by the First Minister. I want to appeal to the First Minister today to review, to reconsider, to step back from the process which he has commenced, because the only conclusion to what he has begun will see not just the suspension of these political institutions, but their collapse.
We will have to put the Programme for Government to the test to see how well it deals with the entire range of problems which affect this society. There is no doubt that the draft programme is long; it is detailed; it is even specific in places, and perhaps it is a good start on socio-economic policies. If, as Mr Peter Robinson suggested, this were Wales or Scotland, we could, perhaps, give the Executive seven out of 10 for a moderate start — although we might have to deduct a few marks for the length of time it took to hand in its homework.
Despite the agreement, the fundamental problem that we in this Assembly have to face is the deep division in our society, and it is in that respect that the programme is sadly lacking. When my party launched its alternative Programme for Government last month, we highlighted a central theme which we determined as "sharing over separation". While the Executive’s draft programme does have many positive policy suggestions, it fails to address fundamentally the divisions in this society — divisions which, if they are not addressed, could well destroy the agreement and the institutions. Having listened to the last two Members who spoke, I think that is evident.
I am concerned about health, education, agriculture, the environment and railways, but we will never deal with those if the Executive do not do something to address the real problem which we have to face. It starts off quite well; on page 10 there is a nice piece of rhetoric:
"We must promote a just society where everyone enjoys equality of opportunity, whatever their religion, gender, ethnic origin and personal background." and it continues. This is fine rhetoric, but if you wade through the full programme, you will emerge wondering what the plans actually are. Section 2.5 is supposed to deal with that. There are only seven points in it, but not one has a target attached to it. The flowery rhetoric belies the fact that there are no specific targets to promote community relations and sharing over separation, and that is the fundamental weakness — the utterly key weakness — in the way the programme has been put together.
Let us look at some of the possibilities. My party has called for the number of pupils in integrated education to be boosted to 10% by 2010 through the transformation of existing schools. The Programme for Government has one weak reference to integrated education: one line in 85 pages. We have called for measures to aid the integration of public housing. The Programme for Government does not mention promoting mixed housing at all. We have called for more funding for community relations projects, and, while there are certainly gestures in that direction, there is no detailed strategy for improving community relations. One would have thought that after a year of working on a Programme for Government, we might have seen something on that.
During the summer, we had complaints in this Chamber, outside in the streets and in every local newspaper about the proliferation of paramilitary flags and emblems in housing estates and on public property throughout Northern Ireland. Where are the measures in the Programme for Government to condemn that kind of intimidation? I cannot find them. There is a need for new shared symbols in Northern Ireland. Last week, the problems caused by a lack of shared symbols were demonstrated, but there is nothing in the programme about it. My party has called for all Government policies to be proofed to ensure that they promote sharing over separation. There are no plans for that in the Programme for Government.
Of course, targeting social need is important, as are rural proofing and compliance with human rights legislation, but what about the biggest divide in this society? Where does the Programme for Government address it? It simply does not. All kinds of issues are missing. Where is the "green economy" task force? Where are specific problems addressed, as opposed to bleating about the Barnett formula, on funding for Northern Ireland as well as Wales and Scotland? Where is the proposal for a children’s commissioner? What about student finance? What about freedom-of-information legislation? I have asked about that in this Chamber and have been told nothing very much.
Those matters are all important, but the priority remains building a shared society. George Holyoake, the nineteenth- century radical publisher, once said that a liberal is one who seeks to secure for everyone the same rights that he asks for himself. In this place, we have turned things on their head. I stand here as a liberal demanding for myself the rights that the two major sections of this society have taken for themselves but denied to every other minority.
There is a danger that if we apply that we will not have a united, pluralist and diverse society, but a dualist one wherein only two sections are recognised. The fundamental test that we will be looking for in January 2001 is what specific measures within the final Programme for Government will be applied to promote sharing and end separation.
Regardless of the merits or otherwise of the Programme for Government presented to the Assembly today, my party will be neither supporting nor endorsing it.
Mr Trimble has said that this is the most important business ever to be discussed in this Assembly. He referred to it as "the maturing of the Belfast Agreement." It may well be that. However, what we will witness today is an attempt to place a veneer of democracy and normality over something extremely undemocratic and very abnormal. What is abnormal — and the public are well aware of it, even if those in this Chamber have become slightly insensitive to it — is that those who have participated in this Programme for Government include a party that is fronting a terrorist organisation. As we sit here planning government, they are planning further acts of terrorism, restocking and replenishing their weaponry, planning bombing campaigns and targeting members of the security forces.
It is also abnormal that in this very Chamber one of the major parties in the Executive and involved in this Programme for Government, namely Mr Mallon and the SDLP, is not prepared to give its unqualified support to the security forces in Northern Ireland. It will not support the RUC. Along with its partner Sinn Féin, it even questions whether it will ever be able to endorse any law enforcement group in the Province.
There is another extremely abnormal thing about the situation we find ourselves in today. Many Members were elected on a mandate to oppose the Belfast Agreement. They stood, as I did, through the referendum campaign and during the election for this Assembly pledging themselves to oppose the outworking of the Belfast Agreement and the institutions and Executive set up under that agreement. When Sinn Féin Members took the Pledge of Office under Annex A of the Belfast Agreement, committing themselves to non-violence and exclusively peaceful and democratic means, others in the Chamber had to make a pledge to participate in the preparation of a Programme for Government. That programme is before us today, and those Members will have to operate within the framework of that programme when it has been agreed with the Executive Committee and endorsed by the Assembly.
I make no apology for saying that my party will not be supporting this draft Programme for Government. Others have in that under the Pledge of Office they swore that they would see to the implementation of the programme once it had been agreed. The majority of the Unionist community in Northern Ireland is opposed to the Belfast Agreement, to the outworkings of the agreement and to those elected to this House to represent that view who are reneging on their pledges and promises. We in the Northern Ireland Unionist Party intend fully to meet our commitments. We are opposed to the Belfast Agreement, to terrorists in Government, and we are opposed to the sham that passes for democracy.
I noted that the First Minister in his introduction stated that they had produced a Programme for Government that
"represents the beginning of the maturity of the new politics which the Belfast Agreement has achieved for Northern Ireland."
I have to say that we have reached an immature stage where, if the programme goes out today, we will have already created what is mentioned on page 25
"a strategy for the devlopment of centres of curiosity and imagination".
I do not know what that entails, but we have already created a centre of curiosity and imagination, because one party has not participated in the Programme for Government. Another party which did participate is probably now prohibited from taking part in an aspect of that Programme for Government.
I will follow the themes set out by the Executive, and I want to make a number of points relating to targets and timetables. It was unfortunate that the public service agreements have not arrived with the Assembly, for they would have contained most of the meat for the Programme for Government.
The First Minister informed us that the public service agreements should be with us by next month, although potentially in draft form only. We are not approaching this in a coherent way. This Programme for Government lists some actions and some targets but very few. Most will be in the public service agreements, but we do not have them, so we cannot compare one with the other.
We are told there are 32 action points. One in particular tells us that by 2002 we will have some type of health education programme for schools. That point has been talked about for a number of years. Why was it not linked with the issue of teenage pregnancy? We do not have these programmes in our schools at the moment, and clearly that is an emergency. That is one example of where the Government have not met their own target of being cohesive.
I welcome the Executives’ programme funds, though like my Colleague, Mr Ford, I feel that an opportunity has been lost. We have heard enough about the need for a children’s ccmmissioner in Northern Ireland. The Deputy First Minister has, I understand, already signed an Early Day Motion in Westminster to have the remit of the children’s commissioner extended to Northern Ireland as it has been to Scotland and Wales, and when the possibility of there being a children’s fund was mooted, he should have followed this up. However, there is no mention of it under the children’s fund in the Programme for Government.
What will the distribution network be? The Chancellor has set up a children’s fund in Great Britain, although we know that the distribution network there was not to be used to subsidise statutory programmes but to create new funding for those who work with children. We should do likewise here, but the Programme for Government does not state that.
The welfare-to-work programme has one of the largest budgets. If we bring in those funds, we will have the flexibility that should go with devolved expenditure. At the moment, we are greatly restricted in how we spend funding from the New Deal programme. Since Northern Ireland has the highest unemployment, I would have liked to see that in the Programme for Government.
I have raised the private finance initiative over and over again. We are to decide whether this is strategic and practicable by 2002. I am tied up in planning appeals at the moment because the private finance initiative has had such a disastrous impact in a community in which I have lived. It has been decided to build a school under the private finance initiative, and all the hockey pitches have been sold off. The Department of Education has said that the pitches were surplus to needs. However, at the inquiry, the Department of the Environment said that that should never have been done. Is that cohesion? It certainly is not. In the Programme for Government, I would have liked to see a reference to Departments’ talking to one another about what they are going to do about open space.
I would like to point out something about justice, equality and inclusion. In the Northern Ireland Civil Service review, only three women were appointed to senior positions. If any new review is to take place, it should have an affirmative action programme to take account of that.
The lack of consultation worries me greatly. The Assembly Committees are mentioned once in the entire document, as is the Civic Forum. If the Assembly Committees have powers for policy development, consultation and scrutiny, why was so little reference made to their important work in the Programme for Government?
Finally, the issues in the appendix were the most useful, because there we have actual performance indicators. They should be integrated into the Programme for Government, not annexed.
It has been said that a house that is built upon sand cannot stand. This is a Programme for Government, but it is a programme by a Government whose sustainability is by no means certain. We are masking the real questions by talking about social and economic matters. These are very important, but it is rather like talking about the social and economic welfare of the inhabitants of a house which is in imminent danger of collapsing around their ears.
Mr Adams raised a fundamental point when he said that the First Minister and his party were exercising some sort of veto over the progress of government. To some extent that is true, but why is it true? It is true because while this is a unique form of government, it is not a unique form of government in the process of evolution. It is in fact a form of government which, like the mule, has no pride of ancestry and, if the pan-Nationalist front has its way, has no hope of posterity.
Nationalists, and particularly Sinn Féin, have made it clear that they see this Government, which is to deliver the programme, as nothing more than a transitional mechanism to enable them to obtain their final objective of a united Ireland. If one looks at the fundamentals of the Government which is to deliver this programme, that fact is self-evident.
We have here a unique form of government — some might describe it as a political Caliban — and what does it do? It creates the very differences which Mr Adams has underlined. In a normal democracy, a Government which achieves a majority then delivers its manifesto. There is collective responsibility within its Executive, which is chaired by the Leader of that Government. No such thing exists here. We have strange tensions given the First Minister’s obligation to his party and to the manifesto upon which members of his party were elected to this Chamber. That manifesto made reference to the equality agenda, the RUC, decommissioning and the representation in Government of representatives of a party which the Prime Minister has described as inextricably linked to one of the most sophisticated and deadly terrorist organisations in Europe, which is determined to remain armed.
These tensions, divisions and objectives will inevitably prevent this Government from ever having any viable future, except a future as a temporary and transitional arrangement to achieve the objectives of those who wish ultimately to destroy it.
If there are any queries about this analysis, simply look at the construction of this Government. Under the d’Hondt system, there is not one but a selection of parties, each with its own objectives and political imperatives, and Ministers run their Departments as independent fiefdoms. Like Chinese warlords, they advance only their own interests. If this Executive should prove totally incompetent and have a disastrous period of office, and if there is another election under the d’Hondt principle, broadly the same parties will be re-elected in similar numbers.
They will appoint their own Ministers from within their own parties. There will be no criteria by which to judge whether these Ministers or the policies of these parties have delivered good government in social, economic or constitutional terms. There will simply be the same again, because the Assembly, in its design and purpose, was never intended to be permanent. Its institutions do not create the circumstances in which permanent, practical and real evolution can occur. It is simply a Mexican stand-off incorporated in a form of government.
The scant merits of this Programme for Government are long on aspiration, noble language and what the press describe as the "vision thing". However, they are very short on elements which address the fundamental problem of what sort of Government there will be to deliver this programme.
I welcome the Executive’s Programme for Government, which provides a way for the people of Northern Ireland to prosper in a spirit of co-operation and mutual respect. At this stage, I have to admit, the programme can be little more than an outline for government. It provides the bare bones for future development, and it will need to be fleshed out by each Department. A positive start has been made, and this must be applauded.
In ‘Making a Difference’, the Executive commits itself to good government and to the fostering of debate, co-operation and government in an open, efficient and accountable manner. I concur with this, and I will suggest a base on which this pledge can be secured. As a former Belfast councillor and as a long-standing councillor in Lisburn, I can contribute to what I hope will be an ongoing debate on this matter. In 1972, the Parliament of Northern Ireland passed legislation to reform local government. The present system of 26 councils came into operation in 1973 and has remained virtually intact ever since.
Councils have obtained extra powers in areas such as tourism and economic development. However, while the system is meant to be complementary to this regional Parliament at Stormont, it has, in effect, operated in the vacuum of direct rule. As a result, councillors have had the semblance of power without the substance. Too often, they are the scapegoats in a system over which they have little control. For example, when dealing with planning issues, a contentious matter in Northern Ireland, councillors must be careful not to overstep the mark between consultation and decision-making. They also have to be careful not to give the impression that they have influence where they have none.
In cases of road problems, constituents often blame councils rather than the Roads Service, which has the ultimate power. Decision-making systems must be examined in their entirety. The number of quangos has risen over the years with the result that virtually all areas of public life are populated by those described as "the great and the good", few of whom have ever presented themselves to the electorate. I have represented my council on various bodies. At least I can claim some democratic credentials for doing so. At one time there was council representation on health boards, but the previous Government removed these elected representatives. Now the virtually toothless health councils are all that is left for councils to deal with.
I am not attacking the quality of work that has been carried out by quangos — far from it. Many members give up valuable time to public service, but public accountability must be a priority, and the whole area of local government, boards, trusts and the other bodies must be examined. Members may agree when I contend that 26 councils are excessive for an area of the size of Northern Ireland — by the same token, the number of councillors must also be considered if the local government system is scaled down.
We should also examine the optimum number of health and education boards and consider whether 19 health trusts provide too much duplication for a population of 1·6 million. Can we economise?
In the area of economic development, the operation of both the IDB and LEDU must lead to overlaps and confusion. We should consider establishing a single body to seek out and maintain jobs and to work in close conjunction with relevant Ministers.
I am a member of the National Association of Councillors. Every party in this room is represented there; they all agree that there should be a review, and I too support that aim.
We are a small part of a small island. Our island is a small part of a small island group. To our left is a huge mass of water stretching from continent to continent and from pole to pole. To our right is a huge land mass; two continents reaching half way across the world. In global terms we are very small, but we are not insignificant. Our horizons are as wide as anyone else’s. Our skies are as high and reach as far. So while we are small we must not think small: we must think big; we must think globally.
That is one reason for the Programme for Government’s being so important. That is why those who say that the programme should concentrate on our internal affairs are so wrong. They want to have as little as possible to do with our neighbours on this island, in Europe and the world. It is not enough for us simply to put our house in order.
We have all seen the distressing pictures of hundreds of proud home owners who have put their lovely houses in perfect order only to see them destroyed by nature out of control. Anything that might have been done to prevent or minimise flooding would have involved forethought and action, not just at local or national level, but even on an international scale.
It is right then that the Programme for Government should take account of the need for north, south, east, west and international co-operation at many levels, not least with regard to environmental and sustainable development issues. Our seas and many of our waterways and beaches are polluted. Our fish stocks are dwindling. Animal disease and genetic modification of crops pose serious threats to public health as well as adding to the grave difficulties facing our farmers. The rich diversity of our animal and plant life is under continuous threat from dodgy development plans, from dodgy agricultural and gardening practices and from littering, ignorance and vandalism. We pump millions of tonnes of chemical pollutants into the air from our cars and vans or lorries and buses, from our mopeds, from coal fires and central heating and from our factories and power stations — even our cows and our sheep are guilty of gaseous pollution. When meteorological turmoil occurs in our atmosphere we do not know what to do, since our brains have been cooked by mobile phones and high-tension power lines.
And there is more: we create piles of waste, mountains of waste, Himalayas of waste. Irresponsible people tip waste over fences or bridges. Good citizens fill their wheelie bins to overflowing. Waste is buried in holes in the ground, sending clouds of methane into the atmosphere and poisonous leachate into our water systems. We talk about waste minimisation, waste reuse, recycling, energy recovery and zero waste. What great ideas — let us get started.
These are just a few of the issues that the Programme for Government must tackle. I have not touched on the topic of sustainable development, which is at the very heart of every aspect of the programme. I do not have time to discuss costs, but we need all the help we can get from the United Kingdom, from the Republic, from Europe, from wherever.
I finish by quoting from the Programme for Government:
"In the Agreement, unique structures were established within the Island of Ireland, within the United Kingdom, and East/West to provide a new basis for relationships."
We must use those relationships, that new co-operation, to save our beautiful country for our children and our visitors, who are enchanted by it, and in our own small way do what we can to save our planet.
I would like to speak on paragraph 1.9 in the draft Programme for Government, which covers the rural economy.
There should be a real emphasis and focus on the farming community and also on our beleaguered fishing industry. Prices for finished products continue to fall; fuel prices continue to rise; more and more farmers and fishermen have gone to the wall; and their jobs are in jeopardy. Recent statistics have shown that the number of suicides in the farming community is rising. These figures are very worrying and represent a catalogue of misery, broken families and despair.
In the Programme for Government there has been an increase in the budget for agriculture and rural development, but where is the money going? Is it going towards administration, or is it going to the farming sector? The budget allocation for the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister constitutes some £29 million, while the figure to run the Assembly is £39 million. Has lottery fever struck the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister? How can they justify those costs given the costs for the Assembly? Perhaps they see this as their roll-over year. Some of that funding would be better allocated to the agriculture and fishing sectors. It would be better spent, more appreciated and much more productive. We know that the farming sector is the largest employer in Northern Ireland, making up some 10% of the workforce. We also know how much is owed to the banks and about falling incomes.
In the rural economy section, the Programme for Government could have addressed the desperate need for childcare facilities, which are scarce in rural areas. Even if they do exist, the cost is prohibitive, as many farmers and their workers earn the equivalent of part- time wages.
There are structural changes to the agriculture budget, which means less money for farming families. However, the increase in rural development money should be targeted towards farming families.
More and more people are moving to the countryside — people who do not depend on farming for their livelihood or to survive, but we need to focus on farming families. The slow but steady downturn in profitability has resulted in full-time farmers being on part-time wages and seeking alternative employment. How will the Programme for Government help with retraining, and how will help be made available to the farming sector directly? Can the Minister indicate what proportion of the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development’s budget of £191 million will go straight to the farmers instead of to administration? Does anyone feel that the Programme for Government will deliver a viable future for farmers? Many farmers do not agree, and their futures are bleak.
Paragraph 1.8 refers to a better environment. How will the environmental scheme work? It is already underfunded, so what tangible benefits does the Minister see coming from it if it is not funded adequately? If this remains the case, it will fall at the first fence.
Paragraph 1.9 refers to the creation of new skills and new job opportunities. While there is a great opportunity for job creation in the agri-food industry, further processing offers no such possibilities. Vegetables, beef, lamb or fish cannot be processed, for the money and assistance are currently not available. Potential processors will have to wait until next year or the year after before their applications can be processed. There is a plethora of golden job opportunities that could create prosperity and breathe life into the rural community. A vibrant agriculture industry is possible, but a vision is needed from within the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development. Is there that vision and the commitment to realise it? If the programme does not focus on the farming families and the job opportunities within further processing, it will have failed miserably.
Members are raising relatively detailed issues relating to particular Departments. Almost all the Ministers will respond at some stage, but when a Member raises points of detail — for example, as Mr Shannon has done on agriculture — it is not reasonable to expect the Minister responding at the end of this particular section to cover that. He will have substantial difficulties covering all the matters that have been raised in any case. The Minister of Agriculture should be speaking later in the day and may be able to respond, as may other Ministers. This does not apply only to Mr Shannon but to a number of Members. The various Ministers will speak at different times. If a Minister has spoken and a Member raises a question in his bailiwick after he has spoken, that Minister will be able to respond to that only in writing. If the matter is raised earlier in the debate before the Minister has spoken, he may be able to pick it up later in the day.
Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. The Finance and Personnel Committee discussed the Programme for Government but could not agree on how to respond. All parties will want to respond, and we will do so today. I want to touch on some of the issues that came up in the Committee. I welcome the opportunity for this discussion of the so-called Programme for Government, and I hope that partnership, equality and accountability will become a reality.
It is a pity that the discussion did not take place before the document was published. The cloud of secrecy which hung over the Executive discussions does not auger well for inclusivity. Can this be a Programme for Government when we are not a Government, when we do not control our finances and when we are dependent on the British Exchequer for resources and for the workings of the Barnett formula? However, I welcome the statement that the Executive will press for a fair allocation of resources. The other sort of finance is the regional rate.
Let me deal with the Barnett formula. It is flawed, and, as stated in the Programme for Government, it does not address our needs. It cannot address our needs, because Barnett does not target need; it is a headcount that regulates the difference between areas. What has been done so far to press for a fair allocation? What has been the British Government’s response? What is proposed for the future to ensure that we get a fair allocation? What was the percentage rise allocated under the Barnett formula from the block grant? The Barnett formula discriminates quite clearly against the North. Less is allocated for health here than is allocated in England, Scotland or Wales. Less is spent on education here, and particularly on school buildings. Approximately one third of what is spent on sport and leisure facilities in England is spent here. We are clearly not being given a fair or equal share of the allocation.
Barnett does not target need, but we must target need if the Programme for Government is to mean anything for the people we represent. In the Programme for Government and the Budget, the Executive have gone for the easy option — to add 8% to the rates. We were told that the Assembly would not have tax-raising powers, but it has increased the regional rate for domestic property by 8% and by 6·6% for non-domestic property such as small shops and businesses, which are already suffering. These increases are based on a valuation made five years ago, and they certainly do not represent an easy option for those people involved.
If it is a tax, then we should call it a tax. If the regional rate is to finance the Budget and the Programme for Government, we should call it the Assembly Tax and collect it as such. Any rise should be in line with inflation — approximately 3%. Where did the figure of 8% come from? Is there a balance sheet to show that 8% is needed to match up with what is already allocated under the block grant? The rates are a very unfair method of taxation. Those who do not have access to services — hospitals, roads and infrastructure — pay the same as those who do.
The rates hit all households but not individuals. The issue will further divide families and create problems with housing benefit, et cetera. Those living west of the Bann will pay the same as those living in other areas and those who have services such as hospitals, schools and infrastructure. The M1 stops at Dungannon, and the M2 stops beyond Antrim. The 6% rise for shops, offices and businesses takes no account of the suffering of town centres over recent years from the effects of out-of-town developments. It is based on a valuation made five years ago, and it is an unfair system of taxation.
We rightly criticised NIE last week for a 9% rise in electricity charges. We criticised the fuel rise, yet now we are saying that there must be an 8% rise on rates. The Assembly should reject this rise in rates, just as we said that the electricity charge increase announced last week was unacceptable.
If the Programme for Government is to mean anything to people, it must redress the imbalances of the past. It must redress the 80 years of neglect west of the Bann and reverse the discrimination of the past. What other sources of finance were sought? Were the British Government asked to use the war chest and the peace dividend to redress the imbalance? Was the issue of the Celtic tiger addressed with the Irish Government? When are the Irish Government going to ensure that the Celtic tiger covers the 32 counties of Ireland? As far as European funding is concerned, will there be matching funding available and will additionality be ensured? The Civil Service statement talks about —
I welcome the opportunity to speak about the Programme for Government. I want to focus on the environmental aspects and, more specifically, on sustainability, which has been referred to several times today and which is referred to several times in the Programme for Government.
Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of current generations without compromising the capability of future generations to meet their needs. We should all strive to achieve this goal, and it is much more than an environmental agenda. We must consider the long-term implications of our decisions and give equal weight to the environmental, social and economic dimensions of development. That aspiration should become a reality. Sustainability must be a key theme of the whole Programme for Government.
There should be clear recognition of the importance of protecting our built heritage. This important element is a cornerstone of sustainability. I refer to chapter 2 on the tackling of poverty and renewal of disadvantaged neighbourhoods. The preservation of our heritage is not just about the aesthetic. It is also about needs, especially the need for safe and healthy housing and a healthy environment. If we can meet these needs through the restoration of historic buildings and the rehabilitation of existing buildings, we will have a more sustainable and attractive environment.
We should encourage the flexible take-up of improvement and repair grants. We should encourage urban regeneration through rehabilitation rather than redevelopment. To avoid disposal, we should train more plumbers, electricians, joiners and other tradesmen. We should encourage a sense of pride and the restoration of historic buildings by promoting an awareness of local history. The attractiveness of our country to visitors, tourists or workers, depends on the retention and promotion of our heritage as well as clean air, clean water and good infrastructure.
We should promote the concept of third-party planning appeals. That would increase the power of people to influence decisions on their local environment. The elimination of the planning backlog should not be achieved at the expense of sound planning decisions. We must encourage general environmental awareness.
With regard to chapter 3 of the programme, ‘Working for a Healthier People’, we could reduce air pollution by encouraging greater use of public transport and ensuring fast and regular bus and train services. We should also develop more pedestrian and cycle routes.
If such points were addressed, we would truly see sustainability in action. I am glad to have an opportunity to focus on sustainability. It is a live environmental issue that connects the generations, giving us all a greater sense of ourselves and our environment. Despite our political differences, every Member of this House wants to protect and cherish our environment.
I wish to address section 1.3 of the Programme, ‘A Cohesive, Inclusive and Just Society’. It discusses the new targeting social need policy. We should consider that policy: members of the public often refer to it as "targeting sectarian need". We must ensure that the targeting social need programme reaches across the entire community and does not reach only to specific areas of the community. We should recognise that there are severe problems in many Unionist as well as Nationalist parts of the community. We should look in particular at the Shankill Road. The terms of the new targeting social need policy, especially in relation to long-term unemployment, would rule parts of that area out.
I would like to see the appointment of a children’s commissioner. Many children are living in abject poverty, and many are brought up in situations that many of us could not comprehend. It is sad that children are brought up in such circumstances.
Chapter 2 refers to the employment of Roman Catholics in the senior Civil Service. I have no objections to the Executive’s examining that issue, but it should look at the entire Civil Service. In the lower ranks, the Protestant community is under-represented. In a few years’ time, we will have the same problem with the senior Civil Service, as Protestant civil servants will not have come up through the ranks. Therefore, there should be an examination of the Civil Service as a whole, as opposed to its senior ranks alone.
Chapter 6 of the programme sets out the aspirations of the Executive regarding relations with north America and Europe. I do not think that the funds that have been set aside make those aspirations feasible. As regards Northern Ireland’s international image, the document talks about the development of
"a marketing strategy to promote awareness of our cultural treasures and recreational facilities".
One of our cultural treasures is the celebration of the Twelfth of July. It is enjoyed by hundreds of thousands of people every year and is one of the most colourful events in the Province. The Government should examine the promotion of the Twelfth of July as a tourist attraction, with a view to undermining those who seek to destroy what is good in the Province.
Chapter 7 talks about setting targets, monitoring development and progress towards electronic service delivery. Once again, what is set out in the Programme for Government fails to match up with what is in the Budget. An application for £15·9 million was not successful. No money has been allocated for electronic government, and there will clearly be problems in meeting the targets set unless the finance is made available.
Will we be introducing our own freedom-of- information legislation, or is it the Executive’s intention to adopt the Westminster legislation for a period, afterwards seeking to amend it?
I should like to see a clear definition of Executive and Northern Ireland Office responsibilities on the issue of victims. On too many occasions Members of this House, and victims themselves, have sought answers, only to be sent from one Department to another. We need clear definitions of the responsibilities of each Department. The issue of capacity-building, to which the document refers, must be looked at, for it has been used as a means of discriminating against certain victims’ groups that do not happen to be in favour with the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister.
Those are only a few of the issues I wish to tackle. I welcome the proposal to introduce free public transport for senior citizens.
Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. David Trimble opened his speech this morning by saying his objective was a new beginning. He listed Protestants, Catholics, Unionists, Republicans, Nationalists and Loyalists and other groups in society, saying that they were what the draft Programme for Government was about.
I should have liked to talk in particular about chapter 7 and the partnerships involved between the institutions — all the institutions — in the community, including the Assembly. Community leaders are an essential part of this and must be equal partners in moving the process forward. I should have liked to discuss devising ways of dealing directly with the community sector, methods and mechanisms for going into the community. Some of that is already happening.
As a member of the Social Development Committee, I should also have liked to talk about the substantial shortfall in the budget for that Department. A substantial portion of the blame for that shortfall lies with the two successive DUP Ministers who failed to go to the Executive and argue vociferously for the Department.
Unfortunately, the two most important documents, which in my opinion go beyond the draft Programme for Government that the Assembly has received, are those sent to members of the Ulster Unionist Council detailing the proposals put to it on 28 October. Both of these were penned by the First Minister, and therein lies the great difficulty. The first might be described as a statement of intent to collapse the Executive on the part of the First Minister, while the second details a method of collapse. In the first, he argues that Mr Jeffrey Donaldson’s proposal was an exit strategy without a re-entry strategy. I shall quote one short section:
"The response is intended to increase pressure progressively on Republicans and Nationalists. This might result in a crisis for the Assembly and Executive. But if that arises we must do all that we can to put responsibility on republicans."
This is about crisis and suspension and putting the blame on Republicans. We must remember that all these institutions are entwined, so that if one falls, they all fall. In his own proposal, after saying that he will not nominate Sinn Féin Ministers for North/South Ministerial Council meetings, the First Minister goes on to put demands on almost every other party to the Good Friday Agreement.
He demands that the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning (IICD) be proactive in fulfilling its mandate; he demands monthly reports, sets deadlines and prescribes timetables. He warns that if either of the two Governments, or any other party, interferes with this, he will progressively terminate meetings of the North/South Ministerial Council and the British- Irish Council. He then demands that the Government convene a formal review and put a moratorium on policing. After setting us all these tasks he is going to set up another Ulster Unionist Party meeting in January to decide whether we have all performed well. Somewhere he has said that he has had twenty-one meetings of the Ulster Unionist Council.
I read the draft Programme for Government. I have criticisms of its being aspirational — many people have spoke of its being definitively too aspirational — and sustainability is a recurring problem. There is a substantial difference between the programme and the Budget, which is to be discussed tomorrow. This whole debate is aspirational: the sustainability of the Assembly and the other institutions is under scrutiny, because David Trimble is involved in their collapse. That is what we need to rectify and what David Trimble needs to rectify.
Given the number of points raised and the fact that I have only five minutes in which to speak, I am not going to be able to cover everything. Several issues recurred in Members’ comments, and I want to deal with some of them.
First, we had criticisms that this is too aspirational, too visionary. Others seemed to imply that there was not enough vision, that the document was too prosaic. The fact is that in embarking on this Programme for Government, the Executive has tried to come up with the right balance between a clear vision — where we want to take this society under these new institutions — and a real sense of mission, in other words how we will use the responsibilities and resources that fall to us as a regional Administration. Clearly our resources are not as we would want them to be, and, in many cases, our responsibilities are not as complete as we would want them to be. Nevertheless, we have to meet those responsibilities and manage resources. That is what we have tried to do, in a planned way, in the proposals we have brought forward in the Programme for Government and the draft Budget as well.
The whole Executive Committee agreed this Programme for Government. They also agreed that the draft Budget for the next financial year was consistent with it and would help to enable the aims of the programme to be discharged. This is a draft Programme for Government, and tomorrow we will be discussing a draft Budget. This programme is a multiannual prospectus; the Budget proposals that have been tabled to date relate only to the next financial year.
Some Members indicated that they would have preferred more detail about public service agreements, et cetera. More detail would be welcome, and it will be forthcoming. However, if the Executive had waited until it had the detailed public service agreements worked out for every Department, for every area of spend, and had then presented a draft programme in those terms, people would have said "No, you should have presented a more general draft. We would then have decided on the priorities and principles from which the public service agreements should flow." Members cannot have it both ways — wanting us to consult and then criticising us because we have produced a document that is clearly for consultation. This is here for further elaboration, for further work and for development. The Assembly will have the detailed public service agreements in a consolidated Programme for Government in January, to be decided in February.
The Assembly and its Committees have the opportunity to follow through on many important detailed points that concern Members today. Points were raised in relation to several areas. Environment seemed to get most attention in this session as regards sustainable development and how we understand that concept. Consistent with the Programme for Government, the Minister of the Environment, Mr Foster, will bring forward more details to ensure that sustainable development receives the sort of comprehensive, joined-up approach required, as it affects all aspects of public policy and public management.
Members have asked for detail on certain points. The Departments will provide that detail as they develop, in consultation with the relevant departmental Committees, the detailed actions and targets necessary to bring forward informed and articulate public service agreements. Those points will be brought forward in due time, whether they relate to housing, education or water and sewerage.
It would have been impossible for us to have a Programme for Government that details every single item currently being undertaken, because people would say it was simply an inventory of all current activities and, therefore, would lack the sort of vision that people here have rightly been asking for.
In this Programme for Government we have tried to set out an agenda for change and improvement across the range of Government Departments. The programme emphasises many new activities and new actions, and to that extent, it understates a huge volume of work that has already been undertaken by Departments.
As the First Minister explained at the opening of this debate, the Executive Committee agreed that two of the key challenges we face are the need to build a cohesive, creative, inclusive and just society and the need to improve the health of the population. These major issues require all the Departments to work together, and we hope the following session will provide an opportunity for a full debate.
First, I want to focus on the theme we explore in our priority area: growing as a community. We can create confidence in our different communities only if we are confident in our rights and responsibilities. We can achieve it only if we can create security from poverty for individuals and security from disadvantage for communities. That confidence is essential if we are to tackle the real divisions in our society and tap into our latent creativity.
Our approach, therefore, will not only focus on promoting equality in human rights. We will link that to tackling poverty and social disadvantage, the renewal of disadvantaged neighbourhoods and the sustaining of local communities and their organisations. We will marry this to improving community relations and the breaking down of the deep divisions in society. The danger is that we can easily produce fine-sounding rhetoric, but these are extremely stubborn problems, and we have to be realistic about what can be achieved and the timescale in which that will be done.
Nevertheless, we are a new devolved Administration. We are the locally elected representatives of the people, and we know what the problems are. We appreciate that people are our only natural resource. We know what different groups need, and we know what can be done.
Moving on to the details of the priority, our first focus is on ensuring the effective promotion of equality in human rights. Key to this will be the development of a number of important cross-cutting approaches such as developing and implementing new policies on gender and inequalities. By April 2001, we will consult on a single equality Bill to be introduced in 2002, and by the end of 2002, we will complete an evaluation of the targeting social need policy, enabling us to see how this works.
We will tackle the major issues of participation and accessibility. We will also address the needs of the disabled and assure equality of treatment for all.
The victims of past violence are very important. We are all agreed that their needs must get special attention. Our aim, in meeting victims’ needs, is to help healing and assist individuals affected to gain confidence. By April 2001, we will have put in place a cross-departmental strategy to ensure that the needs of victims are met by the different services that we provide.
I want to talk about the socially excluded and those facing poverty, particularly children who are blighted by its impact. We will use instruments such as the ONE initiative, involving the Department for Social Development, the Department of Higher and Further Education, Training and Employment and other Government agencies, to provide joined-up welfare and employment services to help families re-enter the labour market.
The Executive will bring forward proposals to introduce free travel on public transport for older people. We will also help households suffering from fuel poverty by introducing a new energy efficiency scheme.
Social housing is also an important matter. Present housing policy will be developed and will ensure that existing housing is adapted in the best way to suit those with special needs, such as the disabled. Problems of disadvantage and social exclusion are often found in distinct geographic pockets in our community. We will therefore work, not only on neighbourhood regeneration task groups, but also in rural districts where we will seek to use rural development activity to focus on particular areas.
We want to enhance local communities by strengthening areas where community infrastructure is weak and by encouraging people to take an active role in their neighbourhood’s regeneration. This will include areas such as arts, culture and libraries, sports activities and housing, which can all play a vital role in helping to instil confidence throughout our society as well as enhancing community relations.
A related issue must be the celebration of cultural and linguistic diversity. The Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure will play a major role in this. My Department will ensure that all communities can feel confident in their own culture and language. We can benefit from and take pride in the richness of our diversity, rather than see it as a problem. In so doing, we can promote a positive image of Northern Ireland.
A second priority area is ‘Working for a Healthier People’. During this session, we have linked this priority to that of ‘Growing as a Community’, because there are natural links. Deprivation and poverty have led to inequalities in the health of our population. Indeed, our health record compares unfavourably to that in many European regions.
I welcome the opportunity to speak on the draft Programme for Government and specifically, to voice my views on ‘Working for a Healthier People’ from the rural perspective. Our rural community has been facing severe hardship in recent times, and there is a need to look to the future, form new strategies and plan a better tomorrow.
First, I welcome the realisation, as outlined in section 1.9 of the draft programme, that rural areas are important and that it is necessary to develop new skills and jobs. Our rural community must be considered in every aspect of future plans for Northern Ireland. Farmers and those living in rural areas must be sustained. The farming community is the backbone of the rural community. They are the custodians of the countryside, the environment, and a substantial part of our culture and heritage.
Rural areas make up a large proportion of Northern Ireland, and this must be taken into account. Northern Ireland has a surface area of 1·4 million hectares, which is approximately 3·5 million acres, and a population of 1·6 million. Rural districts account for 95% of Northern Ireland, and 700,000 people live in those areas — that is 43·6% of the total population. Over 359,000 people living in rural areas — that is over 50% — are classified as disadvantaged.
Secondly, section 2.4.2 of the programme states that the Government will "sustain and enhance local communities". I urge that the programme take into consideration the needs of farmers and those living in rural communities and, in particular, outline specific objectives to provide support in these times of great hardship.
Thirdly, under the heading ‘Working for a Healthier People’, I welcome the recognition that
"Everyone has the right to timely, quality care based on clinical and social need."
However, the programme should pay particular attention to those living in rural communities, the vast majority of whom should have equal priority and the same hospital services as received by people in urban areas. There should be adequate acute service provision in all areas of Northern Ireland.
I note that under section 4.3, all young people are to have the qualifications and skills needed to gain employment in a modern economy by March 2002. The proportion of the workforce in agriculture who hold vocational qualifications at NVQ level 3 or higher is to be increased to 9%. I also welcome section 4.4, which outlines the aim to
"provide lifelong learning opportunities to enable people to update their knowledge, skills and qualifications."
This aim is equally applicable to rural communities since the agriculture industry is deteriorating and there is an increasing need to find alternative employment. These farmers must be supported as they look for new ideas and employment in different areas.
I am pleased to note in section 5.1.3 the reference to the difficulties faced in rural areas as a result of falling incomes. What better way to modernise farming than to have a farm regeneration scheme to encourage onto our farms young people who are well trained in modern farming methods and skilled in business management? The Programme for Government should make a commitment to do just that. This is a clear vision of the future.
In conclusion, I welcome the recognition of the need to work together across Departments and agencies to tackle the fundamental problems of our society. In the same way, farmers must be remembered when examining all aspects of government.
It must be remembered that the future of the agriculture and the agri-food sectors has a direct relationship to the well-being of the rural economy. We must ensure that there is a high-quality environment with good-quality water and air. We must produce food in natural surroundings to create a healthier way of life, thus allowing us to market ourselves abroad as a centre of tourism and investment. Agriculture is the backbone of Northern Ireland, which promotes health and social development for our children.
First, on behalf of the Culture, Arts and Leisure Committee, which has discussed the Programme for Government, I welcome the document and congratulate the Executive on what is a very detailed and constructive report. I particularly welcome the innovative approach of the Executive’s programme funds to assist the development of activities across Departments, particularly in relation to equality and targeting social need. We welcome the inclusion in the document of structured actions and actual dates for specific purposes and the fact that public service agreements are to be established with Departments to link achievement with agreed outcomes for public funding.
However, it is not clear if the programme funds have been set up in response to the underfunding of these policy areas in Northern Ireland and if, as a result, they will address issues of underfunding rather than be completely new departures. We hope to see more clarity on that issue in the report.
There are many references to joined-up Government, but there are no details of how, in practice, Departments will work towards mutual goals. These goals have been established on a short-term basis, for example, one to two years. The Committee believes that long-term objectives should also be looked at. We are concerned that the proposed date for completion of the strategy for the development of centres of curiosity and imagination is April 2002. Perhaps a scarcity exists, but it is a lengthy period of time.
The report has to be aspirational, but there are times when the aspiration becomes so great as to lose contact with reality. Speaking as an Assembly Member and not as Chairman of the Culture, Arts and Leisure Committee, I am concerned that the Programme for Government could become so aspirational as to lose touch with reality and leave Members in some difficulty. I refer particularly to something that was raised with the Minister for Social Development at the Social Development Committee last week. It is one example, though there are others. Paragraph 7.6 of the programme states
"In each of the years 2000/01, 2001/02, and 2002/03, we will reduce levels of Social Security fraud and error in Income Support, Job Seekers’ Allowance, Disability Living Allowance and Invalid Care Allowance by 5%".
That is a worthy aim, but there is no indication of how it can be realised. What do the Executive want the Assembly to support? If draconian measures were introduced to achieve those aims, many Members would raise their eyebrows in alarm and warning. There should be greater clarity about what is meant by assertions in the programme that are too aspirational.
I am also concerned that the provision of rural housing is not identified as an aim in the Programme for Government. As the Deputy Speaker can attest, it was a long and hard struggle to get rural housing on the agenda. Some of the other aims in the report may be seen as making reference to problems with rural housing, but I am concerned that the issue has lost its prominence. Will the Executive look at the issue again and consider whether there is not a need for it to be seen as a separate and important issue? Mr Gallagher spoke about the problems with grants, particularly for houses in Fermanagh that are unfit for habitation. Although Fermanagh is the worst-affected local government area, the problem concerns everyone who lives in a rural area. There is a great need for further work on that issue. I am concerned that it is not included in the report. The Executive should do something about it.
Members from all parts of the House have commented, rightly, on how aspirational the Programme for Government is and on how much of it deals with spin rather than substance. It is short on concrete actions and long on aspiration. It contains very little that is new. Much of it is a drawing together of proposals from various Departments that were already in the public domain. The parts of the programme that deal with how we tackle poverty and social disadvantage had already been laid before the Social Development Committee in July. Therefore there is nothing innovative in the document.
This morning, the First Minister lamented that there had been so little public comment and debate on the document, but I note, with interest, the comments made by the business community on the day after its publication. The business community was of the opinion that the plethora of aspirational statements in the document needed to be firmed up. That is the reaction of the business community — hardly inspiring.
The First Minister and the Deputy First Minister have tried to inject some enthusiasm and energy into the matter, but that cannot be done because of the way in which the document is framed. We have heard that this is a wonderful milestone in the life of the Assembly and that, among other things, we have people working together in joined-up Government. Then, one of the parties that is supposed to be in the Government attacked the First Minister.
We have heard reports that the Health Minister refused to go the joint ministerial council, that the First Minister banned another party from going to North/South meetings, that legal action has been threatened and that there have been rows. That is a wonderful example of joined-up Government and a wonderful example of how the new Executive works harmoniously together, or so we were told when the document was launched a few weeks ago.
At the document’s launch Mr Mallon said that it would be business as usual for the future. He was proved wrong within a week. Mr Trimble had not even bothered to tell him of his plans. We have the sort of joined-up Government where the First Minister does not even tell the Deputy First Minister, never mind the other parties on the Executive, what he plans to do.
Nothing in the document deals with the core problem that at the heart of the Government, and corrupting that Government, we have parties that hold on to terrorist arms and ammunition. Sinn Féin has indicated that it is not going to give up any arms or ammunition. That is the central issue that needs to be addressed. The document is full of the North/South, all-Ireland, dimension, and that was raised at the time. We pointed out that expenditure on the North/South bodies is about £17 million and not £11 million, as the First Minister said. He will have to apologise once again for misleading the House, and I hope that he will take the opportunity to do that as quickly as possible. That money could be better spent. For every £1 million spent on implementing the all-Ireland dimension of the agreement, we could have 200 more heart operations, we could adapt 1,000 more homes for the disabled, and so on.
When we deal with the Budget tomorrow we will go into that in more detail. While there is a reference to the review of public administration in Northern Ireland, no Minister has yet given details of the review, what it will mean and how long it will take. We have heard statements outside the House, but the Minister has refused to come to the House to tell us what is happening. I would like to address more issues, but that will not be possible in the time that is available. One Member attacked the DUP for its stance on the agreement. I find it very sad to hear a Member such as Mr C Wilson, who is supposed to be in the anti-agreement camp, doing all he can to assist Mr Trimble and the Ulster Unionist Party. I sometimes wonder who puts him up to it and why he continues to attack those of us who have the people’s support on our anti-agreement stance.
I congratulate the Minister for Social Development on many of the issues that have been included in the Programme for Government, and I look forward to the introduction of free travel on public transport for older people. I hope that that will be implemented as quickly as possible in keeping with DUP manifesto commitments.
A LeasCheann Comhairle, I welcome our first attempt at a Programme for Government. Given that this is the first time in generations that locally elected representatives have had an opportunity to make an impact on the day-to-day running of the Six Counties and that the past few years have been a steep learning curve for all, it is not surprising that this document is not without fault. As Deputy Chairperson of the Committee for Social Development, I will concentrate my remarks on chapter 2 ‘Growing as a Community’. It focuses on poverty and social inclusion, community regeneration and the enhancement of our voluntary and community sector.
Previous attempts at government have failed, but it is imperative for the people of this statelet and for all sections of the community, urban or rural, young or old, Catholic or Protestant, that we do not fail this time. In recognising the failures of the past, we must address what needs to be done to ensure that we do not make the same mistakes again. We should draw on the experiences of the international community, particularly Europe, and learn from other communities that are coming out of conflict. We must be radical, imaginative and decisive. We have to direct resources to the areas of greatest need in order to achieve measurable results, and we must make regeneration work. Above all, we have to ensure that people see tangible benefits from what we are doing and address issues of critical importance in a way that empowers our communities and eradicates poverty for good.
Therefore it is essential that this is a template for good effective governance. Words like "inclusive", "cohesive", "effective", "transparency", "just", "equal", "accessible" and "consistent" are dotted throughout this chapter.
However, we must guarantee that those sentiments are not merely aspirational but real targets for the next 12 months. In order to achieve this we must ask ourselves some challenging questions. For example, given that we have had community regeneration initiatives since the 1980s, why are many of our towns and huge parts of our cities still run down and derelict? Have projects like Making Belfast Work delivered real and tangible benefits to all of the community, or are some areas attracting vast sums of money while others remain neglected and impoverished? Has EU funding really been additional, or has it systematically been used in place of British Exchequer funding? Money, ring-fenced for community projects that will prioritise tackling discrimination and poverty, should not be wasted or redirected into other areas.
We must all strive to achieve the promotion of equality and human rights. Without our fundamental rights we cannot make progress on any of our policies. Therefore I am glad to see plans on how we do this early in the programme. If we achieve all of the targets set out in section 2.2 we will have achieved a great deal and will have started to move away from the inequalities of the past.
The promotion of human rights and equality must be the key priority of this Assembly. Further, it is time for Unionism to accept that institutionalised discrimination has been practised here for the past 80 years. In this building, the founding fathers of Ulster Unionism preached and practised discrimination as a tool of political manipulation and control. Discrimination and disadvantage did, and does, exist.
Paragraph 2.3.2. says
"We will work to provide high quality affordable social housing for those on low incomes"
I was disappointed to see no mention of tackling rural unfitness. My constituency, Fermanagh and South Tyrone, contains the highest levels of unfit rural housing on these islands, yet this has been omitted completely. In order to achieve what we set out to do in terms of replacement programmes and disabled adaptations, we are going to have to fund the Housing Executive adequately. I am sure every elected representative here has been frustrated at some point about the lack of resources to get things done or the speed at which work gets carried out. I would also agree with Gerry Kelly that if Maurice Morrow had fought his corner in the Executive, I do not believe the Housing Executive would have suffered from budget restraints in the way it has.
I would also like to have a point clarified. Paragraph 2.4.2 aspires to
"develop the necessary community infrastructure in the most disadvantaged areas and where it is weakest, encouraging people to take responsibility in and for their own communities."
Are we going to prioritise areas with the weakest community infrastructure or those most disadvantaged? These mean very different things.
How committed are we really to the community and voluntary sector when it has received a pittance from mainstream funding, when the actions in the Programme for Government do not include details of how this ambitious section is going to be achieved and when this year’s Budget proposals do not seem to take any of this into account?
The Programme for Government sets out our stall for a better future and is the first step in creating a better society for all. However, it needs to be clear not just on its objectives but in how they are to be achieved. That means that we have to fund the targets set out and make them achievable. If that involves asking the Dublin Government to provide additional funding, that is what we must do. Given that we do not receive enough from the British Exchequer and that we have not seen any money coming from savings made from the British war machine, we have to be imaginative about how to fund our priorities in order to achieve these aspirations. Go raibh maith agat.
The words "cohesion", "inclusion" and "justice" underpin the implementation of all Government policies and programmes. These are laudable sentiments and can only be welcomed. However, after reading the document I am sad to say that I am disappointed. I want a cohesive, inclusive and just society, but I am afraid this Programme for Government does not deliver. It falls far short, leaving too many things unsaid and too many problems unsolved.
I am heartened by today’s developments in the Assembly. I presume that since only Minister McGimpsey and Minister de Brún are speaking, they will also be speaking for their Colleagues in other Departments. It is indeed reassuring that the Executive is so cohesive and so inclusive that the Minister of Health can speak on behalf of the present Minister for Social Development.
The Alliance Party, without the help of the Economic Unit special advisers and a building filled with civil servants, has already put forward its own Programme for Government and has even managed to deliver it before the Executive. We agree with the Government on some points. We too call for a consolidated Equality Act and for the application and monitoring of equality schemes, but even here the Executive’s plans fall short. We want the fair employment categories widened to apply to all of our increasingly diverse society, but the Programme for Government makes no mention of this.
We want the existing legislation applied to tackle the problems of graffiti, illegal flags and paramilitary murals that pollute our public places and intimidate the average person in Northern Ireland and visitors too, but the Programme for Government makes no mention of this either.
We would like to see the Assembly’s taking the lead in ensuring equality in its workforce through the use of innovative programmes such as flexible working, job- sharing, childcare provision and disability access. As an elected representative I think that part of my duty to the electorate is to lead by example, and this Assembly affords us an opportunity to do so, but the Executive ignore this, and there is no mention of it in its document.
I very much welcome the commitment to providing free travel for older persons. Members will know of my concern and interest in all areas affecting the elderly. The Alliance Party has advocated this policy for some time now; we feel this is necessary in order to build the inclusive society that we desire. We believe that this commitment is so important that it should have been specified that the Assembly fund this travel — not the councils by using rates. Alliance does not want to pass on the responsibility for this programme to overstretched councils which are already juggling many resource demands. However, I do not find this commitment in the document.
We have also called for the establishment of a public health strategy, as does the Programme for Government. We have called for all policies and legislation to be audited for their impact on people’s health.
Of course I cannot speak on health matters without spending a few moments talking about hospital closures and, indeed, condemning last week’s scandalous inability of the Ulster Hospital, due to a lack of finance, to provide a bed for a seriously burnt patient from Bangor. I say "Shame on the Department and its Minister". I see that she is here today, and I hope she will take immediate action to ensure that this will not happen again.
Alliance advocates the innovative use of local hospitals by allowing them to develop into different areas of expertise. In this way more closures and bed shortages would be avoided while allowing for the concentration of specialities and a more efficient use of resources. It is hoped that this is the kind of policy the Executive will pursue, although no mention is made of it in the Programme for Government.
I welcome many of the proposals, aims and actions in this document. However, I believe that they fall crucially short of providing for an inclusive society. We in the Alliance Party want to see the Assembly promoting sharing over separation and leading by example.
Health has been defined as being a state of complete physical and mental well-being and not merely the absence of disease. It is a fact that the health of Northern Ireland’s population, is, in general, not as good as that of other similar countries in western Europe. There must be major improvements in people’s health, especially in the case of our children and young people, since our future rests on their development. We need to ensure that our policies and programmes take account of their needs.
There has been concern in recent years over the quality of provision of children’s residential care services in Northern Ireland. The Health, Social Services and Public Safety Committee, as part of its scrutinising role, has conducted an inquiry on residential and secure accommodation for children here, and we hope to present the report of that inquiry to the Assembly before Christmas.
Too many of our children are living in poverty. As stated in the Programme for Government, we acknowledge the close relationship between family poverty and higher infant mortality, between poor general health and an increased risk of social problems. When a child is born its IQ (intelligence quotient) is partly due to genetic factors but, as it gets older, intelligence is also due to environmental factors. So it is not just a question of being born bright or stupid; a child’s development is also affected by its environment. Therefore a school-aged child from an underprivileged area or from a family living in relative poverty is at a gross disadvantage compared to other children in the community, especially with regard to education and health. That point has been proven over and over again and is supported by examination results in some areas. Of course we pay tribute to the people who are teaching them, but young people from poor backgrounds are at a gross disadvantage. They encounter higher levels of unemployment, and what jobs they do get seem to be the lesser types of jobs. In areas like that, young people are also more likely to smoke.
The problem of inequality in health must be tackled. Diet also affects lifestyle, and this is a factor that many of us try to teach our children. Hamburgers and fast food are particularly dangerous. Members may remember the experiment in Vietnam on thousands of young Americans aged between 18 and 20, whose post mortem examinations showed that most of these men were found to have atheroma. In other words, the hardening of their arteries started during their childhood.
Mr McCarthy spoke about the elderly. The recent findings of the Royal Commission on the elderly should be implemented. That is a massive debate on its own.
I shall move on to the issue of young people with learning difficulties. Much has been said about Muckamore. I am sure the Assembly supports the Friends of Muckamore in hoping for the very best for their people. A lot of them are adults who have been there for many years — if they are to move into the community, there must be proper resources to assist them. Some people would like those patients to stay in Muckamore for longer than necessary, but human-rights legislation stipulates that such people are entitled to proper care in the community. Provided that the proper care is available there, we support their return to the community.
The ongoing crisis in hospitals is a massive subject, but we will not resolve that by attacking individuals — and certainly not by attacking the Minister. The problems go back for years, when beds were closed by other Administrations. When beds are closed you cannot just open them up again. You need the resources and you need trained nurses. Some of the boards are getting nurses from abroad. I am sure they are very able girls, but a consultant recently told me about a nurse trained in the United States, who had impressive qualifications. When asked to take a patient’s blood pressure, she did not know how to do it. I am not belittling that nurse — she was trained in a certain way — but training is a major problem. I know that the Minister and the Department are tackling it, but all of us must work together on this crisis.
My last point is on primary care. The Minister is publishing her document, and I hope it will affect everybody in this Chamber and every person in Northern Ireland in primary care.
When we get to this stage, after having talked so much, there tends to be a lot of repetition. The Programme for Government affords an excellent opportunity for us to discuss policy. As other Members mentioned earlier, this is the first time in 25 years that something like the Programme for Government has been discussed by local representatives. However that does not mean that we should refrain from criticism, and there are a lot of things in this document which do need to be criticised.
This document seems to be very aspirational. It uses a lot of flowery language. It actually talks about implementing new legislation and policies. However, it does very little about developing programmes, and that concerns me. For instance, as far as promoting equality and human rights, as stated on page 18, is concerned, the document simply lists all of the things that the Government must do anyway. It does not tell us how that is to be communicated to the communities.
In terms of listing the actions to be taken to ensure human rights, the document could have stated how we could use affirmative action policies to meet the targets when set. That work has been lost in this draft programme, and I hope that Ministers consider including it at some stage. I hope people will forgive me for thinking that the Natural Law Party had been elected and is actually in Government. The proposal to set up centres for curiosity and imagination sounds like something it would come up with.
As a Belfast City councillor, I know that there already is a good community arts sector. It is well organised and is coming up with lots of ideas. We need to take arts to the community so that people can understand what it is about. I get no sense of that when I look at the objective of setting up centres of curiosity and imagination. It is a very bland statement and suggests that people do not have imagination and are not curious about the arts. We need to be more positive rather than negative. Perhaps the Programme for Government will outline exactly what that means.
I was astounded that people talked about how they were going to improve community relations by educating people together and building houses for them to live together. This programme does not mention anything about an integrated housing programme or integrated education. Yet people talk about both of those things helping improve community relations.
The Government have also shied away from the fact that Catholic and Protestant teachers are trained in different establishments. There is no mention in the document of why we need two teacher training colleges. Teacher training methods are the same, and it does not matter whether you are Protestant or Catholic. No one in the Government has talked about this. They have just come up with flowery language and aspirations suggesting that we intend to deal with community relations. We need to encourage people to live together and be educated together. Our present integrated school system has been refused funding by the Government, and it is parents, not the Government, who are driving it. We have actions in the draft programme to improve community relations, but there is no notion, or no mention, of how we are actually going to achieve it.
Public health and the prevention of ill health were very well prioritised and well laid out. Unfortunately the issue of access to acute services in rural areas was not mentioned. That has been the subject of great discussion, and I had hoped to see how we would deal with it. The last action point says
"by 2002, revise a curriculum for schools to enhance the status and impact of health education."
It does not tell us what they are going to do to achieve this. I suggest we introduce education on relationships and sexuality. We need to think about things like this, rather than just make bland statements about revising the curriculum.
I have read the Programme for Government, and I do not know whether to laugh or to cry. There are not only contradictions between sections, but even within the sections themselves. I want to concentrate on section 3. The first thing that is apparent is the absence of reality and priority.
This is nothing but a wish-list. If acted upon, it would require every other Department to be closed down to achieve these goals. This drives home the fact that if any Department needs to be reviewed, it is the present Health Department. If this Administration were to attempt to follow what is written here, they would either fail completely or require it to be very domineering. That, no doubt, would suit the terrorist ideology of the party to which the current Minister of Health belongs and which she represents.
Secondly, there are some very dubious claims made on the causes of ill health. There is an old saying that if one makes a half-truth the whole truth, it becomes a lie. Worse than that, no budget will ever be able to meet what the ideology of simply looking at alleged causes would require. We have a nanny state that is out of control.
We get the usual Republican rant about cross-border issues. The ordinary people will quite rightly fail to see how that will solve the real health problems in Northern Ireland or return accident and emergency services to, say, Whiteabbey. It will simply provide the most lucrative gravy train since fuel smuggling started. Perhaps it is a placement for unemployed terrorists.
Thirdly, the number of areas that the Department presumes to have authority over, and seeks to control, is huge. Here is a programme that is going to look after housing, wages, family life, diet, disability, the mentally ill, the terminally ill, Sure Start, residential care — and the list goes on. It is little wonder that nothing is being done to deal adequately or effectively with these problems. The areas where goals will definitely be achieved should have been set out, and priorities should have been stated.
Fourthly, I note that of all the hospitals in Northern Ireland only two get a mention in this document. I recall my Colleague Iris Robinson referring to the current Minister of Health as a west Belfast politician with a west Belfast mentality. That seems to have been borne out yet again. All the other hospitals do not matter enough to get a pledge for anything.
Fifthly, there is a very suspicious and rather worrying statement on page 33. It reads
"Everyone has a right to timely quality care based on clinical and social need."
To use social need to determine health care is a very dangerous concept. Where is the proper view that health care is free to all? That point needs to be addressed. What rules will be used to determine this? Who will determine this? There seems to be a deliberate shift of emphasis in who is going to get health care. On this point alone this entire section should be scrapped and replaced with something acceptable.
The current section is too ambitious. By trying to do everything, little will be achieved. Furthermore, there is no mechanism in existence that could possibly monitor or control everything mentioned.
This section will not be fulfilled, and its failure to deliver will result in a deliberate falsification of what is achieved — on the same scale as was operated by bureaucrats under Stalin — to make it all read right in the newspapers. It will produce bureaucracy obsessed with image and spin. If the answers to written questions are anything to go by, that process has already begun.
Go raibh maith agat, Mr Deputy Speaker. I do not know how I am going to follow that. Sinn Féin’s goal is to improve the health and social well-being of the people on this island. Everyone is entitled to access to a quality health service. We are all conscious of the social, cultural and economic inequalities that exist in the Health Service and other areas. Added to that, the poverty and disadvantage faced by our communities will have a direct bearing on the state of public health, on individual self-esteem and on human rights.
I welcome the statement in the draft Programme for Government where the Executive point out that they too recognise the inequalities in the life experience of our communities in poverty, health, housing, educational and economic opportunity and disability. I welcome the fact that the Executive are determined to tackle them.
It has been clear for quite some time — and it has been reaffirmed in the draft Programme for Government — that people in the North suffer from high levels of ill health.
The death rate shows that. The figures for problems such as heart disease and teenage pregnancy are among the highest in Western Europe. Given that record and the fact that the Programme for Government admits that the provision of services to treat illness is falling behind, we must ensure that the Department of Health is properly funded. The document says that the Barnett formula is not fair, but what have the Executive done to address the matter? Barnett himself has criticised the formula because it does not reflect need.
Under the heading ‘Working for a Healthier People,’ the overall strategy to improve public health focuses on reducing preventable disease, ill health and health inequalities. Does that mean that the Executive will work to redress the inequalities faced by people living west of the Bann? If the Programme for Government is realistically to tackle the cycle of disadvantage and focus on the causes of preventable diseases, it needs to ensure that policies, funding and programmes strike at these problems. Among the range of factors that contribute to disadvantage is low income, and there is also a close connection between family poverty and high infant mortality.
Another priority of the Executive is to ensure that the environment supports healthy living and that recreational facilities are improved. Where does that leave the issue of glass-fronted fires, which statistics show have led to an increase in asthma among our young people? Will the money be provided to remove these fires, thus improving public health?
Have the Executive the power to direct local councils not only to improve but also to provide recreational facilities? For years, local councils have discriminated against working-class and Nationalist communities. While the lead Minister is Bairbre de Brún, cross-departmental responsibility requires that all Departments target resources to the most disadvantaged areas. I am disappointed that not all Departments are involved. We are all aware that health affects us all.
I agree that the action to produce cross-departmental plans for securing reductions in the main causes of ill health requires specific measures to reduce poverty by tackling the community differential. While the Programme for Government informs us of the implementation of the new TSN action plans there is no mention of whether those plans address the community differential, or whether resources have been skewed to the most disadvantaged areas. One example is the Grand Opera House in Belfast, which is entitled to grants under TSN as it falls in a TSN area. That omission needs to be corrected.
If we are to provide timely and effective treatment, the Programme for Government must address the allocation, location and siting of resources. We must ensure that the proposal for a modern acute hospital service and the measures to maintain, where possible, safe and effective services at smaller hospitals do not result in even greater levels of disadvantage. If the trend towards centralisation of services in bigger hospitals, particularly in the Greater Belfast area, is not reversed, many rural communities will be further disadvantaged.
Ill health is not confined within borders, and given the size of our island there is a necessity for us to work together and address health issues on an all-Ireland basis. The Programme for Government includes an action point to take forward work in the North/South Ministerial Council giving an immediate priority to cancer, et cetera. As a party, we are clear about the importance of that work. However, we recently witnessed the First Minister playing politics by vetoing Sinn Féin. Given Mr Trimble’s clear disregard for people’s health, will the North/South Ministerial Council be able to function on health issues?
The last speech indicates the flaws in a Programme for Government that allows the bone-breakers of IRA/Sinn Féin to stand up and eulogise about human rights and the health of the community.
The First Minister used colourful language to describe the Programme for Government: it is a road map; it is a contract between the Assembly and the people. On a previous occasion he called it a shining light in the dark recesses of Government. When we look at the Programme for Government, we see that it is none of those things.
I want to talk about a few issues to illustrate this. Chapter 2 talks about the viability and the integrity of rural and urban neighbourhoods. The Government are committed to maintaining those. When the Minister of Education came to the Education Committee, I asked him what that meant. How would the Department of Education fulfil that part of the contract? Would he give the same treatment to small rural schools that he is offering to Irish-medium schools, where they can start if they have twelve pupils? He would not give that commitment, yet this is meant to be a contract. He would not give any commitment. He either would not or he could not, and yet we are told that this is a contract.
We are told that it is a road map which will tell us how to get from one place to another. There is a lot of information in it about tackling disruptive behaviour and raising literacy standards. When I asked the Minister of Education if he would he give me just three things that would be done — three ways of getting from one place to the other — to improve literacy standards, he could not give them, yet this is meant to be a road map. Perhaps his reluctance to answer questions is a hangover from his previous employment, when he found that answering questions was a rather dangerous occupation.
As has been said by other Members today, on one hand we are told that the Programme for Government has been carefully costed — that is what the First Minister said this morning — and then in the next breath he told us that we have to use our imagination. Either it has been carefully costed, and there are commitments, or it has not. It is odd that we are given some specifics — for example, so many houses will be improved. However, in other cases we are just given vague generalisations. If the whole of this programme has been costed, surely we ought to be able to know what lies behind each statement. The vast majority of these statements use words like "we will establish"; they say that they will continue to do something, or produce certain things, and the specifics are left out. The cynic would say, of course, that they are left out so that when they are not delivered, you cannot point the finger at anybody.
This is the contract we are being asked to sign. I do not believe that this draft Programme for Government is an important document. I do not believe that it shines a searchlight into the darker recesses of Government, nor indeed is it a contract which any lawyer would encourage you to sign. I have given two or three examples, to illustrate the point.
This is a contract so full of loopholes that it could be better described as a fishing net. For that reason, I believe that those who really want to see effective, efficient and accountable government in Northern Ireland would say that it falls short and is not worthy of support in its present form.
Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I am disappointed that the Programme for Government did not mention the private finance initiative (PFI), which was introduced by John Major’s Conservative Government in 1992. The motivation behind PFI was to reduce public expenditure at a time when public borrowing was out of control. Put simply, the aim of PFI was to achieve public sector investment without appearing to increase public sector borrowing. It was a sleight of hand in many ways.
It has been strongly opposed by Unison, the largest union in the public sector. Significantly, the British Medical Council has added its voice to those opposing PFI. The British Medical Journal described PFI as
"perfidious, financial idiocy that could destroy the NHS."
PFI is expensive and wasteful.
Private finance initiatives will damage the NHS, now and in the future, and PFI projects are escalating in both scale and cost. They reduce pay, employment and working conditions. Most importantly, PFI represents an unacceptable increase in the privatisation of economic and social life. Critically, PFI involves the determination of such public services as health and education, using unaccountable, commercial criteria rather than those based on social need. In a nutshell, PFI represents profit before people. This has been illustrated by the latest increase in electricity charges by a rate three times greater than the rate of inflation. People are now being asked to get subsidies for private investment which will be paid for by the Government.
A further example of this theory is the privately owned car park at the Royal Victoria Hospital, the use of which by staff is subsidised by the board. Money is being paid out by the board to a private investor, when it should be being asked to reduce the board’s expenditure. In the education sector, the closure of school maintenance depots, because of the contracting out of services under PFI, is creating job losses. School governors have to be more careful about their expenditure, with the result that school maintenance is affected.
Since the Labour Government came to power, £45 million has been paid out by the Department of Health to lawyers, financial advisors and other consultants. Government figures issued last March show that the bill for PFI consultants since 1997 would pay the salaries of 3,230 nurses for one year. It would also have allowed the Health Secretary almost to double the allocation of new money for heart operations.
Private companies which build or refurbish hospitals to lease back to the National Health Service earn over £20 million. Financial consultants have been paid £20 million, while other consultants have received £10 million. We can only guess at how many beds this wasted money, used to subvent private investment, could have provided for the Health Service. The private finance initiative is merely a dressed-up term for privatisation.
Essential services, such as health and education, must remain under the protective responsibility of public bodies, the core responsibility of Central Government. No party which calls itself a social democratic party or, like Sinn Féin, a Socialist Republican party — and I do not use the term "Socialist" in a dialectic sense — indeed, no party with a social conscience, which cares about the protective social fabric of our society, can give way to the concept of PFI without scrutinising the social implications of a laissez- faire attitude towards it for health and education. We must not allow PFI to compromise further those who are already socially and economically disadvantaged.
The overwhelming wish from this most wondrous wish-list, namely a cohesive, inclusive society, is stated again and again in this document, and the overriding and central element needed to produce this seeming Utopia is "A feeling of justice for all."
To create this form of justice for at least a minority of the citizens of this Province, it has been necessary to strip the name of one of the best police services in Europe, if not the best one. This has been done not in part — the name has not been given second place — rather there has been a complete annihilation of that name, even though such action has been deemed shocking and unfair by the Lords of the Realm and in spite of promises to the Unionist community by persons of the first order. However, perhaps this action is now to be known as an innovative policy. If this ongoing sublimation of pride is to continue, and if the expected observances of one side of the province’s citizenry are to be viewed as aspiring to a feeling of justice for all, a unique idea of justice must be envisaged.
Is the Unionist/Protestant community to go on as over the past decades with a give, give, give policy and the Nationalist/Roman Catholic community with more, more, more or take, take, take tactics before finally, if ever, admitting that they feel a sense of justice for all? Is there even a faint possibility that at the dawn of that ever- elusive day, any remaining members of the Unionist community will feel that same sense of justice and enjoy life in such "a secure and cohesive society"?
In one of the few places in this Programme for Government where actual, hard and fast figures are given, we are informed that Province-wide there will be 400 more offers under access to work, 50 places in employment support and 60 work trials under the job introduction scheme. Almost 510 jobs are envisaged. Then follow 26 paragraphs promising arbitration schemes, accessibility to culture, improved transparency, new formulae, equal impact assessments and cross-departmental approaches. This soaring list of promises lacks one notable entity — specific quantities. Until we read 26 paragraphs, there are no figures of any kind.
Then we see some figures which are very specific. By keeping to the present level of co-owners’ support, 570 families Province-wide will gain a foothold on home ownership; 36 more families will be allowed to purchase from housing associations per year; and disabled people will have access to 1,500 more buildings in the Province. The paucity of these figures sits uneasily beside the grandiose schemes described on those pages where no parameters are given at all.
Under heading 2.2.1. the final action promised is a review of the appointment and promotion procedures in the Northern Ireland Senior Civil Service. Does this herald another purge of Protestant senior civil servants? These people have worked for years to obtain by merit a high position in their chosen field only to be replaced by someone who claims discrimination and who gains under the politically correct banner of under-representation. Perhaps we should see any such allocations as the workings of TSN "re-direction of resources". The senior civil servant now holding the resources will henceforth be discriminated against in favour of another, who will be positively singled out for preferential treatment. Will this ever further the core element of a feeling of justice for all?
Go raibh míle maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. A recent newspaper editorial read
"Why don’t our leaders tell it as it is? Nothing will ever be the same again in this island."
The UK and Irish Governments have signed an internationally binding agreement regarding the future of this island and specifically in respect of the Six Counties. This means great change for all of us here, and for some people this is the change that they cannot countenance. Painful as it may be, change allows the possibility of debate and a dignified response to this Programme for Government. If we do not all pull together on this, we may be in danger of pulling ourselves apart. If that happens our communities will suffer.
It is important that the Programme for Government extends the opportunity to all citizens of this country, North and South, to get real and to join together in seeking new solutions to new problems and new solutions to old problems. That might enable us to address the current paranoid myth which says that if Catholics get more, Protestants will get less. Targeting social need means that whatever their religious or political beliefs, resources must be targeted at those most in need. If through the Programme for Government we create equality, parity of esteem, rights, and action TSN, really nothing will be the same again. The promotion of equality and human rights is now enshrined within law and central to the agreement, as they are to the Programme for Government.
They must form the basis, not in rhetoric but in action, of how this Programme for Government will address the most vulnerable members of society, the young, the old, the victims and survivors of the conflict, the disabled, the travelling communities, those living west of the Bann and those on the Shankill Road. However, the Programme for Government does not tell us how the Assembly will contribute to the Bill of Rights, as outlined in the Good Friday Agreement. Nor does it tell us if the Assembly will set up a cross-party human rights Committee.
In terms of victims, the Northern Ireland Office, which represents the state, needs to acknowledge that it has not been a passive or neutral player in the experience and management of conflict and is therefore not a neutral or passive player in managing how the needs of victims of state violence are met. In this respect it is not clear under paragraph 2.2 what exactly will be the nature of the cross- departmental strategy group or the interdepartmental working group, and how these will relate to the victims’ liaison unit and the victims’ unit, and these to date have created total confusion among victims and contributed to the notion of a hierarchy of victims. The work of groups who are dealing with victims of state violence at grass-roots level is being constantly undermined by the victims’ liaison unit and the victims’ unit, not to mention the duplication of resources.
Under paragraph 2.3.1, travellers, the most marginalised group on this island, are discussed. From 2001 it is proposed to develop appropriate permanent accommodation to meet travellers’ needs. Having listened to a direct rule Minister some years ago, I had hoped that this particular programme would be under way. I am now told that it is not. In paragraph 2.3 we find these words:
"ensure appropriate measures are taken to address the educational needs of Traveller children and children from other ethnic minorities",
The Programme for Government does not tell us how or when this will happen or what timescale is envisaged.
In terms of employment support for the disabled, some of those who were encouraged to sign on for New Deal programmes are now being penalised by losing entitlements to disability living allowance and incapacity benefit. Under paragraph 2.2.1 it is not clear how the needs of the disabled will be addressed in terms of access for them to sports, arts and venues.
However, I would like to welcome free travel for our senior citizens, which will now bring us into line with provisions in the Republic.
Under paragraph 4.3
"We will seek to ensure that all our young people have the skills and qualifications to gain employment in a modern economy."
To address this inequality, we must, as stated, concentrate on the digital divide and explore ways to equip those living in the most disadvantaged areas to exploit the opportunities of technology. How do we propose to make all our young people computer literate? Existing plans for 4,200 additional undergraduate places by 2004 must address the disparity of places in those disadvantaged areas.
Finally, I welcome the proposed single equality Bill, which may address the existing discrimination in terms of gender, employability, and the elderly.
I give a broad welcome to the Programme for Government. Much has been said about its aspirational language. However, at the beginning of section 3, there is an honest recognition that our general health record is not good. Even though the Health Department has inherited an array of National Health Service problems, once we recognise the initial premise, we can instigate the necessary programme of activity to redress the wrongs. You only have to look at the thousands on waiting lists, the cancelled operations and the long waiting times at accident and emergency units to know that there is a need for immediate action. If we are to tackle these problems effectively, it is essential that we focus on their causes and ensure that our policies and programmes tackle them.
However, the next paragraph states
"We need to create the right socio-economic conditions and break into the cycle of disadvantage which is the major cause of ill-health."
That has not been proven philosophically or otherwise. Reducing preventable disease must be the first objective of any health service. I am glad that the programme will demand the attention of other Departments — seven others are mentioned. The Department of Health’s problems cannot be seen in isolation as being the answer to the problem that faces us all. The causes of ill health must be taken on board, and throughout this section we are returning to the primary cause of our future needs — dealing with the causes of ill health. Modernising and improving hospitals and the primary care services is also considered, and the logic of the argument for acute hospitals is sound and acceptable.
I spoke to a group of people in the south-west of the Province the other evening, and they admitted that no one would mind going to acute hospitals for acute services. The problem is not with the acute hospitals, but with the aftercare. When the operation is over and the patient is in need of 24-hour professional nursing care, he is sent home because the acute hospital is so busy and under such demands. Therefore, I suggest that the acute hospitals cannot be looked at in isolation. Mention is given to developing proposals for a modern acute hospital service. We must take steps, where possible, to maintain safe and effective services at the smaller hospitals. I am sorry that more attention was not paid to providing aftercare in community or convalescent hospitals in the main centres of population.
New management arrangements for the recruitment and training of additional nursing and front-line staff were mentioned. We have already heard about the problem someone in one of our major hospitals faced the other evening. He was looking for an acute bed for a seriously ill patient and could not find one. Finally, Craigavon Hospital said that it had found enough nurses to man another acute hospital bed.
This section deals with the very heart of the problem in our modern Health Service — the lack of nursing and front-line staff. That is the critical problem. Following a motor accident in my part of the Province, North Antrim, the victims had to be taken to Craigavon Hospital for treatment, when there were two hospitals within 20 miles of the scene of the accident. What can be done, or what should be done, about that? The Ambulance Service was also mentioned —
Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. It is difficult not to feel like a member of the band on the Titanic when debating this issue. In the week that the Programme for Government was launched, the First Minister and his party were plotting an exit strategy from these institutions. Granted, the First Minister’s was a temporary exit strategy while others in his party would prefer a permanent one.
The future of the Programme for Government may be dubious, but it is important to comment on the equality aspects in the document. Sinn Féin will be measuring the potential success of the Programme for Government against its stated ability to deliver on equality obligations — to deal with entrenched social, economic and cultural rights as well as with the civil and political ones at the heart of its operations; to tackle the religious differential in employment; and actively to target social need.
Bearing that in mind, it is disconcerting that the mission statement in paragraph 11.2 fails to mention equality or measures for tackling structural discrimination. The section on promoting equality and human rights fails to take advantage of the scope for positive discrimination. The action plan does not mention the strategy for tackling religious differentials in employment, and it does not refer to partnership arrangements to deliver any of the programmes.
In the section on tackling poverty and social disadvantage, the Executive missed a golden opportunity to put in place an anti-poverty strategy encompassing all sectors. TSN alone will not address society’s deep-rooted problems of poverty and disadvantage. This requires a unified, strategic approach across Departments and sectors, with a commitment of resources as well as specific goals and timetables.
Paragraph 2.5.2 fails to take into account the position afforded to the Irish language under the Good Friday Agreement, and it does not apply the equality duty to the rights of the Irish-language community. Paragraph 1.16 refers to the equality impact assessment carried out on the Programme for Government. How was this done; who was consulted; and what were the recommendations? The equality duty places an obligation on Departments to consult on the equality impact of all functions and policies — how was this done?
We challenge the assertion that it is not possible to apply a detailed impact assessment of equality to the whole Programme for Government. A method for this must be found and, as far as possible, it should be uniform across the Departments. The Executive and the Programme for Government should not be exempt from monitoring and impact assessment.
Sinn Féin believes that the Equality Unit’s suggestion in the Programme for Government and the Budget that the criteria for measuring need should vary according to the policy or practice under consideration by the Department or public body is a charter for chaos. There must be consistency in how need is measured if the same need is to be addressed.
A further difficulty is the scheduling of publications. While there are references throughout the document to TSN action plans, these plans are not available to the public, so no one can judge the efficacy of claims made about the delivery of equality and TSN to detailed actions and budgets. It is therefore impossible for the beneficiaries of the Programme for Government to make any genuine assessment of it. This must be urgently addressed to ensure that there is full delivery and accountability.
TSN is a policy initiative. It is complementary to the equality duty, and it must be governed by that fact. It is therefore illogical that TSN action plans have not been included in the Programme for Government to ensure scrutiny in the context of this duty. TSN should be redesignated as a public expenditure priority and featured as such within the Programme for Government and the Budget. The TSN action plans must be formulated in compliance with the statutory duty to promote equality of opportunity and detailed explicit programmes of affirmative action with targets and timetables deliberately designed to lift those most disadvantaged in our society. This has not been done, and that is a major flaw in both documents. This also distorts the debate on the equality duty and the eradication of religious discrimination in this society. Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle.
I speak as the Minister for Social Development, dealing with matters within my brief, unlike other Ministers who have wandered outside the areas of their briefs. I assure Members that my Department and I will continue to work vigorously to promote the interests of the most deprived and marginalised members of society. Meeting social and economic need lies at the core of my Department’s programme, and that is strongly reflected in the Programme for Government.
Within my Department the provision of affordable social housing is a key priority and a vital component of regeneration and the promotion of social inclusion. People in Northern Ireland, particularly those on low incomes and the disabled, expected us to produce effective policies for meeting their housing needs, to tackle unfit accommodation and to enable them to get on the ownership ladder. My aims are to provide affordable social housing, promote more effective and economical heating systems, maintain or improve the present level of co-ownership, increase the numbers who can buy their homes from housing associations and increase the number of adaptations to existing buildings to improve access for disabled people.
In my recent meeting with the Social Development Committee on the Programme for Government, the Committee indicated that it would like to have seen specific mention made of improving the level of unfitness in rural housing and the setting of more measurable targets. I wish to confirm that I will acknowledge these views as we continue to refine our commitments in the programme in the light of final decisions on the Budget for 2001-02. I have not yet decided on the rent increases for Housing Executive tenants from 1 April 2001. I met the Committee recently, and I discussed this matter. It has deliberated, and I am awaiting its views.
Another key priority for the Department for Social Development is tackling poverty and social exclusion, particularly where children are affected. I am determined to target its causes and effects. I was disappointed that action for children was not accorded a higher priority in the Programme for Government. We will ensure that all objectives in the new targeting social need action plans are achieved, and we will work with other Departments to promote social inclusion.
The Assembly has passed the Child Support, Pension and Social Security Act, which is awaiting Royal Assent. It will help to ensure better support for children and improvements in the provision of retirement pensions. It is the only piece of substantial legislation that has been passed by the Assembly.
There is continuing evidence of deprivation and social exclusion in the Province. The Department for Social Development must take the lead in implementing definable improvements in disadvantaged neighbourhoods and assist in empowering local communities. A new urban regeneration strategy will be launched early in 2001, aiming to bridge the gap between the most deprived neighbourhoods and the rest of Northern Ireland, lower long-term unemployment, reduce crime and promote better health and educational qualifications. There will also be strong linkages to the provision of good and affordable housing. Inner north Belfast will benefit greatly from the URBAN II programme. It is an excellent opportunity to address, in a co-ordinated way and with local people, the physical and economic decline and dislocation of the community infrastructure in that area.
I recognise and appreciate the work of the various voluntary and community organisations in Northern Ireland. The Programme for Government reflects the important and invaluable contribution these organisations make to the social and economic well-being of our community. The Department for Social Development will continue to work to maximise the contribution this sector can make to the delivery and implementation of the programme.
I would like to emphasise that the actions I have outlined are not merely aspirational; rather we are embarking on clearly focused programmes of work. In due course these will be underpinned by measurable targets and objectives against which our performances can be assessed. I have agreed to share this information with the Social Development Committee.
The social security system plays an important role in the social and economic life of Northern Ireland. The majority of people who claim benefits do so honestly and properly. We know, however, that others do not, and I am determined to take whatever action is necessary to prevent fraud and abuse of the system. The targets I have set for reducing fraud and error levels are challengeable and realistic.
Finally, the provisions in the Programme for Government reflect the priorities and direction of the Department for Social Development. They take account of the Department’s draft budget allocations, but they can be further refined in the light of the views given in the consultation programme. I am grateful for the constructive and positive contribution the Social Development Committee has made in our discussion programme. I will take its views on board as we proceed. There is much more I would like to say, but time does not permit me to say it.
Tógadh réimse leathan ceisteanna ag Teachtaí le linn an tráthnóna, agus leis an am atá fágtha agam, ba mhaith liom freagra a thabhairt ar oiread de na pointí a tógadh agus a thig liom.
A wide range of issues has been raised by Members in the course of the debate, and I would like to address as many of them as possible. Clearly time is of the essence. I will try to cover as many points as possible, including those that are the responsibility of other Ministers, drawing as necessary on material provided by the relevant Departments. Any points I am unable to address may be covered at a later stage in the debate, possibly in writing by the relevant Minister.
Nigel Dodds said there was nothing new, and Billy Hutchinson asked for further detail. Unfortunately neither is here to hear the answer. In the Programme for Government we have set out very clear priorities and detailed plans of action to carry them through, using the available resources to improve people’s health, education and skills, create jobs, tackle disadvantage and protect the environment.
Mr Dodds asked specifically about funding for the North/South Ministerial Council. It must be pointed out that the figures in the Budget proposals were expressed on the basis of a financial year and therefore do not tally precisely with those initially agreed by the North/South Ministerial Council, which were based on a calendar year. Where the most is made of economies of scale, expenditure on North/South bodies — provided, of course, that they continue to exist and are not blocked — will save money, and this action will improve services for all throughout the island.
Éamonn ONeill asked if the money being allocated would address new priorities or merely be put to addressing underfunding in the recent past. I cannot speak in detail for each Department; that must be a matter for the Ministers themselves. In health and social services the money is going towards addressing problems which have arisen as the result of recent historical underfunding. Had we not had a situation in which, over the years, £190 million of savings were made by the Department — more than by any other local government section here — we would be in a very different position. Those savings were not put back into health and social services here, unlike in England where they were put back into the National Health Service.
John Kelly asked about the private finance initiative. The Programme for Government includes a commitment to review, by 2002, opportunities for the use of private finance in all major public service provisions and decide whether such partnerships are practical. There will be full public consultation to help us develop a cross- cutting public health strategy. We shall examine proposals for health impact assessment on all policies. Paul Berry said that was being overambitious for one Department. This is, of course, a cross-departmental strategy.
Given that time is of the essence, and since I see that people have left, I may pass over some responses in case I do not manage to deal with everyone’s questions.
Kieran McCarthy, Robert Coulter and others raised specific questions about the Ulster Hospital and bed shortages in general. The draft Budget allocates an additional £7 million to combat the pressures on hospital beds and waiting lists in 2001-2002, and we will now be able to provide 13 high-dependency beds to improve capacity in this vital area. In the Ulster Hospital, there will be two extra intensive care unit beds this year. Next year, there will be six extra high-dependency beds.
We are very much aware that it is not merely a question of the beds themselves, and I welcome Robert Coulter’s comments about the need for a more integrated service. That is precisely what I wish to see. I appreciate Joe Hendron’s comments that we are addressing an inherited situation, and I have asked for a review of our acute hospital capacity to be completed by September 2001.
Billy Hutchinson asked about the promotion of equality and human rights. Specific actions to promote equality and human rights are detailed on pages 19 and 20.
The debate stood adjourned.
The sitting was suspended at 2.00 pm.
On resuming (Madam Deputy Speaker [Ms Morrice] in the Chair)