Draft Programme for Government

– in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 2:00 pm on 24th September 2002.

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Photo of Ms Jane Morrice Ms Jane Morrice NIWC 2:00 pm, 24th September 2002

It may be useful if I outline how I intend to facilitate the debate on the draft Programme for Government. The Business Committee has agreed that four and a half hours should be set aside for the debate. During the debate, I will see the number of Members who wish to speak, and I will then determine if a time limit is to be placed on the speeches.

Photo of Mark Durkan Mark Durkan Leader of the Social Democratic & Labour Party, Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland

I beg to move

That this Assembly takes note of the draft Programme for Government.

We presented the draft Programme for Government formally to the Assembly yesterday. It sets out the Executive’s plans and priorities for next year and beyond. It is supported by the draft Budget, which the Minister of Finance and Personnel presented to the Assembly this morning. I am pleased that the Assembly has an early opportunity to debate the content of the Executive’s draft programme. It is important to have this debate before the detailed work of scrutinising the document begins in the various Committees. I want to underline the importance that the Executive attach to this period of discussion and scrutiny on both the draft Programme for Government and the draft Budget. I will return to that theme shortly.

The Programme for Government is the most significant document produced each year by the Executive. Developing an agreed programme, and an agreed Budget that supports it, is a commitment that we made under the Good Friday Agreement. However, our commitment went further than simply producing a document. Those of us who signed up to the agreement also agreed that it needed to be subject to the Assembly’s approval on a cross-community basis after scrutiny in Committees. It is partly for that reason that the document is as comprehensive as it is. It would not be right to expect the Assembly to approve the Executive’s work programme without an appropriate level of detail to enable it to give that approval.

We wanted the Programme for Government to be both ambitious and achievable. For that purpose, we have worked to ensure that it reflects the key challenges that must be tackled and the backdrop against which our work will take place. Members will notice that for the first time the document includes a detailed commentary on the economic, social and environmental context. The proposals in the document have been developed and will be implemented in that context.

We have worked to ensure that the document also reflects the suggestions made in response to the Executive’s position report on developing the Programme for Government and the Budget. We were grateful to those Committees and others who took time to respond with their views. Working within limited resources, it is never possible to do everything that we would like to do or that others would like us to do. We have not, therefore, been able to reflect in this draft every single suggestion that was made.

That said, we have tried wherever possible to take on board comments made and points raised. We will also be working over the coming weeks to incorporate further suggestions as we finalise the document and the Budget to support it. For example, we have noted the strong support for the five priorities that the Executive identify in their Programme for Government. We also believe that these priorities remain both relevant and important. We want to build on the progress that we have already made in each area. In this draft, we have, therefore, retained "Growing as a Community", "Working for a Healthier People", "Investing in Education and Skills", "Securing a Competitive Economy" and "Developing Relations — North/South, East/West and Internationally" as priorities. We also recognise that those priorities do not stand in isolation from one another. Our work to tackle social division is a key requirement if we are to create the basis for a competitive economy. Economic prosperity fairly shared is a key requirement if we are to heal many of the social problems that we face, including our poor health status.

Education and training are central to economic progress and to unlocking opportunities for individuals. The draft Budget increases health expenditure by 13·6% to more than £3 billion a year, which reflects the Executive’s ongoing commitment to the Health Service. The Department of Education is to be given additional support to enhance schools’ capacity to further improve pupil performance and to revise the curriculum.

The Department for Employment and Learning’s budget has been increased to enable it to maintain and expand its commitment to higher and further education to ensure that, for the large part, employment programmes will be obtained. The Executive have made additional allocations from the Executive programme funds to provide improved student support arrangements and to widen access to third-level education for students from low-income families, through changes to income thresholds and increased grants. The threshold will be raised from £15,000 to £20,000, which will ensure that more than 3,000 additional students will qualify for support, and student grants will be increased from £1,500 to £2,000. We are building on the Executive’s progress of several years ago, as we said we would, without recourse to a graduate tax that many others advocated.

Proposed allocations to the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development include resources from the service modernisation Executive programme fund to implement the vision report. Six million pounds have been set aside for that purpose in 2003-04, and funding will increase to £18·3 million in 2005-06.

The Executive are providing for the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure to implement its sports strategy. In addition, we have devised a radical new approach to ensure that Invest Northern Ireland has the resources to encourage and support industrial development.

The retention of our five priorities provides an opportunity for continuity and stability. However, we also want change. The draft programme makes clear the Executive’s desire to tackle underinvestment in our infrastructure and to reform public service delivery. Reinvestment and reform are core elements that must drive our work on all five priorities.

Reform is a watchword of our programme. We will be working constantly to improve the efficiency of service delivery to ensure that every penny of resources is targeted at where it is needed most, and where it can do most good. We will be challenging all Departments to make real and substantial improvements in service delivery. The reinvestment and reform initiative, which the First Minister and I negotiated, provides us with a unique opportunity to address the chronic underinvestment in our infrastructure. The £270 million that the Executive allocated initially for projects will make a valuable start to vital upgrades of hospitals, schools, transport and water and sewerage systems.

We want to ensure a stronger focus on tackling poverty and social exclusion, promoting sustainable development and building stronger partnerships. The draft programme sets out our thinking on each of those areas. We restate our commitment to open and accountable government. The draft programme contains more than 170 specific commitments that complement those made in our first two programmes. We will come back to the Assembly every year, as we did in July, to report publicly on progress in delivering those commitments.

We have included in the document draft public service agreements for each Department that contain many more specific targets. Again, we will report on the progress of those. We shall ensure that each Department has a service delivery agreement detailing the work to be done to progress the Programme for Government and to meet the public service agreement targets. Those documents will be available in draft form for scrutiny by Committees later this year.

We recognise the challenge of promoting good relations. Members also recognise that challenge, as they made clear in their responses to yesterday’s statement. The document sets out our intention to introduce a new policy and strategy on good relations. It will include a focus on targeted action at local level in areas with acute community difficulties. We recognise the importance of local solutions and stand ready to support communities. It is not enough to tell people to sort out their own problems, especially in the most disadvantaged and divided communities.

We must show leadership, and work in partnership. We must harness our combined resources at community level, in local government, in the Executive and in the Assembly. In particular, we must develop the capacity of communities and support them in dealing with dispute and division, including sectarian graffiti, unauthorised flag flying and the erection of memorials, which can lead to local tension. Our responsibility to promote good relations extends to every priority and the work of every Department. We want to progress in a co-ordinated and cross-cutting way, ensuring that such a key challenge is integrated throughout our activities.

Our work to promote equality of opportunity and human rights can contribute to improving relations in and between communities. We recognise that housing and urban regeneration have a part to play, especially in key interface areas. We have identified as a specific sub-priority the need to promote an education and training system that recognises diversity and promotes tolerance. From next year, we shall phase in a new citizenship programme for post-primary schools, and we will support the expected continuing growth in demand for integrated education. Other policy areas, such as economic development and transport, can also contribute by providing opportunities for people to work and live together.

I know that the Assembly takes seriously its scrutiny of the Executive’s policies. I stress that this is a draft document. It sets out the Executive’s priorities and commitments for the years ahead, but it recognises that we do not have the monopoly on wisdom. We want to work with Members to improve it before we bring it back for final approval in December. If we are to do that successfully, the document must be discussed, debated and, as necessary, challenged in the Chamber and more widely. Today’s debate marks the beginning of that process, and we look forward to hearing the responses.

Committees will have an important role in the coming weeks in scrutinising the proposals relating to their respective Departments, and the accompanying draft public service agreements. That twin-track approach should ensure that all Members will have an opportunity to express their views.

We must ensure that our social partners and other interested parties have an opportunity to play their part in improving the document. The draft Programme for Government makes clear our intention to build stronger partnerships. That work must begin immediately. For that reason, we shall be consulting the Civic Forum, local authorities, our social partners in business, the trade unions and the voluntary and community sectors, and other interested bodies. We want to hear their views on the draft document’s proposals and its equality aspects. We shall be consulting widely and jointly over the coming weeks, asking people to consider the draft Programme for Government and the draft Budget together. We believe that that approach makes sense.

The draft Programme for Government and the draft Budget that supports it were agreed by all parties in the Executive. There have been hard choices to make, but throughout the process all Ministers have shown a strong commitment to making the budgetary and planning processes work. It is a testament to the Ministers in the Executive and a demonstration that devolution under the Good Friday Agreement works and should be allowed to continue to work. Members should not allow events, and interpretations made, over the past few days to cloud the reality of the democratic dividend that devolution has delivered and will continue to deliver.

Does any Member believe that under direct rule we would have achieved an almost 60% increase in health spending — over £1·1 billion in four years? Since devolution, the Health Service has received £300 million more than it would have done under the Barnett formula. Therefore, we have allocated more to health than it would have received under direct rule. Does anyone believe that under direct rule the student support package would have seen the light of day in its original form or been expanded, as announced today in the draft Budget? Does anyone believe that the reinvestment and reform initiative — an initiative knocked by people who are now considering it in their plans and programmes — would have been developed under direct rule? Does any Member believe that without a devolved Administration, Ministers would be able to even talk to the Treasury about the difficulties of the Barnett formula?

Enormous strides have been made over the past four years. However, this is just a sound beginning: it must not be put in jeopardy. We have to build on progress made, because, as democrats, Members must stand ready to finance and deliver the types of commitments contained in the draft Programme for Government. They have given such commitments to the people, and the people have the right to expect the Assembly to fulfil those commitments.

We want to make sure that our proposals are effective, evidence-based and able to bring about real and positive change across the economic, social, cultural and environmental responsibilities of the Executive. The draft programme is about improving our public services, hospitals, schools, transport and rural development. It is about strengthening our economy and providing better opportunities for everyone. In short, it is about improving the quality of life for everyone; it is about making a difference. That is what the community expects of its democratic politicians, and, therefore, it is relevant to all Ministers and the Assembly. That is why the Executive need the Assembly’s help. The Assembly’s scrutiny of the draft Programme for Government will help in proofing, improving and sharpening the content before it is returned to the Assembly for final approval.

I look forward to the Assembly and the Committees playing their part in scrutinising the draft programme, and to Members playing their part in today’s debate. People not only look forward to scrutinising and improving the draft Programme for Government but also to its implementation and delivery as the institutions remain stable and go forward in the interests of the entire community.

Photo of Ms Jane Morrice Ms Jane Morrice NIWC 2:15 pm, 24th September 2002

I have received the names of those Members who wish to contribute to the debate. Due to the large number of those wishing to participate I ask Members to limit their contributions to eight minutes — at least in the first round.

Photo of Patricia Lewsley Patricia Lewsley Social Democratic and Labour Party

I welcome the launch of the draft Programme for Government. As my Colleague Mr Durkan has said, the benefits of devolution can be seen in the draft Programme for Government and in Minister Farren’s draft Budget. I am especially delighted that the draft programme reaffirms our commitment to building North/South links. It is essential that those links be built upon to ensure that Northern Ireland becomes an outward-looking region and one that will never be allowed to return to its old introspective and majoritarian ways. Our people refuse to live that way again.

One of the benefits of devolution has been the opportunity to question the approach of Departments and to witness the increased transparency of their actions. If this work is to continue it is vital that we have a reformed and more innovative delivery of our public services. I am pleased that the review of public administration will be pursued vigorously and that we will spare no effort in the pursuit of effective value-for-money initiatives. Will the Minister confirm that, during the lifetime of this Programme for Government, and with the decentralisation of Government, Departments will be more actively pushed and that local partnership, rather than central control, will become the dominant approach?

I support the proposal to develop plans for a more long-term policy for Northern Ireland, to promote sustainable development and continuity in the delivery of services. That is particularly appropriate with the advent of the reinvestment and reform initiative and the potential that it provides for access to significant resources over the coming years. The commitment to produce a report that will monitor and evaluate the Executive’s performance each year is commendable, and that is what transparent and accountable government is about. It also gives us the opportunity to reassess and prioritise targets for the following years, thus making them more realistic.

Focus on the reinvestment and reform initiative challenges public sector finance and provides more efficient use of resources. The emphasis on the four main areas of investment in the future — improved service delivery, tackling poverty, social exclusion and partnership — is commendable. By focusing on those areas, the Programme for Government will improve service delivery and increase efficiency. Within improved service delivery, there will still be a need to improve the delivery of social security services for people with disabilities and the elderly. Promoting social inclusion for those people is a step in the right direction — some people are still slipping through the net.

With regard to partnerships, there is still a need for improved co-ordination among Departments, agencies and local government. It is an important aspect of policy and programme development, and it will provide vital links and partnerships between the statutory, voluntary and private sectors and the local community. We need the right resources to improve the Health Service. It is no use funding a system that is inadequate and unable to cope with the demands placed on it, such as shortening waiting lists.

The strong emphasis on equality is an important aspect of the Programme for Government. It is not enough for every child to have an equal chance growing up in our society, although that is important. Every child must also instinctively know that he or she will have an equal chance throughout his or her lifetime. There has been progress on that issue. The Programme for Government shows that inequalities in all groups are declining, which is good news, and is evidence that the policies are working.

The commitment to eradicating community differentials in unemployment is particularly welcome, and that is an important area. It is good to see that not only are unemployment rates in the two communities declining, but unemployment itself is falling. However, we cannot be complacent, and I welcome the new initiatives being pioneered by the SDLP Ministers to tackle long-term unemployment. Sean Farren has introduced a radical new procurement policy to ensure that those who benefit from state contracts do their bit to tackle unemployment. Such an initiative is unparalleled on these islands. Carmel Hanna’s task force on employability and long-term unemployment prioritises areas of high unemployment. I hope that the work will focus on unemployment black spots such as Strabane, Derry and parts of Belfast. Those policies, allied with New TSN, will deliver an equal chance for every child in Northern Ireland.

Catholics and women are severely under-represented in the Civil Service. Although the situations of both have improved since the Good Friday Agreement, the measures being taken to ensure equality in the Civil Service are particularly welcome. The commitment to introduce new strategies on race and gender is important. I applaud the fact that OFMDFM has set up a race equality unit and is also core funding ethnic minority groups. It is important to establish a race equality forum as a priority, and I welcome the fact that that is in progress.

The draft Programme for Government gives rural communities their place after 30 years of direct rule neglect. The House should stand firmly behind the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development, Bríd Rodgers, in her attempts to provide them with a viable future.

Children are among the most vulnerable in our society, and the Commissioner for Children and Young People Bill is an illustration of the priority accorded to children’s issues. I congratulate OFMDFM Ministers on their commitment to that area, in particular Denis Haughey for introducing the Bill.

I welcome the determination to face down those such as the Northern Ireland Office who sought to restrict the Bill’s scope. The emphasis on children is correct. The next step must be the publication of the children’s strategy, which must focus on child poverty. Therefore, I welcome the draft Programme for Government.

Photo of Mrs Joan Carson Mrs Joan Carson UUP

I welcome the opportunity to make several points about the draft Programme for Government. I fully endorse the principles of sustainable development, the economic, social and environmental dimensions of which are interwoven. That is particularly true where such development impacts on the environment, which can affect the entire economy, especially tourism.

The environment can impact positively on the economy. When new industries arrived in Dungannon, they examined the benefits of the town and its surroundings before deciding where to locate their factories. I am pleased to say that Dungannon now has a low unemployment level. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of Fermanagh — a beautiful area for tourism where the environment is of prime importance. I urge the Assembly to channel more investment into that area.

When we examine employment figures we should note that local employers say that they cannot fill 40% of their job vacancies due to skill shortages. I urge the Executive to examine that issue and to channel finance towards solving that problem. Adult literacy programmes are not enough to solve literacy problems; the root causes must be investigated and tackled in the primary schools.

Northern Ireland has a clean, green image, as the draft Programme for Government notes. However, many pressures challenge that image. Our roads, water and sewerage infrastructure must be examined sympathetically and given enormous investment.

Sub-priority 7 of "Securing a Competitive Economy" states:

"We will protect, promote and develop our natural and built environment in a sustainable way".

That promise will help to develop our tourist industry, which is good news for all. However, the farmers have endured a stressful time since the outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease, and the attack on the World Trade Centre has affected industry. Those sectors must be examined, and financial help must be given to the farmers.

I keep plugging the tourism sector because it has the potential to be one of the largest generators of income in Northern Ireland. We have an unspoilt landscape of world renown, and it must be appreciated and protected. In that context, I call on the appropriate Department to consider designating Fermanagh as a national park. Were that measure implemented, financial help would be provided to farmers who otherwise would lose some of their income.

I am curious as to how the Department of the Environment proposes to comprehensively record historic buildings in Northern Ireland and protect the country’s best heritage. What is the position on the replacement grant? That grant is a great incentive to rebuild and is used extensively in Northern Ireland. However, a grant should be available to help maintain historic homes rather than demolish them. Few vernacular dwellings survive in Northern Ireland. The replacement grant is a wonderful help to people who want to build a new home, but people who want to continue to live in older homes should get help also.

I welcome plans to conserve all the main natural habitats. However, large areas of special scientific interest (ASSIs) should not be created at the expense of smaller habitats, which also deserve protection.

I also welcome the proposed review of the sea fishery and aquaculture industry that is to begin in the coming months.

Forestry is also mentioned, and it can support sustainable development through timber production and tourism. I am pleased to note that steps will be taken to ensure the sustainable use of forests; that will help the environment.

Sensitive work must be undertaken on the problem of farm pollution and the Regulations covering silage, slurry and agricultural fuel oils on farms so that we do not penalise farmers or place an added burden on them. Agriculture has much to offer and can make a positive contribution to the environment.

I am shocked that we still have a 94% dependency on landfill. I note that the Republic of Ireland imposes a penalty on the use of plastic bags. Perhaps we should think along those lines, but that is a tiny solution to a huge problem. We shall have to encourage large stores such as Tesco and Sainsbury’s that it is not only plastic bags that are a problem; packaging is also a problem. It is not enough to facilitate and encourage local companies to develop environmentally friendly products; pressure should be applied to make it mandatory.

From an environmental point of view, the attitude in Northern Ireland to the purchase of green electricity extracted from renewable sources is a problem. I should like to express my concern at the number of wind-turbine farms cropping up across the Province. Some falsehoods surround that method of producing electricity. The starting costs are astronomical, and we are at the mercy of the weather. Nothing is set in stone; we cannot be sure about how much electricity will be generated, and such electricity cannot be stored. My greatest concern is for the tourism industry; people come to Northern Ireland to enjoy its rugged, unspoilt landscape, but that is coming under threat because of the erection of such turbines, especially in my constituency of Fermanagh and South Tyrone.

Drinking water must be wholesome, and there must be effective disposal of waste water. The sewerage network also needs an appropriate strategy. There is also the problem of flood risks from river systems, and money must be spent on that end of the infrastructure.

The draft Budget would maintain the level of revenue to support district councils, especially those whose revenue comes from a low rate base, thus allowing them to maintain services without an unacceptable rate rise — something we should all want, especially in the light of the forthcoming election. Funding should also be provided for the compensation due to district councils to cover the loss —

Photo of Ms Jane Morrice Ms Jane Morrice NIWC 2:30 pm, 24th September 2002

Can the Member bring her remarks to a close?

Photo of Mrs Joan Carson Mrs Joan Carson UUP

For years we have focused on terrorism and division, and I welcome the opportunity to bring about real change through the new developments in the draft Programme for Government.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon DUP

I welcome the opportunity to speak on the draft Programme for Government and wish to highlight one or two education issues that I think have not been addressed, and perhaps also some issues that have been addressed.

The section dealing with education is titled ‘Investing in Education and Skills’. Although some issues have been highlighted, others have been omitted. This year, in particular, the Programme for Government must highlight education. Every year there are exams; indeed, over the past week or two exam results and their portrayal in the media have been controversial. Many families have been left confused and angry, and many children do not have a clue about which school or university they will attend. The Department of Education must make an investment to oversee matters and to ensure that such a fiasco does not recur. That issue should be addressed in the Programme for Government.

This year some examination boards have been accused of adjusting grades due to Government and media pressure. That scandal has left many of our brightest pupils taking up courses at universities that were not their first choice. In some cases people will be taking different career directions altogether.

The draft Programme for Government states on page 52:

"We will give all our children the best start in life". and on page 56 that

"We will equip our young people with the skills and qualifications to gain employment in a modern economy".

Those are grand words, but in reality we need more focus and more help to ensure that it happens. The future of the country depends on the level of education that we give our children, and, consequently, the opportunities we can provide for the entire population.

Currently, people who wish to avail of tertiary education must pay for university places. That has led, and will lead, to many students across Northern Ireland deciding not to continue their education because they cannot afford it. Students, and parents concerned about their children, have come to our advice centre with that problem. There must be more investment in available student places and a rethink of university fees.

In the 1970s, when there were free university places for everyone who wanted them and grants to aid the purchase of study materials, there was a brain drain. Countries such as America and Australia wanted the cream of the university graduates to leave Northern Ireland and work there. The consequences can be easily seen — many glossy magazines have editors who came from Northern Ireland, and many of our journalists now work for the main news channels. Finance companies across the globe have recruited people who originated in Northern Ireland. We could have a situation like that again. After all, this country tops the league tables in examination results at GCSE and A level. It is time to take a serious look at university fees and evaluate their usefulness. That has not been addressed in the draft Programme for Government: it should be.

Investment in schools must be monitored. For the past few years, it has been the Minister of Education’s remit to invest heavily in Irish speaking facilities for schools. There has not been parity in the funds allocated for education.

Will the entire education budget be invested only in schools that encourage the speaking of Irish? The administration of the school budget must be monitored to ensure that fair and appropriate allocation is made. We noted that the capital spend on schools last year was heavily weighted towards non-maintained schools — that cannot be allowed to happen every year. An independent monitor could ensure that there is equal investment in all children in Northern Ireland.

Many schools have closed down recently in my constituency, yet the school-age population continues to boom, and more people are moving to Strangford. Two schools in the local area have closed — O’Neill Memorial Primary School in Crossnacreevy and Scrabo High School. Subsequently, other schools are now oversubscribed.

Paragraph 6.13 of the draft Programme for Government states:

"major capital investment is required in the post-primary sector to tackle the backlog of urgent priority projects".

Again, those are only words. When it comes to delivering the finance needed, it falls short.

Investment and new schools are a must. As more people migrate to rural areas, the pressure on existing resources is becoming hard to bear. Some pupils have to travel to other towns because the school that is only a mile down the road from their home is oversubscribed. They have to pass by the nearest school on the way to another because the first did not have space for them. This year many parents have commented and complained about the situation. As taxpayers, they feel that their children should go to the school of their choice; the one that their friends go to, and the one that they do not have to travel miles to get to.

There is a need to invest in school buildings and to build schools to accommodate the increasing child population. However, it must be done in a fair and equitable manner: unfortunately, that is not currently the case.

We also need to ensure that classrooms are adequate and up to acceptable standards. There have been many complaints across the country that schools are in a terrible condition. For example, Regent House had to wait more than 30 years for an extension. Pupils were being educated in mobile huts for 30 years. Similar things are happening in many areas of the Province. We must ensure that our children are being taught in a warm and safe environment. Investment is definitely needed in that area, and again I call for a fair and equitable allocation of funds.

According to the Labour Government, the Minister of Education could look to private investment in schools. Indeed, there have been many suggestions for that over the years. However, investment by private firms in schools should be controlled. Caution is needed to avoid the scenario in which a school is touted in the press like a designer label, and is advertised on posters because a particular company invested in it.

Investment by outside organisations in schools should be matched or, indeed, doubled by the Department of Education. Undoubtedly, investment in education is needed. However, it needs to come first from the Government as lead investor.

The Assembly has been assured that there will be nursery provision for all three-year-olds. Nursery provision has been the subject of a key debate since the 1970s. Indeed, the people for whom nursery provision was needed then are now our teachers, doctors and builders. It has been said in the Chamber that post-primary education must be developed to meet the needs of young people: I agree. The Assembly welcomes it. However, I want to see how it will be delivered.

A report stated that a nursery education could advance the social experience and intellectual development of children from economically disadvantaged backgrounds. I believe that that is the case. People working in that key area would agree. Nursery education is more than just childminding and teaching the alphabet. It should be a learning experience.

Networking is important at any age. Friendships forged in early childhood can sometimes last a long time. Investment is needed in nursery schools and teachers. The Budget must provide the basis for that investment. I welcome what has been set out for education in the Programme for Government. However, how that will be delivered has not been specified.

Photo of Mr John Kelly Mr John Kelly Sinn Féin

Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. The Programme for Government lays out a progressive plan for health, in which the Executive are committed to raising health standards to those of the best regions in Europe and to eradicating inequalities in health. Much of the programme will be channelled through ‘Investing for Health’, which sets out how public health is to be improved between now and 2010.

The publication of ‘Investing for Health’ in March signified a remarkable degree of co-operation between all Departments in the Executive. That is to be welcomed. All Ministers signed up to actions to improve the general health of the population. The targets set out in ‘Investing for Health’ could not be more important. The Executive are committed to increasing life expectancy by at least three years for men and two years for women by the year 2010. They are also committed to reducing inequalities in mortality rates, to halve the gap in life expectancy between those who live in the most deprived areas and electoral wards and those who live in better off areas, and to increasing average life expectancy.

All Ministers of the Executive — whether they belong to Sinn Féin, the Ulster Unionist Party, the Democratic Unionist Party, or the Social Democratic and Labour Party — have committed themselves to a series of actions and policies that will achieve those goals. Those commitments range from improving the quality of water and air, ensuring that all food is safe, reducing accidents at home and on the roads, and improving literacy levels — to name but a few. All those factors are of the utmost importance, and there is a great deal of room for improvement. For example, the charity Brake has stated that in Europe, Northern Ireland has the second highest number of schoolchildren being killed on the roads.

I could use the eight minutes allocated to me to question whether all Departments have lived up to the commitments made in the Programme for Government and in ‘Investing for Health’. I could say that if the important goals are to be attained, considerably more investment is needed. I could question whether the targets set by Departments are rigorous enough. In other circumstances, I would make those points. However, those important questions have faded into insignificance following the events at the Ulster Unionist Party conference. It seems that, for its own party political reasons, the Ulster Unionist Party has decided that it will depart from the Executive in January 2003. If that happens, the Programme for Government and everything in it will be just scrap paper.

Plans and targets to improve the Health Service and reduce inequalities could simply go by the board; they will be continued or disregarded according to the whims of British Ministers. I hope that the Ulster Unionist Party is aware of the effect that its actions will have on the lives and well-being of everyone in this part of Ireland. Rather than working together as politicians of every political shade to ensure that people live longer and are healthier, we will become lethargic and allow the public health sector to return to the doldrums in which it languished under direct rule.

Likewise, plans for the improvement of hospital services, primary and community care, and care for those with disabilities, mental health problems and chronic and terminal illnesses may fall by the wayside. The number of people whose health would be affected illustrates the enormity of what is contemplated. It is a sad day when, for its own selfish internal reasons, a party acts to the detriment of everyone’s welfare.

Photo of Mr Sam Foster Mr Sam Foster UUP 2:45 pm, 24th September 2002

What could be more unhealthy than the murder of my friends and neighbours in border areas over the years? Mr Kelly never condemned those acts, yet he sounds so virtuous today.

Photo of Mr John Kelly Mr John Kelly Sinn Féin

I will return to that point.

I appeal to members of the Ulster Unionist Party to show maturity and consideration in their political thinking and to continue to strive to improve everyone’s health, rather than relinquish their responsibilities to the political mongrel foxes in their own community.

The first paragraph of the foreword of the draft Programme for Government states:

"We are pleased to present the Executive’s Programme for Government which sets out in detail the Executive’s plans and priorities for 2002/03 and beyond."

The last paragraph states:

"Whilst the last year has been a difficult one in many ways, we now have a new opportunity to deliver stable government by a locally accountable administration that can reflect and respond to the needs of people here. We believe that this Programme for Government provides a sound basis for our work as an Executive over the years ahead and look forward to working with the Assembly and with others to deliver the commitments it contains."

David Trimble signed that foreword; I ask the leadership of the Ulster Unionist Party to look at it again, before we reach the precipice of a political disaster.

Photo of Eileen Bell Eileen Bell Alliance

It will come as no surprise that the Alliance Party notes the draft Programme for Government with disappointment and concern. Although there was merit in the proposals of previous programmes, no serious consideration was given to coupling projects with each Department’s proposals, or to including a definitive, effective approach to community relations. The proposals for health, education and social services, although good in themselves, will not create a better society unless the sectarianism that permeates the Province is seriously challenged.

I am heartened by the fact that the Deputy First Minister highlighted the need to involve all Departments. I hope that that will be followed through on. The Secretary of State made some headway in the past week by, among other things, appointing an independent monitor on paramilitary violence. However, the Assembly must direct action and schemes proposed in the Programme for Government to challenge the hatred, distrust and ignorance in society. Managing the differences in Northern Ireland does not make for long-term or permanent success. It simply puts off the evil day.

The Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister is known to have received a research paper on community relations in January. So far, the office has failed to publish any draft proposals. If a policy review report, which has already been submitted to Ministers, is not received in the next two weeks, my party will attempt to table a motion calling on the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister to publish it. A response was expected before the summer recess; as yet none has been forthcoming. Last week, in an answer to my party leader, the Deputy First Minister said that a paper would go to the Executive in the near future; similar promises have been made to us since April. The review was completed in January, and the response was expected in April. It is still said to be "imminent". Where is it?

For the Alliance Party, the community relations strategy is a crucial part of the Programme for Government. The strategy, and any associated consultation, is supposed to be completed by the end of the year. The process has yet to begin. Given that the Ministers must subsequently reach agreement, that will be yet another missed target or, as it is usually expressed, "slippage" will occur. Last year there was some three months’ slippage. What happened to the neighbourhood regeneration task forces that were proposed last year?

Earlier this year, when the Alliance Party pushed the issue of paramilitary flags and graffiti, the strategy was the alleged reason for the Executive’s not having done anything about it. That issue will not go away, and the Executive’s usual ploy of passing the buck must stop. We must get back on track. Suspicion is growing that the community relations strategy is being put on the long finger. When questions are asked in the Assembly, all we hear are platitudes about the imminence of documents or consultation. That response no longer has any credibility. If the Executive cannot provide a strategy, the Alliance Party will demand that the public is shown exactly what has been done since last year, in addition to the recommendations now being withheld by the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister.

The Deputy First Minister stated that it is not enough to leave community relations to the people in the areas that are directly affected. The issue is much bigger than simply supporting local initiatives in local communities. A firm strategy is necessary to counter sectarianism and to promote community relations, and it should underpin everything that is proposed by the Executive for every Department. That is clearly not the case, because community relations have not been prioritised properly. Sub-priority 2 states:

"We will improve community relations and tackle the divisions in our society."

Paragraph 4.13 states:

"Our experience in North Belfast and other areas has shown us that improved relations across communities in Northern Ireland can only develop when elected and community representatives work together, especially at local level in those areas which have experienced the most serious effects of conflict.

I contend that community relations officers should be included in the local structure to deal with community relations problems. Community relations are not simply a matter of bringing Protestants and Catholics together, but of keeping them together in tolerance, recognition and acceptance of each other’s cultures and traditions. The Community Relations Council has undertaken that task for many years in areas as far apart as mid-Ulster, south Armagh and Greater Belfast, and in organisations such as the Apprentice Boys and the Orange Order. In North Down, it is generally agreed that community relations have enhanced appreciation of, and improved knowledge and information about, a wide range of cross-community matters.

The Alliance Party welcomes the focus on promoting a climate of tolerance and equality of provision. It is also pleased that the expansion of integrated education, both new and by transformation, has been recognised. It is to be hoped that those who are doubtful about this type of education will see that it is not a threat but a significant alternative.

The Minister of Education and his Department will not be surprised if I once again take the opportunity to push for a specific budget for special schools provision and for special units in which children have the chance to realise their potential. There is also the matter of adults with special needs. There are not enough places in resource centres, and I hope that the Minister of Employment and Learning and the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety can work together to give those young people an opportunity for high-quality education and training.

I congratulate the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister, especially the junior Ministers, for their preparations for the proposed commissioner for children and for their acknowledgement of the situations that victims face.

As was stated yesterday, the draft Programme for Government is, unfortunately, vulnerable, just as we are. Like its Colleagues, the Alliance Party wonders how confident it can be that the proposals, reviews and consultation exercises in the draft Programme for Government can be achieved. The Alliance Party hopes that all Members have the opportunity to see it become reality and that all citizens will feel the full benefit of the local Administration.

Photo of Robert McCartney Robert McCartney UKUP

I never fail to be impressed by the fairy-tale atmosphere of the Assembly, especially when it discusses matters pertinent to its future. The fairy tale that seems most appropriate today is Hans Christian Andersen’s ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’. In fact, the emperor was in the altogether. The courtiers who had self-interest, like the majority of Members who want this thing called devolution to work, were delighted with his nakedness.

Far from producing an Executive that are, as the Deputy First Minister said, working in harness or that are, as Seán Farren said, producing a demonstration of the collective working of a unique Administration, the Assembly has in fact produced a composition of totally disparate elements. Yesterday, in response to a particularly innocuous speech on the Programme for Government from Esmond Birnie, came the most virulent attack on the Ulster Unionist Party by that well-known political ecumenist Mr Dallat, who, in language that would not have been inappropriate on the lips of Joe Devlin in 1915 or of Harry Diamond in 1956, proceeded to make the most unmitigated attack on his main partners in the Programme for Government.

It is true that many aspects of the speeches that have been made are apposite to the Assembly’s future. Today, John Kelly rightly said that, while all the talk about future Budgets and Programmes for Government is going on, the parties are really engaged in a political dogfight over the Assembly’s existence. It is the stuff of fairy tales.

Then, of course, we have the suggestion that devolution has been wonderful and has brought untold benefits to the poor electorate of Northern Ireland. What has devolution achieved in more than three years? Despite the suggestion that future moneys will be poured into the Health Service, we have the longest waiting lists in Europe and a GP programme that is stagnating, with the British Medical Association threatening what almost amounts to a professional strike.

In education, which I hope that Sammy Wilson will deal with in more detail, almost none of the targets set last year by the Minister of Education have been met, and the budgets for most of them have been reduced. Our schools and the infrastructure of the buildings and ancillary services are in their worst state ever.

The First Minister has declared that community relations are at their worst level for the past 25 years. Mr John Kelly told us about maturity, and about the need to consider the welfare and health of the people — that coming from a member of a party that is inextricably linked to the murders of 2,500 people and to the mutilation of tens of thousands who, as the result of paramilitary attacks, have swamped the accident and emergency services with broken bones and with destroyed ankles and other joints.

Do not think for one moment that I exclude from my comments those Loyalists who participate in similar activity; they do not happen to be numerous enough to have representatives in the same elevated position as the two Sinn Féin Ministers.

The public sector in Northern Ireland is a monument to the success of devolution — health, education, vast areas on which houses cannot be built because of inadequate sewerage, and threats of huge fines if the Executive do not implement EU Directives. We have a series of threatened reports. As a result of the delays, the review of administration does not merely have a five o’clock shadow; it has a three-feet-long beard. The rating system will be reviewed to make it fairer, but it will have to produce about three times the current revenue to service the debt that will be incurred in implementing some of those magnificent projects.

Collective responsibility does not exist. Ms Lewsley mentioned SDLP Ministers only, and John Kelly reserved his commendations and comments for the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety, which happens to have a Sinn Féin Minister. The same applies to other participating parties. As I have stated repeatedly, far from there being collective responsibility, every time a Minister speaks, Members from all other parties become the Opposition. Mark Durkan told us in a "holier-than-thou" voice that the draft Programme for Government is an object lesson in working in harness and in collective co-operation. It is no such thing. Virtually no aspect of life has been significantly improved for the average person in Northern Ireland as a result of devolution, whatever the aspirations may be.

However, bureaucracy has increased vastly. More than 400 additional advisers and staff work for the "Department of the Centre", which is not even a statutory Department, because it does not exist under the Belfast Agreement. There will be a proliferation of bureaucrats everywhere; this place has become a bureaucrat’s paradise. How many of those packages of utter verbiage are really the product of Ministers and their staff, as opposed to that of civil servants with an unfettered opportunity to enjoy themselves?

The truth must be faced. What have the Executive done? They have done very little except to produce a series of grandiose promises for the future administration of Northern Ireland.

Photo of Mr Billy Hutchinson Mr Billy Hutchinson PUP 3:00 pm, 24th September 2002

Mr McCartney highlighted many realities. If people did not smell the coffee before, they certainly have done since Saturday. Between now and 18 January, Members may ask themselves why they are here and whether they are wasting their time.

We must reduce poverty and educational disadvantage. I accept that we have not yet had much success in that regard, but we can have. We will not create change overnight; it will take years. This Assembly may achieve nothing, but I hope that the next one will achieve something, and that the one after that will achieve everything that must be done.

It will be a long haul. I thank Mr McCartney for reminding us that sometimes we get involved in fairy tales. To me, it is more a case of smoke and mirrors. We can fool some of the people out there some of the time, but we will not fool all of them all of the time. The Assembly parties must wake up to that fact.

I welcome the Programme for Government’s provisions for early years education, such as the support for the Sure Start initiative. Problems such as educational disadvantage begin early in life. We must focus on the provision of lifelong learning. We hear continually about education and lifelong learning. However, that is not reflected in the Programme for Government — there is no such thread running through the document. It is important that children from disadvantaged areas have help at home from birth. At present, they do not always get that help because they come from disadvantaged homes.

The Programme for Government could have gone further. There was an opportunity to define where the real problems lie and to "invest in education skills", to use the Executive’s term. One difficulty is that when children are born, it is perceived that the Health Service assumes responsibility for them, and the perception is that when they start school, that responsibility transfers to the Department of Education. Unfortunately, that is not true — the two go hand in hand. Where does the cross-cutting occur? In order to offer children the opportunity to develop, education must begin as soon as children are born. However, in Northern Ireland, we feel that the time for education is when children reach the age of three or four. Education must be seamless from the time a child is born, and the Health Service is partly responsibility for ensuring that that happens.

Disadvantage in schools must be addressed. We talk about initiatives to prepare 16- to 19-year-olds for employment in the modern world. An indictment of my constituency of North Belfast is that if a young person leaves school with no qualifications, he or she cannot study for, or sit, NVQ Level 3. That young person must leave the constituency to do so. That problem does not arise in any other Belfast constituency — the exam can be sat in West Belfast, South Belfast, or East Belfast. That sends out a message to young people in North Belfast. Another difficulty is that some young people struggle to achieve NVQ Level 1. There is something wrong with the system, and it must be overhauled. The programme’s provisions tinker round the edges and do not deal with the real problems. To introduce such schemes for 16- to 18-year-olds is to leave it far too late. Those provisions must come earlier.

Funding for primary education poses another problem. What is primary education? It is the most important level of education — more important than third-level education. The situation is ridiculous. We need to reconsider where the funding is going and decide what it is that we want.

I have talked to nursery school principals in my area, and they tell me that the children are not ready for nursery school education. If we talk to the primary school principals, they say that when children come either directly from the home or from nursery school, they are not ready for primary education. The post-primary schools will advise that the children are not the finished product and that they cannot work with them. Children enter post-primary schools at the age of 11 yet they only have a reading age of nine. Everyone in charge of those sectors will say the same thing: "How do we prepare those children?".

There is no point sending children on to the next level of education when they are two to three years behind. We must ensure that they are ready for the next stage. A complete overhaul is needed, and we must get to grips with this matter now. We continue to throw money at the problem, but we are wasting it. Education is very important; it gives everyone a start in life, and there is no question that it determines people’s socio-economic positions. We must take the matter seriously and tackle the disadvantages.

The Programme for Government gives us some hope for the direction that we wish to take. We should recognise that, and the fact that the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister has implemented programmes that would not otherwise have existed.

However, we need to consider the problems that exist not only in urban areas but in rural areas. For example, we must address the educational disadvantage in rural areas and the struggle to keep small schools open and ensure that people receive an education. We must address all of those matters, and, unfortunately, this draft Programme for Government does not do that.

Photo of Mr Sam Foster Mr Sam Foster UUP

I commend the motion, but some points concern me. The priorities have remained constant since the first Programme for Government — "Growing as a Community", "Working for a Healthier People", "Investing in Education and Skills" — although I am concerned by the aim to destroy our successful grammar school system — "Securing a Competitive Economy" and "Developing Relations — North/South, East/West and Internationally".

When I was the Minister of the Environment, I considered the North/South Ministerial Council meetings to be an excellent way to work together as neighbours. With regard to constitutional concerns, it was confirmed at each meeting that there are two separate jurisdictions, and that was also acknowledged by the Minister with whom I worked.

The Programme for Government is huge, so I will be able to speak about very little of it. I commend its aims, although whether those are fulfilled is another matter.

On page 32, sub-priority 3, entitled "We will support victims", states:

"Key to meeting victims’ practical needs are the actions contained in the victims’ strategy, Reshape, Rebuild, Achieve."

I have a victims’ group in Fermanagh, known as FEAR — Fear Encouraged Abandoning Roots. Good people had to flee their farms; if they had not done so, they would not be alive today. Can I get anything for them to help them reshape, rebuild and achieve? The words in the Programme for Government are hollow. Perhaps the Executive will rethink the matter.

The Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety shows good intent. I hope that her statement concerning the provision of a new hospital in Enniskillen, or slightly north of that strategically located town, will be put into effect. The Minister spoke about the matter in her presentation of the consultation document ‘Developing Better Services: Modernising Hospitals and Reforming Structures’. I cannot imagine the Minister ignoring the grave danger that so many people would face should the hospital be sited elsewhere. It must be recognised that if the new hospital were to be built in Enniskillen, 8,744 people would have to travel for more than 45 minutes for treatment; if it were to be built in Omagh, 24,250 people would have to travel for more than 45 minutes. The difference is shocking, and this is a very serious issue that cannot be ignored.

There is a statement in the document concerning a commitment to combating inequalities, which should never occur. That is a good point, with which I concur. However, many of our responsible citizens had to live with the inequality of receiving no protection from terrorism. So many were murdered and maimed, leaving broken homes galore, yet we hear regularly in the Assembly pretentious humbug from Sinn Féin about inequality. It forgets about the terrorism inflicted by its partners in the IRA, which it has never condemned.

Yesterday, other parties took the opportunity to criticise and abuse the UUP and my party leader. Let it be clearly understood that the UUP does not have to apologise to anyone about its role in the Assembly or at any point in the lifetime of Northern Ireland. The UUP has always worked constructively for this state, while others have tried to do Northern Ireland down. It has been the tactic of the destructive forces in Northern Ireland to hide behind a guise of virtue, while all the time they have been the destroyers.

The UUP is the genuine party in Northern Ireland. It always has been, and it always will be, for Northern Ireland within the Union. [Interruption].

Photo of Mr Sam Foster Mr Sam Foster UUP 3:15 pm, 24th September 2002

My former Department — the Department of the Environment — has a responsible role to play in many ways. It must ensure that it fulfils European demands; otherwise infraction proceedings will be actioned. The Department must be given the resources to fulfil that important role.

Another of the Department’s many important roles is road safety, in which I took a great interest when in the Department. We must all play a part in reducing the carnage on the roads. Some people appear to be overcome by madness when they get behind the wheel of a motor vehicle; there must be no leniency for careless drivers. The Department for Regional Development has a massive roads’ problem to contend with, not least the vital need for a bypass in my home town of Enniskillen. The Minister must give the go-ahead for a bypass or Enniskillen will be choked with traffic. This projects Enniskillen as a successful growth area and the gateway to Northern Ireland from the west of Ireland. The Irvinestown Road/Chanterhill link with the Tempo Road is also a must to ease traffic at the east end of the town.

In conclusion, the test of our progress and that of the Programme for Government is not whether we add to the abundance of those who have so much, but whether we provide enough for those who have so little. Perhaps I have spoken too long, and I am thinking of Coughlin’s law — "Don’t talk unless you can improve the silence." I commend the intent of the Programme for Government.

Photo of Mr Eamonn ONeill Mr Eamonn ONeill Social Democratic and Labour Party

I will make a few comments as Chairperson of the Committee for Culture, Arts and Leisure, and, if I have time, I may make some comments of my own.

The Committee is pleased that, once again, the draft Programme for Government recognises the significant contribution that the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure can make to each of the Executive priorities. Although it is one of the smallest spending Departments, the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure is involved in supporting actions in each of those priorities. In "Growing as a Community", the Committee strongly supports the four actions proposed for the Department and will try to implement them through developing a cultural diversity policy framework and timetable; the implementation of the soccer strategy for the development of local football from grass roots to senior and international level; the development of an archives policy to ensure that our archival heritage is relevant and accessible to the widest possible audience; agreeing an implementation plan for the development of heritage at the Titanic Quarter; and the development of a strategy that will optimise the use of resources in the museums and heritage sector.

This is how the Committee will attempt to support the Department in delivering those priorities. However, these plans and strategies will ultimately require resources for their implementation. Although the soccer strategy implementation features in the draft Budget, the Committee hopes that future allocations will take account of the positive effect that the others can bring to tackling divisions in our society and to developing a greater understanding and respect for our culture, history and heritage. The Executive’s priority "Working for a Healthier People" has obvious implications for the Department and for the Sports Council in promoting the benefits of sport and physical activity. In this regard, the Committee is particularly pleased to see the recognition that has been given in the draft document to next year’s Special Olympics world summer games.

In "Investing in Education and Skills", the Committee notes that the sub-priorities continue to recognise the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure’s broad partnership role in promoting a culture of tolerance, developing creative potential and providing lifelong learning opportunities. We welcome particularly the proposal to develop a learning strategy to draw together a diverse group of service providers with the aim of pooling resources and exchanging ideas in ways that will allow us to make the most of all our information and of our cultural, educational and sporting resources in promoting the concept of lifelong learning.

The Committee is also glad that the draft Programme for Government makes a commitment to the provision of three new electronic library facilities, which will allow our public service libraries to provide better access to electronic information services. The Committee is agreed that if the draft Programme for Government sets out a commitment to the development of electronic access to archives, libraries and museums, the draft Budget proposals must ensure that these valuable resources do not continue to suffer from the effects of pre-devolution cuts and years of underfunding.

It is interesting to note that the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure has no less than four actions under the Executive priority of "Securing a Competitive Economy". The Committee looks forward to the implementation of the interdepartmental action plan for the development of the creative industries sector under sub-priority 3.

The Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure also has an important role to play in increasing Northern Ireland’s attractiveness to visitors. The Committee welcomes the recognition now given to the activities of the Northern Ireland Events Company by sub-priority 4. Members may have noted the report in yesterday’s ‘Irish Times’ about the Republic’s initiative in showcasing Ireland as a golfing destination. Last week’s World Golf Championship at Mount Juliet was an unqualified success with regard to visitor numbers and worldwide television coverage. It is virtually certain that the event will return there in 2004. It is worth noting that Bord Fáilte contributed one million euros to the event on behalf of the Government’s international sports tourism initiative. Northern Ireland has a long way to go in this area. The Committee is pleased to note that sub-priority 7 reflects the recommendations made in its report on inland fisheries with regard to the need to conserve our wild salmon stocks.

The Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure has also an important contribution to make to another priority, "Developing Relations — North/South, East/West and Internationally". The Committee hopes that the support indicated under sub-priority 7 for Imagine Belfast’s bid for the European Capital of Culture 2008 will be reflected in future resource allocations.

The Committee looks forward to discussing the specifics of the draft Programme for Government with the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure over the coming weeks and hopes to be in a position to give its full support to the varied and important work that his Department carries out.

I want to make one or two personal comments. Members have drawn attention to the uncertainty that may arise over the Assembly’s future. People have expressed concerns, and we can all recognise those. However, as Billy Hutchinson stated, if we do not continue to work, to chip away at the problems and map out the route for progress, we will be failing as public representatives. People should look at the broader picture. It is worth noting the low level of unemployment in Northern Ireland over the past four years — among the lowest ever in any generation. We should also consider the high number of business starts in Northern Ireland over the period. We should consider the confidence that the Assembly’s existence has engendered in the community and the faith that the people have put in it.

We should not perpetually snipe, as some people have done for the past four years, without making a contribution. Having just reported as Chairperson of a Committee and knowing the work that people put into Committee attendance, it is laughable to hear someone who never contributes to any Committee work snipe at the work we are trying to do in the Programme for Government. Unfortunately, he is not here to hear me, but I would have put that point to him gladly. He never contributes to any constructive approach —

Photo of Ms Jane Morrice Ms Jane Morrice NIWC

I ask the Member to draw his remarks to a close.

Photo of Mr Eamonn ONeill Mr Eamonn ONeill Social Democratic and Labour Party

We must adopt a positive approach, and the Programme for Government provides the opportunity to do so.

Photo of William McCrea William McCrea DUP

I will speak first as Chairperson of the Committee for the Environment and then, as other Members have done, as a constituency representative.

In November and December 2001 I highlighted to Members an important paragraph in the 2001 Programme for Government entitled "Promoting sustainable living". I pointed out that that programme’s priorities and sub-priorities fell seriously short in reflecting the Executive’s commitment to promoting sustainable living. I detailed several recommendations from the Committee for the Environment in an attempt to rectify that. Unfortunately, as with last year’s Programme for Government, the document before us today fails to reflect many of those.

In paragraph 2.23 there is clear acknowledgement of the many substantial challenges that continue to face the Executive and the Assembly across the three dimensions of sustainable development — economic, social and environmental. It goes on to say that those challenges require action to be taken across all areas.

In paragraph 3.51, under the heading "Promoting sustainable living", the challenge is restated. The programme concludes that the environmental impact of all key policies must be considered in an

"integrated way, that will embed the principles of sustainable development in the rural and urban economy."

Fine words, but yet again I cannot find the necessary commitment to action to deliver that.

Some commitments to protect, promote and develop our natural and built environment in a sustainable way are given in sub-priority 7 of chapter 7. However, the Committee’s suggestions for a more ambitious approach to the integration of environmental themes into economic policy have been largely ignored.

The environment should no longer be viewed as a constraint on economic activity. Instead, it should represent opportunities to support and develop new economic and job-creation activities. For example, the reference to renewable energy in paragraph 7.13 could have been widened to take account of economic development opportunities for new technology research, development and production, and export opportunities. We shall await the establishment and publication of targets for increasing the proportion of electricity generated from renewable sources in Northern Ireland.

Most of the cross-cutting initiatives in chapter 3 bear little relation to the wider vision of sustainable development. For example, the reinvestment and reform initiative should be pursued with sustainable development as a guiding principle for enhancing resource productivity. The Committee for the Environment continues to take a keen interest in the development of effective waste management plans to underpin the waste management strategy for Northern Ireland. We feel that there should be more urgency on that.

Paragraph 7.53 refers to

"assistance to industry to develop markets for recycled materials and to improve its production processes [in terms of] energy efficiency, waste minimisation and recycling."

That is repeated from last year’s Programme for Government. There is clearly a need to establish more concrete commitments to, for example, explore the research and development needs arising from the Northern Ireland waste management strategy. Those are just a few examples.

Chapter 7, "Securing a competitive economy", should include many more commitments to actions to mainstream and articulate sustainable development. Members will note from paragraph 7.45 that we still await a sustainable development strategy for Northern Ireland. I trust that when it arrives it will, in practical terms, take forward action

"to mainstream the integrated approach to sustainable development into the way all our policies and programmes are developed and implemented."

On behalf of the Committee for the Environment, I ask the Ministers to respond to those points and revisit the draft Programme for Government to include concrete, practical commitments to genuine action on sustainable development.

I shall make a few constituency-related remarks, because the Programme for Government contains issues that affect the daily lives of all our constituents. The health programme is of particular concern in Mid Ulster, where we have the longest waiting lists. There is chaos in the Health Service and a lack of initiative on the part of the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety. Under the Minister’s proposals, the Mid-Ulster Hospital faces the prospect of being downgraded to a glorified health centre. When we look at the equality agenda, we should notice the inequality between Magherafelt and areas such as Downpatrick.

In the area of education, the draft Programme for Government says that it will focus on

"giving all our children the best start in life".

That is fine verbiage, but what does it mean? I have invited many Members to see for themselves the situation in Magherafelt. The maintained sector is sitting in new multi-million pound premises, from one end of the town to the other. But in the same town, the controlled sector is sitting in conditions akin to shanty towns. In his own constituency, the Minister of Education has deliberately discriminated against the community that wants to educate its children in the controlled sector. There is no end to the amount of money that can be spent on the maintained and integrated sectors. The controlled sector has been left in abysmal conditions. The statement that we will give

"all our children the best start in life" is rubbish; it is without action.

There is discrimination in allocation. There are schools that could not even open their windows in the summer term. Now that they can get them open, there is so much draught that they cannot get them closed again.

Photo of Ms Jane Morrice Ms Jane Morrice NIWC 3:30 pm, 24th September 2002

The Member must bring his remarks to a close.

Photo of William McCrea William McCrea DUP

Many of those issues must be addressed. This draft Programme for Government will not bring action; it will limp on from crisis to crisis. It is about time that we allowed the electorate to speak.

Photo of Michelle Gildernew Michelle Gildernew Sinn Féin

Go raibh míle maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. It is bizarre to be discussing a draft Programme for Government when we are in yet another political crisis. That is evident when so few Members are present for the debate.

I wish to speak in particular on the objectives for employment and learning in the document. Levels of adult literacy and numeracy are still diabolical. Targets are scandalous, and real resources must be directed towards that issue. The Department for Employment and Learning’s Objective 1 states that it wishes

"To work with others to achieve wider access to education and training and to seek the highest standards of learning, research, training and scholarship, thereby contributing to economic development."

Although economic development is an honourable aspiration, the difficulties for people who do not have adequate reading and writing skills, and who therefore suffer social exclusion, are far worse. If we are intent on targeting social need, we must address the issues of low educational attainment, low self-esteem and poor self-confidence. The inability of a parent to help a child with basic homework is like an open sore — it is a continuous source of pain and discomfort.

Student finance affects low-income families. Young people from areas with generational long-term unemployment cannot afford third-level education. Either they are unable to get access to higher and further education, or they leave college with huge debts. All Members know students who are working 30 or 40 hours a week to put themselves through college. At a time when their education is supposed to be most important, some young people are doing a full week’s work. More university places for young people are required. Many young people are moving out of the Six Counties to get university places because there is a serious dearth of places here.

The unemployment differential has been well documented, but it continues to be brushed under the carpet when a Catholic is more likely to be unemployed than a Protestant in areas such as Strabane, west Belfast and Derry. In my constituency, Fermanagh and South Tyrone, many people have to travel long distances to work, and many are employed in border counties such as Leitrim and Cavan because there is not enough work in their own area. I am disappointed that the Executive did not make the unemployment differential one of their priorities.

Like others who have spoken, Sinn Féin members are concerned about health, education, housing, fuel poverty, the environment, the suffering of the agriculture and rural community and its many and varied needs, jobs, investment and infrastructure. Everything that each Minister has worked on to benefit everyone in the Six Counties and on the island is now at risk.

For the first time in my life we have direct accountability and local people addressing local problems through the North/South Ministerial Council, the implementation bodies and work being done by such bodies as Waterways Ireland, InterTradeIreland, the Special EU Programmes Body, the North/South Language Body and the Foyle, Carlingford and Irish Lights Commission: but we are on the brink of throwing it away. Sam Foster said how he enjoyed the North/South element of his ministerial duties, so why is his party leader intent on destroying that part of the Good Friday Agreement? He talked about the Health Minister’s intention to put a new hospital in Enniskillen. Does Mr Foster not realise that a direct rule minister could close down every hospital outside Belfast and Derry and that there would be nothing he, I or anybody else could do about that? Does he believe that our constituents would be better off in another political vacuum? Our people need Members to work towards a better future for them, not to hanker after the past.

Like many other Members, I cannot understand how the First Minister can reconcile his actions with the needs of the people. Does he think that the achievements of the past few years should be poured down the drain? Does he think that the changes to policing, criminal justice and demilitarisation, although inadequate, are going to be reversed? Does he think that the equality agenda, the human rights agenda and the all-Ireland agenda, all of which Unionists have tried to dilute, destroy and delay, will not still be here when we get back to this point?

Does the First Minister think that by trying to re-write the Good Friday Agreement he will achieve what all Unionist politicians seem to want — a return to second-class citizenship for Nationalists and Unionist supremacy? If he thinks that, he is a more blinkered and intellectually challenged man than Sinn Féin took him for. David Trimble cannot and will not stop us achieving equal rights and the end of discrimination on this island. He, along with the rest of the begrudgers and naysayers, is on a direct route to political obscurity, and the sooner that the Unionist community can produce a leader who can lead, the better for all of us.

Photo of Ms Jane Morrice Ms Jane Morrice NIWC

Order. I am beginning to wonder what the connection is between the Member’s remarks and the draft Programme for Government. I ask the Member to keep to the subject.

Photo of Michelle Gildernew Michelle Gildernew Sinn Féin

The context is clear. The House is debating the draft Programme for Government, which will not be worth the paper it is written on if David Trimble achieves his objective of bringing down the Good Friday Agreement and the Assembly. The targets for achievement that the Executive are setting through the draft Programme for Government will be wiped out if David Trimble gets his way. Go raibh mile maith agat.

Photo of Joe Byrne Joe Byrne Social Democratic and Labour Party

I welcome the debate on the draft Programme for Government. The guiding principle "making a difference" was the primary objective set three years ago, and that is still the challenge as the Executive seek to make devolved Government more relevant and beneficial to our communities. The people across our region want to see social and economic progress arising from the political structures working effectively here. Northern Ireland has a large public sector, which plays a major role in our regional economy. In fact, we have the largest public sector dependency of any region on these islands. The challenge for the Assembly, therefore, is to improve the economic performance of our regional economy to lessen our public sector dependency. However, our regional economy can only become more competitive and enjoy better growth and economic output if our public infrastructure for road and rail transport, water and sewerage provision, and energy supply can meet the needs of modern industry, businesses and households.

The accumulated public investment deficit in infrastructure is accepted generally to be a major bottleneck in restraining development across the rural sub-regions beyond the Belfast metropolitan area. The reinvestment and reform initiative pioneered by the Deputy First Minister, and announced by the Chancellor of the Exchequer in May, provides an opportunity to tackle the big capital investment needs in roads, water and sewerage. That is good news, and it is hoped that it can be developed into real investment. The business community, particularly the small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), need continued support to make the region more economically sustainable in the future. Invest Northern Ireland must think beyond selective financial assistance packages to be more effective, innovative and helpful to would-be SME promoters.

The business community, including the manufacturing and tourism industries, need confidence in a stable, political environment to invest and grow, to create employment and contribute to the economic growth in our region. Unfortunately, recent political events, including the recoil of the Ulster Unionist Party from work in the North/South Ministerial Council, and the street violence of the past year, have caused great concern and anxiety in our business community. The Assembly and the other political institutions, including the North/South bodies, must work to maximum effect to build a better regional economy and society here.

The Programme for Government addresses some important elements at this juncture in the life of the Assembly. The Executive commitment to invest in transport and in a water and sewerage infrastructure over the next 10 years is welcome, and it is necessary to promote development across the region. I welcome the targeting of resources to help reshape our agriculture industry through the emerging vision for the future objectives. The farming industry needs help and commitment from Government to restructure and become more competitive and market driven. There is positive emphasis on tackling wider access to education and training so that young students or adults will have better opportunities to develop themselves with improved skills or qualifications to enhance their employment prospects. Efforts to increase investment in the student support package are desirable and progressive, as is the targeting of financial support to those students who are most in need.

Hospital provision is a major concern for many communities, particularly in my constituency of West Tyrone. Devolution must mean that all citizens in Northern Ireland have equal access to hospital-based medical and acute services. The issue of hospital provision and the current hospital acute services review is of particular concern to the people of Tyrone and Omagh — a population of almost 25,000. The people of my constituency want devolution to work. They do not want a devolved Health Minister to deliver a bombshell by leaving West Tyrone without a decent hospital. I earnestly hope that "Making a Difference" does not result in my constituency ending up without a viable and sustainable hospital in the future.

Photo of Danny Kennedy Danny Kennedy UUP 3:45 pm, 24th September 2002

As Chairperson of the Education Committee, I am grateful for the opportunity to participate in this important debate. First, I would like to deal with the statements that have been made on political matters, in the speeches of Mr John Kelly and Ms Gildernew of Sinn Féin.

I reject wholeheartedly the criticisms levelled at David Trimble and the Ulster Unionist Party. I remind those Members that the institutions are in a state of confusion because —

Photo of Ms Jane Morrice Ms Jane Morrice NIWC

Order.

I have had occasion to remind Members to return to the subject matter of the debate. It is only right that I should ask the Member not to refer to issues that are outside the specific subject matter of the Programme for Government.

Photo of Danny Kennedy Danny Kennedy UUP

I respect your authority, Madam Deputy Speaker. However, you allowed considerable licence to representatives from Sinn Féin to criticise severely the Ulster Unionist Party and the First Minister. It is grossly unfair that you are not prepared to allow those criticisms to be countered.

We are in this situation because of the clear failure of the Republican movement, in particular, to honour its obligations under the Belfast Agreement, while events take place in Colombia and Castlereagh and in the interface areas of Belfast. That is why the Ulster Unionist Council

Photo of Ms Jane Morrice Ms Jane Morrice NIWC

Order.

I gave the Member an opportunity to continue and he has suggested that the Chair was too lax and allowed Members to go beyond the scope of the debate. I have reminded him already that he is going beyond the scope of the debate also.

Photo of Danny Kennedy Danny Kennedy UUP

I will speak as Chairperson of the Education Committee. The Committee endorses the draft Programme for Government’s recognition of the importance of investing in education and skills.

I welcome the draft Budget announced today, which endorses the commitments outlined in the programme. The Education Committee will wish to scrutinise the programme in detail and ensure that appropriate and challenging targets are set and that adequate funding is allocated to those key priorities.

I am pleased that investment in schools capital building is a priority. In his statement to the House yesterday, the First Minister highlighted that tackling the infrastructure deficit is not only about bricks and mortar; it is about the standard of education that our schools provide. I agree wholeheartedly with his comments.

The Education Committee appreciates the programme’s recognition that the earliest years of learning are the most important. It has stressed consistently that investment in early-years learning is an investment in the future, which will result in long-term savings and reduced need for investment in expensive remedial measures. The Committee welcomes the commitment to begin implementing a new primary school curriculum, which will include a new approach to early-years education. My Committee is carrying out an inquiry into early-years learning, and its report to the Assembly will help to inform Members about the matter.

Special education must be a priority. Therefore, I am disappointed that the target date for the introduction of a special educational needs Bill for Northern Ireland has been revised. The Bill will not be introduced until some time in 2003 or 2004. That matter has been unresolved for too long, and it must be considered urgently.

The Committee’s written response to the Executive Position Report stated that it expected to see targets for advancing the review of post-primary education and the inquiry into teachers’ pay and conditions of service. I read the draft programme quickly, and it did not seem to address those priorities. These obvious gaps must be addressed in the final document.

I should like now to turn to numeracy and literacy, about which the members of the Committee remain anxious. Yesterday, Mr Durkan highlighted the Executive’s commitment to taking action to ensure that our young people leave school with the highest possible standards of literacy and numeracy. Why has the promised launch of a revised literacy and numeracy strategy in schools by September 2002 been put back until September 2003? Why have the targets for numeracy and literacy for 11-year-olds and 14-year-olds in the Department of Education’s draft public service agreement been lowered and the timescale for their achievement extended for two years, from 2004 until 2006?

The targets for achieving level 4 or beyond at Key Stage 2 assessment in English have been changed from 77% to 75%, and in maths from 80% to 77%. Both targets are now to be achieved by 2006 rather than 2004 and, unfortunately, there are other examples. Last year I pointed out that the numeracy and literacy targets had twice been revised downwards. The explanation I received was that information had shown that the targets would not be reached, and that they had, therefore, been revised to make them more realistic. I wonder what the explanation will be this time. I am sorry that the Minister of Education is not in his place. The lowering of targets does not fit with the commitment to tackling the problem that the Executive has outlined, and the Committee for Education will wish to examine the matter very carefully indeed.

There are some other issues that the Committee will wish to look at in more detail, but I should like to conclude by welcoming the recognition in the draft Programme for Government that education contributes to sustainable development. Like you, Madam Deputy Speaker, I took part in a youth parliament debate in the Senate Chamber at which I heard some very articulate students put forward compelling and persuasive arguments on the issue. I trust that political parties other than the Ulster Unionist Party will honour their obligations under the agreement, to ensure that this Programme for Government is implemented by the Administration.

Photo of Peter Robinson Peter Robinson DUP

Madam Deputy Speaker, I shall not test you as others have in relation to the scope of the debate, but I approach the question as a convinced devolutionist who believes that it is always better for those taking the decisions to be answerable to the people for whom they do so. Everyone knows my opposition to the current type of devolution, and we are always glad when new converts come round to our way of thinking. It seems that the closer we get to the election, the more converts we have to our cause. That is as far as I shall stretch you on that subject, Madam Deputy Speaker.

I say that I come as a devolutionist. When I moved into the Department, I saw what was effectively a shambles. The infrastructure deficit was enormous, and it was clear that there was a major backlog. I do not take it easily when people say that it is a failure of devolution. What then was the failure of direct rule before it? Many of the problems that we are having to address have been the problems of direct rule. When I moved into the Department, it was clear that there was no strategy to develop the important issues. Everything was moving on an ad-hoc basis, with a piecemeal approach to policies.

The first thing that we had to do, right across the board, was to set up strategies in every area of responsibility: the regional transportation strategy; the regional development strategy; the water strategy that is currently out for consultation. We have revised the harbours legislation and made progress with the railways. We did not deal only with the strategic guidance that the Department now has to see it into the future; we have started to cost the proposals necessary to take Northern Ireland forward. We went further, also looking to identify where the funds might come from.

Having gone through that exercise, I agree with much of the comment in the Chamber on the massive need for infrastructure investment in Northern Ireland. I am pleased that the draft Programme for Government acknowledges that need. Paragraph 3.7 states:

"The Executive is committed to delivering new and substantial investments in modernising and improving our infrastructure."

However, in his opening statement, the Deputy First Minister said that the draft Budget, which was also proposed today, supported the Programme for Government. I regret that the Budget announced by the Minister of Finance and Personnel fails to address our infrastructure needs. Roads and transport are one of the Executive’s top three priorities, yet the meagre increase of 1·2% in the Department’s budget for the next financial year falls short of what is required to reverse the underinvestment of the direct rule years. That below-inflation increase will damage the long-term competitiveness of the Province. When all other funding sources are taken into account, the increase of 4·3% falls well below the Department’s average. It also falls short of the draft Programme for Government’s requirement to upgrade our infrastructure.

The hope of money from the reinvestment and reform initiative in future will be cold comfort for desperately needed infrastructure across the Province. The plan of "jam tomorrow" fails to meet the urgent requirement of today’s crumbling infrastructure, and it simply stores up problems for the future.

The already overmanned Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister received a 19% increase for one year in the draft Budget. If one adds the money that is not on mainstream funding, it amounts to an increase of over 50% over three years — the largest of any Government Department. That is for a Department that, in my view, shows no visible product. It is difficult not to come to the conclusion that the Executive’s priorities are no longer health, education and transport, but bureaucracy, bureaucracy and more bureaucracy.

The draft Budget and the draft Programme for Government do not match. They fail to make a difference in Northern Ireland; they expose those who say one thing and do another. As they stand, the three-year spending plans fail Northern Ireland and will not withstand the outcome of an Assembly election. When Members make their decisions on the Programme for Government and on the Budget, they must remember that the Budget that they will be voting for is incapable of delivering the Programme for Government, for which they will also be voting. Members will have to live with the consequences of failing to invest in infrastructure while extending Government bureaucracy.

Photo of Mr Mick Murphy Mr Mick Murphy Sinn Féin

How can the Executive propose the draft Programme for Government while there are those in the Ulster Unionist Party who are opposed to change? After all, one half aims at bringing down the Assembly. Where are the strategic objectives to achieve equality, partnership, sustainability and prosperity when there are those in the Executive whose objectives are based on exclusion? David Trimble contradicts himself so much that it is about time he stopped dancing about and got down — [Interruption].

Photo of Danny Kennedy Danny Kennedy UUP

On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. Will you make a ruling on the subject matter of the Member’s speech?

Photo of Ms Jane Morrice Ms Jane Morrice NIWC

Thank you for reminding me, Mr Kennedy. I was about to ask you, Mr Murphy, to restrict yourself to the Programme for Government, which is today’s debate.

Photo of Mr Mick Murphy Mr Mick Murphy Sinn Féin

Unfortunately, Madam Deputy Speaker, this is all part and parcel of the draft Programme for Government. If David Trimble gets his way, the Programme for Government will go out the window. It is gone, judging by what the Unionists did at the weekend.

Is there any point in debating the Programme for Government, if the First Minister is prepared to end it in January?

How can the Assembly square its commitment to ensuring the transfer of power from Westminster to our political institutions, which will make a real and positive difference to economic and social life, with the concerted campaign by Unionists to frustrate and delay change?

Photo of Danny Kennedy Danny Kennedy UUP 4:00 pm, 24th September 2002

On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. Why do you give the Member undue licence?

Photo of Ms Jane Morrice Ms Jane Morrice NIWC

Thank you, Mr Kennedy, for reminding me of my duty. Thank you, Mr Murphy, for making the clear connection between the weekend’s events and the Programme for Government. However, Members’ comments must relate to the Programme for Government. I appreciate that many Members mentioned the weekend’s events during the debate; however, I have corrected Sinn Féin Members and those from the Ulster Unionist Benches who dwelt on the subject. Mr Murphy, please limit your comments to the Programme for Government, regardless of whether it will be around for much longer.

Photo of Mr Mick Murphy Mr Mick Murphy Sinn Féin

There is no going back to Unionist rule; Sinn Féin will not stand for that.

When will the allocation to the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure be finalised, and on what baselines will the targets be set? Will there be a target to increase activity in the creative sector? No imaginative response has been made to the need for increased support of the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure.

I welcome the shift of resources to focus on areas of greatest need and the development of a creative approach to government that puts people’s needs at the core. There must be a partnership approach to government — between social partners, the community and local government.

In targeting social need, the Assembly must deal with poverty, from which some people continue to suffer. Poverty could be tackled effectively by providing proper housing in which children could have the best start in life and where they could grow up to be healthy. If the Executive live up to their commitments in the Good Friday Agreement, our reward will be a peaceful, fair and inclusive community for children to grow up in. Go raibh míle maith agat.

Photo of Seamus Close Seamus Close Alliance

Some three years ago, the first Programme for Government was presented to the House. The passage of time has demonstrated clearly that the first programme was mainly aspirational: how many of its 256 priorities have been delivered? Because of its nature, I believed that the lives of the people of Northern Ireland would be changed only after several years. Unfortunately, I have been proved correct in that respect. Real differences will only happen further down the road.

Unfortunately, the full opportunities that were, and are, afforded by devolution and the deliverance of the full potential of the Good Friday Agreement have been missed because of the failure to bring about real change. The aspirational approach and the attempts to cover too many areas in a specific period have resulted in the butter being spread too thinly, with little benefit for the people of Northern Ireland.

Many reviews have been carried out — reviews into rating, accommodation, the Civil Service, public administration and procurement. Waste issues, usage of assets et cetera are now being considered, and that is all good. However, there has been a slippage of some eight months in the accommodation review and of about five months in the rating review. It is impossible to put a figure on the public administration review slippage because we do not yet know when it will yield results. As a consequence, the people of Northern Ireland question what has happened over the past three years and suggest that those years may well have been wasted.

I, my constituents, and those who support the Good Friday Agreement and devolution, welcome some of the achievements to date. We welcome the commitments, but we want them to be delivered on. We welcome free travel for the elderly, the start on the cancer centre, and the £100 a week towards the cost of nursing care. However, more should have been done in the past three years to improve efficiency, and thus provide the additional resources needed to make a real difference to the lives of the people of Northern Ireland. Three years on, what has been achieved? Our population is still in relatively poor health. Our death rates are higher than other regions in the United Kingdom. Our waiting lists are the longest in Europe; in particular, our waiting lists for inpatient treatment are longer than in any other region in the United Kingdom. That is an indictment of the Executive and those charged with making improvements.

The quality of the drinking water in Northern Ireland is still the lowest in the United Kingdom. Clean drinking water is one of life’s necessities. Our sewerage system is crumbling and decrepit — in short, it stinks. The upshot is problems for the economy.

Most Members will have received letters from the Construction Employers Federation. I have received several letters from large construction firms in my constituency that are concerned about the delay created by the planning moratorium. Previous Programmes for Government contained a promise that the Minister of the Environment would reduce planning backlogs, and that they would be cleared by the end of 2002. A cynic would ask whether one way to get rid of planning backlogs is to introduce a moratorium and to stop granting planning permission. Meetings with the Construction Employers Federation et cetera have taken place, but I understand that decisions were supposed to have been made by the middle of this month. However, that has not been the case. Those who support devolution and who want progress and action can accuse the Executive of procrastinating and of not knowing whether they are coming or going. I use the opportunity presented by this debate to suggest that the Ministers involved solve the problem together so that, once again, construction and the economy can flow.

I have been critical of the Executive. The Executive are not being, and cannot be, blamed for all our faults and weaknesses. However, three years on, I insist that people have the right to ask what real changes have been made. People at least have the right to start seeing the light at the end of a very long tunnel.

I referred to the various reviews taking place, which are suffering a degree of slippage. Even in those reviews, opportunities to gain best benefit for Northern Ireland are lost. For example, we are currently involved in the rating review. There have been meetings and consultations throughout Northern Ireland on the necessary changes. For some reason or other, however, the Executive have failed abysmally to persuade Her Majesty’s Government to permit the Assembly to have tax-varying powers. I am absolutely convinced — and a weight of evidence from the general public is building up — that a change from the iniquitous regional rate to a fair and equitable system of local income tax, based on the ability to pay, could raise the necessary resources and revenue much less painfully and much more efficiently. That could cut out some of the bureaucracy in the layer upon layer of reliefs in the rating system. It would be easier to collect and could produce the goods, but, for some reason, it appears that the Executive have set their face against a progressive tax and continue to insist on, and opt for, a variation of the —

Photo of Ms Jane Morrice Ms Jane Morrice NIWC

I ask the Member to draw his remarks to a close. The time limit was eight minutes, and I have given a little leeway. You may conclude your remarks.

Photo of Seamus Close Seamus Close Alliance

Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. How time flies when one is in good company.

Photo of Sammy Wilson Sammy Wilson DUP

The conclusion lasts five minutes.

Photo of Ms Jane Morrice Ms Jane Morrice NIWC

Order.

You have a few seconds, Mr Close.

Photo of Seamus Close Seamus Close Alliance

I shall omit my comments on the necessity to get public administration right. That has been covered by other Members. One of the big challenges we face is contained in paragraphs 3.2 and 3.3 of our vision for the future in the Programme for Government, and I must pose just one question to the Executive. What exactly —

Photo of Ms Jane Morrice Ms Jane Morrice NIWC

Order. The eight minutes are well and truly up and beyond that.

Photo of Alban Maginness Alban Maginness Social Democratic and Labour Party

Some people have said that the draft Programme for Government is aspirational. Of course it is. It is aspirational until it is put into effect. All Programmes for Government are of that nature. Assembly Members will judge how this Administration puts that Programme for Government into effect.

As Chairperson of the Committee, I welcome the Programme for Government in general terms, and I welcome the specific commitments by the Administration to developing our infrastructure and repairing its neglect. That neglect was made evident on many occasions by myself and by members of the Committee for Regional Development. I welcome the commitment to the transportation strategy and to dealing with the problems that affect the water industry in Northern Ireland. The Water Service should receive the wholehearted support of the Administration. I shall judge the Administration on how it delivers in respect of providing new infrastructures for transportation and water.

The Committee for Regional Development is obliged to scrutinise the Government’s actions and to monitor what the Department does with the money that it receives to carry out the two major projects.

I share Members’ concerns that we may fall short with direct funding. However, we have a wonderful opportunity by way of the reinvestment and reform initiative, which the Deputy First Minister negotiated successfully with the Treasury. The initiative revolutionises the funding of public services in Northern Ireland. I welcome also the establishment of the strategic investment board, which will be critical in the delivery of investment to all Departments, especially the Department for Regional Development. I look forward to its proposals vis-à-vis our long-neglected infrastructure. As the Chairperson of the Committee for Regional Development, I welcome much in the draft Programme for Government, and, regardless of their political perspective, Committee members should give it a general welcome also.

Members are committed to making devolution work, though perhaps from different political perspectives. Mr McCartney seems to be the exception to the rule because, essentially, he is anti-devolutionist. Members can criticise the Government and the Administration, but at least all of us, in the main, support the concept of devolution. Of course, devolution has not delivered immediately; there is much in the pipeline, such as the reviews of rating policy and public administration, both of which are vital to the development of administration in Northern Ireland.

An old uncle once advised me to "take one bite of the elephant at a time, son". Members should heed that advice, because we must operate in a way that gradually implements the things we need to do. The review of rating policy is essential to the future structure of our internal revenue, and the review of public administration is important for efficiency. However, it takes time to implement such measures and to process those reports, and, therefore, I counsel patience.

If we had more political co-operation and harmony, most of our problems would disappear, but, and I tread gently here, the weekend’s events have cast a blight over today’s debate. It seems that, instead of the plug’s being pulled immediately, it will be pulled gradually but inevitably in January. I exhort those who are committed to devolution to think again. To make the Programme for Government work, Members should renew their commitment to the agreement because, no matter what their political perspective, the draft Programme for Government is good.

Having said that, I have at least one serious criticism about the section on community relations: it is not as strong as it could be. I do not detect the necessary urgency required to tackle community relations. Paragraph 4.16 states that

"we will, by December 2003, taking account of a consultation process, have in place a new policy and strategy on good relations…".

That undertaking is not urgent enough to facilitate the development of a good community relations policy that will ameliorate the serious problems on our streets and in our communities. More thought must go into it, because it is at the core of our political problems. We must effect an attitudinal change in political and community values that will transform our community and bring real peace and harmony to our streets.

Therefore, the Executive should reconsider their approach to community relations. I am told that a document was prepared and presented to the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister in January but has not yet seen the light of day. That is a matter of deep regret, if true. It is time that the Executive reassessed their position, and it is time that we had a well-worked-out community relations programme to tackle effectively our most serious and pressing problem. I want to see more urgency and more detail.

Photo of Ms Jane Morrice Ms Jane Morrice NIWC 4:15 pm, 24th September 2002

The Member will draw his remarks to a close.

Photo of Ken Robinson Ken Robinson UUP

I had not intended to speak in this debate but, having listened to its tone, I thought that perhaps I could add some reality to some of the comments that have been made. I do not intend to refer to the events of the weekend because the problems that caused them lie in history. Perhaps some Members can search their consciences about some of the things that they could have done, but failed to do, to help the process.

Turning to education, sub-priority 1 of the draft Programme for Government aims to give our children the best start in life. I welcome that. I am sure that Members would not deny children that start. I commend in particular the development of programmes such as Sure Start, which will give children who live in areas of multiple deprivation a firm foundation for future progress on which they must build. The deprivation of certain areas, particularly in the city, has already been commented on.

I welcome the proposed changes to the early years curriculum, because that is another vital building block in our education system. It will help underachieving primary schools, in particular. All of those are necessary building blocks if we are to build a significant and viable second-level education in the future.

When a school has adopted one of those programmes to help it raise its standards, and those standards have been raised and recognised by the inspectorate, the school may find that, instead of being rewarded for its success, its extra financial and staffing resources are reduced. That reinforces the problem. In such situations, we must ask why we try to improve things.

Skills are important in the curriculum, particularly transferable skills. The examination of the curriculum as it exists, and as it might exist, is welcome. If these skills are transferable, they become relevant to the needs of employers and training agencies, and our economic future depends on them. Sub-priority 4 of the draft programme refers specifically to those needs. It is on these skills that our future prosperity depends.

Looking at the wording of the enterprise, trade and investment sub-priorities, I think that they have missed a great opportunity — an opportunity that we would not have sought, but that is being thrust upon us. We have suffered a downturn in the high-tech and telecommunications sector, particularly in east Antrim. That sector has a highly skilled workforce that is currently underemployed or unemployed. It is incumbent on the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment to seize that opportunity.

The Department talks about seizing the opportunity, and it must ensure that the critical mass of research and development personnel and those with high-tech skills are used as entrepreneurs to act as springboards to launch us into new unexplored areas of technology.

On the subject of special education, I welcome the recognition in paragraph 6.8 of the importance of special educational needs provision. That educational area has been neglected for a long time, and capital infrastructure must be upgraded. We must also focus on the needs of those young people who leave special education between the ages of 16 and 19 and for whom adequate onward provision into the Jobskills programme, along with preparation to sustain them in adult life, is not available. I bring that matter to the attention of the relevant authority.

I trust that the programme will not be deflected on sub-priority 2 in that section, because of the ministerial focus on the Burns Report and all that flows from it, but will ensure that that firm foundation of high quality early years learning and properly funded primary education will be maintained. Other Members have referred to the importance of primary education. That is the core of our education system, and it is not funded properly . I am concerned that significant sums have still not been moved in that direction. If core funding, core staffing and a relevant curriculum can be brought together to address children’s need, both at primary and secondary level, we will have a firm foundation on which to move forward. That will ensure that the band of well-qualified school leavers, who currently exceed the attainment levels of their peer group in England and Wales, can be expanded.

In paragraph 6.19 growth in enrolments in integrated schools and Irish-medium education is portrayed as desirable, and I do not demur in relation to that suggestion. However, I am concerned about the impact of the enhanced status of those schools upon the management of the maintained and controlled schools sectors. The Department should ensure that there is equity of treatment for all children in all types of schools.

In 2.2 the programme states that

"a downturn in economic fortunes can have serious social consequences."

In east and south Antrim, serious social consequences are being experienced, and I ask that the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment and the Minister for Regional Development seriously consider how that problem can be tackled.

Extra funding was allocated to the Health Service. However, because of the convoluted management structures, it appears to be a bureaucratic black hole. No matter how much money we pour into it, no significant difference will be made unless we tackle those structures.

The condition of our infrastructure is abysmal. Some of the priority schemes seem to have more to do with political geography than with need and strategic issues. I refer specifically to the A2 between Newtownabbey and Carrickfergus — a road that carries more traffic than parts of our motorway system. It is the vital artery upon which Carrickfergus and its commercial expansion depend, yet the short stretch of one-and-a-half miles is not in the Programme for Government.

Sewerage and water infrastructure present an equally sorry state in east Antrim. The recent flooding episodes and the increasing planning permissions that are being granted in the area point that up. The document refers to a "clean, green" image, and I like to think that a "clean" image could be achieved in east Antrim. It concerned me somewhat that at least one Member commented that we would be expected to take on a "green" image.

In east Antrim, industrial pollution is a problem along with car emissions, and if the proper infrastructure were in place, those problems would be close to being resolved.

Photo of Ms Jane Morrice Ms Jane Morrice NIWC

The Member will draw his comments to a close.

Photo of Ken Robinson Ken Robinson UUP

Finally, our areas of special scientific interest and areas of outstanding natural beauty are under constant threat from the Department, the very one that is supposed to protect them. I have great concerns for my constituency.

Photo of Sammy Wilson Sammy Wilson DUP 4:30 pm, 24th September 2002

As usual, and as we would expect, this debate has become a backslapping exercise by those in the pro-agreement parties. Those Members use the Programme for Government as an opportunity to tell people how wonderful the agreement is, how it has delivered better services to people in Northern Ireland, and how much better life is as a result of this institution and its peculiarities. However, sometimes, reality shone through. A few Members have voiced their opposition, including Seamus Close, Bob McCartney and Peter Robinson. Even Alban Maginness admitted that we have been a bit heavy on reviews and a bit slow in delivering. As some old wise man told him, you should "take one bite of the elephant at a time".

I am afraid that the evidence is that the elephant is not even getting a wee nip, let alone a bite, taken out of it.

David Trimble promised his party, and Mark Durkan promised the Assembly that, over the term of this Administration, Assembly costs would be neutral because of savings on bureaucracy in other areas. We are not even at the starting point, and, as a result of some of the measures that have been introduced, we are adding still more bureaucracy.

(Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr McClelland] in the Chair)

I wish to concentrate on education, a subject on which Ken Robinson touched. If each Department followed education’s example, we would see the same abysmal failure. Next year, we shall spend £85 million more on education than we did this year. For that, we would expect something more to be delivered. However, many of the measures that the Minister of Education promised last year have not yet been delivered. When we compare the draft Programme for Government with last year’s programme, we see that the targets that were set last year have not only been downgraded, but put back for two years. Those are vital targets, not figures dreamt up by someone in the Department, and they affect the lives of ordinary youngsters.

For example, targets were set for literacy and numeracy levels. By this year, 77% of children were supposed to have reached level 4 of Key Stage 2 in English and maths. That has now been downgraded. The target for the number of children passing their GCSEs at grades A to C has been downgraded and put back two years. The target for reducing the number of youngsters leaving school with no GCSEs has been downgraded and put back two years. The target for reducing the number of pupils who have poor attendance records at primary and secondary schools has been downgraded and put back two years. The target for reducing the number of schoolchildren with multiple suspensions has been downgraded and put back two years. I could go on.

Every target that was set last year has been reduced and put back two years. However, the Minister of Education will be given £85 million more to spend on delivering the service. We must ask whether the Minister needs a caning, or whether the Executive need a caning for voting to give him more money when he tells them that he will deliver less. This is hardly a success for the Administration. We give the Minister more, and we get back less. Of course, that "less" means fewer youngsters leaving school equipped for life; more youngsters wandering the streets because of multiple suspensions or bad attendance, and worse conditions in our schools.

The document is full of contradictions. For example, Ken Robinson referred to rationalisation. We have been told that rationalisation is needed in the educational interest of pupils. With that in mind, you would think that there are too many schools and that we need to reduce their number; the number of places should be reduced, and that should be the aim of the Department — not a bit of it. In the same document we read that the Minister is going to spend more money on providing more Irish-medium schools.

The latest Irish-medium school, which opened in September 2002 and caters for eight pupils, cost the Department and the Southern Education and Library Board over £300,000 — that is what is meant by wasting resources. More Irish-medium schools and integrated schools are to be built. In a recent reply to a question in the House, the Minister said that integrated schools got 20% of the resources last year, though on the basis of the needs assessment they deserved only 5%. It seems that the trend is upward. What happened to the idea of rationalisation of schools? Why build more schools if you are saying that you need to cut the number of schools? These are the types of contradictions that are in the Programme for Government.

This is not a success story: this is an example of the Executive pandering to Ministers in the interests of keeping the ship afloat. Regardless of whether Ministers are delivering, the Executive will hand out money to them. That is one of the reasons why I disagree with Seamus Close about tax-raising powers. God help the people of Northern Ireland if the Assembly ever gets tax-raising powers.

I could have talked about other Departments, but I have cited one example from one Department. Money has been squandered already, and we should not be contemplating giving more powers to Ministers, and to the Assembly, to take more money out of the pockets of taxpayers to be squandered in the way in which the Programme for Government illustrates.

Photo of Séan Neeson Séan Neeson Alliance

I wish to make some comments on behalf of the Committee for Enterprise, Trade and Investment. First, I welcome the commitments given in the draft Programme for Government announced by the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister yesterday. When coupled with Dr Farren’s Budget statement today, it becomes apparent that, it is to be hoped, there is a commitment to joined-up Government in the Assembly.

The Programme for Government highlights the positive economic factors currently underwriting the local economy: comparatively low unemployment; high employment levels; increased manufacturing output and improved levels of gross domestic product for the local population. However, I must echo the points raised by Ken Robinson in relation to the downturn in the IT industry, particularly in the east Antrim area. That issue has to be taken on board by the Minister.

Undoubtedly those factors are also assisted by the relative stability of our political structures and the recognition that devolution is working. The positive economic indicators mean that the Executive can be more proactive and forward looking in dealing with the problems in our society for which we are responsible. I share all of the concerns voiced by Alban Maginness on the need for greater focus in dealing with community relations, which is not really addressed in the Programme for Government as well as it should be.

This time of relative economic prosperity should not be wasted; the bedrock should be laid now to avoid some of the worst aspects of life when, at some hypothetical time in the future, the economy is less buoyant. I remember one of the big issues that we had to deal with in the last Assembly of 1982-86 — where I held the same position that I hold in the present Assembly — was that unemployment was running at 20%. That was a major problem. Neither the Executive nor the Assembly should be complacent about the present situation.

The draft Programme for Government recognises that infrastructural problems exist, and those problems must be overcome for there to be an effective and competitive economy, so I give a guarded welcome to the continued commitment to the reinvestment and reform initiative, and I hope to see that assist in the continuing development of the economy.

I share the view contained in yesterday’s document that the Executive have a proactive role in certain areas of governance and that, in respect of the economy, the most effective role is that of a skilled facilitator. In the light of that, I applaud the Executive’s decision, and commend particularly the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment, to put the money allocated for inward investment projects on a more strategic footing. To agree that inward investment projects should be funded from within an allocated range and, due to the possibility of underspend on certain occasions, that this vital area should be given priority in monitoring is radical, strategic and forward looking. I suspect that that would not have been agreed in the days of direct rule.

With regard to the specific proposals in the draft Programme for Government, I endorse many of the suggestions contained in the "Securing a Competitive Economy" priority. We must continue with the commitment to invest in research and development. Our economy must compete with other blue-chip economies in bioengineering, aeronautics and information technology. To be at the cutting edge there will require financial support and other commitments from the Executive.

Paragraph 7.7 lists the sub-priorities for this overall priority. They make a challenging and aspirational shopping list. We need better infrastructure to integrate the various planning processes and to be entrepreneurial, creative, innovative and competitive as a society. We must develop the undoubted potential of tourism, untie certain shackles of regulation and protect, enhance and promote the environment.

To achieve what is set out will require a strategic and focused approach. It will be challenging and will require a team effort. I stress that that is important because when we are dealing with the bread-and-butter issues in our Committee — and I hope in the other Committees too — there is a genuine attempt to deal effectively with the issues at hand, and a team effort will be required. Responsibility does not lie with one Minister or Department alone. Departments must continue to work collaboratively and do more to remove the silo mindset.

We in the Assembly must also play our part in scrutinising the Departments’ work and ensuring that the challenging targets contained in the draft Programme for Government are met. The Committee for Enterprise, Trade and Investment will not shirk from that task.

Photo of Prof Monica McWilliams Prof Monica McWilliams NIWC

I too support many of the proposals in the draft Programme for Government. As yesterday, I almost feel like I am revising for an exam without being sure if it will ever take place, particularly given the announcement last weekend. As I said yesterday, many of the targets are now in question. Some of the legislation given a First Stage reading yesterday may not now progress because of the decisions that may be taken in January.

I am concerned about the message that we are sending to people if they are attempting to plan for the future, particularly the plans around the workforce initiatives.

The Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister has been doing needs and effectiveness evaluations; it has been looking at the workforce in many areas and making proposals and recommendations. However, all of that may now be up in the air.

I rarely find myself in agreement with Sammy Wilson in his choice of targets. However, if this Programme for Government is about anything, it should be about the future of our children and young people. I am concerned about the number of young people who wander our streets — those with poor school attendance or multiple suspensions — there is an overlap between that and antisocial behaviour. I am concerned also that the targets in last year’s Programme for Government have gone down, and not up, for that group of children. I am concerned also that those young people — most of them in their early teens — merit only a few lines in the Programme for Government. This is the draft programme, and the responsibility lies with the Minister of Education, or the Executive, to reconsider the message that they are sending out to youth and to youth workers. We are asking for only a 2% increase in attendance among youth organisations to raise it from 32% to 34%.

We have many innovative projects that we should be sustaining and putting into the Programme for Government. It not only involves children attending youth clubs: it involves outreach youth workers going out onto the streets, finding initiatives to attract young people to keep them away from the antisocial behaviour that we are told is on the increase. I am extremely disillusioned with that section of the Programme for Government if that is the message that we are sending out.

It is good to see that there are some preventative programmes in the Health Service for our young people. There will be 2,000 extra places on Sure Start. However, many on Sure Start schemes do not know whether the schemes will be in place after March 2003 when their funding runs out. There is an anomaly: they will be given 2,000 extra places by December 2003 but they are not sure whether the programmes will be in place.

We should be encouraging these positive preventative childcare programmes instead of putting children into residential care. It is good to see projects on foster care and adoption. However, those targets should be increased, especially for time out and support.

I have just come from the Health Committee’s inquiry into child protection at which social workers said that they were under enormous stress at present. There are 300 unallocated places in one trust, which social workers cannot allocate because they are under so much pressure. Nevertheless, we often hear about tragedies, such as the recent death of baby Jasmine McGowan and in which social workers were involved. That poses enormous questions about social services.

We must not take our eyes off the ball by constantly talking about acute care and the modernisation of hospitals while forgetting about the great deal of preventative work that must be done by those in primary care, community care and especially in social services.

I am concerned that there is still no mention of a central maternity hospital — a women’s centred hospital for the Belfast area. If the Hayes Report is implemented, the Downpatrick Maternity Hospital and the Lagan Valley Hospital will close, and there will be no anaesthetics at the Mater Hospital. Therefore, many more babies will have to be placed in one hospital. It is open to question whether that will be the Royal Maternity Hospital or the Jubilee Hospital — it does not matter. We must know from the Programme for Government that there will be a new hospital in the next few years; there should have been a line or two about that. Many women were better looked after 20 years ago than they are today.

A message must be send out to the doctors who are still boycotting the local health and social care groups that commissioning of services will happen. The draft Programme for Government simply states that that may happen in the next year. To be able to say that there is a target for a start to the commissioning of services would be a positive thing.

Sammy Wilson was critical about Ministers, but made no comment about the Minister for Regional Development. The Department for Regional Development will not begin to introduce detailed alternative funding proposals until September 2003. It will take an entire year to find funding proposals to support transportation, water and sewerage infrastructure. I have no doubt that other Members have commented on that. It is important that a message be sent out that those are some of the major problems that we will tackle. However, we will be sitting in the next Assembly before any proposals will even be seen.

I am concerned that there are few details in the draft Programme for Government about careers guidance. The task force report on long-term unemployment was disappointing; its recommendations speak for themselves. I have previously questioned the practice of civil servants being placed on task forces rather than people from outside organisations being brought in. The Department for Employment and Learning has made only limited recommendations about careers advice, especially for those who have literacy and numeracy problems.

Photo of Dr Joe Hendron Dr Joe Hendron Social Democratic and Labour Party 4:45 pm, 24th September 2002

I apologise for my absence during the debate. The Committee for Health, Social Services and Public Safety has been meeting all afternoon.

I have studied the section of the draft Programme for Government that deals with health, and I welcome the fact that additional money is being injected into the health budget. At a time of competing demands, it is a welcome recognition of the problems facing health. The emphasis must be on ensuring that the money is invested wisely and used effectively. The Comptroller and Auditor General should have responsibility for the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety. It is well known that he has responsibility for only nine of the 10 Departments.

Although the money is welcome, not all of it is new money. The funds for the cancer centre have already been announced. The emphasis on reinvestment and reform is important, because the Health Service is crying out for investment. There is also the matter of family care services. People are living longer, and those dreadful words "bed blocking" are disrespectful to elderly people in hospital. However, there are not enough places for them and if nursing homes and residential homes were opened up to make way for people who do not require any further hospital treatment, that could solve the problem of bed blocking and waiting lists.

Monica McWilliams mentioned the Committee for Health, Social Services and Public Safety’s inquiry into the protection of children. It would be inappropriate to go into the detail of that major issue. However, it is heartbreaking to speak to social workers, paediatricians and others who deal with the protection of children, and with the lack of resources in all four health and social services boards.

I feel strongly about the minimal funding that goes to health promotion, considering the costs of the whole Health Service. In paragraph 5.4, the draft Programme for Government states that

"Evidence is accumulating to support the view that, if we improve matters now, we will need to spend less later".

That is not new evidence. The importance of looking after oneself has been known for a long time. When I was a child, people used to say "an apple a day keeps the doctor away". That may be a slight exaggeration, but good living and eating properly every day are important for young children. However, that message does not always get through to families. It is more difficult for families who live in social deprivation to concentrate on those matters, and the better-off families seem to have the finance and the ability to pay more attention to that important part of health.

It could be said that we are training our children from an early age to develop heart disease. That is well known by people who look at the coronary arteries of young people. Everyone knows about the high incidence of heart disease in Northern Ireland. Northern Ireland’s first positron emission tomography scanner was recently introduced at the Royal Victoria Hospital, and the Minister, Bairbre de Brún, was present at the launch. She has always recognised the need for that machine, and I have mentioned it many times in the House.

Everyone knows what X-rays, CAT scanners and MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) scanners are; positron emission tomography is at the height of that technology. That technology is available to the people of Northern Ireland — there is already a machine at Blackrock in the South of Ireland — to diagnose heart disease and certain cancers, but, sadly, it operates only one day a week. I am not trying to lecture the Health Minister, because I know that she has put in a bid to the Executive programme funds. That scanner must operate seven days a week.

Paragraph 5·6 of the draft Programme for Government states:

"The rationale for action is clear: many conditions — such as heart disease, stroke, some cancers, dental decay — are linked to our environment and the way we live."

That is true, but when one considers heart disease, strokes and cancer together, diabetes comes to mind. There is hardly an extended family in Northern Ireland that is not affected by diabetes. Diabetes sufferers and those with a family history of diabetes — who are potential sufferers — are more prone to heart disease, strokes and certain forms of cancer. There was a major debate on diabetes in the Chamber last year, and the motion was passed unanimously. It is important that health recommendations contained in the draft Programme for Government are taken on board, because diabetes affects almost every family in Northern Ireland sooner or later. I am pleased that the Minister is in the Chamber for this debate.

Photo of Mark Robinson Mark Robinson DUP

In welcoming the opportunity to speak in this debate today, I would like to concentrate on the issues of housing and community infrastructure by examining the relevant proposals which have been laid out in the draft Programme for Government. The issue of housing is an issue that affects every person in Northern Ireland, but unfortunately in our society many people do not have access to a warm and comfortable home. I am quoting directly from the document:

"We will ensure that everyone has the opportunity to access decent, affordable housing".

Housing policy must be relative to the people and to the locality in its targeting, and it must be responsive to local needs, aiming at all times to helping those in most need.

Good housing provided well is crucial, and I welcome the fact that the Government are committed to making this a fundamental objective. A good home is a basic human right, and no one in the twenty-first century should have to live in sub-standard housing, but, unfortunately, this is a reality for many.

Statistics show that there are 44,000 unfit properties in Northern Ireland. Some 14,000 properties do not have central heating, and 10,000 are in urgent need of major repairs and improvements. These figures are staggering and, unfortunately, show that housing need here is, in fact, extremely high. The main aim when drafting housing policy should be to target those who are socially excluded and the most vulnerable in society. This objective must not get lost among pointless red tape and bureaucracy. The draft Programme for Government says that

"We want to make appropriate, accessible and high quality housing available to all, especially those in greatest social need."

In examining the provision of social housing, we have only to look at the housing waiting lists to discover that the requirement for social housing is high. The waiting list has been fairly steady at 20,000 to 21,000 over most of the past decade, although it must be noted that there has been a pronounced rise in the past three years. It is of great importance, therefore, that the supply and demand chain flows at all times and demand is not afforded the opportunity to outnumber supply.

The Government must take into account the fact that there will always be those who cannot afford to enter the housing market and must, therefore, seek to strike a balance between the housing stock which the Housing Executive intends to sell off and the building of new social housing. Current levels show that fewer than 2,000 new social housing units are being built by housing associations each year, while there is an annual loss of over 4,000 Housing Executive properties, so it is obvious that supply is falling short of demand. Studies show that planned levels of housing investment in new build social housing may not be sufficient to meet need over the next decade, which proves that urgent changes must be made to accommodate the demand.

The issue of housing is a major problem in my constituency of South Belfast, in terms of poor condition and disrepair. In fact, extreme levels of deprivation are evident there. As the city of Belfast prepares to bid for the coveted title of European capital of culture in 2008, there is a very sad and disturbing reality behind the glamorous façade of the city centre. This is the reality of traditional working-class communities living with severe deprivation.

Turning to community infrastructure, sub-priority 7 in the Programme for Government says:

"We will renew our most disadvantaged urban and rural neighbourhoods, building community participation."

The Department for Social Development has identified many core wards in South Belfast as suffering from acute levels of deprivation. These areas are characterised by a lack of inward investment, a skills deficit and a strong dependency culture. It is important, therefore, that these areas are identified and resources are mobilised to tackle the extreme levels of social exclusion and deprivation. Investment in these areas will enable fragmented communities to come together and form a strong community infrastructure. It is imperative that these smaller communities do not become engulfed in the bigger picture. If we are to build a city, which is strong, vibrant and worthy of the title European capital of culture, we must take a bottom-up approach and provide the cement to keep our communities together.

I would like to conclude by touching briefly on finance. It is obvious that all Government Departments are struggling with the resources available to implement their strategies, and, unfortunately, many projects are on the back-burner due to a lack of finance. I therefore ask the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister what commitment they will give to ensure that the necessary resources are put in place to enable the ideals in the draft Programme to be achieved.

Photo of Bairbre de Brún Bairbre de Brún Sinn Féin 5:00 pm, 24th September 2002

Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Agus mé ag labhairt ar an dréachtChlár Rialtais seo, ar ndóigh beidh mé ag díriú m’airde ar na ceisteanna sin a bhaineann le mo Roinn.

Ba mhaith liom, áfach, an deis seo a fhreastal le haontú leis an bhéim leanúnach atá an Coiste Feidhmiúcháin a chur ar an eisiamh sóisialta. Is trí chomhpháirtíocht éifeachtach, ag obair sa Choiste Feidhmiúcháin agus leis an earnáil dheonach agus leis an earnáil phobail, a thig linn an dul chun cinn atá riachtanach a dhéanamh.

Is léir ó mhórán dár gcuid seirbhísí na deacrachtaí a chruthaigh an easpa infheistíochta san am a chuaigh thart, ach is sa tSeirbhís Sláinte is follasaigh iad. Ní thabharfaimid aghaidh ar na ceisteanna seo tríd a bheith ag útamáil leo ag an imeall. Tá clár de dhíth orainn a chuirfeas athrach bunúsach i bhfeidhm, agus caithfimid acmhainní a dhíriú ar na háiteanna is mó a bhfuil gá leo.

In commenting on the draft Programme for Government, I want to concentrate on the issues that are directly relevant to my Department. However, I personally endorse the Executive’s continuing emphasis on the need to tackle the problem of social exclusion. Progress can be made only through meaningful partnership between the Executive and the voluntary and community sectors.

The difficulties created by lack of investment in the past are clearly visible in many services, but they are most obvious in health. We will not address those issues by merely tinkering around the edges. We need a programme of fundamental change, and we must target resources where they are most needed.

I agree entirely with the Minister of Finance and Personnel’s comments that we must make the most effective use of all resources and, in particular, with his emphasis on the need to cut out waste, reduce bureaucracy and ensure that taxpayers can see that they are getting value for money.

In recent years my Department, with the active support of boards and trusts, has placed considerable importance on measures to ensure effectiveness in the use of resources and to improve overall financial management of resources. The success of the new management arrangements is reflected in the break-even position achieved last year, and the effectiveness of our services in comparison with those in England was confirmed objectively by the needs and effectiveness study. More can be achieved, and the reform plans, which will be prepared by the end of October, will provide a focus for that work.

"Working for a Healthier People" remains a key Programme for Government priority, and we all welcome that. That chapter identifies some of the key fundamental changes that we must make, including the cross-departmental approach in investing for health, the future restructuring of hospital services, enhanced emphasis on standards of clinical and social care governance, proposals for new organisational structures and the development of primary and community care services.

The key test of the Programme for Government will be the new, improved outcomes and targets, which are set out in the text and the associated public service agreement. The provisions of the draft Budget will enable me to tackle some of the most pressing demands on services, and that is reflected in the specific targets in my Department’s public service agreement. I am aware, however, that that will take us only part of the way towards addressing increasing needs for hospital and community services.

I will be able to introduce a series of interrelated measures to reduce some of the pressures on hospitals. Those include allocating additional resources to treat more people in hospitals and, in particular, to expand renal, cancer and cardiac services. I will also be able to support an additional 300 people in community settings to prevent inappropriate admissions to hospital and address waiting in the community. It will also be important to expand the range and volume of schemes and initiatives to give vulnerable people short periods of care outside the hospital environment and to support the development of primary care services.

The resources will also allow me to take some steps to strengthen community provision for people with mental health difficulties and learning disabilities who are currently in long-stay hospitals and expand the Sure Start scheme for deprived children and their families.

Last, but by no means least, the resources will support the implementation of the proposals in the ‘Best Practice — Best Care’ report, which will establish a framework to raise the quality of services provided to the community and tackle issues of poor performance across health and personal social services.

The problem is that over 90% of the increase in resources for the health budget is required simply to meet the inescapable cost of maintaining existing services and commitments already announced in the reinvestment and reform initiative and the Executive programme funds, which support valuable enhancements to existing services, including much needed hospital capacity.

The scale of existing commitments is such that £27 million is available next year for new service development. That will enable the modest development of services, but it is not enough to meet increasing demands and to provide the level and quality of service to which we aspire. It does little to address the £200 million funding gap between here and England. Although I welcome the additionality as regards the resources made available, the Programme for Government enables only limited improvements to existing services as part of the overall settlement. Those represent only 15% of my highest-priority service development bids.

Robert McCartney and Monica McWilliams asked about local health and social care groups. Those groups have been formally established and are appointing permanent chairpersons and managers. They are already forging ahead with their agenda to develop primary care services and to take responsibility for commissioning secondary care services. My target is for some groups to begin the commissioning of some services from April 2003.

The number of people waiting for treatment is a huge concern. However, I plan to continue to expand hospital capacity over the next one to two years, and the reinvestment and reform initiative has financed an additional 100 beds. I shall then be able to improve cardiology services and cardiac surgery. I shall invest more in community and intermediate care to help to avoid hospital admissions where possible and to provide for patients’ earlier discharge. I envisage, first and foremost, ensuring that the position does not deteriorate further as year-on-year demands increase. As the additional capacity and other improvements in hospitals begin to bear fruit, fewer people will have to wait.

The Rev William McCrea and Mr Joe Byrne mentioned hospital services in their constituencies. After a discussion in the Executive, I issued the consultation paper ‘Developing Better Services: Modernising Hospitals and Reforming Structures’ on 12 June. The paper sets out an agenda for a major modernisation of the acute hospital system and proposals for the reform of the administrative structure of health and personal social services. Consultation will continue until 31 October 2002. No decisions have been reached on any of the proposals, including the position of Mid-Ulster Hospital. All information arising from the consultation will be considered carefully, and I hope that final decisions on acute services will be taken before the end of the year.

Photo of John Dallat John Dallat Social Democratic and Labour Party

Most domestic issues have been mentioned, so I will focus on international relations as outlined on page 83 of the draft Programme for Government. I welcome the commitment to strengthening our relationships with North America, and I acknowledge the fine work of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister in that respect. I am sorry that Mr McCartney is not present to hear me praise the Ulster Unionists.

Given the quality of the research and development carried out in our universities, and the investment in our science parks, we are well placed to attract new, well-paid jobs of a sustainable nature in the medium and long term. However, I worry that the present political uncertainty will do nothing to attract inward investors.

I turn now to our international relations in another direction: the Third World. I ask the Minister to consider seriously the benefits of such partnerships, which, I admit, are more likely to be outgoing, but not exclusively so. I believe passionately that we can learn much from Third-World countries in Africa and elsewhere about how to prioritise needs and to respect our environment.

In a global village in which many of our decisions affect people in other parts of the world, it seems appropriate that we should build strong links with the Third World. Last week, my Ulster Unionist colleague David McClarty and I spent a few days with Zomba Council in Malawi, where the average life expectancy has now dropped from 43 years to 37 years, and where half the children will die before the age of five, as a result of Aids, cholera or malaria.

Since our society is renowned for its generosity, it seems appropriate that the Assembly should encourage linkages, which would mean the exchange of technical information; training; sponsorship, and the resourcing of materials to equip hospitals that have no drugs and schools that have no books. Much could be done through local councils, universities and other public services, which would welcome the encouragement of international dimensions.

Malawi is not the only poor country in the world — but it is one of the five poorest. My colleague, David McClarty, and I have seen the poverty, hunger and disease that are there. We have also seen the country’s abandonment by the developed world. The cold war is long over, and Malawi is no longer of strategic importance, so it is forgotten.

We have also seen the opportunities to tackle the problems in Malawi and give hope to people who are desperately trying to help themselves and are crying out for our co-operation. They do not want aid: they want partnerships and help.

Today we discussed the need for improving standards of education in Northern Ireland. In the past week I have seen overcrowded schools with no books, no pens and no desks, yet there are people with a burning desire to learn.

We also discussed the need for a better Health Service in Northern Ireland. I have seen hospitals and clinics that have no drugs or equipment yet there is a commitment to address the needs of the sick and the dying.

In Northern Ireland, universities and hospitals are well placed to create linkages with the people of Malawi and other African nations, which are experiencing famine that is sometimes caused by political corruption, inclement weather or crop failure.

To discuss the draft Programme for Government without including our aspirations and commitment to the Third World seems incomplete. The Assembly has an All-Party Group on International Development, which was initiated by my Colleague, Carmel Hanna. I would like to see the input of that group, as well as its work and encouragement for linkages with the Third World, come to the forefront of the Assembly.

Under the heading "Developing Relations — North/ South, East/West and Internationally", I respectfully suggest that we detail our vision for the Third World and set about implementing it over the next few years. To some people that may be a fairy tale; however, it is a plea to extend the principles of partnership to some of the most wonderful people I have had the privilege to meet. When the Programme for Government comes before the Assembly again, I hope that we have definite proposals for international involvement.

Photo of Mr James Leslie Mr James Leslie UUP 5:15 pm, 24th September 2002

My Colleague, Denis Haughey, and I are pleased to close the debate. We will respond to as many points as possible. It has been a useful and informative debate. We listened with interest to the wide range of contributions from Members, which focused on the wide range of aspects in the draft Programme for Government.

The document was agreed by the Executive only last week and was presented to the Assembly yesterday. As Members will be aware, we amended the timetable this year to bring the debate forward to give the maximum possible period for consultation before the Programme for Government is finalised in December. The consultation period gives individual Ministers, and the Executive as a whole, more time to consider the points raised today and those that will be raised during the consultation period.

Although individual Committees are considering the Programme for Government, Denis Haughey and I will oversee wider consultation with the Civic Forum, local government and social partners in business, trade unions, and the voluntary and community sectors.

As the Deputy First Minister stated in his opening remarks, we will be taking this forward as a joint venture with the Minister of Finance and Personnel. That will ensure that the draft Programme for Government and the draft Budget, which supports it, are considered together.

It is important that we do that, because the Programme for Government and the Budget are directly linked. Budget allocations support the programme’s policies and activities. We must not commit to actions that we cannot afford.

It is a question of priorities, and we must make choices. Inevitably, some of those choices are difficult. We must explain the prioritisation and decisions that we have made. That is a key aspect of having a locally elected Administration in charge, with locally accountable Ministers taking decisions on how to make best use of the resources available in order to address local needs.

In the draft programme, we have set out to produce a strategic and forward-looking document. We want to ensure continuity and build on the progress and achievements that have been delivered since devolution. However, by the same token, we are not afraid of change. The draft programme makes clear the Executive’s intention to reform how public services are funded, organised and delivered in a way that will make a difference to the lives of people in Northern Ireland.

As both the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister have made clear, this is a draft Programme for Government. This debate, and the responses to consultation on both the draft Programme for Government and the draft Budget, will lead to a revised and, we trust, improved document that we will bring back to the Assembly at the beginning of December 2002. As Members will be aware, the Programme for Government is derived from the Belfast Agreement, in which there is a requirement for the Assembly to agree on a Programme for Government and Budget each year.

That is not the only commitment in the Belfast Agreement. Perhaps some of the Members present should familiarise themselves with a range of other commitments in the agreement, some of which are yet to be fulfilled. If, as a result of the lack of fulfilment of those requirements, there is potential uncertainty in the future, it is all the more important to address those outstanding matters, to have Northern Ireland’s affairs in good order, and to have a clear road map laid out in the Programme for Government as to what the needs and aspirations are for the good government of Northern Ireland.

I want to cover in detail some of the points that were raised in the debate. I will be followed by my Colleague, Denis Haughey. We have divided the debate into different subject areas, rather than into Members’ contributions. One matter that falls to me to discuss is education, on which a considerable number of points were made. During the course of the debate there were guest appearances from the Minister for Regional Development and the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety. When the points on education started to build up, I found myself hoping that the Minister of Education would show up and deal with some of them. I am grateful to the Minister of Health for her contribution, although my Colleague will be the greater beneficiary of that.

Members expressed concern about low standards of literacy and numeracy. That is a problem with which all Members are familiar. I emphasise to the House that the problem is exercising the attention not only of the Northern Irish Administration, but of Administrations across the UK. A wide-ranging strategy is in place to raise literacy and numeracy standards. We recognise that they are key to the rest of the school curriculum and to equipping people for the world of work. The strategy includes early intervention programmes for pupils who are struggling with reading, a major programme of in-service support and training for teachers, and new support material for teachers.

In conjunction with its educational partners, the Department of Education has carried out an internal review of the literacy and numeracy strategy, and recognises that there is a need for a more co-ordinated approach in relation to the implementation of the strategy, alongside those for a school support programme, curriculum and assessment arrangements, and educational technology. The next stage is to make adjustments to the current policy and to assess what more needs to be done to reduce the number of young people who are failing to achieve basic levels of literacy and numeracy. New arrangements should be in place in schools by September 2003.

Public service agreement targets for the number of 11-year-olds who are likely to achieve level 4 in Key Stage 2 assessments have been reduced from 77% in English and 80% in maths to 75% in English and 77% in maths. The targets for 2006 reflect the expected level of progress that is achievable with the resources available.

Photo of Mr James Leslie Mr James Leslie UUP

If Mr Kennedy can bear with me, I will deal with his point shortly.

Ms Gildernew mentioned essential skills. The findings of the International Adult Literacy Survey, in which Northern Ireland was benchmarked against most of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries, indicate that 24% of adults here, 260,000 people, perform at the lowest level of literacy. That partly relates to the matters that concern Mr Kennedy. Research shows that those poor skills levels have serious consequences for individuals, families, society and the economy. That is why the Minister of Education launched a consultation paper on adult literacy aimed at improving the levels of essential skills throughout Northern Ireland. The draft Programme for Government sets out the Executive’s intention to support an additional 2,500 people to update their essential skills by March 2004.

The issue of literacy brings me to lifelong learning and help for the most disadvantaged, issues that Mr Billy Hutchinson touched on. The draft Programme for Government sets out our commitments to education for all, from the earliest years throughout their lives. Contrary to what Mr Hutchinson said, our thinking on those issues is joined-up. The interdepartmental working group on early years ensures that policies such as those involving Sure Start, pre-school education, childcare and the role of the children’s commissioner work in harmony. The draft programme makes clear our commitment to early-years education. A range of work on lifelong learning is in progress, and I will deal with that later.

Mr Kennedy raised the issue of targets. The public service agreement targets have been revised in the draft programme. They envisage higher levels of academic achievement than the current levels, which are not what we had hoped they would be. Although in some instances the targets are lower than those previously published, our commitment has not lessened. The targets take account of recent trends and what can realistically be achieved with the available resources within a reasonable timescale.

Mr Shannon made several points about education.

Photo of Danny Kennedy Danny Kennedy UUP

I understand that the Minister is not responsible for education. However, I ask him to draw the issue that I raised to the attention of the Minister of Education so that he can explain to the Committee for Education why numeracy and literacy standards are being reduced.

Photo of Mr James Leslie Mr James Leslie UUP

I acknowledge that valid point. The Committees can take up matters of detail in the Programme for Government with the relevant Ministers. Ministers will consider it essential to examine the remarks made today to get a taste of what is likely to be raised with them in Committee.

I shall do my best to ensure that the Minister of Education can discuss the matter with Mr Kennedy and the Committee for Education when the time comes.

Mr Shannon referred to the problems that sometimes occur when pupils cannot be admitted to their local school, while a nearby school closes because of falling enrolment. Account is taken of the physical capacity of the premises in setting enrolment and annual admission numbers. To ensure fairness and openness in admission arrangements, schools must publish their admission criteria beforehand, showing how pupils are selected if there are more applications than places. Parents have the right to express a preference as to which school their children attend and, if the school is not oversubscribed, that choice will automatically be respected. It must be recognised that to predict with absolute accuracy the number of applicants in any one year is an imprecise science. However, when a school has more applicants than places it must apply its admission criteria. Inevitably, if there are too many applicants, some parents will be disappointed that their preference will not be met. In most cases, every effort will be made to ensure suitable places at other schools in the same locality or within reasonable travelling distance.

Some Members were concerned at the allocation of school capital funds. In determining the school building programme, the key objective has been to ensure that the allocation of resources is based on educational need. To suggest that the programme be determined on school sector rather than on educational needs would elevate some schools above others with greater need. Such a system would be inappropriate and is therefore not followed. We do not believe that there is bias in the allocation of funds.

Some Members discussed Irish-medium schools. The Department of Education has a statutory duty to encourage and facilitate the development of integrated and Irish-medium education. Although it does not seek to impose either, it does respond to parental demand for those forms of education. Before they are approved for grant-aid status, proposals for new integrated and Irish-medium schools are assessed against criteria to ensure that they are robust and that they represent value for money. I point out that such schools have closed as well as opened.

Mr Shannon expressed concern about the downgrading of A-level examinations. Our local examining body, the Council for Curriculum, Examinations and Assessment (CCEA), was not involved in the marking and grading problems, and no concerns have hitherto been raised with the Department of Education. The Department has every confidence that CCEA will continue to provide a robust and reliable examinations service for our young people. There were approximately 12,500 A-level subject entries from Northern Ireland to examination boards other than CCEA in the most recent examinations. That is 45% of the total A-level examinations taken in Northern Ireland. The independent inquiry ordered by the Secretary of State for Education and Skills in Westminster has implications for the national qualifications framework. The findings, therefore, will be of keen interest to us, as they will in England and Wales. The Department of Education will consider the contents of the report and the implications that any recommendations may have for our students.

Sammy Wilson and Monica McWilliams again raised the issue of allocations to education. The Minister of Finance and Personnel referred to that earlier today, pointing out that every proposal in the draft Budget is subject to the preparation of satisfactory reform plans. The allocations for any programme could change, either upwards or downwards, as a result of that further work. The approach to reform should include a better definition of how services will be delivered to the highest possible standards by a stronger focus on outputs and outcomes.

That means ensuring that the targets are meaningful and challenging. As Members know, several school building projects have been financed in ways other than the traditional options, and proposals are being developed for other projects.

Mr Kennedy expressed disappointment at the delay in bringing forward the special educational needs and disability Bill. The Assembly is learning that it takes about 18 to 24 months to bring forward a major piece of legislation in an orderly manner with due consultation and consideration of all the issues. That so many Members are busy in Committees today dealing with legislation confirms that. The special educational needs and disability Bill has not yet come to the end of that gestation period. The Department for Employment and Learning, with the Department of Education, has undertaken to provide legislation that will provide further access and opportunities for children and young people with special educational needs and disabilities in schools, further education colleges and the youth sector.

A joint consultation paper has been produced, and the aim of the proposals is to ensure that the provision of comprehensive and enforceable rights to education for all disabled people is on the same basis in Northern Ireland as it is in the rest of the United Kingdom. The Executive have just granted the Departments clearance to issue the paper for a public consultation that will last until the end of November. It is likely, therefore, that a draft Bill will be available in the middle of next year and, therefore, not within the lifetime of the present Assembly.

Monica McWilliams referred to unambitious targets for the Youth Service. The draft Programme for Government makes it clear that we recognise the importance of the Youth Service and that it is not just about the number of people in youth clubs, although widening access to them is an important commitment. The Youth Service plays an important role in cross-community work, including deploying outreach workers in difficult interface areas, and the draft Programme for Government emphasises our intention to continue to support its work. However, we would welcome suggestions in that area during the consultation period, and I trust that Members will make their opinions known.

Assembly Member Ms Lewsley referred to the location of Civil Service jobs. Commitments were given in a previous Programme for Government about the scope for relocating Civil Service jobs, and the possibilities are being examined through the review of office accommodation. Pending the outcome, opportunities for relocation will be considered as they arise. A recent example is the decision to relocate one of the new pension centres to Derry. Factors that must be taken into account in making an assessment about relocation include the total number of Civil Service jobs in an area in relation to the total workforce; new TSN indicators, including levels of unemployment; the regional development strategy; the effect on equality of opportunity; the service delivery and business efficiency that would be achieved; and a comparison of the likely cost.

Several Members raised concerns about the farming industry and the difficulties experienced in rural areas. That the number of Members who spoke on that matter was lower than in previous years, is not symptomatic of any improvement in the problems in the farming industry. However, the budget for the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development totals approximately £780 million for the next three years, which is an increase. It provides £60 million for animal disease compensation; £48 million for the support of hill farmers in the less-favoured areas; £6 million for scrapie eradication; £6 million for beef quality assurance; £27 million for agri-environment schemes; and £33 million for the implementation of the vision action plan. Farmers also receive a substantial amount of support outside the departmental expenditure limits, which the Minister of Finance and Personnel outlined in his statement on the draft Budget. The figure for 2003-04, under the annually managed expenditure, will be £193 million.

The Executive remain aware that there are many problems in rural areas and in the farming industry, and we are working to address them. Indeed, the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development has focused on them in its vision document.

Perhaps relating to that — and we have to be careful that we do not contradict ourselves here — enquiries have been made, by Mrs Carson among others, about whether County Fermanagh should be designated a national park. In June, the Minister of the Environment announced that he had commissioned a study into that possibility, and he has now received a report from Europarc Consulting. He will make a statement in the near future. However, I am allowed to give a sneak preview of the report. Its key conclusion is that on grounds of landscape, biodiversity and cultural value, national park status would be appropriate for four areas of outstanding natural beauty: the Mournes, the Ring of Gullion, the Causeway Coast, and the Antrim coast and glens. However, the authors stress that other areas of Northern Ireland may also merit consideration as national parks. In that context, we must seriously think about what should be done in rural areas, because if they are designated in a particular way, there is limited scope for what can be done there.

Mrs Carson also asked whether the Executive will revive the grants policy for historic buildings. As a member of a family that is the custodian of a historic business that could do with a new roof, I have an interest in that. The Committee for the Environment is currently considering a revised historic buildings grant policy. The sheer volume of applications for such assistance in earlier years considerably exceeded the resources, and the processing of new applications had to be suspended from 1999-2001; however, that suspension has been lifted for now.

The Planning (Amendment) Bill, which is proceeding through the Assembly, will introduce building preservation notices. That will increase the Department of the Environment’s ability to respond quickly to protect buildings that may be worthy of being listed, but that are at risk. Speaking personally, I recognise that the burden of maintaining some of those buildings can be considerable. However, if we were committed to supporting such buildings on a widespread basis, Members might be stunned at the amount of money that could be consumed.

Mr McCrea, on behalf of the Committee for the Environment, criticised the sustainable development strategy of the draft Programme for Government. I disagree with his criticisms; the Executive are committed to sustainable development, and it is a key theme that runs through the programme. Commitments to it are made several times in the programme, and one of its key plans will be our work to modernise the planning process to make it more effective in helping us to integrate economic, social and environmental needs. We are committed to ensuring that our environment supports healthy living, which is part of sustainable development. The focus on improving health, supporting education, and tackling poverty and social exclusion is relevant to the wider principles of sustainable development, as is our focus on energy, with an emphasis on renewable energy.

I emphasise again that this is a draft programme, and we are keen to improve it. We will consider carefully any further suggestions about how the principles of sustainable development can be articulated in the document and run through it more strongly.

Members tend to side with the applicant in regard to many planning applications. If Members were to change their attitudes and side with those who are concerned with preserving the environment, it would give more evidence than anything else of their commitment to preserving Northern Ireland’s clean, green image.

Mr Deputy Speaker, you will be glad to know that I am drawing to a conclusion.

5.45pm

Mr Close returned to his familiar theme of bemoaning the absence of tax-raising powers for the Assembly. That script has been rehearsed quite a few times, as Members will recall. Mr Close should bear in mind that, if we were to have a differential rate of income tax, it could have unforeseen consequences for local employment and affect the attractiveness of Northern Ireland as a place to live and work. It might also make inward investment more difficult to attract. Also, we have no mechanical administrative facility to collect any such tax, and although the Inland Revenue would collect it, if asked to do so, it would charge for the process.

Mr Neeson’s comments follow the remarks of the Minister for Regional Development, Mr Peter Robinson, when he addressed the Assembly; remarks that could have been made far more effectively to the full Executive Committee. It is peculiar that Mr Robinson chooses to come to the Assembly, where members of Sinn Féin are in attendance, but neglects to put in an appearance at the Executive Committee, where the cast of representatives is the same. Members will ask whether the Minister is best serving the needs of his Department by behaving in that way.

Mr Robinson told us that the considerable infrastructure deficit within the remit of his Department cannot be addressed through the allocation of funding made to him. He has completely failed to examine other sources of funding or revenue that could be made available to him to cover that deficit if he so chose. The Water Service is funded out of the block grant, which does not happen in other parts of the United Kingdom. Industrial use of water is metered and paid for, but the private use of water is not, and that is a potential source of revenue that the Minister must consider if he is serious about getting more money for his Department.

The same principles could apply in the transport sector to the rolling stock and the road system. Other countries with funding problems have moved to a user pays principle. Recently I met with representatives of industry, who said that if building better roads could reduce the time taken to get their goods to the ports, they would be prepared to contribute to the cost through some form of toll.

I trust that the Chairperson of the Committee for Regional Development will take account of my comments in his discussions with the Department. It is extraordinary for the Minister to come to the Assembly to demand more money and yet not volunteer to raise money through the activities of his Department, when that is possible and has been accomplished in other places.

That concludes my coverage of matters in my bailiwick, and I look forward to dealing further with this business over the coming months.

Photo of Mr Denis Haughey Mr Denis Haughey Social Democratic and Labour Party 5:30 pm, 24th September 2002

The debate in the Assembly begins the period of scrutiny of the Programme for Government. We have made a constructive start. There is no substitute for the vigorous cut and thrust of Assembly debate, with the exchange of witty sallies across the Floor and extravagant excursions into the upper stratosphere of high policy. It is very invigorating.

Members have had an opportunity to express their concerns about the Programme for Government, and Ministers have had an opportunity to listen to those concerns. I stress that this is a draft programme; James Leslie has already said that, but it is worth repeating. The comments made today will inform the work of Ministers as they reconsider the sections of the Programme for Government that are relevant to them. As we seek to improve and tighten the programme, today’s points will inform the work of the Programme for Government drafting group that James Leslie and I chair.

The most frequently made point, to which we will have to give careful consideration, concerns the belief of some Members that the programme does not deal adequately with community relations. Eileen Bell, Alban Maginness and others raised this issue. I am not sure that I would go as far as they did. In the draft Programme for Government, the Executive committed itself to implementing a cross-departmental strategy and framework for promoting community relations. We have committed ourselves to ensuring an effective and co-ordinated approach to sectarian and racial intimidation. Those are important commitments.

The consultation paper on this matter is at a very advanced drafting stage, and it is anticipated that it will be submitted to the Executive very soon. After it receives Executive approval, it will be published and there will be two months’ consultation for Members, the public and organisations to communicate their views to the Department. We intend to ensure that the consultation paper and the strategy derived from it will have as broad a base as possible. For that reason, the Executive intend to convene meetings of political parties, the social partners and other organisations, including churches and community groups, to discuss the consultation paper and the actions that may be derived from it. Those meetings will form the basis of an effective strategy on community relations.

As the Deputy First Minister made clear this morning, we recognise the importance of local solutions to many of the difficult community relations problems. We will support communities in developing their own solutions to those problems. I refer Members to the agreements reached, after much painful discussion, between the Apprentice Boys of Derry and the Bogside Residents’ Association. They reached an agreement that defused a great deal of the tension that arose from marches and demonstrations in Derry. That is an example of a local solution being found to local difficulties. With some capacity building, some effort and some goodwill, local solutions can be found.

The Programme for Government also makes it clear that responsibility for promoting good community relations lies with all Departments and in every part and every priority of the document. There are many actions in the programme that will promote good community relations. The introduction of a citizenship module to the curriculum was mentioned earlier, for example. As children moved through the education system, the module would affect how they saw the community and its institutions.

The Programme for Government contains a policy of support and respect for cultural and linguistic diversity that promotes tolerance in the community.

There are also measures relating to the removal of flags and emblems, sectarian graffiti, and so on.

The Harbinson review was not, and was never was intended to be, the new community relations strategy. The purpose of the Harbinson review was to inform the new community relations strategy and help in its elaboration.

I will now turn to some points made by Bob McCartney and Peter Robinson about overmanning and the huge bureaucracy that had developed within the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister. This is a sad example of grossly ill-informed remarks being made by an irresponsible commentator who was completely ignorant of the facts, and those comments being seized upon by enemies of the Administration and the agreement to make spurious and specious points.

The Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister is not comparable with the office of the Prime Minister, the office of the Taoiseach, or, God forbid, the office of the President of the United States: it is a Department of Government. As all Ministers do, we frequently report to our Colleagues on the range of activities carried out in our Department.

I have a pro-forma listing 28 different functions of government carried out by OFMDFM and I will refer to some of them. One is the responsibility for the whole equality agenda, which involves problems relating to the equal rights of the disabled, gender equality, racial equality, as well as equality between the two sections of our community. There is a team dealing with that responsibility, a responsibility that in other Administrations would be dealt with across a wide range of departments.

The Economic Policy Unit within OFMDFM shares certain functions with the Department of Finance and Personnel. In other administrations, economic policy would either be contained in a department for economic affairs or perhaps be housed in a department of finance.

We have responsibility for implementing European policy. Bob McCartney referred to the need to tighten up on the implementation of European Directives — that is our responsibility. We are responsible for co-ordinating such work across the Departments. In other Governments, the function would be carried out within a department of foreign or external affairs.

We have responsibility for the review of public administration; the re-investment and reform initiative; community relations; targeting social need; promoting social inclusion; the whole e-government agenda, which in other Governments would be entirely housed in another department; race relations; ethnic minorities; the Civic Forum; the Programme for Government exercise itself; and so on. It is mistaken and wrong to suggest that a working Department, because it has a staff commensurate to the functions that it performs, is in some way overblown by comparing it with the private office of a Prime Minister or a Taoiseach.

I also want to make a point about European Directives. Bob McCartney cited that as an example of the failure of the Administration. In fact, it is one of the success stories. There had been a chaotic backlog of untransposed Directives deriving from the long period of direct rule. This Administration has finally got on top of that, and is compiling a database of Directives listing the progress of each one in terms of transposition and implementation. The British Government does not have such a database, and, unbelievably, neither does the European Commission. We are compiling a database here, and it is a success story, not a failure of the Administration.

Sam Foster referred to the core funding of victims’ groups, and I want to say a couple of things about that. The Northern Ireland Office (NIO) and OFMDFM are working together to develop a new scheme. The scheme will have funding of £3 million over a two-year period, and should be operational around the end of the year. Many victims’ groups have been consulted on the development of the new criteria for core funding. The responsibility for core funding of all victims’ groups currently rests with the NIO, and we have had no involvement in any decisions about core funding that have been made to date.

There is no reason why Fear Encouraged Abandoning Roots (FEAR) cannot apply for core funding under Peace II or the new core funding scheme that is to commence before the end of the year.

Mr Foster mentioned the location of new hospitals, which is a serious constituency concern for all Members. It is extremely difficult to provide modern, efficient, high-quality services in a way that is fair to everyone. The organisation of our hospitals must change if people are to get the services they need and deserve. Society here could not afford to sustain 17 or 18 acute service provision hospitals indefinitely, and, arguably, it does not need to. Careful consideration must be given to the distribution of acute service hospitals in the North.

After Executive discussions, the Health Minister issued a consultation paper ‘Developing Better Services: Modernising Hospitals and Reforming Structures’ on 12 June. That paper sets out the agenda for a major modernisation of the acute hospitals system, and proposals for the reform of the health and personal social services administrative structures. The consultation period will run until 31 October. No decisions have been reached on any aspect of the proposals. All the information arising from the consultation will be considered carefully before any final decisions are taken. It is intended that those decisions will be made before the end of the year.

Seamus Close asked whether we had considered a tax-imposing regime. Mr Leslie has already dealt with that matter. He said that it might not pay to open that can of worms unless it is done carefully.

Sammy Wilson gave us a characteristic bit of good old knockabout stuff. The review of public administration is not a cost-cutting exercise, nor is it necessarily a rationalisation programme. Its purpose is to determine whether it is possible to deliver better, more relevant public services more efficiently and in a way that represents good value for money.

Sammy Wilson also made the allegation — and he is no stranger to making allegations — that nothing has been delivered through the Programme for Government. The programme outlines the Executive’s key plans and priorities, which are developed and agreed by all Departments and parties involved in the Administration. Since devolution, much has been achieved in the framework of the Programme for Government. We have provided additional resources to support the Health Service, raised standards in education and introduced new initiatives under both Ministers for Employment and Learning to increase student support.

We have introduced free travel for the elderly on public transport — I wonder why Sammy Wilson did not recognise that provision, because a DUP Minister was quick to claim credit for it. We have also developed many new public health policies. We have contributed a good deal to investment in infrastucture — gas pipelines and roads, including a trans-European network plan for the road from Larne to Newry. The Programme for Government has delivered a great deal that we might not have seen had we continued with direct rule.

Monica McWilliams wanted to know what was being done to address the crisis in the voluntary and community sector. The Executive are acutely aware of the crisis facing that sector, and that is why we decided to allocate a further £6 million of Executive programme funds to be used to address any fresh action deemed necessary to alleviate the continuing funding difficulties in the voluntary sector.

Ministers agreed that we should provide additional funding to help meet immediate pressures in that sector, while at the same time helping to provide space to begin to address the longer-term issues of sustainability in the community and voluntary sector. That is a serious issue that we cannot avoid. We are facing a situation five or 10 years down the line where the availability of funds may not be as extensive as it is now. Therefore, we must look at the community and voluntary sector to see which areas of the service we need and how we provide for those, and also to see how the bodies and associations that provide those services could sustain themselves in circumstances where funding provision might not be as extensive as it is now.

The Executive agreed that resources should be used to try to retain important voluntary and community sector services that might otherwise be lost while the long-term issues relating to self-sustaining capacity are addressed.

Mark Robinson referred to housing provision and housing fitness. Unfitness levels as recorded in the 1996 Northern Ireland house condition survey carried out by the Housing Executive indicated that there were varying levels of unfitness right across the housing sector, including rates of 15% of all private rented housing and 5·8% of owner-occupied housing. It is anticipated that the 2001 survey will show that public spending on housing in Northern Ireland has been effective in addressing policy objectives and unfitness of houses. Public resources directed towards the problem have been used economically, efficiently and with good value for money, with an expected reduction in unfitness levels across all types of tenure. The draft Programme for Government sets out commitments to maintaining the drive to reduce housing unfitness levels across private and social housing.

The provision of new social housing is a matter for the Minister for Social Development. However, I understand that a review is being carried out in the light of new research done by the University of Ulster that showed that we need about 1,500 new housing starts every year. The current figure is 1,400. The Minister has commissioned a review to determine if we are starting enough new houses to meet the need. It is not possible to say what the outcome of that review will be, and, given the studies carried out by the University of Ulster, the suggestion that we are not meeting the need must be taken seriously. That matter is in hand.

Mark Robinson asked if he could have an assurance that there would be money to deliver the commitments in the Programme for Government. The draft Programme for Government is supported by a draft Budget, and actions and commitments set out in the Programme for Government are underpinned by provision in the draft Budget. That is the way they work. However, they are both draft documents, and they will be revised, if necessary, and finalised in the light of debate in the Assembly.

Today’s debate has been wide ranging and valuable. We have focused on issues that reflect the Executive’s priorities across the range of government, and we have addressed matters that relate to the economic, social and environmental context within which we operate. Members have made suggestions that will inform the process of refining and finalising the Programme for Government, and the Budget that supports it.

All Ministers will carefully consider the points made. We look forward to receiving the views and suggestions that will follow the document’s scrutiny by the various Committees and the wider consultation with bodies, associations and groups outside the Assembly structures.

The consultation period will end on 15 November. In the light of responses, the Executive will consider the revisions that will have to be made to the Programme for Government. The revised programme will be presented to the Assembly in early December.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved:

That this Assembly takes note of the draft Programme for Government.