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Even now, it is unlikely that we have seen the full scale of the current economic crisis. The intensity of the storm and the damage that it brings in its wake appears to travel between markets. The main focus of attention has recently shifted back to the banking sector. The remedial action that was announced last week by Governments and central banks across the world is to be welcomed.
Locally, Executive Ministers have been working to mitigate the worst effects of the economic slowdown on our business sector, local people and especially on those members of society who are in greatest need. The welfare of the people of Northern Ireland is our primary concern. In that respect, we have already acted, and we intend to do more. Members will know that this year’s regional rate increase for domestic property has been frozen, and that will be maintained for the next two years. As a result of the decisions that the Executive have taken on the regional rate and water charges, the average household will be almost £1,000 better off over this year and the next two years. Executive Ministers have also flagged our intention to look again at the options for a further deferment of the introduction of water charges.
The Minister for Regional Development has announced the extension of the free bus pass scheme. Since 2007, some 240,000 people aged 65 or over have been taking advantage of free bus and rail services. From 1 October, a further 90,000 individuals aged 60 to 64 will be entitled to free travel in Northern Ireland.
The Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety has brought forward proposals to cut the cost of a prescription in Northern Ireland to £3 in January 2009, and for prescriptions to be free of charge by April 2010.
The Department for Social Development has also initiated schemes to promote affordable homes.
The Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment (DETI) will continue the provision of its successful face-to-face debt advice service to citizens for the next three years. On 25 September, DETI also announced a package worth £5 million to help Invest Northern Ireland’s clients to weather the economic slowdown.
Furthermore, the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development and the Department for Social Development have announced an increase of £400,000 to the warm homes scheme budget to fund energy-efficiency improvements for rural homes. We have also indicated our intention to address the proposals put forward by the fuel poverty task force and the equal pay issue inherited from the previous Administrations. The latter alone would represent almost 1% of our whole GDP, or the equivalent of around 2,000 jobs in our economy.
The deputy First Minister and I intend to meet the Strategic Investment Board to review the planned roll-out of our capital programme and to assess the opportunities for supporting the local construction industry. It is widely acknowledged that, used intelligently, our public expenditure plans can provide some resilience to the local economy. Members can be assured that the Executive will do all in their power to protect the interests of people in Northern Ireland.
I thank the First Minister for his comprehensive answer. He is well aware that the construction industry — one of the crucial sectors of the economy — is under particular pressure, with estimates of thousands of job losses by Christmas, and evidence already of job losses at the raw-materials end of the sector. The First Minister has already mentioned this matter in a previous answer, but can he outline exactly how those major public infrastructure projects can be rolled out and accelerated as quickly as possible to give a boost to that important sector?
The Member is right. During the latter part of last week, I received an email that indicated that around 25% of jobs in the aggregates sector had already been lost, with the fear that more job losses were to come before the end of the year. If that part of the construction industry is being so affected, one cannot help but conclude that the same impact will be felt elsewhere.
Representatives from the construction industry met the deputy First Minister and myself some weeks ago, and we considered a series of possibilities, one of which was the acceleration of the capital spend programme that I referred to in my answer to Mr Ford. It is worth pointing out that that programme is more substantial than has ever been the case in Northern Ireland’s history, and it is a programme that could go a long way to making the difference.
The construction industry was keen to be provided with a long-term vision of what measures will come on stream so that it can be involved in the planning process. We have been in touch with the Scottish and Welsh Executives and, by and large, the steps that they are examining are in line with the decisions that we have taken in various Departments: reshaping our capital spending; adjusting the planning and regulatory environment to help individuals and businesses; targeting support at the most vulnerable individuals and businesses; and alleviating the effects of rising energy prices and promoting energy efficiency.
Those are the four key drivers on which the Executive can have an impact. We can have very little impact on the wider global economy and the issues that flow from that, but I have outlined the issues affecting Northern Ireland in respect of which a local hand can make a difference.
The First Minister raised the issue of what the Executive were doing to alleviate the effects of the present economic difficulties on the most vulnerable people in the community. Can he offer us an estimation of when the anti-poverty strategy will be adopted by the Executive, so that a long-term view can be taken on all of those matters?
I hope that that meeting takes place. It is, in my view, essential that we get down to business, and that business gets done. I was before the Committee for the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister, and those matters were referred to. There is no foot dragging, either on the part of the deputy First Minister or myself, in respect of that strategy. My ministerial colleagues will want to give their approval to the strategy, and I look forward to that happening.
Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I welcome the emphasis placed by the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister (OFMDFM) on bringing forward capital-spend projects to help the construction industry. Given the current global economic crisis, has the First Minister met the Taoiseach, the British Prime Minister, or other leaders within the European Union, to make suggestions and to bring forward proposals? If so, what has been the substance of those meetings?