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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.