The Executive are committed to the ongoing review of the Programme for Government so that we may take account of changing circumstances and to ensure that we are focused clearly on addressing key challenges. Indeed, the measures that we announced on 15 December 2008 to address the economic downturn are very much part of the ongoing review of our priorities and targets.
From the outset of the Programme for Government, we made the economy our top priority. That was underpinned by our commitment to target resources and efforts towards those with the greatest objective need. Although the economic context has changed remarkably over the past year, that prioritisation and focus has become ever more relevant and valid — it will be much more challenging for the Executive to deliver on what were always ambitious targets. However, during these difficult times, it is more important than ever that we provide clear leadership and that we work together to deliver on the commitments in our Programme for Government.
The welfare of local people is our primary concern. The Executive are committed to doing all that they can to tackle disadvantage and inequality and to support and protect local people and businesses from the worst effects of the current economic downturn. We have made the credit crunch a standing item of Executive business, and we introduced the Financial Assistance Bill, which will enable us to react quickly to emerging problems.
Addressing the economic downturn is the top priority of all the institutions. It was discussed at the plenary session of the North/South Ministerial Council last Friday, and the First Minister and I will raise it at the upcoming meeting of the British-Irish Council. In addition, the First Minister and I have written to Gordon Brown seeking an urgent meeting to press the case that local depositors in the Presbyterian Mutual Society be protected from the consequences of the society’s current financial difficulties. We also plan to meet the Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform, Peter Mandelson, in the coming weeks to ensure that local businesses receive every possible assistance to weather the economic storm.
Today’s news of redundancies at the Ulster Bank and NACCO Materials Handling Group in Craigavon further underlines the local impact of the global conditions. Our thoughts are with all the workers — and their families — who are affected by those announcements. Rest assured that the Executive will do everything in their power to help those who face unemployment and to help our economy to withstand the difficult current economic conditions.
I thank the deputy First Minister for his answer. Has he studied the responses of Governments elsewhere on these islands and further afield? For example, the new deal announced by the Obama Administration covers issues such as social housing and investment in energy efficiency and renewables. Does he share the assessment of many that the scale of the response in Northern Ireland pales into insignificance when compared with that of other Governments? Does he also share the concern that we are being left behind because of the Executive’s inability to respond sufficiently?
I do not accept that we are being left behind. We all recognise that there is a very challenging situation worldwide. Indeed, many other Governments are struggling in much worse circumstances than ours. A new American President has just come into office, and many people throughout the Western World will be very interested to see whether the initiatives that he takes to address the dire economic situation in the United States will have a stabilising effect on the economy there, and also, by extension, on economies in the Western World. Therefore, there are many difficulties and challenges. Like other Administrations, the Executive are continually facing those challenges and taking important decisions to try to weather the very difficult economic storm.
We cannot lose our nerve. A key word that is constantly used is “confidence”; if we simply lie down, we will fail the people whom we represent. We must recognise that we are going to face challenging economic circumstances over the next 12 to 18 months, or possibly even longer. It is interesting to note the absolute failure of many people to predict more than a year ago that the situation would be as disastrous as it appears to be. Equally, even in the midst of the difficulties, it appears that there are very few experts out there who can point to how long the difficult situation will last, but I know that it will not last forever — it will pass. In the meantime, we must weather the economic storm.
The Executive have taken important decisions to assist people who are facing problems, but we cannot rest on our laurels. We constantly have to review the situation to see what more we can do, but every Member knows that we are doing that in the context of a very tight fiscal situation, constrained by the Barnett formula. Like other Administrations, we are tied to the allocations that we receive.
When we put together our Programme for Government and our Budget, we did so in the context of trying to ensure that we manage as best we can across a range of Departments. However, within all that, individual challenges present themselves. For example, we, and many others, appear to be facing rising levels of unemployment, and we must see how we can meet those challenges. It will mean constantly reviewing our Programme for Government. However, as we said at the time, it was not written in tablets of stone. We must recognise that we have to meet the needs of people, and we can best do that by working together collectively as an Executive to ensure that we deliver.
We were correct to make the economy our number one driver, because we all know and understand fully that if we are to have an impact on people’s standards of living, we must ensure that we have an economy that is vibrant and that delivers for the people whom we represent.
Even now, in the midst of worldwide economic gloom, it is still important that we, as an Executive, recognise the importance of building the economy in a way that will deliver for the people whom we represent. People are enduring great hardship as a result of rising energy costs, food prices and unemployment levels, so there is a real challenge for us. However, we can put in place programmes and processes that will impact on the difficulties in a way that will be beneficial to the people whom we represent.
I will be quicker with my question than the deputy First Minister was with his long-winded statement. The deputy First Minister made only one specific point in his three long-winded answers to the question and the supplementary questions. He referred to the Presbyterian Mutual Society. In their representations to the British Prime Minister, will he and the First Minister, if need be —
Just before the deputy First Minister answers, when I said that I would allow a short supplementary question, I meant a short supplementary question. That is why I gave the Member the opportunity in the first place. The Member may not catch my eye for a supplementary question in future.
It is obvious that many people who invested in the Presbyterian Mutual Society are facing a difficult situation. The Executive are sympathetic to their plight at this time, and we believe that Gordon Brown and the British Government must recognise their responsibility to ensure that those people do not incur losses to what, for many, are their life savings.