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Cross-Sector Advisory Forum

Ministerial Statement – in the Northern Ireland Assembly on 20th April 2009.

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Photo of William Hay William Hay Speaker

I have received notice from the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister (OFMDFM) that the First Minister wishes to make a statement regarding the cross-sector advisory forum.

Photo of Peter Robinson Peter Robinson DUP

I wish to make a statement on the establishment of the cross-sector advisory forum, which is another stage in the Executive’s efforts to limit the impact of the global economic downturn.

The terms of reference of the forum have been placed in the Assembly Library, and a full list of its participants is attached to the statement that has been provided to Members.

Though the impact and scale of the global economic downturn was foreseen by very few economists or Governments across the world just eighteen months ago, through our prioritisation of the economy in the Budget and the Programme for Government, we in the Executive have positioned ourselves well to seek to deal with the present difficulties. Furthermore, last December, we announced an additional series of measures and actions to help alleviate hardship and assist the economy.

This statement is but a further demonstration of our determination to take whatever actions are open to us to combat the economic difficulties. It is also a recognition that no single group of people has all the answers, but, by harnessing the wisdom and knowledge of those most affected by the current economic situation, we can navigate our way through the present difficulties.

Members will be aware that, as the current economic crisis unfolded through the summer and into the winter months of 2008, the deputy First Minister and I held a series of meetings with banks, energy companies, energy regulators, the voluntary and community sector, trade unions and business leaders. Our aim was to understand the local impact of the developing credit crunch and the escalation in basic commodity prices, such as food, oil and other energy sources. Then, as now, our overall aim was to do all that we can to mitigate the worst effects of the economic downturn on the people and businesses of Northern Ireland.

That goal is a massive but inescapable challenge. We have already had some success, which I attribute to a combination of factors. First, we have a devolved Administration who are fully focused on meeting local needs and solving local problems. We have an Executive who can and have used local resources and talents to bring real benefits to local people. Secondly, we have been able to manage our public expenditure to bring real financial relief to local people; for example, through the measures that we already introduced on water charges and domestic rates. Thirdly, we have listened to local people. The information, advice and ideas that the deputy First Minister and I have been able to gather from our meetings with local groups and people have been instrumental in allowing the Executive to craft our response to the crisis.

However, we believe that we must go further. To develop and build on that dialogue, we established an economic task force under the title of the cross-sector advisory forum. As Members will be aware, the first meeting of the forum was held in the Long Gallery at Stormont on 6 April 2009. At that inaugural meeting, the agenda was quite open. Our main aims were to introduce members; reach a shared understanding of our terms of reference; gather views on the enduring problems of the economic downturn; identify key strategies and actions for addressing those problems; and map out our forward work programme and work streams.

The main business of the first meeting was to hear members’ views. A wide range of issues and proposals were discussed, and we will make the agreed minutes of the group publicly available. I can confirm that there was a general welcome to the formation of the group and a consensus that it will provide a useful vehicle through which to map out our best response to the current economic difficulties.

Perhaps understandably, there was also some caution and concern that the forum should not simply turn into a talking shop. Let us make it clear: the deputy First Minister and I are determined that that should not be allowed to happen. We are interested in tangible outcomes, not merely words.

The forum comprises 30 members and has a current complement of five Ministers. To ensure that the future work programme is manageable and grounded in practical considerations, it was agreed that it would be useful to establish subgroups to take forward distinctive strands of work. The following seven broad areas have been identified: infrastructure, planning and procurement; skills, training and education; hardship, poverty, debt and energy; jobs, innovation, tourism, manufacturing and employment; agriculture; banking, finance and lending; and housing and property. However, we are also keen to avoid duplication of other work, particularly that of the Economic Development Forum (EDF), and we are considering how best to take forward the work of the subgroups.

We intend to convene the next meeting of the full forum before the summer recess. However, before that, the subgroups will have met and agreed their individual terms of reference and the key issues that they intend to explore within the scope of their remits.

The cross-sector advisory forum represents a great opportunity to join up government, business, utilities, banks and community groups in the common cause of helping the people and businesses of Northern Ireland to come through the present economic turmoil. From here on, it is my firm intention that we will talk less about crisis and much more about recovery.

There was consensus at the first meeting of the forum about the need to bring forward practical measures to reinforce our social-welfare response to support people who are dealing with unemployment, debt and cost-of-living pressures. However, beyond that, we also need a clear resolve to grasp opportunities to support and sustain our indigenous talents and skills, which will be essential in allowing us to maximise and grow a diverse, vibrant and prosperous economy in the future. The forum discussion sent out a very clear signal that we need to prepare for the future by continuing to invest in infrastructure, training and skills. We need to support indigenous industry and business; we need to make the most of the advantages that we have in our natural and built environment; and we need to be agile and seize opportunities for tourism and retail that flow from the weakness of sterling.

We have encouraged the forum to challenge us, and I am confident that it has and will continue to do so. The group will provide a useful platform on which the various sectoral interests can talk, not only to government but to each other. It is our hope that the forum will become an effective vehicle for improving communication between the various interests on which our economy is built.

As the scale of the global economic challenge emerged, we did all that we could to ensure that we did not talk ourselves into a depression by talking down the economy and dampening business confidence, while always remaining realistic. This is now the time to recognise that Northern Ireland will emerge from the current economic problems and get back to growth and prosperity. The establishment of the cross-sector advisory forum underscores our conviction that we are not helpless in the face of the economic challenges before us. It will not only be a critical friend to challenge us in what we are doing or failing to do but will work constructively with government to bring forward proposals for remedial actions. It will allow us to test that we are not only doing things right but are doing the right things to bring forward economic recovery.

As we navigate our way out of the present economic difficulties and chart our course for the future, we will, of course, keep the Assembly and the Committee informed of the work of the forum. I believe that its creation is a clear recognition of the value that we place on working together in partnership with stakeholders so that we can use devolution to help the entire community.

Photo of Danny Kennedy Danny Kennedy UUP

I welcome the First Minister’s statement. What role, if any, do the First Minister and deputy First Minister envisage for the proper scrutiny of the cross-sector advisory forum, and will the First Minister give an undertaking that my Committee will have a role in respect of the work of the forum?

I will now speak on a party political basis as a representative of the Ulster Unionist Party. The First Minister outlined the Executive members currently on the cross-sector advisory forum. It appears that the Ministers who attend the forum are members of the two largest parties in the Executive. Does the First Minister accept that it is important and desirable to ensure that the forum includes representatives from all the parties that form the Executive and not just the two largest parties?

Finally, given that the Chancellor has indicated that he will be looking for additional efficiency savings of up to £10 billion — that would have big implications for devolved Administrations, including Northern Ireland — has the First Minister any sense yet of whether it will or should be necessary for the current Programme for Government to be adjusted accordingly?

Photo of Peter Robinson Peter Robinson DUP

I thank the Chairman for his interest in the work of the cross-sector advisory forum. The minutes of the forum meeting will be made available to the Committee, and it can judge for itself what role it might wish to have in interrogating the deputy First Minister and me or any of the other Ministers. We will be happy to keep the Committee informed of the work of the forum and its subgroups.

The Member referred to the forum’s current membership. At the last Executive meeting, the deputy First Minister and I made it clear to our Executive colleagues that we wanted them all to participate in the work of the forum. During the forum’s first meeting, it became fairly clear that the Minister responsible for skills would play an important part in the further considerations of the forum. However, during that meeting, there was a growing belief that the way to move forward is to create subgroups that can deal with various sectoral interests and bring reports to the whole forum. Again, that will give each Minister a role to play in relation to the various interests that exist, which might include skills and training issues, agriculture issues, or other departmental matters.

The Chancellor will make a statement on Wednesday. Until he makes that statement and until we have assessed it by reading the small print, it is difficult for anybody to know exactly what impact it will have on Northern Ireland. However, if the Prime Minister intends to go back on his word that we will receive a CSR settlement that is entirely ours and will allow us, as a fledgling devolved Administration, to plan ahead for three years, or if he goes back on his indication that any savings that are made by this devolved Administration will stay here and he decides, based on the Barnett formula, to draw money away from Northern Ireland, we will be required to look at the Budget, and there will be Budget consequences. If, as the whispers from the Treasury suggest, about £150 million will come out of the Northern Ireland Budget, that will have an impact on spending.

Photo of Stephen Moutray Stephen Moutray DUP 12:15 pm, 20th April 2009

I thank the First Minister for his statement. Does the First Minister care to comment on the SDLP’s proposals for saving money?

Photo of Peter Robinson Peter Robinson DUP

I welcome the fact that the SDLP has taken an interest in efficiencies and matters relating to the Budget. It has always had the opportunity to bring forward proposals in the Executive, as it is part of the four-party mandatory coalition. The fact that the SDLP brought its proposals to the public’s attention, as opposed to bringing them to the Executive, might indicate the mindset in that party — one might even think that there was an election in the offing.

It is important that all parties, not only the SDLP, look at how we can best use the resources that are available to us. To be frank, having looked at the SDLP’s proposals, I see that a significant number of the better ones are proposals that my party has made in the past, proposals that have been considered by the Executive or proposals for capital spend that have been outlined already — in the Varney report, for instance.

Some of the SDLP’s proposals are inaccurate and some are grossly exaggerated, but at least the SDLP is looking at efficiencies and recognising that, given that we have a finite Budget, choices must be made. The important feature of the SDLP’s proposals is that that party recognised for the first time something that has been shown fairly consistently in Executive meetings, which is that it is not simply a case of telling people what one would like to spend money on and outlining what additional funds could be used in various areas. The SDLP’s paper is significant in that it identified that, if more money is to be spent in some areas in order to inflate the economy, the resources for that must be found elsewhere. The whole House needs to start examining its priorities.

Incidentally, contrary to what is said in the SDLP’s statement, the SDLP did not vote against the Budget — the House accepted, and is tied to, the Budget unanimously. The Budget settlement is based on the priority in the Programme for Government to focus on the economy. Rightly and at the right time, we decided that, front and centre, the economy is our number one priority.

Photo of Barry McElduff Barry McElduff Sinn Féin

Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Cuirim fáilte roimh ráiteas an Aire.

I thank the First Minister for his statement and welcome the Executive’s efforts to mitigate the worst effects of the economic downturn, particularly on local businesses. Procurement rules do not seem to be sufficiently friendly to local small and medium-sized enterprises. Could one of the subgroups look specifically at how to free up and create opportunities for local businesses to succeed in the tendering and procurement race?

Photo of Peter Robinson Peter Robinson DUP

That can neatly be dealt with by the subgroup concerned with jobs, employment and other similar issues. There will obviously be constraints on the number of people whom we can have on the cross-sector advisory forum. That number is currently 30, but a considerable number of other groups believe that it would be useful if they, too, had membership.

The subgroups are a good way for those additional people to be used in their sectoral interests. I am sure that, if there are sectoral interests in respect of small firms, the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment will be very happy to incorporate those into the terms of reference of the group that deals with employment issues, as, indeed, I am sure, will the Minister for Employment and Learning, who has a particular responsibility for skills and training issues.

Photo of Dolores Kelly Dolores Kelly Social Democratic and Labour Party

I welcome the First Minister’s statement, although I must correct him: he said that all parties voted for the Budget, when, at one stage, he accused the SDLP of almost bringing the House down by not supporting the Budget. Therefore, there are some inaccuracies in his comments.

In December, the First Minister and the deputy First Minister said that they would bring forward some proposals. However, we now have proposals for further meetings rather than for actions, which is very disappointing. During their recent visit to Brussels, did they reach any agreement on a relaxation of the state-aid rules as a possible way of helping the business community? Will there be relaxation on any of the manoeuvres or help that may be given?

Photo of Peter Robinson Peter Robinson DUP

First, let me clear up the issue of the Budget. I have a copy of the Hansard report of the Budget debate, which I am happy to share with the SDLP if its own records are not complete. I introduced the Budget to the Assembly on 11 February 2008, and it is stated that the question was put and agreed to and that it was resolved with cross-community support that the Budget Bill be passed without any division. The SDLP should know the difference between the Programme for Government and the Budget; it voted against the Programme for Government, but it voted for the Budget.

It would have been very surprising if we had come out of the first meeting of the cross-sector advisory forum with the answers to our economic ills. I do not believe that anyone who was there expected actions to flow from the group’s first get-together. In order for the deputy First Minister and me to make recommendations to colleagues and to ensure that those feed through the system, the subgroups have to give much consideration to issues, make proposals and recommendations and tender advice. There has not been action as a direct result of our first meeting other than to work out our work plan, but that will hardly have surprised anyone.

The deputy First Minister and I visited Brussels recently. We raised the matter of state aid in relation to specific projects whereby the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment (DETI) has been faced with state-aid issues, and we will continue to do that. During our visit, we were encouraged by the very keen interest that President Barroso and other commissioners have taken in Northern Ireland. Indeed, they were willing to put forward a task force to make recommendations on how best we might equip ourselves to compete for European funding, rather than continuing as a region that automatically receives such funding.

Photo of William Hay William Hay Speaker

It is important that Members keep their questions related to the statement as far as possible; we have drifted slightly.

Photo of Naomi Long Naomi Long Alliance

I hope that Mr Speaker accepts that there must be clarity about the issues that have been raised. The Budget resolution, which is the key vote on how the money is to be disbursed, was opposed by a number of Members. The Budget Bill was not opposed, because that would have prevented the money from being drawn down. That clarification must be made for the record.

With respect to the cross-sector advisory forum, we welcome the statement that the First Minister has made. No one disagrees with his assertion that promoting the economy should be at the front and centre of what the Executive do and of the Programme for Government and the Budget. However, once more, the devil is in the detail. Surely, in the changed context that we are now in, the how and the what of prioritisation must be reassessed. I want to know whether the Executive have had any discussion with the members of the forum with regard to whether the Programme for Government needs to be revisited. In the debate in the public domain, many senior businesspeople argue that it does, not to remove the economy from the top spot but to look at how economic progress can be achieved.

Photo of Peter Robinson Peter Robinson DUP

It is necessary for me to go back and try again. Members use terms without thinking exactly what they mean. The Programme for Government already has the economy of Northern Ireland as its top priority. There is no need to change the priorities in the Programme for Government. From time to time, there will be a need to finesse the Budget. When I was Finance Minister, I indicated during the Budget debate that we were quite happy to do that. Indeed, we do it four times a year in the monitoring rounds. In particular, last December, we recognised that we had to hold a special monitoring round to deal with the crisis. The Finance Minister is working on the statement that he will make in relation to the next monitoring round. From time to time the Budget will be redefined, as necessary. However, to do that, we must free up funding to make allocations. Such funding can come only from two sources: underspend within Departments on capital or resources or reprioritisation by the Executive.

Is there any Member who believes that there should be a reduction in the Department that his or her Minister heads? Not a single hand has gone up. Faced with that, there is a — [Interruption]. There is only one problem: the Alliance Party has no Minister. [Laughter].

We cannot spend money that we have not got. Each Member must take a hard decision, but they cannot say that money must come out of Government Departments that their Ministers are not a part of. The situation requires the Government as a whole to deal with the issues, and it requires money to be freed up from all Government Departments.

Photo of Jimmy Spratt Jimmy Spratt DUP

The First Minister said that he was keen to avoid duplication of work with other forums that are already working in these areas. Will he indicate how such duplication will be avoided?

Photo of Peter Robinson Peter Robinson DUP

The particular purpose of the cross-sector advisory forum is to deal with the economic crisis that we face. The forum, therefore, has a lifespan sufficient to deal with the duration of the crisis. Its remit is to deal with the crisis itself. It is not a committee for the long haul. It is not intended to take over the role of any other committee, advisory group or body. It has a specific purpose and time reference. On that basis, everyone recognises that their participation is based on that principle.

Photo of Mitchel McLaughlin Mitchel McLaughlin Sinn Féin 12:30 pm, 20th April 2009

Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Could I welcome today’s statement by the First Minister and deputy First Minister, could I also, on behalf of my party, very strongly endorse the comment contained within the statement that we are not helpless in the face of the economic challenges.

My question is, how will the cross-sector advisory group’s work be taken forward? We know for how long the group will exist, but how often does the Minister envisage that it will meet?

Photo of Peter Robinson Peter Robinson DUP

I agree entirely with the Chairperson of the Committee for Finance and Personnel — we are not helpless, and we must start, from this moment on, I think, to talk about recovery rather than crisis.

I have listened to some economists, some of whom are employed by banks, and they would depress Job if they were allowed to get on with it. It is vital that we start talking our economy up and recognise the great benefits that we have in Northern Ireland — even in a downturn, we have a low-cost economy in comparison with those of most other European countries. That should give us an advantage in getting out there and selling Northern Ireland to the business community.

At the meeting, a decision was made — I think by consensus — that the work of the cross-sector advisory forum should be taken forward through subgroups. The seven subgroups that I outlined in my statement will meet, will largely work up their own remits, and will bring forward recommendations to the parent body, if I may call it that. I think that more useful work on certain matters can be done in a sectoral format; for example, issues that relate to a particular subject matter can be dealt with, rather than through the very wide spread of matters that are discussed at the cross-sector advisory forum. The forum will get reports from each of those subgroups, and we hope that between now and the beginning of the summer, the subgroups will have met and they will have been able to report back to the forum.

Photo of Ian McCrea Ian McCrea DUP

I welcome the First Minister’s statement, as well as his previous comments on the need for recovery to bring us out of the current economic downturn. I welcome his commitment to that.

The Chairperson of the Committee for the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister has just left; however, he asked about the implications of the UK Government’s Budget. Can the First Minister give us an indication of his feelings about the Conservative Party’s proposals and what impact those would have on spending in Northern Ireland?

Photo of Peter Robinson Peter Robinson DUP

The Conservatives have been quite open in saying that they do not believe that the Labour Government are taxing enough or cutting back on public expenditure enough. The answer is fairly clear and is on the public record: more tax and less public expenditure. That would mean shaving off a number of the programmes that exist, a reduction in the Health Service, and a reduction in our educational facilities. Those are the Tory Party’s proposals and, of course, those of its colleagues in this House.

Photo of Tom Elliott Tom Elliott UUP

The First Minister highlighted in his statement a number of issues on which the forum wants to see movement and progress; for example, investment in infrastructure, training and skills, and support for local indigenous industry and businesses. All those are good intentions. However, can the First Minister outline when it will be practical to see any delivery of those issues on the ground?

Photo of Peter Robinson Peter Robinson DUP

I am not sure when the next questions for oral answer for the Minister for Employment and Learning will be. However, I am sure that the Member will want to ask his colleague when there will be action on the ground in the area of skills and training. I seem to have more confidence in the Minister than does the Member for Fermanagh and South Tyrone. I believe that the Minister is working hard, and he is actively bringing forward proposals to the Executive to deal with those issues. All Ministers are focused on dealing with the departmental responsibilities that they have in the context of the economic downturn. I have every confidence that the Minister for Employment and Learning will not let Mr Elliott down.

Photo of Declan O'Loan Declan O'Loan Social Democratic and Labour Party

I also welcome the statement and the creation of the advisory forum; I regret only that it was not established sooner. I note the First Minister’s reference to many discussions with the banks, energy companies, energy regulators, the voluntary and community sector, trade unions and business leaders, and their formalisation in the advisory forum. I welcome what he said about meaningful discussions leading to action as a result of the meetings of the advisory forum.

Does the First Minister see the striving for consensus leading to action that will carry through into the political arena? I welcome his positive comments about the SDLP proposals. More broadly, will he assure the Assembly that he will take a positive and constructive approach and spirit to all the political parties’ intellectual energies in addressing what he referred to as the current crisis and to the longer-term task of the Assembly to revitalise the economy?

Photo of Peter Robinson Peter Robinson DUP

It is worth pointing out that the cross-sector advisory forum was set up as a result of the discussions about which Mr O’Loan spoke. A number of people whom we met said that it would be valuable to have such a group during the crisis. We took that on board and responded directly to it.

Mr O’Loan spoke about using the political intellect of other parties. The SDLP is an Executive party. Although some of its Members seem to forget that from time to time, no doubt, the Minister for Social Development reminds her party that it is represented on the Executive. At all times, the SDLP can bring proposals to, and assist, the Executive.

The deputy First Minister shares my views about wider consultation with political parties. When, as First Minister and deputy First Minister, we faced the challenge of the murders that were carried out by dissident republicans, we had a difficult decision to take on whether we should be in Northern Ireland or whether we should go to the United States to continue our business there. On that occasion, we held a meeting of the party leaders. The party leaders gave us full support; they were positive and wanted to ensure that we had a united front at such a time of crisis.

The deputy First Minister agrees that those kinds of meetings are valuable. Perhaps we can continue those meetings as we face another crisis — the financial crisis — and something useful can come out of them. It is not part of my make-up to want to disagree or to have people disagree with me. I want to find a wider consensus on how we move forward, if that can be found.

Proposals are put before the Executive at meeting after meeting after meeting, and the greater the consensus that we can get on those proposals, the better. If unanimity can be achieved when the proposals come to the House, Northern Ireland will be seen as being stronger in the wider community.

Photo of Martina Anderson Martina Anderson Sinn Féin

Go raibh maith agat. I welcome the First Minister’s statement. How were members of the advisory forum chosen? Despite what the First Minister said about constraints on the number of members on the forum, will he and the deputy First Minister consider the inclusion of representatives from the social economy, not only in the sectoral format but in the plenary format? They would make a valuable contribution to such a forum.

Photo of Peter Robinson Peter Robinson DUP

Members were chosen by their own organisations, with the exception of four members, two of whom were recommended by the deputy First Minister and two of whom were recommended by me.

I do not have a hard-and-fast view on the size of the membership; it is only the consideration of dealing with large groups that places a constraint on its size. One of the subgroups that we have set up deals with issues of hardship, debt and community issues. There is no reason why OFMDFM cannot agree that any group that has an interest in those issues should be on the subgroup without necessarily being a member of the broader forum.

However, there is a strong third sector in the forum, with representatives from community organisations and credit unions. Throughout the meeting, they spoke so strongly that it became clear that a subgroup had to be set up to deal with those general issues.

Photo of Simon Hamilton Simon Hamilton DUP

The First Minister’s statement referred to the prioritisation of the economy in the Budget and the Programme for Government. Will the First Minister tell the House what he thinks about proposals that some Members have made to re-prioritise and rewrite both documents because of the black hole that they believe exists in public finances?

Photo of Peter Robinson Peter Robinson DUP

I do not know anyone who has an IQ that strays into double figures who would suggest that a Programme for Government that prioritises the economy should be changed. The Executive have taken the correct decision. It is clear that that decision is the correct course along which to continue. The Budget — just like that of any other Government, anywhere in the world — can be changed as time goes on and as, on the one hand, pressures occur, and, on the other hand, there is underspend. That is what happens.

It is abundantly clear that there is no black hole in public finances. We managed to get through the previous financial year despite being told then that there was a black hole. When people talk about a “black hole”, they are referring to pressures. All Governments face pressures. For example, the Executive will face considerable pressure if, on Wednesday 22 April 2009, the Chancellor takes a decision that will impact on Northern Ireland to the extent that I have outlined already. That does not mean that there is a black hole; it means that we must take decisions to deal with additional pressure.

Undoubtedly, the Minister of Finance and Personnel will come to the House and make a proposal on how to deal with that pressure. There is, however, no hole in our spending plans. When I was Minister of Finance and Personnel, I used to point out repeatedly that the level of underspend in Departments is always considerable, so much so that the Ulster Unionist Member who talked about a black hole is the same person who told us that we should increase our overcommitment in the Budget. Therefore, he wanted us to have more expenditure than we had revenue to pay for at a time when we had to try to reduce our overcommitment. Am I not glad that I did not listen to that voice at that time and that we continued to reduce our overcommitment? Otherwise, we would have been in a perilous position at present.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon DUP

I thank the First Minister for his statement and his positive responses. He said that we must not talk ourselves into a depression. Some Members in the Chamber are already of that mind. He also mentioned marking up the positives with practical and sustainable measures to help. Will he set out specifically the steps that the Executive have already taken to deal with the economic crisis?

Photo of Peter Robinson Peter Robinson DUP

It would take me quite a long time to do that in any detail. The House will be well aware that not only did the Executive put the economy at the centre of our priorities, but that since our first Budget, we have taken decisions to reduce household bills with regard to the amount of money that people must pay towards their regional rate. We froze the regional rate, not for one or two years, but for all three years of the Budget. We kept, in real terms — as inflation then was — the level of the business regional rate; we capped the industrial rate, and we were even prepared to take on Europe to ensure that.

In the wider economy, we brought forward proposals in the December monitoring round for a winter fuel payment to be made to people who are in greatest difficulty. Proposals were made for farming. We attempted to increase the amount of funding that is available for capital spend; last year, £1·4 billion was made available, and we expect that figure to increase during the current financial year. That gives an incentive to the construction industry, which, in my view, has been hit hardest by the economic downturn.

We took a decision to not proceed with water charging, which is something that would have hit everyone’s pockets, including those of the most vulnerable in our community. The Executive also proposed to reduce — and eventually phase out — prescription costs. Moreover, DETI introduced a range of proposals on debt advisory services, and so on, all of which were designed to help during the economic crisis.

I could outline a list three times that length — if I am encouraged to do so, I have it here. However, everybody knows that the Executive have been on the ball. That is not a party-political comment; all Ministers are striving, in their Departments, to make best use of available resources in order to assist during the economic downturn.

Photo of Peter Weir Peter Weir DUP 12:45 pm, 20th April 2009

I thank the First Minister for his statement. Indigenous businesses and, particularly, foreign direct investment (FDI) have a role to play during the economic recovery. Will the First Minister outline the potential for foreign investment in Northern Ireland during our present economic difficulties?

Photo of Peter Robinson Peter Robinson DUP

In times of economic hardship, companies often withdraw to their base. Those that want to expand often do so in their home territory rather than outside it. However, during our recent trip to the United States, the deputy First Minister and I were pleased that Universal Studios proposes to use the Paint Hall in the Titanic Quarter to make a film. Another investment in Northern Ireland will be announced soon, and there is considerable hope of a significant jobs announcement before too long.

Therefore, even in the context of the perceived economic doom and gloom, people are bringing business to Northern Ireland. The cost of establishing business in the key areas of financial services, business services, IT and the creative industries is much cheaper in Northern Ireland than in other European capitals. That gives us an edge, and those high-value jobs are precisely what the economy needs, because they assist and boost our gross value added (GVA) and GDP. Those jobs are earmarked for growth in the economy. Even if we must endure a difficult period, we are developing the skills to do such jobs, and will be well placed, during the full recovery, to take advantage of it.

I believe that we met our job-creation targets for the financial year that has just ended. However, it will become increasingly difficult to do so again. We must accept that Invest Northern Ireland and DETI have a difficult job ahead of them, and the House should do everything it can to make Northern Ireland a more attractive place to come to, rather than playing things down and bemoaning the achievements that have been made.

Photo of Stephen Farry Stephen Farry Alliance

I thank the First Minister for his statement. Although there is a consensus in society that the Executive were right to prioritise the economy in the Programme for Government, does the First Minister recognise the range of views — including those of the business sector and economists — on the different ways to prioritise the economy? How will he respond if the forum requests that the Programme for Government be revised?

For example, in light of the First Minister’s comment that foreign direct investment is not as viable as before, do resources need to be moved from selective financial assistance towards skills, particularly because we cannot always compete on low costs in the future? Furthermore, although I appreciate that the First Minister finds economists to be depressing, why are they not represented on the forum? Several skilled economists from the banks and universities could contribute. Although they might highlight some difficult truths, we sometimes need to hear those harsh realities.

Photo of Peter Robinson Peter Robinson DUP

All economists are not saying the same thing — they never do. One chooses an economist and receives the desired view.

The Member makes a valuable point about whether it is beneficial to have an economist, or economists, on the forum or giving advice to it. Of course, there are a number of economists within the officialdom of the Executive; we are not bereft of their advice.

I recognise that there are different ways to prioritise the economy within the general scope of growing the economy. That does not change the Programme for Government; it changes the actions that might be taken by Departments or on Budget spend. However, if one takes even the SDLP proposal — its Members will forgive me for mentioning it because they, at least, have a proposal to be discussed — even at its fullest, if one were to believe it as they have outlined it, that proposal would only mean a 1% change in the overall Budget for Northern Ireland. [Interruption.] I think there is some double-accounting on the part of the SDLP, which it needs to take into consideration.

There are valuable elements in the SDLP’s overall proposal, but many of them are already taken into account by Government.

Most Government business has to continue. Every Department has fixed costs, about which it can do nothing. Therefore, what can be changed is very much on the periphery and is very much down to the drive and determination of Ministers in those areas. Although the Member said that there will be difficulties with foreign direct investment at present, that should not reduce our ambition to bring FDI to Northern Ireland. It should not reduce the enthusiasm of Invest Northern Ireland to go out and sell the Province as a place for people to come to. Far from reducing spend in those areas, we have to continue to pay the necessary price to ensure that Northern Ireland is before business leaders. The benefits of the decisions that they might make today, or tomorrow, may not be realised in Northern Ireland for years to come.

In relation to the Budget, we are happy to consider proposals. The economic crisis that we are facing is a standing item on the agenda of every Executive meeting. Therefore, any proposal brought forward by any Minister at any Executive meeting can be considered in relation to a re-prioritisation of spend.

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

This morning, I note that one party has moved away from suggesting that the economy should not be a number one priority. I trust that other parties will join them. Do any of those who sit on the cross-sectoral group advise that the economy should not be the first priority?

Photo of Peter Robinson Peter Robinson DUP

It would be ludicrous for any of them to suggest, in the middle of an economic downturn, that we should do anything other than focus on the economy — it is essential that we do so. It is worth pointing out that this Assembly has a Budget to spend that is greater than that of any Assembly before. Not only were there natural increases, but two packages of funding supplemented the Budget — the last of which was to the value of £900 million. That is a massive boost, and one that would certainly not be offered today were one to go to the Chancellor.

The additional funding that is available has assisted us in the circumstances in which we are placed. We would not have been able to deal with issues such as water charging otherwise. If there are people in this House who believe that we need more money for public expenditure, and that we should increase rates and introduce water charging, let them stand up and say so.

It is no good people whinging in the background, saying that we need more money for this purpose or that purpose, unless they can identify where they will get the funding from. That is why I welcomed the SDLP’s proposal. For the first time, in my view, the SDLP stopped simply asking for more money for this, that and the other, and identified the need to find those funds from elsewhere. I do not agree that all the money referred to in that proposal is available to be used for funding, but there is some measure of benefit in that debate taking place, and all the political parties putting forward their proposals. Let us see where that takes us.