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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.