The Business Committee has agreed to allow up to one hour and 30 minutes for the debate. The proposer of the motion will have 10 minutes in which to propose and 10 minutes in which to make a winding-up speech. All other Members who are called to speak will have five minutes.
I beg to move
That this Assembly expresses deep concern at the Minister of Education’s decision to introduce significant cuts to her Department’s community relations budget for 2010-11; and calls on the Minister to explain how her Department can now make any meaningful contribution to building good relations between young people and to an overarching Executive policy on cohesion, sharing and integration.
The Minister of Education, Caitríona Ruane, recently announced that she will cut 70% of the Department’s community relations budget, from £3·6 million in 2009-2010 to £1·1 million for this financial year, to meet her efficiency savings.
The Department, through its community relations branch, has responsibility for the promotion of good community relations among young people from three to 25 years old in the education and Youth Service sector. Previously, it provided funding for 26 community relations organisations, a schools community relations programme and two Youth Service support schemes. The 26 core-funded organisations are grant-aided until the end of May 2010, with no clarification of whether funding will continue. It is feared that the much-reduced budget will decimate the expertise that has been built up throughout the school system and in the voluntary sector.
According to the Minister, the bulk of the funding for this year will be used in preparation for the implementation of the new community relations, equality and diversity policy, which she plans to adopt in the current financial year. However, the draft policy has not yet been published for consultation, and it will be months before the new policy can be established to replace the Department’s old community relations policy, which it has now ceased to support. Clearly, there is a vacuum in policy direction from the Department.
One of the key strategic priorities in the Programme for Government is to:
“Promote tolerance, inclusion and health and well-being.”
The Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister has produced the draft programme for cohesion, sharing and integration, albeit two and a half years late. We must, therefore, question the Minister’s rationale for slashing funding when there is clear strategic drive by government to address community relations. Furthermore, the divisions in our society continue to result in huge social and economic costs. It is vital that our children and young people have the opportunity to develop an understanding of different cultural traditions.
Despite political progress in recent years, sectarian and racist attitudes, as well as deep-rooted patterns of segregation and inequality, remain major problems in our divided society. In addition, new immigrants continue to come to Northern Ireland to seek to work and to contribute to the local economy. Although that is an encouraging sign of increased globalisation, their presence poses a further challenge to traditional conceptions of identity.
A recent Good Relations Forum report, ‘Ensuring the Good Relations Work in Our Schools Counts’, recommends that the Minister of Education and her Department give greater strategic direction to the schools sector to ensure that the teaching and practise of good relations is successfully mainstreamed across all schools. It also suggests that the Department should identify and commit a long-term and appropriate budget to support all schools in providing good relations modules within citizenship programmes, thereby guaranteeing its widespread re-prioritisation across the schools sector. Moreover, it believes that there should be compulsory good relations programmes in schools, and there are, of course, many good reasons why that should be so.
Undoubtedly, there are clear links between poverty, conflict and lifetime opportunities. A number of pieces of research have highlighted the critical role of schools in contributing to a shared and peaceful society in Northern Ireland. The Bain report and research by the University of Ulster in 2004 show that socially and economically deprived areas tend to suffer most from the legacy of the past. If not addressed by society and by services including education, such suffering tends to be perpetuated and can contribute to trans-generational poverty.
However, 95% of Northern Ireland’s schoolchildren attend what is, in effect, a segregated school system, and, therefore, there is limited opportunity to meet and interact across traditional community divisions. It is also widely accepted that limited exposure to those outside their communities consolidates negative attitudes that are passed down through the generations.
Outside the formal integrated sector, it is largely up to individual schools to decide how to promote good relations issues and interaction. Indeed, the community relations programmes that were funded by the Department of Education up to March 2010 were voluntary. As a consequence, there is no consistent approach or sector-wide buy-in or delivery to the promotion of good community relations.
Sadly, there is also clear evidence of growing sectarianism and racism in Northern Ireland. The research paper ‘Too Young to Notice?: The Cultural and Political Awareness of 3-6 Year Olds in Northern Ireland’ indicates that many children and young people continue to regularly exhibit and experience sectarianism and racism. The report cited that school was one of the three factors that increased children’s awareness of and attitudes to those matters. The other two are family and the local community. Clearly, what the report refers to as:
“de facto segregated nature of the school system” in Northern Ireland has helped to create environments that are overwhelmingly Catholic or Protestant in their ethos.
The Northern Ireland life and times survey 2008 provided an analysis of responses by age. The results showed that the 18- to 24 year-old age group’s views on community relations in Northern Ireland are less positive than those held by the overall population. For example, 6% of that age group felt that relations between Protestants and Catholics are worse now than they were five years ago, compared with only 2% of the overall population. Eight per cent of that group expected relations to get worse over the next five years, compared with only 3% of the overall population.
The latest PSNI crime statistics show that in 2009-2010, there was a 24·3% increase in sectarian crime in Northern Ireland. A recent report by the Terry Enright Foundation looked at the views of young people in interface areas. In particular, it noted that 44% of those questioned had admitted to being involved in some form of rioting or stone throwing at interfaces, and 33% had engaged in vandalism. About 10% had been involved with either the youth justice system or the Probation Service. That is worrying when it is considered alongside the hardening of sectarian views among young people that is reported by youth workers.
Finally, I want to address the reluctance of some teachers and youth leaders to deal with community relations issues. Teachers need the training, skills and professional support to challenge negative attitudes and discrimination inside and outside the classroom. However, although all teacher training colleges have diversity programmes, they do not always make all their good relations modules compulsory. Furthermore, not all teacher training colleges give their students work experience in an alternative sector.
Feedback from the Equality Commission following a series of seminars held with teachers and education stakeholders in 2008 identified the fact that many teachers had concerns about addressing good relations at school.
I wish to inform the House how the Committee for Education has sought to ascertain the current situation around the Minister’s cut in her Department’s community relations budget for 2010-11 from £3·5 million to £1·1 million, as outlined by the proposer of the motion.
The Department of Education’s funding for community relations terminated on 31 March 2010 in preparation for the implementation of the new community relations equality and diversity policy. However, the Committee was recently informed that the new community relations policy is:
“due to issue shortly for public consultation”.
It could be well into 2010-11 before any community relations funding is released to organisations, and that will be on the basis of one third of last year’s budget. I will come back to that, time permitting, when I speak as a private Member.
The Committee heard from one of the 26 community relations organisations whose core funding programmes have been directly affected by the termination of funding at the end of March 2010, and which stands to lose four experienced community relations staff. That would doubtless be a great loss to that organisation.
Funding has previously supported schools’ community relations programmes and a number of Youth Service core programmes. The community relations sector has highlighted in particular the severe impact of that cut on its work with young people in interface and rural areas, where there is little or no provision from the statutory Youth Service. The withdrawal of that funding could leave young people vulnerable to dissident groups and gangs, and some could well end up bearing the brunt of a prison sentence, which would cost thousands of pounds, particularly at a time when levels of unemployment and deprivation in such communities are on the rise.
The potential costs for society, particularly in conflict areas, are disproportionate to the relatively small amounts of community relations money involved. The Committee also heard that the Department’s funding often levers in around four times that amount from non-UK Government sources. Major uncertainty is hanging over those organisations about when and if the Department’s new community relations programme will provide funding. Even if funding is provided, it may be at a much reduced level. In the meantime, staff experience that has been gained over decades will be lost and valuable youth programmes will cease.
The Committee for Education understands that budget constraints mean that choices will have to be made. However, I have questions about the extent of the community relations budget cut and how it will be managed and about the resulting uncertainty for the sector.
I will briefly speak as a private Member. I concurred with the proposer of the motion, Ms Lo, when she said that there was a “vacuum in policy development” in the Department of Education. Unfortunately, under the tenure of this Minister, the Department either has a vacuum in policy development or it develops a policy that will sit there for month after month, as we have seen with the early years strategy, the special educational needs policy, and others.
I think that there is a more serious issue facing community relations with regard to this Minister. To use the phrases “community relations” and “the current Education Minister” in the same sentence is a contradiction in terms. This Minister and this Minister alone has sown the seeds of dissension. Instead of harmony, there is discord. Instead of co-operation, there is confrontation. It is regrettable that we have a Minister who has presided over polarisation in the education sector. Despite her most repeated mantra that she is looked upon with a great degree of favour in the education sector, I think that she would have few friends who could defend in this House her record on community relations.
The Minister must explain to the House today the way in which funding will be dealt with.
My colleague Mr Storey talked about the Department of Education’s policy vacuum, but a policy vacuum is the best that many people to whom I talk can hope for. Any policy that comes from the Minister is worse than anything that they could possibly have imagined. Therefore, perhaps we should ask the Minister for more policy vacuums.
The message that is being sent out seems to be completely at odds with the direction that we want to take. Surely the common goal is to dismiss unfortunate sectarianism. Surely the fundamental purpose of our sitting together in this Building is to talk and work together. We may disagree, quite strongly sometimes, but all Members would admit that if, on meeting in the corridors, they chat and pass the time of day, that makes the discussion of other issues easier. Does the Minister mean to send out such a contrary message?
We all have to make decisions on priorities in these straitened financial times, but the 70% cut that Ms Lo outlined will decimate much of the considerable good work that goes on. I have been involved in many issues concerning public achievement, youth interaction and interface areas, and a huge difference is made on a modest budget. Do we want to destroy that? Do we really want to throw the expertise and confidence that has been built up in those communities onto the funeral pyre of some political ideology?
The Minister will have the opportunity to respond, and I would like her to explain where her priorities lie. During the Westminster election campaign, people from the Minister’s party trumpeted that she had found more money to buy school uniforms for those who could not afford them. Recently, the Minister also announced a £2 million investment in accommodation for the Irish-medium sector. It seems that projects that find favour with the Minister receive funding and funding is taken away from those that do not.
There is no clearer sign of the importance that the Minister attaches to peace and reconciliation and community relations than her slashing of their budget. I cannot help but think that there has been a terrible mistake, that something was lost in the fine detail, that the Minister will move immediately to tell us that that is not what she meant and that she will find the money to look after the people who do such a good job.
During Question Time, the Minister for Social Development spoke about the amount of segregation in the poorest areas of our society. If we are to tackle the unfortunate legacy of the past, surely that will be done through our children and young people. We can talk to the children and young people and bring them here. Indeed, recently, I had the privilege of bringing people from the 174 Trust, which is located in an interface area of north Belfast, to Parliament Buildings. Children and young people from all backgrounds and walks of life were here, and they were just being children. They simply got on and worked together as a tremendous unit.
The Assembly needs to get real. If it talks about good relations and delivering good for the people of Northern Ireland, it must start with the children. It must have joined-up government. This Minister has a lot of questions to answer.
Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle.
The process of reviewing the Department of Education’s community relations policy began as far back as 2008. That review has had a staggering impact on community relations schemes ever since. As has been said, the outcomes of the review and the consultation document have still not been published, although here we are in May 2010.
Youth and school groups have been affected since 2008 because they do not know where the commitment to a shared future is. Core youth workers for community relations have been lost because of the drip-feeding of short-term funding. Community relations workers, in conjunction with youth workers, are the core workers needed to support youth groups in that very difficult work. The Department of Education was supposed to bring in short-term transitional funding arrangements in lieu of a policy but, as I understand it, that still awaits ministerial decision. We have heard that the size of the cuts is 70%, which involves a reduction from £3·5 million to £1·5 million. Instructions were issued from the Minister to run down all community relations support schemes. As a result, workers in posts have either been on monthly contracts or on protective notice, or posts have been vacant because there is no security of tenure.
There is a lot of uncertainty in the world of community relations. Why? Because there is no funding for the hire of premises, transport, programmes or local groups. How can peace-building in a divided society be sustained in such a situation? Grass-roots workers are at their wits’ end and wonder how much the difficult work that they have done and the successes that they have achieved were really valued. The rhetoric, they will conclude, has once again proved to be empty.
Worst of all, the future leaders of our shared society are being denied the formation that they want and that we need them to have. The situation has led to chaos at the chalk face of youth community relations, with teachers and youth workers wondering where they will get support for their projects. As mentioned earlier, in the most difficult interface areas where programmes have been developed, the work is now not supported. Young people have had to be told that there is no financial support to continue their community relations projects.
I take this opportunity to recognise the work that has been done with thousands of young people in communities and schools and on residential courses, which covers extremely difficult issues that must be faced up to if we are to have a truly peaceful future. That work has been done quietly and effectively. It is difficult, challenging, valuable and necessary, and it requires a degree of skill that can only be built up and built upon over years of commitment. Surely, we should be asking how we can support the formal and informal education sectors in finding ways of transforming relationships of hate into those of interdependence and trust. We should not cut funding. A genuine commitment to building a sustainable peace and a shared society must include young people. If the devolved Government here do not provide the required leadership, the initiative will be handed to others with more destructive intent.
This is not merely a matter of funding; it is a question of where we want to lead our young people. Do we want to lead them towards a brighter, more diverse and peaceful future or allow them to be dragged back into the darkness of the past?
I call on the Minister of Education to act now to restore substantial funding so that those valuable programmes will not be lost to us and will continue to influence the young people in our society in a positive way. Go raibh míle maith agat.
The incorporation of community relations into the education programme is vital. It is crucial to our children’s development and leads them into adulthood. In today’s society, anybody aged from three to 25 can gain from a better understanding of equality, diversity and interdependence becoming daily practice in our lives. That is why I am concerned by the Minister’s decision to cut her community relations budget — as has been well reported in the Chamber — by some 70% from £3·5 million to £1·1 million. It again appears that U-turns are being performed on decision-making and on policy, leaving children, schools, teachers, parents, unions, voluntary groups and their volunteers, along with the general public, very concerned and somewhat confused.
We understand that the Education Department and all other Departments of the devolved Government are in a time of financial hardship. However, when the budget was considered by the Committee for Education, it was regarded as unfair to blame it on the ESA delay. The Department of Education must remember that it is not the only public authority that is struggling at present.
I understand that there is a return of £4 for every £1 invested in the scheme, which must be considered. I, therefore, ask the Minister to reconsider her figures and to look at ways in which she can accommodate the 26 groups that have secured funding. Otherwise, it will be a struggle to carry out crucial work done by the likes of Community Relations in Schools (CRIS), Belfast YMCA, the National Trust, and others. How does the Minister suppose they will fund salaries and meet running costs in the weeks ahead?
We appreciate the work to date to build community relations in the education and youth sectors. Nevertheless, it is evident that improvements are needed, and the Department must review its responsibility to build good relations between the young and their communities. It has become apparent that the success and the standards achieved by many of the projects are hard to assess and the training provided for those in the sector is insufficient. Good relations must become part of the school curriculum: it can no longer be avoided or regarded as optional.
Schooling can help to counteract negative views, such as hatred, bigotry and prejudice, which still exist in a lot of our communities. Northern Ireland society is still divided and many of our housing estates and schools are still predominantly identified with a single community. Segregation is costly and financial resources can be duplicated. Contact and network between communities can be hindered, provoking misunderstanding. That is why I urge the Minister to review her plans to cut the budget so dramatically.
Our children deserve the opportunity to explore diversity issues, so that they are encouraged to think about how people who differ politically, religiously, ethically and culturally can live together in our community, rather than in fear and misunderstanding. It is time to embrace the many interesting communities that our society now welcomes. I support the motion.
Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I apologise for not being in the Chamber for the start of the debate.
First, in relation to the wording of, and my party’s approach to, the motion, the first line of the motion states:
“That this Assembly expresses deep concern at the Minister of Education’s decision to introduce significant cuts to her Department’s community relations budget”.
It is reasonable that the Assembly should be concerned at any Minister having to severely cut anything in a departmental budget. My party has no difficulty in supporting that approach. Of course we are concerned. I suspect that, in the weeks and months ahead, we will have many such debates around the various Departments under the Executive’s control.
The second part of the motion, which is also valid, calls on the Minister to outline:
“how her Department can now make any meaningful contribution to building good relations”.
We support that part of the motion as well, because the Department of Education has a role to play in developing good community relations, and I look forward to hearing how the Minister will set out her plan for the time ahead. However, with respect to the people who have signed up to the motion, I suspect that we are today involved in a bit of sham fight.
As I said, especially given today’s announcement that a further £128 million will be lost from the block grant, we will be having many of these debates in the weeks and months ahead. Each party will roll out how Minister A, B or C should fund various programmes. However, the next part of the argument must also be developed: how will they fund those programmes? This year alone, the Department of Education has lost £74 million from its budget, not including the £13 million of savings that it must secure for the now stalled ESA Bill. That is £87 million that will come out of the departmental budget this year.
We have heard much from the Health Department and the Department for Social Development about the difficulties in implementing the programmes under their control with restricted budgets. The Department of Education is in the same boat. We could be debating a new start to the motion, expressing deep concern at the Minister of Education withdrawing funding from teachers, schools, buildings, transport, child support or child psychologists. In all those areas of the education budget, difficult decisions had to be made. Indeed, I recall the Education Committee being asked to forward to the Department any suggestions on how the Minister should manage this year’s budget. The Committee did not forward a response.
Although I respect the motivations of those Members who tabled the motion, and, as I said, my party will support it, reality is hitting hard and hitting home. There are decisions to be made about where budgets will be spent. On this occasion, unfortunately, we are talking about severely cutting back a community relations budget. However, under the Department of Education, a range of other community relations work is ongoing. I welcome the fact that the youth budget received only a minor adjustment and will continue. One need only think of local youth groups and community organisations that are involved in cross-community work in our own areas every day of the week. In my constituency and, no doubt, every other constituency, through area learning communities, schools are involved not only in titled community relations programmes but in sharing resources with schools and in enabling pupils to cross boundaries that were never crossed in the past. I welcome that work.
Sometimes — and I am not suggesting that this was the case with the Department of Education’s community relations budget — the touchy-feely stuff of community relations becomes an industry. To ensure that community relations improve, people must work genuinely together on issues of common purpose and cause. Although the time ahead will be difficult, resources are still available to schools, through the Department of Education and the education and library boards, to allow real cross-community work to continue. For example, the GAA and the IFA are working together on a scheme to promote soccer and Gaelic football in schools.
Every Member knows that the Northern Ireland Budget is under extreme pressure. Savings have to be found in all Departments, because successive Finance Ministers have failed to identify and deal with Northern Ireland’s budgetary black hole. We have warned consistently that that was going to cause problems.
We have to work at and improve community relations, and we must not take it for granted. Unfortunately, doing her own thing for her own people is a hallmark of the Minister of Education. She does not make a genuine effort to cross the bridge and bring people together. She does not deal with the cross-community issues that confront us every day in our constituencies. We live in a divided society, although some places are much more divided and polarised than others.
How are we going to fix that situation? We know that community relations is a long-term issue, but the short-term budgetary decision that the Minister has made will have a long-term effect on those community relations. That is a serious difficulty that will build up and store problems for the future. We must find the resources to tackle the polarisation in communities that I and others spoke about so that we can bring communities together.
Mr O’Dowd talked about the youth budget, and I am grateful that the cuts in that budget have been small, although there could have been adjustments. I have been involved in youth work in rural areas for many years, and I support the need for that work to continue. I recognise the need for good community relations right across Northern Ireland, whether that is in South Down or wherever. We need to try to build on that and not take away the money that funds those types of programmes. It is vital that we do that, because we have heard today how important such programmes are across all communities. I hope that the Minister thinks about that again.
Is the Member aware that during the election campaign, a meeting took place at W5 at which the community relations budget was discussed and at which members from all parties were present, including Daithí McKay of Sinn Féin? All were shocked at that. Will the Member join me in wondering whether the Minister has discussed the matter with Daithí McKay or with the community relations professionals, all of whom feel that their professionalism has been completely undermined?
I agree with my colleague that it is vital that the Minister engages with those professionals. I agree that she should speak to the Member for North Antrim and hear what commitment he gave at that meeting on the importance of community relations work. Perhaps she might take some advice from him on where she should go on that important issue. The Minister needs to start a process of listening and learning, because she has failed to do that in all the other policy areas that she deals with. It would be good if she could start to listen and learn and to act on that now.
The Department’s decision to cut funding for school cross-community projects by 70% on top of cuts in our intercommunity youth work is a worrying development. If we are to create a society that is based on a shared future, we need to recognise that schools are in a unique position in that they can help to counteract negative views such as the hate, bigotry and prejudice that exist in our society. They are also in the unique position of being able to promote the healing of community divisions. They are uniquely placed to provide hands-on leadership in the work of achieving a shared future, and they have an important role to play in shaping people’s views and their relationships with others. The Minister has often said that we should start everything in the early years. That also needs to be looked at. We should support our schools as much as we can, because they can help our young people to share with one another.
The desire for a shared future is a cornerstone of SDLP policy, and we must all learn the value of working and living together. The SDLP will strive to construct a shared and equal society that is free of hate. However, cross-community projects are essential to drive forward change in the elimination of hate and the promotion good relations. The decision to cut funding to the community relations budget will have a detrimental impact on the work that cross-community projects do in promoting and encouraging real, meaningful and sustained contact among our children and young people who are from diverse backgrounds and cultures.
The SDLP also fears that the cuts will end up costing more in the long term. Cross-community work pays multiple dividends in hard cash saved as we gradually reduce the impact of division and sectarian violence.
The Community Relations Council (CRC) has described the importance of cross-community projects. They can provide our young people with the skills to resist the sectarianism and racism that unfortunately still exist in our society. The council strongly believes that teaching and practicing good relations in all schools is something that can no longer be avoided or seen as optional. It has also said that the school sector and its many stakeholders require greater leadership, encouragement and co-ordination to mainstream much of the good practice that exists. That will require greater sharing and collaboration between communities and schools, with the support of the Department of Education.
The DUP and Sinn Féin grudgingly produced a cohesion, sharing and integration strategy, which provides no practical leadership at all. Indeed, all it really did was push responsibility back to Departments for the production of ideas on a shared future. We now know what Caitríona Ruane’s contribution will be: a 70% cut in the community relations budget from £3·5 million to £1·5 million. She and her Department have no intention of taking their responsibilities seriously.
If our society is ever to be free of the legacy of the past, the Minister must reconsider her decision and reintroduce to the community relations budget what is due to it to do the work that we need for our young people.
I am grateful for the opportunity to take part in the debate. I apologise for missing the earlier contributions, but I have followed the debate from another place.
Mary Bradley made a point about the cohesion, sharing and integration strategy. I and my party welcome the progress that has been made by the DUP and Sinn Féin on that. We look forward to the forthcoming consultation on the strategy, and remain optimistic that a robust policy can be put in place to deal with the reality of continued division. That is the most important issue facing our society, and one that carries so many social, economic, financial and other costs.
Importantly, the CSI strategy must not simply be a document for OFMDFM to place in a silo or to use as part of a tick-box exercise. If it is to work, it has to be an all-embracing strategy that stretches across all aspects of government and involves all Departments. As we speak, the CSI process is based on inputs coming from Departments. I know that the Department of Justice and DSD are taking it very seriously, but there is potential for all Departments in the Administration to make a contribution to it, not least the Department of Education. That Department is absolutely critical to the creation of a rounded cohesion, sharing and integration strategy, and I am at a loss as to how it can make such a contribution to an overarching Executive policy objective in the context of a 70% cut in community relations funding. Although a new policy may be introduced, there will be a void in the coming year, and there is, at best, scepticism as to what departmental policy will follow for this important area.
As we know, young people are the most impressionable in society. It is at a young age that attitudes are constructed and framed in minds, and those attitudes often stay with a person in later life. There is substantial evidence of people picking up sectarian and racist attitudes at a very early stage, and it is important that our education system tackles such problems and that that action is not simply perceived as addressing a negative. Through wider citizenship and civic lessons, people should be able to talk about the contributions that they can make to create a positive future as part of the shared, cohesive and integrated society that we are surely striving to achieve through the policy. If the Department of Education does not make a viable contribution, there will be a major void in any community relations strategy that the Executive take forward.
Other Members referred to vulnerable people being led astray by violent groups in society. The Minister’s party is acutely aware of the threat posed by the dissidents and of how they can lead young people astray. Alongside other actions that may take place elsewhere, community relations and youth work, through the Department of Education, are two elements of how we can challenge that threat to peace and stability in society and prevent a recurrence of the situation that wasted so many lives over the past 40 years.
I want to stress the point about the false economy. I appreciate that we live in difficult times and that tough decisions must be taken, not least in the context of today’s news. Later this year, even more difficult news for future years’ budgets will, undoubtedly, emerge. However, investment in good relations has to be seen as part of investing to save. Costs must be reduced elsewhere in the system. A small investment in community relations means that much deeper costs can be avoided later. Members know only too well about the costs that accrue from division, through public order problems on the streets and people being led astray into a life of violence. Those costs are imposed not only on the individual victims of division, but on the perpetrators, for whom the cost is a wasted life, and on the system that has to deal with them.
I was baffled, as were other Members, by the Education Minister’s announcement that she was reducing her Department’s community relations budget by an estimated 70%. Essentially, she is gutting that budget. She is a Minister who claims to be led by a commitment to equality, and, therefore, community relations should be at the heart of her Department’s efforts to improve the lives of young people.
We struggle to cope with the legacy of violence from the recent past. The best that we can do is to work earnestly to ensure that the failings of previous generations do not infect our young people and pull them in to repeating the pattern. That danger is before us now, and it can be mitigated only through proactive and innovative measures. Community relations are central to ending the cycle of violence.
We continue to live in segregated communities, with our young people attending separate schools and leisure centres, playing in separate playgrounds and even travelling to school on separate buses. Given that level of division and the lack of serious investment in community relations, I am extremely curious about how the Minister intends to achieve equality in the education system and among young people. Does the Minister truly hope to achieve parity of esteem or the falsehood of a separate but equal society?
The Minister may recall that the United States tried the separate but equal doctrine, and it did not work. The US civil rights movement, with which the Minister’s party claims an affinity, exposed the failings and falsehoods of the absurd suggestion that communities and cultures that shared the same land could and should live separately. Mutual respect and parity of esteem come not from separation, but from understanding. Understanding comes from exposure, knowledge experience and integration.
Inherent in the Minister’s decision, as Mr Farry outlined, is an economic absurdity. The removal of funding for community relations does not mean that the need for those programmes will go away. Rather, the demand will show up as crises in various budgets. It will show up in the DHSSPS budget as young people struggle to deal with the stresses of living with violence. It will show up in the DSD budget as communities struggle with the dual penalties of segregation and deprivation. The Minister is well aware that all the designated interfaces in Northern Ireland are in areas where residents already struggle with the stresses of poverty, deprivation and educational underachievement. The demand will show up in the policing budget as tensions develop into a crisis. I cannot understand any economic argument that the Minister might make to support her decision. The cutting of the community relations budget cannot possibly deliver any form of economic savings or efficiencies in the long run.
Improvements could certainly be made to the way in which community relations are delivered and managed by the Department. Reviews of those efforts recommend that a clear policy framework be constructed to ensure that community relations programmes are focused and constructive and that the work is not duplicated. Where is the clear policy framework? If there are problems with the way in which the budget has been administered, changes need to be made. Improvements cannot possibly be made by gutting the funding stream.
My concern with the Executive is the apparent lack of deliberate reflection and consultation from Ministers when they make budgetary decisions. We are entering a period of significant reductions in public spending. The cuts that Ministers make to their budgets must be extremely precise and based on careful assessments of where need does and does not exist, not simply on lopping off figures from a budget line item. It is not possible to argue that the need does not exist for community relations work among young people in the education system.
Not only is the need there but it has expanded. We are a different society now from what we were 10 years ago, and our communities have grown. There are thousands of new arrivals in Northern Ireland from countries around the world, and those people have brought their cultures, religions and ideas. I hope that we have begun to recognise and embrace our gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender citizens and the important role that they play in society. Community relations are not only about Catholics and Protestants but about normalising our society and recognising the fact that our future is shared. I urge the Minister to revisit her decision and invest in the equality that she claims to support.
Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I am taking a strategic approach to addressing community relations, and my decision must be viewed in the context of the impact of the wider education budget and plans to introduce a new community relations, equality and diversity policy. The task for education is to prepare children and young people for living in a society that is diverse.
The existing community relations policy was originally developed over 20 years ago, with the focus mainly on promoting contact by bringing together young people from Catholic and Protestant communities. However, I concur with the many Members, particularly Anna Lo and Dawn Purvis, who said that much has changed in our society, including the revised curriculum, equality legislation, the political environment and the wider diversity that now exists. For example, in the early 1990s, there were 655 newcomer pupils for whom English was an additional language. By 2009-2010, that had risen to 7,533 pupils, an increase well in excess of 1,000%.
Given that today’s society is much more diverse, any policy needs to reflect all section 75 groups, not just two or three of them. There are nine grounds in equality, including persons of different religious belief, political opinion, racial groups, sexual orientation, gender or age, people with and without a disability and people with or without dependants. The Good Friday Agreement and the St Andrews Agreement committed to actively promoting the advancement of human rights, equality and mutual respect as well as the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child and the current Programme for Government. Any community relations, equality and diversity policy must reflect those commitments.
To ensure that community relations work in schools reflects the current environment, I commissioned a review of the policy. In undertaking the policy review, my Department engaged widely with stakeholders from across the education sector. I established a working group comprising a range of expertise and perspectives to assist in the review and to make recommendations for future policy direction. Members of the group included a school principal; a youth worker; people from the Council for the Curriculum, Examinations and Assessment (CCEA); the schools inspectorate; the Community Relations Council; Ultach; the Council for Ethnic Minorities; the Children’s Law Centre; the Equality Commission; and the Human Rights Commission. The working group considered detailed evidence, including presentations from key stakeholders; a literature review; an Education and Training Inspectorate report; an audit of educator training needs; and responses to over 2,000 pre-consultation questionnaires.
The results of the review indicated the need for a wider approach to community relations and identified inadequacies in the existing policy. The review identified inadequate monitoring and evaluation of the quality of community relations provision; the restrictive nature of funding criteria, which limited current practice and did not encourage progression in community relations; the unnecessary complexity of five separate funding strands; insufficient in-service training for teachers; and the lack of connections between community relations work and other education policies, which have led to this work being seen as an add-on rather than as being integral to the curriculum.
Drawing on the findings of the review, I plan to bring forward a new community relations, equality and diversity policy. That will be supported by guidance, and I plan to bring the policy forward for public consultation later this year. I want to move away from the dependency on external organisations in delivering community relations, equality and diversity, by seeking to embed this work firmly in educational settings by providing a strong skills base for educators and the teaching resources required.
The new community relations, equality and diversity policy will address the findings of the working group by engaging children and young people on the need to promote equal rights and building a culture of mutual respect. As such, the policy will align with the direction that the programme for cohesion, sharing and integration is taking. The new policy will include clear and meaningful outcome measurements to ensure that its impact can be measured, something that, it has been clearly acknowledged, the existing policy fails to do.
Thug mé réimse polasaithe ar aghaidh cheana féin agus mé ag cur an chur chuige nua seo san áireamh, amhail Gach Scoil ina Scoil Mhaith: Ag Tacú Le Daltaí Ó Thíortha Eile agus tograí polasaí ar an mbealach chun tosaigh do riachtanais oideachais speisialta agus cuimsiú.
With a wider approach in mind, I have brought forward a range of policies, such as Every School a Good School: Supporting Newcomer Pupils, and policy proposals on the way forward for special educational needs and inclusion. They contribute to the broader approach that will underpin the aim of improving relations between communities and promote inclusion and a culture that welcomes diversity and equality.
Our schools have an important role to play in community relations, equality and diversity. Teachers and youth workers, often in difficult circumstances, assist our young people to be enlightened, critical thinkers who are prepared for the responsibilities and obligations of life in a changing democratic society.
My policy for school improvement, Every School a Good School, lies at the centre of the reform agenda and is consistent with article 29(d) of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. Every School a Good School acknowledges that school premises are a resource that could be better used by local communities and that providing for increased community use of school premises can be an effective way of building links between schools and their local communities. I responded to Members’ interest on that subject on 11 May.
One significant way of achieving better community relations is ensuring that the 11,000 people who leave our schools without the necessary qualifications are addressed. We must ensure that the programme that we are putting in place continues, because that one action will make a significant difference. We cannot afford a situation in which our young people are leaving school without qualifications.
Through the revised curriculum, I have sought to embed community relations, with personal development, mutual understanding and human rights work at primary level, and learning for life and work at post-primary level in order to provide opportunities to address equality and diversity issues and promote good relations. Among the very good community relations and equality programmes for our schools are those provided by INTO and the Ulster Teachers’ Union through their work with Amnesty International.
In 2010-11, current expenditure for education has increased by 1.9% to just over £1.9 billion, but, faced with meeting the efficiencies that are required by the Executive, I have had to balance a range of education priorities against the need to achieve efficiencies. My priority has been to protect front line services and to ensure that the needs of those who are most disadvantaged continue to be at the forefront.
As part of the budget process, an equality and human rights screening was undertaken. It showed that the different needs of the various groups were not being met fully by the community relations policy. As John O’Dowd said, my Department has suffered significant efficiency savings of £74 million, on top of the £13 million savings previously withdrawn in anticipation of the ESA. The best way that both parties opposite can contribute to community relations and equality is by supporting the establishment of the education and skills authority, instead of putting their heads in the sand.
Faced with decisions about whether to reduce the community relations programme or reduce money going into the classroom, where there are already opportunities to address that work, I have concluded that the latter is preferable and more sustainable. I absolutely agree with Anna Lo on the points that she made about poverty; I have no argument with that. We must target on the basis of need, and the new policy must do that.
I remain committed to increasing the relative funding for primary schools. I have announced that the budget provides for an additional £90 per primary pupil, which represents a 3·1% increase in funding per primary school pupil compared to last year. All parties say that they support extra money for primary schools, but they need to make measured contributions to the debates, given the current economic climate.
I have also extended the free school meals entitlement criteria to include working families with children in full-time nursery and primary schools, with a household income below £16,190. When fully operational, it is expected that an additional 20,000 pupils will benefit from the extension of the scheme, and I encourage all lower-income families to claim their entitlements. I also encourage Members to spend their time letting their constituents know about the scheme rather than trying to pick holes in the community relations strategy in a very ill-thought-out way.
I am considering a draft early years strategy for nought to six-year-olds, and I have set aside £1·5 million to take forward development in that key area. I congratulate Members who mentioned it, because it is a key policy that will make a significant difference in future. I have also just announced up to a further £1·3 million funding to provide additional preschool places to meet unprecedented demand.
The curriculum sports programme, delivered by the GAA and the IFA — organisations that reach out to their communities — continues to receive funding, with £1·5 million available in 2010-11. The programme’s emphasis is on participation for everyone and working with working-class communities.
I remain fully committed to the youth services and their important impact on our young people. However, in recognition of the continued need for good relations and equality, I have been able to make provision to retain a funding stream for community relations work. The previous community relations funding schemes terminated on 31 March 2010, and the organisations affected were given notice of that on 3 August 2009 to provide time to bring existing programmes to a managed closure.
Beidh mo chuid feidhmeannach ag obair leis na príomhpháirtithe leasmhara san earnáil chun bealaí nuálaíocha agus éifeachtúla ó thaobh an chostais de a aithint lena chinntiú go n-uasmhéadófar an cistiú atá ar fáil..
My officials will work with key stakeholders across the education sector to identify innovative and cost-effective ways of ensuring that the funding available is maximised. To facilitate the administration associated with the winding-up of existing schemes, I have made short-term allocations to all the organisations affected from the 2010-11 budget. The funding will cease at the end of May. The focus will be on embedding community relations in the mainstream education system. Most of the 2010-11 funding for community relations will be used to secure posts in the education and library boards and in the Youth Council, which are critical to the implementation of the new policy. Initially, they will be used to ensure a managed run-down of current schemes until the end of June and to prepare for implementation of the new policy.
In addition, significant expenditure of over £200 million for special educational needs, £8 million for supporting newcomer pupils and £28 million for youth services contributes to the wider approach to community relations. It is against that background and the need to take cognisance of the relevance and impact of other policies in respect of community relations that my decision to set community relations funding at £1·1 million should be viewed, not by focusing narrowly on one funding stream.
With all the work that my Department is engaged in, I am confident that education will continue to make a vital, meaningful and sustainable contribution to building good relations and equality between young people across the nine grounds rather than two or three grounds, and to the emerging Executive policy on cohesion, sharing and integration.
I thank all Members who have contributed to the debate. It has been constructive. There has been little disagreement. I noticed that even John O’Dowd appeared to agree with the motion. I am glad to hear it. We all recognise that we are in difficult financial times and that more lie ahead. The Department of Education is no different to other Departments. However, there are questions to be asked — they have been asked, rightly — about the degree of the cut and its disproportionate effect on voluntary groups whose other funding sources are limited.
I appreciate the Minister’s point that the bulk of the funding that has been withdrawn is being used to prepare for implementation of the new community relations, equality and diversity policy, which is proposed to be adopted during the current financial year. However, we are quite well into the financial year, and the Minister talked about bringing it forward for consultation “later this year”. Given that most of the groups that are now being severely disadvantaged by the cut will expect to be funded under the new policy, what on earth are they supposed to do in the meantime? In proposing the motion, Anno Lo stated that they are grant-funded only until the end of May. The £1·1 million that is left is to cover the entire financial year. The new policy has not even been produced in draft form. Given the Department of Education’s rather sorry record of bringing forward policy documents, when can implementation be expected? It seems to me that the best estimate is some time around Christmas. What is supposed to be done about the 26 community relations groups, the schools’ community relations programme and the youth support scheme?
Anno Lo referred to the Programme for Government commitment to promote tolerance, inclusion, health and well-being. Is this decision in line with that commitment? Indeed, David Hilditch made an interesting point about Robin Newton’s comments earlier, which he said refocused the community relations strategy. The jury is out on that. OFMDFM thinks so little of that Programme for Government commitment that it has taken almost three years to bring forward a draft CSI strategy. Frankly, that came only after pressure from the Alliance Party and as part of the deal to persuade us to accept the Justice Ministry. Although the strategy is yet to be made public, it is rumoured to be high on rhetoric and low on substance. Given that it was brought forward under duress, it is, perhaps, a half-hearted compromise. However, my party colleague Stephen Farry informs me that there is strong affirmation in the strategy of the principle of contact.
The Department of Education seems to be prepared to leave so many worthy groups in the lurch on the vague promise of a new policy later this year if they can stay in business in the meantime. I wonder what all of that says not only about the Department but about the Executive’s commitment to community relations.
I want to spend a few moments on what Members have said during the debate. Straight away, Mervyn Storey mentioned one funded body that he knows of which is in the process of losing four experienced staff. Other Members made similar points. Mervyn also referred to young people from interfaces in deprived areas and the possibility of them being turned from the proper way into more doubtful associations. That point was echoed by Dawn Purvis and Dominic Bradley.
Several Members spoke about a vacuum in policy development. That is the problem: we have done away with one policy without replacing it with another. All that has been said about education sounds familiar. Basil McCrea spoke about the common goal of trying to dismiss sectarian tensions and commented that a modest budget can make a huge difference. That is absolutely correct. He also said that the Assembly needs to get real about community relations. He specifically referred to comments that I did not hear because I was not at the meeting in question. However, there seemed to be at least a difference of emphasis between what Daithí McKay said at the W5 meeting and what the Minister is now saying.
Dominic Bradley referred to the review that started in 2008 and the loss of many good people to the community relations sector. He spoke about staff being placed on protective notice and the fact that there is no funding for programmes or transport and stated that, in that vacuum, the initiative was being handed to others.
John O’Dowd surprised me slightly — I do not know why I was surprised — by agreeing with the concerns that were expressed. He did not appear to disagree with any part of the motion, but I wonder whether Sinn Féin will actually support it. We will wait and see. He made the valid point that the Department’s budget is tightly stretched and that £87 million is being lost to it this year. That is fair enough. We all know that there are very difficult decisions to be made but, in recent times, the Minister has managed to come up with extra money that we did not know about for various schemes. She has not been given much credit for some of those, but I will give her credit for the reprioritisation of Whitehouse Primary School, the money that has been found for preschool places and the decision on prep schools. All of that is very welcome. Today, she mentioned a slight adjustment to the free school meals criteria and another £2 million for the Irish-medium sector, which will not please everybody, but it is money that has been found.
Lord Morrow will not let me live that one down, but I stand by my view. John McCallister made a telling comment about short-term budgetary decisions with long-term effects. He could not have put it better; that is very sound logic. Mary Bradley spoke about the SDLP’s policy, which I think we all share: a shared and equal society, free of hate. She also mentioned the multiple impacts of cross-community work. There is no disagreement anywhere in the House about those matters.
My party colleague Stephen Farry referred to the CSI strategy being all-embracing and was completely at a loss to reconcile that strategy, little as we know about it, with the 70% cut to a particular budget. Dawn Purvis was baffled by that decision; aren’t we all? She spoke about “gutting” the budget and the failed United States policy of “separate but equal”.
The Minister has responded. I agree with what she said at the beginning of her speech: much has changed in 20 years, and the policy needed to be reviewed. That is fine. There is not a policy in existence in this place that should not be reviewed on a more regular cycle than that.
(Mr Speaker in the Chair)
I like the sound of the new policy that the Minister described and of all the work that is going into that. She talked about 2,000 pre-consultation questionnaires — fair enough — and a wide-ranging review. However, she said that all that will happen later this year. In the meantime, those groups have little or no money.
Finally, the Minister referred once again to the ESA — I do not know how she could ever get through a speech without mentioning it — and the necessity to establish it in order to save some money. For the record, I completely agree with her. I am just throwing that in during the last few seconds of my contribution. She talked about a managed run-down of existing schemes. A managed run-down simply means that existing schemes will run out of money at the end of May or possibly June. However, until a new policy is established and some new funding is provided, a gap will exist. I, therefore, appeal again to the Minister to try to fill that gap so that those schemes are not detrimentally affected.
Question put and agreed to.
That this Assembly expresses deep concern at the Minister of Education’s decision to introduce significant cuts to her Department’s community relations budget for 2010-11; and calls on the Minister to explain how her Department can now make any meaningful contribution to building good relations between young people and to an overarching Executive policy on cohesion, sharing and integration.