Ministerial Statement – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 10:45 am on 21st June 2011.
I have received notice from the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister (OFMDFM) that the deputy First Minister wishes to make a statement.
Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Before I make the statement, I want to say that I have been notified by my office that a complaint was made in the Assembly by Assemblyman Campbell about my inadvertently walking across a Member as he was speaking, albeit at a lower level, so I apologise for that to the Assembly.
In compliance with section 52(c)(2) of the Northern Ireland Act 1998, we wish to make the following statement on the twelfth meeting of the North/South Ministerial Council (NSMC) in plenary format, which was held in Dublin on Friday 10 June 2011. The Ministers who attended the meeting have approved this report, and we make it on their behalf.
Our delegation was led by the First Minister, Peter Robinson MLA, and me. In addition, the following Ministers were in attendance: Minister Attwood, Minister Farry, Minister Kennedy, Minister McCausland, Minister Ní Chuilín, Minister O’Dowd, Minister O’Neill, Minister Wilson, junior Minister Anderson and junior Minister Bell.
The Irish Government delegation was led by the Taoiseach, Enda Kenny TD. The following Irish Ministers were also in attendance: Minister Bruton, Minister Burton, Minister Coveney, Minister Deenihan, Minister Fitzgerald, Minister Hogan, Minister Howlin, Minister Noonan, Minister Quinn, Minister Rabbitte, Minister Reilly and Minister Varadkar.
The meeting provided the new Irish Government and our new Executive with the opportunity to meet for the first time and exchange views on issues of mutual interest and concern. In their opening discussion Ministers discussed common challenges, and they shared views on the economy, fiscal issues, the banks and the National Asset Management Agency (NAMA). With constraints on budgets in both jurisdictions, the advantages of practical co-operation and the need to identify potential cost savings through working together were recognised. Discussions between Finance Ministers will continue, and they will report to the next plenary meeting in November.
Ministers welcomed increasing collaboration in the field of innovation in the European Union and noted that a conference on innovation aimed at increasing collaboration in the European framework programmes will be held in Belfast on 30 June, attended by Ministers from both jurisdictions. They noted that such collaboration can lead to tangible mutual benefits. The Council welcomed the confirmation of support in both jurisdictions for the development of a satellite radiotherapy service at Altnagelvin.
Ministers noted the progress report on NSMC meetings since May 2007. They also noted the mutually beneficial co-operation of the North/South implementation bodies and Tourism Ireland, and in other NSMC areas, including the fact that, during 2010, over 150 companies initiated InterTradeIreland trade or innovation projects, of which 22 companies are first-time exporters and 12 are first-time innovators. InterTradeIreland’s average return on investment across its portfolio of trade and innovation programmes was on target for 2010. Through InterTradeIreland’s activities, in 2010, 94 new jobs were reported by companies participating in the programmes.
Waterways Ireland will host a meeting in Enniskillen from 13 to 16 September for its 17 partners from 13 countries in an INTERREG IVc project entitled Waterways Forward. Tourism Ireland’s aim in 2011 is to return to growth in overseas visitors to the island from all markets, with a particular focus on the GB market, which remains the most important overseas tourist market for the island of Ireland.
Co-operation on the implementation of rural development programmes and EU programmes has been a high priority. There has been increasing success in supporting access to EU funding for cross-border and cross-community rural development projects, such as the £1·3m INTERREG IVa project between Newry and Mourne District Council, Monaghan County Council and Monaghan County Enterprise Board to develop tourism and enterprise infrastructure across the Monaghan and south Armagh region.
An all-island freight forum has been established whose work is industry-led and issue-based; it is being taken forward by working groups focusing on competitiveness and sustainability; safe, compliant and eco-efficient road freight transport; rail freight and other alternatives; international connectivity; and data and network management. An additional stop on the Enterprise train service at Lisburn and a new Newry to Dublin early-morning direct service have been introduced. The two railway companies are planning measures that will be taken forward over the coming 18 months to align with suggestions made in the Enterprise rail seminar report.
Ministers noted that the boards of the North/South implementation bodies and Tourism Ireland are due for renewal in December and that nominations for appointment will be brought forward for approval at the NSMC plenary meeting in November.
Ministers noted the progress on the A5 north-west gateway to Aughnacloy and the A8 Belfast to Larne projects and agreed that payment of £11 million will be made by the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport to the NI Consolidated Fund. The Council welcomed the continued commitment of the Irish Government to the funding of those projects and agreed to consider a further progress report at the next NSMC plenary meeting.
Ministers noted proposals relating to terms of reference one, which were prepared by the St Andrews Agreement review group arising from consultation on recommendations in a report that was prepared by expert advisers to the review group. They agreed that those will be forwarded, along with a copy of the report, for consideration by Ministers in the new Executive and in the Irish Government with responsibilities for North/South bodies, and by Finance Ministers. Taking account of those considerations, the NSMC joint secretariat will make recommendations to finalise that element of the review at the NSMC plenary meeting in November. Ministers further agreed that terms of reference two and three of the St Andrews review will also be discussed at that meeting.
Ministers noted the background and recent developments on the North/South consultative forum and agreed to finalise deliberations on this issue at the plenary meeting in November.
Ministers noted that, following a North/South parliamentary forum conference in Newcastle on 7 and 8 October 2010, the Ceann Comhairle of Dáil Éireann and the Speaker of the Assembly asked the working groups that were established in each institution to take forward discussions on the North/South parliamentary forum. They also asked the working groups to discuss a further conference, an inaugural meeting and other ideas that were suggested at the conference and to work jointly, taking into account the valuable contribution that the conference has made to a better understanding of key issues of interest and concern to Members of our Assembly and the Houses of the Oireachtas. Ministers further noted the intention of the Ceann Comhairle and the Speaker to hold a joint meeting of the working groups in Dublin on 23 June.
Ministers noted that the NSMC joint secretariat has taken forward further work on cross-border mobility issues and that a bid for further funding will be made to INTERREG IVa for the Border People website. That bid, which has support in principle from the Social Security Agency, the Department of Social Protection and the NSMC joint secretariat, will include a bid for funding for a network of advisers from existing organisations to deal with complex cross-border welfare and taxation issues.
Ministers approved the appointment of Mr Ian Crozier to the post of chief executive of the Ulster-Scots Agency.
Ministers approved a schedule of NSMC meetings proposed by the joint secretariat, noting that the NSMC joint secretariat, in consultation with relevant Departments, will make arrangements for dates for each of those meetings. They noted that future NSMC plenary meetings will be held in the second week of June and the third week of November. Go raibh maith agat.
I thank the deputy First Minister for that report. I note that there is a small section on financial difficulties, particularly in the Republic of Ireland. I am conscious of recent speculation and reports about the consolidation of financial institutions. Was there discussion about consolidating financial institutions? What impact would that have on the Northern Ireland banking fraternity and those banks that are directly affected by those that may be consolidated in the Republic of Ireland?
A discussion on the economics of where we are all at ensued during the meeting. Yesterday, at the British-Irish Council meeting, the Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, made it clear that banking was undergoing huge change in the South as a result of the recent crisis that has plunged many businesses and others in the South into very deep trouble. Our discussions mostly related to how the situation in the banks would affect banking North and South of the border and also NAMA, which is a big concern for us.
We highlighted our concerns about access to lending, especially to small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), and about the potential impact of bank restructuring on jobs in the North.
We raised concerns that decisions being taken on NAMA should not damage our business interests. It was very sad that, on the day that we were there, the death of Brian Lenihan was announced. Our Finance Minister had been involved in an ongoing engagement with Brian to try to ensure that any decisions that were taken on NAMA would not detrimentally affect our situation in the North, particularly in the context of some speculation that we could end up with a fire sale, which would be very destabilising for our economic circumstances. Brian Lenihan was always willing to reassure us that he would not allow that to happen.
We highlighted the impact on trading companies that are servicing their loans when companies and loans are taken into NAMA, and we also pressed for more effective input by us into decisions on NAMA. On the disposal of assets, we said that some developers, especially those who are close to assets that are in NAMA, are keen to get them but that the decision-making process is very slow.
Our Finance Minister, Sammy Wilson, also met separately the Irish Government Finance Minister, Michael Noonan, and their Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Brendan Howlin, immediately after the plenary to discuss those issues in more depth. I understand that officials from the two Finance Departments will meet again to explore those issues further. There is obviously big change coming in the South, and I am happy that the relationship between our Finance Department and that in the South is ongoing and very strong to ensure that whatever flows from the big decisions that have already been taken, and those that will be taken in the time ahead, does not detrimentally affect our economy.
I thank the deputy First Minister for his statement. Does he believe that North/South bodies provide value for money, and does he agree that, like Departments in Northern Ireland, they should be subject to efficiency savings?
I do believe that they provide value for money, and I agree with the Member that they should be subject to efficiency savings, and they are. Decisions on efficiency savings were taken at an earlier stage. The fact that we are meeting consistently at very well-attended meetings under the auspices of the North/South Ministerial Council suggests clearly that the Government in Dublin and our Administration in the North value that contact and the potential that exists in those bodies to ensure that we continually strive to achieve mutual benefit for the people who live on this island, whether they live in the North or in the South. The answer is very clear; we would not be meeting in this format if the institutions were not delivering for our people, North and South.
Cuirim fáilte roimh an ráiteas. I welcome the statement and the work that has been done, particularly on cross-border mobility issues, because we know that there is a lot of work to be done there. You spoke about the inter-parliamentary forum, and I was present at the previous meeting in Newcastle in County Down, which was very useful. Can we be given further information on plans for an inter-parliamentary forum?
At the NSMC, we noted that, following a North/South parliamentary forum conference that was held in October 2010, the Ceann Comhairle of Dáil Éireann and the Speaker of the Assembly asked the working groups that had been established in each institution to take forward discussions on the potential for a North/South parliamentary forum, which is envisaged in the Good Friday Agreement and the St Andrews Agreement. That included discussions on a further conference and an inaugural meeting, and other ideas were suggested at the conference. There were discussions on working jointly to take into account the valuable contribution that the conference has made to a better understanding of key issues of interest and concern to Members of the Assembly and the Houses of the Oireachtas.
I am pleased to see that work on that is progressing well and that the Ceann Comhairle, Seán Barrett, and our Speaker, Willie Hay, plan to hold a joint meeting of the working groups in Dublin this week. That work will help to create a better understanding of the common issues facing both legislatures.
That conference, which was held in the Slieve Donard Hotel in County Down, was very well attended by elected representatives North and South, and I recall that the present Taoiseach turned up to it as leader of the Opposition. That was a very clear statement of his intent to try to take that work forward. So, it is a work in progress, and we look forward to the outcome of our Speaker’s deliberations with the new Ceann Comhairle on the work plan that they put in place in October to see that we expedite the matter as quickly as possible.
I thank the deputy First Minister for his statement. I ask him to join me in welcoming the ongoing work of the north-west partnership board and ask him to work with the local MLAs and the partnership board to help them bring forward a paper on the north-west gateway initiative at an early meeting of the North/South Ministerial Council.
Absolutely. That issue has been widely discussed and is of great interest to people living in the north-west: in Derry, parts of Tyrone and County Donegal. I do not have any difficulty whatsoever in giving our commitment that that issue will be kept at the front line in our deliberations. At each meeting of the North/South Ministerial Council, that issue receives a very substantial airing, and we all recognise the great benefits that can be accrued for people on both sides of the border by pushing forward with those developments.
As we all know, attendant to all of that is the ongoing interest in the area in, for example, the building and construction of the new radiotherapy unit at Altnagelvin. There is also interest in the fact that the preferred routes for the A5 and the A8 have been outlined and that contractors have been appointed for three different stages of the A5. Infrastructure is vital for the north-west gateway, and I note from papers in the region that some concern has been expressed about whether or not the A5 project will go ahead. People need to be reminded that the A5 project is a very high-level agreement, as is the construction of the radiotherapy unit at Altnagelvin Hospital. They involve high-level agreements between our Executive and the Irish Government, and substantial funds have been put into those projects. Most recently, £11 million was allocated following a joint decision a few days ago.
Anybody who is in any doubt about whether or not the A5 will go ahead needs to dispel those doubts. Obviously, we cannot pre-empt the outcome of the ongoing inquiry in the Omagh area, which will be completed over the next couple of weeks. We will see what that throws up for all of us. However, those two projects are very important to the north-west gateway. There are many other important projects of an educational nature and, indeed, if we see good cross-border co-operation, other projects can bring huge benefits to the people of that region.
I thank the deputy First Minister for his statement and welcome his identification of the savings and collaboration possibilities through effective operation of the North/South bodies. Enhanced engagement with Europe to the benefit of local small and medium-sized enterprises is of particular interest to the OFMDFM Committee. I note that there will be a conference on innovation and collaboration through the European framework programmes on 30 June. How, exactly, will our small and medium-sized enterprises be involved in that conference? What additional outcomes does the deputy First Minister hope to see from it?
I trust and hope that they will all be ably represented at the conference. The First Minister and I went to Brussels to meet the Commissioner for Research, Innovation and Science, Máire Geoghegan-Quinn, and that was a big subject during our conversations. There was an acceptance from us that we had more to do and that the gap between where Europe is at and where our SMEs are at in relation to “joined-upness” left an awful lot to be desired.
When we came back from that meeting, we made it absolutely clear to all our Departments that it was important that all of us upped our game in Europe. It was also quite clear that, in Máire Geoghegan-Quinn, we were dealing with a sympathetic commissioner. As someone who understood the problems of small and medium-sized enterprises, she was more than willing to facilitate smoothing the way to accessing funds from her department. Therefore, the conference is going to be important and we encourage all those invited to turn up.
Its emphasis and focus are on SMEs and improving access to Europe. I hope that people will take what is a golden opportunity to increase our performance and, as a result, gain more support from Europe for our region.
The good progress on the A5 and A8 projects was noted at the plenary sitting, and the Irish Government reaffirmed their commitment to those projects and the related funding. As I said, we agreed that the payment of £11 million would be made by the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport to the NI Consolidated Fund in accordance with agreed procedures. The Council noted that development work was continuing on the A5 project and that a public inquiry commenced on 9 May 2011. That inquiry was expected to last some eight weeks and is due to complete shortly.
Similar progress has been made on the A8, with the third key milestone met, on target, by the publication of the draft Orders and environmental statement in January 2011. A public inquiry into that project is expected to commence later this month.
Those road projects, along with the progress already made in the overall motorway network in Ireland, will ensure greater road connectivity across the island. It is no secret to any Member that people west of the Bann have always felt neglected by Dublin and Belfast. In Donegal’s case, that feeling relates to Dublin. People in parts of County Tyrone and County Derry have always felt that the good roads were in the east, not just in the North but in the South. In the west of Ireland — our focus is on the north-west at the moment — there is an infrastructure deficit. The region is of the strong view that the deficit of proper infrastructure works against the prospects of bringing new investment to the area.
Therefore, the A5 and A8 are critically important projects, and I understand that there are concerns about them. The ongoing inquiry is an opportunity for people to air those concerns and we will see what the judgement is at the end of that. However, these are high-level agreements between our Administration and the Government in Dublin. They are road projects that will bring huge benefits to our people.
All the talk has been about the A5, but the A8 Belfast to Larne road is also a vital road to upgrade for the simple reason that, along the eastern seaboard of the island of Ireland, we have large juggernaut vehicles travelling back and forward to Europe. It is important that we provide a proper road infrastructure to ensure that those vehicles get to their destinations with road safety in mind as well as the speed with which they ferry their products to mainland Europe.
Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I thank the deputy First Minister for his statement. Does he agree that the consistent commitment from the Dublin Government contradicts, in some way, the lack of a total commitment from the Assembly to upgrade the A5? Does he think that it is time for the Assembly to indicate clearly that it wants to build that road?
The commitment from the authorities in Dublin has been strong. As far as I am concerned, the commitment from the Assembly and our Executive is also strong.
We attended the meeting of the North/South Ministerial Council, at which we took very important decisions. We took a joint decision to allocate £11 million. That is not done if the project is not to go ahead. What would be the sense in that? It would make no sense whatsoever. The question is around the fact that there has been a public inquiry and that objections to the road have been raised. People have a right to have their say, and they are having that opportunity through the establishment of the public inquiry, which will consider its deliberations and make public its findings. We will then take it forward from there.
However, I have not heard anybody on the Executive say that the A5 project should not go ahead. In fact, the contrary is the case. It will come down to how it goes ahead and the quality of the road. Obviously, there is a strong view that a project of that size needs to be of very high quality. The question is how we can do that and, at the same time, save vital funds for our Administrations, North and South. There is no question about the road. However, questions remain about the outcome of the inquiry, about whatever discussions officials will have in the aftermath of the inquiry and about how they take forward the project. The project is very far advanced. Contractors have been informed that they have the tenders for three stages of the road. I think that the project is unstoppable. It is now a matter of how it is taken forward to try to minimise the costs to our Administrations, North and South.
Will the deputy First Minister undertake to ensure that value for money will be achieved when planning sectoral meetings and that, where possible, money will be saved by using government venues for meetings, as well as modern communication methods?
We are always very conscious of the need to ensure that costs be kept to a minimum, and we are satisfied that costs have been kept to a minimum. As many Members know, the NSMC building in Armagh was opened recently, and that has allowed us to plan ahead to minimise costs. The cost to OFMDFM of NSMC meetings that the Executive host is met by the joint secretariat in the North. Travel and subsistence costs for staff other than those from the NSMC and the joint secretariat are met by the responsible Departments. The approximate cost to date, for example, of the 81 NSMC meetings held since May 2007 is around £99,000. The approximate cost to OFMDFM of the 15 NSMC meetings held in the new NSMC joint secretariat building in Armagh since April 2010 is around £5,000, and the cost to OFMDFM of the 20 NSMC meetings held in 2010-11 was £7,000. People will accept that we are spending money on NSMC meetings very prudently.
I thank the deputy First Minister for his statement. I am sure that he will be aware of the EU directive on agency workers, and the associated discussion and debate by the unions; namely, the Northern Ireland Committee, Irish Congress of Trade Unions (NICICTU). Have any discussions taken place on the directive?
There were no discussions at the meeting. I have no doubt that, if it is an issue of major concern to any party in the Assembly, and if we are informed of the detail of the difficulties that exist, there will be no objection to our speaking to corresponding Ministers about how we are handling the issue, North and South. I know that there is a debate out there on the matter.
Although the deputy First Minister has addressed the issue of the St Andrews Agreement review, is it possible for him to elaborate on it?
We discussed the next steps on the St Andrews Agreement review at the plenary meeting. Work on the review has included consultation with Ministers on the former Executive and the former Irish Government on recommendations from a panel of experts on the first element of the review, which is the efficiency and value for money of the existing North/South bodies. Taking account of the responses received, the review group made a number of proposals. Those, along with a copy of the report prepared by experts, will be forwarded to Ministers in the new Executive and those in the new Irish Government responsible for North/South bodies and, of course, the Finance Ministers.
Taking account of any comments received, the NSMC joint secretariat will prepare recommendations for us to consider, so that we can finalise that element of the review at the next plenary sitting in November. At the November meeting, we will also discuss the other two terms of reference of the review, which include the case for additional bodies and the areas of co-operation within the NSMC.
It is important that our new Administration takes some time to consider the work done so far, including the proposals from the review group on the first element of the review. We also need time to consider the other elements, and, in my view, it is important that all elements of the review are progressed at the next plenary sitting. At the NSMC meeting, we agreed that that should be the case.
I thank the deputy First Minister for his statement. Reference was made to the wider community facing difficulties in the banking sector. Was a decision taken to have joint North/South ministerial discussions with the banking sector to rectify its inability and unwillingness to provide credit facilities to the business, commerce and construction industries? Does the deputy First Minister agree that the lack of availability of credit facilities is having an adverse effect on the local economy, North and South? Will he ensure that every effort is made to bring other North/South bodies into the review of the whole process?
I gave a detailed explanation of how we are taking forward the review of the North/South bodies in my previous answer. It is a work in progress. I agree with the Member about the difficulties being presented to businesses, north and south of the border, as a result of the failure of the banks to lend in a way that would sustain the opportunities to face the mighty challenges that all businesses face as a result of the economic downturn.
The Member also asked about joint representation. Earlier, I made it clear that officials from our Finance Department and the Finance Department in the South have pledged to meet regularly. No doubt, that will, as it should, form part of their discussion.
One important feature of the NSMC meeting was the openness with which the Taoiseach approached it. At the beginning of the meeting, he made it clear to all of his Ministers that they should exchange mobile numbers with our Ministers, and vice versa. I welcomed his positive suggestion, as it allows all sorts of opportunities for Ministers of various Departments to meet their counterparts. At the very least, his suggestion enables them to keep in touch so that they can deal with some of the huge challenges that we face in a way that does not compromise the work of the North/South Ministerial Council. We will get huge benefit from having close contact with our corresponding Ministers in the South.
The issue of credit for SMEs and businesses is as difficult in the South as it is in the North. If anything can be gained by applying further pressure to the banks through a joined-up approach, I have no doubt that officials from the two Finance Departments will consider that suggestion when they meet.
Were there any discussions on child protection at that or any prior meeting of the NSMC? If so, what child protection plans have been taken forward in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland?
That specific issue did not come up at this meeting, but it has come up at previous meetings of the North/South Ministerial Council. I know that our new Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety, Edwin Poots, is concerned about the issue. He will work closely with the new Minister for Health in the South, Dr Reilly, to ensure that we deal with the issue in a way that gives the greatest possible protection to all our children. As I said, the issue did not come up at this meeting, but that does not mean to say that it is not regarded as a huge priority, because it is. That will be given further emphasis by the work in which Edwin Poots and Dr Reilly will engage in the time ahead.
The deputy First Minister has already dealt with the matter of the banks on a number of occasions. However, I wonder if I could just press him further. Given that the economy is at the very centre of our thinking these days and the unavailability of credit is hampering us, does he anticipate any consolidation of the banking sector in the Republic of Ireland? Was that discussed with his colleagues at the North/South Ministerial Council meeting, and, if so, what are the implications for Northern Ireland?
The economic situation was discussed, and the plenary meeting provided us with an opportunity to meet and exchange views with the Taoiseach and Irish Government Ministers. Our common economic and budgetary challenges were a key topic of discussion. The Taoiseach outlined the steps being taken by his Government to bring the economy back on track, which includes the ongoing work on the restructuring of the banks. He said that they are heading in the right direction, and we outlined the challenges that we face and the efforts that we are making to address those, including some encouraging signs and plans to find further potential sources of additional revenue.
It will be no surprise to anybody that the issue of corporation tax came up during our discussions. I was encouraged that, during the press conference that the First Minister and I held with the Taoiseach after the meeting, the Taoiseach was supportive. When he was asked whether the Irish Government would support the work in which we have been involved to try to get a lower rate of corporation tax, without hesitation, he said that he would.
We know that huge changes are taking place in banking. We also know, because of the linkages between the banks in the South and in the North, that that will have implications for us. Our focus has to be on ensuring that jobs are protected and that whatever emerges from the restructuring will move us all forward in a much stronger way with a more stable approach to banking than the one that previously brought us to the misery with which many Governments throughout the world are now dealing.
The deputy First Minister mentioned the advantages of practical co-operation in the NSMC meeting. Is he aware that 40,000 people who were born in the Irish Republic are living in Northern Ireland, many of whom have lived in Northern Ireland for many years? They are, therefore, UK residents, UK voters and UK taxpayers, but they do not have a right to a British passport. He is a UK resident, UK voter and UK taxpayer, and he has a right to an Irish passport. The Home Office, the Irish Republic’s Government and the Northern Ireland Office are aware of the issue. Will the deputy First Minister ensure that, at a future NSMC meeting, or perhaps more relevantly, at a British-Irish Council (BIC) meeting, the matter is brought to the attention of the Home Office and a suitable accommodation arrived at to give those people the same right to a British passport that he has to an Irish one?
That issue has not come up, and, being very honest, I have to say that I am not that familiar with the subject. However, I understand the Member’s point. Before we deal with it through the auspices of the NSMC, it might be a good idea for the Member and me to get together to discuss it. We will see then how we can take the matter forward.
I am pleased that we do not need passports between the North and the South.
I welcome the deputy First Minister’s statement, particularly what he said about improvements to the Enterprise service between Belfast and Dublin. I have every belief that the entire delegation travelled by train.
In relation to rail freight, the deputy First Minister will be aware that virtually everything in the North, and between North and South, moves by road. With the establishment of the new all-island freight forum, can we have an assurance that freight trains in the North will begin moving again and that Northern Ireland Railways will be part of a campaign to move goods from roads to railways? It is shameful that it was discontinued years ago.
The joint secretaries’ progress report included an update on the establishment of the freight forum in January 2010. The work of the forum is industry-led and issue-based and has been taken forward by working groups focusing on competitiveness and sustainability; safe, compliant and eco-efficient road freight transport; rail freight and other alternatives; international connectivity; and data and network management. Each priority area has a lead organisation and an overseeing Department. The lead organisations are the Freight Transport Association, the Department of the Environment, the Road Safety Authority, the Irish Exporters Association, the Irish Maritime Development Office, the central statistics and research branch of DRD, and the Central Statistics Office. A key aspect of the freight forum is co-operation between Government and the logistics sector to help the forum to take a strategic perspective and be relevant to the needs of industry.
I am very sympathetic to the points that the Member made, and the establishment of the freight forum provides an opportunity to deal with those very relevant issues. Finding solutions to those issues will bring huge benefits for us all.
In the statement the First Minister and the deputy First Minister acknowledged that there were constraints in the Budget in both jurisdictions and that there is a need to identify potential cost savings. Does the deputy First Minister accept that all North/South projects should be reassessed to ensure that they are proportionate and justifiable and that such investment will maximise the use of our limited funds so that the economy will reach the best possible outcome?
That was one of the purposes of the review. The budget for the North/South bodies and Tourism Ireland for 2010 was £146 million; the Executive’s contribution was £37·6 million and the Irish Government’s £108·4 million. Guidance to inform the preparation of corporate plans for 2011-13 and 2011 business plans for the North/South bodies was issued by the Department of Finance and Personnel and the Department of Finance to sponsor Departments in July 2010.
The guidance specified that further minimum cash-releasing efficiency savings of 3% in 2011, culminating in 9% over the period 2012-13, are required. It includes the proviso that there may be a review of those efficiency guidelines for 2012-13 to take account of the developing budget process in both jurisdictions. Therefore, we agreed that the North/South bodies, like all other public bodies, must ensure efficiency. However, it will be important that they have sufficient resources to deliver on their mandates.
Considerable work has been done on the preparation of budgets and business plans for 2011 and corporate plans for 2011-13 for the bodies. It is anticipated that those corporate and business plans will be approved by Ministers at NSMC meetings to be held between now and September.