Private Members’ Business – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 10:30 am on 20th September 2011.
I remind Members to switch off their mobile phones, because they interfere with the Building’s electronic systems.
The Business Committee has agreed to allow up to two hours for this debate. The proposer will have 10 minutes to propose the motion and 10 minutes to make a winding-up speech. All other Members who wish to speak will have five minutes.
I beg to move
That this Assembly recognises that good practice in governance is to base a Budget on an up-to-date Programme for Government so that the policy initiatives can inform financial planning; notes that it is now over six months since the Assembly voted on the Executive’s Budget 2011-15; further notes the significant economic change in this region since the 2008-2011 Programme for Government was published; and calls on the Executive to publish for consultation a new draft Programme for Government which adequately addresses the economic challenges in the coming years.
Go raibh maith agat, a Phríomh-LeasCheann Comhairle.
Tá an-áthas orm an rún seo a mholadh. A Cheann Comhairle, nó, a Phríomh-LeasCheann Comhairle — tá a lán béil d’fhocail ansin. Dá bhféadfaí focail a ithe, bheadh ábhar lóin ansin, déarfainn.
Mr Principal Deputy Speaker, there are a lot of words in your title, and I said that, if we could eat our words, there would certainly would be a lunch there for someone.
Bhí mé i láthair inné nuair a d’fhoscail Uachtarán na hÉireann an síneadh nua leis an Chultúrlann ar Bhóthar na bhFál. Chonacthas domh gur eiseamláir iontach an tionscnamh sin den sochar a thig as airgead poiblí a infheistiú sa phobal agus an tairbhe a thig dá bharr. Ním comhghairdeas le coiste stiúrtha na Cultúrlainne as an éacht atá déanta acu ar son na Gaeilge, ar son na turasóireachta, ar son na healaíona, agus ar son na fostaíochta sa Cheathrú Gaeltachta d’iarthar Bhéal Feirste.
Yesterday, I attended the opening of the extension to the Cultúrlann McAdam Ó Fiaich on the Falls Road by the President of Ireland, Mary McAleese. It is an excellent example of how public investment can benefit communities. I congratulate the management committee of An Cultúrlann on what it has done for employment, tourism, the Irish language and the arts in the Gaeltacht Quarter of west Belfast.
Two Departments, the Department for Social Development and the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure, contributed to the cocktail of funding that enabled the project. That spend was a result of the previous Programme for Government, and it illustrates how communities can benefit from well-directed public spending. It also underlines the need for the existing Budget to be based on a revised Programme for Government for 2011-15 and an updated investment strategy that demonstrates how strategic policies drive financial allocations, not the other way around.
We could use many metaphors to demonstrate the role of the Programme for Government in public spending. I suppose that the Programme for Government is the road map that should lead public spending in the direction in which it needs to go to best serve our communities’ needs.
The Programme for Government, and the consultation around it, allows for participative democracy and adds to the transparency and openness of government. Those are all positive elements that increase public confidence in government. We all know that the Northern Ireland Executive have very few levers with which to transform the local economy and set it on a path that will stimulate growth and generate jobs. We are seeking to augment those levers and add a more competitive rate of corporation tax to our economic toolkit, but, as we heard yesterday, that is likely to take some more time.
In the meantime, the main economic lever that the Executive have is public expenditure. We need to use that lever to our best possible advantage, given the deep cuts that we face. Now, more than ever, we need to ensure that we maximise every benefit from public expenditure. The way to do that is through an effective Programme for Government that is flexible enough to respond to changing economic conditions.
Unfortunately, however, the current Executive have no up-to-date policy framework for our public expenditure allocations. It is plain that good practice in governance is to base a Budget on an up-to-date Programme for Government so that policy initiatives can, as I said, inform financial planning. Such a Programme for Government is referred to in the ministerial code, which states that the Executive Committee will agree:
“each year on … a programme incorporating an agreed budget linked to policies and programmes”.
It is more than six months since the House voted on the four-year Budget, and we still do not have a Programme for Government. During the Budget debates earlier this year, the arguments as to why we did not require a new Programme for Government were well rehearsed in the Chamber. Generally speaking, they were framed in the words, “the economy is the priority”. However, we need a much more detailed programme than simply one phrase.
During those debates, the constant refrain was that the Executive took the important step of making the economy the top priority and that that will continue. The economy should still be the top priority. However, there has been significant economic change in the region since the 2008-2011 Programme for Government, so there is a need to renew the Programme for Government. In comparison with the summer of 2008, an additional 29,000 people here are now registered as unemployed. The proportion of unemployed 18- to 24-year-olds has risen from 12·1% to 18·3% in the same period. Significant reductions in our spending have been imposed by the British Government, with total cuts over the next four years representing, in real terms, a decrease of £4 billion compared with the baseline for 2010-11.
As we know, and heard again this morning, fuel prices continue to rocket, and many more people than previously will be faced with fuel poverty. As a result of the coalition’s welfare reform plans, we will see a significant negative impact on vulnerable members of society who are in receipt of benefits, and that will have a proportionally greater impact on people in Northern Ireland.
The Finance Minister stated that the Northern Ireland Executive need to decide what their real priorities are, because we can no longer afford to deliver the full range of commitments set out in the Programme for Government. Yet, more than 15 months since the Finance Minister made that statement to the Chief Executives’ Forum, we are still without a new Programme for Government.
It is imperative that the Executive publish for full consultation a new draft Programme for Government that does five key things. First, it should tackle the imbalance in the Northern Ireland economy, the under-representation of the private sector, and the fact that existing policies will not provide the momentum required to grow the private sector economy in the long term. Secondly, it should prioritise job creation and build on our strong business sectors such as tourism and agrifood, and take a strategic approach to our capital spend to prioritise the shovel-ready building projects that create most jobs.
Thirdly, we should progress North/South development and save money through new economies of scale, reduce duplication and increase specialisation. With the challenging economic times and a new Government in the South, now is a good time to undertake those projects. Fourthly, I believe in investing in young people’s education and development so that society and the economy grow. We must help young people in our schools into training and into work in future growth industries and avoid the prospect of a lost generation. My fifth point relates to the protection of front line services, particularly in health. We should stand up for the most vulnerable by responding adequately to economic fluctuations, such as increased energy costs, which hurt the most vulnerable.
Those are the broad issues on which we need to focus; my colleagues will expand on them and on others in their contributions. We need to begin forming a Programme for Government, and I hope that today’s debate will be the first step in that process. Ba mhaith liom deireadh a chur le mo chuid cainte ag an phointe seo, a Phríomh-LeasCheann Comhairle. Molaim an rún don Tionól. I commend the motion to the House.
First, I thank Mr Bradley and his colleagues for bringing forward the motion. Like other Committees, the Committee for the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister is looking for a proper opportunity to scrutinise any Programme for Government proposals that come forward. It is important that they have that opportunity. That is why I would like to have witnessed some more movement on it, as Mr Bradley indicated, long before now because it takes time for Committees to give it proper thought. I appeal to the Chairpersons of the other Committees to co-operate in the process almost as a collective group, as the Executive should be co-operating on the Programme for Government. It is important that we have a collective response to any proposals.
I would like to see — hopefully this will come forward in the Programme for Government — Departments and the Executive being creative in bringing forward new proposals and new thought processes, and, as many people call it, thinking outside the box, because in these very difficult economic times it is vital that we have new initiatives and proposals. From a Committee perspective, we will look for further engagement with the European Union in particular and with the broader international community in general.
We believe that the Barroso report has not moved far enough or quickly enough and that there may have been a wasted opportunity, because things have not progressed the way they should. However, there are obviously still quite a lot of opportunities in the European Union. I know that research and development is one particular area where there are significant opportunities for the Executive to exploit financial returns for Northern Ireland.
I will now speak on behalf of the Ulster Unionist Party. I have long called for a Programme for Government for this mandate. Before the Budget was set in March, I indicated that I thought that we were putting the cart before the horse because we were setting a Budget without a Programme for Government. I had hoped that a Programme for Government would be established at that time.
Even at this stage, only a few months into the Budget period, we note that the Budget is being changed already. It was changed just last week when student fees were frozen. The Ulster Unionist Party and I accept the fact that some changes and amendments will be needed throughout the Budget period, but unless the Executive take a collective approach and put proper parameters in place for the Programme for Government, all that we are going to do is to make small changes to the Budget at particular times when required. However, if we can set a proper Programme for Government for which there is collective responsibility and to which a cohesive approach is taken, I think that we will be able to have a much more settled Budget. I think that the two will need to work in hand in hand. That is why I believe that, although it is late to be bringing this forward now, it is better late than never.
I am not sure what the junior Minister will say here today. However, I certainly hope that definitive proposals go forward to Committees and parties in the very near future. I know and accept that parties got a draft document a short time ago, and the Ulster Unionist Party has responded to that. If we are to move forward and have a much better decision-making process over the next four years than we had in the previous four, it is very important that we take a cohesive approach and that some of us are not left out in the cold when such decisions are being made.
The Programme for Government 2008-2011 had five key priorities: to grow the economy; to promote tolerance, inclusion, health and well-being; to protect and enhance the environment; to invest and build our infrastructure; and to deliver high-quality and efficient public services.
The main thrust of that Programme for Government was about focusing on the economy, and I think that that was vital and the correct thing to do at that time. When debating the issue today, we must put into context the situation that evolved from 2008. There was not one Member of the House who could have predicted in 2007 the catastrophe that was to befall the world’s economy with the financial collapse in 2008 and the impact that that had on our United Kingdom. Although I was not a Member then, I, too, could not have predicted that. Confidence was zapped from industry as economies contracted and exports reduced, and the global banking system had a massive detrimental effect on money markets and business confidence. In that context, public spending was massively reduced by the new Tory Government to address the outgoing Government’s mismanagement of the United Kingdom’s economy.
Of course, many in the House complained about the late agreement of the Budget last winter. However, those who accurately recall the reasons for the delay will know that that was due to parties posturing, Ministers staying away from meetings with the Finance Minister and people using the Budget process as a means of electioneering for the forthcoming elections. That did not serve the people of Northern Ireland, and it did not serve the House and its reputation among the public well.
It is right that the new Executive that was formed after the election should formulate a new Programme for Government. Ministers have come to the House continually to advise us that work on a new Programme for Government is ongoing. The paper that has been left in the Library for Members’ use makes clear the consistent line of questioning from Members and responses from Ministers.
I agree that it would be ideal if we could reach a position of having a Programme for Government sitting alongside a new Budget and a new investment strategy. That would be ideal for the House, the people of Northern Ireland and the economy. However, the House must remember that we have a five-party Executive. When we look across the water to the mainland, we see the tensions that exist in a coalition Government of two parties. It is vital that all Members across the parties in the Assembly act responsibly and, as far as possible, in a collegiate way, just as they did following the recent positive statement on the freeze on tuition fees. That showed a level of collective responsibility and maturity in the House that many people out there did not believe could happen.
I understand that the Programme for Government will soon go out for consultation. Yet again, we hear the words, “It will go out for consultation”. That process will take some 16 to 18 weeks. Surely it is time that we reviewed the process of having such lengthy consultations. It does not provide or deliver good governance. In times of economic hardship and financial constraint, it is important that the Executive and those who provide leadership and confidence in the House act accordingly. Failure to do so will undermine business confidence even further and erode the reputation of this place even more. As last autumn and winter demonstrated, it will create real fear in the community and voluntary sector. At that time, how many Members had people come into their constituency offices concerned about provision of finance and security of employment for staff in that sector? The sector was very concerned about failure to deliver because, owing to posturing in the House, the Assembly could not agree a Budget.
I thank the Member for giving way. Does he agree that, in actual fact, some community and voluntary groups are still concerned and still approaching MLAs because they have not received any money for, perhaps, the past eight or nine months, even though the Budget has been set since March? That did not just happen prior to March but continues to happen.
The Member will realise that the reason that many community and voluntary sector groups suffer those hardships is because the party for which he campaigned cut £400 million from Northern Ireland’s Budget over the next four years.
Earlier in his speech, the Member said that the new Government had to clear up the mess that had been left by the old Government. He should lay the blame where it is, as he did in the earlier part of his speech.
It was not me who apportioned blame but the leader of your party.
Many people will take the view that failure to deliver the Programme for Government is a negative return for the previous Programme for Government 2008-2011. Who could have predicted the collapse? No one could have predicted it — not world markets, the World Bank or huge conglomerates.
It is important that the debate proceeds in a mature way, that we have governance —
It is important that the Government move forward responsibly, collectively and collegiately in order to deliver for the people of Northern Ireland.
Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I welcome the opportunity to speak on the Programme for Government. It has already been said that the Executive have had to deal with a number of challenges, particularly over the past year or year and a half. The £4 billion in British Government cuts and the challenge of trying to mitigate those cuts was the most significant hurdle to overcome. It has to be said that a lot of constructive work has been done and was done at that time to try to mitigate the cuts. The example of using initiative to come up with solutions is what the public expect of the Assembly. The work to counter Budget cuts needs to be ongoing.
It is the job of the new Executive and Assembly to agree a Programme for Government. It would not have made any sense — indeed, it would have been presumptuous — to have set a four-year Programme for Government in the mouth of an election, as other parties previously suggested doing.
I listened to the proposer of the motion, Mr Bradley, and there are number of points that we all agree on. I agree with him about pushing for further fiscal powers to be transferred so that we can take control of our own fiscal destiny, ensure that we can further mitigate the cuts and ensure that they do not hit the most vulnerable in society, as they are doing now.
This Programme for Government also needs to address the big challenges that we face as a society: poverty, deprivation, investment, job creation etc. The economy is a main priority, but so must be the protection of people, especially the vulnerable in our community, against the negative effects of the current economic situation, which can put grandparents, families with unemployed parents, single parents and many others —
I thank the Member for giving way. I note that both he and the previous Member mentioned difficulties that the Executive were having with cuts. Those difficulties apply across Europe and in the United States, as the Member will accept. In the South of Ireland, it took only one week for Fine Gael and Labour to agree a Programme for Government. Your party is opposed to the cuts in the South of Ireland, yet it is implementing them here in the North on behalf of the British Government.
I thank the Member for her intervention. The way that Fine Gael and Labour are operating down South quite clearly is not working. That will play out over the next few years. She referred to other European Governments, but this Assembly and Executive are constrained in their powers and in what they can do, which needs to be recognised.
In reference to last year and the events that took place, our party took a position to try to mitigate the impact of the cuts as much as it possibly could. When we were deciding on how to approach the issue of the Budget, our approach was not the same as the SDLP’s, which was to put the Budget in place right away across all Departments: our approach was about trying to mitigate the impact of the cuts. In doing so, we identified £1 billion of revenue-raising initiatives to try to ensure that the cuts had less impact on the most vulnerable in our society. As we know, the SDLP had nothing to bring forward in that regard, and it was quite clear in the elections this year that the public recognised our efforts more than those of the SDLP.
The Programme for Government must adequately cover those points and set clear and tangible targets. The emphasis should be on getting it right. We should not have another rush job. At the time of the last Programme for Government, everybody was in agreement that the priority was the economy. Given developments since then, it is clear that that has not changed. I look forward to seeing what the Minister puts forward as a result of the work that has been ongoing over the summer on putting a Programme for Government in place.
I welcome the motion and agree that the publication of a draft Programme for Government must be a priority for the Executive. The UK, Irish, Scottish and Welsh Governments have all produced programmes, and the Northern Ireland Executive must now show that they too have listened to the public and have a vision and plan for their community. The mandatory nature of our coalition Government makes that a more complicated task. However, the people who voted us into this Assembly demand that we deliver solutions to the social and economic challenges that we face.
Those challenges are clear and stark. There is a need to attract investment and to encourage indigenous enterprise, particularly export-led, in order to grow a dynamic and high-value knowledge-based economy that will create the jobs and growth that we need. There is also a need to address our productivity gap and economic inactivity by equipping our constituents with the relevant skills to fulfil their potential and gain employment. There is also a need to prioritise opportunities for youth and protection for the most vulnerable, including older people and those in poverty and social deprivation.
The biggest challenge, however, for this community remains the human and financial cost of division. Other programmes for government speak of era-changing, convention-challenging, radical reform and of government guided by the needs of the many rather than the greed of the few.
In a context of budgetary restrictions that are affecting health, education, public transport and other front line services, there is a moral and financial imperative to address an estimated £1 billion a year that is wasted on managing a divided society. For economic recovery and social inclusion, we must make tackling the cost of division more than just rhetoric and make it a genuine priority of a new Programme for Government. We also need concrete proposals. The people of Northern Ireland have moved well beyond satisfaction with political stability rather than violence, and they now demand delivery from the Assembly.
The vision of the Programme for Government for Northern Ireland should be threefold. First, it should be for a shared society; secondly, it should be for a dynamic economy and efficient public services; and thirdly, it should be for sustainability. The values on which it should be based are inclusion, fairness and opportunity, and the key overarching approaches should be early intervention and preventative spending.
A Programme for Government must have clear objectives with target delivery dates, financial allocations and specific legislative priorities that can be monitored and challenged by interested parties, including, as the Chairperson of the Committee for the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister mentioned, Assembly Committees at regular review periods.
I understand that the Ulster Unionist Party has published Programme for Government proposals. I welcome that. I believe that we should have enough will and, I would hope, wit in the Assembly to work together and agree a robust and effective programme with real outcomes for local people. My party published a legislative programme in May, which, although not exhaustive, also set out specific priorities that, if delivered, would grasp the opportunity to create a devolution that meets the needs of the community.
Our proposals have nine key themes, and the specific legislative proposals for each are available in detail online. The first theme is a shared future, which includes a shared housing Bill; the second is a rebalanced economy with a corporation tax Bill and a renewable energy support Bill; and the third is education and skills, which includes an early education and care Bill to tackle the need for affordable childcare, with a lead Department on the issue. Preschool provision, a shared and integrated education Bill and an education and skills authority Bill are also under that theme. The other themes are modern public services, health and well-being, better government to include the much-needed local government review of public administration and a governance Bill to place a duty on the Executive to co-operate. The themes of having a safer community, a fairer society and a green economy are also included.
There will be other proposals, and I welcome the debate on what exactly the Assembly should do to improve the lives of citizens in Northern Ireland. If the Executive can agree a clear vision, clear priorities and a partnership approach between the public, private and community and voluntary sectors for the Programme for Government, I believe that it is possible to demonstrate that devolution can deliver.
There is no doubt that a Programme for Government is an important if not a vital and pivotal document in any jurisdiction, not least in Northern Ireland. Self-evidently, the sooner an Executive can produce that document as is practically possible the better. To that extent, I agree with the motion. However, the complaints about why it has taken so long to be produced are misplaced.
Mr Lyttle, like others, mentioned that, by its very nature, the system of government that we have, which has five parties in a mandatory coalition, makes it more difficult to produce such a document. Indeed, it is not just five parties in an Executive but five parties with fundamentally different views on a wide range of issues. That makes it much more difficult than may be the case elsewhere to produce a document such as a Programme for Government. That system also slows things down, and we saw that with lots of other major issues that we struggled with over the past four years. I would be happy and I am sure that many Members would be happy to see a different form of government that would speed things up. As far as I can recall, however, the party that tabled the motion still opposes a different form of government that would speed things up. The SDLP cannot have it both ways. It cannot complain about the system that grinds things to a halt on many occasions yet oppose any changes to it.
The Member will recall what I said. We are already six months on from the Budget, and the work has still not been undertaken. There is no point in trying to excuse that by saying that there are five partners in the coalition. We have already wasted six months. Had we used that time productively, we would be almost there with a Programme for Government.
The Member does not have to ask me what has been done in that time. He can go and ask his party colleague the current Minister of the Environment. I am not sure how long he will be in post; he might want to talk to the man to his left about that. The Minister of the Environment has been involved, as have all other Ministers. Indeed, the Member’s party leader has been involved in party leaders’ meetings. I understand that one will take place today to discuss further the Programme for Government and other issues.
Work has been ongoing over the period. Time has been taken to involve everyone in a much more inclusive process that will ultimately result in a better Programme for Government document than came out of the previous process. Not least, there will be a system for monitoring the many targets, which was a criticism of the previous Programme for Government that we all shared. The question of whether time has been used productively is one about which the Member should have a conversation with his colleague the Minister of the Environment.
Does the Member agree that, although we have heard comments about the delay in the Programme for Government and other issues regarding the four-year term, there is a contrast between the events that are unfolding in this mandate and those in previous mandates, when we were in and out of the revolving door at Stormont nearly every other week? Contrasts can be made, and they are not altogether flattering for those who are making the criticism.
The Member, using his experience, makes a very fair point. There is an old adage that no Parliament should bind its successor. Similarly, no Assembly should bind its successor. I do not know, but perhaps the SDLP had no ambitions to win the election. Perhaps it was quite happy and content —
No, I will not give way. I have lost enough time.
Perhaps the SDLP had no ambitions to win the election and have a greater influence on the Programme for Government than it had on the previous Programme for Government. It is only right and proper, not least because of the many fundamental changes that there have been, that it was delayed until after an election and that the House and the people of this country were not dictated to about what the Programme for Government for the next four years should be.
As others have said, the question has to be “What will actually fundamentally change between the previous Programme for Government and the one that we are about to produce, notwithstanding the changes that there have been?”. Mr Bradley, in moving the motion, talked about the imbalance in the economy and the need to prioritise jobs. Those priorities were front and centre in the previous Programme for Government, and they will be front and centre in the next Programme for Government. Government may continue to propose different ways in which to tackle those issues. It is not as if Departments are not doing anything. Departments are addressing those issues and a host of others as we speak. Indeed, other issues, such as a crystallisation of the corporation tax question, may arise over the consultation period and have an effect on the Programme for Government that they would not have had six or nine months ago.
What annoys me most about the SDLP’s motion, even though I agree with its sentiments, is that, even if we were to produce a Programme for Government today and set it down in front of you, you would probably still disagree with it. You would probably still vote against it. That is what you did before.
Mr Bradley cited the Cultúrlann centre — excuse my pronunciation — as a great example of the previous Programme for Government delivering, yet he and his colleagues all voted against that Programme for Government. Of course, his current leader did not vote against it — she trotted through the Aye Lobby in support of it with the rest of us — but the rest of the Member’s party voted against it.
You cannot have it both ways. Work is ongoing. I look forward to the draft document coming to the House. Now that such enthusiasm has been shown for —
Go raibh maith agat, a Phríomh-LeasCheann Comhairle. It is entirely correct that a Programme for Government that will underpin spending plans should be brought forward. I agree that, in the normal cycle of government, good practice is that that should happen in advance of a Budget. However, over the past year or 18 months, we have not had a normal cycle of government. The election in Britain produced the current Government, who, as others remarked, slashed the Budget available to the Assembly. We have also been through an election here, which took up some of the six-month period that Mr Bradley referred to. It was probably late last year or early this year when we began to get a sense of the full implications of the British Government’s approach to our finances, which allowed us to begin to plan our Budget process. Allied to that was the raid on our EYF stock by the Treasury.
The previous Executive’s priority was to get a Budget together using their reduced resources, while keeping a full sense of that reduction, so that they could to try to protect jobs, protect the vulnerable and protect front line services. I think that that was the correct approach. It was also correct to try to identify revenue-raising opportunities across the Executive to support those priorities.
At that time, while we were struggling, other parties that now look for a Programme for Government issued calls to get on with setting the Budget. The party proposing the motion predicted that we would come up with a one-year Budget to get us through an election. However, the Executive knuckled down to the work and came up with a four-year Budget. As my colleague said, they also came up with additional ideas for raising revenue to address our priorities of trying to offset the worst effects of the cuts imposed by Westminster. The Assembly election showed clearly that the electorate endorsed that approach from the parties leading the Executive.
Work and consultation has been ongoing on the new Programme for Government. I understand that a range of stakeholders has been consulted. The Executive subcommittee on the economy has yet to complete its work, which is key to the Programme for Government. The Budget review group’s ongoing process of work will also contribute to the Programme for Government debate. I want a Programme for Government that is relevant to the current circumstances and challenges and ambitious in its big ideas for economic growth and tries to give some certainty and confidence to the Executive and Assembly’s priorities over the coming years, even in very uncertain times.
We have a number of choices. We could produce a motherhood-and-apple-pie Programme for Government that tries to satisfy everybody and does not produce very much. We could gather up all the targets across the Departments, set the red, amber and green standard against them and cut and paste them into a Programme for Government. Alternatively, we could try to get a strategic and focused Programme for Government that continues to prioritise growing the economy; improving educational attainment and skill levels; reducing inequalities and tackling fuel poverty; and expanding on the undoubted benefits of closer co-operation and harmonisation, North and South. Continued, focused work is required to get that right for people, and the Programme for Government must be different to that which we had previously so that it takes account of our circumstances.
I listened carefully to the remarks made by the leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, who has gone now. I hope that they signal a new approach from all parties. Others commented on the difficulties involved in getting five parties to agree a Programme for Government. That can be difficult in any circumstances, but two of the parties have taken a kind of hokey-cokey approach to the Executive, with one foot in and one foot out. They have been in the Executive and in opposition at the same time. When the Executive were trying to deal with these difficult circumstances on an awayday last year, one Minister from the Ulster Unionist Party, who had the biggest spending Department in the Executive, turned up, sat shtum for the entire meeting and left without making a single contribution.
I hope that Mr Elliott’s remarks herald a new approach and that all parties will pull together in delivering a Programme for Government and not sit with one foot in the Executive and one foot out. That argument clearly fell flat with the electorate in the Assembly election this year. We need to pull together and try to deliver something that is of benefit to people. We must not simply press for things or vote for the Budget in the Executive and against it when it comes to the Assembly. We must genuinely co-operate and have a genuinely cohesive approach, as Mr Elliott was arguing —
We need to get full support for a Programme for Government that puts the electorate first and addresses the serious issues that we face.
The Programme for Government lies at the heart of the work that we are doing in the Assembly. It is usual for a Government to set their programme and then to base their Budget on that programme. However, that was not possible the last time around, and some reasons for that have just been given. It was not possible because Departments and arm’s-length bodies needed to have their budget in place to continue with their work. We all know why that happened: it was because of the shenanigans and politicking going on among some parties in the Executive. Given what the Chair of the OFMDFM Committee said, I hope that there is a change of view on that and that everyone in the Executive will work collectively and carry their responsibilities.
We need a Programme for Government in order to set targets and measure progress in attaining those targets. There were five key priorities in the Programme for Government for 2008-2011. When OFMDFM received a report on 23 June 2010, the results were mixed. However, the fourth priority, which was to invest in building infrastructure, received a score of 73%. As Chair of the Regional Development Committee, I am pleased that the Programme for Government’s fourth priority received such a high score.
Like all other Departments, DRD will contribute significantly to the Programme for Government in a number of ways in the future. For example, the Department will promote sustainable transport programmes and will seek to increase employment by undertaking significant capital roads programmes. Improved infrastructure will boost the economy by making it easier and more comfortable for tourists to visit many of the great attractions that we have in Northern Ireland.
The Department is committed to improving people’s health by investing in cycle routes and encouraging people to cycle and walk instead of using the car. That will have a significant effect in helping the environment by lowering CO2 emissions. Investment in a high-quality public transport system that services all the main arterial routes would also reduce the number of cars using the roads, thus easing congestion, and speed up travelling times for many people. That will have a positive effect on the economy.
All the issues that I have highlighted should and, I hope, will be included in the Programme for Government. It is important that that programme comes about as quickly as possible and that Committees have time to discuss the budgets that have been allocated, to discuss and set the essential targets and to ensure that those will be monitored in a meaningful way.
In these difficult financial times, it is vital to ensure value for money for the taxpayer, as every penny must be spent appropriately. There is certainly no room for waste in government at this time. There must be a detailed look at budgets in Committees and all the rest of it, and those need to be monitored regularly. I hope that the PFG will be agreed by the Executive collectively and that the Committees will work together to make sure that there is delivery on programmes and absolutely no waste in any of those programmes. We support the motion, and I hope that the Minister will be able to tell us that we will get a Programme for Government in the not-too-distant future.
I support the motion. It is vital that we get a Programme for Government, and the parties have unanimously agreed that we should have one. The debate seems to be more about how quickly we can do that. I note that Mr Hamilton used the old adage about not binding your successor, yet, in March, we set a Budget that was obviously intended to continue into this session.
Let me finish the point. I would use another old adage: if you do not know where you are going, any road will take you there. The problem is about where the Executive are going now.
The Member is citing the motto of the modern Ulster Unionist Party. Does he not accept, however, that a Budget is different from a Programme for Government? Departments and their agencies and the people of Northern Ireland cannot live without a Budget, but we can live without a Programme for Government. [Interruption.] It does not have to happen in the same way. Is it the position of the Member and his party that we did not need a Budget in place in order to fund the services that are delivered by Departments?
My point, to which the Member did not bother to reply, was that we have bound the successor Assembly. He says that we do not need a Programme for Government, but his colleague Mr Spratt has just said that we do. Mr Humphrey said that ideally we would have one. There is some division on the DUP Benches on whether we should progress with a Programme for Government. Clearly, that party is not too worried about whether we get one this month, next month or next year.
We will have no direction in this Government without a Programme for Government. It goes deeper than that, to the way in which Ministers function in government. Ministers flout the ministerial code and make solo runs because we have no Programme for Government with which to bind them. That is why, before the election, the leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, Tom Elliott, set out the party’s position that we should agree a Programme for Government after the election.
I just want to make this point. My party’s position was that we should agree a Programme for Government after the election so that the Government would have a drive and a focus and know where they were going.
It is unfortunate that the Member seeks to create division on these issues, when collective and collegiate responsibility is what should be coming forward from a Government in which his party sits. We are not going to take lectures from his party about the conduct of Ministers when its two Ministers defied the code of conduct and voted against the Budget.
Yes, and I am glad that they did. We argued against the Budget. I can safely say that, if we looked into the ministerial voting record, we could find examples of breaches of the ministerial code by just about everyone who has held ministerial office. That statement shows that the DUP has one set of rules for itself and its friends in Sinn Féin and another for the rest of us.
The real reason for the current situation is not that we have a five-party coalition. The real blockage is between the DUP and Sinn Féin, who cannot agree on the big issues. We have had no progress on education, on whether we are to have an 11-plus or move away from that. We have had no agreement on the Education and Skills Authority, although some sort of fudge may be cooking on that issue. We have no agreement on a shared future; Mr Lyttle made a point about the cost of division. There is no agreement between the two largest parties in the Executive on any of the big issues. That is where the blockages are in this Government. We cannot get a Programme for Government because they cannot agree on those issues.
Last week, I attended an event at which junior Minister Anderson spoke about health and about improving children’s lives. We have strategies for reducing child poverty and fuel poverty, but we have no way of achieving those aims. We had two debates yesterday, the first of which was about fuel poverty and how to implement cross-cutting measures to deal with that issue. We had a debate about the Police Ombudsman, but the real debate was about the fact that we do not have the structures to deal with that matter. We have had neither sight nor sign of how we might get agreement to deal with that. We have no agreement on how to deal with the past; on how to build a shared future; on housing; on how to get Departments out of their silos; or on cross-cutting issues such as a suicide strategy, child poverty, health and education working together on special educational needs to determine who delivers what and who, between the Health Department and DSD, delivers supported living. We have no agreement on any of those issues, which is to the shame of the House and, in particular, the lead parties in government. OFMDFM took the lead in setting the agenda, yet, six months after the Budget, there is still no sign of a Programme for Government, which everyone here agrees we need. What is to be in it is up for discussion, which is why we pushed so hard for talks after the election.
A Programme for Government would give the Executive direction and a focus. What is the purpose of having a Government unless you have a direction in which to use the power that people have elected you to use?
I am not long a Member, and I could very well be accused of lacking lengthy legislative, never mind governmental, experience. Perhaps longer-serving Members, particularly those from the dominant parties in the Executive, will therefore enlighten me if I am wrong in assuming certain things about an Administration who deem themselves responsible and credible. The need for a Programme for Government, moulded to incorporate a budgetary framework, is one such assumption that I hold, a programme that clearly articulates the spending and legislative priorities of the sitting Administration, providing certainty and hope to the economy and the people. It is worth noting that, after recent elections, such programmes were compiled speedily by the Scottish Administration and the Dublin Government. Yet, as of now, in the midst of a financial crisis that has engulfed this island and Europe, the Assembly, under the leadership of the DUP and Sinn Féin, has failed to produce that vital piece of governmental architecture.
It is not as if our people can afford such negligence and inaction. Cuts to public spending of £4 billion have been on the horizon for a considerable period. Unemployment, especially among our young, is increasing, and our private sector has not been provided with a stimulus to negate the austerity that successive Budgets will inevitably inflict. Economic forecasts, as analysed by PWC, describe the Northern economy’s prospects as, at best, lacklustre, with growth in GNP unlikely to reach 1%. That growth forecast was calculated before the most recent worsening of the European debt crisis. It is clear, therefore, that effective and efficient government has never been needed so badly. Sadly, though, the Executive have failed to live up to the challenge at hand. Ultimately, if the Assembly does not use fully the powers at its disposal, we should not be allowed to complain about the lack of economic levers, and it would be a missed opportunity to produce lasting political priorities in public administration.
In my constituency of Derry, the lack of such clarity has led to delays and uncertainty around key economic and social programmes. Derry was promised a significant expansion of student numbers at the Magee campus, investment in our roads infrastructure and improvements to our dilapidated railway line. Those promises were subsequently punctuated with the proviso of “not yet”.
A comprehensive Programme for Government would go some way to removing what, at times, can be cynical political posturing in favour of firm governmental commitments. Even at this late stage, there is still time for the Executive to draft a Programme for Government that would instil creativity in the manner in which we provide public services and breathe life and growth into small and medium-sized businesses.
These institutions are a remarkable achievement, and I have no doubt that almost all Members have contributed in various ways to that achievement. If, however, our ambition fails to see beyond that achievement and provide a mature discourse on the delivery of government, the promise of those institutions will become hollow. Providing a progressive Programme for Government would mark a small beginning to ensuring that such stagnation is prevented from taking root.
I have sat and listened for some time, and nobody could disagree with the sentiments expressed in the motion: everybody wants to see a Programme for Government that delivers for Northern Ireland.
It is quite ironic that the proposers of the motion are from the SDLP. We heard various speeches yesterday from the candidates who are running for the leadership of the party. I heard a discussion on the radio about the qualifications of the former deputy First Minister and his inability to speak the Irish language. We have had a contribution today from Dominic Bradley: perhaps he is going to put his name forward for the Irish presidency also.
I listened to my colleagues on the Benches to my right. They talked about the five-party coalition and the problems between Sinn Féin and the DUP. In the past, we had a Government here who were formed between the SDLP and the Ulster Unionists. Maybe things seemed to flow easier, but that was because the Ulster Unionists conceded everything that the SDLP wanted. The difference now is that there is a party in power that holds its position and holds other parties to account. We are taking lectures from about three brands of Ulster Unionist all sitting on the one Bench at the same time. They ask for a cohesive approach to a Programme for Government; perhaps they are in the position that they are today because they are not very cohesive in their approach.
We sat here for a time before the summer recess and shortly after the election, and we have now been back for a short time. There were changes in the Administration team after the election. People’s priorities have changed, and we see that no better than in relation to some of the priorities of the Ulster Unionist Party when it held the Health Ministry. There was a can’t-do attitude, but we now have someone in that position with a can-do attitude. As times and positions change, priorities also change. Now we are in a position in which we have settled down after the election and Ministers have settled into their new positions.
Is the Member going to say anything about the Programme for Government? [Laughter.]
I will take the intervention. We have heard an awful lot of waffle from the man to my left, but he has not said what he is going to do. He said that everybody else has done it wrong and everybody else cannot do anything, but let us hear what he has to say. Let us hear something positive from his party for a change.
Basil has done very well in polls that have been conducted about speaking in the House. They have never created one for waffle, but I know that, if there were one for waffle today, he would undoubtedly win the prize. I will not take lectures from —
Although some parties find it easy to dish out criticisms, they find it difficult to accept criticisms that are levelled at them. There are two forms of the Ulster Unionist Party sitting, with one on the Front Bench and one on the Back Bench, so, as I said, we have different brands of Ulster Unionist trying to give us different messages. If Basil has a problem listening, he should have listened to what I said at the outset: no one should have a problem with accepting the thrust of the motion. It is just a wee bit ironic from the people who proposed it. There is work going on in the background, which I commend. Obviously, any right-thinking person would wish that to come forward as soon as possible so that we can get on with the work at hand. Given that there has been a change in ministerial positions, priorities change. We have come through a period of recession, and the priorities have changed also. I welcome the motion.
I gladly welcome the motion before the House today. Although some Members have questioned the delay in bringing forward the Programme for Government from the Executive table, rightly or wrongly, now is not the time to point fingers or assign blame. Instead, we need to look forward. I believe that our constituents want us to look forward at how we are to achieve a more realistic, sustainable and necessary Programme for Government.
It was December of last year when the Finance Minister first brought forward the Executive’s draft Budget for 2011-15, which proposed departmental spending allocations for the next four years. In the nine months that have since passed, constituents throughout Northern Ireland have encountered further changes and increased challenges due to pressures from the current economic climate. Those challenges serve to highlight the need for, and subsequently to shape, any renewed Programme for Government.
In May of this year, the consumer price index reached 4·5%, dealing a critical blow to the incomes of the population. Local households have also seen the biggest fall in disposable income for more than 30 years, and such falling incomes are a genuine obstacle to economic recovery. Furthermore, it is anticipated that, this year and next year, recovery in Northern Ireland will be much slower than the UK average. The situation in the housing sector also continues to decline, with property prices having fallen considerably over the past three years. In correlation with that, bank lending levels have also been restricted, a situation that seems unlikely to improve any time soon. Finally, although unemployment levels sit at 7·2%, that figure does not reflect adequately the unusually high rate of economically inactive individuals, which stands well above the UK average and is the highest rate across the UK regions.
Ideally, with the benefit of hindsight and capitalising on the previous six months’ experience since the Budget was agreed, we should, arguably, be in a better position now to create an informed and reflective Programme for Government (PFG) to suit our predefined budgetary commitments. In recent days, we have seen how restrictive and ruthless our departmental budgets can be. That has been evidenced by cuts to front line services in A&E departments.
In contrast, however, debates in the Chamber have served to highlight genuine opportunities for savings, efficiency and job creation. Only last week, Members made their voices heard on the topic of the green new deal and the need for cross-departmental working. Too often in Departments, actions and objectives are pursued in silos, and any new Programme for Government needs to consider seriously a more joined-up approach between the Departments where flexibility, co-operation and cohesive objectives can lead to a more realistic financial standing.
The pursuit of a shared future in Northern Ireland will also contribute further to efficiency savings. That will translate into shared services, shared housing, shared education and a more sustainable economy for generations to come. We need to end the duplication of services in our society.
As is evidenced by the debate, we all recognise the difficulties that this Administration is faced with at such a financially challenging time, but it is essential that we follow the example laid down by our counterparts in Scotland and Wales. They both secured agreements on their Budgets and PFGs, and they now find themselves in a position where their policy destination is planned and where they can choose the financial routes by which to get there. Ultimately, we can no longer afford to choose our route without first setting our destination, nor do we wish once again to become the poster child for putting the cart before the horse. I recognise the urgent need for an up-to-date Programme for Government, and the Alliance Party supports the motion.
Thus far, some interesting points have been raised. Some Members have called for unity, five-party coalitions and working together but, in their speeches, have not been able to help themselves from getting stuck in and settling a few scores. I listened intently to Conor Murphy, and I noticed that he did not engage in that aspect, which is to his credit. However, he is trying to talk about a hokey-cokey type of government. It is not clear to me who is doing the hokey-cokey. Was he talking about Sinn Féin and the DUP, or someone else? [Interruption.] I am not sure whether that was a comment from the party to my left.
It is obvious even to a disinterested observer that if there is any reference to hokey-cokey, it is a reference to the Ulster Unionist Party and the SDLP. On the one hand, those parties want to take their places in the Executive and, presumably, if any beneficial announcement is made, take credit for it. On the other hand, they want to be able to denounce the Executive willy-nilly, so they are half in and half out. That is the very definition of doing the hokey-cokey.
I was hoping to engage both sides of the House in the argument, but it is the party to my left that is disinterested. He talks to me about Ministers being in and out. I recall that there used to be a situation where the DUP took their Ministries but did not actually sit in the Executive. There is an interesting parallel here. Parties may take sideswipes, but I really want to know how the £4 billion of Tory cuts is somebody else’s fault and why we cannot do anything else. Is the party to my left saying to the House that it wants the Government of this country to spend more money than they raise in taxes? Is that the profligate and squandering policy that it supports or does it want some form of proper fiscal attitude and a Government that try to deal with things? What exactly is the DUP position?
I was surprised that Mr Simon Hamilton, a man who normally comes across with a well-argued and well-articulated point of view, told the House that it does not matter whether we have a Programme for Government and that we can do without it. The reason why it does not matter, colleagues, is because the Programme for Government is done through a sordid back-room deal between the DUP and Sinn Féin. Of course, they can never agree until it gets close to an election because they then think, “Oh my goodness, we have done no legislation and agreed nothing.” There has been no progress on a shared future, no resolution of education, no real attack on economic problems, no drive to reduce youth unemployment and no drive to sort out the travesty of teachers not getting jobs. There is absolutely nothing.
So when people try to lecture us about what we have not done, let me tell you clearly that we want to engage in proper debate. When people say things — as they have said before — I acknowledge that that is a positive contribution. However, parties say to us that we have to be part of a Government and have to be in a coalition but that we are not allowed to disagree with anything because they have decided what we will do — that is not how government works.
I appreciate the Member saying that his party — it made the point several times during the previous Executive — wants to be part of a genuine discussion. However, when we took ourselves out of these institutions and out of the normal run of Executive meetings to knock our heads together to come up with solutions to our difficulties, his colleague, who, at that time, had the biggest Executive budget of any Minister, came to a meeting, which was minuted and at which disagreement and all sorts of ideas and a genuine discussion were welcome on the table, with absolutely no contribution whatsoever. He did not speak a single word and left the meeting without giving any ideas, any disagreements and any solutions. He did so to the embarrassment of his party leader at the time, and I think that he continued privately to be an embarrassment to the rest of the party until it got rid of him after the election.
I am at a disadvantage as I was not party to those discussions. However, if you treat people badly in the Executive or anywhere else, that will be their natural reaction.
I am pleased to hear the howling from the DUP because you know that you are winning when its Members start to yap. All they know how to do is personal invective. I was — [Interruption.]
I was going to have a proper discussion on this but, unfortunately, all you get from the party to my left is howling and heckling. It has absolutely no contribution to make, and, you know what, this will find you out in the next three years because you have no ideas, no vision and no future. These people could not run a party to save their lives.
I welcome the presence of junior Minister Anderson for the debate, although, with no disrespect to her, it would have been courteous to the House had both the First Minister and the deputy First Minister Times New Roman'; ">― wherever they are today ― been here to hear the contributions to the debate on the Programme for Government.
It is all very well bantering about, but more than 27,000 construction workers have lost their jobs over the past three years, and a number of small businesses that depended on them have closed down. Last week, some young people were left without a place at college, university or training and no prospect of employment. That is the reality in today’s community.
Members spoke about the four-year Budget that was agreed but has, in the past couple of weeks, already been amended. For the record, I note a comment that was made on the Budget by PriceWaterhouseCoopers, which was:
“deeply concerned at the almost complete absence of economic and social targets and outcomes underpinning the draft Budget and Departmental plans for the period to 2014-15 and believe that the draft Budget and associated Departmental spending plans have more to do with ‘getting through the next four years’ than driving holistic policies intended to stimulate economic regeneration and social inclusion.”
That is a damning indictment of the previous Executive. Here we are, six months into a new Executive, and, face it, many of the people around that table are not strangers to each other, and we still have no Programme for Government. As other Members outlined, we have important decisions to make. We have decisions around cohesion, sharing and integration — a policy that went out for consultation last year, with 27 October 2010 the closing date for responses.
In recent weeks and years, we have had a number of documents dealing with the past. In fact, the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister (OFMDFM) asked the Victims’ Commission to come back with a document, which it did in June 2010. Yet, we are no further forward; nothing has been published and there is no strategy around all of that. We have a Rural White Paper, for which I am grateful to the then Minister, Michelle Gildernew, for publishing on 23 March. However, that Rural White Paper has cross-departmental objectives, so when will we see from the other Departments whether they will live up to the aspirations published in the Rural White Paper?
The Programme for Government that —
I thank the Member for giving way. She raised the issue of the Rural White Paper, which is not an area in which I have particular expertise. Does that not show one deficiency in any potential Programme for Government? She mentioned “high aspirations”, which will clearly be in any Programme for Government. However, the detail of that will need to be worked out between Departments, and, in particular, with the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (DARD). Clearly, whatever is produced shortly as regards a Programme for Government will require a lot of detailed work at departmental level. So, although we agree that it is useful to have a Programme for Government, the detail to which we must drill down will always be below that contained in the Programme for Government anyway.
Thank you, Mr Principal Deputy Speaker.
I accept that, Mr Weir, but, nonetheless, is it not also the function of government to produce a Programme for Government that gives a high-level strategic vision, which other Departments subscribe to and work towards? Mr Weir is turning the methodology on its head. Members will know that the nature of the Executive and Departments demands cross-cutting strategies and joined-up government. That is not what we are getting. It is not what we have experienced over the past four years. Many commentators who have watched what went on here for the past four years will not forgive the Executive and the House if we do not start to deliver for the citizens we represent in what are very difficult and mean times for everyone in society.
I know that political lecturers and anoraks up and down the country regard the Programme for Government as a burning issue of the day. Night and day, they wonder what they will do at Stormont about the Programme for Government. They toil manfully and womanfully every day and every week, saying, “What are we going to do about the Programme for Government?” That is what they say — not.
In all seriousness, as my colleague from North Belfast said, it is important that a Programme for Government is worked out, because it is preferable, useful and people can identify with it and see the progress that is made towards implementing it. However, if it is absolutely dyed-in-the-wool essential, I wonder how we managed to get by without any Programmes for Government during the 25 years of direct rule. In fact, those who are now lambasting the difficulties in getting a Programme for Government had a problem getting government to work for about four or five years, never mind a Programme for Government. However, we will set that aside.
Sometimes, I despair. If I had been in favour of direct rule, I would not have voted for the system that we have now. I did. With all its faults, it is better than direct rule. The point I was making was that, in all of the years of direct rule, there was neither the need, the desire nor the demand for Programmes for Government, and they got by. It was not great and it was not ideal. What we now have is better, but they got by, thus proving that you do not absolutely have to have a Programme for Government to get government working. That is the point.
I think it was Mr McCallister, when talking about the difficulty that the DUP and Sinn Féin had in getting a Programme for Government, who used the phrase “their friends in Sinn Féin”, and I have heard the honourable Member for Lagan Valley talk about our “bedfellows” in Sinn Féin. I have heard that mentioned on a couple of occasions by Ulster Unionists, and it keeps coming up. There must be some clarity. Those critics who lambaste us either say that we are friends and bedfellows with Sinn Féin or that we cannot get agreement with them, but it cannot be both. I am afraid that people will have to come to some sort of outcome on those criticisms.
As long as it is a short intervention.
It will be short. The Member has said that it cannot be both. Either they are bedfellows or they cannot get agreement. Which is it?
At least it was short, which is a first. The issue is very simple.
Yes, and if I get an opportunity, I will. The answer is very straightforward. We have a system of government here that people voted for. We are in there, but we are not bedfellows with people we do not particularly like. However, it is the system that we have, and the constructive criticism that we offer every week of every month of every year will continue. Hopefully, that answers the question. I will try to get on to the substance of the matter before somebody complains about not getting into the Programme for Government.
The last Programme for Government had at its very heart the economy. Whether that was regarded as prescient or whatever, I hope that people will say that that should again be at the centre of the Programme for Government. People are not talking about whether we have a Programme for Government; they are talking about getting jobs, better paid jobs, improving the economy, improving our health service and improving our education service. That is what people are talking about, rather than the absolute paramount need to get a Programme for Government. Hopefully, we will get that done and dusted fairly quickly.
We will be able to see the progress that needs to be made on our transportation infrastructure, including railways. I think that the honourable Member for Foyle forgot which constituency he represents: he was talking about Edenderry, Ballinderry or Londonderry. However, I remind him that it is Foyle. He talked about the railway system. We do have to try to upgrade the railway system, particularly between Coleraine and Londonderry, and we have to get the £75 million required to do that. There is no point in just demanding that it be done; we must get the money to do it. Those issues need to be resolved and progress needs to be made, and I am sure that it will. We will continue to make that progress in this House whether people like to criticise or lambaste us, and whether they are in or out, or they cannot make up their mind whether they are both in and out and shaking it all about. However, we will continue to make that progress, hopefully for the greater good of all the people of Northern Ireland.
We in these islands are in a unique situation: we have coalition Governments in London, Dublin and Belfast. Of course, there is one significant difference: in London, despite the fact that the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats did not realise going into the election that they would end up in a coalition, they came up with a Programme for Government within a week; and, in Dublin, Fine Gael and the Irish Labour Party produced a 64-page document representing their Programme for Government within six days. However, six months on, we have still to produce a document.
The Member cites the UK coalition’s agreement and Programme for Government. They produced what would have been his Programme for Government had he been elected — had the people of Strangford not seen sense. Will he enlighten the House as to what progress has been made by that Government on the likes of health reform and justice reform, which were included in that Programme for Government? Those reforms have been stuck in the sidings for some time, because the Government rushed to an agreement just to get it out, but they did not have anything to back it up with.
I thank the Member for Strangford for his intervention. I was about to say that cracks have appeared not only in the coalition programme in London, but in Dublin. Your colleague, or, may I say, your boss the Finance Minister, Sammy Wilson, is very fond of the Latin phrase “ceteris paribus”, which means other things being equal. Of course, events impact on a Programme for Government. — [Interruption.]
Mr Hamilton pointed out that, over the course of the next four years, the devolution of corporation tax-varying powers could impact on the Programme for Government. He said that, despite the fact that, only yesterday, Mr Wilson said that he did not envisage corporation tax-varying powers arriving within the term of this Assembly. That is a slightly mixed message, which, perhaps, he might like to clarify later.
I thank the SDLP’s Mr Bradley for bringing the debate to the House. As Mr Elliott said, when we discuss the Budget and Programme for Government, it seems to be a question of the cart and the horse. Mrs Kelly mentioned the absence from the Chamber of the First Minister and the deputy First Minister. I do not know where they are, but I hope that they are not appearing in front of the ‘Dragons’ Den’ panel on BBC television. If they are, it would be like going in and saying to Deborah Meaden, Duncan Bannatyne and the rest, “Look here, I have a big lump of money. Have you any ideas about what we should do with it?”
The purpose of devolved government is to put the economy first. That was in the previous Programme for Government, and we expect it to be in the next. That applies to the public sector, the private sector and the social economy, but surely it works for those sectors only when we have government that allows access to the decision-makers who give fast and flexible responses to demands. In that regard, I point you to the short-term employment scheme, which has a budget of £19 million. It was introduced last April to try to address the unemployment problem, particularly amongst young people. Six months on, how many jobs have been created under that £19 million scheme? The answer is not one.
I approve of a Programme for Government; I think that it is essential, not merely desirable, as the DUP seems to think. However, it is not necessarily always a good idea. I refer to my time as a user of the Programme for Government, as one of the commissioners for victims and survivors. That body was set up by the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister, which was, of course, our sponsor Department. However, other Departments, particularly the Health Department, the Department for Social Development and the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development could have done good work for victims. It was our experience that, if we went to one of those Departments with what we thought was a good idea, it was not assessed on whether it was intrinsically a good idea but according to the extent to which it helped that Department achieve its public service agreements. We can, therefore, tie ourselves in knots with a Programme for Government that is too complicated and does not allow for the fast and flexible government that is the hallmark of good devolution.
I very much approve of today’s motion.
We have all talked about the link between the Budget and the Programme for Government, and Mr Campbell has highlighted today and in the past the issue of the Coleraine to Londonderry rail line. We want that issue to be included in the Programme for Government, as was mentioned in a debate last week. The difficulty is that it is not in the Budget. There is no money for it in the Budget. Hence, one failure is that there is no linkage.
I thank the Member for that intervention, and I agree with him. We have a four-year Budget. Last week, we stripped out, I think, £40 million for school fees and over £8 million for on-street parking, which already amounts to two big changes. I put it to the House that the Budget will have to be revisited and that it would be better to form a Programme for Government first.
On a point of order. Why is it in this debate that only those who are members of parties that support or are part of the Government have been called to speak? Why is there a strategy to suppress any voice from outside the Executive, given the fact that, under Standing Order 17, there is an obligation to have a balance of opinion —
Go raibh míle maith agat. I have listened with a lot of interest to the comments. I agree that, in a perfect world, a Programme for Government would be in place prior to the determination of the final Budget position. Without doubt, I think that we all share that position. Early planning is good, and we all agree with that, but effective planning is better. We do not need a rapidly produced Programme for Government, but we do need the right Programme for Government. That point was made, particularly by Daithí McKay.
Earlier this year, when the Minister of Finance and Personnel presented the Budget to the Assembly, much was made of the length and timing of the process. William Humphrey and Conor Murphy referred to that. It was suggested that it would be engineered along party political lines. What was the result? The result was a balanced Budget that had the interests of the people at heart. That was against the backdrop of this Executive and the previous Executive facing a £4 billion cut and, as Conor Murphy said, the raid on end-year flexibility. Despite that, the Budget review group and others identified £1·5 billion of additional revenue.
Of course we need to be aware of the importance of having a Programme for Government in place. There is, however, a greater imperative to have a Programme for Government in place that is founded on certainty and characterised by a set of priorities that are relevant and commitments that are ambitious and capable of delivering real change and substantive benefits.
In finalising our expenditure priorities and allocating our available resources to those, we undoubtedly now have a solid footing on which we can produce a new Programme for Government, a footing that certainly did not exist and could not have existed until the completion of the election in May 2011. William Humphrey, Simon Hamilton and Trevor Clarke all agreed with that.
At this point, I am keen to stress to Members that our office has been working steadily, despite some of the comments made in the Chamber that nothing is being done and that perhaps that contributed to the beginning of a process. Nothing could be further from the truth. Our officials have been working steadily behind the scenes since before the dissolution of the previous Assembly, listening to the views and opinions of a wide range of stakeholders and representative bodies and taking early soundings of the issues that matter most. In turn, those discussions have helped us to inform our thinking on how priorities are articulated and on the means by which the document — and, by that, I mean the delivery programme — may be best structured to effect change and bring about the process that we want to achieve. That was articulated by Conor Murphy.
Officials from OFMDFM have been engaging proactively with a number of stakeholders. They have had meetings with a wide range of individuals and organisations to discuss their ideas and suggestions for the next Programme for Government. Of course, it is very important to engage with stakeholders, but it was even more important when, in the last Executive, at least one Minister would not contribute to the discussions. The discussions that our officials have had have helped us to identify a key series of challenges over the next four years, such as, for example, the need to ensure alignment with DETI’s economic strategy, alignment with the requirement to improve education attainment — and a number of Members have referred to that — and the need to look at skills escalation, reduce inequalities and address issues such as fuel poverty.
Such pre-consultation meetings have helped to highlight the need for real transformational change that is now offered by a new Programme for Government despite the economic challenges facing the North. The meetings highlight the need for a dialogue with individuals, external organisations and stakeholder groups as part of the process of preparing the new Programme for Government. There is a need for constructive dialogue with intermediary bodies and umbrella groups, which, as part of the process of preparing the Programme for Government and as the preparation unfolds, helps to inform the thinking and the underlying strategy.
Running parallel to that work, OFMDFM officials have helped to ensure that there will be complementarity between the Programme for Government and the headline goals contained in Europe 2020. That was mentioned by a number of Members, and, in particular, by the Chairperson of the Committee for the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister. It was also mentioned by Ministers during discussions. That has helped to highlight the need for the North to raise its employment rate and levels of investment in R&D, address the issue of climate change and the promotion of energy efficiency and renewables, raise education levels and promote social inclusion through reducing poverty. Most of those items were mentioned by one Member or another with respect to the kind of Programme for Government that we need to bring forward.
Without doubt, current economic circumstances make equality considerations more relevant than ever. In full recognition of that, and conscious of our obligations under section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998, OFMDFM officials, in parallel with the work on preparing a new Programme for Government, have informed and undertaken, at strategic level, an equality impact assessment on the draft programme. That will be further informed by the outcome of the Programme for Government consultation. Officials from across OFMDFM’s Programme for Government sustainability and equality units have all been involved in drafting the Programme for Government to date. Of course, officials from other Departments are also involved in the process, so cross-cutting work is taking place, despite what some Members have said.
We need a Programme for Government and — as Dolores Kelly and others have said — it needs to be meaningful. We need one that has at its core the key reforms necessary to create real and meaningful change based on the needs of children, older people, communities that live in deprivation and people who are marginalised and face the challenge of the current recession every day. However, true reforms are not put in place overnight. They need to be researched, developed, discussed and debated, agreed, implemented and then monitored.
I take this opportunity to highlight to Members the value of debate. Only last week, Members tabled a motion, which was almost unanimously supported, that sought to recognise the importance of the green economy in the new Programme for Government. As a Minister in the office of the centre, I had the privilege of responding to that debate, too. Since then, I have asked officials from our office to consider the content of the debate in the context of the draft Programme for Government and to examine ways in which that may be appropriately expressed.
The drafting phase of the work is almost concluded, and we intend to share the draft Programme for Government with our Executive colleagues and to brief the Committee for the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister, as Tom Elliott, its Chairperson, asked, with a view to ensuring that the details that we have before us are discussed. We will take all comments and recommendations on board in order to produce a very effective and robust Programme for Government. We will do that as soon as we are in a position to.
Mention was made of the investment strategy and its vital relationship with the Programme for Government. Jimmy Spratt, Dominic Bradley and a number of others remarked on that. As Members will know, the previous Executive spent more on capital investment year on year compared with spend in the years of direct rule. For instance, during 2007-08, £1·4 billion was spent on gross capital investment; in 2008-09, £1·7 billion was spent; and a further £1·7 billion was spent in 2009-2010.
Members will be aware that the investment strategy is under review. Some Members called for that to happen, but they should have known in the first place that it is already happening. It is happening, albeit for the period beyond 2015. However, the Executive must consider the new Programme for Government against a range of options for the next steps of our investment programme, given that many potential projects are to be considered, and there are considerable lead-in times. All of that will have to be taken into account. We will initiate all that during the Programme for Government period. Officials from OFMDFM are liaising with colleagues in the Strategic Investment Board to consider the connectivity of those documents. Once again, that demonstrates that joined-up work is taking place. Without doubt, any suggestion made in the Chamber, by any Member, that Departments are working in silos could not be further from the truth. Joined-up, collaborative work is going on, and we, as new members of the Executive, are encouraging that across Departments.
During the debate, much mention was made of the financial environment within which we are expected to operate over the coming months and years. Dominic Bradley, Daithí McKay, Colum Eastwood and others referred to that. What is critical is how the Programme for Government is delivered in the current challenging climate. It is a challenging climate that we all recognise. Given the financial and resource constraints that we all face, we are now more determined than ever to consider the new Programme for Government, and we will ensure that all of this will encourage and enable connectivity and cohesiveness across all areas of government. Again, that will address the view that has emerged from some Members that there is no connectivity across Departments.
We will do that to ensure that we deliver on our objectives. We expect, demand and will make sure that Departments work together more closely than ever to tackle the strategic and cross-cutting issues that they must address. We also expect Departments to form mutually beneficial working arrangements with partner organisations that go beyond traditional demarcation lines, and we will be vigorous in our efforts to ensure that that occurs.
We intend that the focus of the Programme for Government will be strategic and will evolve from the first Programme for Government, which took a more strategic approach through the use of public service agreements supported by a vast swathe of targets and actions. Although that served its purpose, we are seeking to reduce the bureaucracy associated with the previous Programme for Government, in line with our previously stated intention to deliver high-quality and efficient public services. We intend to make it more meaningful, with officials testing delivery, and, at the same time, Ministers driving that delivery.
That will enhance accountability, and I encourage the party that brought forward the motion to ensure that its Minister attends accountability meetings, because that was not the experience in the previous Executive and it needs to be addressed. I am asking, in a very encouraging way, the parties, particularly the party that tabled the motion, to ensure that whatever Minister they have in office in the time ahead attends the accountability meetings, because accountability and transparency are very important.
I will give way at the end if I have time. The approach that we will take to handling the key objectives will be to make sure that things are more preventative, and, where required, we will make positive interventions to make sure that we have outcomes. We fully intend to support the new Programme for Government with strong accountability and reporting mechanisms that constantly test delivery against targets and to put in place formal arrangements for early interventions and prevention measures to remedy underperformance. That is something that every Member is looking for. We should not tolerate underperformance when we can make a difference and when an intervention can bring about change that will demonstrate to people that outcomes are delivering for those who matter the most: the people out there who want an effective, robust Programme for Government.
I remind everyone in the House that, as Gregory Campbell said, any Programme for Government is ultimately about one thing: the people. The vision that we have for a new Programme for Government is to support growth, and we need to do so economically, intellectually and socially, as Conor Murphy said, for everyone, both now and in the future.
That is why, when we consider the decisions and actions that we have seen from the Executive and Members over the course of the previous Assembly, it is important that we take account of the additional resources that we were able to put in place when we agreed the Budget before the election period.
I will give way if I have time, and I believe that I will have time. I want to put this in context. We were being encouraged to try to rush through a Budget, but it was right that we did not do so, and it was right that we found additional revenue of £1·5 billion. Let us look at what we were able to do.
We were able to provide additional resources in the region of £190 million for Health, £154 million for Education, £51 million for Employment and Learning, and £107 million for Regional Development, and, on top of that, a decision was taken at the first Executive meeting of the new session to freeze university tuition fees. As Members will know, we have cross-party consensus on how to address corporation tax; whatever about how long it will take and the discussion about that, we know that there is consensus to address it. Therefore, it is clear to all who are willing to listen and to see that the Executive are preparing to invest in our biggest asset: our people.
The return on our investment must be sustainable economic growth. That will come through raising education standards, which is a need that many Members referred to; upskilling our workforce, which, again, there is collective agreement about; and increasing our attractiveness to global investors and further enhancing our reputation of innovation and excellence in research and development.
I thank the Members who brought forward the issue for debate. I will now give way to Dominic, since I told him that I would do so if I had time.
I thank the Member for giving way. She mentioned accountability. I think that junior Ministers also have to be accountable, and they have to be accountable for the accuracy of their statements. She mentioned the figure of £1·5 billion. However, the Minister of Finance and Personnel has told the House on several occasions that it has not been possible to include £1·5 billion in the Budget. In fact, only £600 million of that £1·5 billion has been realised, and I welcome that. However, as I said, we need to be accountable, and we need to be accountable for accuracy. So, I hope that the junior Minister will revise her figures.
What I will say to you, Mr Bradley, is that, without doubt, £1·5 billion was identified. I did not say that it was allocated. Again, I do not know whether this is the dialogue of the deaf. If you listened to what I said, you would know that £1·5 billion was identified and that £800 million of that was allocated.
A Budget review group has been tasked with identifying additional resources. However, we all know the position you took on the Budget, Mr Bradley.
So, I am glad to hear that you are actually supporting it now. Go raibh míle maith agat.
Go raibh maith agat, a Phríomh-LeasCheann Comhairle. I thank everyone who has taken the time to come here today, regardless of whether their facts and figures are accurate. I appreciate that. I listened very intently to what the junior Minister said. She said — I think that this is the correct phraseology, but I am sure that she will correct me if it is not — that we do not need “a rapidly produced Programme for Government”. I have to say that the last thing that I would call this is a rapid process, but that is probably the best thing that you could say about it.
Throughout the debate, I heard more ideas and direction from Members of all parties about what should be inputted into this than the Minister provided us with. My colleague Dominic Bradley — go raibh maith agat, a Dhominic, as ucht an rún a mholadh — referred to the need to maximise every benefit. My colleague referred to an extra 27,000 people from the construction industry, and my other colleague referred to the extra 29,000 people who are unemployed. We have to be extremely conscious of those figures. There are people who have to choose between heating and eating. That is a fact, as everyone in the House knows from speaking to people in their constituency offices. Whatever about the politics of it, ideas need to come forward, and we need to have a definite Programme for Government that benefits people.
My colleague referred to the issues of the economy, tourism and agrifood. I thought that the Minister, given her Department’s brief, would have responded to Mr Elliott’s thoughts about the Barroso report and to thoughts about research and development in the EU. Clearly, an emerging theme throughout the debate was the need to address not only skills acquisition but the fact that skills are being lost through redundancies, layoffs and unemployment across our society. That issue certainly needs to be addressed.
Aside from the bit of banter back and forth, Mr Humphrey talked about focusing on the economy, employment, and the requirement for joined-up government between all the parties, which is another theme that I will come to in a moment. Mr McKay referred to the need to protect the vulnerable against cuts. Mr Lyttle also touched on the issue of skills acquisition — indeed, I referred to the loss of skills — and he also mentioned the issues of older people and people in deprivation. He also referred to the green new deal, which is a key area that has come up in the debate.
Mr Hamilton said that we do not have Departments in silos. The same theme was repeated by junior Minister Anderson. Well, if we do not have Departments in silos, why do the likes of the all-party working group on construction and the construction industry tell us that the picture that they get is that Departments work in silos and do not work cross-departmentally in the community’s interests? That may well be going on behind closed doors by a few civil servants who are huddled in a room somewhere. However, the message is certainly not getting out to society or, indeed, to people who are being crippled economically at present. Therefore, a big job needs to be done despite what the junior Minister says.
I thank the Member for giving way. Does he accept that what people out there want at present is a kick-start to the local economy, particularly in construction? There is gross annoyance that capital projects are not being started. That is currently people’s priority.
Indeed, I thank the Minister — I mean, the Member — for his intervention. You will forgive me for that wee Freudian slip, Joe.
You picked up on it quickly, William. I thank Mr Byrne for his intervention. Yes; that is a huge issue. Members from other parties who attended that all-party working group are in the Chamber: Mr McElduff, for example. That issue is raised time and again by small businesses and by the construction industry and professionals associated with it. Decisions need to be got out the door pronto. Whatever money is available to spend on capital schemes must be spent now in order to support and sustain the industry. Much has been made of sustainability by the junior Minister. That is one practical example of how that could be done.
Conor Murphy referred to the requirement to protect jobs and the economy and to put the people first. Indeed, he referred to my party putting the people first. I would like to think that through its productive role in the Assembly and the Executive, it does exactly that.
I thank the Member for giving way. I am sure that, like me, he watched last night’s programme on John Hume and the formation of the SDLP. I am sure that he will agree that our party stands on a very proud history and record of putting the people first.
Yes, indeed. I thank the Member for reminding me of our party’s proud history in Derry through John Hume. We did not make false promises about a rail link to Derry. We did not make false promises that the road network would be enhanced. Our political party did not stick up posters around the city making all of those promises. We deliver on our promises. Perhaps the problem was that a senior civil servant in the Department was drafting another letter that was a wee bit misleading.
I apologise to the Member for being unable to watch that programme because I was watching ‘The Frontline’ on RTÉ, which profiled Martin McGuinness’s chances of winning the Irish presidential election.
We could always argue the merits or demerits of both figures and their positive contribution to the city of Derry —
We are getting slightly distracted. I take that point, Mr Principal Deputy Speaker, but some of your party colleagues added to the diversion.
Mr Spratt referred to the need to work together collectively and the need for investment in a quality public transport system. John McCallister referred to the lack of direction on the Programme for Government and to the fact that people were not agreed. I have to say that that is the message that comes from people outside the Building: that the Assembly must get its act together, work more collectively and present an image of working in the interests of the entire community.
The Member makes some valid points. Indeed, throughout the debate, Members from his party and, indeed, the Ulster Unionists made valid criticisms of the absence of a Programme for Government and of how they are treated in the Executive. Is there not a certain compelling logic to the road down which they are headed, which is that they should grasp the nettle and become an opposition in the House? Some people think that one person can have an effect. How much more effect could a third of the House have in opposition? Would that not make for better government, rather than being part of a dysfunctional, failing Executive of which the absence of a Programme for Government is but a symptom?
It is worthwhile having a discussion on that. I do not think I will be joining Mr Allister in his party of one just at the moment. We have quite a bit of work to do on the shared future before we arrive at that point.
Maybe you will join us then, Jim? I thank him for his intervention.
A very valid point was made by Mr McCallister, who said that there is no structure or strategy on cross-cutting issues, which is a big issue. I am glad to hear, and I hope the Minister is starting to point up, that we are going to see Departments working on a cross-cutting basis. I hope that senior civil servants are huddled somewhere in rooms, irrespective of where those rooms are, and are beginning to get together instead of maintaining themselves in silos and protecting the interests of their Departments. This is about something much bigger than that: the interests of the community.
Mr Eastwood referred to the spending cuts and the requirements for Derry and for public transport and the rail network there. I highlighted commitments and promises that were made by previous incumbents of the relevant ministerial seat that simply have not been delivered.
Mr Trevor Clarke said that he had no problem with the sentiments of the motion but then went on to disagree considerably with some of the principles of the motion. But then, I know Trevor. [Laughter.]
I again thank Mrs Cochrane for her comments on obstacles to the cost of living and the economically inactive in society. Welfare reform will have a major effect on that, and many people are troubled and deeply concerned about that.
Basil McCrea referred to issues and delays in Departments. My colleague Dolores Kelly, as I pointed out, referred to the construction industry.
Molaim an rún agus gabhaim buíochas le achan duine as ucht a dtacaíochta. I thank everyone who spoke in support of the motion.
Question put and agreed to.
That this Assembly recognises that good practice in governance is to base a Budget on an up-to-date Programme for Government so that the policy initiatives can inform financial planning; notes that it is now over six months since the Assembly voted on the Executive’s Budget 2011-15; further notes the significant economic change in this region since the 2008-2011 Programme for Government was published; and calls on the Executive to publish for consultation a new draft Programme for Government which adequately addresses the economic challenges in the coming years.
On a point of order, Mr Principal Deputy Speaker. I refer you to Standing Order 17(5), which states:
“The Speaker shall determine the order of speaking and the number of speakers in any debate having due regard to the balance of opinion on the matter”.
Will you consult the Speaker to see whether there is any way to enable all those who wish to take part in a debate in the House to do so? I realise that there are issues that you have to take into consideration and that a balance has to be struck, but perhaps you will bring that up.
I am happy to do that.
The Business Committee has agreed to meet immediately upon the lunchtime suspension. I propose therefore, by leave of the Assembly, to suspend the sitting until 2.00 pm. The first item of business will be Question Time.
The sitting was suspended at 12.33 pm.
On resuming (Mr Speaker in the Chair) —