Northern Ireland Assembly

Part of the debate – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at on 12 March 2012.

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Photo of Peter Robinson Peter Robinson DUP

I beg to move

That this Assembly endorses the Programme for Government 2011-15 agreed by the Executive.

On 17 November 2011, the Northern Ireland Executive launched the draft Programme for Government for consultation. At that time, I said that this blueprint reflected our intention to take responsibility for our future, our intention to modernise and reform and our intention to move forward as one community. I reaffirm those intentions today. Today, we seek the endorsement of the Northern Ireland Assembly for our proposals and for the Programme for Government. It is the responsibility of those elected to office in Northern Ireland to lead, but it is also our responsibility to listen. Having listened to the people of Northern Ireland through the consultation process, we have improved and added focus to the initial document. Today, we are determined to finalise and pass this Programme for Government, but, even more importantly, tomorrow and in the days that follow, we will deliver it.

This is an exceptionally important time in Northern Ireland’s history. We have put the conflict of previous decades behind us. Now, we must focus on tackling the everyday problems that each society throughout the world has to face. We have a genuine decision to make: we can either continue to contain and manage our problems, or we can seek to resolve them and, in doing so, decide to take our place on the world stage. For our part, that decision has already been made, and delivery has begun.

This year will be our time. To demonstrate that, we have a stunning series of events planned that will attract people from every corner of the globe: the opening of the new Titanic visitor centre in Belfast; the opening of the Giant’s Causeway visitor centre; the centenary of the Titanic’s maiden voyage; the opening of the MAC, Belfast’s new arts centre; the Olympic and Paralympic Games 2012 torch relay; the arrival of the Clipper Round the World Yacht Race to Londonderry; the fiftieth Belfast Festival at Queen’s; the Irish Open at Royal Portrush; and, to add flavour to the year, we start a decade of significant centenaries reflecting our historic shared differences.

We are not a people given to hype or hyperbole. Our scepticism is a healthy characteristic. However, let me be absolutely clear: these will be events of genuinely international interest built on a globally important heritage — events that will look forward as well as back. This is our opportunity to showcase everything that is good about Northern Ireland and all the potential that lies ahead of us. In particular, the events represent incredibly important opportunities to highlight the talents of our people. We have absolutely no reason to feel inferior when it comes to our capabilities. Northern Ireland people are second to none. The incredible success of our movie stars such as Liam Neeson, Kenneth Branagh, Stephen Rea or Ciarán Hinds reflects the professionalism and hard work of those individuals, as well as the humour, culture and shared heritage of the community that nurtured them.

The question is how we build on the deep reservoir of talent that exists here. The challenge must be to create a society that can bring people together to push in the same direction for the common good. There is no reason why that cannot happen, and the Programme for Government sets out a route map to achieve that.

People from here have already had a large impact across the world. For example, people of local stock helped to build modern America. Look at that long list of US presidents whose lineage is traced back to Northern Ireland. Think about international sports stars such as Graeme McDowell, Rory McIlroy and Darren Clarke, who, today, compete with the best in the world and, time after time, win. For centuries, people from here have gone elsewhere to make their mark. The challenge before us is to create the opportunities that will encourage our citizens to root themselves right here.

For every superstar, there are many tens of thousands of unsung heroes contributing huge value through business, working in our hospitals or schools or supporting the most vulnerable in their communities. It is those so-called ordinary people who will transform our society. That is why it was so important to listen to the opinions coming from Northern Ireland’s grass roots while we finalised our Programme for Government. Following the November launch, we undertook an extensive programme of engagement with the public and key stakeholders. During that period, we issued around 1,000 documents, received more than 430 responses and held or supported 20 events. We took heed of what we heard, and we are confident that the finalised Programme for Government presents a real and viable business plan to move us forward, grow our economy and achieve the social changes that are necessary to ensure that our community — a single, unified community — moves from strength to strength. For example, the final version of the programme draws out the top priorities identified during the consultation, namely the promotion of over 25,000 new jobs; £1 billion of investment in the Northern Ireland economy; increased visitor numbers and tourist revenue; supporting young people into employment by providing skills and training; and reforming and modernising the delivery of health and social care.

Before I talk about the outcome of the consultation in more detail, I would like colleagues to take a step back for a moment and think about what this programme means for our people. In simple terms, people want delivery. They want delivery on the ground that they can see, feel and understand; they want good jobs; they want to live in safe, peaceful and clean communities; and they want to know that they will receive effective services when they need them. Put simply, people in Northern Ireland want exactly the same things as everyone the world over hopes for — a good quality of life for themselves, their family and their community. The Programme for Government is, therefore, vital. It is a statement of genuine intent that sets out a road map for reform that will lead us to the future that our citizens desire and deserve.

The draft programme had a strong emphasis on the economy, and we will return to that theme tomorrow, when we hold our debate on the economic strategy. As it stands, the final version of the Programme for Government retains a similar emphasis, and I make no apology for that. People need to have the chance to contribute through work. We need opportunities that can motivate everyone and enable them to create the value that they, their families and their communities need. It is good for their health and well-being, good for their community and good for the economy as a whole.

A commitment to promote 25,000 new jobs, therefore, remains at the top of the agenda, along with commitments to support young people into employment by providing skills and training; to support £300 million of investment by businesses in R&D, with at least 20% coming from small and medium-sized enterprises; to press for the devolution of corporation tax and reduce its level; to include social clauses in all our public procurement contracts for supplies, services and construction; to aid the liquidity of small and medium-sized enterprises through a £50 million loan fund; to deliver at least 30 schemes to improve landscapes and public areas and promote private sector investment in towns and cities; to ensure that 90% of large-scale investment planning decisions are made within six months and applications with job creation potential are given additional weight; to introduce an extension of the small business rate relief scheme to 2015; and to eliminate air passenger duty on direct long-haul flights. However, we have gone further. The final Programme for Government includes enhanced commitments on the economy, including commitments to achieve a £375 million injection through foreign direct investment, which is an increase from £300 million in the draft programme, as part of a £1 billion investment package, and to facilitate the delivery of the Executive’s 20% target for increased drawdown of competitive EU funds. That is a new commit­ment. The final Programme for Government also includes commitments to increase the value of manufacturing exports by 20%, which is an increase from the 15% commitment in the draft programme; to raise visitor numbers to 4·2 million, which is an increase from 3·6 million in the draft programme; and to increase tourist revenue to £676 million by 2013, which is an increase from the £625 million committed in the draft programme.

The message is that we have listened to what we have been told. It is clear that a strong economy is needed to drive social change. People need to be empowered to lift themselves and their families out of poverty. Delivery will also require investment. We will return to that in more detail in coming weeks in the debate on the investment strategy, which was the third document we launched for public consultation back in November. All of this will require a huge, concerted effort by everyone. Our economy will grow only by developing people and empowering them to deliver the necessary growth. We need to foster business entrepreneurs, social entrepreneurs and capable employees who can work with international companies. However, creating that level of opportunity will be difficult when 28% of children are in a low-income household. Economic measures will not be able to deliver all the change that is needed. Thriving economies help to create healthy communities, but healthy and peaceful communities are also a very important precursor to a strong economy.

We are determined to work together across government to make a real impact on the divisions that have blighted our community. That is why we have developed the Delivering Social Change delivery framework. The reality is that we cannot continue to address the so-called intractable problems of poverty and social inclusion using the methods employed in the past. We have too many strategies, too many policies and too many action plans, many of which refer to work already proposed or under way and do not add real value. The difference with this new approach is that we are not interested in producing vast and unwieldy documents for their own sake. We want to pursue a smaller number of additional objectives; for example, flagship projects to support early interventions where children are at risk of harm. The key will be to introduce a systematic roll-out of programmes that can make a difference across all areas. The development of Delivering Social Change demonstrates the value of listening. People told us that they expect to see Departments working together effectively and transparently to make a difference.

We paid attention to concerns that the needs of key groups, such as victims and survivors, were not fully reflected in the draft. We decided that a new approach would be required that would enable us to focus the £80 million social investment fund, the £12 million childcare fund and the other available resources on the actions that can impact most effectively in the long term. We will look carefully at what that means for existing commitments to produce action plans. In future, our primary focus will be on actions, not plans.

This systematic, outcome-focused approach will also apply to the other pledges in the Programme for Government. Although we need to focus on the economy, the Programme for Government is full of commitments that are essential if we are to achieve the necessary transformation in quality of life for our citizens. Important examples include promises to introduce and support initiatives aimed at reducing fuel poverty across Northern Ireland, including preventative interventions, improved thermal efficiency of Housing Executive stock and ensuring full double glazing in its properties. Other examples include the establishment of an advisory group to assist Ministers in alleviating hardship, including any implications arising from the UK Government’s welfare reform programme, and the development of the One Plan for the regeneration of Londonderry, incorporating the key sites at Fort George and Ebrington. I am particularly pleased to see a new pledge to improve patient and client outcomes and access to new treatments and services and the expansion of the existing commitment on educational achievement at GCSE to include improvements not only for young people from a disadvantaged background but for the wider population, given the need to restore our international position and address underachievement.

I have already made my views clear about the desirability of bringing our community together through education. I am particularly pleased to say that three critical commitments remain in the finalised programme: first, to establish a ministerial advisory group that will explore and bring forward recommendations to the Minister of Education for the advancement of shared education; secondly, to ensure that all children have the opportunity to participate in shared education programmes by 2015; and, thirdly, to increase substantially the number of schools that share facilities by that same year. These are real commitments, and, together with a new pledge to actively seek local agreement to reduce the number of peace walls, alongside the development of our CSI strategy, I fully expect to see this society coming together in new ways to deliver the shared future that we all want. I believe that this demonstrates fully that the Executive have listened to their consultees and that the Programme for Government has been improved as a result.

We recognise that the draft programme is significantly shorter than its predecessor, containing as it does 76 commitments, compared to almost 400 previously. Some of those consulted felt that 76 commitments were still too many, while others highlighted the desire to address key gaps, including the aspiration to place greater emphasis on the needs of children, older people and those with disabilities.

What has come across very strongly from this exercise is that, although people are generally supportive of the programme, they are much more focused on delivery. They want us to listen, but they want to see results. They want tangible transformation, not endless analysis. In that context, I thank the Committee for its work on the programme. I am very grateful to it and the Chairman for the work that underpins the Committee’s conclusions. We will seek to fill all the gaps that were identified through that engagement, either through the amendments to the programme that we have already made or as we move forward with implementation.

I am also happy to confirm that we will put in place arrangements to ensure that rigorous delivery plans are in place to meet our commitments. Those will be the subject of progress reports, which will be published annually, together with mid-year performance updates. The last time I addressed the Assembly on the draft Programme for Government, I said that we were on a new journey in a new era of devolved government. For the first time in a generation, we have completed a full Assembly term and have begun the job of building a better future. By the time of the next Assembly election, we will be judged by the electorate on our delivery. I believe that, through this Programme for Government, we can and will deliver a better, brighter and more prosperous Northern Ireland. I am determined that that delivery should be visible straight away. Indeed, we have been delivering impressively and at a significantly greater pace, especially since the Assembly election. This debate is a vital step in the process. Members will be aware of the issues that our citizens experience on the ground. They see and feel at first hand the impact of the economic downturn and the tightening of public resources. Members will, no doubt, have views about the commitments that are set out, and many may not always agree on those priorities. Therefore, it is important that Members use this opportunity to inform the process. However, when the debate concludes, let us be in no doubt that this programme must be implemented.

I look forward to seeing the Executive’s commitments delivered, and I look forward to working with all Assembly Members who want Northern Ireland to move forward to make that happen. I commend the motion, and I commend the Programme for Government to the House.