Northern Ireland Assembly

Part of the debate – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 12:15 pm on 12 March 2012.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Tom Elliott Tom Elliott UUP 12:15, 12 March 2012

I thank the First Minister and the deputy First Minister for bringing this forward and for briefing me this morning on the aspects of the Programme for Government. I speak on behalf of the Committee for the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister. Members will be aware that the Committee took the lead in co-ordinating the responses of Statutory Committees to the Programme for Government and sought their views on it, with particular focus on three specific areas: gaps in the Programme for Government; comments on the milestones and outcomes of the departmental commitments; and monitoring progress. I am sure that the Chairpersons and members of other Committees will give their views.

The Committee was briefed by the First Minister and the deputy First Minister on the draft Programme for Government on 14 December last year. The Committee also held round-table discussions to seek the views of the commissions that fall within OFMDFM’s remit: the Equality Commission; the Commissioner for Children and Young People; the Commissioner for Older People; and the Commissioner for Victims and Survivors.

Members will be aware that the Committee has not had an opportunity to consider or comment on the final version of the Programme for Government that we are debating today or the changes from the draft. However, the Committee welcomed the five strategic priorities in the draft Programme for Government, which are now in the final version.

I shall begin by considering gaps in the Programme for Government, some of which have been addressed. The Committee for the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister wanted to see greater reference to Europe in the Programme for Government, and the addition of the Executive’s European priorities in the final Programme for Government’s building blocks for priorities 1, 2 and 3 is welcome. The Committee also welcomes the inclusion in priority 1 of the final Programme for Government of an additional specific commitment on the Executive’s 20% target for increased drawdown of competitive European Union funding that it had asked OFMDFM to consider.

The Committee commented on the cross-cutting nature of the priorities and wished to see more detail on how Departments’ progress will be monitored to allow for effective scrutiny, particularly in areas such as poverty and social exclusion, and the integrated childcare strategy. I note that the final Programme for Government includes more detail in priority 2 about structures to co-ordinate Departments working together to tackle poverty and social exclusion, namely the Delivering Social Change framework. The Committee considered correspondence about the DSC framework from the First Minister and deputy First Minister at its meeting last week and agreed to request an oral briefing on it. We look forward to learning more about how it will deliver effective, cross-departmental working.

The Committee asked that consideration be given to including Northern Ireland-specific targets in the Programme for Government in addition to the UK-wide targets in the Child Poverty Act 2010. That would allow for monitoring of progress on child poverty locally and contribute towards achieving the UK-wide targets. We do not feel that has been significantly addressed in the Programme for Government document because we believe that the UK targets could be met without any improvement in the Northern Ireland targets. That is why it is important that we see localised Northern Ireland targets.

The Committee’s report also highlighted the need for detailed delivery plans. The Committee was briefed by officials on the 2008-2011 Programme for Government delivery report at its meeting last week. We learned that Committees will have an opportunity to comment on the draft delivery plans of their respective Departments, and OFMDFM plans to bring that forward to monitor progress and delivery of the Programme for Government.

The Commission for Victims and Survivors felt that there was insufficient reference to dealing with the past, a problem that has continued to plague society in Northern Ireland and, it appears, will continue to do so. The commissioners also felt that a commitment in the Programme for Government to continue to develop services that address the needs of victims and their families would have afforded recognition to victims.

The Commissioner for Older People felt that the draft PFG did not sufficiently address the significance of an ageing population, including its significance for Northern Ireland’s workforce and as a key consumer of health and social services. The commissioner also felt that increasing pensioner poverty, including fuel poverty, should have been referenced in the Programme for Government.

The Commissioner for Children and Young People believed that there were significant gaps in the draft Programme for Government in a number of areas, including early intervention, family support, mental health, play and leisure participation, safeguarding children, post-primary transfer, special educational needs, children in care and children with disabilities.

The commissioners gave a broad welcome to the proposal to legislate to extend age discrimination to the provision of goods and services. The Equality Commission and a number of Committee members highlighted the need for legislation on race and disability to be brought up to date with developments in the rest of the United Kingdom. The Committee asked OFMDFM to consider bringing forward a flexible framework capable of reflecting change and best practice in relation to disability and race. I am sure that the Committee will wish to return to that issue when we have more detail on the measures to promote the rights of people from an ethnic minority background, which has been inserted in priority 2 of the final Programme for Government.

On legislation generally, I note that the concluding sentence of annex 1 of the PFG now states:

“It is intended that this Programme for Government will be supported by a legislative programme that complements its delivery objectives.”

The Committee’s report stated that it would like to see a commitment to the publication of a rolling legislative programme and more information on legislation that has been agreed. This is an issue that the Committee will return to, and I raised it with the First Minister and the deputy First Minister just this morning. I understand that they may have some suggestions on how to improve that.

The Committee heard evidence relating to unclaimed benefits, particularly for older people, and it would welcome a mechanism whereby an individual’s inquiry about a particular benefit entitlement would be the trigger for the provision of advice and a check on his or her other benefit entitlements.

The Committee wishes to see the issue of peace walls considered in consultation with the affected local communities from the outset. No doubt, the Chairperson of the Justice Committee will want to comment further on what is in the final version of the PFG.

The Committee has reservations about the red/amber/green system of recording progress. The Committee for Finance and Personnel provided us with a PEDU briefing on the monitoring arrangements for PFG at our meeting on 7 March, and we will consider that again this week.

The Committee is keen that the system of monitoring departmental progress reflects what is happening on the ground, with regular reporting to Committees.

I will now reference some issues that the Ulster Unionist Party and I, as a member, have. We have been informed this afternoon that there were 430 written responses to the PFG, and I assume that civil servants and, indeed, Ministers have been working overtime in the past couple of weeks to bring forward the final PFG. My party and I welcome that, because for the past 12 months, we have been calling for a Programme for Government to be introduced. We also welcome the fact that it has been brought forward at this level.

In respect of corporation tax, I understand that the joint ministerial working group had its second meeting on 7 March. Given that the PFG sets out that an Executive announcement on the rate of corporation tax for Northern Ireland will be made in 2014-15, I am keen to know what progress has been made in identifying the cost to the block grant, as that is the first step in the process.

As regards the development of the Maze/Long Kesh as a regeneration site of regional significance, the Ulster Unionist Party wants the site to be taken forward in a practical manner through, for example, the relocation of the Royal Ulster Agricultural Society and the Ulster Aviation Society. However, we do not support the allocation of substantial European funding to a conflict resolution centre, which is offensive to many victims. I note that, on page 33 of the PFG, there is a reference to private sector development at the Maze/Long Kesh site. I am keen to get some more information on that from the First Minister and deputy First Minister.