Employment and Learning

Oral Answers to Questions – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 2:30 pm on 12th March 2013.

Alert me about debates like this


Photo of Barry McElduff Barry McElduff Sinn Féin

1. asked the Minister for Employment and Learning what discussions his Department has had with Invest NI to identify why potential investors are choosing not to locate here. (AQO 3615/11-15)

Photo of Stephen Farry Stephen Farry Alliance

Northern Ireland continues to be successful in attracting high-value foreign direct investment (FDI), particularly in the software and information technology sectors, winning more than its fair share of inward investment.  The Northern Ireland proposition is based on a combination of quality and cost-competitiveness.  We have a steady supply of skilled and talented people, excellent links with universities and businesses, an advanced telecommunications infrastructure and world-class companies operating in key knowledge-based sectors.  Operating costs are highly competitive and can be significantly lower than many regions of the UK and Europe, including the Republic of Ireland. 

My officials work closely with Invest Northern Ireland to ensure that we make the best possible proposition to potential investors.  My Department’s Assured Skills programme is now a critical part of the offers made.  Assured Skills is designed to guarantee employers that the skills that they need to support a growing business can be found in Northern Ireland.  Assured Skills has supported the creation of just under 1,000 jobs across eight projects, with funding of £2·57 million committed from my Department.  Set alongside complementary support from Invest Northern Ireland, those results suggest that Assured Skills support has been crucial in securing jobs for Northern Ireland.

There are regular meetings between my officials and colleagues in Invest Northern Ireland to discuss the pipeline of potential investors.  There is a range of factors as to why companies do not locate in Northern Ireland, and only companies themselves can provide their very specific reasons.  However, I know that a very substantial focus is being applied across government to ensure that Northern Ireland is attractive to investors.  I am confident that the joint efforts of Invest Northern Ireland and my Department, through Assured Skills, are making Northern Ireland one of the most attractive locations for investment.

Photo of Barry McElduff Barry McElduff Sinn Féin

Go raibh maith agat.  I thank the Minister for his answer.  Does he agree that part of the explanation is a skills shortage in the workforce in a number of areas?  If that is the case, in what specific areas are there skills shortages, and what is the Department doing to address the skills shortage?

Photo of Stephen Farry Stephen Farry Alliance

I thank Mr McElduff for his very broad question.  The first thing to say is that we have quality people in Northern Ireland to begin with.  Already, we are competing through the quality of the skills in our workforce.  However, we have to invest and make sure that we invest in the right areas to ensure that we are capable of capturing the opportunities that are out there for Northern Ireland.

When we have either a skills shortage or a skills mismatch, particularly at a time of high unemployment, it is a source of concern for me, as it should be for everyone.  A number of very specific interventions are under way.  We have identified a number of priority skills sectors, which correlates with the priority sectors in the economic strategy.  Beyond that, there is, for example, the information and communication technology (ICT) working group for that sector, which has an action plan in place.  We also have an action plan in place for the agrifood sector, and we are working with the engineering and advanced manufacturing sector on an action plan for it.  We are working very closely with all the high-growth-potential sectors.

Photo of Robin Newton Robin Newton DUP

At what stage does the Minister become involved with Invest NI or the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment as they search the world for inward investment, and how does he prepare for that potential FDI coming into Northern Ireland?

Photo of Stephen Farry Stephen Farry Alliance

I thank the Member for his question.  As he will appreciate, Invest Northern Ireland is the lead economic development agency for Northern Ireland; it sources the opportunities and makes the initial contacts.  My officials work closely with their counterparts in Invest Northern Ireland.  As someone who was concerned previously about the ability of different agencies to co-operate, I have been significantly reassured over the past number of years at the level of commonality and joint endeavour between my Department and Invest Northern Ireland.  In turn, Invest Northern Ireland will look to my Department to provide reassurance around skills.  It is for that reason that we have the Assured Skills programme, which, I believe, has been crucial in getting a number of key investments over the line in recent months.

Photo of Francie Molloy Francie Molloy Sinn Féin

Question 2 has been withdrawn.

Further Education: Neighbourhood Renewal

Photo of Stephen Moutray Stephen Moutray DUP

3. asked the Minister for Employment and Learning, given the success of the Southern Regional College in the Upper Bann area in delivering courses which are of need in the neighbourhood renewal areas, what plans he has to replicate this scheme in areas with similar needs which are not included in the neighbourhood renewal zones. (AQO 3617/11-15)

Photo of Stephen Farry Stephen Farry Alliance

I acknowledge the significant achievements made by the Southern Regional College to deliver courses that address specific issues in neighbourhood renewal areas.  It has been gratifying to see the success.  My Department, in tandem with the wider further education sector, remains committed to tackling disadvantage across Northern Ireland, including those areas that are not designated as neighbourhood renewal areas.  Colleges provide a varied curriculum tailored to local needs. 

My Department has also built upon the success of the learner access and engagement pilot (LAEP) to develop a mainstream programme that will begin in September 2013.  It can be delivered in all areas in Northern Ireland and is not restricted to neighbourhood renewal areas.  The programme will provide opportunities for non-statutory organisations to provide learner support for adults through a contractual arrangement with colleges.  That support will be directed at hard-to-reach adults who are economically inactive, disengaged from the labour market, and hold few or no qualifications, to encourage them to undertake a course that will help to prepare them for employment or higher learning. 

Under the Executive's Pathways to Success strategy, the Department will fund new approaches to help unemployed young people who are experiencing socio-economic disadvantage to gain the skills and qualifications necessary to progress to further education, government-funded training or employment — especially the essential skills of literacy, numeracy and ICT.  The community-based access pilot programme will focus on essential skills for 16- to 18-year-olds.

Photo of Stephen Moutray Stephen Moutray DUP

I thank the Minister for his response.  However, will he indicate what the age profile has been on the courses in Upper Bann neighbourhood renewal areas and whether young people are availing themselves of them, given the increase in youth unemployment?

Photo of Stephen Farry Stephen Farry Alliance

I do not have to hand the precise figures that the Member requests.  I will certainly write to him in that regard.  I will make the general comment that, historically, the LAEP project has been focused more at adults, and the age profile there has been largely over 25.  It is for that reason that we have, as part of the NEETs strategy, sought to put in place a new community-based access pilot, which will better target that intervention towards young people.


The Member is quite right to place a focus on the needs of young people, because we are all conscious of the problems of youth unemployment and economic inactivity among young people.  Although many societies have problems with unemployment in general, we have a particular spike in our problems with young people.  So, it is important that we do focus our interventions in that regard.

Photo of Patsy McGlone Patsy McGlone Social Democratic and Labour Party

Go raibh maith agat, a Phríomh-LeasCheann Comhairle.  Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire chomh maith.  Will the Minister give us some information in relation to targeting social needs for the young unemployed especially, some of whom cannot afford to go to university?  What is being done to bring them more into education through FE colleges?

Photo of Stephen Farry Stephen Farry Alliance

The Executive have put in place progressive policies to enable people to go to university, if that is the appropriate pathway for them.  Those range from the freeze in tuition fees for local students at local universities to our widening participation strategy, through which we are trying to address pockets of under-representation in the profile of people who are attending university. 

It is important to remember that we have the highest participation rate of all UK regions.  Equally, however, there are people who are more suitable for other pathways.  A whole range of interventions is available.  The Member will be aware that we recently announced a major review of apprenticeships and youth training to address those who are more marginalised from the labour market.  We have now put in place our NEETs strategy, and within that there are a number of incentives for young people.  Notably, we have extended an education maintenance allowance-equivalent payment to incentivise young people attending voluntary sector courses funded through the European social fund or the collaboration and innovation fund under the NEETs strategy.  We also have the youth employment scheme. 

I believe that, on a pound-for-pound basis, we are probably doing more for young people than any jurisdiction in these islands, and we have to build on that rather than sit back and become complacent.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

There are several small pockets of deprivation within Larne and Carrickfergus, in which there is also a recognised lack of engagement with the local FE college.  Can the Minister advise what best practice exists in the Southern Regional College area and whether that has been translated into other areas?  Can he also advise of an example of the sort of non-statutory body that he suggested should lead the engagement to try to improve educational outreach?

Photo of Stephen Farry Stephen Farry Alliance

I thank the Member for his questions.  On the latter point, it is not for me to prescribe the nature of those interventions and the type of organisations that should come forward, except to say that we are open to different types of partnerships being created.  He is also right to identify that the Southern Regional College has been proactive in that respect, with a range of projects in neighbourhood renewal areas.  I appreciate that what, sometimes, are defined as neighbourhood renewal areas, may not pick up the full subtleties that exist in smaller pockets of deprivation. 

Colleges NI is the umbrella body for colleges in Northern Ireland.  In addition to my Department, it is available to encourage the sharing of best practice across the network.

Photo of Phil Flanagan Phil Flanagan Sinn Féin

Go raibh maith agat, a Phríomh-LeasCheann Comhairle.  I thank the Minister for his answer.  It would be a stretch, even for me, to try to get a question about recruitment to the British Army in here, so I will ask him a sensible question. 

Given that the most recent figures for labour market statistics here indicate that around 68% of the people who are unemployed, which is about 68,000 people, have been unemployed for over a year, can the Minister give us an assurance that the Executive have got control of the growing rates of unemployment?  Or is it something that we have not got control of yet and on which much more needs to be done?

Photo of Stephen Farry Stephen Farry Alliance

I thank Mr Flanagan for his question and his recognition of the non-story from yesterday and the weekend.  Can I give him the reassurance that the economy and job creation is the top priority for the Executive?  It is important that we acknowledge that unemployment is an issue in Northern Ireland, that we dig deeper and recognise that there are a number of elements to that and that we have particular challenges with regard to youth unemployment and long-term unemployment, but, in turn, we have put in place interventions to address those. 

Leaving aside the issues of youth unemployment, which I touched upon earlier, we have additional strands of Steps to Work, such as Step Ahead 50+, for example.  It is directed towards those people who are long-term unemployed and of a certain age.  We also have our mainstream back-to-work programme, Steps to Work.  As the Member knows, we are finalising preparations for procurement on a replacement, Steps 2 Success.  We are very keen to ensure that we improve performance even further in Northern Ireland by doing all that we can to proactively work with individuals at a personalised level to encourage them back into work and to identify opportunities for them.

North West Regional College

Photo of Mitchel McLaughlin Mitchel McLaughlin Sinn Féin

4. asked the Minister for Employment and Learning for his assessment of Harry McConnell's report on the North West Regional College. (AQO 3618/11-15)

Photo of Stephen Farry Stephen Farry Alliance

The McConnell report confirms that there has been a significant breakdown in industrial relations at the North West Regional College.  It is essential that changes are put in place to rebuild trust between management, staff and the unions.  The report’s recommendations present a challenge for everyone involved.  They entail a long-term programme of confidence building, as well as some immediate steps to improve relationships.  The recommendations require a change of attitude, behaviour and approach on the part of all those in the college who have responsibility and influence in establishing and maintaining a harmonious working environment.

The college’s governing body has accepted fully the report’s recommendations.  Governors are now required to provide clear leadership and direction to ensure that the necessary changes are implemented and effective workplace relationships restored.

My Department will work closely with the governing body as it builds on the college improvement plan and prepares an action plan to give effect to the report’s findings.

Photo of Francie Molloy Francie Molloy Sinn Féin

I call Mr Pat Ramsey.  I am sorry; Mr Mitchel McLaughlin. [Laughter.]

Photo of Mitchel McLaughlin Mitchel McLaughlin Sinn Féin

Thanks very much. [Laughter.] I thank the Minister for that answer, although I am somewhat concerned that he is relying on a body that was established before the report was issued, and which has separate terms of reference.  In fact, they are addressing the question of improving the performance.  We have a report, which, it is generally accepted, is very, very critical of the leadership and culture in the college.  Does the Minister agree that we need an entirely new body to take forward the recommendations of this report, not a body that was already in existence, with a different set of terms of reference?

Photo of Stephen Farry Stephen Farry Alliance

I thank the Member for that question and the comments.  Let me address the issue in two respects.  First, concern has been expressed at the fact that there is a college improvement plan that predates the publication of the report.  Obviously, the report was being developed within a particular context and direction of travel, and the improvement plan will recognise that to a certain extent.

However, I have been very clear with the board of governors.  I am sure that Members would support me in saying that what we need is an action plan that addresses specifically the recommendations in the McConnell report.  In some respects, that action plan will now supersede the improvement plan.  It will build upon the improvement plan — themes in the improvement plan will be subsumed into the action plan — but it will be the action plan that has to clearly identify and pick up on the various comments that were made in that report. 

In terms of the wider issue, I believe that it is now for the board of governors to take ownership of addressing the issue.  Comments have been made about the board of governors, and I would certainly encourage the board to be more proactive in exercising its functions in the management of the college.  There are also issues for the management and the unions in the college.  In the first instance, it is important that we give the board of governors the space and opportunity to deliver upon the report's recommendations, and to do so as quickly as possible.

Photo of Francie Molloy Francie Molloy Sinn Féin 2:45 pm, 12th March 2013

I apologise; I am not used to multitasking.

Photo of Pat Ramsey Pat Ramsey Social Democratic and Labour Party

Although I welcome the Minister's statement, I find it very difficult to reconcile myself, having been involved in the campaign, when Harry McConnell's report has identified a culture of fear, which presumably comes from the directors and senior management of the college, with the fact that the Association of Managers in Education (AMiE), the trade union that represents 12 members of staff who are directors and senior managers at the college, has absolutely rejected the Harry McConnell report.  How can you reconcile that going forward?

Photo of Stephen Farry Stephen Farry Alliance

I take on board what Mr Ramsey is saying.  However, let me say that, clearly, the people who have to accept the report's recommendations are the board of governors.  It has ultimate responsibility for the running of the college.  It is to the board that the senior management is accountable.  I expect the board of governors to set the tone for what now happens in the college, to put in place an action plan and to ensure that that action plan is fully implemented.  Therefore, while I am aware of what has been said by various trade unions, including AMiE, the clear line of authority here lies through the board of governors.  Again, I say to Mr Ramsey that we must give the board the opportunity and space to get on with the job that the whole House wants it to do and ensure that we have a college in the north-west that delivers the skills that are required to build the workforce and develop the economy in that part of Northern Ireland.

Photo of Gregory Campbell Gregory Campbell Shadow Minister (International Development)

The Minister has mentioned the need for the board of governors to be given space to proceed.  Given the catchment area that the North West Regional College appeals to, has he grasped the need to ensure that the college, everyone in it and his Department gets a grip on the issue in order to ensure that confidence does not seep further from the college into the next year?

Photo of Stephen Farry Stephen Farry Alliance

I thank Mr Campbell for his comments. This report has to be seen as a watershed for the college. There is now the opportunity for a new beginning.  To develop the theme from my answer to Mr Ramsey, we have to see a college that services the wide catchment area that Mr Campbell identifies, ensures that it has the confidence of the wider business community and population of the area, actually delivers courses that are relevant to the area's growing economy and ensures that the skills that are inherent among people there are capitalised on fully.

There is a problem with industrial relations.  There is no running away from that.  Those issues have to be faced.  I believe that addressing them will be the key to unlocking even better performance by the college.

Youth Employment Scheme: North Down

Photo of Leslie Cree Leslie Cree UUP

5. asked the Minister for Employment and Learning for his assessment of the impact of the youth employment scheme in North Down. (AQO 3619/11-15)

Photo of Stephen Farry Stephen Farry Alliance

Since the launch of the youth employment scheme in July 2012, 68 opportunities have been offered by employers in the North Down area.  As of 1 March, 26 young people had availed themselves of those opportunities.  Of the 26 participating in the scheme, 10 have entered full-time employment.  Also, 39 young people have secured six months’ temporary employment under the First Start initiative.

Last September, a programme entitled CRAFT — careers-related advice and further training — which is a joint initiative between my Department, North Down YMCA and the South Eastern Regional College, was piloted in the Bangor area.  Eleven young people participated in that programme, and the outcomes were very positive.  Following that success, another CRAFT programme commenced on 4 February.

In the period from April to December 2012, the Employment Service helped 744 young unemployed people aged 18-24 to find employment in the North Down area.  Furthermore, my assessment is that we have also been successful in implementing a continuum of provision to enable unemployed young people to overcome their barriers to employment and to progress onto the youth employment scheme as well as other programmes and schemes.

Under the Pathways to Success strategy, I introduced initiatives and programmes in the North Down area such as the collaboration and innovation fund, which will provide £2·5 million to Fit4life, the South Eastern Regional College, the Training for Women Network and the South Eastern Health and Social Care Trust to help over 1,800 local unemployed young people to gain economically relevant skills.  In addition, the pathways allowance is available to eligible young people participating in local projects supported by the European social fund.

Later this year, the community-based access programme will provide essential skills qualifications to 16- to 18-year-olds, and the community family support programme will help and support the most disadvantaged local families.

Photo of Leslie Cree Leslie Cree UUP

I thank the Minister for his response, which is certainly very encouraging.  Minister, you will know that, at the end of the day, the whole purpose of the exercise is to get people into full-time employment.  In respect of the figures, it is early days yet.  Are there any additions or enhancements you could make to the scheme to make it better than perhaps it is at present?

Photo of Stephen Farry Stephen Farry Alliance

Mr Cree is quite right to say that we are still in the early days of these programmes.  The profile of spend during 2012-13 was quite small and was largely for set-up costs, but we are set to see significant increases in expenditure for these projects over the next two financial years.  I believe that the programmes in place are strong and comprehensive, but we will keep them under constant review and, if necessary, make any mid-course adjustments.

Coming on stream in the near future is Steps 2 Success, the successor to Steps to Work, which will be the new mainstream back-to-work programme.  That will offer a much more individualised, tailored approach to dealing with clients.  Indeed, that may bring some of the additional benefit that Mr Cree is asking for.

Photo of Gordon Dunne Gordon Dunne DUP

Does the Minister recognise the high rate of unemployment among young people in North Down?  What has he done to promote apprenticeships and to try to get young people into trades so that they can get meaningful employment?

Photo of Stephen Farry Stephen Farry Alliance

I am glad that Mr Dunne raised the issue of apprenticeships and wider issues regarding youth training.  He will be aware that we recently announced a major review of apprenticeships in Northern Ireland, which will be undertaken over the next number of months.  I encourage him and any other Member to engage with that.

It is important to recognise that the world of work is changing, with different types of services and products, as well as the types of employment and jobs that are required.  Apprenticeships have huge advantages because young people will be trained in the very particular needs of businesses, and through that type of training, they are more likely to be able to sustain employment in the longer run.

WorldHost NI

Photo of Chris Lyttle Chris Lyttle Alliance

6. asked the Minister for Employment and Learning for an update on the progress of the WorldHost programme. (AQO 3620/11-15)

Photo of Stephen Farry Stephen Farry Alliance

I thank the Member for the question, and I am pleased to have the opportunity to report on this excellent initiative.  WorldHost is an international standard that introduces participants to the principles of customer service and their practical application in hospitality, tourism and retail settings.

A unique feature in Northern Ireland sees part of the training focus on enhancing participants’ understanding and knowledge of their area, encouraging them to take pride in it and equipping them to highlight points of interest to visitors.  Northern Ireland has excellent opportunities to showcase to the world what it has to offer.  Particularly encouraging news is that Belfast and Derry are pursuing recognition as WorldHost destinations.

I am delighted that my Department has supported WorldHost through working in partnership with the Northern Ireland Tourist Board, People 1st and others to deliver WorldHost training.  A package of financial support has been provided to enable small- and medium-sized businesses to avail themselves of WorldHost training for £20 per par— par— parcipitant—, with the Department paying the balance of £170.  Uptake has been excellent.  To date, 3,122 people have participated in training, at a cost of £530,000.  I am confident that my Department will meet its target of supporting 7,500 participants by March 2014, which equates to a total funding commitment of £1·275 million.

I am also seeking to be innovative in using WorldHost.  The power of the programme to motivate and enthuse participants has been acknowledged.  My Department has, therefore, sought to explore its use as a tool in helping young people to engage with education and learning through a pilot exercise for over 500 pupils in collaboration with schools in Derry.  Feedback has been most encouraging.

WorldHost is the gold-standard, tried and tested development programme for exemplary customer service.  I believe that it can enhance the experience of visitors to Northern Ireland and make an important contribution to our tourism industry.

Photo of Chris Lyttle Chris Lyttle Alliance

I will avoid asking the Minister any questions on participants.  What progress is being made in securing WorldHost city status in Northern Ireland?

Photo of Stephen Farry Stephen Farry Alliance

It is worth stressing why WorldHost is so important.  The Executive are doing a lot to invest in quality tourism visitor attractions.  We already have our wonderful natural assets, and a number of events are coming to Northern Ireland.  Between them, they will attract people to Northern Ireland.  When they come, it is important that they have a good experience so that they are encouraged to return or to recommend to family and friends that Northern Ireland is a good place to visit.  That way, we can benefit in the longer term from the investment that has been made.

I am pleased that Belfast and Derry are actively exploring becoming WorldHost destinations.  The requirement is that a minimum of 25% of businesses need to have half of their front line staff trained in WorldHost.  They can then display the WorldHost logo on their premises.  As such, that creates a sense of momentum, because those cities are branded as being quality visitor destinations.  As we invest in the tourism sector in Northern Ireland, it is vital that we make sure that we fully capitalise on opportunities.

Photo of Mervyn Storey Mervyn Storey DUP

I thank the Minister for his answer.  Given the key role that Northern Regional College plays in my constituency and the tourist destinations and attractions of the north coast, what encouragement and support will he give to the Ballymoney, Coleraine and Ballymena campuses to promote the WorldHost programme?  Will he ensure that they are actively encouraged to participate in that so that the northern part of my constituency also benefits as a result of the programme?

Photo of Stephen Farry Stephen Farry Alliance

I thank Mr Storey for the question.  The Northern Regional College has already been proactive in the area.  No doubt it will take from his comments the need to go even further in that regard.

It is very much a demand-led programme.  We will respond to the demand that comes from the sector.  Last year, we had the very good news that WorldHost was used around the Irish Open on the north coast.  It helped to make that a very good event, and it encouraged more people to visit Northern Ireland.  There may well be more that can be done, particularly on the north coast, to further capitalise on the good work that is happening.

Photo of Mark Durkan Mark Durkan Social Democratic and Labour Party

Go raibh maith agat, a Phríomh-LeasCheann Comhairle.  I thank the Minister for his answers thus far.  How many individuals have availed themselves of that fine programme for Derry, City of Culture 2013?

Photo of Stephen Farry Stephen Farry Alliance

It is right to say that Derry, more than any other location in Northern Ireland, has shown particular enthusiasm for this.  It is probably the most advanced in seeking to become a WorldHost destination.  Indeed, it has submitted an application in that regard.

It is also worth noting that the pilot for working with schools is taking place in the north-west.  Around 500 young people have gone through it.  As for the city overall, well in excess of 1,000 people have gone through the training in that part of the world.  That is a major statement of intent to ensure that the City of Culture is a major success this year and has a long-lasting legacy for the north-west.