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Budget 2016-17

Part of Executive Committee Business – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 5:30 pm on 19th January 2016.

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Photo of Bronwyn McGahan Bronwyn McGahan Sinn Féin 5:30 pm, 19th January 2016

Go raibh maith agat, a Phríomh-LeasCheann Comhairle. Thank you for the opportunity to address the House on the important issue of the Budget 2016-17. I take the opportunity to congratulate the Minister on his new role. I speak here as an MLA.

As a proactive member of the Employment and Learning Committee with a keen interest in achieving long-term economic growth for our rural communities as well as the urban centres, I welcome the commitment in the Budget to meet challenges that have been identified as key issues and challenges. The challenges that need to be met by a new Department for the Economy include the championing of economic, social and personal development by providing relevant, high-quality learning, research and skills; increasing collaboration between business, higher education, further education and the public sector; addressing the widening higher education funding gap; the implementation of the new youth training strategy, 'Generating our Success'; the continued delivery of the higher education strategy, 'Graduating to Success'; the implementation of the new employer-led apprenticeship strategy; the implementation of a refresh strategy for the further education sector; and the continued delivery of the European social fund and secure investment for more world-class businesses.

Everyone will notice that most of the strategies I have mentioned contain the word "success". For our Executive and political institutions to be successful in delivering social change when dealing with the real needs of our community, the capital DEL allocation must support the Department's activities and projects across a number of investment measures. The allocation must provide funding for continual investment in higher and further education, and I welcome the new resources that are being made available for skills in the new Department for the Economy. The proposed new Department must utilise the skills barometer that was published last November to underpin all economic models. Our further and higher education sectors must be able to avail themselves of the skills barometer to plan for future provision, given tightened budgets.

At this point, I want to again address the need for expansion of the higher education offering at the Magee campus of the University of Ulster as an essential driver for social change in the north-west. This important issue needs to be properly addressed once and for all.

In relation to European Union funding, the renewed and concentrated focus on research and innovation, while enhancing the competitiveness of local SME businesses via the 2014-2020 Investment for Growth and Jobs programme, is much needed. Any new Department must have a fully functioning network of research experts to help businesses and researchers successfully compete for funding from Horizon 2020, the European Union's flagship research and innovation programme. Funding drawn down via the cross-border INTERREG programme in support of research and innovation activity must seek to facilitate growth in the number of SMEs across our region that engage in research and innovation activity on a collaborative basis, complemented with support that is focused on increased cross-border or, indeed, competence building with the life and health sciences and renewable energy sectors.

It is important that the strategic aim of the Youth Employment Scheme 2014-2020 to combat poverty and enhance social inclusion by reducing economic inactivity while increasing the skills of those currently in work and future potential participants in the workforce needs to be fully met. The Big Conversation is still being held at the behest of the Minister for Employment and Learning, Mr Stephen Farry, in an attempt to address the funding shortfalls in skills development and employment. We must ensure that a new funding model is developed that is not only sustainable but fair for everyone. Skills development must be central to any future economic model. As our region has a high proportion of low-skilled citizens, which, no doubt, has an impact on the strength of our labour market as well as the wider economy, and with the North having high levels of economic inactivity, the Fresh Start Agreement commitment to tackle economic inactivity is most welcome.

I will conclude by pledging to continue to keep an eye on the roll-out of the Department's policies. At all times, we must work to ensure equality for section 75 groupings. Given that the right-wing Tory Government in London have slashed our block grant, we must ensure that there is no differential impact on section 75 groups.