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In compliance with section 52 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998, I wish to make the following statement on the eighteenth meeting of the North/South Ministerial Council (NSMC) in special EU programmes sectoral format, which was held in Armagh on Friday 11 December 2015. Minister Foster, in her capacity as Minister of Finance and Personnel, represented the Northern Ireland Executive and was accompanied by junior Minister Jennifer McCann. The Government of the Republic of Ireland were represented by Richard Bruton TD, Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation.
The Council noted that the two sponsor Departments will consider the current governance structures and reporting arrangements in place for the Special EU Programmes Body (SEUPB) and report back at a future meeting. The chief executive of the SEUPB then updated the Council on progress since the previous special EU programmes sectoral meeting in May 2014. The Peace III programme is 99% committed, with expenditure of 94% of the programme value incurred. Remaining expenditure to be achieved by the end of 2015 is €21·4 million. The INTERREG IVa programme is fully committed, with expenditure of 91% of the programme value incurred.
A further €21·4 million needed to be spent by the end of 2015.
It was noted that all previous years’ expenditure targets have been met, and the importance of maximising full EU funding allocations was highlighted. The Council was advised that Northern Ireland was successful in securing an additional £8·9 million from the INTERREG IV transnational and interregional competitive funding programmes in the 2007-2013 funding period. It was confirmed that a number of key targets for the Peace III and INTERREG IVa programmes had already been achieved and surpassed.
The Council noted that the 2014-2020 INTERREG Va cooperation programme was adopted by the European Commission on 13 February 2015, and the SEUPB had issued five funding calls under the INTERREG Va programme. It was noted that the 2014-2020 Peace IV programme was adopted by the European Commission on 30 November 2015, and the Council approved the agreed Peace IV cooperation programme. The Council was informed that there is an expectation that Peace IV and INTERREG Va would be publicly launched in January 2016, with calls opening shortly thereafter.
The Council approved the SEUPB business plan and budget 2016, noting cumulative 4% year-on-year savings during 2014-16. The main priorities for SEUPB for 2016 were outlined; namely, to achieve closure of the 2007-2013 Peace III and INTERREG IVa programmes; ensure effective implementation of the 2014-2020 programmes; ensure that SEUPB services are delivered efficiently and effectively; and to maximise uptake in the transnational and interregional programmes.
The Council was advised that the SEUPB annual report and accounts for 2014 have been certified by the Comptrollers and Auditors General in both jurisdictions and were to be laid before the Northern Ireland Assembly and the Houses of the Oireachtas. The documents were subsequently laid on 16 December 2015.
The Council approved an amendment to the North/South pension scheme and noted a protocol on the handling of further amendments to the scheme. It also approved the 2016 business plan and budget provision for Waterways Ireland, Tourism Ireland and Safefood. The Council agreed to hold its next special EU programmes meeting in spring 2016.
Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I welcome the Minister's statement, which outlines some of the benefits that we receive as a member of the European Union. I look forward to hearing many more from the Minister. An important issue that I want to raise with the Minister is the application process. What measures have been put in place to ensure that the application process for both new programmes has been streamlined? What impact will that have on the target of 36 weeks for the assessment process?
I thank the Chair for his comments. I will resist making any public or political statement in relation to the ongoing debate about our future in the European Union. That will be decided by a referendum, and the people of the United Kingdom will decide what that future will be.
The Member raised a point in relation to the process. It is our intention to have the 36 weeks reduced, if we possibly can, to somewhere in the region of 20 or 21 weeks. If anybody was at the launch of the new programmes, they will know that I made that commitment publicly on that occasion. We all become very accustomed to application processes, particularly from Europe, that are rather challenging. However, that issue has been looked at by my officials, in conjunction with SEUPB, and the intention is to ensure that that process is more streamlined and that the time period is reduced. That, ultimately, will be to the benefit of those who will make an application.
I thank the Member for his question. As I said, Peace IV was adopted by the European Commission on 30 November 2015. The programme has a total value of €269 million, which includes €40 million of match funding. So somewhere in the region of €400 million is available. The programme was developed through a public consultation exercise, in liaison with key stakeholders and in discussion with Departments, and was subject to Northern Ireland Executive, Irish Government and European Commission approval. The programme received Executive approval on 15 September 2015 and takes account of the Executive's September 2014 comments regarding the level of funding available for projects for children and young people and the Commission's observations that were received in January 2015.
The programme will focus on social inclusion and combating poverty and will align with Together: Building a United Community activity in a number of areas. Those are specified as shared education, where we will seek to increase the level of direct, sustained and curriculum-based contact between pupils, and children and young people, which will seek to help young people, particularly those who are not in education, employment or training — known as NEETs — and to develop a greater understanding and respect for diversity. It also has an element on shared spaces and services. Some €99 million has been set aside for that, including €17·6 million to enhance regional services for victims and survivors and to create a new shared space for services, where people from different communities and backgrounds can come together. The final element is about building positive relations, which seeks to create a society that is characterised by good relations and respect. We would all aspire to those aims and objectives.
I thank the Minister for his answers. Minister, we know that Northern Ireland has not achieved the same success in the drawdown of European funds as, for example, the South. Will you give your assessment of why that is the case and why we are not accessing as much funding as we could?
There is always a challenge with that issue; it gives all Departments and those who are involved in the process a particular challenge. However, what we have achieved with Peace III — the 99% that we have committed and the 94% that has been spent — indicates that we are improving the situation.
This relates to a question from the Chair, and part of it is about making the process simpler. I go back to the time when we had a multitude of delivery organisations. They have been streamlined considerably, and we now have a more focused approach. However, we still need to keep our eye on the ball. I trust that we will have a call for applications very soon. I will appoint the monitoring committee in the next number of days, and it will meet. It is my intention to ensure that, by the beginning of March, at the very latest, there will be an open call so that funding applications can be processed.
I also thank the Minister for his report. It is a bit like Groundhog Day: every time we see these reports, they sound and read much the same. You said that, in the SEUPB business plan, there is what looks like a task to:
"maximise uptake in the transnational and interregional programmes."
Will you share with us how it proposes to do that?
I thank the Minister for his answers so far. It is difficult to listen to the sort of figures that he has given today and on previous occasions and not conclude that our future interests are best served by remaining in the European Union.
Does he agree with me that it is about time that the DUP got off the fence and embraced the European ideal as the best way forward for Northern Ireland?
I thank the Member for the question, which is not related to my statement. However, as I resisted the temptation of answering the Chair's question, I will now yield. Everybody knows my party's position on Europe: we are Eurosceptic. However, a debate has commenced, and I think that it has to be based on facts and the reality of whether we would be better off in or out. Look at it in terms of the money that goes out — remember, the United Kingdom is a net contributor, and our national position within the United Kingdom means that we are also a net contributor. That fact cannot be denied and needs to be borne in mind when we have this debate. Undoubtedly, it will appeal to many who have concerns — issues were raised in the House yesterday, and rightly so, about fisheries, and I am well aware of those concerns. I am also well aware of the concerns of the farming community in my constituency. However, we need to ensure that the debate is based on the facts and the finance. If that is the case, I believe that, whenever the referendum is held, what is in the best interest of Northern Ireland will be very clear.
Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I am not usually in the Chamber this early in the morning, and I am pleasantly surprised to see how many Members are here. I do not want to continue the debate on Brexit, Minister, and the disasterville that will ensue should there be a vote to leave the EU. I want to focus on your statement.
Minister, you outlined the sums of money involved and some of the areas where it will be spent. How do we ensure that the moneys spent here under the Peace programme and INTERREG complement the work of government — the work, for example, that Belfast City Council is doing? How do we make sure that the money is spent not only strategically but in a bold and ambitious way to lift, in my view, the city of Belfast, which is my great interest of course?
I thank the Member for his question. He makes a point that we all need to keep in mind. The areas on which spending is proposed under the new programme include shared education; children and young people, particularly young people who are not in education, employment or training; shared spaces and services; and building positive relationships. I was glad to see included in the proposals under Peace IV a focus on our young people. They are at the heart of our communities in our capital city of Belfast and right across Northern Ireland. The Member makes the point — it is one that needs to be reinforced with our colleagues in the Executive and the Departments — that we must ensure that this spending is complementary to our focus on delivering for young people who need to have hope and need to have proper training.
There have been capital projects. The Member referred to Belfast, but I had the privilege of opening, jointly with the Lord Mayor, the Girdwood provision. I think that no one could be anything but impressed by that facility, which is in an area that has suffered. I know that it is not in the Member's constituency, but there are other examples that I could refer to. I remember all the concerns that were raised about that location. It is in an interface area where there are particular problems. However, as a result of a focused provision, we now have a facility that is the envy of many other parts of Northern Ireland. I had an opportunity to speak to young people when I was there last Friday, and I think that it will bring a focus and cohesion. I trust that it will make an invaluable contribution to communities in north Belfast.
I thank the Minister for his statement and his responses so far. He referred to the SEUPB business plan and the 4% year-on-year savings. Is that level of efficiency sustainable whilst securing output? From reduced sums, we need to get the best impact that we can from these programmes.
I thank the Member for his question. Obviously, when it comes to this particular matter or anything else, we all suffer or are subject to ensuring that we get efficiencies and savings. I want to ensure that our focus is on delivery at project level, not delivery in the system. There is a challenge, and we have to be up for it, to ensure that we maximise the amount of money that goes to projects and is, ultimately, for the benefit of communities.