The consultation on the employment strategy for people with disabilities closed on 27 November 2015. A total of 58 responses were received: 32 from individuals and 26 on behalf of organisations. In addition, information was gathered at four public consultation events and two smaller events with specific disability groups. The consultation period has enabled all interested parties to submit official responses and provide feedback on each of the key themes and subsequent proposals. This has been broadly very positive, and a number of constructive suggestions have been made that will inform the final strategy document. The Committee for Employment and Learning has been briefed by my officials and provided with a detailed summary and findings. The same will apply to the disability strategic working group, which helped to develop the strategy.
The Big Conversation was launched on 15 September as an innovative approach to engaging with people about the sustainability of our higher education system. It concluded on 23 October. During the Budget process for 2016-17, I wrote to my Executive colleagues to report on the findings of the Big Conversation, to outline the extent of our funding challenges and to present a range of potential long-term solutions. That paper has led to some encouraging budget outcomes for that financial year, which I hope can prevent further cuts to higher education, despite an overall reduction in my Department's equivalent budget. However, looking ahead, it will not be enough simply to protect what we have in terms of skills provision, and further consideration of the longer-term options available to us will be required in the context of the next comprehensive spending review.
My Department expects to publish a response to both of these exercises in the coming weeks.
I thank the Minister for his answer. Perhaps the Minister could share with the House his thoughts on moving forward, in terms of the scope, the nature and the criteria and how he could undertake to collaborate, particularly with the Minister of Health, given that many people who have attended day-care facilities will be finding a reduction in their services and seeking to have more positive lives and meaningful support in the community through further and higher education.
It is important that Members understand what the disability employment strategy seeks to do. It is about supporting people with employment and will be very focused on those employment outcomes. It will, however, be part of a wider landscape of interventions that will work in collaboration with other Departments, as we look to ensure a much more rounded outcome. In that respect, I draw attention, first of all, to the Executive subcommittee's work on learning disability transitions and the fact that an action plan is in place to facilitate that. Secondly, we have an economic inactivity strategy that focuses to a considerable extent on disability issues. Within that, projects have already been identified that involve collaboration between other Departments and the Department of Health on the type of outcome that the Member suggests. While that strategy has been agreed by the Executive, there has been no significant funding allocated to it as yet. That is a situation that I find troubling, and I encourage those who are in office after May to consider remedying that as a priority.
Go raibh maith agat. I thank the Minister for his response so far. In the context of the Big Conversation, does the Minister acknowledge the absolute importance of part-time higher education and the significant impact that it has on the lives of individuals, in particular women, in providing opportunities?
I certainly acknowledge the importance of the part-time route for higher education and postgraduate study. The Member will be aware that, last year, we engaged in a consultation on different funding models for that, and I have informed the House about how, in principle, I wish those to go forward. I hope to confirm that position in the coming weeks, and discussions are ongoing with the Treasury and the Student Loans Company on how we can implement the preferred way forward on the back of that consultation.
We absolutely want to see an increase in part-time study. That ties in, for example, with the apprenticeships strategy as a means by which we will ensure that people are increasingly trained to the high level required by businesses and other organisations.
These are more consultations, Minister, on an issue, especially in relation to people with disabilities, where action is long overdue. The Minister is aware of my support for organisations such as One Eighty Restaurant in my constituency of Upper Bann, which helps to provide employment opportunities for young people with disabilities. What reassurance will be provided to them and others that, rather than a consultation followed by another consultation, they will get the help and support that they desperately need?
I dare say that the Member makes some rather spurious comments. On the one hand, she asks me to reassure an organisation that its interests will be taken on board, and then she damns the process of consultation, which is designed for that very purpose. Organisations come forward with their points of view; the first draft of a strategy is published; and then we hear the feedback and make whatever adjustments are required. We have not had multiple consultations about any of these things. We have a disability employment strategy that has gone out to public consultation. There is a requirement on us to do that; if we do not, we will be judicially reviewed. That is how government does business. I am committed to delivering the strategy before I leave office, and it will be delivered before then. We have had action, not talk — we have had real action on the issue.