I plan to bring a draft social strategy to the Executive and issue it for public consultation subject to Executive approval. The social strategy will promote opportunity and tackle poverty, social exclusion and patterns of deprivation based on objective need, as required by section 28E of the Northern Ireland Act.
The most recent figures tell us that 22% of the population in Northern Ireland is living in relative poverty before housing costs. It is worth noting that, over the last decade and despite significant investment, the overall number in poverty remains the same. We need to reduce poverty and its impact on people.
The social strategy will set out a new approach. It will identify, for example, those in poverty and outline specific interventions to support them. The strategy will address issues in a more coordinated and structured way, mainstreaming this work into the new Programme for Government. Our focus is now firmly on delivering better outcomes for people, outcomes that matter most and can make a real difference.
The draft social strategy will be subject to public consultation. I welcome everyone’s views during that important consultation period.
As I indicated to Mr Lyttle, the draft social strategy is going through a process to get Executive approval. It will then go out to public consultation. I assure Members that this is a very detailed plan to address the causation factors that can drive people into poverty. It will tailor specific programmes to meet the needs of individuals and areas when they are identified. This will be very different from how the Government has tackled poverty in the past and will make sure that those who most need help get it. The strategy will address the issues that drive people into poverty and all the issues that are then caused by those who have to live in poverty.
A series of events was held to inform the work of the Department in supporting the new approach to the Programme for Government. Those events were well attended by representatives of local and central government, the voluntary and community sector, the business community and section 75 organisations. All this helped to inform the work that my Department is responsible for under the Programme for Government, including the development of a draft social strategy. The draft strategy will be subject to public consultation.
I place on record my apologies for not being in place at the beginning of Question Time. I thank the Minister for using the opportunity to express his and the House's condolences to the family of Austin Hunter. The SDLP certainly associates itself with that.
Will the Minister explain the delay in bringing the social strategy to public consultation and provide a timeline for when we will see the strategy?
Let me assure the House that there is no undue delay. The draft Programme for Government is out to consultation, but the economic investment strategy still has to go through the Executive. Parallel to that is the social strategy. We want to make sure that our economic strategy dovetails with and is tailored to the social strategy, which is about addressing poverty. It is important that we get that right. As soon as that process is completed, we will be able to move to a public consultation process.
The Member raises an important point about rural poverty. We have been looking at that in the Department. Areas of deprivation are often difficult to identify. They can be masked by more affluent areas. There are cases in which — all Members will know about this in their constituency — they do not naturally fit into deprived areas but are, in and of themselves, very much deprived. Tackling rural poverty is very important. It will be reflected in the social strategy. When we identify the needs in our rural communities and where poverty is in existence, it is important that we engage with those communities. That is something that we will do through the consultation process. It will be publicly available for individuals to respond to proactively. We will also engage with communities so that they are able to put forward their perspective on the issues.