Northern Ireland Assembly
Monday 13 November 2000 (continued)
It has been said that a house that is built upon sand cannot stand. This is a Programme for Government, but it is a programme by a Government whose sustainability is by no means certain. We are masking the real questions by talking about social and economic matters. These are very important, but it is rather like talking about the social and economic welfare of the inhabitants of a house which is in imminent danger of collapsing around their ears.
Mr Adams raised a fundamental point when he said that the First Minister and his party were exercising some sort of veto over the progress of government. To some extent that is true, but why is it true? It is true because while this is a unique form of government, it is not a unique form of government in the process of evolution. It is in fact a form of government which, like the mule, has no pride of ancestry and, if the pan-Nationalist front has its way, has no hope of posterity.
Nationalists, and particularly Sinn Féin, have made it clear that they see this Government, which is to deliver the programme, as nothing more than a transitional mechanism to enable them to obtain their final objective of a united Ireland. If one looks at the fundamentals of the Government which is to deliver this programme, that fact is self-evident.
We have here a unique form of government - some might describe it as a political Caliban - and what does it do? It creates the very differences which Mr Adams has underlined. In a normal democracy, a Government which achieves a majority then delivers its manifesto. There is collective responsibility within its Executive, which is chaired by the Leader of that Government. No such thing exists here. We have strange tensions given the First Minister's obligation to his party and to the manifesto upon which members of his party were elected to this Chamber. That manifesto made reference to the equality agenda, the RUC, decommissioning and the representation in Government of representatives of a party which the Prime Minister has described as inextricably linked to one of the most sophisticated and deadly terrorist organisations in Europe, which is determined to remain armed.
These tensions, divisions and objectives will inevitably prevent this Government from ever having any viable future, except a future as a temporary and transitional arrangement to achieve the objectives of those who wish ultimately to destroy it.
If there are any queries about this analysis, simply look at the construction of this Government. Under the d'Hondt system, there is not one but a selection of parties, each with its own objectives and political imperatives, and Ministers run their Departments as independent fiefdoms. Like Chinese warlords, they advance only their own interests. If this Executive should prove totally incompetent and have a disastrous period of office, and if there is another election under the d'Hondt principle, broadly the same parties will be re-elected in similar numbers.
They will appoint their own Ministers from within their own parties. There will be no criteria by which to judge whether these Ministers or the policies of these parties have delivered good government in social, economic or constitutional terms. There will simply be the same again, because the Assembly, in its design and purpose, was never intended to be permanent. Its institutions do not create the circumstances in which permanent, practical and real evolution can occur. It is simply a Mexican stand-off incorporated in a form of government.
The scant merits of this Programme for Government are long on aspiration, noble language and what the press describe as the "vision thing". However, they are very short on elements which address the fundamental problem of what sort of Government there will be to deliver this programme.
Mr B Bell:
I welcome the Executive's Programme for Government, which provides a way for the people of Northern Ireland to prosper in a spirit of co-operation and mutual respect. At this stage, I have to admit, the programme can be little more than an outline for government. It provides the bare bones for future development, and it will need to be fleshed out by each Department. A positive start has been made, and this must be applauded.
In 'Making a Difference', the Executive commits itself to good government and to the fostering of debate, co-operation and government in an open, efficient and accountable manner. I concur with this, and I will suggest a base on which this pledge can be secured. As a former Belfast councillor and as a long-standing councillor in Lisburn, I can contribute to what I hope will be an ongoing debate on this matter. In 1972, the Parliament of Northern Ireland passed legislation to reform local government. The present system of 26 councils came into operation in 1973 and has remained virtually intact ever since.
Councils have obtained extra powers in areas such as tourism and economic development. However, while the system is meant to be complementary to this regional Parliament at Stormont, it has, in effect, operated in the vacuum of direct rule. As a result, councillors have had the semblance of power without the substance. Too often, they are the scapegoats in a system over which they have little control. For example, when dealing with planning issues, a contentious matter in Northern Ireland, councillors must be careful not to overstep the mark between consultation and decision-making. They also have to be careful not to give the impression that they have influence where they have none.
In cases of road problems, constituents often blame councils rather than the Roads Service, which has the ultimate power. Decision-making systems must be examined in their entirety. The number of quangos has risen over the years with the result that virtually all areas of public life are populated by those described as "the great and the good", few of whom have ever presented themselves to the electorate. I have represented my council on various bodies. At least I can claim some democratic credentials for doing so. At one time there was council representation on health boards, but the previous Government removed these elected representatives. Now the virtually toothless health councils are all that is left for councils to deal with.
I am not attacking the quality of work that has been carried out by quangos - far from it. Many members give up valuable time to public service, but public accountability must be a priority, and the whole area of local government, boards, trusts and the other bodies must be examined. Members may agree when I contend that 26 councils are excessive for an area of the size of Northern Ireland - by the same token, the number of councillors must also be considered if the local government system is scaled down.
We should also examine the optimum number of health and education boards and consider whether 19 health trusts provide too much duplication for a population of 1·6 million. Can we economise?
In the area of economic development, the operation of both the IDB and LEDU must lead to overlaps and confusion. We should consider establishing a single body to seek out and maintain jobs and to work in close conjunction with relevant Ministers.
I am a member of the National Association of Councillors. Every party in this room is represented there; they all agree that there should be a review, and I too support that aim.
Mr A Doherty:
We are a small part of a small island. Our island is a small part of a small island group. To our left is a huge mass of water stretching from continent to continent and from pole to pole. To our right is a huge land mass; two continents reaching half way across the world. In global terms we are very small, but we are not insignificant. Our horizons are as wide as anyone else's. Our skies are as high and reach as far. So while we are small we must not think small: we must think big; we must think globally.
That is one reason for the Programme for Government's being so important. That is why those who say that the programme should concentrate on our internal affairs are so wrong. They want to have as little as possible to do with our neighbours on this island, in Europe and the world. It is not enough for us simply to put our house in order.
We have all seen the distressing pictures of hundreds of proud home owners who have put their lovely houses in perfect order only to see them destroyed by nature out of control. Anything that might have been done to prevent or minimise flooding would have involved forethought and action, not just at local or national level, but even on an international scale.
It is right then that the Programme for Government should take account of the need for north, south, east, west and international co-operation at many levels, not least with regard to environmental and sustainable development issues. Our seas and many of our waterways and beaches are polluted. Our fish stocks are dwindling. Animal disease and genetic modification of crops pose serious threats to public health as well as adding to the grave difficulties facing our farmers. The rich diversity of our animal and plant life is under continuous threat from dodgy development plans, from dodgy agricultural and gardening practices and from littering, ignorance and vandalism. We pump millions of tonnes of chemical pollutants into the air from our cars and vans or lorries and buses, from our mopeds, from coal fires and central heating and from our factories and power stations - even our cows and our sheep are guilty of gaseous pollution. When meteorological turmoil occurs in our atmosphere we do not know what to do, since our brains have been cooked by mobile phones and high-tension power lines.
And there is more: we create piles of waste, mountains of waste, Himalayas of waste. Irresponsible people tip waste over fences or bridges. Good citizens fill their wheelie bins to overflowing. Waste is buried in holes in the ground, sending clouds of methane into the atmosphere and poisonous leachate into our water systems. We talk about waste minimisation, waste reuse, recycling, energy recovery and zero waste. What great ideas - let us get started.
These are just a few of the issues that the Programme for Government must tackle. I have not touched on the topic of sustainable development, which is at the very heart of every aspect of the programme. I do not have time to discuss costs, but we need all the help we can get from the United Kingdom, from the Republic, from Europe, from wherever.
I finish by quoting from the Programme for Government:
"In the Agreement, unique structures were established within the Island of Ireland, within the United Kingdom, and East/West to provide a new basis for relationships."
We must use those relationships, that new co-operation, to save our beautiful country for our children and our visitors, who are enchanted by it, and in our own small way do what we can to save our planet.
I would like to speak on paragraph 1.9 in the draft Programme for Government, which covers the rural economy.
There should be a real emphasis and focus on the farming community and also on our beleaguered fishing industry. Prices for finished products continue to fall; fuel prices continue to rise; more and more farmers and fishermen have gone to the wall; and their jobs are in jeopardy. Recent statistics have shown that the number of suicides in the farming community is rising. These figures are very worrying and represent a catalogue of misery, broken families and despair.
In the Programme for Government there has been an increase in the budget for agriculture and rural development, but where is the money going? Is it going towards administration, or is it going to the farming sector? The budget allocation for the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister constitutes some £29 million, while the figure to run the Assembly is £39 million. Has lottery fever struck the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister? How can they justify those costs given the costs for the Assembly? Perhaps they see this as their roll-over year. Some of that funding would be better allocated to the agriculture and fishing sectors. It would be better spent, more appreciated and much more productive. We know that the farming sector is the largest employer in Northern Ireland, making up some 10% of the workforce. We also know how much is owed to the banks and about falling incomes.
In the rural economy section, the Programme for Government could have addressed the desperate need for childcare facilities, which are scarce in rural areas. Even if they do exist, the cost is prohibitive, as many farmers and their workers earn the equivalent of part- time wages.
There are structural changes to the agriculture budget, which means less money for farming families. However, the increase in rural development money should be targeted towards farming families.
More and more people are moving to the countryside - people who do not depend on farming for their livelihood or to survive, but we need to focus on farming families. The slow but steady downturn in profitability has resulted in full-time farmers being on part-time wages and seeking alternative employment. How will the Programme for Government help with retraining, and how will help be made available to the farming sector directly? Can the Minister indicate what proportion of the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development's budget of £191 million will go straight to the farmers instead of to administration? Does anyone feel that the Programme for Government will deliver a viable future for farmers? Many farmers do not agree, and their futures are bleak.
Paragraph 1.8 refers to a better environment. How will the environmental scheme work? It is already underfunded, so what tangible benefits does the Minister see coming from it if it is not funded adequately? If this remains the case, it will fall at the first fence.
Paragraph 1.9 refers to the creation of new skills and new job opportunities. While there is a great opportunity for job creation in the agri-food industry, further processing offers no such possibilities. Vegetables, beef, lamb or fish cannot be processed, for the money and assistance are currently not available. Potential processors will have to wait until next year or the year after before their applications can be processed. There is a plethora of golden job opportunities that could create prosperity and breathe life into the rural community. A vibrant agriculture industry is possible, but a vision is needed from within the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development. Is there that vision and the commitment to realise it? If the programme does not focus on the farming families and the job opportunities within further processing, it will have failed miserably.
Members are raising relatively detailed issues relating to particular Departments. Almost all the Ministers will respond at some stage, but when a Member raises points of detail - for example, as Mr Shannon has done on agriculture - it is not reasonable to expect the Minister responding at the end of this particular section to cover that. He will have substantial difficulties covering all the matters that have been raised in any case. The Minister of Agriculture should be speaking later in the day and may be able to respond, as may other Ministers. This does not apply only to Mr Shannon but to a number of Members. The various Ministers will speak at different times. If a Minister has spoken and a Member raises a question in his bailiwick after he has spoken, that Minister will be able to respond to that only in writing. If the matter is raised earlier in the debate before the Minister has spoken, he may be able to pick it up later in the day.
The Chairman of the Finance and Personnel Committee (Mr Molloy):
Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. The Finance and Personnel Committee discussed the Programme for Government but could not agree on how to respond. All parties will want to respond, and we will do so today. I want to touch on some of the issues that came up in the Committee. I welcome the opportunity for this discussion of the so-called Programme for Government, and I hope that partnership, equality and accountability will become a reality.
It is a pity that the discussion did not take place before the document was published. The cloud of secrecy which hung over the Executive discussions does not auger well for inclusivity. Can this be a Programme for Government when we are not a Government, when we do not control our finances and when we are dependent on the British Exchequer for resources and for the workings of the Barnett formula? However, I welcome the statement that the Executive will press for a fair allocation of resources. The other sort of finance is the regional rate.
Let me deal with the Barnett formula. It is flawed, and, as stated in the Programme for Government, it does not address our needs. It cannot address our needs, because Barnett does not target need; it is a headcount that regulates the difference between areas. What has been done so far to press for a fair allocation? What has been the British Government's response? What is proposed for the future to ensure that we get a fair allocation? What was the percentage rise allocated under the Barnett formula from the block grant? The Barnett formula discriminates quite clearly against the North. Less is allocated for health here than is allocated in England, Scotland or Wales. Less is spent on education here, and particularly on school buildings. Approximately one third of what is spent on sport and leisure facilities in England is spent here. We are clearly not being given a fair or equal share of the allocation.
Barnett does not target need, but we must target need if the Programme for Government is to mean anything for the people we represent. In the Programme for Government and the Budget, the Executive have gone for the easy option - to add 8% to the rates. We were told that the Assembly would not have tax-raising powers, but it has increased the regional rate for domestic property by 8% and by 6·6% for non-domestic property such as small shops and businesses, which are already suffering. These increases are based on a valuation made five years ago, and they certainly do not represent an easy option for those people involved.
If it is a tax, then we should call it a tax. If the regional rate is to finance the Budget and the Programme for Government, we should call it the Assembly Tax and collect it as such. Any rise should be in line with inflation - approximately 3%. Where did the figure of 8% come from? Is there a balance sheet to show that 8% is needed to match up with what is already allocated under the block grant? The rates are a very unfair method of taxation. Those who do not have access to services - hospitals, roads and infrastructure - pay the same as those who do.
The rates hit all households but not individuals. The issue will further divide families and create problems with housing benefit, et cetera. Those living west of the Bann will pay the same as those living in other areas and those who have services such as hospitals, schools and infrastructure. The M1 stops at Dungannon, and the M2 stops beyond Antrim. The 6% rise for shops, offices and businesses takes no account of the suffering of town centres over recent years from the effects of out-of-town developments. It is based on a valuation made five years ago, and it is an unfair system of taxation.
We rightly criticised NIE last week for a 9% rise in electricity charges. We criticised the fuel rise, yet now we are saying that there must be an 8% rise on rates. The Assembly should reject this rise in rates, just as we said that the electricity charge increase announced last week was unacceptable.
If the Programme for Government is to mean anything to people, it must redress the imbalances of the past. It must redress the 80 years of neglect west of the Bann and reverse the discrimination of the past. What other sources of finance were sought? Were the British Government asked to use the war chest and the peace dividend to redress the imbalance? Was the issue of the Celtic tiger addressed with the Irish Government? When are the Irish Government going to ensure that the Celtic tiger covers the 32 counties of Ireland? As far as European funding is concerned, will there be matching funding available and will additionality be ensured? The Civil Service statement talks about -
The Member's time is up.
I welcome the opportunity to speak about the Programme for Government. I want to focus on the environmental aspects and, more specifically, on sustainability, which has been referred to several times today and which is referred to several times in the Programme for Government.
Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of current generations without compromising the capability of future generations to meet their needs. We should all strive to achieve this goal, and it is much more than an environmental agenda. We must consider the long-term implications of our decisions and give equal weight to the environmental, social and economic dimensions of development. That aspiration should become a reality. Sustainability must be a key theme of the whole Programme for Government.
There should be clear recognition of the importance of protecting our built heritage. This important element is a cornerstone of sustainability. I refer to chapter 2 on the tackling of poverty and renewal of disadvantaged neighbourhoods. The preservation of our heritage is not just about the aesthetic. It is also about needs, especially the need for safe and healthy housing and a healthy environment. If we can meet these needs through the restoration of historic buildings and the rehabilitation of existing buildings, we will have a more sustainable and attractive environment.
We should encourage the flexible take-up of improvement and repair grants. We should encourage urban regeneration through rehabilitation rather than redevelopment. To avoid disposal, we should train more plumbers, electricians, joiners and other tradesmen. We should encourage a sense of pride and the restoration of historic buildings by promoting an awareness of local history. The attractiveness of our country to visitors, tourists or workers, depends on the retention and promotion of our heritage as well as clean air, clean water and good infrastructure.
We should promote the concept of third-party planning appeals. That would increase the power of people to influence decisions on their local environment. The elimination of the planning backlog should not be achieved at the expense of sound planning decisions. We must encourage general environmental awareness.
With regard to chapter 3 of the programme, 'Working for a Healthier People', we could reduce air pollution by encouraging greater use of public transport and ensuring fast and regular bus and train services. We should also develop more pedestrian and cycle routes.
If such points were addressed, we would truly see sustainability in action. I am glad to have an opportunity to focus on sustainability. It is a live environmental issue that connects the generations, giving us all a greater sense of ourselves and our environment. Despite our political differences, every Member of this House wants to protect and cherish our environment.
I wish to address section 1.3 of the Programme, 'A Cohesive, Inclusive and Just Society'. It discusses the new targeting social need policy. We should consider that policy: members of the public often refer to it as "targeting sectarian need". We must ensure that the targeting social need programme reaches across the entire community and does not reach only to specific areas of the community. We should recognise that there are severe problems in many Unionist as well as Nationalist parts of the community. We should look in particular at the Shankill Road. The terms of the new targeting social need policy, especially in relation to long-term unemployment, would rule parts of that area out.
I would like to see the appointment of a children's commissioner. Many children are living in abject poverty, and many are brought up in situations that many of us could not comprehend. It is sad that children are brought up in such circumstances.
Chapter 2 refers to the employment of Roman Catholics in the senior Civil Service. I have no objections to the Executive's examining that issue, but it should look at the entire Civil Service. In the lower ranks, the Protestant community is under-represented. In a few years' time, we will have the same problem with the senior Civil Service, as Protestant civil servants will not have come up through the ranks. Therefore, there should be an examination of the Civil Service as a whole, as opposed to its senior ranks alone.
Chapter 6 of the programme sets out the aspirations of the Executive regarding relations with north America and Europe. I do not think that the funds that have been set aside make those aspirations feasible. As regards Northern Ireland's international image, the document talks about the development of
"a marketing strategy to promote awareness of our cultural treasures and recreational facilities".
One of our cultural treasures is the celebration of the Twelfth of July. It is enjoyed by hundreds of thousands of people every year and is one of the most colourful events in the Province. The Government should examine the promotion of the Twelfth of July as a tourist attraction, with a view to undermining those who seek to destroy what is good in the Province.
Chapter 7 talks about setting targets, monitoring development and progress towards electronic service delivery. Once again, what is set out in the Programme for Government fails to match up with what is in the Budget. An application for £15·9 million was not successful. No money has been allocated for electronic government, and there will clearly be problems in meeting the targets set unless the finance is made available.
Will we be introducing our own freedom-of- information legislation, or is it the Executive's intention to adopt the Westminster legislation for a period, afterwards seeking to amend it?
I should like to see a clear definition of Executive and Northern Ireland Office responsibilities on the issue of victims. On too many occasions Members of this House, and victims themselves, have sought answers, only to be sent from one Department to another. We need clear definitions of the responsibilities of each Department. The issue of capacity-building, to which the document refers, must be looked at, for it has been used as a means of discriminating against certain victims' groups that do not happen to be in favour with the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister.
Those are only a few of the issues I wish to tackle. I welcome the proposal to introduce free public transport for senior citizens.
Mr G Kelly:
Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. David Trimble opened his speech this morning by saying his objective was a new beginning. He listed Protestants, Catholics, Unionists, Republicans, Nationalists and Loyalists and other groups in society, saying that they were what the draft Programme for Government was about.
I should have liked to talk in particular about chapter 7 and the partnerships involved between the institutions - all the institutions - in the community, including the Assembly. Community leaders are an essential part of this and must be equal partners in moving the process forward. I should have liked to discuss devising ways of dealing directly with the community sector, methods and mechanisms for going into the community. Some of that is already happening.
As a member of the Social Development Committee, I should also have liked to talk about the substantial shortfall in the budget for that Department. A substantial portion of the blame for that shortfall lies with the two successive DUP Ministers who failed to go to the Executive and argue vociferously for the Department.
Unfortunately, the two most important documents, which in my opinion go beyond the draft Programme for Government that the Assembly has received, are those sent to members of the Ulster Unionist Council detailing the proposals put to it on 28 October. Both of these were penned by the First Minister, and therein lies the great difficulty. The first might be described as a statement of intent to collapse the Executive on the part of the First Minister, while the second details a method of collapse. In the first, he argues that Mr Jeffrey Donaldson's proposal was an exit strategy without a re-entry strategy. I shall quote one short section:
"The response is intended to increase pressure progressively on Republicans and Nationalists. This might result in a crisis for the Assembly and Executive. But if that arises we must do all that we can to put responsibility on republicans."
This is about crisis and suspension and putting the blame on Republicans. We must remember that all these institutions are entwined, so that if one falls, they all fall. In his own proposal, after saying that he will not nominate Sinn Féin Ministers for North/South Ministerial Council meetings, the First Minister goes on to put demands on almost every other party to the Good Friday Agreement.
He demands that the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning (IICD) be proactive in fulfilling its mandate; he demands monthly reports, sets deadlines and prescribes timetables. He warns that if either of the two Governments, or any other party, interferes with this, he will progressively terminate meetings of the North/South Ministerial Council and the British- Irish Council. He then demands that the Government convene a formal review and put a moratorium on policing. After setting us all these tasks he is going to set up another Ulster Unionist Party meeting in January to decide whether we have all performed well. Somewhere he has said that he has had twenty-one meetings of the Ulster Unionist Council.
I read the draft Programme for Government. I have criticisms of its being aspirational - many people have spoke of its being definitively too aspirational - and sustainability is a recurring problem. There is a substantial difference between the programme and the Budget, which is to be discussed tomorrow. This whole debate is aspirational: the sustainability of the Assembly and the other institutions is under scrutiny, because David Trimble is involved in their collapse. That is what we need to rectify and what David Trimble needs to rectify.
The Minister of Finance and Personnel (Mr Durkan):
Given the number of points raised and the fact that I have only five minutes in which to speak, I am not going to be able to cover everything. Several issues recurred in Members' comments, and I want to deal with some of them.
First, we had criticisms that this is too aspirational, too visionary. Others seemed to imply that there was not enough vision, that the document was too prosaic. The fact is that in embarking on this Programme for Government, the Executive has tried to come up with the right balance between a clear vision - where we want to take this society under these new institutions - and a real sense of mission, in other words how we will use the responsibilities and resources that fall to us as a regional Administration. Clearly our resources are not as we would want them to be, and, in many cases, our responsibilities are not as complete as we would want them to be. Nevertheless, we have to meet those responsibilities and manage resources. That is what we have tried to do, in a planned way, in the proposals we have brought forward in the Programme for Government and the draft Budget as well.
The whole Executive Committee agreed this Programme for Government. They also agreed that the draft Budget for the next financial year was consistent with it and would help to enable the aims of the programme to be discharged. This is a draft Programme for Government, and tomorrow we will be discussing a draft Budget. This programme is a multiannual prospectus; the Budget proposals that have been tabled to date relate only to the next financial year.
Some Members indicated that they would have preferred more detail about public service agreements, et cetera. More detail would be welcome, and it will be forthcoming. However, if the Executive had waited until it had the detailed public service agreements worked out for every Department, for every area of spend, and had then presented a draft programme in those terms, people would have said "No, you should have presented a more general draft. We would then have decided on the priorities and principles from which the public service agreements should flow." Members cannot have it both ways - wanting us to consult and then criticising us because we have produced a document that is clearly for consultation. This is here for further elaboration, for further work and for development. The Assembly will have the detailed public service agreements in a consolidated Programme for Government in January, to be decided in February.
The Assembly and its Committees have the opportunity to follow through on many important detailed points that concern Members today. Points were raised in relation to several areas. Environment seemed to get most attention in this session as regards sustainable development and how we understand that concept. Consistent with the Programme for Government, the Minister of the Environment, Mr Foster, will bring forward more details to ensure that sustainable development receives the sort of comprehensive, joined-up approach required, as it affects all aspects of public policy and public management.
Members have asked for detail on certain points. The Departments will provide that detail as they develop, in consultation with the relevant departmental Committees, the detailed actions and targets necessary to bring forward informed and articulate public service agreements. Those points will be brought forward in due time, whether they relate to housing, education or water and sewerage.
It would have been impossible for us to have a Programme for Government that details every single item currently being undertaken, because people would say it was simply an inventory of all current activities and, therefore, would lack the sort of vision that people here have rightly been asking for.
In this Programme for Government we have tried to set out an agenda for change and improvement across the range of Government Departments. The programme emphasises many new activities and new actions, and to that extent, it understates a huge volume of work that has already been undertaken by Departments.
We now move to the second section, beginning with chapters 2 and 3 of the Programme for Government.
The Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure (Mr McGimpsey):
As the First Minister explained at the opening of this debate, the Executive Committee agreed that two of the key challenges we face are the need to build a cohesive, creative, inclusive and just society and the need to improve the health of the population. These major issues require all the Departments to work together, and we hope the following session will provide an opportunity for a full debate.
First, I want to focus on the theme we explore in our priority area: growing as a community. We can create confidence in our different communities only if we are confident in our rights and responsibilities. We can achieve it only if we can create security from poverty for individuals and security from disadvantage for communities. That confidence is essential if we are to tackle the real divisions in our society and tap into our latent creativity.
Our approach, therefore, will not only focus on promoting equality in human rights. We will link that to tackling poverty and social disadvantage, the renewal of disadvantaged neighbourhoods and the sustaining of local communities and their organisations. We will marry this to improving community relations and the breaking down of the deep divisions in society. The danger is that we can easily produce fine-sounding rhetoric, but these are extremely stubborn problems, and we have to be realistic about what can be achieved and the timescale in which that will be done.
Nevertheless, we are a new devolved Administration. We are the locally elected representatives of the people, and we know what the problems are. We appreciate that people are our only natural resource. We know what different groups need, and we know what can be done.
Moving on to the details of the priority, our first focus is on ensuring the effective promotion of equality in human rights. Key to this will be the development of a number of important cross-cutting approaches such as developing and implementing new policies on gender and inequalities. By April 2001, we will consult on a single equality Bill to be introduced in 2002, and by the end of 2002, we will complete an evaluation of the targeting social need policy, enabling us to see how this works.
We will tackle the major issues of participation and accessibility. We will also address the needs of the disabled and assure equality of treatment for all.
The victims of past violence are very important. We are all agreed that their needs must get special attention. Our aim, in meeting victims' needs, is to help healing and assist individuals affected to gain confidence. By April 2001, we will have put in place a cross-departmental strategy to ensure that the needs of victims are met by the different services that we provide.
I want to talk about the socially excluded and those facing poverty, particularly children who are blighted by its impact. We will use instruments such as the ONE initiative, involving the Department for Social Development, the Department of Higher and Further Education, Training and Employment and other Government agencies, to provide joined-up welfare and employment services to help families re-enter the labour market.
The Executive will bring forward proposals to introduce free travel on public transport for older people. We will also help households suffering from fuel poverty by introducing a new energy efficiency scheme.
Social housing is also an important matter. Present housing policy will be developed and will ensure that existing housing is adapted in the best way to suit those with special needs, such as the disabled. Problems of disadvantage and social exclusion are often found in distinct geographic pockets in our community. We will therefore work, not only on neighbourhood regeneration task groups, but also in rural districts where we will seek to use rural development activity to focus on particular areas.
We want to enhance local communities by strengthening areas where community infrastructure is weak and by encouraging people to take an active role in their neighbourhood's regeneration. This will include areas such as arts, culture and libraries, sports activities and housing, which can all play a vital role in helping to instil confidence throughout our society as well as enhancing community relations.
A related issue must be the celebration of cultural and linguistic diversity. The Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure will play a major role in this. My Department will ensure that all communities can feel confident in their own culture and language. We can benefit from and take pride in the richness of our diversity, rather than see it as a problem. In so doing, we can promote a positive image of Northern Ireland.
A second priority area is 'Working for a Healthier People'. During this session, we have linked this priority to that of 'Growing as a Community', because there are natural links. Deprivation and poverty have led to inequalities in the health of our population. Indeed, our health record compares unfavourably to that in many European regions.
Order. I have to intervene. The Minister's time is up.
I welcome the opportunity to speak on the draft Programme for Government and specifically, to voice my views on 'Working for a Healthier People' from the rural perspective. Our rural community has been facing severe hardship in recent times, and there is a need to look to the future, form new strategies and plan a better tomorrow.
First, I welcome the realisation, as outlined in section 1.9 of the draft programme, that rural areas are important and that it is necessary to develop new skills and jobs. Our rural community must be considered in every aspect of future plans for Northern Ireland. Farmers and those living in rural areas must be sustained. The farming community is the backbone of the rural community. They are the custodians of the countryside, the environment, and a substantial part of our culture and heritage.
Rural areas make up a large proportion of Northern Ireland, and this must be taken into account. Northern Ireland has a surface area of 1·4 million hectares, which is approximately 3·5 million acres, and a population of 1·6 million. Rural districts account for 95% of Northern Ireland, and 700,000 people live in those areas - that is 43·6% of the total population. Over 359,000 people living in rural areas - that is over 50% - are classified as disadvantaged.
Secondly, section 2.4.2 of the programme states that the Government will "sustain and enhance local communities". I urge that the programme take into consideration the needs of farmers and those living in rural communities and, in particular, outline specific objectives to provide support in these times of great hardship.
Thirdly, under the heading 'Working for a Healthier People', I welcome the recognition that
"Everyone has the right to timely, quality care based on clinical and social need."
However, the programme should pay particular attention to those living in rural communities, the vast majority of whom should have equal priority and the same hospital services as received by people in urban areas. There should be adequate acute service provision in all areas of Northern Ireland.
I note that under section 4.3, all young people are to have the qualifications and skills needed to gain employment in a modern economy by March 2002. The proportion of the workforce in agriculture who hold vocational qualifications at NVQ level 3 or higher is to be increased to 9%. I also welcome section 4.4, which outlines the aim to
"provide lifelong learning opportunities to enable people to update their knowledge, skills and qualifications."
This aim is equally applicable to rural communities since the agriculture industry is deteriorating and there is an increasing need to find alternative employment. These farmers must be supported as they look for new ideas and employment in different areas.
I am pleased to note in section 5.1.3 the reference to the difficulties faced in rural areas as a result of falling incomes. What better way to modernise farming than to have a farm regeneration scheme to encourage onto our farms young people who are well trained in modern farming methods and skilled in business management? The Programme for Government should make a commitment to do just that. This is a clear vision of the future.
In conclusion, I welcome the recognition of the need to work together across Departments and agencies to tackle the fundamental problems of our society. In the same way, farmers must be remembered when examining all aspects of government.
It must be remembered that the future of the agriculture and the agri-food sectors has a direct relationship to the well-being of the rural economy. We must ensure that there is a high-quality environment with good-quality water and air. We must produce food in natural surroundings to create a healthier way of life, thus allowing us to market ourselves abroad as a centre of tourism and investment. Agriculture is the backbone of Northern Ireland, which promotes health and social development for our children.
The Chairman of the Culture, Arts and Leisure Committee (Mr ONeill):
First, on behalf of the Culture, Arts and Leisure Committee, which has discussed the Programme for Government, I welcome the document and congratulate the Executive on what is a very detailed and constructive report. I particularly welcome the innovative approach of the Executive's programme funds to assist the development of activities across Departments, particularly in relation to equality and targeting social need. We welcome the inclusion in the document of structured actions and actual dates for specific purposes and the fact that public service agreements are to be established with Departments to link achievement with agreed outcomes for public funding.
However, it is not clear if the programme funds have been set up in response to the underfunding of these policy areas in Northern Ireland and if, as a result, they will address issues of underfunding rather than be completely new departures. We hope to see more clarity on that issue in the report.
There are many references to joined-up Government, but there are no details of how, in practice, Departments will work towards mutual goals. These goals have been established on a short-term basis, for example, one to two years. The Committee believes that long-term objectives should also be looked at. We are concerned that the proposed date for completion of the strategy for the development of centres of curiosity and imagination is April 2002. Perhaps a scarcity exists, but it is a lengthy period of time.
The report has to be aspirational, but there are times when the aspiration becomes so great as to lose contact with reality. Speaking as an Assembly Member and not as Chairman of the Culture, Arts and Leisure Committee, I am concerned that the Programme for Government could become so aspirational as to lose touch with reality and leave Members in some difficulty. I refer particularly to something that was raised with the Minister for Social Development at the Social Development Committee last week. It is one example, though there are others. Paragraph 7.6 of the programme states
"In each of the years 2000/01, 2001/02, and 2002/03, we will reduce levels of Social Security fraud and error in Income Support, Job Seekers' Allowance, Disability Living Allowance and Invalid Care Allowance by 5%".
That is a worthy aim, but there is no indication of how it can be realised. What do the Executive want the Assembly to support? If draconian measures were introduced to achieve those aims, many Members would raise their eyebrows in alarm and warning. There should be greater clarity about what is meant by assertions in the programme that are too aspirational.
I am also concerned that the provision of rural housing is not identified as an aim in the Programme for Government. As the Deputy Speaker can attest, it was a long and hard struggle to get rural housing on the agenda. Some of the other aims in the report may be seen as making reference to problems with rural housing, but I am concerned that the issue has lost its prominence. Will the Executive look at the issue again and consider whether there is not a need for it to be seen as a separate and important issue? Mr Gallagher spoke about the problems with grants, particularly for houses in Fermanagh that are unfit for habitation. Although Fermanagh is the worst-affected local government area, the problem concerns everyone who lives in a rural area. There is a great need for further work on that issue. I am concerned that it is not included in the report. The Executive should do something about it.
Members from all parts of the House have commented, rightly, on how aspirational the Programme for Government is and on how much of it deals with spin rather than substance. It is short on concrete actions and long on aspiration. It contains very little that is new. Much of it is a drawing together of proposals from various Departments that were already in the public domain. The parts of the programme that deal with how we tackle poverty and social disadvantage had already been laid before the Social Development Committee in July. Therefore there is nothing innovative in the document.
(Mr Deputy Speaker [Sir John Gorman] in the Chair)
This morning, the First Minister lamented that there had been so little public comment and debate on the document, but I note, with interest, the comments made by the business community on the day after its publication. The business community was of the opinion that the plethora of aspirational statements in the document needed to be firmed up. That is the reaction of the business community - hardly inspiring.
The First Minister and the Deputy First Minister have tried to inject some enthusiasm and energy into the matter, but that cannot be done because of the way in which the document is framed. We have heard that this is a wonderful milestone in the life of the Assembly and that, among other things, we have people working together in joined-up Government. Then, one of the parties that is supposed to be in the Government attacked the First Minister.
We have heard reports that the Health Minister refused to go the joint ministerial council, that the First Minister banned another party from going to North/South meetings, that legal action has been threatened and that there have been rows. That is a wonderful example of joined-up Government and a wonderful example of how the new Executive works harmoniously together, or so we were told when the document was launched a few weeks ago.
At the document's launch Mr Mallon said that it would be business as usual for the future. He was proved wrong within a week. Mr Trimble had not even bothered to tell him of his plans. We have the sort of joined-up Government where the First Minister does not even tell the Deputy First Minister, never mind the other parties on the Executive, what he plans to do.
Nothing in the document deals with the core problem that at the heart of the Government, and corrupting that Government, we have parties that hold on to terrorist arms and ammunition. Sinn Féin has indicated that it is not going to give up any arms or ammunition. That is the central issue that needs to be addressed. The document is full of the North/South, all-Ireland, dimension, and that was raised at the time. We pointed out that expenditure on the North/South bodies is about £17 million and not £11 million, as the First Minister said. He will have to apologise once again for misleading the House, and I hope that he will take the opportunity to do that as quickly as possible. That money could be better spent. For every £1 million spent on implementing the all-Ireland dimension of the agreement, we could have 200 more heart operations, we could adapt 1,000 more homes for the disabled, and so on.
When we deal with the Budget tomorrow we will go into that in more detail. While there is a reference to the review of public administration in Northern Ireland, no Minister has yet given details of the review, what it will mean and how long it will take. We have heard statements outside the House, but the Minister has refused to come to the House to tell us what is happening. I would like to address more issues, but that will not be possible in the time that is available. One Member attacked the DUP for its stance on the agreement. I find it very sad to hear a Member such as Mr C Wilson, who is supposed to be in the anti-agreement camp, doing all he can to assist Mr Trimble and the Ulster Unionist Party. I sometimes wonder who puts him up to it and why he continues to attack those of us who have the people's support on our anti-agreement stance.
I congratulate the Minister for Social Development on many of the issues that have been included in the Programme for Government, and I look forward to the introduction of free travel on public transport for older people. I hope that that will be implemented as quickly as possible in keeping with DUP manifesto commitments.
A LeasCheann Comhairle, I welcome our first attempt at a Programme for Government. Given that this is the first time in generations that locally elected representatives have had an opportunity to make an impact on the day-to-day running of the Six Counties and that the past few years have been a steep learning curve for all, it is not surprising that this document is not without fault. As Deputy Chairperson of the Committee for Social Development, I will concentrate my remarks on chapter 2 'Growing as a Community'. It focuses on poverty and social inclusion, community regeneration and the enhancement of our voluntary and community sector.
Previous attempts at government have failed, but it is imperative for the people of this statelet and for all sections of the community, urban or rural, young or old, Catholic or Protestant, that we do not fail this time. In recognising the failures of the past, we must address what needs to be done to ensure that we do not make the same mistakes again. We should draw on the experiences of the international community, particularly Europe, and learn from other communities that are coming out of conflict. We must be radical, imaginative and decisive. We have to direct resources to the areas of greatest need in order to achieve measurable results, and we must make regeneration work. Above all, we have to ensure that people see tangible benefits from what we are doing and address issues of critical importance in a way that empowers our communities and eradicates poverty for good.
Therefore it is essential that this is a template for good effective governance. Words like "inclusive", "cohesive", "effective", "transparency", "just", "equal", "accessible" and "consistent" are dotted throughout this chapter.
However, we must guarantee that those sentiments are not merely aspirational but real targets for the next 12 months. In order to achieve this we must ask ourselves some challenging questions. For example, given that we have had community regeneration initiatives since the 1980s, why are many of our towns and huge parts of our cities still run down and derelict? Have projects like Making Belfast Work delivered real and tangible benefits to all of the community, or are some areas attracting vast sums of money while others remain neglected and impoverished? Has EU funding really been additional, or has it systematically been used in place of British Exchequer funding? Money, ring-fenced for community projects that will prioritise tackling discrimination and poverty, should not be wasted or redirected into other areas.
We must all strive to achieve the promotion of equality and human rights. Without our fundamental rights we cannot make progress on any of our policies. Therefore I am glad to see plans on how we do this early in the programme. If we achieve all of the targets set out in section 2.2 we will have achieved a great deal and will have started to move away from the inequalities of the past.
The promotion of human rights and equality must be the key priority of this Assembly. Further, it is time for Unionism to accept that institutionalised discrimination has been practised here for the past 80 years. In this building, the founding fathers of Ulster Unionism preached and practised discrimination as a tool of political manipulation and control. Discrimination and disadvantage did, and does, exist.
Paragraph 2.3.2. says
"We will work to provide high quality affordable social housing for those on low incomes"
I was disappointed to see no mention of tackling rural unfitness. My constituency, Fermanagh and South Tyrone, contains the highest levels of unfit rural housing on these islands, yet this has been omitted completely. In order to achieve what we set out to do in terms of replacement programmes and disabled adaptations, we are going to have to fund the Housing Executive adequately. I am sure every elected representative here has been frustrated at some point about the lack of resources to get things done or the speed at which work gets carried out. I would also agree with Gerry Kelly that if Maurice Morrow had fought his corner in the Executive, I do not believe the Housing Executive would have suffered from budget restraints in the way it has.
I would also like to have a point clarified. Paragraph 2.4.2 aspires to
"develop the necessary community infrastructure in the most disadvantaged areas and where it is weakest, encouraging people to take responsibility in and for their own communities."
Are we going to prioritise areas with the weakest community infrastructure or those most disadvantaged? These mean very different things.
How committed are we really to the community and voluntary sector when it has received a pittance from mainstream funding, when the actions in the Programme for Government do not include details of how this ambitious section is going to be achieved and when this year's Budget proposals do not seem to take any of this into account?
The Programme for Government sets out our stall for a better future and is the first step in creating a better society for all. However, it needs to be clear not just on its objectives but in how they are to be achieved. That means that we have to fund the targets set out and make them achievable. If that involves asking the Dublin Government to provide additional funding, that is what we must do. Given that we do not receive enough from the British Exchequer and that we have not seen any money coming from savings made from the British war machine, we have to be imaginative about how to fund our priorities in order to achieve these aspirations. Go raibh maith agat.