Northern Ireland Assembly
Monday 13 November 2000 (continued)
Winter Fuel Payment
asked the Minister for Social Development if he will detail the number of eligible people who have yet to apply for the winter fuel payment, and what steps he is taking to encourage uptake of the payment.
Some 285,000 people in Northern Ireland aged 60 and over are entitled to a winter fuel payment this year. The first payments go out this week. The majority of eligible people - about 250,000 - will receive their payment automatically. Although the Social Security Agency (SSA) has contacted the 38,000 people who need to apply, 13,000 people have not yet submitted a claim. Press advertisements were used in April, July and September to maximise the uptake of the scheme. Further advertising will take place soon.
Does the Minister agree that the majority of those people not claiming their entitlement are males over the age of 60 who are still in employment? Does he agree that they could easily be identified if information were shared between Government Departments? What plans does the Minister have to develop links and share data with other Departments so that benefit entitlements can be automatically established?
I cannot say with assurance that the majority of those not claiming are males over the age of 60, but the Member may be right. It is important that all those who are entitled to benefit get the benefit.
With regard to sharing information with other Departments, I am sure that the Member is aware that we are presently in the process of reorganising. The ONE Scheme, under which many of the agencies will co-ordinate their efforts and information will become effective soon. I do not know if that will happen before this payment is made. The £200 payment was announced only last Thursday, and the legislation came into effect last Saturday. Some of the cheques will be sent this week. My Department has reacted very quickly and is working flat out to ensure that everyone who is on benefit and who is entitled to this payment will get their £200 before Christmas. I am sorry that I cannot give the same assurance to those aged over 60, but an honest effort will be made.
I thank the Minister for his assurances that the winter fuel payments will be issued as soon as possible. Will he continue to make representations to the Chancellor on the level of winter fuel payment? While the payment has increased from £150 to £200, and while pensions have recently been uprated, will the Minister continue to make strong representations to Treasury and Whitehall Ministers on the need to restore the link between the rise in pensions and earnings? Will he continue to press for the winter fuel payment to be kept at an appropriate level to deal with the yearly winter crisis?
I am sure the Member will be the first to recognise that those issues are, by and large, parity issues with the rest of the United Kingdom. Nevertheless, I assure him that the Department for Social Development and the Social Security Agency will not be found wanting in delivering a service to the people who need it most.
I also assure him that Northern Ireland will be kept on a par with the rest of the United Kingdom on levels of future benefits and pensions.
I welcome the Minister's comments on the efforts to ensure that winter fuel payments are dispersed as quickly as possible. I am sure he will agree that energy efficiency is also of great importance to those who require winter fuel payments. Will he update the House on the plans for implementing both, and will he assure Members that there will be a positive approach to them, particularly for those in rural areas?
With regard to winter fuel payments and fuel poverty, I recently launched a pilot scheme on domestic energy efficiency in Aughnacloy and Darkley. The scheme will be launched in April 2001. I believe it is an excellent scheme and will go a long way to tackling fuel poverty in Northern Ireland. I assure the Member that we have placed much emphasis on this scheme and that it will deal with the matters that he has raised today. I will supply the Member with more detailed information.
asked the Minister for Social Development if he will outline his plans to co-operate with the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety on public- health issues.
Over some months an interdepartmental group, led by the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety and involving officials from my Department and others has been working on a new strategy for improving the health of people in Northern Ireland. I understand the strategy will be published for consultation later this year.
Even though the Minister was sufficiently rude to my Colleague on the topic of education, I am delighted that he at least acknowledges his responsibilities in this area, but I remind him that the question actually asked about his co-operation with the Minister of Health. Given Mr P Robinson's earlier comments on the need for joined-up government, and since Ministers carry responsibility for housing executive rents, is it not up to the Minister to co-operate with other Ministers in urgent matters of public concern, rather than leave them entirely to officials?
The Member has missed the point on this, but I will take him through it as best I can. First, I have no plans whatsoever to meet the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety. I cannot be more direct than that. With regard to the matter he is hinting at, although he could be more explicit, the RUC is the main component in the drive against drugs. It is notable that the RUC has been excluded by the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety. I thought that would have concerned Mr Ford as much as it concerns me.
Mr P Robinson:
Instead of meeting the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety will the Minister take the advice of an earlier questioner and meet his counterparts in the Scottish or Welsh cabinets? Does he recognise that, according to the Hansard of 10 November, by doing so he would be ahead of eight other Ministers who have not met their counterparts in Scotland or Wales?
I listened carefully to what Mr P Robinson said. Rather than interpret it as a question, I will take it as sound advice. It is something that I will pursue in the coming weeks and months. Then I will be able to say to all and sundry that I have had all those meetings. There are those who wish to direct me down the Dublin road, but I am not prepared to go along that route.
Madam Deputy Speaker:
Time is up, unless there are further questions.
Will the Minister encourage the Housing Executive to check its dwellings in radon- affected areas and take action to eradicate any health risks? Radon gas is the second-greatest cause of lung cancer in Northern Ireland.
Madam Deputy Speaker:
That question is not relevant to the one that was tabled.
It is a public-health issue.
Madam Deputy Speaker:
The Minister wishes to respond.
I did not hear the start of the question, but I will deal with it generally. If there is a threat to anyone's health as a result of any situation that arises in the social housing sector, I take that very seriously. It would be a matter that I would want to deal with. If the Member writes to me about a particular case that he would like dealt with, I will certainly pursue it on his behalf.
Rev Dr William McCrea:
Public health and safety is greatly endangered by many of our constituents in socially deprived families throughout the Province in that they are not able to get rid of their Economy 7 heating. Can the Minister ensure that the domestic energy efficiency scheme is brought in as quickly as possible? He has said that that will happen in April, but will it begin in one particular area, or will it occur throughout the Province simultaneously?
It is our intention, as the Member said, to introduce this scheme in April 2001. I hope that it will go right across the Province and tackle fuel poverty as it arises. I have already said that we have launched pilot schemes at Aughnacloy and Darkley.
Earlier, a Member mentioned the need for co-operation on drugs issues. Does the Minister agree that given the experience in Edinburgh and Glasgow, it would be very relevant for him to visit the Scottish Parliament and undertake discussions with both the Strathclyde and Lothian police forces?
(Mr Speaker in the Chair)
I do intend to take the route that Mr Peter Robinson suggested earlier. I do see significance in speaking to my counterparts, in particular in areas like Edinburgh. I am confident that when I go to Scotland or Wales and discuss this with my counterparts there, the police force will be in the driving seat and in the vanguard of tackling this problem. I am certain that the Member will agree with me on that.
I think it is interesting that the Minister has various meetings planned with Welsh and Scottish Ministers in the months ahead. Given the frequency with which the Ministers on the DUP change sides, months ahead is somewhat optimistic on his part. Since he has not yet met with the Welsh Assembly and the Scottish Parliament, is not co-operating with the North/South structures and has not met with the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety, there seems to be a declining number of people whom he is speaking to.
His colleague on Belfast City Council, Cllr Eric Smyth, has been in the lead in Belfast in promoting anti-drugs activity and awareness. Cllr Smyth has participated in a European anti-drugs conference and has gone to Dublin to participate with colleagues in anti-drug strategies in the city of Dublin. In the next few months there will be a conference in Belfast that Eric Smyth will be a sponsor of -
Order. What is the Member's question?
The point is that if his colleague -
No, the question -
Does the Minister agree that his colleague in Belfast City Council is participating on an all-Ireland basis in anti-drugs awareness activities? Should he, as a Minister representing this Executive Assembly -
Order, order. The time is up, and the Minister will have to respond to the Member in writing. You have a point of order, Mr Dodds?
I thank the Member for his party political broadcast on behalf of the DUP.
I have no doubt that the Member concerned will use it on his election leaflets. Order.
Mr S Wilson:
Mr Speaker, is it in order for a member of the SDLP to electioneer blatantly for the DUP?
It is entirely in order, but I am not sure that it is wise for either party.
Debate resumed on motion:
That this Assembly notes the Executive Committee's proposed Programme for Government; notes that it will guide the public spending plans for 2001-02 in the Budget; notes that the Programme for Government will be presented for the approval of the Assembly in the New Year, embracing public service agreements for all Departments. [The First and Deputy First Ministers]
The Minister of Higher and Further Education, Training and Employment (Dr Farren):
The focus of this session of the debate is on education, training, the economy and the infrastructure. This covers two of the Executive's priorities, investing in education and skills and securing a competitive economy. These are key priorities to contributing to a prosperous society, which is part of the Executive's shared vision for the future.
Education and training have a central role in the programme, not only for social and community development but as an engine for our economy. While a high proportion of our young people achieve good examination results, there are also major challenges for us, as the draft programme highlights. The increasing focus on knowledge as a key element of economic growth emphasises the importance of getting our education and skills right. A high proportion of young people are underachievers in school, and they should be given every opportunity to succeed through access to quality higher and further education.
Within our existing work force there is a significant population with few or no formal qualifications and with poor standards of literacy and numeracy. We must continue to address areas of high unemployment. We must break the cycle of unemployment, making sure that we do not allow those leaving school with few qualifications to be caught in the unskilled trap for their future careers. As the programme highlights, these are areas we will focus on.
The selection review and decisions on the future structures of post-primary education, together with the outcome of the review of student financial support at further and higher education levels, will clearly be major vocal points of debate. The Executive have identified a wide range of other actions to underline its commitment to investment in education and skills at different levels: the provision of one year of pre-school education for every child; support for underachieving schools; the development of technology in public libraries; and the piloting of a new training programme for adults with basic literacy and numeracy problems.
In the chapter headed 'Securing a Competitive Economy,' we emphasise that a firm basis for economic growth requires the close co-ordination of a wide range of policies and Departments. We must ensure that we have the physical infrastructure that business needs. We need to create the right conditions for economic growth by promoting competitiveness, enterprise, innovation and creativity. We plan, for example, to stimulate the private sector to increase the level and scope of research and development and to implement a small business strategy with a view to achieving better co-ordination and effectiveness of local enterprise support.
We must also work to make Northern Ireland more attractive for inward investors and tourists. We need a competitive location for investment, while at the same time ensuring that sufficient investment is directed to areas of disadvantage and high unemployment. It is also essential that we have the appropriate infrastructure for competitive regional development, and meet the needs of individuals as well. We will agree, therefore, on a regional development strategy and a regional transport strategy.
We will ensure that Northern Ireland has a world-class telecommunications infrastructure, and on that basis we will promote Northern Ireland as a world-class centre for e-commerce. We also need to consider the most appropriate energy infrastructure to help improve business competitiveness and create greater consumer choice at affordable prices. In striving to improve the economy we must be aware of the difficulties that have been experienced in rural areas. The Executive propose to develop a programme to modernise and diversify the structure of farming and assist fishery areas.
In taking this agenda for developing our economy and infrastructure forward, we must also ensure the protection and enhancement of the environment. We will, therefore, produce a strategy for sustainable development. This will cover a number of Departments and the district councils, because we have to build sustainability into all relevant policy areas including the development of public attitudes.
Two more sentences. I have attempted -
I regret that the Minister's time is now up.
Thank you for drawing my attention to that -
I must ask him to resume his seat.
Having completed an outline of the agenda, I am very happy to resume my seat.
Mr J Wilson:
I welcome the draft Programme for Government, and I am pleased that we have the opportunity to discuss it in detail today. The Belfast Agreement has brought many benefits to the people we represent. At last, we have locally elected representatives producing a programme that we have the opportunity and resources to enact. At last, those who provide government in this Province can be held to account by the electorate. We can truly say that, through this programme, we are delivering accountable democracy to Northern Ireland.
I commend the Executive on their role in guaranteeing that delivery. I applaud the commitment to a better society. My party and I will continue to do all that we can to help. However, the delivery of accountable democracy also requires that those of us who might loosely be referred to as Back-Benchers can and must criticise constructively where we find fault. I am reasonably satisfied that the draft programme will start to undo the damage caused to this country by direct rule. Having said that, I must also say that in some areas the programme does not do enough to address the years of under- investment, poor planning and general disregard that characterised long-distance Government.
Notwithstanding the announcement of increased funding for water and sewerage, not enough has been done to bring that vital area of infrastructure into the Programme for Government. It would be easy to single out the present Minister for criticism; he has not been in the job long and will soon have to hand over to the next man - or woman - in advance of the Westminster elections. We look forward to seeing who is next for a game of Ministers. Of course, it would help regional development generally if the Minister were fully committed to the portfolio. It would also help if the Minister were to carry through to the Executive the work his party is engaged in with the rest of us at departmental Committee level.
I acknowledge that addressing the direct rule years will be hard, and nowhere more so than in dealing with the Water Service. The damage was done over many years and cannot be undone by one Programme for Government. However, I regret that the opportunity to deal radically with the massive problems that we have with water and sewerage services has been missed. Rather than spend money on patching up an ailing infrastructure, we should aim at a complete overhaul.
Chapter 1 of the draft programme states
"The provision of infrastructure and major public services such as public transport, roads, water and sewerage are essential for the social and economic well-being of the region".
I agree with that. It also states
"Serious deficiencies in our infrastructure assets have been identified as a result of years of under-investment".
I agree with that too. The document continues
"This is giving rise to real public-safety and public-health concerns. We need to act now if we are to reverse the unacceptable deterioration in the quality and reliability of our infrastructure and to comply with European Directives".
Although the problem of underinvestment is identified, the draft programme contains little evidence of commitment to address it. There are some commitments to improvement. The commitment to achieve a 20% reduction in the 1996 level of high- and medium- severity water pollution incidents is welcome, as is the commitment to eliminate the backlog in implementing European Directives on air, land and water. I am pleased with the commitment to achieve 80% compliance with the waste water treatment works discharge standards set out by the Environment and Heritage Service. I trust that, before too long, we will achieve 100%.
The Executive must appreciate the importance of a good water and sewerage infrastructure; it is as good an indicator as any of our social and economic conditions. My constituency is a pleasant and attractive area, made up mainly of small towns and villages and surrounded by countryside. We do not live at the foot of enormous mountains or beside the banks of broad rivers, but, in south Antrim, we are beginning to expect that rainfall that is anything more than moderate will lead to flooding. The flooding occurs because the Water Service infrastructure is below standard.
The level of rainfall in Northern Ireland in October was among the lowest in the United Kingdom, but householders still had to deal with water seeping into their homes for the second time in two months. In an area of relatively mild rainfall, we should not have such a situation.
I wish to concentrate on education. In order to attain equality in the present education system, we need to look at the targets set out in the Programme for Government and examine how to turn those targets into achievable objectives. How can we do that without adequate funding? Feedback from public meetings suggests that the overwhelming majority of the public feels that the 11-plus ought to be scrapped. Undoubtedly, the examination places pupils under severe pressure and is counter-productive and damaging in that it increases class bias and leads to social disadvantage, low self-esteem and demotivation. Preparation for the examination dominates the curriculum in P6 and in P7. Teaching is totally focused on preparation for the 11-plus, and attention is directed away from areas that would be more beneficial in the preparation for secondary education.
The issue of the future of the 11-plus cannot be viewed in isolation. The structure of our education system must change radically to meet the needs of society today, as well as the needs of the future. Equality of opportunity must be built into the system. We must tackle underachievement; I welcome the Minister's commitment to do so. I commend the allocation of funds to help children with special needs. That will enable them to enter mainstream education without having to face the terrible bureaucracy that they have faced in the past. For many of those children the issue is not just physical access to schools and classrooms but access to all the services in the schools. We must ensure that they are included, not isolated.
We need equality of treatment for our rural schools and the retention of those schools, which play such a vital role for those who live in rural communities. Pupil numbers in rural schools are dropping, and the reasons for that must be examined. Decisions must be made about what can be done to revitalise those schools in order to extend equality of opportunity, accessibility and choice and to raise standards.
School transport in rural areas needs a complete overhaul. It is neither fair nor realistic to expect young children to walk two miles along country roads, often with bad lighting and no footpaths. Children's safety is of paramount importance, and transport is an essential element.
On school transport in general, I would advocate an approach that would ensure training for drivers and escorts, both on buses and in taxis, and particularly for those working with children who have special needs.
While attending an Education Committee meeting recently I was glad to hear the Minister's statement underlining his commitment to the three Rs and to what he termed "the four Ens" - encouragement, enjoyment, entitlement and enthusiasm. I hope that other initiatives and those proposed in the Programme for Government to tackle bullying and behavioural problems will be strengthened and that we will soon see a positive outcome from those and from other vital programmes currently running in our education system.
We must ensure that we target social need and direct funding towards areas where it will benefit children in the greatest need. Targeting social need must be people-based, not geographically based as it is now. We need a second-level education that gives the same weight to vocational education as it does to academic education, and I hope that we will soon move away from perpetual testing to perpetual teaching.
In conclusion, I hope that equality and social inclusion will remain high on the Government's agenda. The Department of Education and, indeed, the Assembly itself, should be proactive in seeking solutions that will redress the balance and provide equality of opportunity for the whole population.
Rev Dr Ian Paisley:
My remarks concern agriculture. First, the draft Programme for Government commits the Executive routinely to consider the rural dimension by rural proofing during the making and implementation of policy. We do not know what rural proofing is. We questioned the Deputy Secretary at the Department of Agriculture, and he could not define rural proofing. He said that we would have to wait until January 2001 before the Minister, or anybody, would know what rural proofing means. How will the other Departments co-operate with rural proofing when even the Department responsible for it does not know what it means? This causes great concern to members of the Agriculture Committee and to me as its Chairperson. We believe that proper rural proofing is necessary and that steps should be taken right across the board which should benefit those living in rural districts and especially the farming community.
We are also concerned about the programme to modernise and diversify the structure of farming, yet we are amazed that there are no action points listed on how this is to be achieved. We need to know the steps proposed.
We know that neither the Minister herself nor the Department is eager to bring in a pension scheme for farmers and that that may not happen. What about new people coming into farming? Is it not possible for those who have served their time in farming to see new people entering with certain advantages so that those older people can retire? Why is the United Kingdom not to have a pension for farmers, as other parts of the European Union do, and especially for those who are in dire straits because of debts which resulted mainly from the BSE crisis and the tragedy in our pig industry. I hope the Minister will be able to enlighten us, because those issues lie right at the heart of this matter, and they need to be addressed.
I hope that by January the Minister and her Department will be able to give us a clear definition of rural development and that they will give us to understand how she will communicate the usefulness of rural development to every other Department. That is going to be a big business. Sir Reg Empey is sitting in the Chamber, and I am sure that he has some views on the matter. He ought to have views because of his responsibility for industry in rural districts. We need to have information on that big issue so that the next time we debate the matter it will not be in the dark but in the full light of candid definition.
Ba mhaith liom béim a leagan ar fhreagrachtaí na Roinne i gcúrsaí oideachais sa doiciméad seo. Mar bhall den Choiste Oideachais, ba mhaith liom comhghairdeas a dhéanamh leis an dá Aire, Máirtín MacAonghusa agus Seán Ó Farracháin. Is orthu atá an fhreagracht tosaíocht a dhéanamh den oideachas sa doiciméad seo.
I must begin by commending the inclusive approach adopted by the Executive in drafting the Programme for Government. At its root is the imperative of eliminating the democratic deficit which pre-dated partition and has characterised the history of the Six-County state since its inception in the early 1920s. However, I share the frustration of others who have addressed the debate on the dishonest tactics of the First Minister in plotting the collapse of the political institutions, while most other Ministers were dotting every i and crossing every t in the Programme for Government. That lends an air of unreality to the programme and instils public scepticism; it is regrettable insofar as it flies in the face of the notion of a shared vision.
As to the content of the programme - yes, it is aspirational; yes, it is ambitious in some regards; and no, it is not nearly radical enough.
As a member of the Education Committee I am pleased to note that investment in education and skills has been identified as one of the five Executive priorities. It is only right that education should enjoy, and continue to enjoy, such priority. The Ministers, Mr McGuinness and Dr Farren, deserve commendation for their efforts and future support in sustaining this type of agenda.
I welcome the general commitments to raising educational standards for all, cherishing each child equally. I also welcome the commitment to seriously address the issues of low and underachievement. Underachievement is a specific area for North/South focus and co-operation.
The document highlights the central role of education in securing an inclusive society and a strong and vibrant economy and in promoting lifelong learning and healthier lives for everyone.
As Ms Lewsley pointed out, the programme invites ongoing redefinition of our educational objectives. We have heard of the three "Rs"; now the "Ens" are coming into the debate - encouragement; enjoyment; enlightenment and enthusiasm. I welcome the swing away from solely academic achievement.
Specifically, I welcome the commitment to implementing new viability criteria to help promote Irish- medium education by the year 2001. That sector has suffered neglect for years, decades and centuries. The Irish language was officially frowned upon in our education system, and it is time for it to take its rightful place. I await the outcome of the consultation on education through the medium of Irish. People in the cities, towns and villages are also awaiting that.
Similarly, the objective of expanding and enriching pre-school provision to benefit every child for at least one year is extremely important. The deadline of June 2001 has been set for the completion of the review of post-primary education. It is timely to speak about that matter now, as our young people sat the first section of the 11-plus examination last Friday, and the second section will take place on 24 November. I hope that those children are among the last to undergo the 11-plus, which has been very damaging.
Finally, the emphasis on education as the engine for the economy is very pertinent. We need to help equip our young people with the skills and qualifications they need to take their place in the modern economy. I recently spoke to an official from the Sligo County Enterprise Board who told me that that was a key ingredient of the Celtic tiger. Similarly, I welcome the emphasis on knowledge-based economy. Let us hope the Celtic tiger gets his paws wet in the North soon.
I call Mrs Bell.
Mrs E Bell:
Mr Speaker - [Interruption]
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. It concerns the application of the equality principle to your selection of parties and their speaking order. In calling Mrs Bell to speak, you will have called 50% of the Alliance Party. It seems to me that at this stage, by the same token, we should have heard from a dozen Members of my party and the SDLP, 10 from the DUP and nine from Sinn Féin.
Order. Mr Leslie ought to know that on a point of order it is not open to him to question the Speaker about such matters on the Floor of the House. If he wishes to do so in the proper manner, he is entirely free to do so, but it is not in order for him to raise a question of that kind here.
Mrs E Bell:
I have to say, Mr Speaker, that we have quality - perhaps not quantity but quality.
I note the draft Programme for Government with some disappointment. The title of the introduction, 'Making a Difference', would be more credible if there really had been an attempt to get away from the dangerously traditional, two-communities concept. I also hoped that the parties which are not in the Executive could have had more direct input, other than as members of Committees, but perhaps that will come.
However, I totally agree that we need significantly to improve the educational successes of so many of our young people. It is also encouraging that the need for an holistic perspective on education involving a number of Departments has been recognised - although someone should talk to the Minister for Social Development who appears reluctant to work with the Health and Education Departments on the effects, for example, of social disadvantage on children. Targeting social need is a matter for all Departments, and there must be joined-up Government on such issues.
I am glad that education is included throughout the draft programme and involves different Departments. I hope that all Departments will take note. I can only hope that investing in education and skills will take a high priority, given that there are other competing policy issues. In the long term, society will benefit only if there is a vibrant, efficient, accessible and affordable education sector for people from early years to adulthood, and for some time beyond. It is to be welcomed that pre-school education has been expanded so that, by 2003, every child will have one year of pre-school education. This is another very important part of our education sector.
The 11-plus - or selection - review must be comprehensive so that real and informed decisions can be made. As one who sat, or attempted to sit, an 11-plus exam last week, I have nothing but admiration for those children who have done it. I would like it to be scrapped as soon as possible, because I would not want to do it again.
Other actions promised, such as tackling disruptive behaviour and bullying, and information and communications technology training will also help to improve the situation in the education sector. Improving access to all levels of education will also need realistic and effective decisions taken regarding such things as student fees and loans. I also suggest that in this series of actions, the equality priority should cause the viability criteria for integrated and Irish-medium education to be reconsidered. I know that a Member who spoke earlier has welcomed the viability criteria consultation, and it is right that Irish- medium education should be included. However, in the existing consultation criteria for integrated education, there is talk about the religious determination, which openly discriminates - [Interruption]
Mr Speaker, I ask for a bit of quiet; I am being distracted by those on my left.
Mrs E Bell:
In the criteria for integrated education in the consultation document, the religious determination that each school needs in order to qualify is mentioned. That discriminates openly against children and parents who, quite properly, do not wish to be labelled as one or the other. It is regrettable, but integrated education is barely mentioned, as is Irish-medium education. I hope that will be rectified once the criteria are agreed on.
I note that children with special educational and/or physical difficulties get only a scant mention. In fact, the document does not refer in any great detail to children generally. Therefore I call once again for a children's commissioner so that education and other areas to do with children are given priority. I would be pleased if the Children's Fund that has recently been set up were increased to allow for basic literacy and numeracy teaching in primary schools and at other levels in education.
It is also essential that the number of university places in Northern Ireland be increased, possibly aided by a degree of financial input from the private sector. That has already started, but I hope that it continues, and continues well, so that all stages of the education process - academic and vocational - can flow freely with young people acquiring the skills and qualifications needed to realise their potential. A good pre-school education, effective primary school conditions and a second-level system that caters for all pupils are desirable.
Order. I am afraid that the time is up.
I wish to address specifically section 5 of the Executive's Programme for Government. First, I welcome the proposals for public transport and for the maintenance and renewal of roads. Telecommunications are vital for a vibrant economy, both rural and urban, but transport and the telecommunications infrastructure must be balanced to deliver efficiently the extra product gained through improved telecommunication links.
We must improve the rail network to carry more of our output from the Province. That would increase access to markets and help reduce, if not minimise, the amount of large trucks on our roads. They contribute greatly to polluting the air and to congestion.
I am glad to see that the work on the road network, as a result of the Chancellor's announcement in 1998, is to begin. Those projects, which include the improvement of single and dual carriageways, are necessary to provide efficient links throughout the Province. I come from the north-west and I appreciate greatly, as will my Colleagues from the area, the fact that the proposed Toome bypass is underway and on course for completion.
This will expedite trade and travel on the Londonderry to Belfast route that are so vital at present for workers and traders in the north-west. I also welcome the consideration being given to new funding sources. We must encourage private-public partnerships with appropriate regulation to ensure that the taxpayers and consumers get the best value. Private concerns can often run the business of government better, as privatisation in recent years has demonstrated. However, we must always ensure that concerns are properly and adequately policed so that they do not become private monopolies.
The next references are to energy infrastructure. Although, as the programme states, our energy market is relatively small, we need to improve access to various energy sources for the more remote areas of the Province. People in rural areas are restricted almost exclusively to oil and electricity to meet their energy needs, and both are rapidly rising in price. The oil costs - and the Assembly has already debated this - are extraordinary and have a knock-on effect on electricity prices.
A north-west gas pipeline would benefit greatly the main towns of Coleraine and Limavady in my constituency. It would offer more choice, flexibility and, it is to be hoped, cost savings to both the domestic and business consumers who could avail of the development. It would also help with inward investment in the north-west, as energy needs can take up a large element of the cost base of intensive business.
I welcome the aim to eliminate the backlog of planning applications. Planning problems are a sore point with many constituents, and shortening the backlog will be of help. However, while I welcome this development of long-term planning strategies, we should make the Planning Service more open, and more acceptable, to the general public.
The initiation of a process to prepare a regional planning policy statement for the countryside in 2001-02 must be expedited, as many rural areas are becoming denuded of their inhabitants as a result of planning applications being refused. Many farmers' sons cannot build a modest house on their farm because of planning regulations, while others can build in exposed areas, almost willy-nilly, with the blessing of the planners. Where is the sense in that? The Programme for Government wishes to keep farmers in rural areas, but no one helps drive them out more than the planners.
Finally, I want to address the issues of rural regeneration and tourism. I welcome the policy of rural proofing because the rural community has often been neglected as far as development is concerned. We need to support rural dwellers, including farmers, in addressing the economic and social problems that are encountered.
Order. The Member's time is up.
One of these days we will have a debate on the principle of equity within the concept of equality. I will leave that for another day. I would like to address a few - [Interruption]
As the Member knows, he is free to put a motion down on the No Day Named list and to lobby his Whip to get it onto the published list.
I want to say something about the economic growth section of the programme, but I first want to comment on remarks made earlier by Mr Peter Robinson about cross-border bodies and the North/South apparatus generally. To summarise, he said that much of the content was rather woolly and imprecise. He is entirely correct. He could have added that they are full of contradictions and contain aspirations, particularly on matters of competition. Common sense would tell people that these cannot be delivered in practice. That is the way I want my cross-border bodies. They may have political value in certain quarters, but they do not have any constitutional significance, and they have little practical application. Long may it remain that way.
Looking at the economic growth section I am a little concerned by the rather nannying tone of some of the suggestions. As Northern Ireland is already over-administered, we must be exceedingly wary of increasing work by creating more administration. Essentially, the business environment thrives best with the minimum of regulation. There are many examples of that around the world. The business community often says that the zeal with which the United Kingdom implements all the Directives that it receives from Brussels is somewhat in excess of that of our European partners. We need to be exceedingly conscious of this and be careful to limit our zeal. I particularly noticed that one of the provisions was to encourage businesses to become more competitive by learning from consumers. A business that does not constantly learn from its consumers has very little prospect of succeeding in the competitive world. We must be careful about making statements of this kind when they should be well understood already.
The Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment has frequently said that you cannot dictate to businesses where they should set up. You might attempt to use a light guiding hand, but that is the most that you can do. If the Government cannot bring jobs to the people, which I do not believe they can, they must take adequate measures to ensure that people can get to the jobs, and their transport policy should reflect this.
I note that among the provisions for the cross-border bodies there is provision for
"Consideration of proposals and of appropriate action on enhancing competitiveness of the two economies."
I do not think this is the case. Competitiveness takes place between the two economies and between these economies and any other economy with which one might be attempting to trade. That competition is entirely healthy so any differences between neighbouring regimes are welcome, because what is good in one place may be bad in another. We should bear this in mind.
All the emphasis in tourism tends to be on the marketing of Northern Ireland, or of all of Ireland, to the outside world. I am concerned that we have not placed enough emphasis on the internal marketing of our product, and I am concerned that this is not addressed in the document. It is one thing to attract visitors here, but it is another to give them a good time when they arrive. We need to ensure that their attention is drawn to every facility that might be attractive to them. The same applies to our own population. Tourist attractions in Northern Ireland are not well known to many of those working here. I hope the Minister will address that matter.
I welcome the Programme for Government, and I pay tribute to the Ministers who assembled it. It is an important vision statement for the future of Northern Ireland.
I want to discuss the physical infrastructure, and I welcome, in particular, the five Executive programme funds. Adequate investment in the physical infrastructure is necessary for economic development in Northern Ireland. Those of us who live many miles outside Belfast have for many years accepted our social and economic disadvantages, as there has been inadequate investment in physical infrastructure across the region.
Those who want balanced regional economic development want the Government to take the lead in securing a fair and equitable distribution of resources throughout. The implementation of a balanced regional development strategy across the North, as a means of regenerating the economy, is a core SDLP policy. My party recognises that uneven development has exacerbated social exclusion in this area, adding to the political instability which has held this society back for too long. For the first time we have devolved power, and we now have the opportunity to reverse political instability and make, in the words of the Programme for Government, "a real difference to the lives of the people of this region."
This responsibility should not be taken lightly. I commend the Executive for creating an infrastructure/ capital renewal programme fund to address the underinvestment in our road, rail, sewerage and water networks and develop our energy market and telecommunication systems. The intention to produce a ten-year transportation strategy and to bring a Bill on transport before the Assembly should ensure that the North will have a truly integrated transportation system, which will achieve the correct balance between public and private, road and rail.
Resources are limited, so I am pleased to read that the Executive will be exploring alternative means of financing new projects in the form of public-private partnerships. The people of this region have suffered for too long on account of the poor condition of our roads and restricted access to public transport. We should not be shy about taking advantage of the benefits which private finance can bring to our transport system. With particular reference to the rural areas of Northern Ireland, the announcement that work will soon begin on a number of strategic route improvement schemes and on the plan to operate 15 rural community transport partnerships will help to rectify the transport deficit in rural areas, enhance safety and enable regional towns to maximise their economic potential. My constituency has three of the most deprived council wards in Northern Ireland. West Tyrone has not received its fair share of new inward investment projects. I therefore welcome the Executive's aim of attracting 75% of all new first-time inward investment projects to such areas of disadvantage.
The Executive could further demonstrate their confidence in areas of high unemployment by initiating a wide- ranging policy of administrative decentralisation. A programme for Civil Service decentralisation could be drawn up and implemented over a five-year period, relocating entire sections or subsections of Government Departments to the major or key service centres identified by the Department for Regional Development's strategic framework document 'Shaping Our Future' as local engines of economic growth. Such a policy has successfully operated in the Republic.
The measures that will be taken to create a more co-ordinated and efficient planning process are also very welcome. For several years there has been a backlog of planning applications, and planning regulations have been too restrictive, especially in rural areas. The Executive's intention to issue a series of regional planning policy statements to make planning policy more flexible will form an important component of an overall regional development strategy and should strike a balance between our economic and infrastructure needs and our environmental concerns. I agree with the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment's earlier reference to the importance of small- medium-sized enterprises.
Order. The Member's time is up.
Mr Paisley Jnr:
All that has been said in the debate by those Members whose parties are in the Executive Committee of the House - and indeed all that is in the 200 proposals contained in the 87 pages of this report - is nothing more than flannel. The report in total disguises the essential nakedness of this Administration. It has no serious proposals which it can bring before the House and have implemented in a serious fashion. In fact, it attempts to disguise this lack by embellishing the report with a great number of clichés. Indeed, this report is not a Programme for Government, but a book of clichés and well-meaning phrases. It is a book from a Government that will not actually achieve anything. It is a Government that says much but does very little.
This Administration - if I am generous to it - has allowed its ambition to get in the way of the political realities with which it is faced. We shall find that this Programme for Government, to which we shall return time and time again in the lifetime of this Executive, contains very few substantial proposals that have been implemented.
Mr Mallon, in his opening comments in this debate, paid tribute to the North/South Ministerial Council. Clearly those compliments do not extend as far as the First Minister, given the fact that, according to some of his friends, he has tried to scupper the operation of those council meetings.
Mr Leslie, who spoke a few moments ago, will find at page 55 in the very extensive chapter on developing North/South relationships that we are not going to get the benign and inoffensive North/South bodies that he seems to want. Mr Leslie's desire to have largely inactive bodies will not be achieved. He will see that if he reads page 55 of the report, which says that the plan is to
"develop consultation, co-operation and action on an all-island and cross-border basis".
Will the Member give way?
Mr Paisley Jnr:
The Member knows that I do not have time. The intention of this report is to act, not to be benign and inoffensive and not have all-Ireland action. It is to establish an all-Ireland, cross-border, governmental authority in Northern Ireland. Indeed, Mrs Carson talked about sustainability and made great play of this, as did the Leader of Sinn Féin/IRA in a dance of mutual respect. They where both talking about sustainability - we will sustain this if you sustain that. I checked the meaning of the word "sustain", and it means "to support, to bear the weight of over a long period, to give strength to and encourage". There is no doubt about it: this all-Ireland programme sustains Provisional IRA murder men in the Government of Northern Ireland. That is the reality of this report, and people ought not to lose sight of it. It sustains them. Is the Ulster Unionist Party going to continue to sustain those people in Government? We will find out soon enough.
Mrs Carson welcomed the report. However, during the course of her contribution she listed at least 20 objections. If that was a welcome, I would hate to see her attack something she disagrees with.
We should object to this agenda because it contains nothing to deal with the specific issues that we raised in the various Committees. There is nothing in this report that will eradicate farm debt. How will the ordinary person, trying to develop his or her farm, know what rural proofing means, how it will operate and where the mechanics are for it? It contains nothing for a farm- restructuring scheme, and that disappoints me. The only way we can inject new life into this industry is to have a new farm retirement scheme that will allow new blood in and new measures to apply.