Northern Ireland Assembly Flax Flower Logo

Northern Ireland Assembly

Monday 5 March 2001 (continued)

Programme for Government


Mr Speaker:

We now come to the motion on the Programme for Government. As Members will know from the Order Paper, this debate will start today and continue tomorrow.

No time limit has been set at this point for the debate, nor for contributions that Members will make. However, in view of what I have already said as regards questions and responses, perhaps some element of self-control will be of value, since this is a wide-ranging debate - and I suspect that many Members will wish to participate and to contribute. We shall debate until 6.00pm today and then adjourn. The debate will be resumed and completed tomorrow.

Motion made:

That this Assembly endorses the Programme for Government agreed by the Executive. [The First Minister and the Deputy First Minister]

The First Minister (Mr Trimble):

On 24 October 2000 the Deputy First Minister and I presented the Programme for Government in draft form to the Assembly and invited the Assembly's views. We stressed the fact that the draft Programme for Government marked an important milestone in the development of our institutions and of a devolved, locally accountable Government here.

It represents our commitment as an Executive to effective and accountable Government that makes a real and positive difference to the lives of people here. The draft Programme for Government has been debated by the Assembly and scrutinised by its Committees, and we are grateful for the positive and constructive feedback.

We believe that this process has signalled a maturing of the new politics that the agreement has achieved for Northern Ireland. The Programme for Government demonstrates that the four different parties that make up the Executive can reach agreement on priorities for Government and work constructively for the benefit of Northern Ireland.

Let there be no doubt about it: this programme is the work of all four parties in the Administration. The DUP may have the wrong particular way of communicating with the rest of the Admnistration, but they do participate, and their contribution is contained in this collective programme.

4.15 pm

That process has shown that the Assembly and the Executive can work together effectively in a corporate manner to serve the people who elected us. The programme in draft form has been considered by the Civic Forum and by a wide range of organisations across the public, private, voluntary and community sectors. More than 150 bodies and individuals responded with detailed comments and suggestions.

This process has made it clear to us that there is strong endorsement, within the Assembly and without, of the priorities that we have identified for Government and of the actions that we plan to take. We, along with our Executive colleagues, greatly welcome this endorsement. However, the process also made it clear that there are many things that we could do to improve the content and presentation of the programme. We have listened to suggestions and have reflected many of them in the version of the programme that is being debated today. We shall consider many others as we refine the process of developing, consulting on and agreeing the Programme for Government in future years.

Our objective is to deliver a new beginning for Government in Northern Ireland in which the Government are responsive to the people that they serve. After so many years of direct rule and of decisions being taken by Ministers who had one eye on distant constituencies and the other on Westminster, we may be forgiven for noting that the observation that every country has the Government that it deserves is not always correct. However, it is clear, after 28 years of direct rule, that the people of Northern Ireland certainly deserve good Government by those whom they elect themselves.

More than that, they deserve a modern, open, efficient and locally accountable Government that meet their need. That is what the Programme for Government delivers. It is comprehensive and precise. It makes the detail of government more accessible to the public than ever before and goes further in this respect than similar documents in Scotland and Wales.

It clearly states what we want to achieve and the steps that we shall take. It is in effect the Executive's manifesto - a set of pledges and commitments that underlines our desire to make a difference for the good of all. The largest addition to the document since the draft was presented to the Assembly in October reflects the inclusion of public service agreements - setting out the commitments made by each Department. Again, that is done in unprecedented detail.

The public service agreements represent a most important step in meeting our aim of bringing open and accountable government to the people of Northern Ireland. For the first time, Departments have been challenged to set out what will be achieved with the resources voted to them by the Assembly. It is vital for the Assembly and the public to have an opportunity to see exactly what the Executive Committee plans to provide across its spending programme in support of the overall Programme for Government.

The public service agreements are designed to do precisely this - to identify what Departments aim to achieve over the life of the Programme for Government. They do that by listing their detailed aims and the targets that they intend to achieve. They are designed to ensure a proper focus on outputs and outcomes. For too long, the focus in Departments, the media and among the public has been on inputs and resources - on how much we spend or how much it costs.

We want to change that focus and put the spotlight on outputs - on the results and on precisely what has been achieved. It is not only a question of how much it costs, but of what we get for our money, when it will be delivered and how good it is.

That is why we have set our plans out in some detail. By way of example, I shall highlight the public service agreement for the Department of Education to indicate what it includes. There are targets for increasing the percentage of children at age 11 who reach or exceed expected standards of literacy and numeracy for their age. The current targets, set out on page 103, are that 77% of pupils should achieve at least level 4 in Key Stage 2 in English, and 80% should achieve that level in maths by 2004. Those targets represent a 12% improvement in English since 1999 and an 8% improvement in maths.

Those are precise targets and commitments, and the Assembly and the public will be able to assess precisely what degree of success there is in achieving them. If they are achieved - fine. If there are difficulties in achieving them, we can focus on the question of what the problems are. That process, replicated throughout the Administration, should drive standards up and deliver more to the entire community.

The public service agreements also set out the steps that will be taken to ensure that targets will be achieved in the case of education. Those steps include the universal provision of pre-school education, support for underachieving schools and the provision of properly maintained classrooms with modern technology. Pledging to improve the education of our children is much more meaningful than simply promising to spend more money on education.

We could take the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment as another example. Its public service agreement contains targets to achieve increases in export sales growth and net employment among our larger companies. It sets out the actions that the Department will take to achieve those targets - actions that include promoting Northern Ireland as an inward investment location.

Where once our focus might have been on the numbers of companies setting up here and the costs of supporting them, it is now being switched to ensuring that those companies that are located in Northern Ireland contribute to the creation of wealth and jobs and to the strengthening of our economy.

Although there is much to do in the economy, there is also much that we can be proud of. Since 1995, we have created more than 60,000 additional jobs. That is a growth rate of 11%, which is faster than that in Great Britain. Our manufacturing output continues to forge ahead of the rate of increase in the rest of the United Kingdom. Manufacturing output here has increased by 31% since 1995. That is the case despite the high level of the pound and other difficulties. By comparison, in the rest of the United Kingdom the increase over the same period was 4% - a fraction of that we had achieved.

Of course, there remain many challenges - some are old, and some are new. We need to overcome them if we are to secure a competitive economy. We need to continue to work to reposition our economic base, and that means moving away from an over-dependence on the public sector and on slow growing or, indeed, declining, areas. In fact we need to switch from public to private and from low added value to higher added value areas.

That does not mean that we shrug off our important industrial heritage. Rather, it means making the most of opportunities that we are well placed to exploit. The real promise for the future comes in the newer sectors - whether making goods or producing services - and for businesses that can successfully supply those new sectors.

We need also to promote enterprise, innovation and creativity, as we strive to achieve a knowledge-based economy. That is why the programme commits us to promoting Northern Ireland as a world-class centre for e-commerce.

The programme also sets out specific actions in areas of support of our priority of - as the heading is - "Securing a Competitive Economy". Those actions include: promoting research and development in local companies; providing the facilities to sustain high technology and high value-added new start-up companies; and ensuring co-ordination and effectiveness of local enterprise support. It recognises the importance of instilling business awareness into our young people and commits us to developing an action plan to promote greater integration of enterprise into the curriculum in schools and colleges.

We still need to maintain a focus on unemployment. Unemployment here has fallen by half since its peak in 1993. It currently stands below 6% and is lower now than at any time since the 1970s. Over the same period, earnings increased by 17·6% in real terms, although, unfortunately, they remain below the UK average in private industry. Our unemployment rate is also still higher than the UK average, and we continue to face the problem of long-term unemployment.

Securing a competitive economy is one way to help ensure that unemployment continues on a downward path, but such progress is reliant on progress in other areas. Our actions to strengthen our economy and to create wealth and jobs cannot be divorced from other priorities. They are linked to our commitments under the heading of "Growing as a Community" to tackle poverty and social exclusion. They are also linked under the heading of "Investing in Education and Skills" to our plans to improve our education standards and skill levels, and to help the unemployed find work.

Providing jobs is the surest way to create a more inclusive and equal society. Providing high quality skilled jobs is even better. To achieve this, we must ensure that the skills and qualifications of our people continue to rise towards a level that matches the best in the world.

Already we have seen that companies will move here to tap available skills. Shortages of key skills in rapidly expanding sectors are the most important factor in holding back growth.

For those reasons, economic development, skills training and education must go hand in hand. That is one example, albeit an important one, where cross-cutting themes and joined-up government are essential. That is why those themes are heavily emphasised in the Programme for Government.

I am disappointed by the Alliance Party's amendment, which gives that party's reasons for rejecting the Programme for Government. Alliance has had more than five months to consider the Programme for Government, and I am surprised that it has arrived at that conclusion. In October, the Alliance Party put forward its proposals for the Programme for Government, but in many areas its ideas were close to those of the parties that were involved in the drafting.

We have also heard from other Members, particularly through the Committees, and the overwhelming consensus was that the Programme for Government provides an excellent basis for the work of the Government and for the long and difficult process of developing good government for Northern Ireland. Of course, there were ideas for changes, differences of opinion regarding priorities, and instances where Members would like to see more being done. However, those who were consulted in the Assembly recognised that the Programme for Government was a realistic, organised and costed programme based on the reality that budgets are finite.

People can say that more could be done, but there are no simple, facile answers. In the Programme for Government, the Executive have mapped out a wide-ranging approach and demonstrated the linkages between programmes and policies by setting out their details, actions and timetables. Detailed equality schemes and new TSN action plans have also been set out.

Why has there been silence from the Alliance Party? It has not given costed proposals. Where are its solutions? It is easy to criticise, but now is the time for a debate and for working together.

The Programme for Government represents the Executive's prospectus for a new Northern Ireland - a region that is moving towards a new and inclusive stability where all can realise their full potential. It also represents our determination to deliver that in an open and accountable way. The Programme for Government and the public service agreements set out in detail what the Executive will do, at what cost and by when. They represent our commitment to open and accountable government, to addressing the challenges that Northern Ireland faces and to moving forward for the good of the whole community.

Mr Neeson:

I beg to move the following amendment: Delete all after "Assembly" and add

"declines to approve the Northern Ireland Executive Programme for Government because it does not properly address the deep divisions and inequalities in this society and therefore does not deliver the new beginning envisioned by the Good Friday Agreement."

I am surprised that the First Minister is surprised that the Alliance Party has tabled an amendment. The First Minister knows that the Alliance Party has raised many issues of inclusion in the House over the months, and it is my intention to raise those issues today.

There has never been a greater need for reconciliation in Northern Ireland. Sectarianism has never been more openly rampant than it is now, and the need to deal with those problems has never been greater. Although there are those who try to put forward the idea of Northern Ireland being two communities and who try to perpetuate the idea of the two communities, we have to recognise that Northern Ireland has moved forward from that. It is now a much more complex matter, and it is not just a question of Catholics and Protestants or Unionists and Nationalists. There are those who believe and those who do not believe. There is a growing increase in ethnic minority communities in Northern Ireland. All those issues have to be taken on board.

4.30 pm

(Mr Deputy Speaker [Sir John Gorman] in the Chair)

Never has such a great hurt been felt by many sections of the community than at present. The feeling exists that some are more equal than others. I refer to the Programme for Government. On page 14 it states:

"It will take generations for much of the pain and hurt of our history to be handled. However that should not lessen our commitment to work together to find reconciliation."

On page 26 it says

"We will place renewed emphasis on the need for all our people to work together. We will examine the impact of existing patterns of housing and services such as education and seek to respond positively where people wish to live and learn closer together. We are also aware that prejudice is not confined to religious sectarianism and that ethnic and other minority groups are often the victims of intolerance. We will work to reduce all forms of prejudice."

Those are fine words indeed, but words are one thing and commitment is another. The reality is that the Programme for Government has only seven measures to deal with the division in our community and four of those deal with language rights. However, what is of greater importance, human rights or language rights? I pose that question to the Executive today.

The First Minister knows well that over the past year the Alliance Party has been working on the major problem of hate crimes in Northern Ireland - he has answered questions in the House on the matter. What will the First Minister and the Executive do about the extension of the Crime and Disorder Act 1998 to Northern Ireland, which will deal specifically with racially motivated crimes?

The extension of the Football (Offences and Disorder) Act 1999 specifically prohibits sectarian chanting. Last Wednesday there were disgraceful scenes at Windsor Park when Neil Lennon was picked on because of the football club for which he plays. That cannot be tolerated in a decent society. What are the Executive going to do about that? The problem of sectarianism in sport is not mentioned anywhere in the Programme for Government.

Many Members are committed to the principle of integrated education. The First Minister quite rightly spoke about the targets for education and the provision of facilities and resources. However, targets for creating integrated education, whether through the building of new schools or through developing integrated schools through transformation, are absent in the Programme for Government.

There is nothing significant in the Programme for Government on the need for cross-departmental action to deal with paramilitary flags and graffiti. A private Member's motion is currently before the Business Committee on that matter, yet the First Minister should know that one Department is passing the problem to another. They are simply passing the buck, yet, year after year communities, cities and towns are blighted by the erection of paramilitary flags and by intimidation. That, in turn, creates a hostile environment for many people who are being intimidated by Republican or Loyalist graffiti. The Assembly should be dealing with those issues.

The Alliance Party also supports demands from the Mixed Marriage Association to try and develop more programmes for integrated housing. I take on board the First Minister's earlier remarks. It is not a question of waving a magic wand.

I realise that there are problems, but I ask the Committee of the Centre to investigate the barriers faced by people in mixed marriages in Northern Ireland and to consider how we might bring about greater housing integration in Northern Ireland. Not only do we have working-class ghettos, we have middle-class ghettos; we even have upper-class ghettos. The Assembly should address such a serious issue.

The core of our argument is that all Executive policies should be proofed on the extent to which they promote sharing rather than separation. That should be at the heart of what the Assembly does. We need neutral symbols - as an Assembly, we successfully developed the flax flower as our symbol. We must get away from the sectarian slogans that have created so much division in our society. I have spoken about the problem of sectarianism in sport; we can bring about change. Although I disagreed with the decision of the Belfast Giants to go ahead with their matches last Friday and Saturday night, ice hockey is an example of how the communities in Northern Ireland can be brought together to celebrate and cheer on one sporting event.

People in Northern Ireland have been accused of being inward-looking, but the development of the Assembly has created new opportunities. I welcome the establishment of the Northern Ireland Office in Brussels, but we need to establish not only bilateral, but multilateral relationships with other parts of the European Union. On the whole, the Programme for Government looks at east-west and North/South issues, but there are opportunities to look beyond Northern Ireland. I also hope that our relationship with the United States can be further developed. It might be just an oversight, but some of the North/South projects that appeared in the original document, such as lecturer exchanges and research collaboration for business, are no longer there. Ministers should let us know whether there have been changes.

I shall not be totally negative; there are many good things in the Programme for Government. I have already mentioned the establishment of the office in Brussels. I welcome the Executive's strong commitment to e-government, which is now the subject of a major Bill. I also welcome many of the economic policies. The Enterprise, Trade and Investment Committee hopes to publish a response to 'Strategy 2010', and there is much in that to be welcomed. The increase in job opportunities is also to be welcomed.

Much more attention and resources should be devoted to improving community relations in Northern Ireland. The Programme for Government states that the Executive are committed to improving community relations, but there are few actual policy proposals. Northern Ireland is a divided society. It is, therefore, vital that the Assembly take the lead in trying to end those divisions: that outlook should be at the core of all Government policies. That is a challenge that we all must face up to.

The Minister of the Environment (Mr Foster):

The Programme for Government is a much-needed document for the public service. It sets out the key issues that we must address so as to improve life for all people in Northern Ireland. I fully endorse it.

I shall focus on the significance that is being placed on environmental issues. When the Assembly previously debated the draft document, I emphasised the crucial importance of the environment, especially for a healthy community and for a competitive economy. That aspect was, and still is, reflected. If we are all to take ownership of the Programme for Government, it must reflect the views of elected representatives and the wider community. Therefore, I have carefully considered the responses given by consultees.

I have also had constructive contact with the Environment Committee. I thank its members for the helpful way in which that business was conducted. When I began to look at the comments from the Environment Committee and the wider public, it was interesting that there was a significant degree of similarity in the issues that were raised. That reflects the concerns that people have about environmental issues.

The need for sustainability to be a key cross-cutting theme in the Programme for Government was a major concern to both the Committee and to the wider public. Many felt that that important issue needed to run through all the documents, thus integrating social, economic and environmental objectives so as to maximise gains in both the quality of life and in its well-being. Furthermore, references to sustainability in the final version of the Programme for Government have been revised to reflect its importance as a major cross-cutting theme. The funding increase for environmental services in the Budget is testimony to the priority that the Executive have given to that area.

Concerns were also raised about the need to protect the built heritage. That is of vital importance. During this year I have been able to secure additional funding towards the payment of historic building grants.

The need to examine the planning process was also an issue. Northern Ireland needs an effective Planning Service, and for that reason the Programme for Government clearly says that my Department will carry out a review of the systems for operational planning policy, development planning and development control by the end of December 2001. It is also our aim to eliminate the backlog of planning applications by December 2002.

Those are some of the targets included in my Department's public service agreement. Those agreements are a new feature of the Programme for Government. They will enable a more open approach to departmental business and enable both Members of this Assembly and the general public to see the specific actions that are proposed.

The Department of the Environment's public service agreement includes other actions and targets. I cannot mention all of them, but I shall refer to a few. I intend to proceed with steps to eliminate the backlog in the transposition of EU environmental Directives. That is necessary not only to meet European standards and requirements, but, more importantly, to protect the environment. There is also much work to be done in assisting district councils and implementing their plans for waste management.

Another area in which I take a close interest is road safety. The continuing high level of deaths and injuries on the roads is of great concern. I shall launch a new road safety strategy shortly, but road safety is not just a matter for my Department. I look forward to receiving assistance from Roads Service, the RUC and the Department for Regional Development. We all have a responsibility to reduce the number of accidents on the road.

The Programme for Government gives us the best opportunity that we have had for many years to introduce policies and take actions that accurately reflect the wishes of the people of Northern Ireland. I assure Members that my Department will play an active part in that process and that I shall work closely with all other relevant Departments to drive forward the key cross-cutting aims identified in the document.

Mr McGrady:

I speak on behalf of my party and myself.

4.45 pm

In introducing the debate, the First Minister spoke of a new beginning. He also said that there was much to do to improve the programme. I hope that the great detail in the document will be followed very closely in respect of its intended delivery. However, I would also like to think that, in view of experiences gained, new emergencies and new matters arising, it would be flexible enough to take on board such new dimensions as may crop up in future.

Although the document is a vade mecum of politics in Northern Ireland, I would like to think that it will be subject to proper adjustment as experience is gained, and as new problems and new issues come to our notice. It is very much an excellent basis from which a new process is emerging.

It covers all possible aspects of life in Northern Ireland - economic, social and environmental - with the exception of the question of the security situation. Our communities suffer as a result of paramilitary activities, drug rings and other protection rackets. That is why I am slightly surprised by the amendment tabled by the Alliance Party, and all its references to deep divisions and inequalities. Many of the remedies suggested as being required to address those issues are security-orientated, and security matters are neither in the Assembly's remit nor in this form of devolution. However, it is to be hoped that, matters improving, they will be in future.

In response to many of the comments made by the leader of the Alliance Party, those deep divisions and inequalities in our society are best addressed by the example that we in this House, as representatives across the total spectrum of political life, give society? Our example would be the best guarantee and the best security that the divisions are healed sooner rather than later, and that the inequalities are addressed.

This society's inequalities concerning social class, gender and disabilities, among others, are very much addressed in the Programme for Government. New issues have been brought to light, examined and programmed for. I am, therefore, a wee bit surprised. One could be forgiven for thinking that there was an element of opportunism in the tabling of such an amendment. It is a direct negative, in that it calls for the Assembly to decline the document. Perhaps its main purpose was that members of that party would have the opportunity to get in early to make speeches on the matter.

Leaving that aside for the moment, it would be very tempting to take on, as it were, all 10 Departments. However, that would be ludicrous and detrimental to other Members who wish to speak.

I would, however, like to address an issue that is mainly the concern of the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development. I do not wish to talk about it in detail, but I do wish to talk about the theme that should come through. We have had, quite correctly, debate after debate on the whole problem of sustaining the farmer in the rural community. I have said time and time again in the House that that applies to the whole of Northern Ireland, outside one or two major conurbations. We are a rural community with a basis in the rural society. Farmers do not just produce an income. They also sustain that environment for all of us now and for posterity. We must adopt an entirely new approach to that. Although the Department in question - with all the pride we derive in that respect - is headed "Agriculture and Rural Development", its emphasis has always been mainly on agriculture, and "Rural Development" was added on later.

I would like to think that the Department is sustaining the entire rural community. There needs to be a cross-departmental commitment, to driving forward a new concept of rural sustainabilty as part of our overall handling of the rural community. That would contribute to sustainable improvements in economic, environmental and social conditions, while creating new ways in which to address the shortfall in farming activity and profitability. Over the past number of years, that shortfall has been dramatic and has reduced farming activity and profitability to 75% of what it was. That profit will be further reduced as a result of the outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease.

Local regeneration programmes are good and valid, and they have accomplished a great deal. It is important that the funding that was distributed last January be sustained until the delivery of the new tranche of funding if local regeneration, and the creation of jobs, is to continue. There needs to be a better concept of how to package a complete cross-departmental deal to renew and revitalise the rural communities. Rural people are less inclined to be skilled, and re-employed, than anyone else. Rural women, in particular, are less likely to find employment outside their farming communities. We have to address that problem.

New businesses are often set up, but there is a narrow-mindedness about their potential. They are directed towards local niche markets or, at best, something with a general Northern Irish identity. Not enough is given to encourage new rural industries and innovations to look outwards to international markets, to get access to existing distribution channels and to create new ones.

On the question of sustaining the income of farmers, in particular small farmers, I have long advocated that dependence on profitability based on the food-price structure is neither the right approach nor the only one. We must embrace the concept of creating a separate income to supplement the profit gained from farming, if it is inadequate, so that the farming community can be sustained. If that is regarded as a social benefit, then so be it, but the cash provided to those people should be seen as a special form of social commitment.

The Minister dealt with the matter of rural transport in the many questions that he received and in his address on the issue. Let it suffice to say that a very limited number of areas in Northern Ireland have access to railways and very few areas have access to dual carriageways. In my constituency, there is not one single foot of dual carriageway. We need to make a major input into infrastructural improvements in the entire south-east of Ulster, west of the Bann and other areas.

It is important that the impact of the shortfall in departmental assessments over the past 30 years be studied in depth, not only in the context of the environmental and regional development issues of transport and railways, which are very obvious, but in the context of health, education and other areas.

We have an enormous deficit to make up, and we cannot afford to make up such a deficit in the near future. It will not be made up unless something dramatic is done now. It is therefore incumbent upon the Executive to pressurise the central funding authorities, which have so much largesse it is flowing over. They have so many billions in surplus that they will not be able to give it all away. They cannot give it away in this week's Budget because there is so much of it.

However, part of the reasons for that surplus is our deficit. A tremendous effort should now be made - I am sure that it is already being made. We should all support our getting a special modernisation fund that will enable roads, water, sewerage, education, health and all other services to be updated in an effort to reduce that deficit. If that does not happen, we shall be looking at Programmes for Government yearly and seeing the same shortfalls that we are starting off with today. Unless we address that huge deficit, we shall make life very difficult for ourselves.

In his introduction, the First Minister gave substantive and encouraging statistics on a range of matters, such as the fall in unemployment to almost record levels, the 31% increase in productivity and the overall economic uplift. That is all well and good, but in order to sustain it in the new competitive world we must be at the forefront of modernisation. Unless we have additional funding, we shall not be able to do that.

I jump tracks, Mr Deputy Speaker, to touch on the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure. I used to criticise severely the peripatetic Education Ministers on one of my hobby horses - museums and regional strategy. Some people think that museums do not reflect our culture. Museums are the protectors of our culture, its expression and display. I hope that the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure will soon give us a policy that will have some funding. So far as I can see, there is not one mention of the word "museum" in the booklet. Nevertheless, museums are a fundamental cultural facility. It is not an issue that excites people and causes high blood pressure in debate, but there is a fundamental requirement for display. I have seen how exhibits, set side by side with historical facts, can overcome and explain some of the divisions referred to in the amendment. A new interpretation can heal and help divisions to diminish, if not disappear.

On education, I was disappointed that the Programme for Government uses the words "to sustain current levels". That should not be our objective. Our objective should be to improve current levels because we keep criticising them. We may not always be able to achieve our goal, but at least let us target those levels and try to improve them. One commitment is to reduce the number of temporary classrooms in post-primary schools. However, the programme that was announced last Thursday did not materially reduce the number of temporary classrooms in post-primary schools - in fact, it hardly touched on them. In my constituency established schools are being starved of funds. However, that is a subject for detailed debate and should not be addressed today.

Where the Department of the Environment is concerned, I wish to address the issue of school buses. Surely to God, it should be Government policy that every child who pays for his or her transport can have a seat; otherwise there will be a tragic accident from which we shall have to try to learn some lessons. If we have such a tragedy, we know what the lessons will be. I ask the Minister to consider that as a matter of urgency.

Right across Northern Ireland there are gross inconsistencies in planning decisions and, indeed, within divisions of Planning Service. If the Minister is in any doubt about that - and I am sure that he is not - I could take him around any given area and show him gross inconsistencies that are not evident to the public.

For the promotion of tourism, I would like to think that at last there will be joined-up government among the rural development programme, Planning Service and the Tourist Board.

5.00 pm

At the moment, they are frustrating one another and, therefore, obstructing those who are trying to provide, albeit in a small way, the infrastructure of guest houses and other facilities. We are trying to revitalise the rural community through alternative outlets, and one of the best ways to do that is through sustainable, new, tourist-orientated developments, which can also be enjoyed by local people.

On the subject of health, many questions are hanging and many hopes are placed on the Hayes review. Everything is predicated upon Dr Maurice Hayes's report on acute services, so it is almost a barrier to receiving information. I hope that, in creating the Programme for Government, someone has considered the possible outcomes of the Hayes review, the review of ambulance services and - and this is away behind - the review of maternity services. We need to see how much those changes are going to cost; I do not think that the costs are taken into account in the Programme for Government. If the costs are not included, the developments will not happen, and if those do not happen, there is no point in having a review in the first place. I hope that the Department of Health will take that on board as a weighty issue.

Another area of health that gravely concerns me that has been getting more difficult over the years is the care of the elderly. Regardless of statistics from trusts and boards, the facts speak for themselves. The amount of care we provide for the elderly is grossly inadequate. We should be ashamed of ourselves, as a society, that we cannot return some measure of care. It is not very much to ask for help for perhaps an extra hour a day with lighting a fire, washing the dishes or making a bed. Given all the affluence that is coming upon us, can this society not do more to give those people more peace and stability in their declining years?

On the issue of regional development, I have already mentioned that we must calculate our infrastructure funding properly. We do not have enough money to do that. We should not pretend to ourselves that we have enough money - we do not, so we need to get it from some other source. Usually we look to Europe, but I think that that is a "well-milked cow", if Members will forgive the expression. The obvious source of the money, which we paid for and were denied over the years, is the Treasury in London. That should be our primary target.

I am aware that I have taken more time than I should have done to address the issue, but with such a broad canvas to fill, matters must be skipped through. We have a new beginning here, as the First Minister said in his introduction. It is exciting to have this vade mecum of politics, which we can finger through to see where we are at any given time, in any given year. I hope that it is not only reactive to our current problems, but that it will be proactive in anticipating problems, and will be amenable and changeable enough to take on board any issues that circumstances may throw up - not least in the farming and rural communities. I support the Programme for Government, and I reject the unwarranted criticism in the amendment.

The Chairperson of the Agriculture and Rural Development Committee (Rev Dr Ian Paisley):

I shall make a few remarks, first as Chairperson of the Committee and then as leader of my party. The main point in this draft Programme for Government which concerned my Committee, when it was committed to us for our approval, was the commitment to rural proofing all Government policy.

The Committee welcomed the principle of rural proofing, but questioned how that could work in practice. At many Committee meetings, we pressed the departmental officials to define rural proofing and to define how Departments, other than the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, would be able to conform to rural proofing.

At a meeting last Friday, officials offered us what they called a working definition of rural proofing. It contained very little indeed - it was a two-page presentation. We were as far forward, after reading the two pages, as we had ever been. At this stage, less than four weeks before the proposed start date for rural proofing, the Department of Agriculture has no real blueprint for it. That is what we have concluded. There was general information, but it did not discuss how the job was to be done.

The main proposal that the Committee saw in that piece of paper was that Departments were to be self- regulatory. There was to be no person or Committee to regulate them. I say to members of other Committees that the Agriculture Committee can only deal with matters relevant to the Department of Agriculture. We shall certainly scrutinise - as we have done heretofore - the actions of the Department of Agriculture. Other departmental Committees may not be committed to rural proofing, but if they are, they will have to play a unique role in ensuring that their respective Departments conform to rural proofing requirements.

There is little change from the draft as it first appeared. However, there were two new actions mentioned to the Committee. Members saw that the draft programme contained no action points aimed at addressing farm structure or size. Members specifically asked for a scheme to encourage our young people onto the farms. Although additional action - provided by looking into the future, and at the Department's expectations - falls well short of what the farming community needs, we at least have a sort of nod in the right direction that there may be a pension or retirement scheme.


<< Prev / Next >>