Northern Ireland Assembly
Tuesday 6 March 2001 (continued)
Rev Dr Ian Paisley:
Is it not amazing that there is only one Junior Government Minister in the House today? The SDLP has on its Front Bench people who are not in the Executive. We get lectures in this House about another place. In another place the Minister would be here. The First Minister and the Second Minister come and insult the Assembly by telling us that they have a programme to get us into the land of milk and honey. Then they do not even listen to the debate.
I am grateful to the Member for his remarks. [Interruption] The inane guffaws indicate the absence of any real attention to the central theme of what has been said. However, let us return to this issue of the independent warlords.
In the Department of Health there was, at a very early stage of this Executive's life, an issue relating to the paediatric unit and where it would be placed - at the City Hospital or the Royal Victoria Hospital. The Health Committee met, and I believe that a decision was made based on cross-community support. Certainly Members of the SDLP on that Committee voted in favour of the paediatric unit being placed at the City Hospital.
The matter was brought before the Assembly, and its view was similar to that of the Committee. However, because there is no collective responsibility and because Ministers can do whatever they want, the decision of the Minister was to ignore the Assembly and the Committee. She made the decision that it would be placed, surprisingly enough, in an area where she could claim it was of some benefit to the people who support her party.
We have heard much great talk from both the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister about Departments working together - all departmental rivalries must be abolished because they contribute to poor service and wasted resources. At least in those circumstances there was one central political directive, with a degree of collective responsibility, making the decision. The rivalries - if rivalries they were - were essentially confined to officials.
There was no question of the relevant Ministers not being able to tick off their Departments. They were the people with political power. That is not so under the present arrangement. If there were inter-departmental differences and rivalries at an administrative level in the Civil Service, what have we substituted them with? We have substituted them with rivalries with much greater power and much greater decision-making capacity at the political level. Who is going to suggest that the Departments are working in harness?
Almost every day on every issue brought before the Assembly - if it is an agricultural issue, the Minister from the SDLP gives her account of the measures she is taking in relation to the outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease - statements are being made by other parts of the House. The Minister, rightly or wrongly, says that they are party point-scoring activities.
The same thing happens when a Minister appointed by the DUP a statement about matters within his control, such as clearing roads after a snowstorm. We get exactly the same at a political level - attacks from Members of the SDLP and Sinn Féin.
The truth is that each of the warlords and their supporting groups, far from getting together to work together and to abolish the old rivalries, are now, at this higher level of political power, attacking each other.
I attribute no specific blame, for this happens on both sides of the House. It happens because there is no democracy, no collective responsibility, and no single Minister belonging to a majority party, or a coalition consisting of a majority of parties, who is responsible for sacking them.
The matter spreads even further. For example, there are Ministers who are literally doing what they want. Of course, in the interests of the communal, happy, "touchy-feely" spirit, from time to time we are given emollient doses of political ecumenism as the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister nod, wink and smile at each other across the House. Apart from the capacity of the electorate to change its Government, the second fundamental principle of government is to have a Government and a responsible Opposition - an Opposition that hopes one day to inherit the reins of government. Can that happen in this posturing Assembly or Executive? Of course it cannot happen. There is no effective Opposition in this House.
There are 91 Members holding seats for the four parties that form the Executive. In a sense, those 91 Members form the Government. They may participate to a greater or lesser degree, but they are the Government. Therefore the Opposition is notionally reduced - if my arithmetic is correct - to 17 Members. One of those is the Speaker. The Alliance Party, the PUP and the Women's Coalition - numbering, I think, nine - are notionally in favour of the Executive and the agreement. The effective opposition consists of those who believe that they are not part of the Executive in any shape or form and who question the entire basis upon which this Assembly and its Executive - the Executive that is to deliver this Programme for Government - are established. They constitute what passes for a position. However, they will never be in a position, under the democratic principles of Government, to replace it.
The truth - if people would only acknowledge it - is that this largely aspirational Programme for Government, even though it contains many aspirations that are worthy and that any civilised democrat would hope to see discharged, has, as the hon Member for Lagan Valley pointed out, no substance. It talks about putting strategies in place for specific dates, but there is absolutely no concrete basis upon which such strategies can be justified, because they have yet to be formulated and published.
When we look at what this Executive and Assembly can do, it must be acknowledged that real powers are extremely limited. Politically, the British Government have been very skilful. They have put the Executive in the position - in truth - of having a purely administrative role. Yes, they have certain legislative powers. They can legislate for street trading, dogs and a few other things, just as the old Stormont Government could. However, what they can do in real terms, particularly on the economic front, is entirely limited by the size of the cake that is allotted. The Executive have only the job of carving up a cake - the size of which they have no control over - among a host of competing interests. And when it is not carved up very well, guess what? Central Government have interposed a buffer. The Executive and the Assembly will take all the flak for the inefficiencies and difficulties of education and housing because "It is your baby."
Let us look at agriculture. Within the United Kingdom, Northern Ireland had the best record both for incidence of BSE and for a computerised tracing system of cattle from birth to the abattoir. It also had the largest percentage of its produce earmarked for export. It was, therefore, more acutely vulnerable to the ban on beef export to Europe than any other part of the United Kingdom. Yet the truth is that the Assembly could do absolutely nothing about it.
We have an energy problem. The cost of energy in Northern Ireland is exorbitant compared to other parts of the United Kingdom. Why is that so? It is because central Government negotiated the contracts with Northern Ireland Electricity and wanted that company to look as profitable as it could when they floated it. Therefore they had to place in the arrangement the best possible terms for the private company to make money in order to attract shareholders. As a result they entered into contracts that crucified the consumers of electricity in Northern Ireland.
However, we had an anodyne report from the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment yesterday, and what did he tell us? He told us that there is no point in going to beg to the Treasury of central Government. If the Executive are worth their salt, why have they not spelt out in clear and specific terms the fact that consumers in Northern Ireland are paying well over the odds because of the incompetence, negligence and self-interest of central Government when they negotiated these contracts? Why? It is because the truth would be revealed and the Executive would be sent off with a flea in their ear and told "Get on with it. You are the Government now; you are running the place. You make whatever fist you can of the energy problem within the limits of the authority that we have devolved to you."
Those are only some aspects that make the whole business of this Executive false and empty. Members of Sinn Féin and of the Northern Ireland Unionist Party have used the same language to describe this Programme for Government. It is big on rhetoric and small on substance. It is big on aspiration and weak on any clearly defined plan for delivering the fulfilment of those aspirations.
That is so because inherently this whole Assembly and the Executive that it forms did not arise from a political settlement that would enable a devolved Executive to govern this place in the interests of Nationalists and Unionists, and Catholics and Protestants. It was created to answer the problem of conflict resolution between the British state and armed Republicanism that threatened the economy and well-being of the British mainland.
I return to the fundamental issue of democracy. The Deputy First Minister said in November 1998 that if decommissioning did not take place he would join in removing Sinn Féin from this body.
If that is how the Deputy First Minister understood the terms of the agreement, then as Sinn Féin entered the Executive, and the second leg of that guarantee was removed - and the Unionists delivered - that still holds good today.
However, what did Members hear? They heard the Deputy First Minister laud Sinn Féin for its democratic participation and castigate the DUP for adhering to the principle of not participating with the political representatives of armed terrorists.
However, the matter goes further because the fundamental causes that may make all of those high-sounding aspirations and the Programme for Government fail are the increasing lawlessness, disregard for the rule of law and disrespect for authority that the necessity of placating and appeasing terrorism injects into the process.
All Members know - because it has been the subject of debate - that one third of motor fuel used in Northern Ireland is being smuggled through south Armagh. However, nobody cared very much about that. So long as bombs were not going off on the United Kingdom mainland and members of the security forces were not being shot that was the price one had to pay.
An academic report from the University of Ulster - a non-party body - stated that the Government, in aid of political objectives, had violated the Mitchell principles. The report accused the Government of adopting a "Hear no evil, see no evil" attitude to paramilitary crime. It stated that if the Government had interfered and come down strongly on paramilitary crime they might have offended not only Sinn Féin but those other worthies who, though not in office, do inhabit this place - the PUP. I draw no distinction between political parties that use violence, murder and mayhem to secure their political objectives be they Irish unity or the Union.
My attention is largely directed towards Sinn Féin because its electorate entitles its representatives to places in the Government as Ministers. I have never fully understood why the major parties decided to leave the education and health ministries - which account for 70% of the annual budget - in the hands of Sinn Féin, but they did. No reason has ever been given for that except that they were difficult ministries and would give rise to problems. Neither the SDLP nor the Ulster Unionist Party laid claim to those ministries that are fundamental to the good governance of any modern state.
If the great Programme for Government is to be delivered the time has come - and it has been echoed from the most curious quarters - for the SDLP to decide if it belongs in the loop of democracy and democrats even though it disagrees with the objectives of the opposing democratic parties. It will have to decide if it is going to continue, as seems to be the case, in the loop of pan-Nationalism that includes a party not only dedicated to violence but which publicly declares its ongoing use of violence if necessary.
(Mr Deputy Speaker [Sir John Gorman] in the Chair)
Much has been made of the dissident IRA. I listened to Jack Straw saying that the bomb outside the BBC would not be allowed to upset the peace process. It is intended not so much to upset the peace process as to ensure that the increasing and future demands of its alter ego - Sinn Féin/IRA - are given in to.
Until the SDLP and the Ulster Unionist Party decide whether they are to be the parties of the Centre, and if they are, to democratically deliver this much vaunted Programme for Government, the Executive and the Assembly will continue to be under threat from the increasing mass of ordinary democrats out there among the electorate who say that it cannot continue. If they do not, they may declare in this Programme for Government all the aspirations they seek to obtain and they may aspire to all sorts of good things for Northern Ireland. But for as long as the basic social infrastructure is being rotted away and corrupted by violations of the rule of law in aid of political objectives, all these grandiose schemes and programmes will come to nought.
Sir Reg Empey:
I want to deal in part with chapter 5 of the Programme for Government - "Securing a Competitive Economy" - but I am unable to resist the temptation to make some observations on one or two of the remarks made by the last two Members who spoke. This is an aspirational document. The word "aspirational" is almost being treated as abusive, but it is aspirational because it covers a period of time in the future. It sets out objectives and targets, but as it deals with the future it is, by definition, aspirational. There is nothing wrong with that. It is essential that one aspires to some objective and has a target to aim for, but it is not an empty programme because it has targets, and a significant effort has been made by all Departments to match resources to those targets.
The most comprehensive effort ever has been mounted in Northern Ireland with the Civil Service to put the programme together. A lot of work went into it. There is no doubt that we will not reach all our targets and that we may have difficulties. Who could have predicted with great accuracy the devastation of the potential crisis that we are facing today? That will have implications for the programme. It will have implications for targets in my Department and for targets in other Departments. Nevertheless, that does not in any sense remove the legitimacy of an Administration's putting forward a programme to the Assembly which has an aspirational dimension.
I listened to the hon Member for North Down Mr McCartney describe, in his terms, how he considered the Administration functioned or did not function. He referred to independent warlords. It is true to say that there is no shortage of independent warlords in this country, and it may be true to say that some people would like their Departments to be freer to do their own thing. That is only a natural human reaction. But what he describes in his remarks is so far removed from reality that it is a breathtaking lack of appreciation of how an Administration actually functions. It does not function and it cannot function in the way that he describes.
Most actions that Departments take involve expenditure. By definition the sums of money that are allocated, ultimately decided here, go through a filtering process. There is the role of the Department of Finance and Personnel, which is not inconsiderable, and the idea that people just come along with programmes and put them on the table without any reference to the Executive, other parties, Committees or other Members is simply nonsense. It does not work like that.
The hon Member must be simply desperate when he gets up in the morning because he has two choices. Does he come here to this undemocratic and hopeless organisation, which cannot do this, that or the other, or does he go to London, sit there and attempt to legislate for the whole of the United Kingdom. What does he do in the mornings? It must be a terrible dilemma.
The interesting thing is that he and lots of other people end up here. They do not end up over there. If this place is so terrible, corrupt and corrupting, how is it that people cannot keep away from it? They love it, and they love to be here. They love to be heard here, and they love to be seen to be here. They love to be on Committees, and they love to chair them. They love to influence events. Nobody forces them to be here. Nobody is arm-locking them to be in here. You could not keep them out because they love it, and they are comfortable here. They have alternatives to being here, but the fact is that they are here. [Interruption]
Did you ever stand for Westminster, Reg?
Sir Reg Empey:
Yes. OK, there is nothing wrong. They can look smart.
Some people say that this place is so terrible and that the agreement under which the Assembly was established is so awful. Why then do people go to so much trouble to be here and participate? Surely, if this is the case, the place to be is in the Mother of Parliaments where the power and the money come from. The reality is that people know that what makes things work are the administrative aspects of activities.
The Member for North Down Mr McCartney indicated that the bulk of what is done here is administrative. It is, but that is what government is primarily about within a legislative framework. That is what people want, by and large. While they may differ dramatically over the internal structures of what is here and why it is here, there is an overwhelming desire among the population for a greater ability to administer themselves. That is happening throughout the United Kingdom, and it is also a Europe-wide phenomenon. The Europe of the regions is growing and is not a new thing. Most successful European economies and countries have federal structures, and administrative power is devolved to the regions.
Similarly, we were once unique in the United Kingdom, but we are no longer unique. Indeed, we are fitting in more appropriately with the pattern of events. I readily accept that anybody can see why this Administration is constructed totally differently.
The implication was that events could not influence or change this Government. Remember where we have come from. Were we able to change the Government over the past 30 years? The major parties did not even organise here, and one can only be part of changing a Government when one can vote for the parties that can make it up. We have not had that opportunity during direct rule, so it is an academic argument to say that you cannot change the Government.
What influences events is how people are able to administer laws, how they allocate and administer the Budget, and how things are actually done at ground level. Until now, the criticism has always been that we needed accountable democracy - we could not leave everything to the civil servants. Now we are being told that they have even greater power than they ever had. That is rubbish. Anyone with any experience of dealing with it would know that.
So far as the economic side is concerned, I listened to the hon Member for Lagan Valley when he was making his remarks, and I know he has many years' experience in this field. He referred to the issue of redistribution versus economic growth, and I understand his argument. However, the ability to redistribute wealth is primarily done through the mechanisms of taxation and at the points at which taxpayers' money is allocated. The Member knows that we are administering and distributing taxpayers' money as a result of votes in Parliament.
He is correct in that the primary function must be to encourage the creation of wealth, because from that will flow the resources and revenues that will improve the economic activity of our community and ensure our companies can trade in a business-friendly environment. I ask the Member to consider whether it is true to say that expenditure incurred trying to influence companies by decision-making is wrong in itself. I shall give the Member an example.
You may recall the announcement made last year by an American corporation that it was going to establish a major facility in North Belfast. I refer to TeleTech in Duncairn Gardens. It would not have been possible for that decision to have been made if we had not, in the first place, erected -
Sir Reg Empey:
The Member can be smug and smart about this matter, but we are trying to have a positive impact on people's lives.
I make no secret about it - and I will tell the Member that so long as I have anything to do with it, I will try to do more of it. Had we had not anticipated the needs of companies such as TeleTech and erected, at risk, the plant now being occupied by this corporation, it clearly would not have been in that area of significant deprivation. It would not have provided an anchor in an area that has seen some of the worst atrocities in this community, and it is my belief that it is a constructive part of what we can do here; to influence these decisions and ensure that there is a regeneration of economic activity in areas that have been blighted hitherto -
Mr A Maginness:
I endorse what the Minister said about North Belfast and the siting of TeleTech in Duncairn Gardens. It is an area where both communities have suffered from tremendous unemployment. I want to pay tribute to the Minister for bringing that particular firm to North Belfast and providing employment opportunities for people who, hitherto, have been deprived of them. It is deplorable that Mr McCartney seeks to criticise the Minister about doing something very positive for the people of North Belfast.
Sir Reg Empey:
The reality is that Members will ask for my help. Although there is a degree to which I can help, by providing incentives in some cases, I cannot direct. Companies will make their own decisions at the end of the day, and that is right and proper. Nowadays, companies will not invest at the point of a gun - in the sense that a state organisation could force a private company, particularly an international corporation, to establish its facility in any particular area. That does not work.
Does the Minister agree that many companies attracted to Northern Ireland by incentives - under the Assembly and during direct rule - came here for a short time and then departed? Was De Lorean, which operated on that principle, not the classic example of disastrous state intervention?
Sir Reg Empey:
With the greatest respect to the hon Member, De Lorean was as he called it, "a classic case." There are not too many cases like De Lorean. The fact was that the shadow of De Lorean -
What about Enkalon and Goodyear?
Sir Reg Empey:
They were different. They were here for many years. [Interruption] If I may be given an opportunity to speak without interruption, Mr Speaker. I never interrupted the Member -
You have nothing to say.
Sir Reg Empey:
If I have nothing to say, why do you ask me questions?
Mr Deputy Speaker:
It is quite impossible for someone to make a speech when they are constantly being interrupted by a Member from a sedentary position.
Sir Reg Empey:
He can interrupt if he likes. However, he has asked a question and I am attempting to respond to it. I did not have to give way in the first place.
I am saying to the Member that De Lorean was used as a type of weapon. It cast a shadow over the Northern Ireland Civil Service for over 20 years. However, it was a project that almost succeeded. I visited the factory and saw what was achieved in 18 months. They began with a greenfield site and ended up by manufacturing one of the most sophisticated vehicles of its time - with a workforce that had no previous experience of such activity. It was an enormous achievement by the people involved. However, a number of crooks got in on the act, and, coinciding as it did with huge interest rate rises in the United States, a downturn resulted - [Interruption]
I did not interrupt anybody. I was asked the question on an intervention. Either Members want to listen or they do not. That is a matter for Members.
Mr Deputy Speaker:
If people wish to make points, would they please ask to make an intervention, rather than having this attempt at a dialogue between the Minister and the Member in the sedentary position.
Sir Reg Empey:
De Lorean was a risk that many Members would have been prepared to take based on the information available at the time.
Members will urge public resources to be invested in other projects - even current projects - and not only in industrial development. Such projects may appear on paper to be much riskier than the De Lorean project did at the time, yet people will still look for support for them. Members must be careful. If we adopt the hard line, laissez-faire attitude across the board, there will be some squealing in this Chamber.
We all want to do the best for our areas. We could apply the same slide rule to some of the aforementioned projects across the board, or we could simply say that it is tough if factories in Newtownards or North Down want to close. Do we want to adopt that policy? Of course not. However, we have perhaps lived under that policy for many years before devolution.
I readily accept that there are enormous deficiencies in this institution, but I believe that most Members are committed to improving the life and the lot of the people whom they represent. However difficult things might be, Members will use this mechanism to achieve that. That is why there is such a high level of participation in the Assembly. That is why everybody, with the exception of a handful of people, is represented on Committees and why those entitled to be in the Executive are in it. Basically, everyone accepts and acknowledges that they can do more for their constituents in the institution - all parts of it - than they can out of it. They are right: prior to devolution, only 2·5% of public expenditure in Northern Ireland was under the control of locally elected representatives, namely the local authorities. That was a negligible amount. Now, we can redirect our resources to make a difference.
The Member for Lagan Valley Mr Roche made the correct point that the creation of wealth is the key to the economic future of any society. He was therefore right to say that there was a limit to what any Government could do and that that limit must be understood. We must make this an attractive place for investment. I am conscious of problems with red tape and of the fact that we should not impose a greater burden than is absolutely necessary on any company that establishes itself here. Such a burden takes up time, and time is money. Companies do not want more form-filling than they can handle. We have examined closely every piece of paper issued to establish whether it is necessary, why it is being issued and, if it must be issued, that the information in it is as succinct and as simple as possible. Every section of my Department is doing that, checking out the need for every piece of paper and seeing whether the issues can be dealt with in some other way. We are dealing with the build-up of primary and secondary legislation over many decades in some cases.
Mr Roche was right to draw attention to that point, in the context of the commitments on rights and other issues in the Programme for Government. However, the matter must be put in the European context; the European Convention is now part of national law. That in itself will have implications - indeed, it has already. I understand the substance of Mr Roche's argument, and, from my limited resources, I will attempt to do something practical about it.
It is essential that we ensure, as far as any Administration can, that we create circumstances in which businesses can grow. That means putting in the necessary infrastructures, including telecoms and broadband technology. We must ensure that the issues relating to our energy market are settled as well as possible. Yesterday, in response to my statement, the Member for North Down Mr McCartney suggested that the only solution was to ask the Treasury for the money and that if the Treasury did not give it to us, that would be our tough luck. Regardless of whether we have devolution or not, if the Treasury is not going to give us the money, it is not going to give us the money. That does not mean, however, that nothing can be done about it. We can do nothing without devolution, but with devolution we can do something about it, and I intend to.
Yesterday, we set out a plan to address the issues. Those are exceptionally difficult, but what is the alternative? There is a counsel of despair that we should simply accept fate and do nothing. I do not accept at all that there is nothing that we can do.
I do not accept that we have to agree to the status quo and say that we can do nothing about the situation, claiming that it is our fate. We have to make our own living in the world and create circumstances where we, as a community, can put our resources into those matters that we believe should be prioritised. Therefore, on the economic side, we need to have the right infrastructure and as competitive a situation as possible for our companies. Energy is one aspect of that, but we need to put it into context. For many companies, energy consumption can be as little as 1% of total turnover. It varies from place to place. It is not necessarily a knock-out blow, but in some industries energy consumption is much higher.
Of course, we can have a direct impact on the plight of the domestic consumer, and it is my intention to try to do so. We set out a plan with targets yesterday in the Programme for Government. We cannot say for certain that we are going to meet these targets, but if we do not have them and are not genuinely attempting to improve the lot of the people whom we represent, then what are we here for? I realise the huge problems that we face, but I do not understand how people can be so depressing. Having that depressing attitude does not provide any solution or idea of how to improve the situation - it just tells one how awful things are.
Reference was made to lawlessness and disrespect for authority. Those matters are not confined to Northern Ireland. If one were to walk through the backstreets of Manchester or any of the big cities in England or some of the major estates in Scotland, Dublin or anywhere else in western Europe, one would know something about disrespect for authority. There were pictures on television last night of French farms being barricaded by the gendarmerie to stop people getting onto them. Even under those circumstances the citizens were pushing past to try to get lambs for their religious festival.
The death rates in some of the cities in the rest of the UK are infinitely higher than anything we face here. While the situation here is far from perfect, we must look at the circumstances that we have come from. Can no one see the graph? Members will recall vividly that, in the past, when we turned on the television we would see the latest bomb and bits of people being swept into bags. No one wants to see that again. We are not in that situation now, thank God. There are still some people out there who want us to be in that position.
We have experienced the best period of economic growth in the Province for many years. This is happening because investors have greater confidence. For instance, we have seen huge increases in house prices. That is a double-edged sword for many people, but it is symptomatic of the fact that people have greater confidence in the economic situation.
There are many shortcomings and shortfalls, but I still believe that it is necessary to examine the past and establish the trends. Instead of focusing exclusively on what is wrong, let us try to fix what we have and improve the situation to get to where we want to be. That is not something that can be done quickly, especially after the past 30 years. But we have an opportunity now. Look at the unemployment rates. Fifteen years ago - a relatively short time - unemployment rates were 16%, 17% and 18% on average. In many areas, the rates were well above that - 25%, and nearly 30%, in one or two difficult cases. In some estates, one would have been looking at 60%, 70% and 80%. We have not totally escaped from all of that, but we are now in the mid-range of unemployment in the UK. That is unprecedented - Northern Ireland always had the highest rate. We are 2·5 points below the European Union average in unemployment.
We are going out and trying to attract back people who left this Province because we need them to work. While business people make up their own minds about investment and so on, they do listen and make their judgement on what they believe to be the realities. Those realities include the fact that we are able to show that we have a good, strong supply of labour coming forward in demographic terms. It is the best in these islands and, indeed, among the best in western Europe. That is going to be a very great asset in the years to come.
The biggest problem that many economies face - the Japanese economy is a classic example - is that they are going to run out of people because their populations have negative growth. Germany is going to experience major shortages. Its short-term solution is to try to bring in people from Third-World countries to bridge the gap. In so doing, they are denuding those countries of the very people whom they need to get themselves on track. Members know the social and political implications in Europe of bringing in large numbers of people. We have already seen it. We have a wonderful asset in our people.
Related to that, the second thing that we have is one of the lowest turnover rates for people in work. We are able to offer to companies worldwide a good quality supply of labour and the lowest turnover rates of labour - attrition rates, as they are called. Those are huge assets we can exploit. We do not have the natural resources of many other countries. Our major natural resource is our people. If we focus on that, it will stand us in good stead.
Mr McCartney referred to the lack of co-operation between Departments. I totally refute that. With regard to the economic areas, there is greater co-operation today than at any time in the past 30 years. It is taking place because the Ministers in those Departments insist upon it. There are joint meetings and committees. It is happening and we are co-ordinating. It is one of the objectives in this document, and it is a first attempt at it. With the public service agreements attached to it, I believe that we have the right basic infrastructure and geometry to create that co-ordination. I do not detect in any sense the rivalries or disparate activity that the Member referred to. I see a totally different picture, and I believe very strongly that whatever flaws there may be in the Programme for Government - and there may well be some - the main thrust is positive. It is a genuine attempt - the first major attempt - to co-ordinate the activities of many different Departments. It is also an attempt to co-ordinate the financial side. Without that the targets and aspirations are meaningless. We should now concentrate on seeing whether we can implement and improve it. It is that, I believe, which will stand us in good stead in the years ahead.
I welcome the opportunity to speak on the motion. There have been some welcome additional commitments, particularly in relation to equality. The commitment to bring forward, consult on and implement cross-departmental policies to tackle gender inequalities is long overdue.
It is clear that the equality Bill will harmonise anti-discrimination law as far as is practicable, and the welcome extension into new categories, including age and sexual orientation, will make it inclusive for the whole population. It is also clear that the promotion of best practice is intrinsic in the new Bill.
The Finance and Personnel Minister yesterday announced that the review of the Northern Ireland Civil Service to address the under-representation of many groups, in particular women and Catholics, is under way. This should be applauded.
On the subject of disability, I refer to the pledge to make further progress on the recommendations from the disability rights taskforce. This is an important step in the drive to promote the social inclusion of those with disabilities. Over the past couple of weeks three Departments and the Assembly have collectively addressed the needs of these people, and this is a very positive move. The promise of an additional 35,000 consultations for people suffering from mental illness, and the review of the current legislation relating to mental health - an area that has been left lagging for a long time - will go some way towards redressing the balance in favour of those suffering from mental illness.
I ask the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety to ensure that, in future budgets, funds for mental health are ring-fenced in future budgets. This would ensure that trusts, such as Down Lisburn Trust, will not lose £100,000 of their mental health budgets to acute hospitals without knowing when that money will be returned.
I will now turn to education. The structure of our education system must be radically changed to meet the needs of society today and the anticipated needs of the future. The commitment to reviewing school funding to ensure that there is equality between school types and better targeting of social and educational need is an important step towards building equality of opportunity into the system.
While I welcome the Minister's recent announcement on the capital spend allocation, this is still not enough to tackle the dreadful state of the schools estate. Too many schools still depend on sub-standard mobile accommodation, which has a detrimental effect on both pupils and staff. Just yesterday afternoon, Dr Paisley stated that Strandtown Primary School has eight mobile classrooms, five of which he said were "not fit to rear chickens in". Let me tell him that we have 2,500 mobile classrooms throughout our schools in Northern Ireland. A few weeks ago I asked the Minister of Education to prioritise the issue of mobile accommodation. I hope that his decision last week to award capital funding to two schools in the secondary sector - one of which has 40 mobile classrooms and the other 34 - is an indication of his commitment to addressing the problem of mobile accommodation.
The problem of underachievement should also be prioritised, and I welcome the Minister's commitment to doing this. I also welcome the funding he has allocated to allow children with special needs to enter mainstream education without having to face the terrible bureaucracy that existed in the past. The problem for many children with disabilities is not just one of physical access to schools. There needs to be better access to the services inside these schools once a child has passed the front door.
I hope that there will soon be a positive outcome from the many other initiatives and vital programmes in our education system, including proposals in the Programme for Government, to tackle bullying and behavioural problems. We must ensure that we target social need and direct funding towards areas where those children who are in greatest need will benefit. New targeting social need must be people-based rather than geography-based, as it is at present.
The commitment to developing proposals and having consultation on the establishment of a commissioner for children, and a new strategy for children demonstrates the high priority that the Government give to the protection of young people in Northern Ireland.
Gaps in the legislation still need to be dealt with to ensure that our young people are protected. This is particularly the case with the new Protection of Children and Vulnerable Adults Bill that will come before the House later in the year.