Northern Ireland Assembly Flax Flower Logo

Northern Ireland Assembly

Monday 24 September 2001 (continued)

Draft Programme for Government 2002-03

Sir Reg Empey:

In accordance with paragraph 20 of strand 1 of the Belfast Agreement, the Executive agreed a draft Programme for Government on 20 September, incorporating the draft Budget agreed at the same meeting. We are therefore laying the programme before the Assembly for scrutiny, and for future approval after examination by the Committees.

Today's statement also represents the start of a consultation process on those specific proposals, and continues the wider consultation begun on 18 June 2001 when the position report on developing the Programme for Government and the Budget was presented to the Assembly.

The Programme for Government therefore sets the context for our budgetary decisions and for the develop­ment of the Budget which will be presented to the Assembly tomorrow by the Minister of Finance and Personnel.

We all desire a peaceful, inclusive, prosperous, stable and fair society. The Programme for Government is the Executive's assessment of what must be done to achieve that vision. We have to start from our current position, which involves many challenges.

In many aspects of life in Northern Ireland, however, there is also much of a positive nature to report. Our economic performance as a region, for example, has been much stronger over recent years. Several key indicators, including employment, manufacturing output and unemployment, perform consistently well. Our unemployment levels are no longer high in comparison with many other areas. Our short-term unemployment is down to the UK average, which in itself is well below the EU average. A few years ago few would have predicted that Northern Ireland would become one of Europe's low unemployment regions, but that is now the case.

We have reason to be proud of our education system. A higher than ever proportion of our young people achieved very good GCSE and A-level results, and the proportion of young people leaving school or college with no qualification is now lower than it is in England. We can also boast a higher rate of participation in third- level education than that in most other parts of the United Kingdom.

Parts of our infrastructure, such as ports, airports and telecommunications, are also of good quality, although more can - and should - be done.

We still face, however, a wide range of social, economic and environmental challenges. Many of them are already well known. Long-term unemployment is declining more slowly than we would like. Wage levels are still lower than in most other regions of the UK, and too many outside the labour force are neither in work nor regard themselves as unemployed.

Despite good progress over recent years in developing high-tech industry, we remain overdependent and reliant on traditional sectors and on the public sector. After decades of underinvestment in our economic infrastructure we need to accelerate the pace of improvement. I will say some significant things about that later.

In addition, our rural economy faces severe problems. Those have been evident for several years but have been exaggerated in the past year by the impact of foot-and- mouth disease. While we have been fortunate in having only four isolated cases, we cannot relax our guard, particularly while outbreaks continue in Great Britain. We have to turn to the challenge of creating a new, broader base for the rural economy.

We are not bowed down by those challenges. We all know the range and nature of the problems, and we know that we have to face up to these realities. However, we know now that by working together we can - and do - make a real difference.

It was with these challenges in mind that the Executive revisited the five broad priorities endorsed by the Assembly in March: growing as a community; working for a healthier people; investing in education and skills; securing a competitive economy, and developing North/South, east/west and international relations. Our conclusion was that they remain valid and that they should continue to set the direction for its work.

We have, however, made several important changes to the document we now present to the Assembly. We have, for example, worked to redefine many of the sub-priorities that support our five priorities and have introduced some new sub-priorities - for example, on children, accident prevention, and culture and the arts - to reflect work, both new and ongoing.

We have published new draft public service agreements for each Department. Those now incorporate a stronger focus on high-level targets and performance, giving an improved sense of what each Department is working to achieve in the services it provides to the public.

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The draft programme contains fewer specific actions than the first Programme for Government did. These actions will build on - not replace - the commitments we have already pledged to deliver. However, all of the more than 250 actions set out in the first programme remain valid and relevant. Work is continuing to ensure that all of them are delivered; an annex in today's report shows the current state of progress.

The Executive's priorities are set out in the draft programme. We want to secure a dynamic and competitive economy that creates opportunities for everyone in a wide range of sectors with many more skilled jobs in the new knowledge-based economy. We are making good progress. Industrial output is 22% above the level it was three years ago when the Belfast Agreement was signed. In comparison, output in Great Britain is below its level of three years ago. More than 90% of the new jobs promoted by the IDB in the past year were in the high- tech and knowledge-intensive sectors of telecom­munications, electronics and international traded services.

The draft Programme for Government recognises the ever-present challenge of global competition and the current more difficult economic climate that is beginning to impact on us here. Our economy has stood up well to the difficulties of recent years, but we all recognise that these difficulties are multiplying.

Our response will be in three areas. First, we will continue to work to increase investment in knowledge and create the environment in which firms can compete more effectively. Invest Northern Ireland will spearhead work on key aspects of that task. The chairperson and shadow board have been appointed and the appointment of its chief executive is due next month. We will also maintain our focus on innovation and research and development through the Northern Ireland R&D and innovation strategy by working to stimulate private sector investment, developing local industrial design capacity and harnessing research and support strengths in our universities and further education colleges.

Secondly, we need to reverse the deterioration in the quality and reliability of our infrastructure that is the result of years of underinvestment. The provision of infrastructure services such as public transport, roads, water and sewerage are essential for the economic and social well-being of our economy. Hence, we will ensure that our infrastructure supports economic growth, and we will tackle the deficiencies that we identified in the draft programme with purpose and vigour.

The programme includes important proposals for realising our aim. Last Friday, I announced that the Executive had decided that two major gas pipeline projects would receive Government support up to a maximum of £38 million over the next six years. The Irish Government will make a contribution of up to IR£10 million towards that total. The pipelines to the north-west and the south will bring North Sea gas to more than three quarters of our population and businesses and they will protect the security of supply by providing a second link to Great Britain via the Republic. This national resource will potentially be available to most people in Northern Ireland, just as it is to people in the rest of the UK.

In addition, the draft programme undertakes to support transport by addressing improvement to strategic routes including the important trans-European network route from Larne through Belfast to the border near Newry. I am also pleased to announce that the Executive have allocated £40 million to the project. That includes funds to complete the dualling scheme for the A8 road to Larne, the dualling of the Newry section of the proposed Newry to Dundalk road and a significant contribution to the upgrading of the Westlink that the Minister for Regional Development announced last week.

This major investment will strengthen the com­petitiveness of the ports of Belfast and Larne and will help to improve the integration of our economy with those of our neighbours in Great Britain and in the Republic.

Thirdly, the programme focuses on developing key skills to meet the needs of our economy and on creating higher vocational programmes that will focus on education and training programmes and on getting more people with the right skills into employment. The task force on employability will have a key role working alongside Government Departments and the skills task force. We are indebted to Dr Farren and his Colleagues in the Department for Employment and Learning for their efforts in that area.

We are also committed to regenerating the rural economy and to enabling the agrifood sector to respond to the challenges presented by changing consumer demands and increasing competition. Despite a slight recovery in agricultural income in 2000, incomes remain historically low. That is mainly as a result of the weak euro and low world prices. This year has been particularly difficult, mainly because of the outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease in Great Britain, which also hit the tourism and hospitality industries. Therefore we shall develop an action plan for the strategic development of the agrifood industry over the next decade and for stimulating alternative sources of employment in the countryside, such as tourism.

Much of our vision can only be delivered by the private sector - it knows its businesses. The private sector has the task of creating competitive firms. However, Government can support that approach; we can create the economic environment, supported by a good-quality infrastructure. Therefore our vision is of a true private- public partnership for driving change. The same partnership is envisaged for the rural economy, for which we must also form a new basis. We must help the rural population to develop new skills and opportunities to sustain their way of life and to sustain the countryside that we value so much.

With regard to resources, the draft Programme for Government has informed and shaped our budgetary proposals; these will be presented separately to the Assembly. However, it is important to bear in mind the context of our current budgetary situation. Our financial allocations for 2002-03 are finite. As the Treasury is not conducting a national spending review this year, the Northern Ireland departmental expenditure limit remains fixed. It is against that background that we have developed the draft programme.

However, the indicative Budget for 2002-03 reflects a substantial rise in public spending - over 3% above the general rate of inflation; it is also above the rate of wage increases in the public sector. That builds on the 5·5% increase above general inflation this year. Given the problems facing many public services, the growth is welcome. However, it falls short of the amounts necessary to meet all expectations.

In many areas, notably in the Health Service, it is clear that there is real and sustained growth in the demand for services. The trend in pay and price increases also tends to exceed the general rate of inflation. These are challenges that the Executive must face when it allocates resources. The reviews of needs and effective­ness that are being undertaken across a series of major spending programmes will help to guide us towards an optimum allocation of resources in future.

We are also examining the Barnett formula. It is only fair that expenditure in the United Kingdom is distributed in relation to need. The present Barnett formula clearly acts against that principle by generating a convergence in per capita spending across the UK. However, it is essential that we ensure, and are seen to ensure, that our resources are used to the best effect in our policy priorities.

The Minister of Finance and Personnel is engaged in an exercise to ensure that the question of the Barnett formula is drawn to the attention of Treasury Colleagues. He is conscious of the need to ensure that where we have a genuine need and demand that is greater than that which exists in other areas, it is reflected in the resources that are given to Northern Ireland by the Treasury.

I have outlined the context in which we have undertaken the review and rolling forward of the Executive Programme for Government. Mr Séamus Mallon will now outline in more detail the content of the remainder of the programme.

Mr Séamus Mallon MP:

Sir Reg Empey has set out the backdrop against which we have developed the Programme for Government. I wish to add to his assess­ment. In particular, I want to highlight the progress we have made, along with some of the key commitments we have given, especially under the priorities 'Growing as a Community', 'Working for a Healthier People' and 'Developing North/South, East/West and International Relations'. Finally, I want to outline the arrangements for consultation.

The Programme for Government represents a contract involving the Executive, the Assembly and the people of Northern Ireland, mapping out a new, agreed direction. It demonstrates how we can work together - across parties, across Departments and with other organisations and Administrations - to make a positive difference to the lives of everyone in Northern Ireland. It represents the essence of the purpose of devolution. It should be the focus of our discussions, debates and actions. The extent to which the Programme for Government is over­shadowed by other disputes and problems is a measure of the failure to implement the agreement properly.

Cohesion, inclusion and justice are themes which underpin the implementation of all our programmes and policies. Our vision is of a just society, where everyone enjoys equality of opportunity, and where we, as an Administration, actively promote equality of opportunity and adhere to international standards of human rights.

The past year has, of course, been a difficult one for the Executive. We have struggled with instability and, at times, with seemingly overwhelming political problems - problems that had to be faced but which have inevitably drawn us away from much-needed work on economic and social policies.

At the same time, we have continued the work of building up the new institutions in Northern Ireland and on the island of Ireland. The Executive have sought to work together, but have faced the problem of the non- attendance of two Ministers. While they have sought to limit the Executive's role in providing funds for their policies and programmes, we have been successful in ensuring that the Executive's views and decisions are taken account of, whether in relation to free transport, the future of the ports or the roads programme.

However, despite those problems our commitment is unchanged. We must start with high ideals, with vision, and then throw ourselves into the hard work. We must be realistic and learn how to work together. I believe that as an Administration we are finding our way through.

I will set out some of our key areas of activity. The Programme for Government commits us to tackling unjust discrimination through strong leadership, coupled with effective legislation where necessary. We have already launched the process of consultation on a Single Equality Bill, which will harmonise anti-discrimination law and extend it into new categories, including age.

At the same time, we realise that we have to improve community relations. We plan to put a cross-cutting strategy in place to deal with sectarian and racial intimidation manifested in conflict in interface areas, sectarian graffiti and unauthorised flag flying. Those are the most difficult, sensitive and intractable issues, revealing and worsening the deep and painful divisions in our society. We must tackle them.

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We will continue to forge ahead with the needs of victims. In 2002 we plan to appoint a commissioner for children and initiate the development of a 10-year strategy for children and young people. We will step up dialogue with organisations representing older people to better identify their changing needs and consider better ways to tailor and deliver our services to them. We particularly welcome input from the Assembly on this. Let it be creative, robust and unremitting. We also welcome input from other interested bodies on this issue. We are increasing training and employment support for people with disabilities, and have established a fund in support of ethnic minority voluntary organisations.

Poverty continues to blight the lives of individuals and whole communities. Eighteen per cent of children under 16 live in homes that are in receipt of income support. Poor people are disadvantaged in many ways. They get sick more often and die younger than those who are better off. The life expectancy of a member of the Travelling community is almost 20 years less than that of someone in the settled community. They may have difficulty accessing services that others take for granted. Children from disadvantaged backgrounds are less likely to do well at school. Through our New TSN action plans and policy we have established powerful systems to change policies and programmes, and help us build a more equal society, focusing on efforts and resources to address the inequalities of our poorest people.

For many the best route out of poverty is a job with a decent wage. That is why our New TSN policy has a particular focus on tackling unemployment and increasing employability. We have now established the task force on employability and long-term unemployment under the leadership of the Minister for Employment and Learning. It is particularly concerned with the problems of people who have been out of work for a year or more and with geographic and community differentials in un-employ-ment. The programme also includes a commitment to help ex-prisoners overcome barriers to reintegration.

In 'Working for a Healthier People' the draft programme recognises that a wide range of factors influences health. Since our first programme was published we have made important progress in building a cross-departmental approach to improving the health of our people through the 'Investing for Health' process, which will result in setting a higher number of level targets for health improvement.

We also recognise the need to promote public safety and have set out the steps we have taken to reduce accidents at home, on the roads and in the workforce. Accidents are the single greatest cause of death in children under five. The impact is felt most among those who are disadvantaged. Every year around 150 people are killed on our roads, and another 12,000 injured. Work-related deaths are two and a half times the national average. In our draft programme we commit ourselves to taking action across Departments and with other bodies to reduce these figures.

We will also maintain our efforts to contain waiting lists, address workforce shortages and increase the intake of student nurses. We have initiated consultation on the Hayes report on acute hospitals, and expect to take decisions by the end of next year on the future of our acute hospital services. In many areas, but especially in health, there is a real and sustained growth in demand for services. Given scarce resources, legitimate public expectations cannot always be met.

That will be a major concern for the Executive in the coming years. We will continue to focus on ensuring high-quality education for all, and we have made important progress in laying the necessary foundations at pre-school and primary school levels. We are on our way to delivering our promise that we will provide one year of free pre-school education for every child whose parents wish it.

By April 2002 there will be places for at least 86% of those children. The draft programme commits us to bringing forward proposals for the future structure of post-primary education, which will be informed by the responses to the consultation exercise that is currently under way. We are determined to continue our work to help those in work to update and improve their education and skills.

That challenge is great, because 19% of the existing workforce have few or no formal qualifications, and 24% of our adult population perform at the lowest levels of literacy. In the agreement unique structures were established to provide a new basis for relationships within the island of Ireland, the United Kingdom and east/west. It is essential for the sake of the agreement that all of those structures be allowed to work.

In delivering the Programme for Government we must look beyond the boundaries of Northern Ireland. The development of the global economy, the influence of the European Union and the global nature of many policy issues, such as the environment, which in essence know no boundaries require us to work on a broader front if we are to deliver government that makes a difference.

Our fifth priority is therefore to build around the need to shape a society that will develop relationships and interact successfully and effectively with its neighbours on this island, throughout Britain, with other nations in Europe, North America and further afield. We have made good progress in many areas by building on the structures agreed in the Good Friday Agreement. For example, co-operation within the United Kingdom, within this island and between the islands following the outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease proved enormously effective in helping us to control the situation.

We have made progress with the establishment of the six implementation bodies. Tourism Ireland Limited and InterTradeIreland contribute to employment here. Important strategic decisions on energy and communication have been taken outside the implementation bodies, and we will benefit from enhanced cross-border co-operation.

We have agreed a new structural funds programme with the European Commission and established a dedicated office in Brussels. We are committed to raising the positive profile of Northern Ireland in Europe, and we will initiate a programme of events designed to promote a positive international image of Northern Ireland. Our draft Programme for Government also recognises that the Executive's priorities cannot be delivered by Departments working in isolation, so we remain committed to working together.

The programme also commits us to working more effectively to improve services and to ensure value for money. We will continue to monitor progress, with quarterly reports being made available to the Assembly. The majority of actions are on target for completion, and slippage has been reported in just 30 out of the 250.

Public service agreements and new service delivery agreements will open the work of Departments up to further scrutiny. E-government will also be used to improve services. We will continue to look for ways of working more effectively across Departments and policy areas. Joined-up government is vital, not for the sake of it but to make a difference to people's lives.

With the children's fund come proposals for a commissioner for children with interdepartmental groups such as those in public health. With interdepartmental work under way on sustainable development, and a task force on employability, we are already moving in that direction.

The new Executive programme funds have also consolidated our work to promote a cross-border approach to problem solving. We plan to make further allocations from these in the coming weeks. As I have recognised, if we are to achieve the challenges of the Programme for Government, we cannot do it alone. One of the key roles that the Assembly will play will be through its careful scrutiny in Committee of our plans and proposals as set out in the draft Programme for Government. This programme will also give opportunities for debate in the Chamber on both the Programme for Government and the Budget. The debates are likely to take place in October and November. On a personal level, it is the type of opportunity that the Assembly will, and should, take to ensure that the views of Assembly Members are known and that the Programme for Government is a programme not just for the Executive but also for the Assembly and the people it serves.

Today's statement is also the start of a wider process of consultation. We will circulate the draft Programme for Government widely among our social partners in business, trade unions and the voluntary and community sectors, and we will make it available to other interested individuals and groups. We will also use several mech­anisms, including seminars involving key stakeholders, to encourage discussion and debate on our proposals and on the extent to which they can help promote equality of opportunity and good relations.

Recognising the links between our policy proposals and decisions on financial allocations, this process will allow both the draft Programme for Government and the draft Budget proposals to be considered together. It is important that the Executive receive responses to the consultation to help inform decisions to be taken later this year. We have no doubt that Members will play their part, as they have done in the past, by looking carefully and constructively at this draft programme and letting us have their views. We hope too that Members will encourage their constituents to become more involved and communicative in the process of discussion.

In conclusion, the process of agreeing the Programme for Government and the draft Budget that will support its implementation has not been easy. With limited resources we have had to make many difficult decisions. The crucial thing is that the decisions - difficult though they may be - are being made by elected and locally accountable politicians. It is a responsibility, a duty and a privilege that we should not easily throw away. We commend the Programme for Government to the Assembly.

Mr B Bell:

I welcome the statements by the acting First and Deputy First Ministers. I am particularly pleased with the programme in the areas of health and education. I am also pleased that the roads problem has been taken into account - the flyovers and underpasses on the motorway and the road between Newry and Dundalk - because that will have a huge effect on our economic development. I welcome the statement in principle. How­ever, there is one aspect of the Programme for Govern­ment that I thought was important when it was first developed last year - the review of public administration.

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Neither Minister mentioned it in his statement today. Has it been forgotten about, or has progress been made? I am concerned about the position regarding local government. Many councils in Northern Ireland do not know what the future holds for them and therefore cannot plan ahead. I would like clarification on this point.

Sir Reg Empey:

The Executive decided some time ago that a review of all public services, including local government, would be appropriate. A major part of that review concerns the Health Service. The Hayes report put forward significant proposals and it is one of the component parts that will be fed into this process.

I am familiar with the Member's concerns regarding local government, and I am aware of the uncertainties that any period of change brings about. In the past few months, the Minister of the Environment has raised the issue with his Executive Colleagues. He is anxious to proceed. However, we are trying to take all parts of the public service into account and we cannot do that on a piecemeal basis. Members continuously urge us to ensure joined-up government.

The advent of devolution creates a changed set of circumstances within which many of the public services are administered. The most obvious are the health and education services, which have been running without devolution since March 1972. Local government dates from a similar period. Things have moved on. With devolution now in place, it is appropriate that this review proceeds. Some work has already been done by the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister regarding the themes and scope of the review. It has not been forgotten, and we will pursue it as quickly as possible.

Ms Lewsley:

I welcome the statement on the draft Programme for Government. What will the programme do to address the needs of children and older people?

Mr Séamus Mallon MP:

The Executive recognise the need to provide services that address the needs of older people and there are benefits to older people across the range of policy areas contained in the programme, through improved government service, social security, health care, transport and housing. In the programme we have highlighted the Executive's wish to receive views on the appropriate approach to services for older people. In section 2.8 we have set out the main actions for achieving sub-priority 6 - and there are other policies relevant to the needs of older people elsewhere in the document. We will discuss the best way to develop our policies with representatives of older people, and we are keen to take views on this issue.

The test of any society is how it deals with people on its fringes - the very young, the aged and those who are marginalised. I am confident that the debate, especially in relation to young people and the elderly, will show evidence of concern that will be translated into the type of action that is needed.

We have a new sub-priority focusing on the protection of children's rights, meeting children's needs and including children's voices. We are also consulting on the proposals for a children's commissioner, and we have established the children's fund as one of the five Executive programmes. Through that, significant investment has been made to improve our services. Some of our work will include the voluntary sector, and we are involving it closely in the development of the fund. We also plan to bring forward a 10-year strategy for children and young people, taking account of the role of parents and families. It will also examine the score for achieving a more joined-up approach in the Executive to children's issues.

I repeat that the consultation that will take place, the deliberation in Committees, the debates in the Assembly and the way in which we approach these matters will be the acid test of whether there will be something different about this Administration, something different that is good, creative and positive - or will we just be administrators?

Rev Dr Ian Paisley:

I do not welcome this Programme for Government because we had a Programme for Government that made about 200 promises, not many of which have been fulfilled. That can be examined. Ten pieces of legislation have been passed since the start of devolution. Today, when the Executive are in a crisis about who should be Members of the Executive, one of the major parties of the Executive has declared through its leader that it will seek to expel some of them. That has all been forgotten. There has been no mention of the difficult position that we are in. However, an attack has been launched on the two Ministers from the Democratic Unionist Party who do not attend the Executive. Those are the problems. DUP Members have no mandate from the people who elected them to attend the Executive, and I have more respect for the mandate that I received than others in the House have for their mandate. They think that they can break it when it suits them.

It ill becomes us, in the present state of play in Northern Ireland, to have this Programme for Government and to pick out one party only, when we have a party in the Executive that is linked to IRA/Sinn Féin.

Mr Speaker:

Order. Can the Member bring his question to the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister? This is an opportunity for questions.

Rev Dr Ian Paisley:

I will. I have many questions - [Interruption].

The man who said that is just an idiot or a fool. That is all he is.

When they condemn one party, they should turn their minds to another party. And that party, what is it doing? It is holding on to the arms and terrorising the community. I have a lot of questions to put to the Minster.

I want to ask him why he left out the victims. Do they not matter to him? Prisoners - oh yes, they will do much for them. However, the poor victims of the prisoners are not mentioned. What about the fact that we are meeting under an economic blight because of terrorism? Did the Government, before they wrote all these papers, not consider that the economic situation had changed? Have they not heard about what happened in America and the economic results? Have they not heard about our own Stock Exchange?

Mr Speaker:

I must bring the Member to a close. He has been on his feet for three minutes. He has asked some questions, and I must give the representative of the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister an opportunity to respond.

Rev Dr Ian Paisley:

I have one question.

Mr Speaker:

Please be brief.

Rev Dr Ian Paisley:

Why is there no promise in all of this to implement one recommendation that came from the Agriculture and Rural Development Committee? Not one recommendation is to be fulfilled in this programme.

Sir Reg Empey:

The Member's first point about little progress being made is simply incorrect. When we brought out the first Programme for Government, it was the first time that an attempt had ever been made here to marry policy aspirations to a Budget. In this draft, we are trying to refine that process even further.

This is a draft programme. It will go to Committees, including the hon Member's Committee, where he and his Colleagues will have the opportunity to scrutinise it. Over the years, neither he nor I nor anyone else in the House has had the chance to do that. Something was pushed in front of us, and that was it. The Member and his Colleagues will be able to scrutinise this, it will be debated when we come back, and we will ratify the final version. There is a consultation process in place. Mr Mallon said that he was looking forward to hearing comments from Members. We welcome comments from Members.

It is simply not true that victims have been ignored. When I was taking questions two weeks ago today, I specifically answered a question about victims. I indicated the substantial amounts of public money that are correctly being made available to deal with victims, including £6·7 million from Peace II that is specifically for victims and cannot be interfered with by any other interest. Denis Haughey and Dermot Nesbitt are in negotiation with the Northern Ireland Office over a block of money. We have set up liaison groups between our two Depart­ments to ensure that the needs of victims are dealt with.

The consultation paper on the victims' strategy was issued on 7 August. The consultation period will last until 9 November. In implementing the victims' strategy, the Executive will take appropriate steps to ensure that service delivery is improved. Not all the changes will require financial solutions. In some cases, a change to existing work practices may be all that is required.

The Member also made a comment about the situation in America. My office is fully aware, even this morning, of what is happening as a result of that situation. I can assure the Member that we are doing all we can with those firms that we know to be affected. We are in a global economy, and what happens in another place affects us. We are very aware that there will be pain in our economy as a direct result of what has happened in America, and we are trying to assess the situation. This morning I instructed officials to arrange a meeting for this Thursday of all the key people in my Department and its agencies. We will assess the situation with regard to the impact on our economy.

In the matter of membership of the Executive, the Member will know my view. I made it clear this morning in a broadcast. I am acutely aware that parts of the Belfast Agreement have not been acted on. The Member has to realise that while criticising those people in the Republican movement who, in my view, have not implemented their part of the Agreement, he must not assume that his Colleagues, who seek to have their cake and eat it, can be free from criticism either.

Mr C Murphy:

Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I welcome the draft - [Interruption].

Mr Speaker:


5.00 pm

Mr C Murphy:

I welcome the draft Programme for Government, which is more realistic this year, now that we have had a year's experience. However, the targets in the section on health could prove to be aspirational, unless sufficient priority is given to the Health Service and resources allocated accordingly.

I welcome the language used in the section on targeting social need and the intention to put in place measures that will focus efforts and resources on addressing the inequalities that our poorest people face. That is a fine aspiration, but what proportion of resources do the Executive intend to allocate to achieving the targeting social need objectives?

Mr Séamus Mallon MP:

The New TSN policy aims to tackle social need and promote social inclusion. It applies to policies and programmes involving all Departments and to all parts of the Programme for Government. It cannot be effective if it is seen as a pot of money for doling out in that way. That would mean that it would not be sufficiently comprehensive to stretch across all Departments and across the Programme for Government.

We have published New TSN action plans showing how Departments are redirecting efforts and resources towards those in greatest need. Those are being updated. We will ensure that those plans are fully implemented, and we will publish annual progress reports. New TSN has a particular focus on increasing employability and tackling unemployment. In 2002, we will consider the recommendations of the task force on employability and long-term unemployment to see how we can strengthen our work in those areas.

The element of New TSN which deals with promoting social inclusion involves Departments working together to improve the circumstances of those who are most at risk of social exclusion. We recently consulted on the issues to be tackled, and new initiatives will begin in 2002. We will evaluate New TSN in 2002, and the results will be fed into our work on the policy. I agree with the Member that the programme cannot deliver quantifiable, measurable results within a specific period. It must be fed into the Administration at every level in every Department and into every policy or imple­mentation document, so that we go to the root of the problem, rather than just gloss over the top.

Mr Neeson:

I welcome the decision made last week about the funding of the extension of the natural gas pipeline to other parts of Northern Ireland. It is an issue of great personal interest, and the Enterprise, Trade and Investment Committee worked with the Minister to bring it about. It shows clearly the benefits of devolution to the people of Northern Ireland.

Deep divisions persist in Northern Ireland, and that can be seen only too clearly on the streets. To what extent was the principle of sharing - rather than separation - incorporated into the Programme for Government, to help create the sort of shared and integrated society that we all want?

Sir Reg Empey:

I thank the Member for his comments about the gas pipeline project. I thank Mr Neeson for the work that he has done as Deputy Chairperson of the Committee for Enterprise, Trade and Investment, and as a public representative. He has promoted the natural gas pipeline for many years; he is not a recent convert. He has made a significant contribution and I appreciate his efforts.

The natural gas pipeline provides a basic piece of infrastructure that was missing. One cannot exaggerate what it will do and it would be wrong to do so, but it is important to have the necessary infrastructure in place.

Mr Neeson made a point about a shared and integrated society. One of the mechanisms at the disposal of the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister is the community relations unit. We have witnessed the necessity to become involved in a recent dispute. As the Member may be aware, an exchange took place at Question Time about that.

The Executive have considered the measures to tackle the deep and painful divisions in Northern Ireland's society. Mr Mallon said that one fault line is the difference between people who have skills, education and resources and those who do not. The draft Programme for Government contains policies that are designed to address those issues.

The draft Programme for Government's proposals reflect and build on the actions in the previous programme. By 2002, it is hoped that a cross-departmental strategy will be developed to promote community relations and that that will lead to improvements in community relations. Actions aimed at promoting integrated education, the concept of citizenship among children and young people, and respect and support for culture and linguistic diversity have also been proposed.

The Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister has proposed a review of the community relations unit, because the limited resources that the Office has at its disposal mean that its ability to intervene is less than it would like. The Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister has proposed that that review be carried out to see whether it is possible to re-organise or to provide further resources to enable it to respond and to anticipate some of the problems that lead to and exaggerate divisions.

Ms McWilliams:

I welcome the draft Programme for Government and the statements from Sir Reg Empey and Mr Mallon. However, I note that 30 of the 250 actions still leave some cause for concern because of slippage and timescale problems. Given that the Assembly will have some slippage and timescale problems over the next six weeks, is the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister concerned about the failure to meet any of those actions? How does that failure impact on the draft Programme for Government?

Do Sir Reg Empey and Mr Mallon agree that the timescale for the reorganisation of the hospitals - by December 2002 - is too lengthy? Would it not have been better to have attempted to synchronise that timescale with that for primary care, which is set at April 2002? One will impact on the other.

Mr Séamus Mallon MP:

The timescale for the re-organisation of the hospitals may be too long. However, one will see the reason for that will become clear on looking at the budgetary considerations and the factors that will be involved in the decision-making process. There will have to be extensive deliberations and consultation by the Executive - not only in their consideration, but in the Assembly and in the community. I am not sure whether there is a way to cut time out of it, but I hope that there is. I would like to think that there would be a unanimity that does not grow on trees in Northern Ireland, but I doubt it. However, I want to assure the House - in a loose way - that if it is seen that things can be done more quickly, they will be done so.

As for the 250 actions, the broader question as to whether timescales have affected those, and the wider problems; of course the uncertainty is damaging. There is no doubt that the political uncertainty in regard to the institutions has had an effect on the Administration and on the Executive, and will have a continuing effect.

When we were preparing for questions to the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister this morning, it struck me that there might not be another such Question Time, if one is to believe the huffing and puffing that one hears. I do not know whether that will be the case, but I know that it is difficult to maintain a collective focus to ensure the delivery of the actions required. The Member is right; it is having an effect. However, while there is some slippage - I think it is in nearly 30 areas -other areas have developed quickly. We should be looking at how those have been delivered, while at the same time retaining the resolve to catch up with the 30 that have not been properly delivered.

Mr Speaker:

Whatever the situation may be as far as the institutions are concerned, Standing Orders are clear about the time limits for today. There is one hour for questions, and a substantial number of Members still wish to put questions. I therefore ask everyone to be as efficient as possible in putting their questions and answering them, and we will deal with as many as possible within the limits that Standing Orders give us.

Mr Hamilton:

I served as a teacher for 25 years, so I particularly welcome the continuing commitment to the improvement of levels of education. However, the statement highlighted the ongoing problem of literacy in our society as a whole. What measures are proposed in the draft Programme for Government to deal with that?


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