Northern Ireland Assembly
Monday 1 July 2002
The Assembly met at noon (Mr Speaker in the Chair).
Members observed two minutes’ silence.
I have received notice from the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister that they wish to make a statement on the Executive’s annual report on the Programme for Government 2001-02.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. If a Member is not in the House at the commencement of a statement, that Member cannot ask any questions on that statement. Is that not so?
No. The Member is incorrect. If a Member is in the House from the beginning of a statement, the Chair will do all possible to ensure that the Member can ask a question within the maximum period of one hour permitted for questions on a statement. If a Member is not in the Chamber for the commencement of a statement but is present before the end of the statement, the Chair may do what it can to give an opportunity to ask questions. However, that Member will generally not be called before a Member who has been present for the entire statement. If a Member enters the Chamber after the statement has finished, that Member will not, in any circumstances, be called to ask a question. I trust that that helps to clarify the matter.
I am grateful to you, Mr Speaker. However, I recall an instance when I entered the Chamber 10 minutes after a statement, which concerned a report on the sewerage works in Donaghadee, had commenced and was not called to ask a question.
That is what I have explained. If a Member is present for the start of a statement, the Chair will do all possible to ensure that the Member is called. If the Member is not present for any part of the statement, that Member will not be called. The Chair may call those Members who come in after the statement has started but before it has ended, but should not do so before calling a Member who has been present for the entire statement.
We have also had occasion to make it clear to Members that hearing the statement on a monitor in their office is not recognised as being the same as hearing it in the House. I trust that that clarifies the problem.
I thank you on that point. The other point is that there are several ministerial statements to be made this morning. Dr Farren’s two statements were available in the Lobby. However, the statement you have just called was not available.
I really must ask Members to take cognisance of what we have been doing in the conduct of business for almost four years — today is the anniversary of the first meeting. There is no requirement on Ministers to have statements available before they rise to speak. There is no such requirement, there has never been such a requirement, and there is no requirement in Westminster. There is a requirement that they make statements available as soon as they can. Sometimes that means that statements are made available a day or so in advance on an embargo basis, and on other occasions they are made available after a Minister sits down. However, there is not, and never has been, a requirement that Ministers make their statements available before they stand up to speak. Some do, some do on some occasions, and some do not. There is nothing new about that, and I really think we ought to be moving on and not rehashing rules that have been around all along.
Dr McCrea, you had a point of order.
Rev Dr William McCrea:
Mr Speaker, although your ruling is correct, if we are to have a reasonable and rational debate it is more helpful to Members if statements are available. The statements of almost every other Minister are made available, but the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister fail on every occasion.
I can do little other than make the ruling on the point of order, which is clear. We must proceed from there.
The Deputy First Minister (Mr Durkan):
With permission, the First Minister and I would like to make a statement on the Executive’s first annual report on the Programme for Government. Members will have received the annual report, and this statement provides an opportunity to raise points or questions about it. Unfortunately, because of repackaging, deciding who covers what area, and proofing, the statement was not available as early as we had hoped. It will be available to Members later; however, the main thing is that Members have the annual report. This statement addresses that report, and I am sure that Members’ comments will focus on that.
The Executive’s first Programme for Government, which was presented to the Assembly in March 2001, set out our commitment to deliver open and accountable government. The importance the Executive attached to that was made clear, and the Programme for Government set out in detail what the Executive would do, at what cost and by what date.
Today provides us with an opportunity to report to the Assembly and the public on what we have done. The annual report provides information on the progress we made in delivering the Programme for Government during the last financial year, which ended on 31 March 2002. This statement follows the one made on our position report on the Programme for Government and Budget on 5 June 2002, which set out for the Assembly the Executive’s plans for developing the Programme for Government and the Budget for the years ahead.
The Programme for Government sets out clear priorities for the work of the Executive. Those priorities received clear support from the Executive and from the Assembly. Moreover, it contains information on the policies we shall implement and the actions we shall take to deliver progress across those priorities. The Programme for Government is accompanied each year by a Budget, which, again, was agreed by the Assembly. It sets out details of the allocation of our financial resources in support of priorities and actions.
Although it is important to outline the Executive’s plans and priorities in detail, that is only half the story. If we are to be accountable, we do not only tell people our targets, we tell them whether we achieved them. If we do not deliver what we said that we would, we must explain why, which is the purpose of the annual report.
The first Programme for Government outlined the 256 actions that we planned to take in support of the five key priorities. It contained detailed public service agreements (PSAs) for the 11 Departments, which aimed to set out, for the first time, details of the high-level objectives for each Department and the resources allocated to support those objectives. The PSAs also identified 236 targets that reflected outcomes that each Department intended to deliver.
The annual report covers the 2001-02 financial year, which was the first year of the first Programme for Government. It provides information on the 256 actions and the 236 PSA targets and indicates which actions and targets have been achieved and which are on track to be achieved. If progress has been slower than Ministers envisaged, the report states the reasons why.
The level of detail in the report demonstrates our commitment to openness and accountability. It is a necessarily comprehensive report, which provides a level of detail that is unprecedented, either here or elsewhere on these islands. It allows the Assembly and others to see clearly the progress that we made in the first full year of devolution.
The report highlights the Executive’s overall performance in delivering their Programme for Government commitments. It shows that good progress has been made across all the Executive’s priorities. At the end of the first year covered by the programme, three quarters of our actions were either achieved or were on track for achievement. Many of those actions had much longer timescales than the end of March 2002. Some actions and targets — just 5% — will not be achieved in the way in which we envisaged. It would have been surprising if all our targets had been delivered on time; few Administrations can claim such a feat.
The report provides much more than the overall statistics. It is important that we look behind the figures at the progress that has been made on the ground. One of most significant achievements during our first year in office was the agreement of the Programme for Government. A few years earlier, few would have imagined that four parties could work together, not only to identify the main priorities for Government in Northern Ireland, but also the actions that should be taken to make a positive difference to the lives of people here.
The annual report’s theme of "making a difference" has underpinned the work that has taken place across Government to improve the quality of our public services. I shall focus on that work under two of the Programme for Government priorities.
Under the priority, titled "Growing as a Community", we have worked to develop new policies to tackle discrimination and to promote social inclusion. We have introduced free travel on public transport, which gives our older people new opportunities to access services.
We have progressed on proposals for a commissioner for children, which will place Northern Ireland at the cutting edge of international practice in that field. We have developed a new strategy and package of support measures to help victims of the conflict. We have also met a key target to reduce fuel poverty and have completed work to improve energy efficiency in 4,500 homes.
Under the priority, titled "Working for a Healthier People", we have published and are implementing a new cross-departmental strategy, ‘Investing for Health’. That outlines how we shall act to improve health and reduce health inequalities. We have also taken action to promote road safety through a new road safety strategy.
We have provided millions of pounds of extra funding to support our health and social services. That funding has allowed us to exceed our target to provide 230 extra community care packages, with 465 additional much needed places provided last year.
Extra specialist medical and nursing staff have also been appointed to improve cancer services, and we will say more about that in the House tomorrow. The Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety has begun consultation on proposals to modernise our acute hospital services.
Progress in some areas has been slower than we anticipated when we published the first Programme for Government. However, it is important to understand the reasons for those delays. In some areas, delivering outcomes simply proved to be more difficult than we originally envisaged, and that was due to the complexity of some of the issues. In other areas, we attempted to accommodate requests for greater debate and longer consultation periods.
We need to develop new skills in the Civil Service to meet the requirements of the devolved Administration, and time is needed to ensure effective co-ordination across Departments, while ensuring that the Assembly and its Committees are consulted properly. Ministers and Departments are still learning how best to organise the work that is needed to deliver the Programme for Government.
It is clear that progress in delivering the programme has been affected by many factors, many of which are outside our control. We have had to adapt and re-prioritise to respond effectively to new challenges, such as the outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease. Not only did that have a direct impact on the work of the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, it also had implications for other Departments’ work. Foot-and-mouth disease hit our farming, small business and tourism sectors hard, affecting their growth and profits. That impact was further compounded by the downturn in the global economy and the tragic events of 11 September 2001.
Politically, last year was not easy, because we had difficulties and some uncertainty. We also saw trouble on our streets, including that in north Belfast, and we rightly had to focus attention and resources on encouraging dialogue and identifying and implementing solutions.
In that context good progress has been made, especially as we were on a steep learning curve. We have achieved a great deal in many important areas, some of which I have mentioned. The First Minister will shortly give further details of other progress outlined in the report.
The actions that we set out in the Programme for Government focus mainly on the new initiatives that we wanted to take to respond to the needs of Northern Ireland’s people. However, it is important that we recognise that the Programme for Government goes far beyond those 256 specific actions; it also sets the context for the day-to-day work of the Government in all the public services, such as running the hospitals and schools, maintaining the roads and providing training, housing and social security.
The objectives and targets in the public service agreements reflect that work and the resources that support it. The reports on progress against PSA targets, which form part of this annual report, provide a means by which our progress with Government policies can be measured. The Budget also supports that work, and agreeing the first Budget to support the first Programme for Government was itself an important achievement.
Additionally, we have created Executive programme funds to help with new projects and new ways of working in Departments. Through those funds we have already introduced new programmes to support children in need and young people at risk, to modernise our public services and to develop our infrastructure.
As we focus on the day-to-day business of Government, a key priority for the Executive has been to look closely at the effectiveness of current policies and expenditure for delivering the results that we all want to see. It was with that in mind that we initiated work on six major needs and effectiveness evaluations last year.
These cover the areas of health and social care, education, training and vocational education, financial assistance to industry, housing and culture, arts and leisure, and together they account for 70% of our total expenditure.
(Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr J Wilson] in the Chair)
It is vital that we have a clear understanding of the effectiveness of current policies and programmes. We must understand the outcomes that might be achieved through changes either to our policies or to the financial allocations that support them. Work is in progress in each of these areas, and we will shortly make available to the Assembly reports from each evaluation. That work, together with the policy reviews that have been undertaken in other areas, will inform the development of the Programme for Government for next year.
We are pleased to present the annual report to the Assembly. The structures set up with devolution have enabled public representatives to deliver policies and programmes that are tailored to our needs and address the challenges that face us. The actions we have initiated in the Programme for Government will review and update the funding for public services. We will review and revise the delivery of public services and, through the needs and effectiveness reviews, evaluate the effectiveness of public policy areas. All these actions, and more, will enable us to set the compass points for the future, where quality public services, relevant public policy and enhanced public assets will be the rules, not the exceptions.
The First Minister (Mr Trimble): I apologise to Members for copies of the statement not being available at the outset. I was glad to receive my copy at 12.02 pm. It would have been an interesting statement without it. There are 40 copies available now in the Lobby.
The Deputy First Minister has outlined the content of the annual report and the context in which the implementation of our first Programme for Government has taken place. I will build on his remarks, focus on some of the key achievements that the Executive have delivered and look forward to ways in which the positive start we have made can be built upon. Before doing so, I will return briefly to the theme of open and accountable government. I share the Deputy First Minister’s view of the importance of reporting openly on progress. The Programme for Government represents a contract between the Executive and the people of Northern Ireland, and, like any contract, it must address the needs of both parties.
The Executive want to set out their plans and priorities for Government, and the Programme for Government allows us to do that comprehensively. The people of Northern Ireland, as represented by the Members of the Assembly, expect to be governed openly and fairly. They expect us to deliver on our commitments, and they have the right to receive information on progress in delivering those promises. The annual report is the means by which we provide that information, and it shows how well the commitments we gave in the Programme for Government have been delivered.
Winston Churchill once cautioned against mistaking activity for action, and that was sound advice. We must deliver tangible action, not activity. That will result in improved public services.
The annual report highlights many areas where we have taken action to make a positive difference to the lives of people here. The Deputy First Minister referred to the progress made under the first two Programme for Government priorities, and I will focus on our achievements on the remaining priorities.
The Executive recognise the importance of investing in education and skills, and providing opportunities for individuals, the economy and society. We have maintained the focus on helping people to find and to stay in work by bringing into operation the enhanced New Deal for those aged 25 and over and piloting a new training programme for adults with basic literacy and numeracy problems. We have opened up access to third level education by abolishing further education fees for full-time students in vocational areas and provided support for students through non-repayable bursaries and childcare grants.
At the other end of the education spectrum, we have provided 131 new summer literacy and numeracy schemes to improve the performance of underachieving primary schools. We are well on the way to meeting our pledge that, by March 2003, there will be a year’s free pre-school education for every child whose parents wish it.
We continue to progress towards securing a competitive economy, despite the difficulties of the past year. We have maintained a focus on developing our infrastructure, increasing spending on road improvements, rail safety and public transport. Significant commitments have included work to improve the trans-European network route from Larne to the border, and the Toome and Strabane bypass projects. We have also agreed to provide assistance to allow the construction of gas pipelines to the north-west and across the border.
Significantly, we have also created a new body, Invest Northern Ireland, bringing together in a single organisation the functions of support for enterprise and small businesses; the promotion of research and development; and the work to attract and maintain internationally competitive inward investment. The creation of Invest Northern Ireland and the support that it will provide should leave Northern Ireland industry better placed to develop its competitiveness in a fast-changing global economy.
We have also focused on developing our relations with others outside Northern Ireland. We have played our part in the institutions created under the Good Friday Agreement, including the North/South Ministerial Council, the six implementation bodies, and the British-Irish Council. New and valuable work is being pursued in each of those. In opening new offices in Brussels and Washington, we have helped to ensure that Northern Ireland’s voice can be heard at the heart of Europe and in North America.
Despite the difficulties that we all faced during the first full year of devolution, the Administration has shown its determination to deliver improvements that benefit everyone. The task now is to build on those achievements, learning from the lessons of our first year in Government as we move forward. The annual report recognises that task. As well as looking back over our performance last year, it looks forward to some of the challenges that we face.
The first challenge is to maintain a focus on service delivery. We wish to deliver the commitments that we set out in the first and the current Programmes for Government. As we begin to develop the Programme for Government for 2003-04 and beyond, we also wish to focus debate on the quality of public services. In addition, the Executive wish to deliver reform and reinvestment that will result in high-quality public services.
The reinvestment and reform initiative announced on 2 May 2002 provides a real opportunity for us to invest substantially in improving and modernising our infrastructure, to drive forward sustainable economic and social improvements, and to deliver better public services. We wish to place a strong emphasis on the improvement and modernisation of our infrastructure. To do so, we will need to have a new debate, not only about how we raise service standards, but about how we pay for public services. We also need to overhaul the structure of public administration to make real gains in efficiency that will allow resources to be focused where they are most needed. The review of public administration provides the context for much of that work.
The second challenge is to learn from last year’s experiences. We want to be able to identify and learn from successes as well as disappointments, and, more importantly, we want to understand the ingredients of success and the barriers and constraints that might have prevented us from achieving the progress that we wanted to make in certain areas.
We are also conscious that, in the first Programme for Government, we identified many policy areas that needed to be reviewed. Since then, we have been engaged in a wide-ranging programme of policy reviews and strategy development in areas such as sustainable development, urban regeneration, agrifood and farming, and public health. We have also embarked on a comprehensive programme of needs and effectiveness evaluations. We need to use the findings of, and the experience of carrying out, those exercises to inform future policies and programmes.
We must also maintain a focus on measuring results and progress. The publication of the report represents a significant step in that direction, and we want to build on that. For that reason, through needs and effectiveness evaluations in key spending areas, and through public service agreements and service delivery agreements, we are focusing on identifying the key outcomes and effectiveness measures relevant to our work.
We will use these to benchmark our services, measure our progress in new and more meaningful ways, facilitate open reporting on progress and open discussions with the Assembly and other groups and individuals on how to improve our services.
Effective implementation of the Programme for Government depends largely on the ability of Departments to work together effectively. However, we also need to develop our relationships with local government, and with the social partners in business, trade unions and the voluntary and community sectors, as we rely on all these partners to work with us to deliver the Programme for Government. A further key challenge, as we progress implementation of the current programme and development of the next one, is to improve how we work together on a cross-departmental and cross-sectoral basis.
The publication of the report offers an opportunity to look forward as well as look back. It identifies some important challenges for the Executive in delivering services, learning from our experience, measuring results and working in partnership, and we are determined to address those challenges. We want to build on the progress to date as we work to implement actions and targets in the current Programme for Government and develop our Programme for Government for 2003-04 and beyond.
We are seeking views from the Assembly, and more widely, on issues identified in our position report on developing the Programme for Government and the Budget for 2003-04 and beyond. Those contributions, along with the experience of implementing our first Programme for Government — which is reflected in the annual report — will help to shape our priorities in future programmes. We hope that the Assembly, our social partners, and other interested parties will participate in this process, and we look forward to receiving their views.
Mr Deputy Speaker:
Members have up to an hour to put questions to the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister.
I welcome the statement and congratulate the Ministers and the Executive on what has been achieved, especially in relation to the grant for cross-border gas networks to the north-west. We must continue to improve our delivery on targets, but, given the circumstances, the Executive have done well. Can the Ministers confirm that there will be no complacency in pursuit of achieving objectives? What measures will be improved on to ensure that targets are met?
The Deputy First Minister:
I appreciate the Member’s welcome for the report and the progress reflected in it. I appreciate her particular interest in the gas pipeline, which is one area where the Executive have made a positive difference and have been able to deliver on an issue that was the subject of cross-party support in the early days of the Assembly.
I assure the Member that there is no complacency with regard to these issues. We have committed ourselves to an annual report, which tracks what has been done, what has been delivered, and what is not being delivered and why, precisely because we do not want to be complacent. Commitment is not enough; there must also be performance monitoring and transparency. This annual report is one aspect of that.
It is important that Ministers monitor progress at departmental level, and also that we monitor progress collectively at Executive level. It is also important that the Assembly be able to monitor progress. This statement and subsequent questions, and the fact that departmental Committees can pursue the implications of the annual report for areas of interest to them, are evidence of arrangements that ensure that we follow up on commitments and use resources voted on by the Assembly to deliver on those commitments.
Some Departments have had establishment and adjustment issues in personnel resources and policy structures, and departmental Committees are aware of many of those issues. Most have now been resolved, so we have staff and resources in place to ensure that the policy process can work even more effectively in the future.
I listened with interest to the statement — fortunately, we received copies eventually. The First Minister said that 40 copies were available, so we must share them, given that there are 108 Members.
A heading in the statement reads:
"Learning from the past — looking to the future".
The First Minister spoke about the difficulties that we have all had to face. Will any of the commitments in the Programme for Government be affected by the First Minister’s unprecedented display of arrogance and instability on the BBC ‘Hearts and Minds’ programme last Thursday?
The First Minister:
The Member should examine the Executive’s annual report more closely. If he does, he will see one part that I am particularly pleased about, namely the final column on each page. The final column is headed:
"Comments on progress including difficulties and responses".
Under that heading, we have been as open as possible in identifying problems and indicating what we have done in response to them. We are in the happy position that 75% of the actions identified in the original Programme for Government have been completed or are on track for completion. A further 20% will probably be achieved, but with time slippage. Only a small percentage will not be achieved. If Mr Campbell looks through the report, he will see that we have identified them.
Often, an Administration tends to brush those things that have not gone well under the carpet. There is a human tendency to try to hide problems and mistakes. I do not believe in that. It is better to be open about problems. One learns more about mistakes than about success because success can be accidental, while mistakes are usually not. It is better for us, as an Administration, to approach issues in that light. We should be as open as we can about our successes and our mistakes. When 75% or 95% of our targets are being met, there is a natural human desire to blow one’s own trumpet, and we are not above giving in to that from time to time. However, it is important that we are open about the problems and the mistakes, so that we refine things in years to come. That is the key — to use this as a means of making our programmes better in the future. The Member’s question and my response both imply that there is a clear future for the Assembly, and I am glad that the Member has indicated his commitment to that.
I thank the First Minster and the Deputy First Minister for the report. At every opportunity I can, I want to put on record my party’s and my own acknowledgement that some very good work has been carried out by the Executive and by several Ministers and Departments. It is important that that be reaffirmed today. Much work is ongoing.
However, it is also important to note that some elements of the Programme for Government have as yet not been progressed, as the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister have tried to point out. It is also fair to recognise that many commitments in the Programme for Government are modest, while many others are very good.
It is unacceptable that we did not have a copy of the report this morning. The First Minister said flippantly that he too would have liked a copy this morning. When was the report signed off, and why were Members unable to have a copy this morning? Can the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister assure me that while several Executive meetings have been scheduled, then rescheduled and put off, there will be regular ongoing meetings to progress much of the work that remains outstanding?
The Deputy First Minister:
Members should have received a copy of the report well before now. The earlier complaints concerned the fact that copies of the statement made by the First Minister and me were not available for people outside the door.
The annual report has been available to Members. It was signed off by the Executive, and published accordingly. If Members have had any difficulty in obtaining the report, I will try to find out why they did not receive it on time. Members should have had a copy of the report before the statement was made.
There has been no attempt, either in the report or in the statements by the First Minister and myself, to disguise any shortfalls. Areas where we have not delivered on commitments have been clearly identified, as have considerations or factors that Departments can point to.
The report has been published and is in the public domain. It will be in the hands of Members and Committees. The questions asked in the Assembly today will not be the end of the matter. The report contains much useful material for the Executive to follow up in our monitoring of performance across the entire Programme for Government, and there is useful lead material for Committees to help them to track future performances in relation to outstanding commitments. This is part of the transparent process, and there are issues in the report for the Executive, the Assembly and some of the wider policy communities outside the Assembly.
I welcome the publication of the report. It comes at an opportune time, as the exam season has just finished, and the results will be published in the not-too-distant future. The First Minister and the Deputy First Minister would agree that a 46% pass rate is not covering the Executive in great glory; it would not have merited a distinction in bygone days.
The report is called ‘Making a Difference’. As an ardent devolutionist, I want to know what real difference has been made over the period of this Programme for Government, and what has been accomplished that would not have been achieved under direct rule?
I question some of the targets that the report claims have been achieved. For example, on page 154 is the target of
"Efficient and effective running of devolved institutions."
The report claims that that target has been achieved. I question that, given that the Executive cannot get statements out to Members.
The First Minister:
The question of the statement has been worked to death. As the Speaker ruled at the outset, the obligation is to get copies of statements out as soon as possible, and we did that. A minute or two earlier and it would have been in the Member’s hand before I rose to speak. We were as close as that.
I am not sure how the 46% pass rate was calculated. When I had a professional interest in these matters, the pass rate that I operated on was 40%, and there were plenty of people glad to get 46%. On the other hand, as we have measured the matter — and perhaps there is a question of lies, dammed lies and statistics — we appear to have achieved, or be on course for achieving within the timescale specified, 75% of our targets. Some of the actions were not expected to have been achieved in one year, but were actions to be achieved over more than one year.
If we take the targets that are still on course for achievement within their timescale, together with the targets actually achieved, we have achieved 75%. However, Mr Close and other Members are welcome to crawl over and examine the report and the statement closely, and I hope that they will do that.
It was said earlier that some targets were slightly modest, and that is true. It is inevitable that when some Departments were faced with the system, and knew that they would be held to account over precise targets that they had set, they insured themselves against failure by being modest. We are conscious of that. In working on the Programme for Government for subsequent years, we have been trying to encourage Departments to be more rigorous in the tests that they set for themselves. I hope that we will see the Programme for Government used in that way, and I urge Back-Bench Members to use the document as a means of pressing Departments to do more. I hope it will give them the information and the opportunity to do that.
There are many things that would not have been achieved if we were still under direct rule. We would not have had the special support package for further and higher education, which has been of tremendous benefit to thousands of people. We would not have achieved gas pipelines from Antrim, down past a city that the Member is interested in, and some towns that I have an interest in, to the border, and also to the north-west. Those pipelines will provide natural gas to most people in Northern Ireland. I am sure that we would not have had them under direct rule, and they would not have been achieved without the particularly imaginative approach adopted by some Ministers.
I commend the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister for the annual report and their statement. However, given that the statement concentrates in more than one place on the needs and effectiveness studies, I am surprised that, not for the first time, I have to ask where they are.
The studies were initiated last year and were due to be finished by now. They should have been presented to the Assembly before today. The First Minister will remember that, in a response he gave to a question I asked in the House, they were promised at the end of May. We still do not have them, and the House goes into recess at the end of the week. When will we get the needs and effectiveness studies? I do not believe the statement when it says that they will be with us shortly.
Search as I might for when action will be taken on the employability task force recommendations, I cannot find it. If we are to say anything at the end of this year, it should be to the poor and the unemployed. The employability task force was to be one of those fine interdepartmental creations that would make recommendations and present a plan for future tasks to the Assembly. Unemployed people are asking where it is. It is a major undertaking that has not been fulfilled.
The Deputy First Minister: The Member raised several points. I recall the exchange relating to the needs and effectiveness evaluations that took place a few weeks ago at the time of the statement on the position report. The summary reports on the needs and effectiveness reviews are due to be presented to the Executive this month for discussion and agreement: it is not as though the needs and effectiveness evaluations have been in front of the Executive. On that basis, we will make the evaluations available. That will be important material in the possession of the Assembly and the Committees as they deal with the draft Budget and beyond. The material will be in the public domain.
The employability task force is not something that has been announced and is not happening. The task force has met on 10 occasions, and the action plan is undergoing rigorous drafting to bring it to its final draft stage. The target for completion had been set for 31 March 2002. In line with the terms of reference, the work of the task force was divided into four main stages: to research the factors affecting people out of work; to engage with others outside Government; to make recommendations; and to prepare an action plan that integrates actions across Departments and agencies.
Some of that work - particularly in the final two stages - took longer than anticipated, because of the complexity of matters such as the recent report of the West Belfast Task Force. The Executive intend to complete the report on the employability task force this month.
We do not expect Members to take this report or any Executive statements at face value; and Ministers do not take at face value all the information that departmental officials give them. That is why Members have the opportunity to ask questions on reports and statements in the Assembly. It is important that Members work the report through the available channels, including Committees, in order to hold the Departments to account. It is equally important that Ministers do their job of trying to deliver on commitments made on the basis of resources voted by the Assembly.
I welcome the statement and congratulate the Executive on the achievements so far. Given last year's £365 million underspend, as reported by the press, can Departments surrendering unspent funds use a lack of resources as a credible excuse for not achieving targets?
The First Minister:
The First Minister and the Deputy First Minister saw the press reports of the £365 million underspend. The Minister of Finance and Personnel will comment on that later today, so I hope that I do not steal too much of his material in trying to explain the issue and put it into context. The money is surrendered to the Department of Finance and Personnel, and most of it is carried forward and made available to the Administration under year-end flexibility arrangements. The Administration will not lose much money. I am told - although I would give way to any point that Minister Farren might make to the contrary - that only £27 million has gone to Treasury. That allocation was made to rectify an accounting matter by repaying moneys that the Executive should not have received the previous year. There has not been a significant loss to the Administration.
Some Departments said that they did not achieve their targets because of a lack of resources. A lack of properly qualified staff was found to be the cause of unachieved targets in some instances; that cannot be remedied overnight. However, in most cases, the failure to meet targets was not due to a lack of resources. Resources are available. Underspending is not unique to the Northern Ireland Administration. It appears when the money available for expenditure increases significantly, with the result that a Department finds it difficult to change gear sharply to increase its expenditure. That problem exists elsewhere also.
The strategic investment body will address and, I hope, remedy any understaffing or time lags in gearing up for increased expenditure. That will be part of the reform aspect of the reinvestment and reform initiative, and, when the Executive made their proposals in May, they were conscious of the need to ensure that Departments worked more effectively to channel resources to key infrastructure projects. The Executive hope, expect and intend to ensure that the strategic investment body, when it becomes fully operational, will enable the achievement of targets. Therefore, in some respects, the press report spurs the Executive to get on with that job.
The Chairperson of the Committee for the Environment (Rev Dr William McCrea):
In annex B of the progress report one of the public service agreement targets highlighted was the completion of the review of the formula for the calculation of the resources element of the general exchequer grant to district councils to take account of - and Members will note - "relative socio-economic disadvantage". Targeting disadvantage is a commendable objective. The progress report shows "target achieved".
However, the current proposal in the Executive's position report on the Programme for Government and Budget 2002 to cut the grant in 2002-03 from £20 million to £13·6 million is far from commendable. On the one hand, we are trying to improve the targeting of disadvantage, and on the other, we are proposing a 32% cut in the grant to the poorest councils. Will the Ministers explain the logic behind that? How can such a cut to the poorest councils be justified in the light of the Executive's key policy theme of targeting social need?
The Deputy First Minister:
Let us be very clear about this, and we have been through it several times; the position report sets out the issues as reflected by the Departments. It reflects the pressures on their programme areas and how they propose to use the moneys that they can rely on next year based on the indicative minima for next year's Budget. The indicative minima are the figures that each Department can rely on for next year's Budget, which will be the subject of the draft Budget when the House resumes in September. It will be finally voted on in December.
Departments have been put in a position where they have been unable to simply roll forward the amounts of money that they have this year into next year. This does not mean that Departments will not get that extra money or that there will be cuts. In producing the indicative minima, we ended up creating £125 million in reserve. That money is not pre-allocated in the indicative allocations this year, so it can go towards strategic priorities.
Many people have made comments about the £365 million underspend, and they have said that Departments are spending too much money and that Mark Durkan, the Minister of Finance and Personnel, simply gave money to Departments. The people who were saying that on Friday were the very same people who were criticising us for having achieved the £125 million reserve and for saying that we will need to wait and see what Departments need, what spending Departments can justify, and that we need to ensure that there are extra resources to top up our priorities in health, education and infrastructure.
The Chairperson of the Committee for the Environment is again misrepresenting the nature of the position report. That report sets out how Departments propose to spend money on the basis of their indicative minima. It is entirely open to the Committees to advise a different allocation of resources or spread of priorities. It is also open to Committees to say that they want their Departments to receive more money - and many Committees do that. However, when Departments get into the bid-chasing act and say that they want more money, I hope that they will not be the first to complain when they find that they have supported many bids for which there were no robust plans and for which there was underspend.
Mr A Doherty:
I welcome the statement and thank the Ministers and the Executive for the clarity of their presentation. Members know the difficulties that Departments face, but will the Ministers explain what happens to the targets that have been missed? Will the Assembly have a chance to review the matter, or will we be informed if the targets will be achieved in the future?