Northern Ireland Assembly Flax Flower Logo

Northern Ireland Assembly

Tuesday 24 October 2000


Assembly: Unparliamentary Language

Programme for Government

Government Resources and Accounts Bill: Second Stage

Assembly: Committee on Procedures

Civic Forum

Commonwealth Parliamentary Association

Zero Waste Strategy

Future of the Mournes

The sitting begun and suspended on Monday 23 October 2000 was resumed at 10.30 am (Mr Speaker in the Chair).

Assembly: Unparliamentary Language


Mr Speaker:

During Oral Answers to Questions yesterday a Member described, from a sedentary position, another Member as being a liar. This is clearly unparliamentary language, and I must ask the Member to withdraw the comments made. The Member was Mr Ian Paisley Jnr, and I ask the Member to withdraw his comments.

Mr Paisley Jnr:

Thank you, Mr Speaker, for calling me. You know that in all conscience I cannot withdraw something which I know to be the truth.

Mr Speaker:

I must advise the Member that if he does not withdraw the comment I will order him to leave the Assembly and its precincts for the rest of the day.

Mr Paisley Jnr:

I accept your ruling, Mr Speaker.

The Member withdrew from the Chamber.

Mr Dodds:

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. In addition to the ruling that you have made, will it be possible to make a ruling on the untruthful and wholly false assertions made by the Minister of Education at Question Time yesterday as they have no basis whatsoever in reality?

Mr Speaker:

Order. The Member knows that by proceeding in the way that he is doing he is merely compounding the unfortunate circumstances which we have already experienced.

Programme for Government


Mr Speaker:

I have received notice from the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister that they wish to make a statement on the Programme for Government.

The First Minister (Mr Trimble):

With permission, Mr Speaker, we would like to make a statement on the draft Programme for Government on behalf of the Executive. In accordance with paragraph 20 of strand one of the Belfast Agreement the Executive agreed a draft programme on 16 October, incorporating the agreed budget and linking this to policies and programmes. We are therefore laying this Programme for Government before the Assembly for scrutiny and for future approval, after examination in the Committees, on a cross- community basis.

Today’s statement is the start of a process of consultation. The statement focuses on the principles underlying the programme rather than on the detail of its contents, although we will say something on the content later in the statement. We also wish to set out proposals on how we might take forward our discussion on the draft programme, how these proposals relate to the Assembly’s scrutiny of the draft budget, and how these two processes can be brought together in the new year in a final agreed document. The letter to the Speaker, which Members received last week, explained how the Programme for Government and the budget could be progressed through the stages of Assembly scrutiny and debate.

As Members are aware, this is an important task, which we will return to each year. In future years, with less pressure on time and with more experience, I believe we can create a longer cycle, allowing more time for consideration and reflection. This year, inevitably, we have all faced severe time constraints, and we are very grateful for the Assembly’s assistance in this process.

The document is a first approach to the important task of linking the work of Departments and agencies, creating a new sense of priority and direction. We believe we have started to map out a new agreed direction addressing the real problems that Northern Ireland faces and creating more accountable government.

We believe that this process is unique — certainly in the history of Northern Ireland — in producing the equivalent of the Queen’s Speech and a multi-party manifesto rolled into one. It is a comprehensive document covering the aims, priorities and intended actions of the new Administration, and it sets out the context for the draft budget. Transparency is one of the watchwords, and, as in Scotland and Wales, the public will now be in a good position to see, with some precision, what this Administration is about. As we develop the programme with targets for the implementation of actions, that transparency will be extended to allow people to assess our effectiveness in delivering the programme. We believe this is a first in shining new light into the darker recesses of government.

This document, however, is not the last word. It reflects the best efforts of the Executive and officials in the time available. We have necessarily made choices, sometimes difficult choices, to fit our aspirations within the resources available. The last word, however, resides in this Assembly. This draft programme is the start of a phase of consultation with the Assembly and of subsequent refinement. We will also seek the views of other organisations wishing to contribute to our future to produce a final document for the Assembly’s approval.

It is necessarily a complex document. It contains over 230 actions, set out in over 30 sections. The majority of these actions are covered by the budget proposals for next year, which, following consultation, will need the Assembly’s final agreement by December. As we explained in our letter, we therefore propose that we should hold a longer debate in mid-November to receive the Assembly’s broad views on the programme, once the Committees have had an initial opportunity to consider the document. In particular, the Assembly may wish to give its view on whether the programme provides an appropriate basis for the budget. If Committees have views on the programme and on the many specific actions included in it, which have implications for expenditure in 2001/02, we would ask that these are fitted into their consideration of the budget. A revised budget will then be presented to the Assembly and voted on before Christmas.

As individual Committees scrutinise the programme, and also consider their budget, Ministers will be able to explain the details of their actions more fully. The Assembly will have until January to let the Executive have its views on the wider programme. We will then consolidate revisions to the budget with those to the Programme for Government and will present a consolidated programme to the Assembly for final agreement.

The Programme for Government is central to co-operation between the different parties to the agreement in Northern Ireland. Through their Pledge of Office, all Ministers must participate with their colleagues in the preparation of a Programme for Government, and co-operate within the framework of that programme when it is agreed in the Executive Committee and endorsed by the Assembly.

The document therefore provides an open statement, to be democratically agreed through the Assembly, of the policies and actions that bind all Ministers together for the better government of Northern Ireland. It will become the joint agreed declaration of policy of this Administration, which all members of the Administration will need to support. In turn, the public can have a clear understanding of what they can expect from the new Administration. After almost 30 years of unaccountable direct rule, it will be a contract between the Government and the public.

I hope that this programme can be of value to other organisations — the voluntary sector, business groups, trade unions and others who also have an important role to play in the future of Northern Ireland. I hope that this programme, as we develop it in the coming months and years, will help to provide a focus for the future of Northern Ireland, helping all to work together effectively.

The role of the Government, in many fields, is to set out a framework incorporating vision and direction within which others can act. This programme is designed to provide such a framework. The end result must be greater trust and understanding between all levels of government and the public. That will be essential for securing peace and deepening our democracy.

We also need to create an agreed sense of priority about our overall policies to enable us to ensure that all Departments contribute to that agreed vision and direction. The Administration is not made up of 11 separate entities, each run by individual Ministers looking after totally discrete policy areas. That would lead to inefficiency and frustration. We have all dealt with constituency cases in the past where resources were poorly spent, co-ordination was poor and different Departments were at loggerheads.

The public, frankly, do not care which Department solves the problems they are seeking to be answered. What they want is good quality services and effective policies, meeting real needs. For this reason our key policy areas are cross-cutting in nature, requiring different Departments and agencies to co-operate for the benefit of the public. In many cases it is only when a number of Departments get together, agree a common vision and set out policies which complement one another that we achieve the significant gains that are needed.

As a first step in achieving joined-up government we devote a significant part of this Programme for Government to setting out priority policy areas, broadly defined, where we wish Departments to work together to improve society. The Deputy First Minister will elaborate on the nature and content of those priorities in a moment.

To develop these priorities, the Executive is considering establishing a limited number of sub-committees to take forward policy work on key cross-cutting policy areas so that the relevant Ministers can work together to review the effectiveness of policies and, where necessary, adopt new innovative approaches. The work of developing cross-cutting priority areas will be assisted by the evolving role of a new feature in managing public spending. These are the Executive programme funds. These will be managed directly by the Executive as opposed to being pre-allocated to Departments. They will seek to assist the development of new policies and programmes and new improved services as well as dealing with major infrastructure projects.

The main policy areas we propose that they should cover are: social inclusion and community regeneration in order to combat poverty and support communities; service modernisation to promote efficiency and innovation within the public sector; new directions to encourage the development of innovative new policies tackling important areas; infrastructure and capital renewal to support the modernisation of our increasingly dated transport and other infrastructure in partnership with the private sector; and finally — but by no means least important — to support and protect children in need and young people at risk.

The focus of these Executive programme funds will be on policy and service innovation, on tackling weakness in infrastructure and on ensuring effective targeting of programmes on groups and areas. Proposals will either be of major regional importance or cross- cutting in their nature. The funds should in many cases help lever in other resources, from a number of other Departments or even elsewhere, to create new funding bases for cross-cutting policies.

In the first year of this programme, starting in April 2001, the Executive proposes that £16 million be devoted to these funds. With the experience of the first year of this initiative behind us, we then propose to rapidly increase the value of these funds to £100 million in 2002-2003 and £200 million in 2003-2004.

One aspect I wish to stress in the Programme for Government is the desire to concentrate resources on real needs in Northern Ireland. We have to be realistic. We have to make clear the challenges we face. We have to make clear that we will not solve all deep-rooted problems overnight. It has not been either possible or sensible to attempt to make all of the fundamental changes we wish in the first few months of this new Administration. Major changes need to be carefully planned and thought out. That is why the programme contains a significant number of major policy reviews which will influence the direction of policy in important ways in future years.

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I will not list all of these reviews. There are too many to do so briefly, but I will mention a few. There are ongoing reviews of the structure of selection, of secondary education and also of student finance. There are also reviews of transport strategy and, most importantly, of road safety, which it is hoped will maintain a reduction in deaths and injuries on our roads. We will introduce a review of public administration to ensure, among other things, that the costs of administration are minimised. In addition, a number of new strategies are to be developed, including those for public health, sustainable development and energy markets.

As these reviews are completed and considered by both individual Ministers and the Executive, policy in Northern Ireland will increasingly be tailored to our unique circumstances and to reflect the needs of our people.

While we have seen a significant increase in finances, those finances are still limited. A budget increase of 4·7% in real terms provides some room to manoeuvre, but it does not enable us to do all that we would have wished. We must still make choices. Making choices is not easy. It requires freeing up resources from aspects of expenditure considered less essential to allow us to do more in those areas of policy we view as particularly pressing. Increased flexibility of this sort requires a sea change in the culture of departmental administration, and this we are determined to achieve.

As an important start in this direction we intend that the Programme for Government will include a set of targets associated with the specific actions listed under each priority area. These targets will be incorporated in public service agreements, which themselves form a contract between individual Departments and the Executive as a whole. This will clarify what services are provided for the resources received. Public service agreements are new to Northern Ireland. They will introduce a culture change in the delivery of services, a culture change focusing not only on inputs into Departments but also on the outputs of services to the public.

The detail of the public service agreements will be developed between now and January 2001 and will be made available to the Assembly to consider in a consolidated programme in advance of the final debate in February. Our aim will be to develop the scope of public service agreements in future years which, in turn, will develop accountable and efficient government.

Of course, if we had more money, we could have achieved more. We do not believe the Barnett formula that determines the funds available to this Administration is fair. The formula strictly applied does not take account of above average needs in allocating additional funds. As a result, Northern Ireland is falling behind the rest of the United Kingdom in terms of increases to expenditure, even if we are still ahead in terms of per capita spending unadjusted for need. We fought hard in the summer and won certain concessions on this, and we have made clear to the Treasury that we will continue to fight for change. However, it must be realised that we will not resolve the Barnett formula in the short term.

Those are some general considerations affecting the Programme for Government. The Deputy First Minister will now outline the content of the programme.

The Deputy First Minister (Mr Mallon):

May I also thank all of my ministerial Colleagues, their Departments and their officials for their work on the Programme for Government.

In developing this programme the Executive looked at the key challenges which we face and where needs were greatest. As we analysed each problem we also considered how to work together to create real change in both the short term and the long term.

The first obvious challenge is that here in Northern Ireland we have a divided society emerging from thirty years of conflict. The Good Friday Agreement gives us the necessary framework and principles, and creates the real prospect of enduring peace and stability. We will build on this through the Programme for Government. In the Executive we are developing a capacity to work together and have evolved a broad consensus on the importance of equality, human rights, social justice and culture diversity. However, we do not underestimate the challenges ahead.

There are deep divisions in our society, with high levels of distrust and segregation in housing, in education, and socially. We must develop approaches which help to resolve conflict. We must promote partnership and trust right across the community.

There also remain considerable inequalities within our society, particularly in unemployment, which must be addressed. There are also significant levels of deprivation, high long-term unemployment and high dependency on social security benefit. We must address urban deprivation and recognise that our rural areas face major challenges.

All of these challenges point to a priority area for action, which we describe as "growing as a community". It covers not just equality, human rights and the needs of victims, but also tackles poverty and social disadvantage. We also place a particular emphasis on the needs of children, the renewal of our most disadvantaged neighbourhoods, and on tackling divisions through improved community relations, and respecting and celebrating cultural diversity.

This is a massive canvas on which Departments must work together. We will all see in the Programme for Government how we have examined each area and set out over 60 different actions for the coming year, including areas where we will start to develop new policies. Some of our new commitments include implementing all equality schemes, as approved by the Equality Commission; achieving all the targets and actions in the new targeting social need (TSN) plans and developing them annually; reviewing under-representation in the senior Civil Service; providing over 500 places for work-related programmes for the disabled and adapting 1,500 houses to meet their needs; a new grant scheme for households suffering from fuel poverty; a taskforce on unemployability to reduce long-term unemployment; and proposals to introduce free travel on public transport for older people.

The Executive programme social inclusion/community regeneration fund and the EU structural funds will play a major role in support of this priority, assisting action against poverty and supporting community measures in both urban and rural settings, as well as actions on community relations and cultural diversity.

The second area that we see as a priority is working for a healthier people. We have the third youngest population of all the regions in the European Union, together with a growing elderly population. Overall, our health record has not been good. Death rates from coronaries and some cancers are among the highest in western Europe. Our young men are likely to die early due to accidents, and we have one of the highest rates of teenage pregnancy. We are concerned by the links between poor health and low incomes, and will target resources accordingly.

Of course modernising and improving hospital and primary care services are important responses, and the financial resources — an extra £150 million — have been given to them, but the major new focus of the Executive in this area will be on tackling the causes of ill health, reducing preventable disease, ill health and health inequalities by a cross-cutting public health strategy combining social intervention and education, and ensuring that factors such as the quality of our water, our air and our recreational facilities all support health.

In short, while the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety has a major role in working for a healthier people, at least six other Departments have important roles to play.

Some 40 actions are set out in the Programme for Government in support of this priority. They include work to reduce waiting lists and meet winter pressures; restrictions on tobacco advertising; a new road-safety strategy; the provision of up to 50 extra specialised staff for the cancer services; an additional 230 community-care packages; and measures to reduce the misuse of drugs and alcohol.

We will use our proposed Executive Programme children’s fund to provide support for children in need and young people at risk. We will increase the coverage of the Sure Start programme in areas of social disadvantage from 11,000 to 16,000.

The third priority area for action is investing in education and skills. Our young people are an important focus for attention. However, with high rates of adult illiteracy, and with the real need for reskilling throughout our working lives, this priority is relevant to all of us. The basic right to education opens opportunities for the individual; education and training are key to our development as a society and economy.

Our education system is doing well for many of our young people. However, there are major problems of low achievement and underachievement that have to be addressed. Among the existing workforce there are too many people with few or no formal qualifications.

There are 27 specific action points covered in this priority area. They include the review of selection and student support, which will have a long-term impact on the structures of our system and on equality of opportunity. There are also actions with early effect, such as an extra 500 training places in areas of skills shortages and an extra 200 undergraduate places on top of the 4,200 places planned by 2004. We aim to fulfil the target of providing one year of pre-school education for every child by 2002-03.

The fourth priority area for action is securing a competitive economy. A modern competitive economy is central to creating an inclusive society, providing opportunity for all with new knowledge-based skilled jobs. We must face the challenge of global competition and tackle our over-dependence on declining or slow- growing industries.

Already there are signs of success. Since December the IDB has promoted 7,100 new jobs — 3,000 more than in the previous year. Manufacturing output has increased by over 7% since last year. Unemployment, at 40,100, is at its lowest level since 1984. Investors and business want to see stability and the success of the institutions to continue those trends.

In developing this priority we have taken a wide view of economic development, covering education, skills and infrastructure policy, promoting enterprise, innovation and creativity, and working to make Northern Ireland more attractive to inward investors and visitors.

If our businessmen and women are to succeed in a tough global economy and are to create the employment we need, then, as Government, we have to have to do everything we can to give them the right environment and the right cost structure to compete. That is why improved planning, good quality transport and telecommunications will be crucial. That is why good quality business services and support for research and development will be key. Through the programme all Departments will have to work effectively together to plan the new infrastructure and services for the needs of business and the public.

In many areas of our infrastructure public investment under direct rule was inadequate. We now have to tackle serious problems in areas such as roads, rail, water and sewerage. The same lack of investment is found in some of our education and health estate, also with damaging effects on our society and economy. The new executive programme infrastructure renewal fund will help us support strategic projects using, where possible, public and private partnerships. We regard infrastructure as a means to a policy end, not as an end in itself.

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Under this priority we will also give a special focus to the regeneration of the rural economy in which our agriculture industry plays a key part. Its development and diversification are vital to the survival of many communities. However, access to other types of employment — to second incomes — will also be important. The development of our rural towns must be carefully considered; tourism in rural areas has got to be enhanced. The development of public services must take into account the needs of all rural areas. All relevant policies will therefore be rural-proofed.

Finally, sustainability must be a key concern. We have set out targets and programmes to protect and enhance our environment and to integrate environmental concerns into policy.

We have outlined 49 actions under this priority. Specific actions include giving Northern Ireland a world-class telecommunications infrastructure with the necessary broadband capacity, access and cost; becoming a world-class centre for e-commerce; exploiting the potential of the North/South trade and business, tourism and waterways bodies and preparing an all-island energy market strategy; agreeing and implementing regional development and regional transport strategies; eliminating the backlog in planning applications by 2002; sustaining 50 high-tech, value-added, new start-up companies each year; and implementing the beef quality initiative to increase the number of clean cattle to 180,000 per year by 2006-07. These are examples of the sustained effort that we propose in this and other areas.

Our fifth priority area for action relates to developing North/South, East/West and international relations. Since devolution the role of dealing with other Administrations has fallen to the Executive. We intend to play this role to the full. We will use the structures set in place by the agreement to the maximum benefit of Northern Ireland, and to contribute to the development of our neighbours. The Programme for Government will be an important tool of communication in this process.

The North/South Ministerial Council, and the implementation bodies and areas of co-operation, must continue to deliver tangible benefits. Immediate tasks include completion of cross-cutting studies on barriers to North/South mobility — living and working — and on enhancing the competitiveness of the two economies and using the present round of European funding to promote North/South co-operation.

In the East/West structures the Executive will be leading work on transport issues and pursuing the fuel tax issue.

Some of the things that will need to be done are outside our control. Some issues — taxation, for example — are not devolved, while others are decided at European or international level. We will develop effective links in the European institutions by establishing an office in Brussels in the coming months, and in North America — so important for investment — we will better co-ordinate our activities to take full account of successful devolution. We will pay special attention to improving our image internationally with, for example, strategies to secure high-profile sporting and cultural events for Northern Ireland and to help support Belfast’s bid to become the European City of Culture 2008.

In the final section of the programme we have set out key internal governmental issues that we must tackle if we are to create the quality of public services that the public needs. We will modernise, through the e-government programme and work on the continuous improvement of services, with support from the new Executive programme funds. We will examine decentralisation and public procurement policy, taking account of a number of factors, including their impact on equality of opportunity. We will seek to work as a team with local government, the social partners, and the voluntary and community sector.

We need to explore new ways of financing public services to enable us to tackle the poor infrastructure we inherited from direct rule and to ensure that all public sector services are used to cut down on fraud. In this draft programme, we have made some difficult choices, allocating scarce resources between competing priorities. But ultimately it is the Assembly that will decide. Out of it will come a better programme, with a stronger democratic mandate.

The key point is that these choices are being made here, through the democratic process, and that a local, accountable Government is heading the change. The hand-over of the draft programme is a defining moment in the life of these institutions. Let us not waste the opportunity we have been given to write our own script and to truly serve the people who have elected us.

In conclusion, on behalf of the Executive, we commend the draft Programme for Government to the Assembly.

Mr Speaker:

Members will know that a one-hour limit for questions on a statement is given in Standing Orders. Members and Ministers should be as succinct as possible because a very large number of Members wish to ask questions.

Dr Birnie:

I thank the First Minister and Deputy First Minister for their statement. This is the first plan for a devolved Government here in 25 years. If devolution is to make a positive difference — as it can do — it should achieve joined-up government. What criteria will be used to allocate the so-called Executive programme funds?

The First Minister:

The Member mentioned that this is the first programme for the administration of Northern Ireland that has been drawn up by elected representatives of Northern Ireland for nearly three decades. That is a very significant achievement, about which we should be very pleased and proud. I hope that the community appreciates that, for the first time in 25 years, Northern Ireland’s elected representatives are ahead of the game in making decisions and choices.

The Executive programme funds are a significant new development — the Executive will handle collectively a significant and increasing amount of resources. This will help enormously to enhance the collective responsibility of the Administration. We are proposing five different programme funds, and the amount of money allocated to each is, I must emphasise, merely indicative. We are feeling our way on this, but we hope that the programme funds will become major levers for change, particularly in years two, three and thereafter.

With regard to way the programme funds will operate and the criteria to be applied, a number of principles will govern the distribution of money. We want to promote policy and service innovation, to tackle weaknesses in infrastructure and to target the areas, groups and individuals in greatest need. Consequently, the programme funds will be used to support the most important programmes and projects which will assist the development of actions across Departments or provide resources to support an individual departmental activity. The funds should help lever in other resources from other Departments, or elsewhere, and, I hope, will create new funding bases for cross-cutting programmes.

Dr Hendron:

I congratulate the First Minister and Deputy First Minister on the production of this historic programme for Government. I am very pleased with what I have heard.

There are major inequalities in our society: in health, in education and among the massive number of unemployed people. The principle of targeting social need (TSN) is very important to Members and to the people of Northern Ireland. Bearing this in mind, what action has been taken to ensure that new targeting social need is reflected in the Programme for Government?

The Deputy First Minister:

I thank the Assemblyman for his question. New TSN has underpinned and informed the Programme for Government and has shaped its priorities. Ministers agreed that it was particularly important that the new TSN action plans be integrated into the Programme for Government. For that reason, in the draft programme all Departments have committed themselves to implementing all of the actions and targets in their soon-to-be-published new TSN action plans. These plans will be reviewed each year, and there will annual reports on progress with the full evaluation of policy in the year 2002.

The draft programme also explicitly mentions many key new TSN actions and targets. These include building socio-economic disadvantage into the funding formula for the resource element of the new general exchequer grant for district councils; delivery of comprehensive regeneration strategies for the most disadvantaged communities in our two major cities; and establishing partnership between the community, voluntary, private and public sectors in the most disadvantaged areas in the form of a neighbourhood regeneration taskforce. A further target is to ensure that health and public services boards implement new TSN action plans to tackle inequalities in the administration of resources to the victims of accidents, cancers, circulatory disease and infant mortality.

New TSN will also be considered in policy reviews such as the review of decentralisation of Civil Service accommodation. Particular regard will also be had to new TSN in the allocation of executive programme funds. The amount of money available from these funds is projected to rise quickly from £16 million in the year 2001-2002, to £200 million by 2003-2004. Ensuring that these funds advance new TSN aims and objectives is therefore of particular importance. One of the focuses of the funds will ever be to ensure effective targeting of programmes at the individuals, groups and areas in greatest needs.

Mr Poots:

The Programme for Government has a lot of meaningless statements in it, and once one removes a lot of the verbiage and refines the details, one finds that the First Minister’s scriptwriters have failed to cover up the all-Ireland nature of the current process. I see one North/South body after another, whether it be language, health, road safety, tourism, trade, co-operation, strategic communications — the list goes on and on.

We also note that bureaucracy has been increased rather than decreased here. Why have quangos not been dealt with? We have now found that a new North/South Civic Forum is to be set up.

Who will monitor the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister? Will that be allocated to the Committee of the Centre or to a variety of Statutory Committees?

The First Minister:

The Member has mentioned three different points. His first point is wholly erroneous, so I think things have to be put into perspective. There are of course several areas of North/South co-operation which are significant and which will bring practical benefits; we have already mentioned a few of those. I will give one example; the encouragement of an all-Ireland energy market is extremely important to our efforts to bring down energy costs in Northern Ireland, and that is critical for Northern Ireland industry. That will be of significant benefit to us, so instead of having a knee-jerk reaction to this, Members should look at things on their merit and put them into context.

I do not know if the Member actually researched this, but the expenditure of the Northern Ireland budget on North/South co-operation next year is £11million. Now put that in the context of £5·5billion of total expenditure. I think that says it all.

With regard to quangos, the Member will have heard reference to the review of public administration, which we hope to get underway before long. It is within that context that the issue of quangos will be addressed. We want to examine public administration, and we want to see what can be done to make the system more efficient, both in terms of the delivery of services and of the cost involved. It is axiomatic that throughout the period of direct rule there was a growth of quangos. Some were needed, and others were simply set up to fill the democratic deficit.

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That democratic deficit is now filled by this institution and, consequently, it is appropriate that we should look at the quangos concerned. On the question of the scrutiny of matters that fall within the remit of the Department of the Centre, I hope that the Member and his Colleagues on that Committee will be more effective in scrutinising the Department than he has been in addressing questions here.

Mr Molloy:

Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. This is the first time since partition that Unionists, Nationalists and Republicans have come together to put forward a Programme for Government for administering the Six Counties, for co-operation with the rest of the island and for building an all-Ireland economy. In light of this, do the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister, on behalf of the Executive, agree that the eradication of the community differential in unemployment between Catholics and Protestants is an urgent priority? Will they make a statement on what specific actions and commitments there are in the Programme for Government to tackle this disparity?

The Deputy First Minister:

I agree that this Programme for Government is highly significant as being the line of demarcation between a past which is well gone and a future that we all want to build together. I agree that tackling the unemployment differential must be a priority for this Administration. Indeed, the agreement itself commits us to the goal of progressively eliminating the differential in unemployment rates between the two communities.

The Programme for Government explicitly recognises the importance of tackling community differentials, and specific measures in it should contribute to the elimination of the differential. These include New Deal, lifelong learning and the welfare reform programme, which will give people the skills and incentives to get jobs and escape the cycle of deprivation; the New TSN action plans, which will be reviewed annually; and the establishment of a task force to reduce long-term unemployment and increase employability. There will also be new training programmes for adults with basic literacy and numeracy problems; an additional 500 training and further education places in skill shortage areas; and regeneration strategies for the most disadvantaged communities in the two major cities — something which should not be underestimated. Also included are neighbourhood regeneration task forces to reduce disadvantage in the most deprived urban areas, and the implementation of the equality schemes of public authorities in Northern Ireland, including a review of public procurement.

However, the actions needed to tackle the community differential in unemployment are also found throughout the programme itself in areas such as infrastructure and planning, and equal access to education for all.

Mr Close:

I thank the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister for their statement this morning and for bringing forward a draft Programme for Government to the Assembly.

I give the programme a general welcome. The public want to see devolution making a difference, and I therefore welcome the phrase in the First Minister’s statement that

"Transparency is one of its watchwords and … the public are now in a good position to see with some precision what this Administration is about."

Although there is clarity in the 230 implementation areas, I find much of the programme aspirational rather than demonstrating direct action. Can the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister assure the House that if this Programme for Government were fully implemented that coronary death rates and death rates from some cancers, which are now the highest in Europe, would be among the lowest in Europe?

Can they also assure the House that the number of local authorities would be reduced if this Programme for Government were implemented, and that our students would have places for tertiary-education places and not be subject to fee paying?

Mr Speaker:

Order. We are having questions on the Programme for Government, but not on every aspect of it.

The First Minister:

I appreciate the points made by the Member that some of the matters put down here are aspirational, as inevitably they will be in some respects. There are precise targets in a number of areas. This number will increase as we refine this process over the next few months by working out more precise actions and targets, something we will do through the public service agreements. When people look back on this, perhaps after a year or two, I hope they will see that the introduction of public service agreements was critical to enable us, as well as the public, to assess performance. Too often, particularly under direct rule, there was a tendency for the Administration simply to trundle on in the way it had done in the past and to think about how much extra money was going in. Extra money went in, but it was not always the case that more came out the other end, in terms of action taken and services delivered to the public.

I completely agree with the Member that we want to focus on the end product, that is the service that the public gets, because that is the most important thing. The Administration does not exist simply to serve itself and those who are employed by it. The Administration exists to deliver a service to the community, and that is the critical thing. A number of points were raised, and there are figures in here about the number of places. Whether that meets the need or not is another question that we will have to assess.

I am not going to respond to the question on local authorities because we are just starting a review on that. It would be quite inappropriate to say anything that would imply that we have a particular outcome of that review in mind. There are particular things in the area of health that we want to focus on. However, to give an assurance that we will, as a result of action taken, have the lowest rates for certain things would be quite inappropriate.

We have to realise, particularly in health, that some things are beyond our control. Northern Ireland has a remarkably high incidence of heart disease, a feature that it shares with the west of Scotland. What is the reason for that? Is it because of the present level of service in the Health Service? That is something that we can improve. Is it because of certain cultural factors, such as the incidence of poverty? We might be able to do something about that. But is it because of other cultural factors, such as diet? It is very difficult for us to change that. Is it also possible that the high level of heart disease here is because of genetic factors? There is very little we could do to affect that.

Mr Roche:

There are three or four features in this statement from the First Minister that raise a fundamental question in my mind. First of all, as far as the 230 actions over the 30 sections are concerned, what is said about these actions is so vacuous as to be virtually devoid of content. There is absolutely no indication of how these objectives are going to be achieved. It is also impossible to link this statement with the budget allocations so we cannot see exactly how the budget will be used to finance this programme. Another point that follows on from all of that —

Mr Speaker:

This is an opportunity for questions not for a series of statements, and the Member is about to make another one. I press him to ask a question.

Mr Roche:

I will ask my question. The document does not provide a real framework for subsequent negotiation, so why has it been produced at this time? Why have we been presented with a document devoid of any real content about the problems that confront people in Northern Ireland? Is it an attempt to create the appearance that we have a working Executive when we know that this whole process is in serious crisis?

The Deputy First Minister:

I will deal with the last question first. For the first time in almost 30 years, an Administration in the North of Ireland is planning its own Programme for Government and deciding its own budget. The Assembly is also deciding how it will deal with its representative capacity on behalf of the people of the North of Ireland. That is an important reason for producing this document now. The alternative is the type of situation that the Member seems to favour, where we would all trip up to see a visiting direct rule Minister and make representations to him in relation to the 230 actions in this programme, rather than devising it ourselves.

The Member described the 230 actions as vacuous. When he reads the programme further he will see that they are specific in a way that is almost dangerous. Indeed, their specific nature indicated some of the dangers to us, but we made a clear decision to be specific rather than vacuous about what we wanted to do.

The Member also says that there is no indication how these actions can be achieved. It is clear that they will be achieved in relation to the budget, after decisions are made in Committees and in the Assembly. When this ceases to be a draft document, it will be a Programme for Government honed on all the elements of this institution. Then it will be added to and strengthened, and given an even more specific role in relation to the points that the Member has to date failed to see.

Mr Ervine:

I give a guarded welcome to today’s statement. Nevertheless, it is an historic and significant day. It is the first time in my adult life that such a statement has been made by Northern Irish people behaving in a manner that is beneficial — I hope — to Northern Irish people.

We have heard about task forces and partnerships. We need agreement from those who have control of reserved matters. To achieve agreement on the Barnett formula, we must get people to hear our arguments. On the issue of drug and alcohol abuse, the partnership must be with those who control the security services. On the issue of children, the partnership must include the justice system, which is a reserved matter.

How confident are the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister that they can achieve those agreements and partnerships? Will they acknowledge that while there are those who will attempt to let on that they are the opposition in this Chamber, there is a real and genuine opposition, ineffective so far, which must be consulted? Will the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister give consideration to having proper consultation in the future with those who do not form the Government in this Chamber?

The First Minister:

I take the Member’s last point. There is some force in his comments. In the circumstances, we did extremely well to get the document to this point. The same is true of the budgetary exercise — the two are related. In normal circumstances the programme would come before the budget, and although the budget was announced first, that does not mean that it was drawn up first. We were unable to produce the programme as a finished document in the time available, and the time pressures constrained the extent to which we could consult.

11.30 am

It is intended that there will be a transparent process that will make it easier to consult. One of the culture changes that needs to occur because of the nature of this Assembly and the way in which it operates is that across the whole public service, officials will have to appreciate that everything needs to be much more open than in the past. The system whereby governmental decisions emerge from a process of private consultation will have to change.

On the specific matters the Member mentioned, a great deal is already happening in terms of working together with the Government in London on reserved matters. There are a number of areas where the partnership between the devolved Administrations and the Government in London is already there. There is a joint working group between the devolved regions and the Government on the drugs issue, as there are on other issues, so we have a mechanism to deal with that.

The Member mentioned two specific areas. With regard to drugs he mentioned policing and justice matters. Of course, that is an issue that could be devolved to this body, and I personally hope that it will be devolved sooner rather than later. It is essential from the point of view of our operation on a number of matters.

On the matter of finance, one should always bear in mind that the so-called Barnett formula is not some arcane calculation. When devolution was proposed in the 1970s, it was necessary for Government to quickly think of some criterion. Joel Barnett, after whom the formula is named, was chief secretary to the Treasury at the time. He is quite prepared to tell people how he quickly drew up the formula on the back of an envelope in order to meet the crisis. Devolution did not actually occur in the 1970s, and so the Barnett formula has been there ever since.

Devolution has now occurred, and consequently we can confidently expect a serious reconsideration of the financing of the devolved Administrations. Nobody seriously expects that a 23- or 24-year-old formula can continue to be pressed into service in that situation. It is an extremely complex matter, but I expect that it will be addressed in coming years. That is the appropriate timescale. The Member can be assured that we will play a vigorous part in that consultation and re-examination.

Ms Morrice:

We welcome the Programme for Government and congratulate the Executive on achieving this milestone. We are particularly pleased with the recognition given to issues such as disadvantage, poverty and division in the chapter entitled ‘Growing as a Community.’ I normally look for things that are missing from a programme, and I was going to mention integrated education, but I found it on page 26, and I am delighted to see that. How much of the programme ultimately depends on private finance? Secondly, in terms of consultation what flexibility is there to take on board the Committees’ recommendations, for example, on student finance?

The Deputy First Minister:

I cannot say at this stage what funds may be available from private finance. That is something that has to be explored. It has possibilities, but, like everything else, it is not a panacea for all our problems. We will examine very carefully how we can utilise that facility in our Programme for Government, and if we find it to be advantageous, then collectively we should use it.

However, if we find that it is not, we may have to take a different position on the issue. One of the strongest points is how that and other aspects, in being dealt with by the Assembly and its Committees, will be bolstered up, added to and refined. I recommend to the Committees and the Assembly itself that the very pertinent question the Assemblylady asked be among those that they seriously consider.

Mr Speaker:

Now that all the parties have had an opportunity to intervene, I appeal to Members to forgo their welcoming — or unwelcoming — perorations and stick to concise questions. Let us all hope that such questions will bring succinct answers, thus allowing as many Members as possible to participate.

Rev Robert Coulter:

Thank you, Mr Speaker. I shall take your advice. The First Minister will be aware that, of all the bread-and-butter issues, healthcare is probably that of greatest concern to the people whom we represent. Will he assure me that standards of health care will improve through this Programme for Government?

The First Minister:

I understand Rev Robert Coulter’s point about the important issue of health. That is the reason for the significant increase in the health budget. The increase of 7·2% raises the budget to £2·3 billion. In other words, an extra £153 million is going into health next year, and that represents a massive increase in available resources. We wish to see both an improvement in health outcomes and what we are getting from our money, and we want to make sure that management throughout the service is providing us with the best return. As I said earlier, public service agreements will be a key matter in ensuring that focus.

The question of ill health and the generally poorer levels of health enjoyed in Northern Ireland is a complex matter which cannot be improved simply through increases in funding, although we have provided them. We must look at reductions in preventable disease and at the number of road traffic accidents. We must also deal with drugs and encourage people to adopt healthier lifestyles. That is the reason for the emphasis in the Programme for Government on a new public-health strategy which will attempt to deal with health in the round.

Mr A Maginness:

The First Minister and the Deputy First Minister have referred to the historic underinvestment in infrastructure in Northern Ireland. I should like to explore that area in relation to the future of the railway network here. Can the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister explain the implications of the programme for this issue? Given the budgetary restraints, how can we tackle the infrastructural deficit which we have unfortunately inherited?

The Deputy First Minister:

Both parts of the question are totally relevant. The A D Little strategic review of railway safety clearly showed the scale of investment necessary just to ensure that the existing railway system continues to operate safely. That report highlighted the fundamental need for both short-term and long-term strategic decisions to be taken about the future of railways. The railways taskforce gave us a very valuable indication of how we might start to address this issue and provided a useful framework within which initial decisions can be taken on the future of Northern Ireland’s railways.

At the first stage in the consideration of the existing network, additional funding of almost £20 million has been provided in the draft budget for 2001-2002. I believe that this signals the beginning of an investment programme which will bring the existing network up to modern safety and quality standards, and that includes the procurement of new rolling stock. As the taskforce made clear, the ten-year transport strategy provides the next key building block in developing a coherent view on this issue. We look forward to the Department’s bringing this to the Executive and the Assembly as soon as possible.

By budgeting for an infrastructure renewal fund the Executive has also started to plan how it might finance such significant developments. Any proposal must fit into the overall transportation strategy and be backed by a clear business case. We need to think in new ways. We have to see if it is possible to draw private sector funding and management disciplines into this type of investment. That is one of the key questions that this Assembly and its Committees have got to address, and we should address it as soon as we can — honestly and openly — because it will be crucial to this and other matters. That is the way we should progress, so that we can get the best value for money out of the rail system.

Mr Dodds:

In trying to differentiate between spin and substance, will the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister accept that there will be deep disappointment? For instance, while there is emphasis on the renewal of disadvantaged neighbourhoods and regeneration of our towns, cities and rural areas, budget allocations for that have been cut. Also, there will be a sense of disappointment that while the draft Programme for Government deals with the issue of victims, only four words can be found in a statement of 21 pages on the needs of victims.

The First Minister talks about the amount of money going to North/South bodies. Will he accept that there will be deep disappointment, resentment and opposition among the people we represent at the "North/Southery" that is rampant throughout this Programme for Government that is designed to implement the all-Ireland aspects of the Belfast Agreement? Will he accept that it is wrong to prioritise the implementation of that all-Ireland dimension instead of dealing with important areas such as children and infrastructure renewal? He should remember that every £1 million spent on all-Ireland bodies could go towards building 25 new homes for the homeless, adapting 1,000 homes for the disabled and installing central heating in 300 homes. Does he accept that many people believe that money would be better spent on those items than on all-Ireland institutions?

The First Minister:

I am surprised that the Member has returned to the issue of North/South co-operation, and I remind him of the point I made to his Colleague. If he had looked carefully at the budget, which he has had the opportunity to for over a week — not the Programme for Government, which he has had for a few brief hours only — he would have seen that the total spend on that subject next year is £11 million out of nearly £6 billion. That puts it in perspective.

If he had then looked at the specific items that the £11 million was to be spent on, he would have seen that they are good things. I talked to his Colleague about an all-Ireland energy market. That could equally be described as an all-British Isles energy market, because one of its key elements is to make sure that energy resources, particularly gas, become available throughout the island of Ireland to benefit us as well as everybody else.

I could also cite the example of the expenditure on waterways. One of the objectives — although it will take some time to come through — is to restore some canals, starting with the Ulster canal and going on to others. That will be of considerable significance to tourism, which is very important for the Northern Ireland economy. If one looked at that, one would appreciate how valuable it is. I am prepared to do a commercial for waterway holidays, having enjoyed them twice in the last three years. However, that is a significant economic sector.

As regards the question of victims, when the Member has had the opportunity to peruse the document he will see that there are five different actions in it dealing with the needs of victims. They are aspirational, in some respects, for example, putting in place a cross-departmental strategy for ensuring that the needs of victims are met. Such a strategy is very necessary, and there will be financial aspects to consider as well. The Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister is establishing a victims unit to deal with issues of this nature. We are dealing with these problems in a practical way, rather than trying to make a totally misconceived political point, as the Member did.


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