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Northern Ireland Assembly

Tuesday 13 November 2001


North/South Ministerial Council: Special European Union Programmes

Draft Programme for Government


The Assembly met at 10.30 am (Madam Deputy Speaker [Ms Morrice] in the Chair).

Members observed two minutes’ silence.

North/South Ministerial Council:
Special European Union Programmes

The Minister of Finance and Personnel (Mr Durkan):

The fifth meeting of the North/South Ministerial Council in the special European Union programmes sector was held in Dublin on 30 October 2001. Mr Dermot Nesbitt and I attended the meeting. This report has been approved by Mr Nesbitt and is also made on his behalf. Mr Charlie McCreevy TD, Minister for Finance, represented the Irish Government.

The chief executive of the Special EU Programmes Body (SEUPB) gave an oral report to the Council on progress made since the last meeting in this sector on 20 June. The report covered a range of topics, including the development of the body’s managing authority role, the body’s central co-ordination role for EU funding, the creation of effective relationships between the delivery mechanisms for Peace II, and the role of the SEUPB in relation to the common chapter of the Northern Ireland structural funds plan and the national development plan for Ireland.

The Council underlined, as it had done at previous meetings, the importance of the role of the body, and the EU programmes under its remit in contributing to the development of peace and reconciliation and the maximising of social and economic benefits on the island, particularly in the border areas. The Council welcomed the progress made on several important issues since the last meeting but also noted that a significant number of key issues remained to be addressed in the coming months.

The first paper tabled at the meeting provided an overview of the progress on spend and on the closure of the current Peace I and INTERREG II programmes. Under EU regulations, all funding for both programmes must be fully expended by 31 December 2001. The Council noted that overall expenditure currently stood at 93% for Peace I and 94% for INTERREG II. The Council noted that the final expenditure for Peace I was expected to reach 99% in the North and 98% in the South. For INTERREG II, the position was expected to be 98% in the North and 99% in the South. The Council welcomed the progress made on ensuring a high proportion of expenditure under both programmes.

The Council also noted the significant recent progress in implementing the Peace II programme. The Special EU Programmes Body had completed contract negotiations with all the intermediary funding bodies, and their appointment had been formally announced on 11 October. Work on establishing the 26 local strategy partnerships was also progressing well, and an application web site and database is now available. The Council commended that work and underlined the important role that the new Peace II programme could play in promoting peace and reconciliation and securing the economic and social opportunities available in a new climate of peace and stability.

The Council received a report on progress on negotiations on the INTERREG III programme involving the two Finance Departments, the Special EU Programmes Body, and the European Commission. The Council was advised that those had led to revisions of the draft programme in order to take account of issues raised by the Commission and to clarify the role to be played by the three border corridor groups in implementing the programme. The Council welcomed the developments but urged a speedy conclusion to the negotiations, with a view to ensuring early implementation of the programme. The Council also recorded that it expected to hear of significant progress on the programme at its next meeting in sectoral format.

The Council also received a report on the progress of the other community initiatives — EQUAL, LEADER+ and URBAN II. EQUAL and LEADER+ have issued calls for projects in Northern Ireland. The initial programme proposals for URBAN II in Northern Ireland had been welcomed by the Commission, and, following consultation, a revised operational programme was submitted to the Commission on 13 September. Given the number and range of structural funds programmes involved, the Council attached details of the projects and their values to the joint communiqué issued at the end of the meeting.

The next item considered by the Council was a report from a working group established to review progress on implementing the common chapter. That chapter of agreed text, relating to North and South, has been included in the Northern Ireland structural funds plan and in the national development plan for Ireland. It sets out a strategic framework for mutually beneficial North/South — and wider — co-operation in a range of sectors and activities.

The report from the working group highlighted the roles identified for several organisations in implementing the common chapter, including the North/South Ministerial Council itself, the Special EU Programmes Body and Government Departments, North and South. The Council approved the recommendations in the report for better co-ordination, measurement and monitoring of the benefits of North/South and wider co-operation. Those included a recommendation that a joint steering group be established, chaired by the two Finance Departments and including the Special EU Programmes Body and representatives from the central Departments, North and South. That group would oversee and co-ordinate work on implementing the common chapter in both parts of the island.

The Council also approved a recommendation that a joint common chapter working group be established with representatives from the Northern Ireland community support framework (CSF) monitoring committee and the Irish community support framework/national development plan (CSF/NDP) monitoring committee to oversee implementation of the common chapter in the context of the European structural funds. That recommendation has already been agreed by the Northern Ireland CSF monitoring committee, but remains to be considered by the Irish CSF/NDP monitoring committee.

The Council received a report from the body on progress towards implementing its corporate plan. It noted the progress made and urged the body to continue to focus on achieving the aims and objectives specified in its plan. The Council also agreed that the body should prepare an updated and revised corporate business plan for approval at the next meeting of the North/South Ministerial Council in the special EU programmes sectoral format.

When I announced a proposed increase in the body’s budget allocation to the Assembly on 2 July as part of the Executive’s decisions in the June monitoring round, I pointed out that it would be subject to North/South Ministerial Council approval. At the meeting on 30 October, the Council approved that increase in the 2001 budget for the body, which is needed to enable it to meet its in-year commitments. The increased funding requirements arose from costs associated with the provision of office accommodation for the body in Belfast, Omagh and Monaghan. Additional costs had also been incurred in connection with the body’s recruitment and secondment of staff.

The Council noted with satisfaction the progress on the recruitment of staff to the body. The Council also considered and approved a senior staffing structure for the body, which will now move to recruit permanent staff to fill its senior posts. The management team will work with the chief executive to ensure that the body fulfils the important role envisaged for it under the establishing legislation.

It was agreed that the Council should meet again in this sectoral format in Northern Ireland in January or February 2002. The venue for the meeting will be confirmed in due course. The Council agreed the text of a joint communiqué, which was issued following the meeting. A copy of the communiqué has been placed in the Assembly Library.

Dr Birnie:

What is the Minister’s assessment of the adequacy and effectiveness of staffing in the body? There is a perception that there is slippage arising from various administrative and bureaucratic bottlenecks.

Mr Durkan:

As I said, progress on staffing arrangements was reviewed. The body is new and has to establish itself and bring together a variety of tasks within a novel structure. The programmes are also new, and there are many issues of communication, expectation and interpretation. We welcomed the progress that had been made on the recruitment that had already been undertaken, and we reviewed proposals to develop the senior staffing structure of the body. We hope that those steps will resolve the difficulties to which Dr Birnie referred.

Mrs Courtney:

Can the Minister update the House on the local strategy partnerships under Peace II?

Mr Durkan:

The local strategy partnerships will, in many ways, succeed the district partnerships that worked so successfully for Peace I. They will concentrate on the two main measures in priority 3. However, they will also, by virtue of the new composition for the local strategy partnerships, have the task of ensuring that those models will be sustainable beyond the life of this Peace programme. We are trying to use the local strategy partnerships to develop the partnership models and encourage them into the mainstream, so that they are not confined to European programmes, especially as that European money will be removed.

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We want the local strategy partnerships to be truly inclusive and broadly based. The basis on which we have proposed the establishment of the local strategy partnerships allows for the four pillars of social partnership to be involved. It allows local government and central Government, because of its statutory role, to be properly involved and engaged in, and influenced by, what develops there. All of that depends on local agreement. In most districts, agreement and progress have been made, but, in other areas, there is work still outstanding. However, there must be local agreement, and we will encourage that.

Mr Neeson:

I thank the Minister for his upbeat and encouraging statement. I particularly welcome the projected uptake of funds for Peace I and INTERREG II. I do not wish to put the Minister on the spot, but it would be helpful if, early in the new year, the Assembly were given a report on the geographical spread of allocations, particularly under INTERREG II. When does the Minister expect the joint steering group on the common chapter to be established?

Mr Durkan:

The joint steering group will be established forthwith. It will be the mechanism within Government for trying to maximise the commitment to — and the good operation of — the common chapter. It is envisaged that there will also be a joint working group involving the community support framework monitoring committee in the North and the community support framework/national development plan monitoring committee in the South.

As Mr Neeson is aware, the Northern community support framework monitoring committee has already agreed in principle to join that joint working group, but the Southern monitoring committee has yet to agree. We have tried not to rely on only one mechanism within Government, chaired by the two Finance Departments, or on the mechanism of the joint working group of the monitoring committees. We want to have both mechanisms, because that is how the programmes are managed and monitored in their respective jurisdictions. A dual approach is also required for the common chapter.

Mr J Wilson:

What arrangements are in place — or are likely to be put in place in coming days — to make the information contained in that comprehensive report understandable. I have previously used the word "gobbledegook" in the House, and, looking back, I think that it was slightly unfair to do so. However, I will try it again. Every day, I am asked by constituents about how and where they can gain access to funding. They know that the funding is here, there and everywhere, but gaining access to those funds — and understandable information on them — is difficult. I hope that the Minister will pardon me for using the word "gobbledegook" again, but we must remove the jargon from such statements. What is the Minister doing to ensure that the valuable citizens who are doing voluntary work can get access to the information and understand it?

Mr Durkan:

There are several initiatives under way. Members may be aware that the Special EU Programmes Body recently held a roadshow in several locations. The roadshow sets out, in an open and understandable way, the measures that are available, what they entail and what their main focus will be. That is one way in which they have helped.

The body also has a Freefone helpline that can give advice to applicants. I said that there was a web site providing information and able to assist with applications, which can be made in electronic format. We are trying to make sure that more information is available and understandable, and the body will try to ensure that information is available to a wide range of interests. The body will look to the local strategy partnerships to assist, so that local groups will be able to approach them for advice and assistance on issues beyond the priority 3 measure that falls to the local strategy partnerships.

The intermediary funding bodies have been appointed; that announcement has been made. Some calls for projects have already been issued, and more will follow. As the calls for projects issue, each intermediary funding body will make further information available about the scope and emphasis of particular measures. The same will follow for the Government Departments as well, as they start to issue their calls for projects.

Ms Lewsley:

What arrangements has the Minister put in place under Peace II to ensure that funds for community and voluntary sector projects will be protected? Such projects are vital to the process of peace building.

Mr Durkan:

Following their effective contribution to Peace I, the contribution that the community and voluntary sectors can make to Peace II relates to several areas of the programme. Again, intermediary funding bodies will play an important role in ensuring the good use and good distribution of the funds. The bodies have already proven themselves to be a good means of working with the community and voluntary sectors at regional and local level.

The local strategy partnerships will also be able to respond locally to initiatives from the community and voluntary sectors in each district. Government Departments responsible for managing measures are being encouraged to work closely with the community and voluntary sectors. The Executive have already decided to monitor the work of Departments in the programme, with an eye to creating good working partnerships and promoting equality in applications and cross-border co-operation between Departments.

Mr Byrne:

I thank the Minister for his comprehensive statement and congratulate him and his colleague, Mr Nesbitt.

Can the Minister clarify the role of the cross-border development groups in the delivery of INTERREG III? Does he agree that those groups are important, not only as a delivery mechanism, but as a means of widening the partnership that is at the centre of our approach?

Mr Durkan:

First, I want to express appreciation of the Member’s kind compliments.

The cross-border corridor groups have played a significant role, and that has been recognised by Ministers, North and South. We know that some of the border corridor groups have been working for a long time and are not a novelty trip. They have seen what has worked in their own operations and where the gaps have been.

Mr McCreevy and I agreed last year to establish an action team to ensure that the proposals being drawn up for INTERREG III would make best use of the potential of the border corridor groups. We need to make sure that the groups playing that role are not composed only of councillors. We want them to broaden their work and be vehicles for the sort of partnership that we want to see. The groups will be reconfigured into INTERREG III partnerships. They will be implementation bodies for a significant part of the INTERREG III programme. That delivers on the commitment that Mr McCreevy and I made when we met, individually and collectively, the border corridor groups.

Mr McHugh:

Go raibh maith agat, A LeasCheann Comhairle. Public access to funding is the key to the success of the Peace programmes. Local councils have insufficient staff in the local strategy partnerships, and that could pose a difficulty for partnerships at local level. Reasonable accountability and feedback are necessary for local councils. The last time around, councils suffered from lack of feedback from the partnerships. Has the Minister considered that, as it could be a bigger issue this time?

(Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr Mc Clelland] in the Chair)

Mr Durkan:

The involvement of councils and partnerships has received much attention, and there are various views about what happened in the past and about the best way to handle the matter in the future. In the past, councillors were represented on, or were members of, the district partnerships, but that was often an incidental thing. It was the councillors who ran the partnerships, rather than being corporately involved. The work of the partnerships should influence the corporate plans and activities of the council and make sure that councils’ distinctive spheres of responsibility were complementary to and consistent with the partnerships’ endeavours.

That is one reason why we have moved to local strategy partnerships. Councils and statutory agencies will account for 50%, which will be agreed locally between them. The social partners, also by local agreement between them, will make up the other 50%. The aim is not only that councils and statutory agencies will bring their knowledge and interests into the partnerships, but that those bodies will be informed and influenced by the strategic thinking of the partnerships. It is important not only to maximise the benefits of the two priority 3 measures that the local strategy partnerships will manage, but to develop models of partnership for wider, longer-term use.

Mr ONeill:

The work of the body and the quality of the report have impressed me, among others. I am especially interested in Peace II and am glad to note the progress that has been made.

What sort of system is in place, and when will people be able to apply for funding?

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Mr Durkan:

The programme for rolling out access to Peace II is under way in many respects. As I said, the intermediary funding bodies have already been announced, and some have already begun to call for projects. Some Government Departments have also called for projects, and others will follow. We look forward to Peace II applications being made in the coming months.

Gap funding arrangements will be extended for three months — from October until the end of next January — because we believe that applications for Peace II funds will take off then. There will be different timetables for different measures, because the programme involves different Departments and intermediary funding bodies, and different structural and management issues. However, broadly speaking, most of the measures should open for application in the next quarter.


Draft Programme for Government


Mr Deputy Speaker:

Before we proceed, I shall outline how I intend to facilitate the debate on the draft Programme for Government. The Business Committee has agreed that this should not be a time-limited debate, therefore all Members who wish to speak may do so. The debate will provide an opportunity for Back- Bench Members and Committee Chairpersons to speak. Ministers may speak in their ministerial capacity, but they will be called towards the end of the debate, before the winding-up speech, to give them an opportunity to respond to issues raised by Members. I call the First Minister, the Rev — sorry — the Rt Hon Mr David Trimble. I must remember to put on my glasses.

The First Minister (Mr Trimble):

I beg to move

That this Assembly takes note of the draft Programme for Government.

Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker, for that rapid promotion.

Exactly one year ago today, the Assembly had its first opportunity to debate the Executive’s first draft Programme for Government. I said then that the debate was a milestone. It was the first time in three decades that an Assembly of Members elected by the people of Northern Ireland had been able to debate a programme of policies that affected the vital interests of their constituents.

This time last year, we were able to demonstrate to the world that the different parties that make up the Executive could work together constructively to agree a Programme for Government that could make a positive difference to the lives of everyone.

It is sometimes easy to forget the significance of our milestones. However, last year’s Programme for Government was the most tangible sign that all the major parties in the Assembly — and I do mean all — wanted devolved government to work.

One year on, we can see that the devolved Government is delivering open and accountable government for the people of Northern Ireland. Despite the difficulties of the past few weeks and months, we have shown that we can make a difference, and that we are responsive to our community’s needs.

The first draft programme, which was announced last March, contained some 200 pledges, of which 37 had already been fully implemented by the time the second draft programme was published in September. Rapid progress continues to be made. For example, the Administration have worked to agree and implement a new student support package, funding new university places and providing financial help to encourage many more young people who would not previously have been able to continue into higher education to do so. In the first Programme for Government, a commitment of 850 additional higher education places was given. In today’s draft programme, we are proposing action that will lead to a total enrolment of 35,500 full-time students in higher education. That will be an increase of over 2,500 from 1999-2000.

We are also well on the way to fulfilling the pledge to provide a free year of pre-school education for every child whose parents wish it. The draft Programme for Government reiterates that pledge, which is on target for delivery by the end of the financial year 2002-03. Free public transport has been introduced for older people. We will now seek to improve opportunities for the mobility of others who are socially excluded and in greatest need.

The devolved Administration have also been aware of the pressing need to improve health care. By next March, spending on health and personal social services will have been increased by no less than £400 million. That will be an increase of 23% in the first two years of devolved government. Furthermore, the draft Budget that was recently presented to the Assembly proposes additional increases of £186 million in the next financial year for health and personal social services. That constitutes a further rise of 8·5%. Over the three years, that represents an accumulated increase of over £500 million. That is a tremendous financial increase, and we must ensure that that money is well used.

The pace of improvement of the health sector must not slacken. To ensure that it does not, we have reviewed the organisation of acute hospital services. Crucially, the Administration are carrying out an examination of needs and levels of effectiveness in the health sector to consider how needs can be met, effectiveness maximised and to ensure that we get the best value from the money that has been provided. Clearly, much still needs to be achieved, as waiting lists are still longer than those in other UK regions — despite higher per capita spending and a younger population.

The Programme for Government also sets out the Executive’s commitment to protect and conserve our environment. That commitment was demonstrated last year by the allocation of additional resources for air-quality management, biodiversity, conservation, water pollution control and waste management. We have already made good progress in tackling the results of previous underfunding in those areas and remain committed to a sustainable approach to government.

We have also agreed to invest more to develop the infrastructure that supports the economy. The draft programme includes important proposals in that area. We will proceed with plans for two new major gas pipelines: one from Belfast to the north-west and the other from south Antrim to Dublin, with the potential to give three quarters of the population access to the national North Sea gas network.

We have also allocated £40 million to improving the route from Larne, through Belfast, to the border. That major investment will strengthen the competitiveness of Belfast, Larne and Warrenpoint and help to facilitate external trade.

A key challenge for the Executive will be to build on the economic success of the past few years. The draft Programme for Government recommits us to the goal of securing a competitive and sustainable economy. The events of 11 September and their aftermath present a real challenge. Their impact on a global economy that was, in many respects, slowing, is still uncertain as regards severity and duration. Some of that impact has already been felt in the local economy. There have been job losses following the axing of the British Airways route from London to Belfast. There are also possible redundancies at Bombardier Shorts. Other firms are also affected, particularly in the service and tourism sectors.

However, on the positive side, there is evidence that Northern Ireland should be able to weather an economic downturn. As part of the UK, Northern Ireland is within what is widely regarded as the most buoyant of the major national economies.

The sometimes painful national reforms of the last two decades have resulted in a competitive national economy, strong public finances, and low inflation. Northern Ireland shares in those advantages. At the same time, the relative importance of our public sector and the buoyancy of our local labour market should stand us in good stead. That view is supported by most UK regional economic forecasters. According to their forecasts, which we fervently hope are to be accurate, Northern Ireland rates among the top half of UK regions in respect of regional growth prospects.

Our draft Programme for Government commits us to taking new action to promote enterprise and innovation. By 2005 we hope to secure 6,000 new business starts under the business start programme, and by 2004 we hope to stimulate a 25% increase in private sector investment in research and development. We will also take action to promote exports and encourage inward investment, particularly in high value-added sectors.

Those are some of our achievements over the past year. We have made progress, perhaps not as much as we hoped to, since we addressed the Assembly this time last year. However, some parties were slow to honour their responsibilities in the agreement, and that has come at some cost. I hope that the distractions of recent weeks will detain us no longer. The full implementation of the agreement must be pursued vigorously by those with direct responsibility and without further large-scale commitment of ministerial time. The people of Northern Ireland have every right to expect that their elected representatives will be fully and exclusively engaged in the task of making Northern Ireland a better place to live, a place at ease with itself, with a successful economy and first-class public services.

The important point is that we should continue to move forward. Northern Ireland needs and deserves peace and political stability to allow us all to work collectively and responsibly to identify and address the challenges that we face. Clearly, the public desires a successful, local Administration. It is incumbent on everyone who accepts a ministerial office to respect that desire and to work together to develop and deliver effective public services that meet the needs of the people of Northern Ireland.

Despite distractions, work has continued in recent months to revise the Programme for Government, as we are required to do annually under the agreement. Six weeks ago we presented a revised draft to the Assembly for scrutiny. The programme commits us to a vision of a peaceful, cohesive, inclusive, prosperous, stable and fair society, and the draft sets out how we intend to achieve that. It has been developed collectively, with detailed and constructive contributions from all Departments, including those headed by Ministers who do not currently attend Executive meetings. Consequently, it reflects the contribution of all of those who participate and share in this Administration.

The Deputy First Minister will highlight further key developments that have been made since the publication of the first Programme for Government and will set out how we plan to deliver our commitments, but first I will reiterate the importance of a locally accountable Administration to develop policies and programmes that address people’s needs. Our great strength as an Administration is that we are locally elected and accountable to that electorate.

However, that privileged position brings with it a responsibility to govern openly, to produce a Programme for Government and subject it to the scrutiny of the Assembly and society. The new openness in government lets people see and comment on our plans and proposals.

In our first Programme for Government we committed ourselves to building an accessible, accountable and responsible Administration, and the Executive remain firmly committed to those principles. We have also revisited and improved our public service agreements. They should be contracts between the Departments — which make up the Executive —, the Assembly and the public. They will set out the outcomes that Departments will work to achieve, with the resources voted by the Assembly. Public service agreements are therefore an integral part of the Programme for Government. Our commitments to precise targets enables the Assembly and the public to see precisely where we have succeeded and where there is still work to be done.

The Programme for Government will be supported by new service delivery agreements for every Department for 2002 and 2003. These will link the higher level targets in the public service agreements with actions, targets and budgets for improving service delivery. The service delivery agreements will focus on meeting customer needs and will be provided to the Assembly Committees for consideration in draft form before their publication next year.

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Additionally, the Executive plan to enhance openness and accountability by publishing after the end of each financial year a report on the progress of the commitments made in the Programme for Government and in the public service agreements. That will inform the Assembly and the public of how much progress the Executive have made on their commitments.

I look forward to Members’ contributions to the debate. Their views will help to influence the final shape of the programme, which will be submitted to the Assembly for approval in a few weeks’ time.

The Deputy First Minister (Mr Durkan):

The First Minister emphasised the importance of the Programme for Government and that the responsibility for its implementation lies with the Executive. Now that we have witnessed defining progress in decommissioning and in the solidarity and effectiveness of the pro-agreement parties, we can look forward to a period when we can focus, in an uninterrupted way, on developing and delivering policies to address the needs of the people.

In spite of difficulties in recent months, considerable progress was made on the Programme for Government by our predecessors, Sir Reg Empey and Séamus Mallon. That gave us a good basis for today’s debate and for further work until the programme’s final adoption on 10 December.

I will add to the First Minister’s assessment of the progress that the Executive have made and our plans for building on that progress as set out in the Programme for Government. I will detail how the Executive plan to develop their work and the partnerships that they hope to build with the Assembly, the Civic Forum and the public.

The Executive’s relationship with the Assembly is fundamental. The Assembly has a key role in scrutinising and approving the Programme for Government. Today’s debate plays an important part in that scrutiny process, and I look forward to listening to Members’ points and to the Committee submissions. The work of Committees is an important part of the scrutiny process, and the Executive are grateful to the Committees for the time that they take to consider and respond to the proposals contained in the draft Programme for Government. The Executive have received initial responses from some Committees and look forward to receiving the rest in the days ahead.

The Executive are ready to listen to, and consider, the Assembly’s ideas and suggestions. The Executive are ready to respond to the issues raised today or when the Programme for Government is finalised, which, as the First Minister indicated, will be in early December. The Assembly’s views will help to determine the final document. The Good Friday Agreement requires the Executive to propose and implement Programmes for Government, and it requires the Assembly to approve such programmes and their accompanying Budgets. The Executive particularly want to hear the Assembly’s views on the priorities and sub-priorities identified and on the actions that the Executive plan to take in support of those priorities.

The Executive highlighted, among other issues, the need for an appropriate approach to services for older people. We also want to hear the Assembly’s views on the equality aspects of the draft Programme for Government and the public service agreements.

The Programme for Government and the Budget are linked. The Programme for Government informs and influences the Executive’s decisions on budgetary allocations. We must work with the resources that are available to deliver our policies and our programmes. The Programme for Government and the Budget are therefore developed in tandem, and the Executive presented both documents to the Assembly in draft form in the same week. The Executive will do this again when next month they present to the House the revised Programme for Government and revised Budget. I hope that my retention of the Finance and Personnel portfolio for a short period will facilitate coherence between the Budget and the Programme for Government processes. I will be in trouble if that is not the case.

Joint public consultation covering both documents has been initiated. That has included the broad circulation of copies of the documents and newspaper adverts to encourage people to make their views known. The process also involves a series of consultation seminars at which Ministers and officials from the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister and the Department of Finance and Personnel are available to present details of the contents of the documents and to seek views on them.

The Assembly has already debated the draft Budget. Committees have given their views on it to the Committee for Finance and Personnel. However, today’s debate and the comments provided on the draft Programme for Government will also influence the Executive’s final Budget proposals.

The First Minister highlighted the role of the Programme for Government in identifying the priorities and programmes that reflect the needs of people here. A locally elected, accountable Administration is a real strength. We must build on the progress that has already been made, as outlined by the First Minister, if we are to realise our vision and make a positive difference. In this draft programme we continue to identify and develop approaches that respond to local need, and that work will continue in the Executive.

We are engaging others in the process by consulting openly in several key policy areas in a way that should ensure that we gain a full understanding of the views of local people before taking decisions that will fundamentally affect them.

With regard to health, a consultation process is under way on the report of the acute hospitals review group. Decisions are expected to be taken next year on the way forward. On education, consultation is in progress on the review of post-primary education, and proposals will be made next autumn.

With regard to agriculture, the vision group has published a comprehensive report on the future of the agrifood sector, with wide ranging recommendations on the structure and future direction of the sector. Again, the Executive are seeking views on that.

We plan to launch a comprehensive review of public administration by the spring, which will recognise the need for different structures under devolution and enable resources to be used in the best way to serve the public.

Earlier this year, the Executive agreed to initiate a programme of needs and effectiveness evaluations on the spending programmes. Evaluations are being carried out for health, education, housing, training and vocational education and financial assistance to industry. These five areas account for 70% of planned public spending in Northern Ireland. The evaluations are major pieces of work, involving this Department, the Department of Finance and Personnel and the relevant spending Departments. Their findings will be used to support our arguments to the Treasury about the Barnett formula. They should also help to provide us with a better understanding of how effective these major areas of spending are in supporting the priorities that the Executive set out in the Programme for Government.


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