Northern Ireland Assembly Flax Flower Logo

northern ireland assembly

Monday 28 January 2008

Assembly Business:
Suspension of Standing Orders

Ministerial Statement:
The Appointment of Commissioners Designate for Victims and Survivors

Executive Committee Business:
Health (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill: Further Consideration Stage
Programme for Government and Investment Strategy

Oral Answers to Questions:
Health, Social Services and Public Safety
Regional Development
Social Development

Executive Committee Business:
Programme for Government and Investment Strategy for Northern Ireland

Committee Business:
Standing Committee Membership
Report of the Ad Hoc Committee on the draft Criminal Justice (Northern Ireland) Order 2007

The Assembly met at 12.00 noon (Mr Speaker in the Chair).

Members observed two minutes’ silence.

assembly Business

Suspension of Standing Orders

The First Minister (Rev Dr Ian Paisley): I beg to move

That Standing Orders 10(2) to 10(4), inclusive, be suspended for 28 January 2008.

The deputy First Minister and I have tabled a motion to seek the Assembly’s endorsement of the Programme for Government and the investment strategy for Northern Ireland. I understand that the Business Committee has allocated six hours for this item of business. Therefore, we have also tabled a motion to suspend Standing Orders to allow business to continue beyond 6.00 pm. That will ensure that as many Members as possible have an opportunity to contribute to this important debate.

Mr Speaker: Before I put the Question, I remind Members that resolution of the motion requires cross-community support.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved (with cross-community support):

That Standing Orders 10(2) to 10(4), inclusive, be suspended for 28 January 2008.

Mr Speaker: Given that the motion has been agreed, if required, today’s sitting may continue beyond 7.00 pm.

Ministerial Statement

The Appointment of Commissioners Designate for Victims and Survivors

Mr Speaker: I have received notice from the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister that the First Minister wishes to make a statement on the outcome of the appointment of a commissioner for victims and survivors.

The First Minister (Rev Dr Ian Paisley): We are glad to see, in the public gallery, a good number of those who represent victims and survivors. We hope that something that will be said today from the Benches will bring them some help and strength.

Before making the statement, the deputy First Minister and I wish to express our regret that its details were reported in the press on Friday. Our intention, as was made clear over the past few months, was that the first public announcement of our decision would be made to the Assembly. We all agree that it is regrettable that the press reports preceded today’s statement.

The deputy First Minister and I have come to the House today to set out for Members, as we promised, how we intend to move forward on the issue of how we provide support and help for victims and survivors. These are some of the most vulnerable people in our Province. They have suffered great personal loss over the years, and we are determined that they should not be left behind.

The deputy First Minister and I have been working together intensely on the issue for many months, and believe that moving forward is pivotal. We have already demonstrated our commitment by delivering over £33 million in the Budget for that area of work over the next three years. Of that £33 million, £6 million is new money, as announced in the Assembly last week by the Minister of Finance and Personnel.

Our recognition today of the needs and concerns of victims and survivors moves on to the start of delivery for all those in Northern Ireland who suffered over decades of conflict, terror and strife. A key part of that relates to the issue of a commissioner for victims and survivors.

Members will be aware that the process for that appointment began under direct rule. They will, moreover, recall that on 8 October 2007, the deputy First Minister and I announced that we had decided to extend the appointment process. Some potential applicants might have been deterred from putting themselves forward under direct rule. We formed the view that by extending the appointment process, the post would be more firmly grounded in the new political environment and the person who was appointed would have broad support.

We are able to announce the outcome of that appoint­ment process. The decision to extend the competition resulted in an additional 38 applicants coming forward. Following interviews, a combined list was drawn up of individuals who were deemed suitable for appointment by both the initial interview panel and by the extended process as announced on 8 October 2007.

As we were to get the best possible person for the job, each of the seven candidates was invited to give a short presentation to the deputy First Minister and myself.

The impact of the quality and delivery of those presentations, coupled with the candidates’ drive and enthusiasm to make a real difference, had a profound effect on our thinking and our approach to this highly sensitive and complex issue. Following the presentations, we came to the conclusion that we should take advantage of all the skills and experience that we could possibly bring together to chart the future for all those who have been neglected for so long.

Our firm belief is that a team of four commissioners working together — in essence, a victims’ commission — is the best way forward. Given the significant backlog of urgent work and the range of difficult challenges that face us in this area, these four people will have much more capacity to engage directly with victims and survivors than a single commissioner. To put it simply, they will be much more personally available to victims and survivors than a single commissioner.

For example, a single commissioner would, inevitably, have had to delegate many activities, including consultation and liaison, to a secretariat. It would also have been inevitable that many specific projects would have had to be undertaken by consultants. The four commissioners will be expected to undertake these and other important tasks themselves — although, obviously, administrative support will be provided for them.

Accordingly, I am pleased to announce that, in response to an invitation, four of the candidates on the list of those considered suitable for the post of commissioner have indicated their willingness to act in a joint capacity as commissioners designate in a new victims’ and survivors’ commission. The four people who will make up the new commission are Brendan McAllister, Patricia MacBride, Bertha McDougall and Michael Nesbitt.

We anticipate that the commission will have the same functions as the post of Victims’ Commissioner described in the Victims and Survivors (Northern Ireland) Order 2006. It is our intention to make formal appointments in due course, but we must first introduce the necessary legislation to create the victims’ and survivors’ commission that I have described today. A Bill to provide for the establishment of the commission will be introduced as soon as possible. Subject, of course, to the decision of the Assembly, we will wish to proceed with the formal appointments as soon as possible thereafter.

I want to make it clear that, in the interim, there is much important work for the four commissioners designate to carry out. We want them to sit down together and get to grips with setting out an agreed work programme for the new commission. That will be a crucial first step as we move towards a better service for those touched by the events of our troubled past. It is envisaged that the work plan will cover all the issues that impact on victims and survivors, including a review of support services, legislation, and the setting up of a victims’ and survivors’ forum.

The deputy First Minister and I will continue to take a close interest in this work. We pledge our full support for the four people who are taking on one of the most important tasks facing our society. I want them to know that we will be available to them when they need us as we all seek to move forward together. For us, they will be the primary authority on victims and survivors.

12.15 pm

In commending this announcement to the House, I ask Members to give it careful consideration, not least because of the importance of the work that we are asking the new victims’ and survivors’ commission to do. Remember also that this announcement is really for those who have been largely without a voice. Today, we are giving them a voice — a real voice. It is a voice that will reach the heart of Government and will be heard and listened to for the very first time. May God speed this work with His blessing.

The Chairperson of the Committee for the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister (Mr Kennedy): Mr Speaker, I understand that questions will be answered by the deputy First Minister; is that correct?

Mr Speaker: That is correct.

Mr Kennedy: I thank the First Minister for his statement and I acknowledge the appointment of the new commissioners designate. I wish them well in the difficult and complex work with which they have been charged.

However, I register concern at the manner through which the announcement of their appointments was brought into the public domain. It was unsatisfactory that the announcement was leaked to the press, and that has proved unhelpful to us as we come to terms with the decisions that have been made.

Will the appointments be to full-time posts? Given that the original and subsequent advertisements announcing the job of Interim Commissioner for Victims and Survivors indicated that there would be a singular rather than a plural outcome, will the deputy First Minister tell the House when the decision to increase the number of commissioners was taken? Will he also tell us how that decision was taken, who was consulted, and was legal advice sought to justify increasing the number of appointments?

There may be concerns arising; for example, more people may have applied had they known that there was to be a panel of commissioners. Will the deputy First Minister assure me that the legislation, when it is brought to the House, will confirm the independent status of the proposed victims’ and survivors’ commission? The statement said that commissioners will be the primary authority on victims and survivors, but will they be the independent primary authority on victims and survivors?

On behalf of the Ulster Unionist Party, I ask the deputy First Minister to advise us on the status of the report of the Interim Commissioner for Victims and Survivors, Mrs McDougall, given that she has been appointed as one of the new commissioners designate.

The deputy First Minister (Mr M McGuinness): I thank the Chairperson of the Committee for the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister for his contribution. The First Minister and I share his concern about the leaking of the information and on how unhelpful that was to all of us.

I confirm that the posts will be on a full-time basis. Regarding the question about appointing one commissioner, we took the decision to appoint more than one commissioner following the presentations from the shortlisted candidates, and it is already in the public domain that those presentations were completed just before Christmas. Having reflected on the matter, we concluded that the interests of victims and survivors would be better served by drawing on the broad range of skills and knowledge exhibited by the candidates.

After the presentations, the First Minister and I decided that we would meet shortly after Christmas — we interrupted our Christmas break and met in Stormont Castle on either the Thursday or Friday following Christmas Day. We then deliberated on the presentations and on the reflections that we had had during the Christmas break.

It was at that stage that we decided that the appointment of a number of commissioners was the sensible way to proceed. We took legal advice on the matter, and that confirmed our view that we were within our rights to do so. We also, in the course of our deliberations, consulted Felicity Huston at the Office of the Commissioner for Public Appointments, and she declared herself content with our approach. Therefore, a sensible decision was taken to reflect, over the Christmas period, on the candidates’ presentations — they were all important and powerful. As a result of those presentations and our reflection on the matter, we came to the decision that we did. That began the business of trying to process that decision.

With regard to the recommendations in Bertha McDougall’s report, we are considering a draft strategy that will signal a major step forward in the work with victims and survivors. That strategy will be built on work that has already been done, and when it is published for consultation, it will be clear that we have learned from the valuable work that Mrs McDougall carried out. We must improve the quality of life for those people whose lives were changed for ever by what happened to them. With a new strategy and the creation of the commission, we believe that the key building blocks will be in place to achieve that.

The important decision has been taken, and the four commissioners designate have been appointed. The people who have been charged with this responsibility deserve the support of every Member of this House. Their work will be onerous: there are tender feelings and raw emotions out there, and different views about how to proceed. We, on behalf of the Executive, have acted decisively.

I have listened to commentary over the weekend that suggested that we came to that decision because we could not agree on one commissioner. Nothing could be further from the truth. At no stage of our deliberations did we have a situation in which the First Minister proposed someone and I proposed an alternative. That never happened. Some people might greet that with incredulity, but it is a symbol of the way in which he and I proceed with business. We are conscious of the need to take the right decision. Therefore, I can say, without fear of contradiction, that we were never in a position of disagreement on the way forward.

Mr Moutray: I welcome the statement by the First Minister. Many in society will be reassured that victims will not be forgotten as we move forward in this Province. Will the deputy First Minister give an indication of what the commissioners’ workload will be and what resources will be made available to them in advance of legislation being passed in this House?

The deputy First Minister: As I said, there will clearly be a heavy workload. It is a matter that has been much neglected over many years. The people who have been appointed — and we have held initial discussions with them — have indicated that they are engaged in the process with good heart and a firm commitment to work together. Much of the work will have to be done by the commissioners themselves.

It is the intention that the commissioners designate represent the interests of victims and survivors and, specifically, develop a work programme and agree it with us. We envisage that the programme will cover issues such as examining all law and practice affecting victims and survivors, keeping under review the adequacy and effectiveness of services, and providing advice on the issues.

The job that has to be done will provide enough work for four commissioners. There are many people out there, many of whom have not come forward previously. However, in new circumstances, the opportunity is there for everyone to talk to people who will listen to them carefully and sympathetically.

Other commentary over the weekend stated that the First Minister and I appointed victims’ commissioners designate who have particular appeal to one section of the community or the other. Again, nothing could be further from the truth. We expect the four victims’ commissioners designate to engage with everyone in society and to lend a sympathetic ear to everyone who has been affected by the conflict. We do not wish to create a situation whereby people will have a particular view of the politics and allegiances of the victims’ commissioners. We are moving forward on the basis that those four people must represent the interests of all victims and survivors without fear or favour.

Mr Molloy: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I welcome the appointment of the four-person victims’ commission. It is a major step forward for the victims, the survivors, the families and the loved ones who have suffered over the years. No two victims are the same, and one of the benefits of having four victims’ commissioners is that all the various backgrounds will be represented. However, the families, the victims and the survivors will be concerned about whether the finances and the gap funding exist to allow them to continue to do their work.

The deputy First Minister: As the First Minister said, over the next three years, we will commit more than £33 million to support programmes of work designed to make a real difference to the lives of victims and survivors. The money will go towards supporting individual victims and survivors and victims’ groups who have carried out much valuable work over the years.

Some £5·2 million was allocated for each of the years 2005-06, 2006-07 and 2007-08; £7·4 million will be allocated for 2008-09; £11·8 million for 2009-10; and £15 million for 2010-11. Those figures represent an increase of more than 100% over that invested in this area over the past three years.

We are working out the detail of a new strategy for victims and survivors. We will want to have discussions with all key stakeholders, including, of course, the new commissioners. The cost of the victims’ commissioners is in addition to those figures. The discontinuation of support for victims’ groups as a result of EU funds drying up represents a real challenge for all of us. Naturally, we want the tremendous work of all groups in the community to continue.

Mr Durkan: I thank the First Minister and the deputy First Minister for the statement and for the supplementary answers. As others have said, it is deeply regrettable that the news came out in the way in which it did, because it added to a lot of bemusement and concern in some quarters.

Regardless of the rights and wrongs of moving from an advertised vacancy for one commissioner to the appointment of four, we must all give the fullest possible support to the people who are now tasked with taking the work forward. They are very worthy people who will serve well. However, there is a danger that certain commissioners could be perceived as representing victims from particular constituencies. We need to work to dismantle that perception to ensure that those difficulties do not compound the challenge that they face. Will the deputy First Minister address that point?

The deputy First Minister said that “we” will be drawing up the strategy; I presume that, by “we”, he means the Executive or the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister. To what extent, therefore, will the victims’ commission have a lead in shaping the strategy? Will it merely commentate on a strategy that has been prepared elsewhere in Government? How far will the victims’ commissioners be involved in the proofing and approving of the £33 million that was delivered to victims in the draft Budget — and which the First Minister mentioned in his statement — and in tracking the difference between European funds and what happens in the future?

12.30 pm

When will the required legislation be introduced? Will it look at broadening the scope of the four victims’ commissioners beyond the role that was envisaged for a single commissioner in the Victims and Survivors (Northern Ireland) Order 2006?

The deputy First Minister: The four victims’ commissioners designate will be expected to work together as equals. They will agree with us a detailed work programme that will deal with issues of individual roles, responsibilities and methods of joint working. We will respect the independence of the victims’ commission. It is important that victims’ groups know that they have advocates who have authority, and, in moving forward, it is important that we respect the independence of the group.

The First Minister and I expect to be in a position to discuss the detail of the draft strategy with the Committee for the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister at the beginning of the consultative process. We will also want to discuss our intentions regarding the strategy with the victims’ commissioners designate.

We will have to consider the funding situation as we move forward, because the funding streams that have supported victims’ groups for some years are drying up. That must be recognised. We anticipate that the funding arrangements in place in relation to the memorial funding, the core funding and the development grant schemes for victims’ and survivors’ groups operated on behalf of the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister will continue during the financial year 2008-09.

The Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister will work closely with the memorial fund, the Community Relations Council (CRC), the victims’ commission and the victims’ and survivors’ forum to manage the transition to new funding arrangements, which will be set out in the new strategy for victims and survivors.

In liaison with the victims’ commission, the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister will also take forward work with regard to identified areas of need, such as enhanced support for victims’ and survivors’ groups to provide befriending services for victims and survivors, provision for respite care, and support for general practitioners in dealing with trauma. Other areas of emerging need may be examined by the new victims’ commission.

Mr Durkan’s first point was important. If the victims’ commission is to work, it is vital that it appeals to the whole community as it moves forward, and not be seen merely as individuals who will only deal with the views expressed by people who are perceived to be from their community. That would be a huge mistake. One of the most moving experiences that I had since becoming the deputy First Minister occurred a short time after I assumed the office. I received a request to meet with a disabled member of the RUC who was badly wounded by the IRA during the conflict. That person came into the room and put out his hand; he shook my hand and wished me the best for the future.

That is the direction in which the victims’ commission must go. Our political circumstances have changed, and we have a brilliant future — if it is managed properly. People must be sympathetic to each other and recognise the tremendous hurt and pain that has been inflicted on all sides. There is an onerous task facing the victims’ commission. We have chosen four people who are up to that challenge; they will not allow themselves to be categorised as commissioners for a particular group. The four individuals recognise that their appeal must be broad.

Mrs Long: I welcome the additional resources that have been set aside for those who suffered during the conflict in Northern Ireland. The people who suffered most were least considered as we tried to resolve that conflict, so this is an important step in trying to address that.

Announcing the change in policy from a commissioner to a commission at the same time as placing the names of those who were appointed in the public domain makes it difficult to consider the proposal objectively without subsequent comments being characterised as criticism of those appointed individuals. For the record, before asking my question, any criticisms of the process that I may express in no way reflect negatively on those four individuals who have agreed to take on what is a difficult and complex role. I have full confidence in their abilities to deliver on that role, and, in doing so, they have my full support.

However, there are issues. Does the deputy First Minister agree that, given the general funding reductions for such matters that are expected in the next few years, and by increasing salary and office costs by a factor of at least four, resources that might have addressed specific sector needs and those of the individuals who have suffered may, in the long term, be deflected from front-line services?

In addition, does the deputy First Minister agree that the requirement for new legislation and the inherent delay in creating and fine-tuning the structures of a commission will, in some ways, be a barrier to the hope that the commissioners designate will hit the ground running?

Finally, does he agree that it is inconsistent for an Administration that have been sabre rattling about public-service overstaffing to appoint four people to do a job that, as recently as October 2007, both he and the First Minister agreed was for an individual?

The deputy First Minister: The victims’ and survivors’ sector has long been neglected, there is a backlog of work, and we have no doubt that the commissioners designate will have a heavy workload.

On the subject of money, given that the commissioners designate will, themselves, undertake many key tasks, less money will be spent on delegating work and putting work out to consultants. Therefore, savings can be made, and the commissioners’ direct involvement will benefit victims and survivors.

As legislation progresses, the Committee to which the Member is the Deputy Chairperson will have an important scrutinising role — as will every Member of the Assembly. Such scrutiny must be undertaken sensibly, and, in the meantime, the commissioners designate must get on with their business because, as I said, that sector has been neglected for far too long. We now have four people who are absolutely dedicated to doing that work and beginning as quickly as possibly, and all Members must give them every possible support.

Mr Shannon: I welcome the First Minister’s statement. It is good that victims, who have been without a voice for so long, now have a body through which to express that voice.

Will the First Minister assure Members that the four victims’ commissioners will work to their individual strengths and as a team? In addition, will he also assure us that the Committee for the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister will work alongside the victims’ commissioners, the commission and the victims in order to shape the commission’s policy and strategy?

The deputy First Minister: There is a tremendous amount of work to be done. At the end of last week, the meeting that the First Minister and I held with the four commissioners designate clearly indicated that we were dealing with four people of the highest calibre who were conscious of their responsibility to advance one of the most sensitive areas of work to be undertaken.

The relationship between the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister, the Committee for the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister, and, indeed, the Assembly must be to work in a spirit of co-operation. We want the commissioners designate to feel part of that process, and, at the end of the day, we want to put legislation forward that will generate the greatest possible amount of support in the Assembly.

Four commissioners designate have been appointed, all of whom have accepted that they will be expected to work together as equals. They will agree a detailed work programme with us, which will deal with issues such as individual roles and responsibilities, and methods of joint working. I believe that we have appointed people who are well capable of undertaking those tasks.

Mr McElduff: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Cuirim fáilte roimh ráiteas an Aire. I welcome the appointments that have been made, and this very important statement. Bearing in mind the need for all victims of the conflict to be treated equally, and for recognition that there is no hierarchy of victims, does the appointment process reflect the diversity of experiences suffered variously by victims and survivors of the conflict? I wish to seek assurance that the appointments process was based on openness, transparency and, ultimately, the principle of merit.

The deputy First Minister: It is absolutely essential that in moving forward we give the four commissioners designate their place. All of that which the Member has mentioned is work that they will have to undertake. As far as openness, transparency and the principle of merit are concerned, it is clear to me that the whole appointments process, including the initial stage that was conducted under direct rule, was overseen and certified by the Commissioner for Public Appointments, whom the First Minister and I have met on a number of occasions. We are very satisfied with the process and its outcome. We believe that we have arrived at an approach that will make best use of the skills and experience of four people who we consider to be very capable.

Mr Spratt: I welcome today’s announcement. Folk to whom I talked to over the weekend gave a broad welcome to the appointment of the four commissioners, or a commission. It is sad to hear some people trying to politicise the whole thing. I hope that everyone will work together to assist these folks in their very difficult task.

I assume that the four commissioners will sit down with a blank sheet to work out their terms of reference and an agreed work programme. Will the work already done on behalf of victims be taken into consideration by those four people? Will the groups that represent victims be fully consulted, and will the process of agreeing the terms of reference and the work programme be time-limited, so that the important work of engaging with victims and survivors can start as soon as possible?

The deputy First Minister: It is clear that the criteria for the terms of reference set out in The Victims and Survivors (Northern Ireland) Order 2006 are the basis on which we are proceeding, and on which all decisions were taken in respect of these appointments. The work that has already been completed by Bertha McDougall, as I have already said, will form an important part of the considerations of both our Office and the commissioners, as we move forward.

I am also very conscious that there are many groups with strong opinions on these matters. That is going to be a tall order for the four commissioners designate to deal with. When we sit back and reflect on the challenge that that would have represented for one victims’ commissioner, it is clear that the task to be undertaken can only be carried forward by a group of very talented and dedicated people who are committed to the process of ensuring that victims and survivors are treated with the respect that they deserve.

Mr Elliott: First, does the deputy First Minister share my concern for those victims of the Troubles who were members of the Orange Institution in Northern Ireland, an organisation that probably suffered some of society’s largest losses, with more than 330 of its members murdered and many more seriously injured?

Does the deputy First Minister also share my concerns about the terminology used to describe victims? Will that terminology be handed down from the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister, or will the victims’ commissioners make up their own minds about the terminology to be used? What does the deputy First Minister understand by the word “victim”? Does he believe that terrorists who died during the Troubles as a result of their own actions should be classified as victims?

12.45 pm

The deputy First Minister: My sympathy goes out to everybody who suffered as a result of the conflict, and that includes those people from the Orange Order, who also suffered.

We must give the commission its place. For example, we want the commissioners designate to take forward work on the establishment of a victims’ and survivors’ forum, and the arrangements for the setting up of such a forum will essentially be a matter for them. That will be a very important element of their work, and we expect that the forum will play a crucial role in helping to inform the commission as to the needs of all victims and survivors.

Mrs D Kelly: The SDLP welcomes the appointment of the victims’ commissioners, albeit that it is somewhat confused by how the appointments came about. As a party that had no role to play in the creation of victims, it must point out certain truths. The deputy First Minister said in an earlier response that loss and pain were inflicted on all sides, but I must point out to him that they were not inflicted by all.

When exactly will the victims’ and survivors’ forum be established? Will it be established by designate commissioners, or will they have to wait for the intro­duction of legislation to create the victims’ commission before they can establish the forum? When will that legislation be brought to this House? What control will the victims’ commissioners have over the £33 million that has been allocated in the Budget, or will that money be given to each of the different Departments? How will the relationship between the Executive and the victims’ commission be established?

The deputy First Minister: I will not respond to the political point scoring. Given the day that is in it, it is a pity that some people are attempting to undermine today’s announcement.

The commissioners designate will make the decision on the establishment of the victims’ forum. We very much see that as being their work, and we expect the forum to play an important role in helping to inform the commission about the needs of victims and survivors. It is essentially for the commissioners designate to decide when that forum will be established.

Ms Anderson: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle.

I thank the First Minister for his statement. Can the deputy First Minister tell us whether we now have a commission that reflects the diversity, concerns and needs across society? Can he assure us that the needs of all the various victims and survivors will be responded to and will be reflected in the work of the four commissioners?

The deputy First Minister: It is my view that the membership of the commission — which is, in essence, what it will be — will have a very wide appeal in the community. It would be very wrong of me, or any Member, to even attempt to begin to categorise the individual people concerned and their viewpoints on many different matters. The commissioners must now engage in the important work of gaining as much support as possible, given the disparate views that people hold on the issue of victims and survivors. They must try to gain as much respect and support as possible from the bulk of people who have been affected by the conflict. It is not my job, nor is it the job of the Executive or the Assembly, to categorise the four individuals. Our challenge to them is to ask them to work towards having broad appeal in every section of the community and to be very sympathetic to everyone whom they meet.

As the commissioners make progress and report individually, or as a commission, it is important that they are able to say that they have consistently reached out their hands in support to every section of the community. I do not want to hear an individual commissioner say that he or she specialises in a particular section of the community. That would be a sign of failure, because the commissioners must have a broad appeal. After speaking to them at the end of last week, I am totally satisfied that they recognise, and are up for, the challenge.

Mrs I Robinson: I add my voice to the welcome for today’s announcement of a victims’ commission. However, I too am disappointed that the news was leaked to the public before a statement had been made to the House.

Will the deputy First Minister tell the House when legislation will be introduced and how long the term of the commission will be? Does he agree that it is vital that the genuinely innocent victims of violence regard the commissioners as four people to whom they can relate their experiences? Will he assure me that the House will be updated on the work programme for victims?

The deputy First Minister: Legislation is in the hands of the powers that be in the Assembly. The First Minister and I are determined that the work be completed as quickly as possible. Our office and the Committee for the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister, chaired by Danny Kennedy, will work together to that end.

The legislation will set out a four-year term for the commission, and I commit to updating the Assembly, and, most importantly, the Committee for the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister as work on those important matters progresses.

Mr Irwin: I also welcome today’s announcement of a victims’ commission, because the workload is simply too great to be handled by a sole commissioner. When does the deputy First Minister expect to see the benefits of the commission’s work? Will he describe the type of programme that will be offered to assist the victims?

The deputy First Minister: The majority of victims, who were mobilised on this issue and are keen to see progress, will be pleased by the important and decisive announcement — at long last — of the establishment of a group of highly talented individuals. Many victims’ issues were not dealt with previously, and people were not given their place in society. There is a realistic expectation that such matters will now be addressed because local people, who have the confidence of the Assembly, the Executive and, most importantly, the community, will take a hands-on approach that will expedite resolutions to the difficulties that have been created over many years.

The commissioners’ work is vital, and people will take great encouragement from the decision that has been announced today. The commissioners understand that they have a responsibility to make swift progress on all issues.

Mr Beggs: I welcome today’s announcement of additional funding for victims and survivors. The deputy First Minister told the House that he and the First Minister did not disagree on the appointment of a single victims’ commissioner. In that case, why did they take so long to re-advertise for a single commissioner and then announce the appointment of four? That seems to be inconsistent. Given the increase from one to four commissioners, will he advise the House on the estimated cost of administration, salaries, accommodation and staff? Will he acknowledge that it would be better for the additional administrative funding to go directly to the victims and survivors?

The deputy First Minister: The post of victims’ commissioner was advertised as attracting a salary of £65,000 a year. The commissioners designate will each be paid that amount. We believe that that is money well spent and that victims and survivors deserve that level of attention and that amount of support. There may be people who have a different view.

Under direct rule the post was initially advertised as a single post. When the post was re-advertised — on the basis of our taking ownership of the process — it was advertised as a single post. At the time of considering the issue of a victims’ commissioner, we were dealing with many other vital issues, including trying to put together a draft Budget, a draft Programme for Government and draft investment strategy and many other matters.

When reflecting on those matters, it is sensible that the Government have flexibility and are able to change their minds when they feel that something different has to be done. Effectively, the First Minister and I changed our minds. Our proposal was legally proofed and we consulted the Commissioner for Public Appointments, both of which moves vindicated our stance. I think that society will welcome that.

I know that some Members are gobsmacked that there was no disagreement between the First Minister and myself on the issue of a single commissioner. However, that is the truth of the matter. We reflected deeply on all of those matters, we worked on the issue just two days after Christmas, and we gave serious consideration as to how we could best meet the needs of victims and survivors. We have accomplished that with the announcement that has been made today.

Mrs Hanna: I certainly want the victims and survivors to have the loudest possible voice. My question will not imply any criticism of any of the four appointed individuals. Does the deputy First Minister believe that by Balkanising the process, he and the deputy First Minister have failed to recognise the integrity and the oneness of the suffering of all of the victims, and, indeed, the healing process as envisaged in ‘A Shared Future’?

The deputy First Minister: I am disappointed at the contribution that has just been made, which was the only attempt during this sitting to Balkanise the process. The Member has made a huge mistake and has done a great disservice to the four people who have been appointed to those onerous posts.

I remind Mrs Hanna that during the political process that we have all been involved in over recent years, there was a time when the SLDP was proactively encouraging the appointment of 10 commissioners to deal with individual departmental responsibilities. If that is not Balkanisation, I do not know what is.

Mr Lunn: I welcome the fact that — as the deputy First Minister said — “at long last” this announcement has been made. Does the deputy First Minister agree that there is widespread cynicism amongst the public about the reasons given for the appointment of four commissioners rather than one? Will the deputy First Minister assure Members that each of the four commissioners will have the full confidence of both himself and the First Minister?

The deputy First Minister: I do not share the Member’s view that there is widespread cynicism. The announcement has just been made. Therefore, I do not know how he can make that judgement. Regardless of the speculation over the weekend, every single member of the victims’ commission will have the full support of the First Minister and myself.

Mr Burnside: A lot of fine words, some sympathy and some welcome money for victims have been announced today. I will ask the deputy First Minister a straight question and I want a straight answer. He commanded the Provisional IRA, which was responsible for the murder of over 2,500 people in this Province. Others also committed murders, but he was a senior commander along with Gerry Adams and his colleagues.

How does he square today’s kind words and sympathy with what he was responsible for, and with his refusal — and that of his fellow IRA commanders and members — to participate in any historical crime investigation? Many widows and orphans of RUC, UDR and Army members who died because of his campaign feel that he is a hypocrite.

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The deputy First Minister: Again, I cannot see a question about the appointment of the victims’ commissioners in what the Member has said. I will not fall into the trap of politicising the debate. Members have their own views about the history of this island: some people’s views go back 30, 40 or 80 years, or even eight centuries. There is no point in our getting into that today. I will debate the history of this island with the Member in any place and at any time, but today a vital issue of concern to victims and survivors is being discussed.

There are victims and survivors in every section of our community, many of whom play very important and powerful roles in the new political situation. We want that work to continue, and we will continue to support it in the hope that the ownership that victims and survivors take of their difficulties will not only help their own healing processes, but help the overall healing process that we all must undergo.

Mr A Maginness: To paraphrase Shakespeare, methinks the Minister doth protest too much. Although the deputy First Minister protests that there was no division between himself and the First Minister, there is a widely held suspicion among Members that there was a serious division, which this scheme has been created to disguise. The scheme may or may not work — those appointed have been generally recognised as good people. However, any mechanism for their coming to collective agreement must be extremely difficult. What mechanisms will be put in place to ensure that the four victims’ commissioners designate speak with a collective voice for victims?

The deputy First Minister: As an experienced member of the legal profession, the Member knows that suspicion does not condemn anyone. The First Minister and I agreed to appoint four commissioners designate. That must be remembered — there is no point talking about suspicion. We have reached agreement on a subject of tremendous importance and relevance to the entire community.

The commissioners will work by consensus. When I met the commissioners designate, I cited the example that the First Minister and I have given since we took office — working positively and constructively together. Although there will be times when people do not agree, the trick is to find solutions to the problems faced. That is what the First Minister and I have attempted to do during our stewardship of the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister. That message was not lost on the commissioners designate, and they will do a good job. Although the jury will be out on them for a short time, I have tremendous confidence in them.

Ms Lo: I welcome the announcement. However, does the deputy First Minister agree that it would have been more sensible to appoint one full-time chief commissioner, then setting up the commission and advertising for part-time commissioners, as happens in similar bodies such as the Equality Commission and the Human Rights Commission? There would have been someone to lead the commission, but the increase in administrative costs — let alone the risk of a legal challenge against the current multiple appointments — would have been avoided.

The deputy First Minister: We have appointed four people to lead the commission because we believe that there is enough work for them to do. They are eminently suited to the challenge that is before them and, whatever economic factors are brought to bear, their ability to work together and not, for example, depend on bringing in consultants will bring important savings.

We believe that the victims and survivors deserve the support of four strong voices working together on a basis of consensus, and that is what the commissioners are committed to doing. We will see what happens along the way, but the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister will work positively and constructively with all of them against a backdrop of having listened to, and been affected by, their presentations and recognising that we have appointed four very talented people who have a wide appeal in society.

Mr Donaldson: I add my voice in welcoming the announcement this afternoon by the First Minister.

Does the deputy First Minister agree that some of the voices that we hear casting questions and doubts about the validity of the decision to appoint four commissioners were in Government themselves at one stage and did nothing to appoint any commission to help victims? The money that they provided for the victims sector during that period was a mere fraction of the amount that is proposed today.

Methinks that some others protest too loudly and are trying to cover their own inadequacy and failure to provide for the victims sector while, only months into the new Administration, we have the appointment of a commission on a par with the Equality Commission, which has 17 commissioners, the Human Rights Commission with 10, and the Parades Commission with seven. Why should the victims not have four commissioners? They are no longer —

Mr Speaker: Can the Member come to his question?

Mr Donaldson: Victims are no longer second-class citizens; does the deputy First Minister agree with that?

The deputy First Minister: The Member has outlined his view of our history. I will not be drawn into that debate, except to say that this is a different place with different political circumstances, a different political dispensation and tremendous hope and optimism for the future. Some people — perhaps even some in this House — do not like that, because they do not feel part of it. The challenge for us, as the major parties in the Assembly, is to make everyone feel part of it, and that is what we want to do.

We need to come together on the many issues that are of critical importance to our community. There are wounds to be healed and difficult situations to be dealt with. What we need is the best possible start, and today’s announcement is the best start that we could have achieved in the circumstances.

Executive Committee Business

Health (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill

Further Consideration Stage

Mr Speaker: As no amendments have been tabled to the Bill, there can be no debate. The Further Consideration Stage of the Health (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill [NIA 2/07] is therefore concluded. The Bill stands referred to the Speaker.

Programme for Government  and Investment Strategy

Mr Speaker: The Business Committee has agreed to allow up to six hours for the debate. The proposer of the motion will have up to 60 minutes to propose and make a winding-up speech. All other Members who wish to speak will have 10 minutes.

Three amendments have been received and are published on the Marshalled List. The proposer of each amendment will have 10 minutes to propose and five minutes to make a winding-up speech.

The First Minister (Rev Dr Ian Paisley): I beg to move

That this Assembly endorses the Programme for Government and investment strategy for Northern Ireland agreed by the Executive.

On behalf of the deputy First Minister and the Executive as a whole I am pleased to present the draft Programme for Government and draft investment strategy for Northern Ireland to the Assembly for endorsement.

Last week, the Minister of Finance and Personnel launched his draft Budget and said that:

“It is almost 40 years since a Finance Minister elected by the people of Northern Ireland presented a Budget in a stable political environment.” — [Official Report, Bound Volume 26, p314, col 1].

We should reflect carefully on three elements of that sentence.

First, how many people in Northern Ireland have spent the greater part of their lives in the past 40 years living in a society divided by conflict? The answer is: far too many. We in this House cannot change history, but we can reclaim the decades of lost opportunity, and we can strive to create a shared and better future for all the people of Northern Ireland, under the law. That is our challenge and our responsibility. As a society, and as an Executive, we must all play our part. We must harness the talents and energy of the whole community if we are to transform our society.

Secondly, local people are, at last, making decisions about the issues that affect them. The Executive and the Assembly represent all the people of Northern Ireland. The draft Programme for Government and draft invest­ment strategy for Northern Ireland have been agreed by local Ministers, and will be debated and — we hope — endorsed today by Members of the Assembly, who have been elected by the people of the Province.

Thirdly, we are all too aware of the prize that a stable political environment presents. The Executive have risen to meet the challenges of a four-party coalition and agreed the draft Programme for Government, the draft investment strategy for Northern Ireland, and the draft Budget. That is no mean achievement and one of which we should be proud.

We have a very new Executive, but the documents that have been introduced today represent a significant milestone in ensuring the first steps towards effective and forward-looking Government for the people of Northern Ireland. Our draft Programme for Government sets out the measures that we intend to take over the next three years to build the type of future that we all desire to see. Time does not permit me to go into detail about all our planned actions, but I shall remind Members of some of the actions that we will undertake.

We shall set ourselves the ambitious goal of halving the private-sector productivity gap with the UK average, excluding the greater south-east of England, by 2015. We will work to increase the employment rate from 70% to 75% by 2020. We will secure value-added inward-investment commitments creating a minimum of 6,500 jobs — 85% of which will be above the Northern Ireland private-sector median wage. We will aim to ensure that, by 2011, 68% of school-leavers will achieve five or more GCSE passes at grades A* to C, including English and mathematics.

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We will reduce by 50% the number of children killed or seriously injured on our roads by 2012. At some stage during 2008, everyone aged 60 and over will be provided with free public transport. That being the case, I suppose that I should declare an interest.

We will invest more than £500 million in the regeneration of disadvantaged communities, neighbour­hoods, towns and cities by 2012. By 2009, no one will wait longer than nine weeks for a first outpatient appointment, nine weeks for a test or 17 weeks for treatment. That represents a 12-week reduction in the current waiting-time standard.

During the consultation period, almost 55,000 copies of the draft Programme for Government, draft investment strategy for Northern Ireland and draft Budget were downloaded from the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister website, and more than 9,500 people responded formally. That demonstrates that the people of Northern Ireland are interested in what the Executive are doing and that they want to play their part in the operation of government. Officials from our Office, from the Department of Finance and Personnel and from the Strategic Investment Board held a series of public-consultation seminars at four locations across Northern Ireland. Each seminar was well attended, and was welcomed by those who participated. On behalf of the Executive, I express gratitude to all who took the time to contribute.

Another important strand of consultation involved our engagement with the Assembly and its Committees. We recognise the distinctive and valuable contribution that the Committees can make to such exercises. On 26 November 2007, the Assembly debated the draft Programme for Government and the draft investment strategy. Various opinions were expressed during that debate, some of which people outside the Chamber have also voiced. I assure the Assembly that we have considered carefully those contributions and all the responses. The consultation process has, without doubt, informed our decisions on the final Programme for Government and investment strategy for Northern Ireland, and that is reflected in the amendments that have been made to the documents.

I also wish to acknowledge the work of the Committee for the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister, which helpfully co-ordinated all Committee responses to the draft Programme for Government and carried out a similar role for responses to the draft investment strategy.

A particular concern, which was raised regularly throughout the consultation process, was the tight timescale and opportunities for consultation. These past nine months have been exceptional. Last May, the Executive were faced with the challenge of creating from scratch a new Programme for Government on which we had to agree, and uncertainty over financial allocations hampered progress until a very late stage in the process. However, mindful of that, the Executive will look carefully at the arrangements for the preparation of future Programmes for Government.

We will publish the results of the consultation process after tomorrow’s debate on the Budget. We will also publish for consultation shortly a draft equality impact assessment (EQIA), which has been carried out at a strategic level, on the Programme for Government, the investment strategy and the Budget. The consultation will last for 12 weeks and will include a series of public-consultation events across the whole Province. Details of dates and venues will be found in that document.

The Executive fully recognise the importance of equality and good relations, and a draft equality impact assessment is being carried out at the strategic level. The Executive will take account of the final equality impact assessment in the implementation of their Programme for Government, which now incorporates the public service agreement (PSA) framework, and the invest­ment strategy for Northern Ireland.

The approach that the Executive have adopted to the draft Programme for Government is different to that adopted by the last Executive. That approach attracted some attention during the consultation process, but the Executive make no apology for the fact that they must be clear about their priorities and about what they are trying to achieve. The Executive remain of the view that the publication of a focused set of priorities, and a smaller number of key goals supported by public service agreements, provide a clear strategic framework in which they can develop policies and programmes over the next three years.

However, the Executive have incorporated the 23 public service agreements, which were previously published as a separate annex, into the main Programme for Government document. As the Minister of Finance and Personnel informed Members last week, the Executive have increased allocations to address concerns in key areas, including: health, arts and culture, victims, and social and affordable housing. Those extra allocations have been reflected through more ambitious targets in those areas in the Programme for Government.

Ministers view the investment strategy for Northern Ireland as being vital in underpinning the ambitious goals they are setting in the Programme for Government. We are determined to put right the underinvestment of previous years and help lay the foundations for future prosperity and wellbeing through the delivery of the strategy.

The Executive envisage that a sum approaching £20 billion will be invested in the next 10 years, of which around £6 billion is earmarked for the first three years. The increase from the figures announced last October is due largely to the Executive’s initiative to make better use of existing assets in order to deliver best value to all our citizens.

In the revised investment strategy, more than £1·8 billion has been allocated to housing, an increase from £1·4 billion in the draft document. That will allow the Department for Social Development (DSD) to proceed with the delivery of 10,000 social and afford­able houses during the next five years. An additional £140 million has been provided to the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety, to help underpin the modernising hospitals programme.

The Executive have attempted to focus in the Programme for Government on what they have identified as the most pressing problems over the next three years. The important challenge is to begin to deliver on the goals and commitments contained in both documents. The public want the Executive to make a difference, and they will judge us on what we achieve. We have enormous support and goodwill from our friends outside Northern Ireland and the people here. It is indeed a great and exciting opportunity for our Province.

With that opportunity comes responsibility. The Executive hold the future of Northern Ireland in their hands. Together, we can work to build a peaceful, fair and prosperous society in Northern Ireland, with respect for the rule of law, where everyone can enjoy a better quality of life now and in years to come.

However, if we do not achieve the type of society to which we aspire, through lack of effort or commitment, people’s lives will be affected. We will all be the poorer for that, and history will judge us accordingly. At the start of my speech, I said that we cannot change history: however, we can work together to create a better future. Let us begin to write a history that we will not want to change. I present the Programme for Government and investment strategy for Northern Ireland, and I commend them to the House today.

Mrs Long: I beg to move amendment No 1: Leave out all after “Assembly” and insert:

“calls on the First Minister and deputy First Minister to lay a revised Programme for Government before the Assembly, as the Programme for Government currently before the Assembly does not properly address the deep divisions in this society and the need to build a shared future, does not make meaningful changes to balance the regional economy, and fails to provide for sustainable and integrated public services.”

I welcome that the Assembly is able to respond to a Programme for Government that has been written by representatives of the people of Northern Ireland. The fact that the Assembly can debate the issues in front of the Northern Ireland public demonstrates that significant progress has been made, even since January 2007. That must not go unnoticed or unrecognised either in the Chamber or in wider society.

Despite the combination of vitriol, abuse and contempt with which the Alliance Party’s views on the Programme for Government have been treated during various debates and question sessions on the draft programme and investment strategy, the Executive have taken heed of aspects of the Alliance Party’s response, albeit, in many cases, in a tokenistic way, in the final version of the Programme for Government. For example, in a change of wording, the Executive have reflected that:

work towards a shared future is necessary if we are to deliver our better future”.

The Alliance Party welcomes and acknowledges that assertion.

At present, our differences lie in whether the vision laid out in the Programme for Government is right and whether the Programme for Government can deliver that vision. Although the shared future has made its way into the language on cross-cutting themes, the Executive appear to be content merely to leave it at six words. The Alliance Party believes that it must be accompanied by the radical and robust actions that are required to truly transform society. To date, there has been no sign of that.

For the Executive, tackling sectarianism is merely aspirational. The Alliance Party believes that it must be delivered through robust policies. Tackling sectarianism has been described in the Chamber by Members of the Executive parties as woolly, fluffy stuff. Based on lack of clarity on specific actions in the documents being discussed today, I can understand why Members would have those views. However, the issue is far from woolly for those people who require it to be dealt with so that they can have mobility in the community to access local employment, improve their circumstances and live those better lives, to which the Programme for Government refers.

For the Executive, rebalancing the economy is simply a matter of lowering a few taxes. My party believes that low taxes must be accompanied by ending the costs of division and delivering the high quality public services that define the most prosperous societies. It is about dealing with underinvestment in areas where it has traditionally been a problem and ensuring that when we talk about rebalancing the economy, people fully understand what we mean.

In his statement on the Budget, the Minister of Finance and Personnel made it clear that although the costs of division cannot be unlocked during the current three-year cycle, work needs to be done and a start made on tackling the issues involved. However, the way to do that is to incorporate the work into the Programme for Government, so that at the end of the three years, we will be closer to unlocking some of that money and reinvesting it elsewhere. Although my party continues to welcome the Minister’s fine words and aspirations, they are not reflected in the detail of the Programme for Government.

It seems that delivering integrated and sustainable public services is merely something for the Executive to talk about, whereas the Alliance Party believes that long-term thinking and environmental awareness must be the cornerstone of all of the Government’s actions, whether on housing, health, education or transport, to name but a few.

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In short, the Executive seem to be interested in the process of delivering documents, whereas we in the Alliance Party are ambitious for society. We do not simply look for handouts for a number of groups. Rather, we are ambitious for everyone who lives here. We do not want a continuation of direct rule policies that condemn Northern Ireland to compete only with the poorest regions of Great Britain. We are ambitious for a vision of this society that can compete with the best in the world. Therefore, we propose that the Programme for Government be completely rewritten.

We want a Programme for Government that tackles sectarianism, segregation, exclusion and bigotry at every turn — whether that prejudice is based on race, religion, political persuasion, nationality, age, sexual orientation or gender. We want to see it go to the core of everything that we do. We want better and shared housing; better and fairer local taxation; and better and integrated education. We do not believe that we can make it better without making it shared.

We want to see a programme that will rebalance the economy at every turn — not simply from public sector to private sector, but from low wage to high wage; from insular views to global views — and utilise the expertise of business and the voluntary and community sector. We want a programme that is integrated, sustainable and long term, and that takes on the real priority issues, rather than bickering about tokenistic issues such as mugs in local councils. We want a programme that transforms public structures so that people feel included, rather than bickering about whether people address the Speaker of the House in Irish or Ulster Scots. We want to give people a sense of ownership about what happens in the Chamber and make them see the reality of the out-turn of that for the individual. We do not want pointless Royal Commissions to explore issues that are beyond the Assembly’s remit. We want skills strategies that will transform the society in which we live.

Undoubtedly, if this debate follows the pattern of previous debates — in which those of us in opposition have disagreed with Government — my colleagues and I will be subjected to the usual mix of condescension and abuse that is rapidly becoming the hallmark of an increasingly arrogant Administration. In recent weeks and days, parties have had the opportunity to road-test a few of their criticisms — and the wheels have come off a few of them already.

First of all, the Alliance Party is dismissed as “negative,” an epithet which, this weekend — to the shame of those who used it — was actually turned on some of the victims who dared to question the Executive’s decisions. Alliance Party members are not negative. We are positive and ambitious about the future of Northern Ireland, and we are willing to do what we can to try to deliver on our objectives. We are not simply here to go along with a cosy consensus that does not deliver on the issues that matter to us. We have the right to a voice, and we exercise that voice on behalf of those who have given us the mandate to do so.

Secondly, people are dismissed with an arrogance that almost suggests not that we should simply agree to disagree, but rather that, if we disagree, we should be silent. Well, I do not accept that. It may well be a motto of which Stalin would have been proud. I will not be told that simply to disagree with the current Administration is to be destructive. It is right that there should be disagreement and challenge in the Chamber, as there has been in the past when others have exercised that right through the democratic process. This is an open and accountable democracy. That may be a new concept to some: to be clear, this is not a dictatorship.

We want to move forward in a constructive and positive frame of mind. However, that does not mean agreeing with those things that we believe to be inherently flawed and wrong. The argument that we are destructive is a complete nonsense. No one suggests that David Cameron, when he rises to robustly question the Prime Minister, is seeking the dissolution of Parliament or the destruction of parliamentary democracy in the UK — far from it. However, those of us in the Chamber who dissent tend to be viewed as having no respect for the structures. In fact, those people who try to subjugate the views of we dissenters are displaying disregard for our right to oppose them.

We have had a debate about our consistency. The most recently highlighted issue has been Irish-language education.

However, the real inconsistency in the debate on Irish-language education is that the DUP and the Ulster Unionist Party are content to sign up to a Programme for Government that has committed to a thriving Irish-medium sector, yet when the issue is raised in the Chamber those parties flap around, waving their papers, and they will not fund a flourishing Irish-medium education sector. That is the inconsistency. The Alliance Party has been clear in its view that the integrated education system is the way forward. We have been consistent on that, and we are then dismissed as irrelevant.

Although our party has raised the issue of a shared future, we are not alone in seeing its importance. We lead a social movement that is much wider that the Alliance Party — including the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors, Church leaders and the Northern Ireland Council for Voluntary Action (NICVA) — that wants to see division in the community ended. The Alliance Party is here to provide a voice for that community in the Chamber; we simply wish that some people would listen.

Mr Kennedy: I beg to move amendment No 2: After “Executive” insert:

‘; and calls on the Executive to ensure ongoing review and subsequent necessary revision’.

The Member for East Belfast Mrs Long made a wide-ranging speech, with mention made of Stalin, Cameron and others. I will not be as bold as to go to those lengths, but I preface my remarks with one important observation. It is good for Northern Ireland that the Assembly is considering a Programme for Government and an investment strategy that have been proposed by its own Ministers and formulated by its own Executive and that it is making locally based choices on matters that impact directly on the lives of all the people in the Province. Those choices will structure the way that Government operates here over the next three-year period. Although the Ulster Unionist Party gives broad support to the measures in the Programme for Government and the investment strategy, we are glad that the day has at long last arrived for those matters to come before the Assembly.

We are in favour of the motion as amended by Mr McNarry and I, because the two Departments run by Ulster Unionist Ministers account for over 56% of all Government spending in Northern Ireland. As those Ministers have responsibility for health; social services; public safety; further and higher education; and employment; they exercise both power and responsibility, unlike many of the other Ministers or those who see themselves as being in opposition. Others have the power, but not as much responsibility with regard to what they are required to deliver to the tax-paying public of Northern Ireland. The other Ministers, who make up the majority of the Executive, may wield the crude power of majoritarianism on both sides of the divide, but 56% of the services that the public receive are run by Ulster Unionist Ministers. That is why we can give support to the Programme for Government and the investment strategy, because the business of government must go on. Historically, we are a responsible party in carrying out our job for the people of Northern Ireland by delivering peace, stability, progress and good government. We are glad that other parties are now trying to follow our example.

That is why the Ulster Unionist Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety put up such a vigorous and spirited battle for more financial resources for the National Health Service in the debates that took place between the initial allocations and the final outcomes. He did that because, as the responsible Minister in all senses of the word, he understood the importance of delivering a Health Service that is free at the point of need for all patients. He understood the importance of stability, morale and effective delivery in the Health Service, over the siren voices of irresponsible and unaccountable quick-fix merchants who blandly proposed the closure of local hospitals simply to save money.

Power without responsibility is very dangerous. We are told that, historically, it is the prerogative of the harlot, but I am sure that no one in the House would be familiar with that right.

The public in Northern Ireland would do well to take note of that quotation. While lending its support to the Programme for Government, my party makes it clear that it reserves its position on certain issues. Two such matters are water charges and effective measures to combat child poverty.

My party remains deeply unhappy about the use of capital values as a basis for calculating rates and water charges. Although administrative convenience might be the reason that they will be used, capital values should not be the main device by which those taxes are calculated and collected. Fairness and transparency are the only tools that should be used. Given that metering is the best way in which to ensure fairness and transparency, it must be reconsidered during any ongoing review.

My party is also concerned that the targets that have been set to tackle child poverty are somewhat conservative and unimaginative. They appear to be too consistent with the tame targets that have been set on the mainland, and they look like a Civil Service pipeline quick fix, rather than a well-thought-out strategy. The Ulster Unionist Party wants child poverty to be eradicated. It finds it disturbing and unacceptable that over 100,000 children in Northern Ireland live below the poverty line. While that remains the case, that figure is an indictment against any Government or Executive. Special programmes and measures that target child poverty in hot spots such as north Belfast should be implemented so that this blight, which is so persistent in certain areas and so closely associated with educational underachievement, can be eradicated. Talent is being squandered through such underachieve­ment. Our greatest resource is our children, so our greatest concern must be their future.

The Programme for Government — and the investment strategy, which supports it — should not become frozen and rigid. Rather, both should be living documents that are subject to continuing revision, flexible and capable of change in the light of any given circumstance. It was therefore necessary for us to table our amendment, as it calls on the Executive to ensure ongoing review and subsequent and necessary revision.

Both documents should feature regularly on future agendas of the Committee for the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister, of which I have the honour to be Chairperson. If those matters were discussed at the Committee, the Executive could create a mechanism for revision and flexible updating. That important process would involve not just the Executive, but the Assembly.

People in Northern Ireland — Mr and Mrs Joe Public — must understand what the Programme for Government is about. They need to know more about it, and they need to understand it. It must be real to them. We must consider the ways in which all our decisions are made, and we must earth as many decisions as possible through public debate in the Chamber, rather than leaving over-mighty control in the hands of the Executive Committee. I therefore strongly commend amendment No 2 to the House.

With your permission, Mr Speaker, I will briefly speak in my capacity as the Chairperson for the Committee for the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister. Although the Committee did not have the opportunity to discuss in detail the final Programme for Government and investment strategy in advance of today’s debate, I will use previous discussions to nonetheless attempt to give a quick reflection of its views.

I welcomed several aspects of the draft Programme for Government and the draft investment strategy when I spoke on behalf of the Committee during the take-note debate of 26 November 2007. I particularly welcomed the targets that were set for the development of a victims’ and survivors’ strategy. I also welcomed the additional resources that were allocated to OFMDFM in order to progress that strategy. The final Programme for Government sees the Executive having committed to publishing a new strategy for victims and survivors and to establishing a victims’ and survivors’ forum by March this year.

Additional funding for victims issues has been allocated in the Budget and that is welcome. The Committee looks forward to early consultation by the First Minister and the deputy First Minister on the proposed victims’ charter. It is vitally important that the deadlines for developing the victims’ strategy, as set out in the Programme for Government, are met so that we can move speedily to deliver for victims and survivors.

Individual members of my Committee will raise other matters; however the amendment has been moved in my name and on behalf of the Ulster Unionist Party.

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Mr Durkan: I beg to move amendment No 3: After “Executive” insert

“; and calls on the Executive to address further social and economic needs and support for the community and voluntary sector and to develop and promote policies for ‘A Shared Future’; and further calls for appropriate review and revision of the Investment Strategy for Northern Ireland to ensure that it best delivers balanced regional development and underpins equality”.

It has — rightly — been said that a debate on the Programme for Government in our own devolved Assembly is a significant and welcome development. We recognise that there are many positive things about the Programme for Government, and that it and the draft Budget would be proofed and improved by consultation and scrutiny in the Assembly and its Committees. We have seen evidence of that: some people who said, a few weeks ago, that it could not be improved now agree that some adjustment was necessary.

However, more can and must be done. We recognise the time constraints and the pressures on Ministers and on the Executive; nevertheless, it is important that, if the Assembly endorses the Programme for Government, it is made clear to the Executive that more is required from them on issues of particular concern. The amendment calls on the Executive further to address social and economic needs, because targets on several issues could be more ambitious and significant. With regard to the strategy to combat poverty, essentially, the direct rule policy seems to have been adopted in respect of lifetime opportunities. All of us, as parties, criticised that as deficient and defective in several ways, yet it has been recycled, and includes the unambitious targets for child poverty. Those are exactly the targets that were announced by Peter Hain and direct rule Ministers, by Tony Blair, and re-announced by Gordon Brown — halving child poverty by 2010 and reducing it by 2020. Towards 2016, which is the social partnership agreement in the South, has a strong focus on child poverty and issues of child services. A more significant and ambitious plan could be developed in the North, and the Executive must focus further on that. If we go forward with current plans, in a few years’ time, Northern Ireland will have, for example, a handful of child centres compared with the 70 provided in England.

I do not want our ambitions for child services to be less than those of our counterparts across the water. References have been made to differences between this Programme for Government and earlier ones. Previous Programmes for Government had far more targets and detailed actions for Departments. Perhaps, too much detail made matters unwieldy and difficult. Ministers and Departments did not like having specific targets, and resisted adopting them if they were ambitious or significant. There is a danger in going too far towards the other extreme where everything is cross-cutting and blurred; we in this Chamber could perhaps end up with less ambition and a lesser capacity for tracking and monitoring what happens. For that reason, we shall propose separately that some sort of device for joined-up, or cross-cutting, scrutiny should be used in the Assembly. Committees could meet periodically, perhaps focusing on the different cost-cutting priorities of the Programme for Government, just to track and monitor delivery.

A number of civil servants have acknowledged that the current form of the Programme for Government will make it harder to track and monitor what different Departments are doing and what different Ministers are delivering. However, I recognise that the new form — the lighter form, with a more blurred focus — follows the Whitehall fashion. Departments there are less detailed in their targets and less clear-cut in their ambitions. That is why I differ slightly from the First Minister. He said that the Executive are now much clearer on their priorities: in fact, we are less clear on the detail of targets than was the case in the past.

The SDLP is calling for the Executive to further address the issue of support for the community and voluntary sector. The Finance Minister said that his Budget statement last week was:

“good for householders and good for business”. — [Official Report, Bound Volume 26, p314, col 1].

That may be so, but we also want to make sure that the Budget is good for public services, and that the Budget and the Programme for Government are good for the community and voluntary sector, which has done so much work to keep the fabric of the community together during the difficult years. That sector is facing a drop-off in European funding. The implications of the review of public administration may cut off the traditional funding lines for local bodies from the trusts and boards. There is a possibility that the efficiency savings for Departments framed by this Budget could actually lead to the cutting off of funding lines to the community and voluntary sector as well. We want to see the Executive address their future relationship with that sector on a wider basis.

I have heard two senior civil servants say that we no longer need the community and voluntary sector in the way that we did in the past, because we have peace, devolution and democracy — and I have heard reports of others saying the same thing. The Executive need to address this collectively, because there will be more than one Department dealing with the community and voluntary sector.

There are strains and difficulties in the move towards neighbourhood renewal. Questions arise as to whether Departments and agencies are properly buying into that strategy and lending their resources and responsibilities to good partnership in the way that they should. That is another issue that we want the Executive to address further.

Similarly, our amendment addresses the need for appropriate review and revision of the investment strategy for Northern Ireland. I welcome the fact that parties which, in the past, condemned the whole idea of a long-term investment strategy and were opposed to things like having a strategic investment body to drive the capital spending programme across Government Departments, and which seemed to be somehow suspicious as to what a 10-year investment plan for infrastructure and public-service capital could be, have now embraced that idea. However, we need to keep it under review, with a particular focus on ensuring that that significant investment delivers balanced regional development and underpins equality.

Many of us have complained in the past that the pattern and prioritisation of infrastructure investment and capital spend have locked some areas into disadvantage and created some of the geographical structural inequalities here. If we are serious about reversing those trends, we have to use the investment strategy for Northern Ireland as the key tool. The Assembly needs to signal that it wants that subject kept under review. It might be appropriate for the Assembly to have a Committee to receive periodic reports and review the performance of the investment strategy in overall terms.

Our amendment accepts that the Programme for Government, such as it is with its limitations, will be endorsed, but offers the Assembly an opportunity to set out some additional, important concerns. Like others, we are worried about some other issues. The whole issue of water charges is not properly addressed or articulated here. We were told, when the review was set up, that we would have outcomes by the time of the revised Programme for Government and the revised Budget, but we do not. There are some unknowns that some of us have fundamental reservations about.

There are other issues. At different times, all parties have said that most important issue facing our society is the future of secondary education. However, the Programme for Government, which is supposed to be all-singing, all-dancing, and completely joined-up, is silent on the issue — and it is not being dealt with in the Budget either. We have to rely on indications that the Minister of Education has told the Minister of Finance and Personnel that her proposals, when they are ready, will be cost-neutral. How can we rely on her assurance, when the proposals have not been costed? They could not have been costed, if they are not ready to be presented to Committees or anyone else. There are some large, unknown issues still involved; and it is right that we, as MLAs, use our accountability and scrutiny roles to highlight those issues and concerns so that we can say to the Executive that there is more that they need to do as they take this work forward.

The Chairperson of the Committee for Agriculture and Rural Development (Dr W McCrea): I welcome many provisions in the Programme for Government that will assist people and make their lives better in Northern Ireland. That should be the desire of elected representatives. We will all be judged on delivery by the community that we serve.

Many of the proposals are positive and constructive, and I commend many of my colleagues for their excellent work. I commend my colleague, the Minister of Finance and Personnel, in particular, for his expertise in dividing a finance cake that is finite and bounded by the resources available.

In the foreword to the Programme for Government the Executive state:

“We recognise the trust you have placed on us as your elected representatives. We are determined to repay that trust and to seize this opportunity to make a real difference and improve the lives and opportunities for everyone”.

That work comes down to individual Departments; and it is why I, on behalf of the Committee for Agriculture and Rural Development, have to deal with the priorities that are in the budget for that Department, which is where my disappointment lies.

I would love to be able to state that the programme for the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, as it stands, achieves the goal that was set out in the Executive’s statement. However, I do not believe that it does. The Department of Agriculture and Rural Development did not seize the opportunity. Its programme will make a change to people’s lives, but not in the positive way that we all hoped. It will not bring about the change in the agriculture community that we thought it would.

On 26 November 2007 I stated, in the House, in my capacity as Chairperson of the Committee for Agriculture and Rural Development:

“Farming, and farming communities, remain the backbone of the rural economy and are the true guardians of the rural environment. The Committee believes, therefore, that agriculture should have a significantly greater profile and that its should be supported and enhanced to ensure the survival of the industry and the natural environment.” — [Official Report, Bound Volume 25, p317, Col 1.]

I do not diverge from that position. Arguably, agriculture is Northern Ireland’s only remaining industry, and its contribution to the economy and social fabric of Northern Ireland, either directly through the agrifood sector or indirectly through the hundreds of thousands of tourists who descend upon these shores each year, is vital.

Although other Departments recognise the difficulties in front of them and face up to them by devising priorities that will move them forward, DARD has done absolutely nothing in relation to its priorities. It has no priorities for countering the findings of the Red Meat Industry Task Force; no priorities for dragging the pig industry from the abyss; and no priorities to ensure that our fishermen are afforded the opportunity to make an honest living.

The Department’s contribution is to produce a series of headlines: £45 million to improve competitiveness; £100 million in local development strategies; and £10 million to combat rural exclusion and poverty. The Committee is delighted at the levels of investment being heralded in the Programme for Government but continues to ask itself — and to ask the Department to ask anyone who will listen — where is the substance, and what are the outcomes? The Department is clearly immersed in the mentality that it should under reach in order to overachieve.

2.00 pm

In November 2007, the Committee called on the Department to re-prioritise its targets given the state of the industry, and backed that up in correspondence to the First Minister and deputy First Minister. It is extremely disappointing that those calls have not been heeded, and, so, we are left with vague, unchallenging priorities such as those detailed in PSA 23 — managing the risk of flooding from rivers and the sea.

The Department aims to reduce the number of properties at significant risk of flooding from — and this is not a misprint, because I checked — 28,000 to 27,700. That is right: the target is to reduce the number of properties at risk by 300 in three years. It is reassuring to know that the Department is busting a gut to protect our homes and businesses from the risk of flooding.

There is also the heady target of reducing the incidence rates of TB and brucellosis by 27% and 20% respectively. In November 2007, the Committee called on the Department to change the emphasis of that target from reduction to eradication. If there were any other serious disease threat to the public, we would, quite rightly, direct our undivided attention and resources to ensuring that the threat was removed completely — not reduced, but removed.

The Department admits in papers that the Committee will discuss tomorrow that brucellosis, for example, is a serious animal disease that affects people, but one that can be eradicated. What target does it set therefore? It seeks to reduce the incidences of brucellosis — not to eradicate them, but to reduce them. It seeks to reduce the number of reactor herds from 127 to approximately 103 in 2011, and to spend £13 million a year to reduce incidence levels by roughly nine herds a year. Is that a great target? I do not think so.

The Department spends approximately £36 million a year firefighting TB and brucellosis. That makes a total of roughly £100m by 2011 just to reduce the incidences of those diseases. However, they will still be there; they will still pose a serious health threat; and DARD will still be throwing good money at them. Thankfully, though, the Department will have done a wonderful job in reducing, for example, brucellosis incidences by nine herds each year.

In the past, the Committee has been accused of forgetting that rural development is part of the Minister’s portfolio. Unfortunately, it would appear that the Minister has forgotten that agriculture is also part of her portfolio. There is nothing in the Programme for Government for the red meat industry, the fishing industry, or the pig industry. Their priorities have been ignored: by a Minister seemingly intent on closing down industry and by a Department more intent on achieving efficiency savings — a matter that I will return to tomorrow — than protecting the very industry that it exists to support.

(Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr Molloy] in the Chair)

I would love to be in a position to stand here today and commend the agricultural element of the Programme for Government to the House; it is with a heavy heart that I cannot. Certainly, to an official in the Department’s press office, the programme must represent a dream come true — it is jam-packed with headlines. However, to the farmers, fighting to keep their businesses afloat, struggling to keep their heads and those of their families above water, trusting from day to day that some form of respite will be forthcoming, and looking to the Programme for Government for a sign of hope, I am afraid that the DARD part of the Programme for Government falls far short and their efforts to find any hope will be wasted, because there is little or nothing there.

I ask those present: has the Department repaid those farmers’ trust in it with the farming part of the Pro­gramme for Government? Has the Department seized that opportunity? Have the Minister and the Department offered priorities that will make a real difference and improve the lives and opportunities of rural people and rural communities?

Mr McGlone: Will the Member give way?

Dr W McCrea: My time is almost up.

Unfortunately, the answer to those questions, in my opinion, is no. The farming community is looking to this Assembly for a future, not to diversify into some other industry, but to do what they know best and to remain what they are — farmers.

As I said in a Committee meeting last week, I want to see a red meat industry that puts the animals out on the green grass, rather than the Minister’s policy of putting the farmers out to grass. That is a retrograde step. We can build on the vision for the future that has been recommended in the Programme for Government, but that can only be done with the assistance of a Minister who is committed to farming, rather than to headlines. Unfortunately, we do not have such a Minister.

The Chairperson of the Committee for Finance and Personnel (Mr McLaughlin): Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I welcome the opportunity to contribute to today’s debate. The Committee for Finance and Personnel recognises the importance of the Programme for Government and the investment strategy, especially as reflected in the Executive’s Budget allocations for 2008-2011.

In late November 2007, the Committee for Finance and Personnel responded to the Committee for the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister on both documents. Since then, departmental officials have updated the Committee for Finance and Personnel, and we are pleased that many of our recommendations have been taken on board.

The Department of Finance and Personnel’s main contribution to the strategic priorities contained in the Programme for Government relates to the delivery of modern, high-quality and efficient public services. Under that priority, reference is made to the Civil Service reform programme, which aims to realise significant savings that will be redirected to delivering key services. Following the Committee’s consideration of the draft documents, it requested details from the Department of Finance and Personnel of the savings to be generated by the reform programme over the three-year budgetary period. However, departmental officials informed the Committee that those details were not available, as work was ongoing on the benefits realisation framework, which will detail the quantitative and qualitative savings to be achieved from the reform programmes.

The Committee has questioned how progress in achieving efficiencies can be monitored if targets have not been established for each project to date, and it has raised concerns that those savings cannot, therefore, be accurately reflected in the finalised Budget.

PSA 11 relates to driving investment and sustainable development. The Committee had concerns that the target in objective 4 for considering sustainable develop­ment principles in capital investment decisions would take three years to achieve. However, it is pleased to note that implementation will now be achieved by 2008.

PSA 20 relates to improving public services. The Department of Finance and Personnel has the main responsibility for objective 1, which aims to deliver a programme of Civil Service reform. Target dates for the various Civil Service reform programmes were included under that objective in the draft Programme for Government. The Committee sought clarification from the Department that those targets were for the full implementation of the various programmes, as opposed to the piloting of those programmes. Again, it is content that the matter has now been clarified.

However, the Committee has raised further concerns with the Department of Finance and Personnel at the apparent delays that have only come to light in the Workplace 2010 project. The draft Programme for Government originally referred to the implementation of Workplace 2010 by 30 November 2008. However, the final Programme for Government document states that the target is to award the contract by February 2009, for implementation by June 2010. The Committee has requested that officials explain the 18-month delay and its potential consequences for the Programme for Government.

Objective 4 of PSA 20 aims to promote and improve access to public services and information. Under that objective, a single telephone number point of contact for selected public services is to be in place by December 2008. Due to the potentially high-profile nature of the project, the Committee believes that it must work effectively from the outset. The Committee recommended that the targets for NI Direct should be strengthened in the revised Programme for Government to include the proportion of public services to be covered when the first phase is introduced in December 2008; further detail on subsequent roll-out; and a specific target to deal effectively with a given percentage of calls at the first point of contact.

Again, there was a positive response to those recommendations, and those targets have been included in the revised document. However, the Committee has concerns about the target to deal effectively with at least 50% of enquiries at first point of contact. Although that is an improvement, the target may be too low given likely public expectation. The Committee has requested further information on the proposed benchmarks for performance.

The Department of Finance and Personnel also has a key role in PSA 21, which relates to enabling efficient Government. The Committee has raised with the Department of Finance and Personnel the issue of an annual timetable for budget-setting and review that will build in sufficient time for the effective involvement of the Committees. The Committee will work with the Department to achieve that as soon as possible.

Objective 2 aims to build the capacity of the Civil Service to deliver the Government’s priorities by improving leadership, skills, professionalism, diversity and equality. The Committee has been briefed on the actions taken by the Department of Finance and Personnel, thus far, to encourage applications to the Civil Service from under-represented groups, and on new research into perceived barriers to employment in the Civil Service. The Committee looks forward to the outcome of that research and notes that — in line with its recommendations — 2008 has been included as a timescale in which the Civil Service must be reflective of the diversity of our wider society.

Objective 3 contains a target to ensure that public spending delivers value for money. The Committee understands that departmental efficiency plans will be published alongside the final Budget and will, therefore, be available to Committees for scrutiny. The Committee recommends that those are a regular agenda item for Committees.

It is vital that efficiencies are achieved to deliver essential resources to front-line services. The proposed performance and efficiency delivery unit (PEDU) is expected to have a role to play. The Committee will monitor the outputs from the unit in driving higher levels of savings, and we would like to see PEDU commence work as soon as possible — subject to the addressing of outstanding organisational issues, which the Committee identified in its report on the draft Budget.

Objective 5 of PSA 21 aims to deliver value-for-money improvements in Government procurement. The Committee wishes to see the revised programme include dates for delivery against some of the targets under that objective — including the 3% value-for-money gains on procurement spend. The Committee is grateful that that has been taken on board.

With regard to the draft investment strategy, the Department of Finance and Personnel bid for approx­imately £94·2 million over the three financial years from 2008 to 2011, but it was allocated £68·7 million. The Committee will continue to monitor how the Department of Finance and Personnel plans to manage with an allocation significantly below the amount that was sought. The Committee is keeping a watching brief on whether the capital allocations for the Land and Property Services are sufficient to permit it to resolve the difficulties with its IT systems, especially with regard to rates relief take-up.

Land and Property Services has an important role in the implementation of the rating reforms that are to be introduced later this year, and the Department of Finance and Personnel must consider how any further funding requirements that arise from rating reform can be met.

The Department of Finance and Personnel also bid for £15 million over the three years for the central energy efficiency fund that is used to support measures to improve the energy performance of, and to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide from, Government buildings. The £6 million allocation runs contrary to the prominence that the Executive gave to sustainability in the draft Programme for Government, and the Committee will monitor the delivery of the efficiency fund’s objectives.

One of the Department’s major contributions to the investment strategy is the delivery of the £175 million capital that was received from the Workplace 2010 programme. Departmental officials assured the Committee of the accuracy of that figure and stated that it would be delivered in the 2008-09 financial year. However, the latest information received casts doubt on that.

The draft investment strategy stated that Departments are in the process of developing individual investment delivery plans and that oversight arrangements are being developed to monitor departmental performance on delivery. The publication of investment delivery plans has been delayed until the spring. That is an issue in which the Committee will take particular interest, and we expect to play a constructive role in monitoring and scrutinising delivery in that area.

Sinn Féin welcomes the Programme for Government — particularly its commitment to ensuring that all Executive policies will be based on fairness, inclusion and equality, and its use of watchwords in that regard.

2.15 pm

There are several issues, which all parties will address in turn, on which the Assembly and, indeed, the Executive Committee must be able to deliver in the new social, economic and political reality, and which must be addressed within the limitations on our ability to respond to such challenges. Although taxation and public-expenditure policies are set in London and are inextricably linked, the policies that we are attempting to deliver today demand a more flexible and creative response from British Treasury officials and the British Government. The Assembly can deliver, but requires the tools to do so. Go raibh míle maith agat.

The Chairperson of the Committee for Health, Social Services and Public Safety (Mrs I Robinson): The Committee welcomes the Programme for Government’s recommendation that the population’s overall health status requires urgent attention. The Programme for Government states that Northern Ireland continues to have higher than average mortality from coronary heart disease, cancer and stroke. At the same time, obesity levels — particularly among children — are rising at an alarming rate. The Committee also supports the assertion that, in the areas of mental health and learning disability, we are over reliant on long-stay hospitals and the range of primary-community services is limited.

The Northern Ireland population’s relatively poor state of health was clearly identified in ‘A Healthier Future: A Twenty Year Vision for Health and Wellbeing in Northern Ireland 2005-2025’, which also highlighted the higher rates of people with disabilities and mental-health problems compared to GB.

The Committee also welcomes the Programme for Government’s acknowledgement that many people still live in areas of deprivation and experience high levels of poverty, disadvantage and exclusion. People who live in socially deprived areas suffer from poor health, lower educational standards and higher unemployment. That issue was also recently brought to the Committee’s attention by the Chief Medical Officer, and it must be tackled robustly.

The Programme for Government sets out several key goals in what it describes as work to create a fairer society and look after our most disadvantaged. I will comment on three of those key goals.

First, by 2013, anyone with a mental-health problem or learning disability should be promptly and suitably treated in the community, and no one should unnecessarily remain in hospital. As I have previously stated, I have a strong interest in mental-health issues — as do all members of the Health Committee — and I am determined that the ‘Bamford Review of Mental Health and Learning Disability (Northern Ireland)’ should be fully implemented as soon as possible. The Committee welcomes the additional funding that is earmarked for that purpose in the Budget, and we will work to ensure that those funds are used solely for that purpose.

The second key goal relates to strokes. The Programme for Government states that, by 2013, everyone who suffers a stroke will be assessed within 90 minutes for suitability for clot-busting drug treatment and that mortality rates will be reduced by 15%. That is an ambitious, but achievable, target. A draft stoke strategy is out for consultation, and the Committee will shortly examine its proposals in order to ensure that the right services can be delivered to stroke patients.

Thirdly, there is a target to reduce suicides by 15% by 2011. The Committee has been undertaking an in-depth inquiry into the strategy approach to the prevention of suicide and self-harm in Northern Ireland. Although the evidence gathering for that inquiry is nearing completion, obviously, the Committee has not yet reached any conclusions. However, it is fair to say that some evidence questions the merits of setting such challenging targets, particularly in the short term and given that the suicide strategy is relatively new.

Some suicide strategies in other countries have targets, while others do not. The danger highlighted to us is that if the target is not achieved, questions may be asked and doubts may be cast on the validity of the overall strategic approach, which could lead to confusion and uncertainty.

In my role as DUP health spokesperson, I am delighted to speak on the Programme for Government on my own behalf. It is no mean achievement to arrive at an overall strategy like this, as well as an accompanying Budget and investment strategy, which has been unanimously approved by Ministers from all four main parties. Having a Programme for Government produced by locally elected politicians represents a significant step forward for Northern Ireland, which will go a long way towards reassuring the public that we are a Government committed to delivering for the good of all the people of Northern Ireland.

I welcome the fact that there is a strong focus on the economy. Although my overriding concern will always remain on health matters, it is only through building and sustaining an improved economy that health and all other sectors can best be served in the longer term. It is not that long since some parties were claiming Northern Ireland to be a failed political entity. Today, they are joining with the rest of us in strengthening and improving Northern Ireland. Unlike previous Programmes for Government, this is a clear and concise document, intentionally written in more accessible language. It is a political document that sets out the Executive’s strategic plan, rather than, as before, simply throwing together what each Minister wanted to be included. It is tightly focused, with clear objectives and measurable targets.

Previous Programmes for Government were vague and unfocused, with few action points. This time there are radical new proposals, and each Minister must prove that he or she is up to the challenges of his or her Depart­ment. There is a strong focus on health promotion and disease prevention, with commitments to increased screening, particularly the introduction of a bowel-screening programme and follow-up treatments, which, it is intended, should reduce death from bowel cancer by 10%. A comprehensive human papilloma virus immunisation programme will be introduced from September 2008, which will be capable of achieving a long-term reduction of 70% in the incidence of cervical cancer. By 2009, the regional breast cancer screening programme will be extended to cover those aged 65 to 69 years of age.

The state of public health in Northern Ireland is much worse than in GB, and we have only ourselves to blame for much of that. I welcome the commitments to halt the rise in obesity and the decline in adult participation in sport and physical recreation. I support the enhanced co-ordination across different Departments; the public health of the people of Northern Ireland is not just a matter for the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety. I welcome funding for the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure to encourage leisure and exercise — one example of the Executive’s providing joined-up Government.

There are targets for reducing the proportion of adults, particularly manual workers, who smoke. By 2010, there is to be a 5% reduction in the proportion of adults who binge drink, and 10% reduction in the proportion of young people who drink and who report getting drunk. There are also targets for reducing by 5% the proportion of young adults taking illegal drugs, and by 10% the number of children at risk from parental alcohol or drug dependency.

I am delighted that education and awareness-raising programmes on sexual-health issues and teenage pregnancies are to be expanded in schools, workplaces and community settings. By 2010, we aim to achieve a 40% reduction in the rate of births to mothers under the age of 17 years. In my own constituency, it is encouraging that phase A of the redevelopment of the Ulster Hospital is to be completed by 2010. However, I am keen to see progress on phase B as soon as possible. I also welcome the confirmation that the regional adolescent psychiatric unit and the child and family centre are to be completed by the same year.

Efforts to reduce healthcare-acquired infections will be welcomed by everyone, particularly after the recent revelations about clostridium difficile.

By 2009, a 10% reduction in the number of hospital patients with staphylococcus aureus bloodstream infections, including MRSA, is to be achieved, as well as a 20% reduction in cases of clostridium difficile.

The Health Committee has also taken evidence on mental health and suicide. It is important to slash the waiting times for access to talking therapies, although that will require sustained effort and investment over a prolonged period.

To conclude, all those actions and targets will demand greater productivity. Again, I say to the Minister that there must be no delay in setting in train the formation of a Province-wide strategic health authority and in overhauling commissioning arrangements. A strong local commissioning role is essential, with real incentives and sanctions to sharpen performance.

Mr Deputy Speaker: As time for questions to the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety is at 2.30 pm, I ask Members to take their ease until then. The debate on the draft Programme for Government will resume at 4.00 pm, and the first Member to be called to speak will be Martina Anderson.

2.30 pm

Oral Answers to Questions

health, social services and public safety

Early Screening: Heart Disease,  Stroke and Kidney Disease

1. Mr O’Loan asked the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety what plans he has to offer screening for early signs of heart disease, stroke and kidney disease.   (AQO 1526/08)

The Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety (Mr McGimpsey): I have no plans to introduce screening for those conditions. Heart disease, strokes, diabetes and kidney disease make up a fifth of all hospital admissions. The Prime Minister recently announced his intention to introduce check-ups to monitor those conditions. The UK National Screening Committee will advise him on the evidence for additional screening procedures. My Department is represented on the National Screening Committee, and, when it produces advice on any additional screening procedures, I will be in a position to decide what further measures should be introduced in Northern Ireland.

Mr O’Loan: Will the Minister comment on his Department’s decision to confine screening for breast cancer to women under the age of 60, given that it is best practice for it to be available to women of all ages?

Mr McGimpsey: I am at a loss to understand the question, because I recently announced that screening for breast cancer is to be extended to women aged over 65. Under the draft Budget, the Department was unable to go beyond 65 years of age, but, as a consequence of the extra money in the final Budget allocation, that important extension of screening can take place.

Mr McNarry: The Minister will have heard the negative comments about his Department from some DUP members when the draft Budget was published. Will the Minister tell the Assembly whether the further investment that has been awarded thanks to his efforts will be used to enhance screening programmes, thereby saving lives in the long term?

Mr McGimpsey: The additional funding did not come about purely through my efforts: thousands of people across Northern Ireland lobbied hard for increases to the health allocation. As a result of the increases, in addition to the introduction of breast cancer screening for women over 65, screening for bowel cancer and abdominal aortic aneurysms will now be available. Screening is a crucial activity, because prevention is better than cure, and early indication allows early intervention.

Mr T Clarke: The Minister has mentioned screening for bowel cancer, which he promised last year to introduce. Will he update the Assembly on his progress?

Mr McGimpsey: Following the publication of the cancer control document that Mr Clarke refers to, a programme of screening for bowel cancer is being planned, and I anticipate that it will be in place from 2009.

Health Inequality Report

2. Mr McGlone asked the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety whether the findings of the health inequality report had been broken down by health and social care trust; and to detail what action was being taken to tackle the widening inequality gap.      (AQO 1522/08)

Mr McGimpsey: As part of my Department’s health and social care inequalities monitoring system, an update was recently published detailing various inequality gaps in Northern Ireland. Information on the gaps at a lower level, such as by health and social care trust, is not routinely available. However, information on individual indicators is available. Health inequalities in the most deprived areas, in rural areas, and in Northern Ireland as a whole are the product of social, economic and health issues. A wide range of strategies, programmes and activities are under way to address the inequalities, as part of the cross-departmental Investing for Health strategy. That work also aligns with, and contributes to, other Government strategies, such as those on neighbourhood renewal and fuel poverty. At a strategic level, Investing for Health continues to be overseen and monitored by the ministerial group on public health that I continue to chair.

Mr McGlone: Will the Minister comment on the finding that there has been a significant rise in the number of manual and professional workers suffering from ill health in the past eight years? Does his Department have any new policies to tackle that significant long-term problem?

Mr McGimpsey: As regards inequalities in health, the gap is well documented. For example, life expectancy for males in the most deprived areas is 3·8 years lower than the Northern Ireland average. For females, the figure is 2·6 years. My Department will be targeting that issue.

I do not have the information at hand regarding the specific manual-worker cohort. I am happy to examine the available information and respond to the Member in writing. Focusing on health inequalities and on people taking responsibility for their own health is very much part of the Department’s strategy.

Mr Buchanan: Does the Minister agree that the best way to examine inequality is on a Province-wide basis, in the same manner that all strategies for health in Northern Ireland should be determined? Therefore, will he finally agree to set up the regional strategic health authority that the DUP has been demanding since he took office?

Mr McGimpsey: Following on from the previous answer, my Department addresses all issues on a Province-wide basis. However, it is important that Mr Buchanan accepts that there are differences between rural and urban areas. Furthermore, there are significant differences between affluent and disadvantaged areas.

I planned to make an announcement today concerning a regional health authority. However, after consulting with my Executive colleagues, I decided that I should not do so because of today’s important announcement. Therefore, I will be making an announcement next week, and I am sure that Mr Buchanan will be pleased with what he hears.

Mr Adams: Tá mé buíoch díot, a LeasCheann Comhairle. The Minister will be aware that the latest updated statistics, as published by the health and social care inequalities monitoring system, show that the suicide rate has increased from 2001 to 2006. Will he confirm that the rate of suicide in areas of greatest deprivation is still substantially higher than the regional average? Furthermore, will he undertake to ensure that the allocation of resources by his Department for suicide prevention is targeted towards community services that provide a lifeline for those who are at disproportionate risk of taking their own lives? Go raibh maith agat.

Mr McGimpsey: I am aware of those statistics. Although suicide affects the whole of society, I am aware of the point that Mr Adams made regarding the rate in deprived areas being substantially higher than the Northern Ireland average. The suicide prevention task force, chaired by Colm Donaghy and overseeing the Department’s suicide strategy is also aware of that point. Clearly, they skew resources to the places that will achieve the best outcome.

Craigavon Area Hospital: Business Plan

3. Mr Simpson asked the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety to provide an update on the business plan for Craigavon Area Hospital.     (AQO 1617/08)

Mr McGimpsey: The new Southern Health and Social Care Trust, which was established in April 2007, has initiated a review of its investment requirements for all services — including acute and local hospitals — to ensure that maximum quality and effectiveness is achieved in service delivery for the whole population.

My Department will continue to work with the Southern Health and Social Care Trust to develop its proposals for future hospital services. In light of the constraints on funding, we will obviously need to carefully consider and prioritise any investment proposal when we receive it, together with many others, when determining final allocations of capital investment funds beyond the CSR period.

Craigavon Area Hospital has not been neglected in the provision of capital investment — to the extent that more than £40 million worth of developments have either been completed or are under construction.

Mr Simpson: I thank the Minister for his comments. He will be aware that Craigavon Area Hospital is 35 to 40 years old and was not built for the services that it is being asked to provide. There are major problems with the maternity unit, mental-health units and parking. The Minister will also be aware that a significant building plan was supposed to start 12 months ago. When the business plan is submitted and an assessment is comp­leted, and if a date is fixed for a building programme to start, will the Minister confirm that that will be adhered to?

Mr McGimpsey: The Craigavon Area Hospital Group Health and Social Services Trust had a site development plan. The new trust is developing a strategic capital plan for the area, and Craigavon Area Hospital will play a key part. I am awaiting the trust’s proposals before determining the way forward.

I am aware that Craigavon Area Hospital is 35 years old; and there has been substantial investment in the site. However, as there are older hospitals in the Province, there is competition for priority. For example, phase B of the redevelopment of the Ulster Hospital, which has been pushed back to the next CSR period, relates to a hospital that is in poorer shape. Therefore, there are priorities involved, and I am arguing hard for investment. I am well aware of the needs in Craigavon. As I said, there have been substantial recent investments there; we will continue to do our best to ensure that the hospital there is fit for purpose.

Mr McCarthy: The Minister will be aware that, over the Christmas period, an infant from the Craigavon area who was seriously ill and required intensive care could not get a bed in Craigavon Area Hospital or anywhere in Northern Ireland. Does he have any plans to ensure that such a situation does not happen again?

Mr McGimpsey: I am aware of the shortages in paediatric critical care. There has been investment since I took office, and the Department is continuing to review the situation. It is not ideal, to put it mildly, that sick babies have to be transferred out of Northern Ireland: that is not the way forward and it should happen only in emergency situations. I will keep the matter under review and I will try to ensure that such situations occur only when the required treatment is not available in the Province.

Mr McKay: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Will the Minister provide an update on the business case for a health and care centre at Braid Valley, and will he confirm whether he has the resources to deliver the new facility and have it open by 2011?

Mr McGimpsey: The Northern Health and Social Care Trust is responsible for the capital investment programme and is developing a strategic capital plan for its area. The health and treatment centre at the Braid Valley site, which will cost around £15 million, will be a key part of that plan. It is part of the current investment programme and, although I cannot remember the precise date, 2011 or 2012 would not be far away from the opening date that the Department anticipates.

Mr Deputy Speaker: I remind Members that supplementary questions must relate to the original question. Question 4 has been withdrawn.

Influenza Vaccination

5. Mr A Maginness asked the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety to detail how many people have received the influenza vaccination over the winter period.       (AQO 1521/08)

Mr McGimpsey: The number of people aged 65 and over who received the influenza vaccination by 31 December 2007 was 177,671, which is 73% of the target population of 243,416. For people under 65 who are considered to be at risk, the figure was 106,385, which is 66·8% of the target population of 159,346. As some GPs have yet to submit their returns to the health boards, the final figures for the 2007-08 vaccination programme will be higher.

Mr A Maginness: I thank the Minister for his answer. Is there any data on the effect of the uptake rate of the vaccination on the size of the winter flu outbreak and hospital admissions from respiratory infections? In a recent poll about the vaccination, 25% of GPs felt that the vaccination was unnecessary: will the Minister comment on that point?

2.45 pm

Mr McGimpsey: I am reluctant to comment on the statement by GPs. The Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation has advised the Department that flu vaccination for the elderly reduces the severity of the disease, reduces the incidence of complications by between 50% and 60%, and reduces deaths by approximately 80%. Those are very high numbers, and are the ones that we follow. Therefore, it is important that those who are entitled to the flu vaccine receive it.

People who are under 65 and are considered to be at risk are also offered the vaccine, and we exceed our target of 70% for over-65s and the target for under-65s. However, we are far from complacent. Our campaign slogan is “Catch the vaccine not the flu”, because the expert advice that I receive is that the flu vaccine is a very positive step.

Mr Craig: Is the Minister confident that we have a good enough supply of the flu vaccine in the Province to meet the demand if everyone who is entitled to it chooses to take it up?

Mr McGimpsey: Yes, I am confident that the procedures that we have in place for flu immunisation for people who are entitled to it are adequate, and I am not aware of a shortage. If our planners have a requirement over and above stocks they can purchase it when they need to.


6. Mr K Robinson asked the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety what steps he is taking to control MRSA in hospitals.       (AQO 1638/08)

Mr McGimpsey: The problem of MRSA, like all healthcare-associated infections, needs to be addressed by a range of policies, both medium- and long-term, that seek reduction in incidence, since eradication is not regarded as possible.

We continue to implement the Changing the Culture action plan, as stated in my major announcement last Friday, and a number of new measures are in place that will help achieve the target for reducing the prevalence of MRSA by 10% by March 2009. I am also investing an additional £9 million over the next three years in a bid to improve patient safety and, in particular, to reduce the spread of infections such as MRSA across health trusts.

Mr K Robinson: Does the Minister agree that, as well as the concern about MRSA, recent revelations about clostridium difficile in both Whiteabbey and Antrim Area Hospitals are a matter of grave and immediate public anxiety? Will the Minister explain the measures that he would encourage the Northern Health and Social Services Board and the Northern Health and Social Care Trust to adopt to counter that threat? Will he encourage both bodies to be proactive by transferring patients to the beds available at Inver House in Larne?

Mr McGimpsey: There are three steps in the management of those infections: containment, the antibiotic policy, and infection control. That relates specifically to clostridium difficile, which is a result of the use of broad-spectrum antibiotics — they cause a bacterial imbalance in the gut that allows the clostridium difficile bacteria to prosper. Isolation and cohort nursing are key, along with keeping patients together rather than sending them to other hospitals to spread the infection. MRSA has a slightly different cause, but the response is the same, and, of course, a high standard of cleanliness is very important.

Inver House is for the acute convalescent care of the elderly and, although I have not asked the Northern Health and Social Services Board, I believe it would be wrong to move sick patients into such an environment. It is important to keep the patients in Inver House cohorted away from those who are suffering from these infections.

Mrs Hanna: I welcome the announcement of the £9 million that will go towards tackling hospital-acquired infections, and accept that it is many faceted. With regard to deep cleaning wards, will the Minister assure me that there will be regular inspection and recording of the level of cleanliness to ensure that high standards are maintained, and will that include the enforcement of hand washing in all hospitals by patients, staff and visitors?

Mr McGimpsey: There will be regular, unannounced inspections as part of the new measures that I have announced. The Regulation and Quality Improvement Authority (RQIA) will review the incident at Antrim Area Hospital once the authorities are confident that the outbreak is under control and that the pressure has been removed. Part of the £9 million will go towards single rooms in new hospitals and single rooms in hospitals that are being refurbished, unannounced inspections and restrictions on hospital visiting and dress code, and MRSA screening for high-risk patients, which we are now standardising and will possibly follow the pilot scheme in Scotland for universal MRSA screening.

Cleanliness, deep cleaning and a regional hand-hygiene campaign are key issues, and I have been told that over and over again. We will attempt to enforce those measures and ensure that all those entering and leaving wards wash their hands. It is a simple procedure, but it has proved very difficult to enforce universally. The Member is correct: hand hygiene is one of the keys to cleanliness, along with deep-cleaning methods and rapid-response cleaning teams in all hospitals, which will be employed as a result of my announcement. I cannot emphasise enough the need for hand hygiene among visitors, staff and patients.

Ms S Ramsey: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I welcome the £9 million announced last week. Does the Minister agree that several issues are involved, including the need for proper changing facilities for staff and a laundry service for uniforms, and that there should be better investment in front-line services and cleaning services? The Committee for Health, Social Services and Public Safety was informed of an issue last week, which was also highlighted by the media. Will the Minister consider initiating a public inquiry into hospital-acquired diseases following the recent deaths?

Mr McGimpsey: I will review the incident referred to, and if I feel that I should go beyond that and hold a public inquiry, then it will be considered. However, a public inquiry will not add to the task in hand, which is containment and doing our best to ensure that we press down on such incidents.

There will be a new dress code for all healthcare staff following my announcement. We will also look at laundry services and changing facilities for staff, which have not existed in hospitals for some time. There are a range of steps to be taken. We will not eradicate MRSA or clostridium difficile. Around 3% of the population carry clostridium difficile, around 3% carry the resistant strain of MRSA and around 30% carry the non-resistant strain. We can screen patients and take steps to ensure that those diseases are contained and isolated and that proper policies are put in place to keep patients safe.

Review of Public Administration

7. Mr Beggs asked the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety to comment on the review of public administration, as it affects his Department.    (AQO 1581/08)

Mr McGimpsey: I intend to make a statement to the House on the review of public administration on Monday 4 February 2008.

Mr Beggs: Will the Minister give an assurance that he has considered increasing the role for local government and local representatives so that health inequalities can be addressed by a joined-up approach at local level? Will he accept that the enhanced role envisaged for local government under the review of public administration will see it become an increasingly important local partner?

Mr McGimpsey: The direct rule Minister’s proposals would have established what would have been, aside from one other body, the largest quango in Europe. It would have been enormous; and no consultation about it would have taken place. I wanted to focus on several key functions that the body should have and cut away many that it should not.

Another key issue was that it had been stipulated under direct rule that local elected representatives would not play a role in any part of the changes. I felt strongly that we needed democratisation and a strong voice for local communities, patients and clients, and that one of the best ways to achieve those would be to ensure that local elected representatives played a role in the new arrangements, not least because they are the best people to talk about the health inequalities mentioned previously. In Northern Ireland, it seems that there is an intractable problem of different outcomes for those who live in areas of disadvantage. Local councils are in a position to assist implementation.

Mr Gallagher: I welcome the news that a further announcement on the review of public administration, in relation to the health sector, is imminent. That news may restrict what the Minister is prepared to tell the House today. However, will he comment on the assertion that the headquarters of the new health authority will be in Belfast?

Mr McGimpsey: The location of the new authority has not been uppermost in my mind — and I am not being coy because of next week’s statement. I am more concerned with, and excited by, the new authority’s functions. Therefore, I am unable to comment on where it should be located.

Mr Spratt: I too welcome the Minister’s announcement that he will make a statement next Monday. Does he accept that in order to obtain the best and most efficient Health Service, purchasers and providers of services must be separated, and that it is essential to overhaul Health Service commissioning so that RPA reforms can have maximum impact?

Mr McGimpsey: As far as RPA is concerned, the bulk of the reforms have been established through reducing the number of trusts from 19 to six. That has caused most changes in staff numbers, functions and so on. Efficiencies will play a key part in the change from the old health service authority to the new one, and there will be a case for reviewing the purchaser/provider process. Next Monday, I intend to fully divulge what I see as the way forward. However, today I can tell Members that there will be full consultation. Unlike the direct rule Minister, I will establish a consultation period, and everybody will have an opportunity to make their opinions known.

Nursing Home Staff: Additional Training

8. Mr Attwood asked the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety what plans he had to make provision for additional training for staff working in nursing homes.        (AQO 1519/08)

Mr McGimpsey: In Northern Ireland, the majority of nursing and residential care home provision is supplied by the independent sector. My Department does not provide training to staff employed by the independent sector. Training of staff in nursing homes is the responsibility of the registered provider. However, my Department has recently published minimum standards for nursing homes, which include nursing home proprietors’ responsibilities for training staff.

Mr Attwood: I thank the Minister for his answer. There was a report this morning on the RTÉ news programme ‘Morning Ireland’ about abuse of patients in nursing homes in the South of Ireland. Will the Minister tell the House whether there is any evidence of abuse of patients in nursing homes in the North of Ireland? I am mindful that, in the South, the evidence shows that most abuse is actually carried out by family members. Will he also confirm whether there are plans to fast-track the legislative requirement for the Regulation and Quality Improvement Authority (RQIA) to establish a register of nursing homes in Northern Ireland?

3.00 pm

Mr McGimpsey: That question, which asks about how standards are maintained and residents protected, is pertinent. As of July 2007, 7,728 clients were in nursing homes in Northern Ireland, all of which are privately managed or privately owned and run, and 4,594 clients were in residential care homes, three quarters of which are privately run. The vehicle through which standards are maintained is the RQIA, which has been operating for two years. In those two years, 94 notices have been issued to 23 establishments for breaches of the published standards. The Department has published minimal standards, one part of which relates to staff training and the other to quality of care, life, environment and management. The issue is ongoing, and I take it seriously because so many elderly people and others are in potentially vulnerable situations.

I am unable to provide the Member with the level of detail that he requires on the register, but I am happy to write to him. However, if homes are not already registered, they must be so.

Regional Development

Belfast to Derry/Londonderry Railway

1. Mr Dallat asked the Minister for Regional Development to detail first, the estimated cost of the upgrading of the Belfast to Derry/Londonderry railway to intercity standards, capable of achieving speeds of 70 mph; and secondly, to itemise the preliminary work that will be done over the next three years.         (AQO 1572/08)

The Minister for Regional Development (Mr Murphy): Work will need to be done on the lines at Ballymena and Coleraine in order to rectify specific problems with wet beds. That is in advance of a track-life-extension project that is due to start later this year. That work will restore the 70 mph capability between Ballymena and Coleraine and will protect the existing overall 60 mph speed limit between Coleraine and Derry. The project will cost £12 million and will be completed by 2010.

The relay of the track from Derry to Coleraine will start in 2011. It will take two years to complete, at a projected cost of £64 million. That work will enable trains to run at 70 mph. The major upgrade of the Coleraine to Derry line could not be planned until the restrictions on investment on the line, imposed by the railways review group and the regional transportation strategy, had been lifted.

I made that decision last year, and the steps that are required to undertake the Coleraine to Derry relay can now commence. To do that work, it will first be necessary to produce both a project identification document that will outline the objectives, scope and structure of the project, and an estimate of the programme costs and risks and a delivery strategy. It could take between three and six months to produce those and to get approval for them.

The next stage involves examining possible engineering solutions to the project and producing an economic appraisal in order to assess the most economically advantageous solution. That will include the production of resource plans, detailed cost estimates, a design brief, a risk plan and a procurement plan. It will take up to 18 months to complete and to gain approval for a project as complex and high-value as this.

The sequencing of the remaining stages of the design, procurement, implementation and handover will depend on the procurement strategy that is developed for the project. It is envisaged that following the completion of design, tendering and approval processes, commissioning and construction of the new line will take two years.

Mr Dallat: I welcome the Minister’s announcement. I was trying to find out what will happen during the tenure of this Assembly. The Minister will accept that the previous Assembly, despite its difficulties and suspensions, managed to get new trains for the track, the result of which is that capacity has doubled.

Will the Minister give an assurance that before 2053, which is the 200th anniversary of the construction of the line, a decent intercity service will run between Belfast and Derry, with no ifs and no buts about it?

Mr Murphy: The answer is yes. [Laughter.]

I correct the Member’s assumption about the previous Assembly. The previous Executive decided to invest no money in the Coleraine to Derry section of the track. The Member should recall that decision: he was part of a group that lobbied to overturn it. He lobbied John Spellar in 2005, and following that, Mr Spellar agreed to spend maintenance money only on the line between Coleraine and Derry.

The Member looks confused; however, I have repeated this answer to him so often that, by now, he should have learned it by rote.

I took a decision when I came in — I beg your pardon — the previous Executive decided to invest no money in what they called “non-core lines” or “lesser-used lines”. That effectively banned the spending of money on the part of the line between Coleraine and Derry. Under the previous Executive, the Department for Regional Development (DRD) bid for a total £4·5 million, of which only £1·5 million was secured.

Obviously, therefore, the Department of Finance and Personnel rejected bids of £3 million for necessary work to the line. In 2005, the decision was taken to remove the bar on spending, but only to allow maintenance to be carried out on the line. When I came to office, I overturned that decision yet again in order to allow investment to be made to upgrade the line and bring it up to the required standard. Of course, until that decision was taken, Translink could not advance any plans to upgrade the line as necessary.

I have secured £1 million in the Budget to allow a business case to be put together. I have often stated that it is my clear intention — and it beggars belief that the Member comes back to me with the same question — to secure £64 million of investment in the project, which will begin in 2011, within the lifetime of this Assembly.

Mr G Robinson: Can the Minister explain what plans there are, in addition to those that have already been announced, for the Coleraine to Londonderry line? He must renew the Ballymena to Coleraine line in order to complete the project.

Mr Murphy: The Member will be aware that the project on the Ballymena to Coleraine line that was put together some years ago is now coming to fruition. That has been possible because of an allowance to spend on upgrading the line and an investment of £12 million to deal with wet beds, particularly in the Ballymoney area. That project has now started, and work on it will continue.

Mr McCartney: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I thank the Minister for his answer and commend him for his assurance that the restriction on investment has been lifted. People will ask how much money has been invested in the Derry line in the past. However, the people of Derry know that money has been invested. I want to commend the Minister for that. What effect will the improvements have on future travel times when there is, for the first time, a notable intercity service?

Mr Murphy: On completion of the track relay between Coleraine and Derry, the line will have been improved sufficiently to reduce journey times by 30 minutes. By then, two additional trains will be deployed on the line. That will allow commuter trains to arrive in Derry before 9.00 am.

Flooding: Emergency Plans

2. Dr McDonnell asked the Minister for Regional Development what emergency plans are in place to deal with flooding, where previous experience or an assessment by the Department shows that a risk of flooding exists.            (AQO 1569/08)

Mr Murphy: Responsibility for the drainage infrastructure is shared between Roads Service, Northern Ireland Water and the Rivers Agency. The Rivers Agency has taken the lead in the formulation of procedures that have resulted in the development of best practice guidelines, the flooding hot spot list and the liaison and co-ordination of the emergency response for localised flooding events.

Roads Service has emergency plans to deal with flooding-related incidents, including, where the risk of flooding is greatest, ensuring that a 24-hours-a-day, seven-days-a-week response service is in place. Roads Service makes preparations in response to early warnings of heavy rain from the Met Office, in order to ensure that, as far as is practicable, it is ready to deal with the impact of adverse weather. Those preparations include putting operational staff on standby; checking that drainage outlets, culverts and identified hot spots are clear from debris; and checking the readiness of emergency equipment and stocks of sandbags.

Northern Ireland Water has developed a major incident plan to provide a co-ordinated response to all operational emergencies. The plan contains contingency arrangements for responding to severe weather warnings.

Dr McDonnell: I thank the Minister for that lengthy answer. Obviously, in theory, much is being done. However, what meaningful dialogue exists between the two agencies? Does he agree that those agencies do not so much talk to each other as play hide-and-seek when a problem arises? Can the Minister talk to the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development with a view to bringing the agencies closer and, dare I say it, knocking a few heads together, so that some of the flooding that takes place can be avoided? From where I am standing, it seems as though, right across Belfast city in particular, all sorts of problems arise because of the refusal of either agency to take responsibility for water. One passes the buck to the other.

Mr Murphy: I am surprised that the Member is advocating violence and knocking heads together. It is a test of his commitment to non-violence. I cannot possibly agree with that.

Three agencies are involved in dealing with flooding: the Rivers Agency — which is under the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development — Northern Ireland Water and Roads Service. The Rivers Agency has taken the lead in forming procedures.

I appreciate that flooding causes people great frustration and inconvenience, particularly when their properties are flooded. Quite often, that puts a strong focus on the response. Recent weather patterns have made it virtually impossible for agencies to deal with some problems associated with flooding: that was particularly the case during the floods in Belfast last summer.

My Department will seek to improve procedures and practices where possible. The Executive undertook to review emergency procedures as a result of last year’s floods in Belfast, and I await the outcome of that review. Although some agencies deal with problems caused by flooding as it is happening, others deal with the aftermath of floods, such as clean-up operations and compensation arrangements in respect of damaged properties. The Executive have taken the lead on all those issues. I assure the Member that where commun­ication strategies between agencies are found wanting, the Department will be quite happy to ensure that procedures are tightened up.

Mr Gardiner: What steps has the Minister taken, if any, to introduce a dedicated helpline for people in dire need — such as those who suffered during the recent floods — so that they do not have to ring various Departments to try to get answers to their queries? Such a helpline should cover all situations associated with flooding and would help to relieve the stress suffered by people whose homes are flooded.

Mr Murphy: The Member has raised an issue that is for the Executive’s review of emergency planning to examine. As that review is not being led by the Depart­ment for Regional Development, it would be better if his question were asked of OFMDFM. I appreciate his point about the additional stress that people suffer when they are faced with a problem and find it difficult to get through to the required Department.

The Executive are examining several issues including preventative measures and responses to incidents. They are also looking, firmly, at the concept of a telephone helpline, which would comprise a single telephone number of which everyone would be made aware.

Mrs Long: The Minister, in his response to Dr McDonnell’s original question, rightly said that the division of responsibility regarding flooding and drainage is complicated. In light of that, what measures are he and his Department taking to protect areas that have been subjected to significant and repeated flooding from further intensification and development? In areas where flooding has not been addressed, where the sewerage system is under pressure, and where people are allowed to continue with developments, there seems to be little by way of a robust response that would bring the situation under control.

Mr Murphy: Agencies that deal with the problems associated with flooding have registers of flooding hot spots. The Member’s point relates to planning — it is whether planning approval should continue to be given in areas that have been identified as flooding hot spots. That is a matter for the Department of the Environment. Of course, there is a wider issue — whether planning should be allowed in areas that have been identified as flood plains. As I said, that is primarily an issue for the Department of the Environment. My Department is happy to share the information that it has on flooding hot spots with the Department of the Environment. Whether development should be allowed to continue in such areas is a matter for the Department of the Environment.

Rapid-Transit Network, Belfast

3. Mr P Maskey asked the Minister for Regional Development what progress has been made on the feasibility study into a rapid-transit network in Belfast.  (AQO 1645/08)

Mr Murphy: Feasibility studies for a pilot rapid-transit system are nearing completion, and I expect to receive a report in the coming days. That will enable me to consider the findings and to discuss the way forward with ministerial colleagues in the Executive.

Mr P Maskey: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Will the Minister indicate whether the technology used for a rapid-transit network will be bus-based or rail-based? Does he share my view that the potential for a light rail network to showcase Belfast as a twenty-first century city should be taken into account when the feasibility study is being considered? Go raibh maith agat.

Mr Murphy: Undoubtedly, people consider the development of a light rail system to be a sign of a modern city. It is a feature of Dublin and of modern cities across the world. We are considering the feasibility of all options, including light rail systems, bus-based systems and tram systems. Our intention is to achieve the best scheme for Belfast.

3.15 pm

The type of rapid-transit system that is selected will be influenced by potential demand and affordability. Indicators suggest that bus rapid transit can be more easily accommodated within existing highway boundaries than light rail, which is likely to be more problematic in negotiating city-centre junctions. However, I assure the Member that all options will be considered, and that we will consider some of the rapid-transit systems that are in place in other European cities, particularly those in Holland, to try to get an idea of what might work best for Belfast.

Mr Newton: Will the Minister confirm that, in his list of priorities in the rapid-transport network strategy, the top priority will be the need to develop the former Comber to Holywood Arches railway link? Will he confirm that he will not rule out the involvement of the private sector in either the development or the operation of the network, when it eventually arrives?

Mr Murphy: When I assumed office, there were two elements to the pilot study. One of those was the E-way link, which the Member mentioned, and the other was the city route, which would service the Titanic Quarter. I asked the consultants to undertake a further study into how that would affect other parts of the city, and to examine the options for extending that service into west and south Belfast. I assure the Member that, not only are the location of the routes and the type of system that might best serve Belfast under consideration, but all options in connection with the provision of that service are being examined.

Mrs Hanna: I welcome the Minister’s response on sustainable public transport for Belfast; it cannot come too soon. As the Minister mentioned affordability, will he assure the House that any money that is needed for new investment will not come from the provision for rail that is already in place?

Mr Murphy: A substantial investment in rail is included in the Budget statement of 22 January 2008. We have envisaged and targeted substantial investment throughout the process of ISNI up to 2018. The rapid-transit system is a separate project, and all options for funding it and developing the best possible system will be considered, but that will not be at the expense of other public transport options.

Traffic Flow: Armagh City

4. Mr Boylan asked the Minister for Regional Development to confirm whether any representations were made to his Department outlining proposed changes to the traffic flow in Armagh city.            (AQO 1557/08)

Mr Murphy: When I met Armagh City and District Council on 6 December 2007 to discuss the Armagh East Link and West Link road schemes, representation was also made regarding traffic flow in the council area.

My Department’s Roads Service is investigating matters such as traffic signals at Irish Street and Friary Road, with a view to making improvements. A planning application has been submitted for a major environmental improvement scheme for Armagh city, and my staff in Roads Service have been engaged with various bodies, including Armagh City and District Council and the Department for Social Development.

My staff are also aware that representations have been made about alterations to traffic flow, which have been proposed as part of the scheme. Any changes will require my Department to make an order that involves advertising and a formal notification process to allow objections to be received.

The Member will be aware of the intention to remove the security barrier at Abbey Street in the city. My officials recently met senior officials from the council and the NIO about that issue. The location is now being reviewed to determine what opportunities exist to improve traffic conditions, and I understand that a meeting about that will be held with local councillors.

Mr Boylan: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I thank the Minister for his response. The environmental improvement (EI) scheme appears to be in jeopardy as the costs have put the plans £1·3 million over the budget of the lowest tender that was submitted. Has the Department been officially approached for further financial assistance, either by DSD or by Armagh City and District Council? Will the Minister give an assurance that his Department will ensure progress on that much-needed scheme as soon as possible? Go raibh maith agat.

Mr Murphy: The environmental improvement scheme involves other bodies besides Roads Service. Ongoing discussions have taken place between officials from DSD and officials and members from Armagh City and District Council. Roads Service had offered £300,000 towards the scheme over a three-year period and, following a discussion last week, it has offered an additional £30,000 for the first year. I hope sincerely that the scheme is not in jeopardy; it is in all of our interests to ensure that it goes ahead.

Mr Kennedy: Will the Minister continue to ensure that, in any consideration of changes to the road network in Armagh city, officials and members of Armagh City and District Council will be kept fully informed and involved in all those discussions?

Mr Murphy: As I said in my answer to the previous question, work on the particular changes that may result from the EI scheme and that may have an impact on traffic flow around Armagh city has been a three-way process involving DSD, DRD through Roads Service, and Armagh City and District Council. The meeting to which I went on 6 December 2007 with representatives of Armagh City and District Council covered a range of issues that involve Roads Service, NI Water and matters that are within the general DRD remit. I assure the Member that if any further changes are planned, such as road or street projects, I will certainly keep the council fully informed.

Mr D Bradley: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I thank the Minister for his answer on the Armagh scheme. Will he undertake to investigate traffic-flow problems in Newry with a view to alleviating congestion at black spots such as the Camlough, Warrenpoint and Dublin Roads?

Mr Murphy: The Member’s namesake who represents that area has previously asked questions on his pet project, the Narrow Water bridge, so the Member will know that a substantial survey is being carried out on traffic flow in Newry and how any problems might be mitigated by the provision of a southern relief road. Work on that survey has been going on for some time, and those who are involved in it are also in discussion with Louth County Council, which is carrying out the feasibility study on the provision of a bridge at Narrow Water.

The Member will also be aware that the study on the southern relief road will involve not only the Warrenpoint Road, but the Dublin Road side of Newry. That is because any relief road would effectively act as a link between those two roads.

I have asked officials to come back to me about the situation with the Camlough Road, with which I am obviously familiar. Given that the new road is being constructed, I have asked about the impact that it will have near the junction that is in the area of the railway bridge that we know as the Egyptian arch. I have asked officials to update me on how they propose to deal with any traffic issues that result from the new road scheme.

Public Consultation

5. Ms Anderson asked the Minister for Regional Development what measures he took to ensure that public consultation was undertaken on matters relating to his Department in first, the draft Budget; secondly, the draft Programme for Government; and finally, the Investment Strategy for Northern Ireland 2.       (AQO 1640/08)

Mr Murphy: Between 11 December 2007 and 16 January 2008, the Department ran an equality consultation on the DRD elements of the draft Programme for Government, the Budget for 2008-2011, and the investment strategy. The consultation document assessed, in light of the available data — including those equality impact assessments that had already been carried out — the equality-of-opportunity, good-relations and disability impacts of the DRD elements of the proposals. On 11 December 2007, that document was issued to over 400 groups and individuals that are on the Department’s section 75 consultation list. A series of public consultation seminars was held in the week commencing 7 January in Omagh, Derry, Armagh and Belfast. Additionally, a seminar for stakeholders, including members of the equality coalition, was held on 9 January in Belfast.

Ms Anderson: Go raibh maith agat. I thank the Minister for his response. I, too, acknowledge his commitment to develop the Derry railway line. That commitment contrasts starkly to that given by Mr Mark Durkan — who is from Derry — when he was Minister of Finance and Personnel.

What were the main themes that emerged from DRD’s equality consultation meeting? Were any of the issues that are being highlighted by the Stand Up for Derry campaign among those?

Mr Murphy: I do not know about that, but I am sure that in the Derry meeting, plenty of issues that related to DRD spending emerged. I am sure that those will continue to emerge over the next while.

The need to increase investment in rural transport services was one of the main themes that emerged from the seminars. Although the proposed extension to the concessionary-fares scheme to people who are aged 60 and over was welcomed, there was general disappointment about other unsuccessful proposals to extend the scheme, particularly those to grant free travel to current recipients of half fares and to provide reduced fares to people who use rural transport services.

It was also felt that additional funding opportunities should be used to rationalise rural transport and concessionary fare arrangements to ensure that older people and disabled people are treated in the same way.

The written consultation responses echoed those points, and the process raised additional concerns about the equity of urban/rural and east-west provision, the need for EQIAs on future arrangements for the delivery of water and sewerage services, efficiency savings, and the need for a mechanism to secure future equality scrutiny of public spending plans.

Mr Armstrong: Does the Minister agree that both an appropriate and adequate consultation period that results in a faster decision-making process, particularly in matters that relate to planning and infrastructure, should be one of the benefits of the restored Assembly, in which democratic views on all proposals can be openly expressed and deliberated? Should those replace the consultations of the direct rule regime? If so, can we expect a direct line?

Mr Murphy: I appreciate that arrangements are different now, and every Department has its Committee to scrutinise rigorously all the plans, spending and other proposals of the Department. That is appropriate. The Budget is set over the next three years, and spending plans are substantial. I welcome the fact that the Executive are, rightly, committed to equality impact assessment in regard to the Budget and the Programme for Government.

We are all here as public representatives; however, opportunities to engage the public to hear their views, particularly concerning the Budget, are never a wasted exercise. It is always of benefit to find out the views of the people who elected us in relation to such issues and to public spending plans.

Mr Shannon: Has the Minister, at any stage, consulted his Department, elected representatives and the general public regarding the deterioration of roads in the Strangford area? The reason I ask is the clear private spend of some £6 million for Castlebawn Bypass. Has the Minister given any consideration to matching that spend in the Strangford area, thereby ensuring that Strangford’s roads are equal to — or better than — roads in the rest of the Province, and far beyond those in the County of Londonderry?

Mr Murphy: The Member knows I will be very happy to consult. He has had me down in Strangford — not necessarily looking at roads. [Laughter.] The first time he invited me to a constituency, I was happy to undertake the trip. He may know that Mr McCarthy has invited me to look at roads in the Ards area; no doubt I will have another opportunity to look at the roads in that part of the world. Furthermore, Mr McNarry has tabled a question about roads in Strangford, and if I do not talk too long, we might come to it.

There are many opportunities to engage in consultation on roads. The Department would like to spend as much possible on roads, and it bid for as much as possible in the Budget.

I am happy to look at the road that the Member mentioned, and to respond to his question in writing.

European Charter on Minority Languages

6. Mr Butler asked the Minister for Regional Develop­ment what action he is taking to meet his commitment to be proactive in promoting the European Charter on Minority Languages in relation to the use of Irish road signage in (i) Northern Ireland; and (ii) the Gaeltacht quarter in West Belfast.         (AQO 1642/08)

Mr Murphy: Although the European Charter for Regional and Minority Languages places no direct responsibilities on the Department in respect of roads signing, it requires that the Department’s business, particularly in relation to the use of Irish, be examined proactively with a view to protecting and promoting the use of the language. Road signs are authorised or prescribed by my Department under the Road Traffic Regulation (Northern Ireland) Order 1997. There is, however, a doubt about the power to promote languages other than English in road signs. As such, my Department’s current policy is not to provide bilingual road signs.

However, following requests and representations, my Department’s Road Service is developing policy proposals that will lead to legislative amendment and enable the authorisation of a limited number of bilingual road signs. I hope to bring my policy proposals to the Executive in the next few months.

Regarding the Gaeltacht quarter in west Belfast, on 10 December 2007, I met representatives of Forbairt Feirste to listen to their proposals for promoting the Irish language. The proposals that I intend to bring forward will apply right across the North.

Mr Butler: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as a fhreagra.

I thank the Minister for that reply. As he knows, the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages was one of the commitments under the Good Friday Agreement to which the British Government and all the political parties signed up. Could he be more specific about when his Department will create a policy and legislative framework for the Irish language to be used in relation to street signs and traffic signs?

Mr Murphy: The proposals are one element of the miscellaneous provisions bill that I intend to bring forward this year. The timing depends very much on progress of the bill through the various stages in the Assembly. As Members will be aware, that can take up to two years.

Mr McCausland: Does the Minister agree that the European Charter has relevance for two indigenous minority languages in Northern Ireland? Does he agree that the Charter requires the Government to take resolute action to promote both languages? Therefore, any departure from the present situation would require a move to a trilingual arrangement, rather than a bilingual arrangement? Would he tell us what assessment he has made of the impact of trilingual signage as regards its visual intrusiveness and the impact on road safety?

3.30 pm

Mr Murphy: I have not had any representations from any sector seeking the provision of signage in Ulster Scots. Of course, I am considering my response to the representations that I have received. I am aware that south of the border, just 50 miles from here, there is bilingual signage. In other European countries and other countries around the world, there are signs in more than two languages. We will consider all the issues that might be involved in this, including safety and cost, when we decide to proceed with it. The Assembly, of course, will have an opportunity to debate it at that time, as a change in the legislation will be necessary.

Mr McGlone: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Has the Minister had any discussions with his counterparts in the Irish Government about the harmonising of road signs? The linguistic issue has been dealt with, but what about speed limits and moving to kilometres an hour?

Mr Murphy: Athough road signs are our respons­ibility, the responsibility for speed limits and road safety policy across the island largely lies with the Department of the Environment. I have been to two sectoral meetings at which road safety issues across the island were discussed, and I am happy to discuss signage arrangements as part of that. No specific propositions were put to either of those meetings in relation to universal signage North and South, whether in miles or kilometres.

social development

Social and Affordable Housing

1. Mr Dallat asked the Minister for Social Develop­ment what action she is taking to ensure that her targets for new social and affordable house building are met. (AQO 1564/08)

The Minister for Social Development (Ms Ritchie): Since the draft Budget was issued for consultation some three months ago, I have continually sought an increase in the funding available so as to secure the necessary investment in housing. Since the publication of the draft Budget, I have secured an additional £70 million for this financial year and an additional £205 million over the next three years, which will help me to deliver 1,500, 1,750 and 2,000 new starts. In that respect, I am grateful to all those who have supported me, including the Chairperson and members of the Social Development Committee, all those groups involved in the wider housing family, Members of this House and district councillors. I am pleased that the Minister of Finance and Personnel listened to the case that I made for additional resources to be invested in the social housing development programme in order to meet the clearly identified need.

To ensure that the management and resource structures are in place to deliver a social housing programme, I will be making a detailed announcement shortly.

Mr Dallat: With 38,000 people on the waiting list — half of them experiencing some level of housing stress, and many homeless — will the Minister give us an insight into some of the innovative new plans that she has to ensure that the housing plans are delivered?

Ms Ritchie: As I said, I will shortly be making an announce­ment on the housing agenda for the next three years. In addition to providing details of the social housing programme, I will be referring to other initiatives to boost the social and affordable housing supplies for all of Northern Ireland, including developer contributions. In that respect, I am having continuous discussions with my colleague the Minister of the Environment.

There is also the issue of private-sector finance. I commissioned Baroness Ford to consider various aspects of housing associations, Government land, and property owned by the Housing Executive. I am examining the issue of land and asset sales, including the assets of the housing associations, and I will be making a statement shortly on all those matters.

I am charged to meet housing need in Northern Ireland. As Mr Dallat said, there are 38,000 people on the waiting list, of whom 50% are in housing stress, and 21,000 are homeless. I am also conscious that many young people have had some difficulty in accessing the affordable housing ladder. Most of this finance will assist me in delivering the programme. I accept that there is a need for delivery and I am determined that no stone will be left unturned in order to do that job.

Mr Kennedy: I will try asking a question that the Minister has not seen. She will recall that the Assembly passed a private Members’ motion on 12 November 2007 calling for an expansion of co-ownership to at least 10% of the entire housing market in Northern Ireland, with a wide variety of shared equity options to be made available to first-time buyers. Will she state what steps she is taking towards meeting that objective?

Ms Ritchie: I am exploring all aspects of co-ownership housing, including widening staircases and broadening shared equity options. I am very conscious of the need to address that issue and that there is a lot of support for the programme. I was able to invest a significant proportion of the £47·5 million, which I received through in-year monitoring, in the co-ownership housing programme to help me to meet this year’s target.

Mr P Maskey: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Does the Minister agree that the targets will be meaningless unless they start to reduce the need for housing in areas such as West Belfast, where the number of people on the waiting list rose from 2,575 to 2,797? Almost 10% of the people on the housing waiting list in the Six Counties are in West Belfast.

Will she also agree that her retrograde proposal to create areas of unrestricted development of houses in multiple occupation in several parts of West Belfast is a poor substitute for an effective, properly resourced strategy to create social and affordable housing? Go raibh maith agat.

Ms Ritchie: I am very much charged with the need to address social housing conditions throughout Northern Ireland irrespective of whether they are in urban areas such as Belfast and Derry or rural areas. I am examining all proposals that will assure me that I will be able to deliver the programme, and I will be making an announcement shortly.

Many people in the House, particularly from one political party, urged me to accept what I had been offered back in October 2007. Would I not have been a fool had I accepted that funding while knowing that a specific need was being highlighted continuously by Members across the House? I made my case — and I am glad that it was listened to.

Fuel Poverty

2. Mr P Ramsey asked the Minister for Social Development for her assessment of her Department’s budget provision for combating fuel poverty over the next three years.          (AQO 1539/08)

Ms Ritchie: This year, my Department will spend more than £40 million and will help around 17,000 families who are fuel poor to improve the energy efficiency of their homes. I welcome that success and remain committed to do all that I can to help those who are most vulnerable in our community.

The prospect is challenging, given the funding in the three-year budget allocation. However, I remain committed to alleviating fuel poverty in Northern Ireland. I am determined to secure all necessary funds, and I will be bidding in the in-year monitoring rounds for funds to make up the shortfall. I am determined to act as a champion for those who are elderly or vulnerable by continuing to seek additional resources.

Mr P Ramsey: I thank the Minister for her reply and I acknowledge that many vulnerable and older people are fuel poor. What impact have the Department’s fuel poverty measures had on alleviating fuel poverty?

Ms Ritchie: The results of the 2006 Northern Ireland House Condition Survey are likely to show that 34% of households are in fuel poverty, which is a rise of around 7% on the position in 2004. However, had it been the case that only increases in the cost of fuel had taken place and that there had been no changes in two other factors, namely, incomes and energy efficiency, 66% of households would have been in fuel poverty.

None of us has control over fuel prices. Therefore, I have written to the new Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, lobbying him for the people of Northern Ireland, to ensure that there is an increase in the winter fuel payment. Since he took up office only on Friday, I have written to him today.

Mr Campbell: Will the Minister outline the steps that she intends to take to reduce the waiting list for the Eaga plc warm homes scheme, which she and almost all Members of the House support enthusiastically? As most people will concede, the list continues to grow rather than shorten. Will the Minister say what measures she intends to take, over the next two years, to eliminate the waiting list, which has grown to disproportionate lengths?

Ms Ritchie: I am conscious of the impact of the warm homes scheme in reducing fuel poverty in Northern Ireland. I am also aware of the popularity of that programme with regard to the insulation measures that have been installed in homes. I applaud the Eaga partnership, located in Dungannon, for the tremendous job that it has done. The programme is, however, overcommitted. It is highly popular, which shows that there is a need out there that must be addressed.

As a result of the in-year monitoring round and the money that I received in December, I have put £2 million into the warm homes scheme for this financial year, and along with my officials, I am examining the budgetary priorities for housing for the next three financial years. I assure the House that I will do all that I can to address the issue of fuel poverty throughout Northern Ireland and to support the work being done by Eaga plc.

In order to meet any shortfalls, I will also make a case to the Minister of Finance and Personnel for further allocations from the in-year monitoring rounds to address that shortfall and to protect the most vulnerable and the elderly in our society. I cannot agree more about the importance of that programme.

Mr Cobain: Given that we have no control over prices and wages, will the Minister agree that the idea of eradicating fuel poverty is absolute nonsense?

Ms Ritchie: In that instance, the better word, which the Housing Executive uses, would be “alleviation”. Members on all sides of the House work with their constituents, with Government and with the Housing Executive to ensure an alleviation of fuel poverty. I hope that I have the support of my ministerial colleagues in trying to reduce levels of fuel poverty throughout Northern Ireland.

Proscribed Organisations

3. Mr Burnside asked the Minister for Social Development what meetings she and her officials have had with members of proscribed organisations since taking up her post; and to detail the nature of these meetings.  (AQO 1508/08)

Ms Ritchie: In the course of my duties, I meet a wide range of individuals in a wide range of settings. It is not possible for me to attest to the status of each of them regarding their membership or otherwise of proscribed organisations. I can say, however, that neither I nor my officials have had meetings with any proscribed organisations.

Mr Burnside: That is a pretty clever answer. Therefore, what the Minister is saying is that it depends where the proscribed area is defined. The reason that I asked the question is that while I and others recognise that there are those in society who have been involved in terrorist activity in the past and who have evolved into good community work, there is a feeling from decent people in community organisations that many community groups are no more than fronts for past terrorist — proscribed or unproscribed — organisations. I hope that the Minister will agree that when granting community funding, we should be very careful that it is directed into pure community groups and not into fronts for former terrorist or proscribed organisations.

Ms Ritchie: I take on board, of course, what the Member for South Antrim Mr Burnside says. Shortly, I shall be considering the funding priorities for the voluntary and community sector. However, it would be very unfair and quite wrong of me or anyone else to make judgements about people on the basis of speculation or hearsay. As he will appreciate, applications come in for funding, and they are judged on their merits. However, I take on board what the Member has said.

3.45 pm

Mr Lunn: Irrespective of whether the Minister has met with representatives from proscribed organisations, does she agree that the end can justify the means, as has been frequently proven in recent times?

Ms Ritchie: The Member is obviously referring to the conflict transformation initiative, which is sub judice at the moment; therefore, I cannot comment on it. The Member is shaking his head, therefore, he is obviously not referring to that project.

We all meet a wide range of individuals in different settings, and when I meet people in a ministerial setting, it is not possible for me to attest to the status of their membership of organisations. People come to me with an expressed case, perhaps looking for resources or trying to ensure that their project is given priority. However, I take on board the Member’s comments.

Mr Craig: It has been an interesting debate about whom Members meet and whom they do not meet, especially considering that certain people tried to get political representatives of certain organisations to join with them. [Interruption.] Will the Minister outline what action she has taken to provide funding to small pockets of deprivation in loyalist communities that fall outside the Noble index? I believe that she has done some good work in those areas.

Ms Ritchie: On 13 November 2007, I was pleased to announce a further extension to the areas-at-risk programme. As Mr Craig will know, I designated Seymour Hill in Dunmurry as an area at risk.

A Member: Seymour who? [Laughter.]

Ms Ritchie: It was not that Seymour.

I also designated Ballybeen and other areas. In early November 2007, I met several delegations to discuss the need to target funding to those hard-to-reach loyalist communities. I am awaiting a paper from the DUP, which was promised to me on that occasion.

Mr Deputy Speaker: Question 4 has been withdrawn.

Additional Resources: Departmental Plans

5. Mr Storey asked the Minister for Social Development what plans she has to use the additional resources announced by the Minister for Finance and Personnel on 15 January 2008.  (AQO 1637/08)

Ms Ritchie: The housing programme received additional resources of £52·64 million in the December monitoring round. The allocation is as follows: the social housing development programme will receive £26·6 million; the Northern Ireland Co-ownership Housing Association will receive £19 million; the special purchase of evacuated dwellings — more commonly known as the SPED scheme — will receive £3·54 million; fuel poverty will receive £2 million; and the housing association voluntary purchase grant will receive £1·5 million.

Mr Storey: I thank the Minister for her answer. Although I am interested in the financial allocation, which is thanks to the due diligence of the Finance Minister, I am more interested in where that money will be spent. Recently, a Ballymena newspaper reported the Minister’s party colleague and my North Antrim colleague Mr O’Loan as saying that a large amount of spending on social housing is an absolute must. Will the Minister assure me that areas such as Ballymena, Ballymoney and Ballycastle will not miss out on affordable and social housing, and that those areas will not play second fiddle to other areas of Northern Ireland?

Ms Ritchie: Having visited many parts of Northern Ireland over the past eight months, I am well aware of the social and affordable housing conditions in those areas. As the Member is aware, in September 2007, I visited the Dunclug estate and another area in Ballymena.

Furthermore, I met the Member for North Antrim Mr Storey, along with Mr O’Loan and Mr McKay, in November. I was charged with the need to upgrade that area of Dunclug. Interestingly, the Housing Executive is putting to its board this month proposals for phase one of the Dunclug improvement programme — an environmental improvement scheme. If approved, the Executive will proceed to scheme, design and tender with a proposed start date later this year. I will write to the three Members who came to me — including Mr Storey — when I am fully apprised of the situation.

I will make an announcement shortly about the social and affordable housing programme. In that announcement, I want to be able to address the housing needs that exist throughout Northern Ireland. Many people — in urban and rural areas — are on housing waiting lists and in need. As a representative from a rural constituency, I do not want to forget about the people who live in rural areas, irrespective of their geographical location in Ireland.

Ms J McCann: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Will the Minister confirm that the Colin area — in which I live — and others, such as the Shankill and west Belfast, have vital community youth services, which are in receipt of short-term funding from the Department, and that many of those services and the people employed to deliver them have not yet been informed by the Department whether they will receive funding after March 2008? Will the Minister undertake to resolve that situation urgently as she considers the additional resources available to her Department? Go raibh maith agat.

Ms Ritchie: That question does not deal with housing, but notwithstanding that, I will be looking at the different aspects of the Department for Social Development when considering the resources available. I am conscious of the situation with regard to children and youth services, because representations on that matter — in the context of the overall voluntary and community services — have been made to me. I will try to address deprivation, need and disadvantage, because the Department for Social Development is about building communities through addressing those vital components.

Mr K Robinson: Considering Sir John Semple’s estimate that 2,000 new social house builds are required each year, does the Minister accept that the additional budget allocation enabling her to deliver 1,500, 1,750 and 2,000 new units over the Budget period is little more than standing still?

Ms Ritchie: Some history of the situation may be of help to the Member. When I took up office on 8 May 2007, I had the funding to build only 600 new houses this year. With the provision of in-year monitoring, I hope to be able to achieve the target of 1,500 as specified in this year’s Programme for Government. Following the initial negotiations of the draft Budget, I had the funding to build very few houses. I, therefore, consider the progress made to be an achievement in thinking, research and negotiation. The winners are the people of Northern Ireland who are on the waiting lists and those who have substantial savings and who are trying to get on the first rung of the housing ladder.

I am determined to ensure that Semple’s — and the Executive’s — target of 10,000 houses over the next five years will be met, and I will be seeking the support of my ministerial colleagues around the Executive table to do that. There might be problems in achieving that, but I am determined to leave no stone unturned. I need everybody’s help, and I will also be making a case for shortfalls through the in-year monitoring process. Rest assured — I will provide housing to meet the specified need.

Travellers’ Sites

6. Mr Simpson asked the Minister for Social Development to outline her Department’s policy on locating Travellers’ sites.    (AQO 1636/08)

Ms Ritchie: The Department’s policy on locating Travellers’ sites is to ensure that the Housing Executive identifies, acquires and gets planning permission after full consultation at a local level to meet the assessed accommodation needs of Travellers.

It is worth noting that, in 2002, the Housing Executive carried out a comprehensive needs assessment of the Travelling community’s accommodation requirements, which informed a five-year, rolling programme of work. Currently, the Housing Executive is carrying out a further needs assessment exercise, which will form the basis of a programme for Travellers’ accommodation for the next five years. In addition, I am fully conscious of the recent ‘Good Morning Ulster’ programme that dealt specifically with Travellers’ sites in Craigavon.

Mr Simpson: Does the Minister agree that no equality legislation states that Craigavon should be the dumping ground for Travellers’ sites? In addition, why, in contravention of the direct rule Minister David Hanson’s pledge that full consultation and community buy-in were essential, are additional sites being created in Craigavon? Finally, will the Minister give a clear-cut commitment to the House that if seven permanent sites are required in the Province, they will be equally divided across the Province and not simply placed in Craigavon?

Ms Ritchie: All Members must bear in mind that there must be a balance between the Traveller and settled communities. The Housing Executive has already written to Craigavon Borough Council about that issue, and I have asked the Housing Executive to facilitate a meeting with local political representatives as soon as possible in order to clarify how many sites are required to meet the needs of the Travelling community in Craigavon. When potential sites have been identified, local consultation will take place.

When listening to that radio debate, I was conscious of the wide range of views that were proffered from the settled community, public representatives and members of the Travelling community. A balance must be struck, available sites and particular needs must be considered, and a certain degree of sensitivity must be shown.

Mrs D Kelly: Under the review of public admini­stration, does the Minister have any plans to transfer the delivery and planning of Travellers’ sites to local government?

Ms Ritchie: During the consultation process, there was no significant support for the transfer of Traveller-site provision to councils. I have given further consider­ation to the transfer of certain housing functions to local government, but, as yet, I have not made a final decision on that matter. Travellers have a right to expect to be accommodated in housing of their choice. However, that right must be balanced with the rights of the settled community. I believe that responsibility for that issue should remain with the Department and the Housing Executive.

Mr Gardiner: Craigavon has been described as the headquarters for Travellers’ sites in Northern Ireland, and new sites proposed by the Housing Executive would mean that there would be a total of five. Given that the majority of other authorities have made no provision whatsoever for Travellers, will the Minister assure Craigavon ratepayers that they will not have to pick up the rates bill for the disproportionate allocation of Travellers’ sites, and will she undertake to hold an inquiry into the sanitary and waste-disposal facilities on those sites?

Ms Ritchie: I accept the sensitive nature of those issues. I repeat, there must be a balance between the needs of the settled and Travelling communities. I am well aware of the issues raised by Mr Simpson, Mrs Kelly and Mr Gardiner, and I heard such opinions vented on that radio debate. I am also aware that Mrs Kelly has written to me about those matters. That is why I have asked the Housing Executive to facilitate a meeting with Craigavon Borough Council and local political representatives in order to clarify the issues, and, following that meeting, I would appreciate it if the Housing Executive and the council fully apprised me of the situation.

I take on board the comments that have been made today by Members on this issue.

4.00 pm

Social Housing

7. Mr D Bradley asked the Minister for Social Development to detail the number of social housing starts that will be achieved by the end of the year 2007-08.       (AQO 1545/08)

Ms Ritchie: The target is to achieve 1,500 social housing starts in 2007-08. As far as future years are concerned, I am delighted that my representations on the draft housing budget have been accepted. As the Member will know, additional funding has been made available to support me in delivering 1,500, 1,750 and 2,000 homes over the next three years repectively. My officials and I are currently considering the budgetary implications. I will, shortly, make an announcement on the social and affordable housing programme for the next three years. It remains my aspiration to deliver on the target of up to 10,000 new social homes over the next five years.

Mr Deputy Speaker: That ends Question Time. We will now continue with the debate on the Programme for Government and investment strategy.

Executive Committee Business

Programme for Government and Investment Strategy for Northern Ireland

Debate resumed on amendments to motion:

That this Assembly endorses the Programme for Government and Investment Strategy for Northern Ireland agreed by the Executive. — [The First Minister and deputy First Minister.]

Which amendments were:

No 1: Leave out all after “Assembly” and insert:

“calls on the First Minister and deputy First Minister to lay a revised Programme for Government before the Assembly, as the Programme for Government currently before the Assembly does not properly address the deep divisions in this society and the need to build a shared future, does not make meaningful changes to balance the regional economy, and fails to provide for sustainable and integrated public services.”

No 2: After “Executive” insert:

‘; and calls on the Executive to ensure ongoing review and subsequent necessary revision’.

No 3: After “Executive” insert

“; and calls on the Executive to address further social and economic needs and support for the community and voluntary sector and to develop and promote policies for ‘A Shared Future’; and further calls for appropriate review and revision of the Investment Strategy for Northern Ireland to ensure that it best delivers balanced regional development and underpins equality”.

Ms Anderson: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Ba mhaith liom labhairt i bhfabhar an rúin seo agus i bhfabhar leasú 2. I support the motion and amendment number 2. I endorse the Programme for Government and investment strategy that the Executive have put before us today. Furthermore, I applaud the process for the remarkable achievement that it is, and mark it as a huge step in the development of the process of government.

(Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr Dallat] in the Chair)

That process is remarkable, and, in many ways, exemplary. It is a path-breaking experiment towards government of the people by the people. It is a process that emanates directly from the objectives established by the Programme for Government:

“to address poverty and disadvantage, and to build a fairer and more equitable society”,

and to make

“A commitment to use prosperity to tackle disadvantage and to build a tolerant, inclusive and stable society”.

The Executive could, of course, pay lip service to those objectives. However, the statutory requirement of equality impact assessments (EQIAs) and the requirement of consultation with the people holds the potential to make real those ideals, allowing all to have their say and to influence outcomes.

Each departmental Committee will be part of scrutiny and ongoing monitoring and review, set against equality criteria. I am sure that all MLAs understand the simple seven-stage process of an EQIA. Without monitoring and measuring outcomes or equality impact assessments, the Programme for Government, investment strategy and Budget become futile.

Although all parties share constituencies of interest, Sinn Féin and the DUP have working-class interests at the forefront of our common ground considerations. We know that unless we measure the impacts that policies, programmes and projects are having on disadvantage and discrimination, and, therefore, changing outcomes in places such as the Village in south Belfast and the Bogside in Derry, we will not succeed in making a difference to people’s lives.

It is precisely through the process of consultation that we can ensure that we are working towards our objectives, and that we are making a difference to people’s lives. It is by engaging with them, in each sector, that our allocation of resources can be assessed and distributed. Indeed, the commitment given by the First Minister on OFMDFM’s intention to carry out a full equality impact assessment, and, in future, to allocate monitoring rounds on the basis of objective need, is a welcome development. I have no doubt that civic society will respond to the 12-week consultation and take ownership of the process.

It has been noticeable over recent months how so many media commentators feel a need for what they call a “real opposition” in the Assembly. Is an opposition an essential construct of democratic government? Is not the Government themselves, when they are directly accountable to the people, engaging and consulting with them, a more democratic institution?

Of course, the limitations of the process are evidenced by the fact that only three Departments had separately undertaken departmentally focused EQIA consultation processes at the end of last year. Smaller parties should take note, because it was by using the results of those consultations — although the consultations were not, in themselves, perfect — that the Minister of Finance and Personnel was able to allocate more funding from the block budget to the Education Minister for children and young people. Therefore, this is Government by the people, rather than Government by one team that continually squabbles with others and feeds a sense of division. Who wants to promote a false paradigm that serves to divide communities and keep them apart, and which in no way engages people’s strengths and innovative ability to work together to address inequalities as a community? That is not the work of modern intelligent governance.

Last week, our Finance Minister, Peter Robinson, said that, in a global world economy, Government could have only limited influence on the state of the economy and that it is not the public sector that will be responsible for success. He went on to say that public spending alone can never create the society we want.

On the contrary, I believe that it is through the public sector that we can directly address the inequalities that characterise our regions and communities. Let me paraphrase Marshall McLuhan’s famous saying “the medium is the message” to “the process is the outcome”.

We do not need to write ourselves, Peter Robinson or the Executive out of the equation in the false belief that the global economy will change inequalities when left to its own devices or through its reliance on the employees of Société Générale — last week, one of that bank’s employees performed in the global world economy and lost £3·5 billion.

It is only in the public sector that we can have a direct impact on the inequalities in our society. It is only when the public sector is under clear scrutiny and works in close engagement with the people that the processes and objectives set out in the draft Programme for Government and draft ISNI strategy can be realised. Take, for example, the £1·8 billion spent on procurement. How can we use that public money to buy social justice? How can we ensure that social requirements are included in procurement contracts so that we increase apprenticeship training for young people and tackle our economic inactivity register?

Structural change needs structural measures. By using the tools of public procurement alongside external investment that is used fairly, the Executive can help to close the widening gap between the rich and the disadvantaged. By using prosperity to tackle economic and social inequality, we would all be able to participate in future prosperity. That is not only right in itself, but it is also essential if we are to create a stable base for economic and political development. The best way to address exclusion is for us, ourselves, not to exclude, but to engage wholeheartedly in the process through equality impact assessments and to listen to what the community has to say.

The north-west wants its say. It wants to be heard, and it wants the outcomes to reflect that it has been listened to. The Stand Up for Derry cavalcade arrived at Stormont last week. Departmental statistics show how Derry has been neglected by direct rule Ministers. We want to know whether all local Ministers intend to use equality tools to ensure that areas such as Derry will no longer be discriminated against. Given that there will be a multi-billion-pound investment strategy in the coming decade, will Ministers address the most acute needs of the north-west? Will Ministers address the acute needs of north, west and south Belfast and Derry and elsewhere? The Stand up for Derry campaign demands that our public resources be allocated on the basis of objective need and that external investment should have a direct and measurable impact on those most excluded from the labour market. If we are to make real the requirements and promises of inclusion and equality, all Ministers must adopt that approach to tackle the widening gap between the haves and the have-nots.

It makes good economic and political sense. Integrating the building of prosperity with the tackling of disadvant­age will enable the Assembly to modernise the economy and to transfer the inequalities of a difficult past into a new and effective social dynamic, thereby creating a better future.

In laws and policies, the Assembly has the tools of change, and it must now make them work. In his statement today, the First Minister gave OFMDFM’s commitment to making them work. The peace process requires inclusive and effective change. The last Executive merely promised; the new Executive can deliver. Go raibh maith agat.

The Chairperson of the Committee for Social Development (Mr Campbell): I welcome the Programme for Government and the investment strategy for Northern Ireland.

During the debate on the draft Programme for Government, I said that it was time to abolish silo thinking and time for Departments to choreograph their activities to achieve the best outcomes, avoid duplication of effort and make the most effective use of resources. The strategic and cross-cutting nature of the Programme for Government and investment strategy plays a part in getting all Departments to work together to address the central challenges and to build a better future for all the people of Northern Ireland.

The Committee welcomes the priorities as set out in the Programme for Government, because they embody the Department for Social Development’s role in tackling disadvantage and building communities. The Committee particularly welcomes the identification of five strategic priorities, the highest of which focuses on growing a dynamic and innovative economy. Economic growth is the driving force behind the creation of wealth and the regeneration of all communities.

The work of reducing poverty and disadvantage is at the core of the Department for Social Development’s policies and programmes. Therefore, the Committee is pleased that the commitment in the draft Programme for Government to use increased prosperity “to tackle disadvantage” is retained in the final document.

I welcome both the priority that has been given to tackling the housing crisis and the planned investment in social and affordable housing. The revised goal of investing £925 million in social and affordable housing by 2011, and at least £1·8 billion by 2018, is a good indication that the views expressed during the consultation period have been listened to. The decision to invest £925 million by 2011 reflects the urgency of the social housing situation.

To realise that investment goal, all relevant Departments must play their part. The housing crisis is not an issue purely for the Department for Social Development. If the desired outcomes and targets of the Programme for Government are to be achieved, it is critical for that Department to work strategically and effectively with other Departments.

I welcome the Programme for Government’s commitment to working towards the elimination of child poverty by 2020 and to reducing extreme child poverty by 50% by 2010. As was evidenced during Question Time, the Committee had serious reservations about the commitment in the draft document to the eradication of child poverty by 2020, because that seemed aspirational rather than realistic. I am pleased that the revised goal appears to be more realistic.

The target of working towards the elimination of severe child poverty by 2012 is welcome. However, there is an urgent need to develop and agree a definition — the target cannot be met unless we know what is meant by “severe” child poverty.

As many vulnerable households face fuel poverty, the objective of reducing the levels of that type of poverty is welcome. The Committee had serious concerns about the draft Programme for Government’s targets for the eradication of fuel poverty. I am pleased that its target of eradicating fuel poverty in vulnerable households by 2010 and in all households by 2016 has been revised. Given the Government’s limited influence on fuel prices, a target of alleviating fuel poverty in approximately 9,000 households each year through the implementation of energy efficiencies is much more realistic.

For the above reasons, the Committee for Social Development supports the motion.

Mr Elliott: I welcome many of the measures that have been outlined in the Programme for Government. However, we must be realistic and to accept that many of those measures will be difficult to achieve — more so, as time passes.

4.15 pm

My first point — and I am sure that many Members will agree with it — concerns the roads infrastructure in the Province. There is an ever-increasing number of vehicles on roads throughout the United Kingdom, and Northern Ireland is no different.

Members will all be aware of individual difficulties and problems in their own constituencies and areas. Enniskillen, which is one of the largest towns in my constituency of Fermanagh and South Tyrone, is currently without a bypass. I believe that it is the only major town in Northern Ireland without one, and, despite the fact that it is an island town that provides a crossing point on Lough Erne, is therefore subject to major traffic congestion every day.

Other crossing points on Lough Erne are many miles outside the boundaries of Enniskillen, and many people have to travel that significant distance to cross the lough, resulting in a significant traffic bottleneck in Enniskillen.

Further major difficulties are created by the number of cars that travel from places such as the Republic of Ireland so that people can enjoy the outstanding shopping and other facilities offered by Enniskillen, and, indeed, County Fermanagh.

That is just one issue, and it is an example of a problem that will require much hard work and investment if progress in the west of the Province, and, especially in Fermanagh, is to be achieved.

Another significant difficulty is the road-maintenance structure. Many roads in Fermanagh and South Tyrone are in a poor state. The reason for that — and I am almost reluctant to say it — is that they have been abused by vehicles, and have had no maintenance and no protection. Many heavy-goods vehicles travel along those roads, and that is necessary for the people of the constituency. Fermanagh and South Tyrone have no significant public transport, no train service and no rail system. The only way that products can be transported is by road. Therefore, if those roads are not regularly upgraded and repaired, they become ever more dangerous.

In tandem with that is the knowledge that the process for road maintenance is becoming slower, with many roads in the constituency five years behind in their maintenance structure budget. If that continues, a situation will arise in which roads will not have been maintained for maybe 20, 30 or 40 years. Furthermore, I have been told that the prospect of roads being resurfaced only every 105 years is under discusson. That will not only infringe on the mobility available to the people of Fermanagh and South Tyrone, but will especially impact on the lives of many rural-based businesses and rural dwellers, many of whom are completely dependent on the ability to move their machinery and products to manage their businesses.

Another noteworthy point is the issue of little public transport and no rail facilities. People of Fermanagh and South Tyrone are often envious when they see so much finance and public money being invested in a rail network that they cannot use.

The A32 connecting road between Omagh and Enniskillen serves as an example: it is a protected route, it is an A-class road, but it is in a condition that we might have expected to see in the last century when people were using horses and carts to travel. It is outdated.

Mr S Wilson: I though that you still used those.

Mr Elliott: Maybe some people still do. Maybe the Member from East Antrim travels to Stormont in some environmentally sensitive way.

As we seek to move into a progressive twenty-first century society, it is vital that road maintenance has a priority status with a view to developing internal mobility in this Province. Therefore, we must ensure that all people have equal status and equal rights to fair and equitable transport provision in the Province.

It would be remiss of me not to comment on agriculture and rural development. The Chairperson of the Committee for Agriculture and Rural Development highlighted some issues extremely well. I welcome that the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development wants to be a rural champion. For too long, departmental bodies have been disconnected from the ordinary agri­culture worker. Through an ever growing amount of red tape and bureaucracy, those bodies play a role in increasing the levels of stress experienced by many farmers and agriculture workers throughout Northern Ireland.

As locally elected representatives, we have a real opportunity to make a difference. However, rebuilding our farming industry will not be an easy task. I was disappointed that there was no reference to the report by the Red Meat Industry Task Force in the Programme for Government, which should form the basis of future arrangements for that part of the agriculture sector. It was compiled by people who are committed to helping our ailing red-meat industry and paints a true, if highly depressing, picture. Its recommendations deserve to be acknowledged as having been made from an informed position, which is why I find it disappointing and aggravating that the report has been forgotten about in the Programme for Government.

On a practical level, the Programme for Government does not go nearly far enough on the major issue of animal disease control. The aim to reduce the annual herd incidence of brucellosis by 20%, and of TB by 27%, in cattle by 2011 is not adequate. We should be trying to eradicate those diseases and, through animal-disease control, give the people and farmers of Northern Ireland a much healthier society. It is a demoralising situation for the farmers who have diseased cattle taken from them and slaughtered to have to rebuild their herds. Unless we promote the eradication of such diseases the situation will not change.

I welcome the increased funding secured by my colleague the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety, Michael McGimpsey, as an investment in the future of our children. Undoubtedly, all Members will be delighted by that news. However, although I have full confidence in the Minister to put the money he has received to good use, continued investment in that area is required — we can never invest too much in the future. We have the opportunity to watch our children mix with one another and grow together, which has not been possible for the last 40 years and, in many instances, for the last century. It is imperative to address the needs of our young people so that, when they take over the mantle as the governors of Northern Ireland, they are prepared in mindset and ability to help this country fulfil its potential. The Programme for Government could have gone further in investigating the methods and aims of initiatives for children in Northern Ireland. That demands further insight due to the complexities that surround the treatment of our children.

I am a strong advocate of the need to differentiate between children in relative poverty, and those in the severest poverty. I do that, not with the aim of creating two levels of poverty, but so that the issue can be tackled in an appropriate and effective manner. That means that families with children in the severest poverty are given a helping hand to increase opportunities for their children. The Programme for Government fails to reach that level of detail in the provisions for children, which disappoints me. Overall, I am hopeful for the future of our children, and I am sure that the Minister will invest money in an appropriate and rewarding manner.

The Programme for Government has given me some hope for the future. As I have made clear, there are issues that worry me, which I look forward to tackling in the Chamber and in the Committees. Members have the chance to help Northern Ireland move forward, and I, and the Ulster Unionist Party, remain committed to playing our part in creating increased prosperity for this Province and for my constituency.

Mrs D Kelly: I support the amendment standing in the name of Mark Durkan. Although I welcome some of the stated aspirations of the Programme for Government, it is characterised by a number of failings, including the gaps in key issues and the disconnection between its stated aims and the capacity of actions, targets and budgets to deliver on them.

I do not share the Member for Strangford Iris Robinson’s view that the Programme for Government is focused, with clear strategies, targets and actions. Going by the Programme for Government, one would hardly know that this society was emerging from nearly 40 years of intense conflict. Priority 2 deals with tolerance, inclusion and health, and it is striking that the short paragraph that addresses division is high on rhetoric, low on specifics, and includes no key goals.

The SDLP believes that the key priority must be to tackle sectarianism and promote good relations, as required by the Northern Ireland Act 1998. It is not clear whether references to improving societal relations are aimed at replacing existing commitments, or whether the priority of recent years has simply been downgraded. Commitments on good-relations obligations are noticeably absent from the proposals of Departments.

It is breathtaking that the Programme for Government and the Budget are silent on the far- reaching implications of the proposals to end academic selection and reform post-primary education, when children from disadvantaged families achieve fewer GCSEs, are much less likely to pass the 11-plus, and are less likely to go on to third-level education. There is a steep hill to climb to tackle the legacy of inequality.

Gaps persist in respect of the Civic Forum, and on the targets and proposals that aim to demonstrate how the Government will deliver on their stated aims. There is no specific reference in the programme’s aims, strategic priorities, themes or principles to tackling the legacy of uneven economic and social development across the North, which has contributed to the conflict of the past and the injustice of the present. The investment strategy for Northern Ireland is not satisfactory on that score either, and the lack of proposed investment in the Belfast-Derry railway is a good example. However, one of the main parties in Government promised the following in their election manifesto:

“Sinn Féin in government will work to…ring-fence a meaningful proportion for programmes aimed at reversing economic inequality and eliminating poverty.”

There is a disconnection between the warm words and the actual commitments in the Programme for Government. For example, it contains a welcome commitment to sustainability as a cross-cutting theme, but there is no commitment to create an environmental protection agency — which was another Sinn Féin commitment.

We are also told that one of the strategic priorities is to promote tolerance and inclusion, but there is no reference to a shared future. Equality is championed, but there is still no single equality Bill. Progressive proposals on the Civic Forum would have supported the commitment to partnership, and that is another issue on which there has been undue delay.

The Programme for Government also indicates a very welcome new target for tackling severe child poverty, but that is undermined by the budgetary reality. The SDLP in the last Executive ensured that a children’s fund was created, along with a children’s strategy that was supported by a budget. Halving child poverty by 2010 and eradicating it by 2020 are the Whitehall targets that were announced by Tony Blair and repeated by current Prime Minister, Gordon Brown MP, and which were written into the direct rule anti-poverty strategy by former Secretary of State Peter Hain MP.

An emphasis on growth in the absence of a properly funded anti-poverty strategy creates a Thatcherite impression that must be dispelled. Clear strategies must be outlined to show how prosperity will be used to tackle disadvantage, as promised.

The Lifetime Opportunities strategy was limited in its ambition and lacking in detail. Nevertheless, it was a starting point from which the Executive should not retreat. A detailed action plan is urgently required, and I hope that I will not be challenged on that point by Sinn Féin Members, after their repeated criticism of the Lifetime Opportunities strategy for being too general and unfocused.

Continued emphasis on investing in an infrastructure is essential. However, the SDLP remains concerned about the approach to investment and repeats its call to reshape the SIB to reflect the Executive’s commitment to partnership.

The SDLP wants reassurances that the investment strategy has undergone a full equality impact assessment and that the historic underinvestment west of the Bann will be robustly addressed. It would have been helpful if, as a basis for moving forward, a strategic audit had been carried out of the social and economic condition of Northern Ireland. I understand that one such report exists, but neither the First Minister nor the deputy First Minister believes that it is worth publishing.

4.30 pm

Mrs McGill: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. The Programme for Government, the investment strategy and the Budget contain comments from the First Minister and the deputy First Minister, among which is a statement saying that Executive are determined to make a difference by building a better future for all — and I emphasise the words “for all”.

The statement also said:

“Our over-arching aim is to build a peaceful, fair and prosperous society”.

I will focus on the words “fair and prosperous”.

In response to a question from Mr Hamilton on the promotion of economic growth in all areas, Mr McGuinness admitted that the focus was previously on Belfast, but that the PFG wanted economic growth everywhere. I welcome that.

On 22 January, I asked the Minister of Finance and Personnel, Mr Robinson, whether the final Budget was a good Budget for areas west of the Bann, especially my constituency of West Tyrone, which includes Omagh and Strabane District Councils. Of course, the Minister said that he believed that “this is a good Budget”. He went on to say that the PFG tied the Executive to ensuring that:

“prosperity is shared equally across Northern Ireland.” — [Official Report, Bound Volume 26, p323, col 2.]

Those are all positive comments, and I welcome them. Equality, fairness and prosperity are all referred to in the documents.

Given the historical underinvestment in places such as Strabane and Omagh, I looked through the documents to see whether I could spot any mention of Strabane. However, I could not find it.

Mr Deputy Speaker: You may continue.

Mrs McGill: I am sorry; I thought that a Member wanted me to give way.

Strabane is in the unenviable position of being first in the league table of figures showing the levels of deprivation in the 26 district council areas. It has the worst score.

The documents contain many positive points, including the fact that OFMDFM has made tackling poverty, deprivation and disadvantage a priority. Despite that, however, I thought that a connection would be made between the historical situation in Strabane and Omagh, which also features in the top 10 of that league table, and tackling poverty and disadvantage in areas such as West Tyrone.

I hope that those people in my constituency — in Strabane and in both urban and rural districts — who have vision for the area and who want to create jobs and move forward will be supported by the Executive and the Assembly. I hope that there will be inward investment and that Strabane, in particular, and Omagh will get their fair share of the planned 6,500 new jobs.

Every day, as I travel to the Assembly from outside Dunnamanagh, I notice the young fellows in vans — tradesmen, builders and construction workers — who have had to leave the area to work in Belfast. They leave their families and travel to Belfast and back every day, because there is not much work in their areas. The situation is improving, but I want those areas to be considered in other monitoring rounds, and when other finance is available. I am not asking for anything different or exceptional; I am asking that Government priorities target the areas of need.

I wish to mention a couple of other matters, including water and sewerage provision in the rural area in which I live. I have mentioned it before, but it is important to people in my area. Some houses have no mains water. A man with a young family told me that bringing mains water to his premises would cost him £90,000, despite assistance from the Department. The quotations that I referred to earlier mentioned fairness and equality — that is not fair. That family should not have to pay £90,000 for mains water. Although money is being spent on welcome infrastructure projects, such as the dualling of the A5, sewerage and water are key issues for people in my area.

The documents mention tourism. I have mentioned the signature projects before, and I will do so again. My area, the Glenelly Valley, is one of the most beautiful. The route that goes from Lifford and Strabane to County Derry, through Ligfordrum, Plumbridge and Cranagh, is one of the most beautiful drives. I mentioned it when Minister Dodds was in the Chamber. Clearly, there is no signature project for my area in the Programme for Government, although I mentioned it at the time. I welcome Minister Dodds’s statement that projects on a lesser scale to that of the signature projects could be funded. I hope that some of that funding will come to my area.

I repeat that I was looking for mentions of Strabane in the documents. I noticed that Lisburn and its library were mentioned. I hope that Newtownstewart, which is in the Strabane District Council area — the area that is in the unenviable position of being top of the league of disadvantage — will get a library.

I have touched on some of the issues that matter to people in my area, and I hope that I have not been too critical of some of the Ministers — including those from my party. Contrary to what was said earlier, I have not been silenced. I will challenge them, and it is important that people do so.

It is important that they are challenged. However, Sinn Féin Members are encouraged to speak up for the people they represent, and I am proud to do that. In conclusion, I hope that some of my points will be taken on board. Go raibh maith agat.

Mr Wells: On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. It would be remiss of me not to note that history has been made in the House this afternoon. For the first time, a Sinn Féin Member referred to Northern Ireland as “Northern Ireland”. I cannot allow that to pass without having it noted on the record.

Mr Deputy Speaker: Mr Wells, you know fine well that that is not a point of order. You are just delaying Mr Sammy Wilson.

Mr Wells: Mr Wilson, will you get to your feet and speak please?

Mr S Wilson: I knew that that could not be allowed to pass.

Mrs McGill: On a point of order, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I was quoting the Minister. I said “Northern Ireland” as a matter of accuracy. Go raibh maith agat.

Mr Deputy Speaker: Again, that is not a point of order.

Mr S Wilson: I welcome the fact that we have an agreed Programme for Government — not a draft, but the final document — despite the begrudging amendment from the Alliance Party, which seems to think that the role of the opposition is to find fault where there is no fault; to be negative when there is no need to be negative, and to cry about problems when there are none. I suppose that we will just have to indulge them.

Mr McGlone: Will the Member give way?

Mr S Wilson: OK — why not.

Mr McGlone: The Member should have been here when his colleague Rev William McCrea expressed his concerns about the Programme for Government in considerable voice. He opposed a number of projects put forward by the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development. It will be interesting to see what way he votes this evening.

Mr S Wilson: The Member will find that I, too, have some comments and qualifications to make.

I was referring to how the Alliance Party wants to throw out the whole document, rather than identify the one or two issues about which it is concerned, just because it does not provide them with a few more quangos on which they can serve under the guise of ‘A Shared Future’.

Dolores Kelly is sitting too close to the Alliance Party. Perhaps their kind of negativity is beginning to rub off on her. Her whole speech was about how the Programme for Government did not deal with economic inequality or real social issues. Yet, on reading the document, one encounters policies such as: increasing productivity in the private sector, which should increase wages; getting the long-term unemployed into work, which is one of the best ways of lifting people out of poverty, and getting people additional qualifications so that they can get better jobs. I do not know how else people can be lifted out of poverty, other than through the kind of policies that are set out in the document.

Rather than dwelling on the detail, had the Member read the highlights in the Programme for Government she might have been able to identify the ways in which economic inequality is being addressed.

Mrs D Kelly: Will the Member give way?

Mr S Wilson: I wish to say a couple of things. I would give way, but I think I am time limited, and I have already lost a minute earlier through the intervention of one of the Member’s party colleagues.

I, too, have concerns about the Programme for Government: given the size of the document, it would be foolish for Members to say that they have no concerns about it.

I will mention one issue, about which the Committee for Education, on which I serve, has expressed concern; and Members will wish to keep a careful eye on the matter also. There is a commitment in the Programme for Government to set up an education and skills authority. I congratulate the Executive: in September, they realised the size of that task and instructed the Minister of Education to carry out extensive pre-legislative scrutiny.

4.45 pm

Over the past three months, the Committee for Education has had the opportunity to speak to departmental officials and those who have been tasked with setting up the education and skills authority. I warn the House that coming down the road is the one of the most extensive pieces of legislation that there has ever been in the Assembly. In the form of two Bills, and through 1,200 amendments, it will rewrite much of the education legislation that has existed since 1948. Its essence will be the setting up of the biggest, unelected education quango in Europe. That quango will not be accountable and will be put in place to do the Department of Education’s will.

The Assembly was told that the education and skills authority was designed to save money. Indeed, savings of around £25 million were written into the education budget for the next three years. However, when it came to scrutiny of the supposed £25 million, the Committee was told that savings might be in the region of £15 million to £25 million. It was then told that yearly savings would be at the bottom of that range. Later, it was told that savings will be £15 million over a period of time. The setting up of the education and skills authority will have a dramatic effect on the education budget for the next three years, because half of the efficiency savings that are built into the education budget are attributed to it. However, a letter from the Department has now indicated that instead of £25 million each year, as previously promised, it will be £15 million over a period of time. That will affect schools in all Members’ areas.

The education and skills authority will implement the Bain Report’s recommendations and the area planning of schools, which, because of closures and rationalisations, will affect schools in every Member’s constituency. I am not against that: I understand that the Assembly must deal with that issue. It is one of the issues that will show whether the Assembly has grown up. However, that should, at least, be carried out by a body that has some degree of local and regional accountability. As it stands, the body will take decisions that affect schoolchildren right across all constituencies, without the necessary input from the Assembly or from local people. There is no interface with local areas. Although I am not a cheerleader for education and library boards, at least they allow some local account­ability for the delivery of education services. Those services, many of which are essentially local, will be administered regionally by an authority that has no local or elected input. Members ought to be aware of what is coming down the line in that regard.

The Assembly was promised that the education and skills authority would do away not only with education and library boards, but with all the fractional, sectoral interests that have wasted education resources through the duplication and triplication of schools in some areas of Northern Ireland. However, as a result of pressure from some of those sectors, the original promise that 11 bodies would be merged into one will not be fulfilled. The boards will go and the controlled sector will lose its voice. However, the Catholic, Irish-medium, integrated and voluntary sectors will maintain their voices.

The Assembly is setting itself up for collision with the representatives of the controlled sector. The proposed legislation will lead to a change in the boards of governors of controlled schools; yet, because of equality legislation, places can no longer be guaranteed for Protestant churches on those boards.

However, because there has been no change in the boards of governors in the maintained-schools sector, the Catholic Church schools sector will still be able to retain the same degree of control over its schools. The Assembly is heading towards a head-on collision with the Protestant Churches on this issue, because they are going to be denied any input into controlled-sector schools — control which they handed over. However, Church control will still be maintained in the Catholic schools sector. The promise of that legislation is in the Programme for Government.

That is an important issue for the Committee for Education, and for all parties in the Assembly — it is not simply a DUP issue. That is an issue that will affect all of us, as public representatives. We must ensure that the changes that will be made in the administration of education are not such that we are left to watch an unelected mega-quango doing things to education that we do not wish to be done and are powerless to stop. I hope that there will be full scrutiny of the proposed legislation during the coming year.

Mr McCartney: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Éirím le tacaíocht a thabhairt don Chlár Rialtais agus don straitéis atá os comhair an Tionóil inniu. Nuair a chuir an tAire an dréachtBhuiséad os comhair an Tionóil dúirt sé go ndearnadh sna Sé Chontae é. Anois, déanfaidh sé féin agus na hAirí eile cinnte go ndéanfaidh siad Buiséad don mhuintir an Tuaiscirt go léir.

I support the Programme for Government and the investment strategy that have been presented by the First Minister and the deputy First Minister and agreed, unanimously, by the Executive. I support the motion, and the amendment that has been tabled by the Ulster Unionist Party.

Last year, when the Minister of Finance and Personnel presented the draft Budget, he stated that it bore the proud stamp of having been made — I am sorry that Jim Wells is not present in the Chamber to hear me say — in the North of Ireland. Last week, when the Minister commended the Budget to the House, he stated that it is now time for delivery. I agree with that sentiment. The Budget, the investment strategy, the Programme for Government, and all that we do in the Assembly, must have an impact — in a fair and equitable way — on the lives of all people.

The Programme for Government has at its core the acceptance that inequalities exist and that we must strive to eliminate them, in all their forms. The investment strategy must deliver better public services for all. Therefore, I support the Programme for Government and the investment strategy, which set out the way in which the Executive and the Assembly intend to tackle the obvious regional disparity in infrastructure, and to address the need for more investment in public transport so that it is made more accessible across the Six Counties, with a particular focus on social exclusion and rural access.

Sinn Féin welcomes the investment of £137 million in new trains and the rail network. That will allow Translink to buy 20 new trains, and will promote and assist the growth in numbers of those who travel by train. For the people of the north-west and Derry, that will end the restriction on investment on the Derry railway line and reverse decades of neglect, for which direct rule Ministers were — not solely — culpable.

That new investment will allow Translink to take important railway infrastructure projects forward, and will include £12 million for track life-extension works north of Ballymena, and the start of a £64 million track relay project between Coleraine and Derry. The latter is a point that I am keen to highlight, as it often falls on deaf ears. I am sure that Mr Deputy Speaker will be glad to know of that project, which is long overdue and is vital to the economic growth of the north-west. There will also be £40 million for other significant improvements to the railway line between Belfast and Dublin, and between Knockmore and Lurgan. Those schemes will reduce journey times and increase the frequency of services.

Over the next three years, there will also be £45 million of new investment in buses. That will allow for the continuation of bus replacements and further modernisation of the bus fleet. Coupled with quality bus corridors, it will make public transport by bus and rail a more attractive alternative to a private car. That, in turn, will encourage the demand for more routes and services, and greater linkages to island-wide networks.

We welcome joint funding — with the Irish Govern­ment — of £14 million towards runway safety at the City of Derry airport and the dual-carriageway scheme from Aughnacloy to Derry, and onwards to Letterkenny. That dual-carriageway scheme will be one of the biggest road schemes in the country.

The funding for the airport will help to consolidate a vital piece of infrastructure for ensuring economic growth in the north-west and, with the dualling scheme, it will highlight how investment — North and South — must play a role in continuing growth. Economic growth will not be defined by a line on a map, and those investments are an effective way to bring about balanced regional development.

Over the three years to 2011, £612 million will be invested in the road network. That will result in a significant increase in the size of the motorway and dual carriageway network, reduce journey times and improve access to rural and urban centres. Sinn Féin also supports the many road improvements: the M1, Westlink and M2 upgrades; the dualling of the A4 from Dungannon to Ballygawley; and the opening of the dual carriageway between Beech Hill and Cloghogue in 2010. The investment will allow progress on a number of other strategic road improvement schemes, including the A6 from Derry to Dungiven; the dualling from Maydown to City of Derry Airport; and the dualling from Randalstown to the M22 at Castledawson. All of that is important, particularly considering that the economy of this island is the responsibility of us all, regardless of where we live. We must improve regional networks to end regional disparity.

I commend the Minister for Regional Development for his commitment to the north-west in recent decisions on roads, rail and the airport, which have left many people there expressing their deep gratitude to him. As he has said, that is work in progress, which is to be further advanced, but it is towards an end to regional disparity west of the Bann, particular in the rural areas of Tyrone and elsewhere. Standing up for Derry is also about standing up for the aim of bringing an end to regional disparity.

As a member of the Committee for Regional Development, I acknowledge that the Department carried out an equality impact assessment, which will point out where the inequalities are and provide the indicators of imbalance and disparity for our future work. I also welcome the fact that all members of the Executive now accept that we can only deliver the goals set out in the Programme for Government by equality proofing the work of the Assembly. All forms of inequality must be eliminated. It must be acknow­ledged that, for the first time, there is agreement at a strategic level that the Budget, the Programme for Government and the investment strategy will be subject to equality impact assessments.

Mrs D Kelly: Will the Member acknowledge that equality impact assessments and good relations are statutory obligations under the Northern Ireland Act 1998, and were not thought up nor dreamt of by Sinn Féin?

Mr McCartney: Absolutely. I further point out, and I am sure that the Member will agree, that no equality impact assessments were carried out under the last Executive, despite those statutory provisions.

Mrs D Kelly: There were.

Mr McCartney: If you check the records, you will find that there were not. The last Executive failed to equality-proof its work. Mindful of the SDLP’s amendment, what better way would there have been to guarantee a shared future than to have carried out an equality impact assessment, which I say the previous Executive did not do?

Mr S Wilson: Which was the second biggest party then? [Laughter.]

Mr McCartney: In conclusion, the Minister of Finance once reminded us that, if there is no Programme for Government, there can be no Government. I agree with that, but we cannot afford to ask whether the Government can deliver its own Programme for Government. This must be the beginning of a journey to end structural disparity and the resultant inequality. Let this be the Government for all the people. Mar sin, tugaim tacaíocht don mholadh agus don rún.

Lord Morrow: I have no problem with the Ulster Unionist Party’s amendment. Any Programme for Government has a statutory obligation to incorporate an ongoing review, with subsequent revision where necessary. However, I am disappointed by the negative attitude that the Alliance Party has adopted since it came into the Assembly, and I am sure that its supporters will also be disappointed. As Mr Sammy Wilson has said, Alliance always looks for negatives when none exist.

5.00 pm

Neither does the SDLP want to be outdone on negativity, so much so that it has joined that band of Members that says that they should all be negative, no matter what is being said about the Programme for Government. Those Members are saying that they have a bounden responsibility to be negative. The Alliance Party and the SDLP could therefore join to form a party that is called something like the new negative democratic labour party.

Mr S Wilson: Does the Member accept that, given that the Programme for Government is an agreed strategy, at least one Member of the SDLP is not negative? The Minister for Social Development must have said yes to it, even if the rest of her party now says no.

Lord Morrow: That is a good point: as we have been reminded so many times, the Executive are a four-party mandatory coalition. The thoughts and views of one party or organisation are not represented on the Executive; a combination of the views of four parties are represented. We have heard much in the past — and I add that this is not a criticism— from the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety, Mr McGimpsey, for example, when he felt that he was not getting enough money. I am glad to say that the Budget settlement means that he now feels that big improvements have been made to his funding and that there is sufficient room for him to deliver an effective Health Service. I am sure that we are all grateful to hear that.

Of course, the Minister for Social Development, who faces an enormous task in delivering the housing programme, has also come out with a smile on her face, saying that she is a lot happier now. When you see Mr McGimpsey and Margaret Ritchie smiling together, it must mean that good days are ahead.

That is why it is disappointing that the Alliance Party feels that it must play the role of negative party.

Dr Farry: Will the Member give way?

Lord Morrow: I will, certainly. I want to hear the Member’s negativity.

Dr Farry: I thank the Member for giving way. No doubt, he will recognise the right of any Member of any democratic Chamber to propose alternative views. Rather than simply banding us as negative, would the Member care to engage with any of the criticisms that the Alliance Party is voicing?

Lord Morrow: Of course, any political party has the right to challenge any Programme for Government or, indeed, anything that a Government might do. No matter what might be thought of those of us who sit on these Benches, we have never been shy in the past about being challenging, and we will not be so in the future. If we feel that aspects of the Programme for Government should be dickied up, strengthened and directed on another path, we will say so.

The Alliance Party keeps missing the point that there is more than just being negative, which its amendment seeks to be. That party is refusing to accept that others can move this Province forward. The Alliance Party felt that it wore that mantle and that it was the only party on this earth that could ever take this Province forward.

The Minister of Finance and Personnel said:

“without an agreed Programme for Government, there cannot be government.” — [Official Report, Bound Volume 25, p363, col 2].

How true that is. Today, we have a Programme for Government. I challenge the SDLP and the Alliance Party in particular to acknowledge that we have a Programme for Government, at the heart of which is the economy. How can prosperity be created? It can be achieved through an effective, efficient and working economy, and I believe that the Programme for Government will do that.

However, there are some things that I think should have been included in the Programme for Government. I have listened to some Members talk about the areas that they represent. One said that she looked in vain for the name of one town that she represents, only to discover that it was never mentioned in the Programme for Government, despite that fact that it had the unenviable record of being an unemployment black spot. That Member was correct on that point, and any Member is right to challenge arguments that have been made in the Chamber and to articulate the views of the people whom they represent. I intend to do that in the months ahead so far as Fermanagh and South Tyrone is concerned. For too long, the west has been neglected, and we must look to the affluent east, from where Mr Sammy Wilson comes.

They have services such as the train. We do not see trains; we have to go to Belfast to get a look at one. We want the west rejuvenated and we do not want task forces. Some Members said earlier that the way to rejuvenate the west was to have task forces. That is not the way to do it: the west must be rejuvenated by investment. We know what the problems are, we know where they exist and we want them taken on board. We do not want talking shops and task forces set up to identify them.

Our road infrastructure could be better; thankfully it is improving. The A4, at a cost of more than £100 million, from Moygashel to the Ballygawley roundabout is on course. That will bring untold benefit to the west, but it is still not enough.

We want our roads in Fermanagh to be improved. Why should Fermanagh not have the same standard of roads as anywhere else in Northern Ireland? Those of us who represent those areas fail to understand why Fermanagh roads are so inferior, for instance, to Mr Sammy Wilson’s roads. Mr Wilson need not tell me that it is because he is a better representative than anybody else. [Laughter.] He may bring his own talents to these debates. People in the west contend that they have been treated as second-class citizens for far too long. Far too many people travel from the west to work in the east.

We want the jobs distributed to the west on the same basis as they are distributed to everywhere else in Northern Ireland. We want an improvement in our roads; we want our education system and our facilities to be equal to the rest. Why should we not?

It will not be done by taking the attitude that the Alliance Party has adopted in its amendment. I appeal to the party to show some maturity, withdraw the amendment and throw its lot behind a Programme for Government agreed among the four political parties. If that conglomeration can agree, that says something, and the only odd one out now is the Alliance Party. My colleague says they were the odd ones anyway, so is it any wonder that their political base and their support has dwindled to such an extent? I suspect that, after the next Assembly election, we will not see them at all and they will be what is called a rare breed. They will disappear.

In the Programme for Government there is a statement which reads:

“Our overarching aim is to build a peaceful, fair and prosperous society in Northern Ireland, with respect for the rule of law”

That is highly important and encapsulates what this Programme for Government is about. We must have a society built on equality. At times I think that the nationalist community feels that unionists are afraid of that word “equality”. I am not afraid of equality, but I want equality for unionists too. That is something that we have not had for the past 30 years.

Therefore, I believe that, if the Programme for Government is to mean anything, it has to be a Programme for Government that works not only for all the people of Northern Ireland, but for all the areas of Northern Ireland. That is what concerns me. I hope that it will be rural-based, not urban-based; however, there are big communities in Northern Ireland which have felt neglected.

Mr Deputy Speaker: Time is up.

Lord Morrow: I trust that the Programme for Government will address those issues.

Mr McClarty: I, like Lord Morrow, oppose the amendment put forward by the Alliance Party. Like Lord Morrow, I believe that we in the Ulster Unionist Party would not be doing our jobs unless we deconstructed some of the Alliance’s arguments. The Ulster Unionist Party is wholeheartedly committed to overcoming sectarianism, bigotry and racism in Northern Ireland. We are committed to rationalising the delivery of services where possible.

However, the Alliance Party’s insistence on wheeling out the sensationalist £1·5 billion figure from the cost of division report during this consultation period is misleading for the public and unhelpful in making progress in this place. Costs for policing and security are included in that figure, as are the policing of civil disorder, the key persons protection scheme and the Historical Enquiries Team. Does the Alliance Party contend that civil disorder does not happen anywhere else in the United Kingdom or Europe? Does the Alliance Party consider that we should not protect key persons in Northern Ireland? Does it contend that we should abolish the Historical Enquiries Team?

The figure also contains compensation claims for victims with terrorist-related injuries. It is difficult to accept any approach that regards support for victims as an unacceptable financial burden resulting from the divide.

The report that the Alliance Party often quotes from also contains substantial allocations for community relations. It seems strange that a party condemns division in our society, yet it questions expenditure on efforts to overcome that division. The Alliance Party needs to bring itself back down to the ground. We cannot wish a new society in Northern Ireland into existence. We all have to get our hands dirty with all sections in society and move forward based on the reality.

The Ulster Unionist Party accepts that more must be done, but the Alliance Party’s position does a disservice to the reality of the difficulties faced by the Executive and by Northern Ireland. Having said that, the Alliance Party has recognised that the previous Executive, which was led by the Ulster Unionist Party, invested in community relations and in a shared future, despite its party’s opposition to it. Indeed, the recent statement by the five —

Dr Farry: Will the Member give way?

Mr McClarty: No, I will not give way. This is a six-hour debate, and you will have plenty of time to come back later.

The recent statement by the five Protestant clergymen in north Belfast highlights the importance of a shared future. However, contrary to what the Alliance Party is implying, this is not about pleasing the accountants, even if the savings are nowhere near the reported £1·5 billion a year.

Division in Northern Ireland is a challenge that the Ulster Unionist Party is prepared to meet, but responding to that challenge is not helped by the endless use of mythical financial savings. During the consultation period, the Alliance Party also criticised the Programme for Government and the Budget for being about a low-tax economy.

Therefore, is the Alliance Party’s finance spokesperson against low taxes? Are we then to assume that an Alliance Party that is in favour of tax-varying powers for the Northern Ireland Assembly is really in favour of tax increases for Northern Ireland? It would seem so. Do we really need tax increases, in addition to all the competitive challenges that face businesses in Northern Ireland? Does Northern Ireland need an increased tax burden? The answer must be a definitive no.

I appreciate that the Alliance Party has concerns for the future of Northern Ireland. However, it should not assume that it is the only party that holds such concerns, nor should it assume that it is the only party that can deliver on those concerns. It is easy to stand on the sidelines and throw highly moral sound bites at pro­foundly difficult challenges.

I accept that the Alliance Party is doing its democratic duty in scrutinising the Programme for Government, but does it recognise the distance that we have collectively come and the achievements of this Executive?

The Ulster Unionist Party has reservations about the Programme for Government and the Budget. However, in the name of moving forward, we will support the Executive so that we can help to deliver a peaceful, prosperous and normalised Northern Ireland.

5.15 pm

Mrs Hanna: I speak in support of the SDLP amendment. Even in the few weeks since the publication of the draft Programme for Government, global economic prospects have deteriorated significantly.

Some commentators state that the US economy is in recession, and the health of that economy is the greatest single factor impacting on Northern Ireland’s prospects for inward investment. That does not auger well for the prospects for our investment conference that is scheduled for a few months’ time. The outcome of the Varney Review was a crushing disappointment and demonstrates that Gordon Brown has little interest in what goes on here.

The United Kingdom Government have bungled the Northern Rock affair, and our economy — dependent as it is on public spend — is totally reliant on the block grant. As property prices fall, it will become obvious that reliance on the sales of public assets has been overstated. It is hoped that Workplace 2010 — the selling of publicly owned estates — will be better handled than some of our PFIs.

I also fear for the social economy, in which it is estimated that 30,000 people are employed. Many of them, especially in the health sector, do indispensable work. That social economy has benefited greatly from EU funding, which will taper off rapidly under Peace III. I have no quarrel with sustainable economic growth being the central aim of the draft Programme for Government. Wealth cannot be shared equitably if it is not created in the first instance. One of the key tenets of social democracy is interdependency: economic success, social justice, protection for the environment and cultural vitality must go hand in hand. As we are emerging from over three decades of conflict, that interdependency is essential.

I agree that we need investment, but the draft Programme for Government should have delivered a baseline analysis of the economic and social profile of Northern Ireland, how that relates to the policy and the investment goals set down, and, more importantly, how progress in attaining those goals will be measured. That would have been of more benefit than the few paragraphs that the issue was afforded.

Last Friday’s appointment of the four victims’ commissioners shows that the two largest parties have abandoned the aims of the shared future strategy. Its coherent vision was to bring about:

“The establishment over time of a normal, civic society, in which all individuals are considered as equals, where differences are resolved through dialogue in the public sphere, and where all people are treated impartially. A society where there is equity, respect for diversity and a recognition of our interdependence.”

As Mark Durkan said, there is nothing new on poverty, and there have been no new targets set. There must be a more ambitious and significant target. Neither is there any strategy for tackling sectarianism, which is still a cancer in our society. Such words as “peaceful”, “fair” and “tolerance” are mentioned, but if society does not know where the starting point is, it is difficult to know where we are going; we do not have any real prospect of getting there. The idea of a vision, so well expounded in the shared future strategy, has been hollowed out.

The increased allocation to the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety was welcome, and it vindicated the Members who said that the initial allocation was inadequate. Health is an area in which infinite and changing demands will always have to be met from limited resources. I am particularly grateful that we can go some way towards implementing the recommendations of the Bamford Review. The commitment to targets regarding the moving of patients from institutions to the community, the aims regarding the necessary infrastructure of sheltered and supported accommodation and the targets to reduce the number of suicides are also welcome.

No area is more complex than health, and the Minister, the members of the Health Committee and Members must work together in an attempt to achieve more efficient and effective delivery of services, promote good health and coping strategies, and prevent ill health by means of good-parenting and early-intervention programmes such as Sure Start. Indeed, as the Minister said earlier, we must eliminate MRSA, clostridium difficile and other hospital-acquired infections. National Health Service dental treatment must be made more widely available; patient journeys must be shortened to 18 weeks; direct access to medical specialists must be made easier; five-year cancer survival rates must be improved; there must be a balanced and equitable geographical spread of acute and primary care; and there must be a named public servant who, no matter what agency he or she works for, will act as a Sherpa through the systems’ bureaucratic complexities.

I welcome the opportunity to take part in the debate. On the subject of international affairs, I welcome the statement that all Members must engage positively with the European Union and build on existing partnerships and collaboration across key policies and programmes.

Since we joined the Common Market in 1974, the SDLP has always been strongly pro-European. Europe, and the idea of dissolving traditional enmities, has been a tremendous example for us, and we benefit enormously — not only materially, but in the powerful impact of being able to participate in the European Union’s great conflict-resolution model.

Finally, as Chairperson of the Assembly All-Party Group on International Development, I wish to mention a motion, which, in the near future, will instigate a debate on the role that the Assembly and civic society can play in international development — especially in our relationships with developing countries — and I am glad and grateful that representatives of all the main parties have co-proposed it. I hope that that motion will receive the widest possible support in order that the Assembly can send out an inclusive and fair message that we have a real vision for the future in Northern Ireland and our relationships further afield.

Mr Wells: As mentioned earlier in a point of order, history has been made by the Member for West Tyrone, who referred to Northern Ireland as Northern Ireland. Indeed, at a recent OFMDFM Committee meeting, a member of Sinn Féin referred to Londonderry by its proper name.

Mrs D Kelly: Does the Member recall that a member of his party referred to the North of Ireland as the Six Counties?

Mr Wells: We are dealing with that Member — action is being taken. The heavily-bandaged Member for Strangford is paying the price for that mistake.

The other day, in the Assembly canteen, I also noticed that a Sinn Féin Member for Londonderry did not ask for an occupied-Six-Counties fry, but for an Ulster fry. We are making progress, and the Sinn Féin females are leading the way in seeing the light by not insulting us and calling parts of Northern Ireland and its cities by their proper names. However, that is not the issue for debate.

As Deputy Chairperson of the Committee for Regional Development, I would normally speak after the Chair­­person, Mr Cobain; however he will speak tomorrow. The Committee has reached a general consensus on the Programme for Government and the Budget, and there are few differences on the crucial issues.

Being realistic, it would be difficult to deliver the Programme for Government’s policies without adequate, well-financed and well-maintained infrastructure. Without proper road, sewerage and transport infrastructures, it would be extremely difficult to deliver so many of the other important policies. Therefore, recent developments have placed the Department for Regional Development in a difficult position. Only today, the second report from the Independent Water Review Panel was published, and there is a 12-week consultation period, which will take us into the new financial year. That unfortunate set of circumstances places the Minister and the Department in a difficult situation, because that report contains major implications for water funding and policy in Northern Ireland.

First, there is the crucial issue of the affordability tariff, which is still to be worked out. There are some interesting initial suggestions on how to avoid inflicting water poverty on many people in the Province — water poverty, of course, being defined as 3% of gross income spent on water. Similarly, the delivery of the billing system for water is a difficult issue. If we put that responsibility in the hands of Land and Property Services, we will put a tremendous burden on the Department of Finance and Personnel.

I do not know, as yet, whether the full implications of that are apparent to the Executive and to the Assembly. We would be asking Land and Property Services to bring together many strands of data in order to create a single unified bill. I can see enormous difficulties. I suspect that this time next year, April 2009, we will be incredibly busy trying to explain the new system to our constituents and working out the anomalies that are bound to occur. Therefore, I hope that the Executive has set aside sufficient budget funds to enable Land and Property Services to take on that huge task.

Thirdly, and most importantly, the Independent Water Review Panel has created a very difficult and demanding target for Northern Ireland Water by requiring it to achieve 40% efficiency savings. That target has been diluted slightly, if Members will excuse the pun, to 37%, but there is no doubt that that will place Northern Ireland Water in an extremely difficult position. We all hope that it will deliver on that target. However, the logic of the review panel is that similar savings and efficiency targets have been achieved in other parts of the United Kingdom when changes have been made by other water services. Therefore, Northern Ireland Water should be able to achieve the same, or better.

The difficulty is that Northern Ireland Water has been asked to achieve those savings after decades of lower than expected, or lower than anticipated, investment in our water infrastructure. That led, for example, to some of our sewers being totally inadequate to deliver effective treatment for waste water, and to infraction proceedings by the European Commission as a result of what is known as the “tourist hotspots”. I am sorry; I meant to say “sewage hotspots”.

Mr S Wilson: They sometimes coincide.

Mr Wells: Unfortunately they do coincide sometimes. Clearly, however, that has placed a tremendous burden on Northern Ireland Water. I doubt gravely whether it is reasonable to expect Northern Ireland Water to deliver on such a strict and challenging target. That is important, because the Programme for Government and the Budget are committed to delivering a high-quality environment that meets European standards.

Northern Ireland Water is well on the way to eliminating the problem of the sewage hotspots, and I must congratulate it for the amount of investment that has been carried out. I have difficulty in working out how it is going to continue to deliver on those important targets in the context of a 40% efficiency saving. I hope that I am wrong. I hope that Northern Ireland Water can achieve those targets, but to continue to force that issue might undermine one of the main goals of the Programme for Government.

I am also delighted about the extra funding that has been granted to Roads Service for planned maintenance. In its submissions on the draft Programme for Govern­ment and draft Budget, the OFMDFM Committee highlighted the fact that the funding that has been available for planned maintenance over the past decade has been totally inadequate. Although I welcome that additional funding, I understand the difficulties that the Department of Finance and Personnel and the Depart­ment for Regional Development face in that regard.

I was disappointed that we have not moved away from dependence on the monitoring rounds to release the funds required to carry out planned maintenance. As far as the Department for Regional Development is concerned, that is a movable feast, because there is no guarantee that funding will be available, nor is there any guarantee of the amount of funding or when it will be made available. That leads to a situation in which projects are rushed through in order to spend the money that has become available, or suspending much-needed maintenance because the funding has not come about as a result of the monitoring round.

I hope that, as we develop new Budget policies in future, the money for planned maintenance will be guaranteed, and that Roads Service and the quarrying industry can look forward with certainty to the amount of money that will be available.

5.30 pm

I am also pleased that more support appears to have been given to public transport. The central goal of the Assembly’s public-transport policy must be to make public transport so attractive to commuters that they are lured out of their cars and onto buses and trains. So far, the news on that front has been good. For instance, the upgrading of the railway line to Dublin has attracted a huge increase in passenger numbers. The Bangor to Belfast line now carries two million passengers a year. It has been calculated that the upgrading of trains running between Portadown and Belfast has resulted in 5,000 fewer commuters travelling to Belfast along the Lagan Valley every morning. Can Members imagine the impact that an extra 5,000 cars would have on the Westlink every morning if such public transport were not available?

There were many who felt that people in Northern Ireland were so reliant on private transport that it would be impossible to get them out of their cars and on to the trains and buses. That has been shown to be untrue. Instead, investment in public transport has led to dramatic increases in usage, and that is great news.

When the issue was first raised in the House in 2001, I remember telling the Assembly that there were trains still in use that I had cleaned as a student at Sydenham station in 1980. My job was to clean the trains when they came in at night — I assure the House that it was a very pleasant task. Some 21 years later, those very same trains were still in operation. They were literally being held together and were in a despicable condition. I assure Members that that was not because of my cleaning. [Laughter.]

As a result of a decision made by the then Minister for Regional Development to buy new train sets for the Belfast to Bangor line, there has been a very significant increase in the number of passengers. Therefore, the point is well made.

Mr Durkan: The then Executive made the decision to spend £80 million on buying new trains sets for the entire rail network. There was no reduction to the core network, contrary to what the current Minister for Regional Development suggested this morning. The Executive rejected the recommendation from officials that the new trains would run only on certain portions of the then network.

Mr Wells: Yes, but, it was, of course, a very wise Minister in the form of Mr Robinson —

Mr Deputy Speaker: The Member’s time is up.

Mr Wells: Oh dear. [Laughter.]

The Chairperson of the Committee for Employment and Learning (Ms S Ramsey): Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. It would have been more valuable to have combined the motions and debates on the final versions of the Programme for Government and the Budget, because the two issues are linked. For example, the Committee for Employment and Learning strongly supported the commitment in the draft Programme for Government to increase by 300 the number of PhD research students at our local universities by 2010. However, there were no clear resources in the draft Budget to fund those vital new research positions. The Committee welcomes the increased allocation, which appears to go some way towards meeting that commitment.

I accept that there are two motions and two debates on the two documents, and I make the following points on behalf of the Committee. The role of the Department for Employment and Learning is central to the delivery of two key priorities in the Programme for Government:

“Growing a dynamic, innovative economy”


“Promote tolerance, inclusion and health and well-being”.

The Department’s role is at the core of the first three public service agreements (PSAs) linked to productivity growth, skills for prosperity and increasing employment. It also has a major role to play across the entire range of PSAs.

Cross-cutting is, therefore, very important in the delivery of PSAs. It is important that the terms “cross-cutting” and “interdepartmental collaboration” involve real actions and do not simply become forms of words. However, it would be unfair to put that expectation on the Executive without also stressing that Committees should work together where appropriate. My Committee is setting up cross-cutting meetings with the Committee for Enterprise, Trade and Investment on the link between inward investment and skills requirements, and also with the Committee for Education on essential skills.

Although Standing Orders do not allow for joint Committee meetings, more informal work can take place. I thank the Chairperson of the Committee for Education and the Chairperson of the Committee for Enterprise, Trade and Investment, who is not in the Chamber at the moment, for agreeing to such meetings.

The Committee for Employment and Learning welcomes the commitment in the Programme for Government to focus on small and medium-sized businesses (SMEs). The generation of appropriate R&D activity and skills support is not easily matched, or geared, to the needs of that sector. SMEs tend to require greater intervention from the higher and further education sectors to ensure appropriate alignment with local businesses. The Committee considers that, if appropriately resourced, the Department’s demand-led approach should allow that to happen.

The Committee welcomes the focus on well-paid, highly skilled jobs. There is always a temptation for economies to increase competitiveness by paying lower wages and providing poor conditions for employees. In recent debates in the Chamber, Members have said that they do not wish that to happen.

Recently, some Members have called for the provision of high-quality apprenticeships and for agency workers to be afforded appropriate protection. Economic competitiveness should be gained through high-value-added employment and innovation, and the Programme for Government sets out a suitable basis for going forward.

When I spoke in the debate on the draft Programme for Government in November 2007, I stated that the Committee strongly supported the goals of securing £120 million of private-sector investment and encouraging 300 companies to engage in R&D for the first time. At that time, however, the Committee was finding it difficult to achieve clarity on how those objectives could be resourced. The final Budget appears to address those concerns, but I am reluctant to say too much on the subject until the Committee has received from the Department more information on resources.

Shortly, the Committee will begin to assess the impact of welfare reform. The Committee is keen that a reduction in the rate of economic inactivity be achieved, and it will assess the attempts to achieve that decrease. The Department’s Pathways to Work initiative is the vehicle through which that can happen.

The Committee scrutinised the rolling out of the Training for Success programme, and it will wish to be satisfied that the Pathways to Work programme delivers the required employment opportunities and serves to protect the most vulnerable in society.

The Committee fully supports the Executive’s goal that 90,000 adult learners achieve a qualification in literacy, numeracy and ICT by 2015. However, during the debate on the draft Programme for Government, I raised the Committee’s concerns on the subject. Although the Committee recognises the Department’s hard work, it was shocked to see the poor outcome from the CSR. The Department has assured us that it considers the resources that are available to address the issues as a good start on which it can build.

The Committee is receiving extremely negative feedback from those who work in the adult and community education sector. Recently, I asked the Minister to meet the Deputy Chairperson and me to discuss the issues that have been raised. The absence of any consultation on learner access to services leaves a considerable gap. For those reasons, the Committee will be particularly —

Mr S Wilson: Given all the issues that the Member has listed, such as additional skills, good-quality apprenticeships, adult literacy and numeracy, and so forth, does she not agree that the criticism that the Programme for Government does nothing for those at the lower end of the income scale is unjustified? Those are exactly the type of people who will benefit from the upgrading of skills.

Ms S Ramsey: That is absolutely correct. I agree with the Member, and I thank him for his intervention. The Committee has raised certain issues, but it is intent on moving forward and ensuring that the most vulnerable in society have the opportunity to achieve their objectives.

For those reasons, the Committee will be particularly interested in the consultation on the FE Means Business strategy and, in particular, will be keen to ensure that an appropriate balance is struck between the economic focus of the Programme for Government and the achievement of important social goals.

The Committee supports the parallel goals of increasing the number of students who take STEM — science, technology, engineering and mathematics — subjects and increasing the number of students from disadvantaged backgrounds. However, I am not sure whether those goals should be linked.

Members will recall the debate on 14 December 2007, initiated by the Committee for Employment and Learning, on the increase in student fees. Recent statistics suggest that there is beginning to be a downturn in student applications. The Minister stressed the importance of the Department’s proposed review of student fees on the profile of students taking up courses at our universities, and the Committee is keen to see the outcome of that review and research.

There is a proposal in the investment strategy for a new campus for Belfast Metropolitan College at the Titanic Quarter, which is scheduled for 2010; although that seems a tight timescale. It is important that lessons should be learned from the failed Springvale campus project, and that those lessons are fully recognised, particularly in ensuring full community engagement and achieving clarity of roles between the college and the Department. Go raibh míle maith agat.

Ms Lo: I support the Alliance Party’s amendment and oppose the Programme for Government, as agreed by the Executive. The Programme for Government lacks any vision for this society beyond that advocated under direct rule, and it fails to place tackling sectar­ianism and racism, rebalancing the economy and delivering sustainable public services at the heart of all departmental policies.

We may be pleased that power for Northern Ireland now rests in Northern Ireland; however, we may be disappointed that that has not led to a more radical change in direction. I know that the Executive do not like to be challenged and that they would prefer any opposition to disappear. However, in saying what I have just said and am about to say, I have no doubt that I speak for people in this society beyond just those who voted for the Alliance Party at the last election.

Equality, community relations, a healthier environment and better front-line public services are political issues that require political leadership. The response to the draft Programme for Government indicated that many thousands of people across Northern Ireland wanted something better. The changes were generally in the right direction, but people wanted a thorough revision.

Six references to sharing are six more than appeared in the draft Programme for Government; however, that is far short of the radical change in approach that is required. There is still no clarity on the future of key policy documents such as ‘A Shared Future’ and the anti-poverty strategy; nor is there clarity in the key cross-cutting funds for community relations or tackling child poverty.

People want clarification on policy and funding so that Government performance can be assessed. Much has been made of more money being made available for front-line services through efficiency savings. However, there is nothing in the Programme for Government that indicates that that means anything other than cuts to services or rash asset disposals. The temptation for Departments is to cut peripheral services that are provided by voluntary and community groups, even though they may be vital. Such services are, in many instances, good value for money and are effective in reaching the most vulnerable groups.

The Executive should be thinking about the costs of division, new ways of raising finances or new working methods for the delivery of public services. Where money is apparently allocated for housing, arts or mental health, there is no mention in the Programme for Government of accompanying actions. People are entitled to know precisely how that money will be spent.

We have no difficulty with making the economy the number-one priority, because if we do not create wealth, we cannot guarantee any wealth to distribute for public services. However, wealth cannot be created in a society that is not tolerant and welcoming. That requires hard work at every turn and consideration of every policy. To meet that objective, we advocate that every policy is proofed for its impact on religious segregation.

5.45 pm

Despite talk of sustainability as a cross-cutting theme, there is no move to rebalance transport spending towards our railways or any clarity on what is meant by the light-rail system for Belfast. The Alliance Party wants more investment in infrastructure generally, and railways in particular, including an expansive light-rail system — not just one guided busway.

If Members are serious about improving health and well-being, building a stable and cohesive society, and developing a twenty-first century workforce, inequalities must be reduced. With their strong focus on the economy, the Programme for Government and the Budget do not set a clear way of strengthening the economy and society at the same time. Those aims are not mutually exclusive, which must be recognised in all policy development.

The Programme for Government condemns us to more years of social exclusion for too many people, more inadequate health funding and more reliance on cars. It also condemns us to accepting social divisions, poor health services and polluted and congested urban centres. Most of all, the programme is an attempt at cheap populism, which could prove an expensive mistake. That is why it must be rewritten.

Mr Spratt: I welcome the debate on the Programme for Government and the investment strategy — today is a very positive day in Northern Ireland’s future. The Programme for Government and the investment strategy are ambitious; there is nothing wrong with ambition, and the targets aspired to, if they are met, will serve every person in Northern Ireland well in their daily lives. That is a stark contrast to the previous Administration headed by the Ulster Unionist Party and the SDLP, which failed to outline any substantial measures to improve the economy in their Programme for Government. Under that Administration, a social agenda was given pre-eminence over economic development.

The commitment from Sinn Féin to build an economically prosperous Northern Ireland is most welcome. Those who incorrectly claimed, for years, that this Province was a failed entity now strive to see it succeed. I welcome that change, and society will benefit from their construction rather than destruction. As a Province, we face many challenges economically and socially, which the Programme for Government and the investment strategy will help to address. By placing economic development at the core of the programme, the Executive have adopted the correct strategic direction to bolster Northern Ireland in all areas. A good economy brings benefits across society. As all Members are mandated by those who vote for us to help to create a prosperous society, I hope that the Programme for Government and the investment strategy will do just that.

As Deputy Chairperson of the Committee for Employment and Learning, I can say that the Committee welcomes the commitment to an extra 300 PhDs by 2010 at our universities. DEL’s role in delivering a dynamic and innovative economy to protect tolerance, inclusion and health and well-being is clear. The Committee recognises that the cross-cutting theme is central to achieving our goals. As the Chairperson of the Committee stated, the commitment in the Programme for Government to small and medium-sized businesses is positive as it focuses on well-paid and highly skilled jobs.

There can be no doubt that the Executive are very serious about building the economy through the creation of a highly skilled workforce. The House should commend the Executive for putting greater monetary resources into that area than ever before.

By promising to invest huge sums of money in regenerating disadvantaged communities, neighbour­hoods, towns and cities by 2012, the Executive have committed themselves to something that I hope will be of great benefit to my constituency of South Belfast. Other folks mentioned Strabane, Fermanagh and South Tyrone, and I make no apology for mentioning areas such as the Village, Sandy Row and Taughmonagh. Devolution must be seen to deliver improvements in the standard of living for all those areas. The investment required in social housing must go hand-in-hand with that to meet the needs of constituents, and in South Belfast that problem must be addressed.

I wholeheartedly support the Programme for Government and commend it to the House. Previous Administrations and direct rule Ministers failed to deliver the necessary direction to help Northern Ireland to make progress, so I am glad that the DUP is helping to bring about good government through local government. Every Member of the House must be sure to work hard to bring about the goals of the programme, and those who exude negativity for no logical reason must make up their minds about whether they want to be part of making Northern Ireland a success, or taking it backwards.

We, the elected representatives of the people, will be judged by our success or failure, and I am confident that we can succeed with the Programme for Government and the investment strategy for Northern Ireland. I support the motion.

Mr B McCrea: I support the amendment tabled by the Ulster Unionist Party, but as my colleague Mr McClarty said, we have some reservations about the Programme for Government, and, therefore, believe that certain matters must be kept under review.

Not many weeks ago, the Minister of Finance and Personnel made a speech in which he introduced the House to a new form of democracy named a four-party mandatory coalition — a term that was repeated many times in his speech. The Programme for Government is supposed to be the vision of a four-party mandatory coalition, but, in truth, it is not. Instead, it shows the limitations of the process, because although it is impossible to actually oppose it, the document is fairly bland and does not say very much. What is omitted is more notable than what is included, and although carefully chosen words suggest a positive view of the future, the most contentious issues are not addressed. There are no proposals on the Irish language, the Maze stadium, how to tackle sectarianism, and the opportunity to explain the loss of the fabled £1 billion financial package has been lost.

However, the really telling omission — the elephant in the room — is the absence of any real discussion about education, although it is hard to imagine a more fundamental issue for a Government. The future of our country depends on our children and the education that they receive, and if we are to compete in a global economy instead of just talking about it, and if we are to eradicate child and fuel poverty and increase productivity and the average wage, we must increase the level of education. Although vocational skills offer well-paid jobs, the industries that are based on knowledge are the ones that really deliver and are where the demand is.

What prospects do our young people have if they have difficulty with reading and writing? How can they go through 12 years of formal education and come out with no qualifications — some of them with limited ability?

That is a fundamental challenge for our Executive — it is probably the fundamental challenge. Rather than tinker at the edges, they should grasp the nettle and place academic underachievement at the centre of the Programme for Government. However, we see and hear very little.

The draft Programme for Government set us some targets. We have reduced the challenge to ensure that school leavers get five GCSEs from 70% to 68%. What has happened to children receiving free school meals? That target is just 30%. That will mean that the very people who need to get out of the poverty trap will not get the support that they need to be able to compete. When will we start investing in our inner-city areas? When will we start to tackle the issues and set ourselves a target of 70% for children on free school meals? We should focus on the people who need help, not just on the well off.

We could have done many things — perhaps through public service agreements. We could have talked about early-years intervention. We could have talked about a step change in funding for primary schools or schools in socially deprived areas. We could have challenged lower pupil-teacher ratios and we could have looked at how free schools meals are administered, as many people will not take up their entitlement. Above all, we could have talked about the emphasis on leadership — leadership in schools, reducing paperwork, devolving powers and empowering head teachers.

The Minister of Education did not seek to address those issues. In outlining her vision to the Assembly, she sought to prioritise the removal of academic selection and to have some sort of discussion about transfer at age 14. She does not have a political consensus for either suggestion.

There is an old Japanese proverb:

“Vision without action is a daydream. Action without vision is a nightmare”.

Will the Minister of Education be allowed to implement her vision? If she is not, she has been merely daydreaming and wasting our time. However, if she is allowed to, we will have a nightmare because we do not have consensus on the way forward and we do not have a shared vision.

The complexity of the changes alone will probably defeat what she has in mind, but it will not happen without enormous damage to our young people and to our educational system. The Executive and the Assembly should have included that in the draft Programme for Government. The proposals are so fundamental in nature and have such wide political ramifications that they should not be brought through in the dead of night; they should have been out in front and central. If we cannot get agreement, the proposals should not be included in this three-year period.

We are in danger of repeating the mistakes of the Scottish education system. Prior to the 1999 elections to the Scottish Parliament, there were several views on education. Civil servants did what civil servants do: they produced position papers on each political party’s position. Post-election, a relatively small group of people, consisting of Labour Ministers, education officials and advisers, decided to proceed from policy to legislation without consulting others. There was no proper pre-legislative scrutiny, and the reports indicate that the primary motivation was political rather than academic. Does that sound familiar? Does that ring any bells?

The group then moved on to consultation. The consultation document ‘Improving our Schools’ sounds rather like ‘Every School a Good School’, an idea that came from Philadelphia. The consultation process started in October 1999 and was completed in January 2000. Some 27,000 copies of the consultation document were sent out, and 65 meetings at ministerial level were held across Scotland. What were the changes? There were none — or very few. The Education Committee of the Scottish Parliament did not like the consultation document and stated that it had problems with it. The Committee put forward 141 amendments because it did not like what it saw. Of 141 amendments, five were accepted.

6.00 pm

A final opportunity to influence the legislation arose on 7 June 2000, but opportunities for Back-Bench MSPs to contribute were limited. That led to them feeling that they were being sidelined. The academic reports described this stage as “defective” and “unduly precipitate”. Tellingly, the book says that:

“Tensions within the Executive… between the Executive and committee members, and between MSPs and the civil service all create the impression of a system that is still in transition.”

— because they were not able to tackle the real issues. The book also notes that:

“A continuing task for Parliament is to find effective means of challenging and changing the ways in which the civil service operates.”

In tabling the Ulster Unionist amendment, we want to play a constructive role, but we are concerned about the lack of a shared vision and the lack of attack on the detail, and we must therefore insist upon some form of review. Those who argue that we are in a four-party mandatory coalition and that, as such, we must agree to absolutely everything are not correct. Dissent is OK — it is all right to challenge. The Minister of Education has brought forward proposals that, at the moment, I cannot support. Had those proposals been included in a Programme for Government— as I believe it would have been proper to do so — I would have felt honour-bound to vote against them.

While I cannot disagree with the Programme for Government as presented, I see little evidence of any shared vision. I see no appetite for tackling contentious issues. I can detect no common purpose, no unifying vision and no attempt to build consensus. That may be effective party politics, but it is no way to run a country and it is doomed in the long run. If there is to be an effective four-party mandatory coalition, it will have to raise its game. It will have to start tackling and delivering on the issues. If it does not, we will have to consider the alternatives.

Mr Moutray: I echo the comments of my colleagues and commend the Executive on delivering a momentous, forward-thinking and business-led Programme Govern­ment and investment strategy for Northern Ireland. Both documents are clear and concise in content, and they will give the steer needed to build the prosperous Northern Ireland that we all long to see. I welcome the unanimous agreement on the documents among all four parties in the Executive, and add my own endorsement.

With the strategy in hand, we must now commit ourselves to implementing these practical and well-balanced documents. It is reassuring for the people of Northern Ireland that they can clearly see where we want to take this Province. That stands in stark contrast to the days of Labour “fly-in” Ministers who had little, if any, drive to build a strong and competitive Northern Ireland economy.

The Programme for Government and the Investment Strategy for Northern Ireland will enable the people of Northern Ireland to instil a high level of trust in us, as locally elected representatives, to deliver our mandate of delivering a peaceful, fair and prosperous society. Contrary to the previous Administration, such content displays firm leadership and direction as to how best we face and build a shared, better and more sustainable future for everyone.

I welcome the high level of participation from Committees, individuals and organisations in voicing their opinions and administering constructive feedback. That demonstrates the Executive’s willingness and readiness to adhere to our constituents’ wishes and, indeed, the wishes of the people who will be affected by, and who will benefit from, these initiatives in the long term.

The documents secure Northern Ireland’s future both economically and socially. They also demonstrate the long-term interest that the Executive, and this House, have in our Province and in our constituents. Unlike the previous Executive’s Programme for Government, ‘Building a Better Future’ has clear, measurable and achievable targets. This Programme for Government and its family of documents will give direction to the allocation of resources and capital investment in supporting our priorities.

I welcome the focus of the Programme for Govern­ment on proactively growing a dynamic and innovative economy. I particularly welcome the aim to secure value-added investment, leading to the creation of a minimum of 6,500 jobs in the future. I welcome the aim to promote lifelong learning, and the way in which the Programme for Government lays out the required steps to achieve that. Although much focus should be placed on pre-16 education, we must also ensure that focus is placed on third-level education, which will be vital if we are to build an innovative economy that is renowned for sound research-and-development work.

For too long, the private sector in Northern Ireland has had to live in the shadow of the public sector. I am glad that the Programme for Government commits the Executive to address that imbalance.

Increasing the number of tourists who visit us each year, thus increasing sectoral revenue, would generate income that could be reinvested into our tourism infrastructure. Growth in tourism will also assist our local businesses.

I have named only a few benefits of the Programme for Government, which, without doubt, represents a foundation on which great things can be built.

The 10-year investment strategy for Northern Ireland, which was unanimously agreed by all four parties that serve on the Executive, ultimately endeavours to deliver a high-class infrastructure to grow our economy, support social change, enhance our environment, and provide more advanced, amenable and adequate public services for all sections of the community. That is welcomed by my party.

Our infrastructure has suffered for many years at the hands of direct rule and 30 years of the Troubles, and the investment strategy starts to address those shortcomings. It is aimed at improving our transport networks, schools and healthcare system, to name only a few important matters. However, it also considers what lies before us, in respect of changing demographics and trends.

The Programme for Government, the investment strategy and the Budget will enable us to move forward with a clear and achievable strategy for the Executive. The Programme for Government provides vision, scope and proposals towards which we can all work in order to build a better and shared future for our constituents. Those documents stand testament to the commitment in this Chamber to making Northern Ireland a more prosperous economic entity. Times have changed in Northern Ireland, and those documents send out a clear message to the community. Irrespective of the whinging from the Alliance Benches about our commitment to a shared future, I believe that the agreement on those documents sends out a strong signal of our commitment to building a prosperous Northern Ireland for everyone who wishes to live and work in this Province.

Therefore, I wish to place on record my endorsement of the two documents that are before us. They provide and signify a positive agenda for Northern Ireland, which I am committed to work towards. I support the motion.

Mr Weir: At this late stage in the debate, after several hours of discourse, there is very little that is novel — or perhaps interesting — that is left to be said. Without any attempt to reiterate any of the fine words that have echoed across the Chamber, I wish to welcome the Programme for Government, and the broad thrust that places the economy at its heart.

In an attempt to focus on something slightly different, I wish to address four matters that directly affect the work of one of the Committees on which I serve, namely the Committee for the Environment. When it comes to embracing the environment, neither Jim Wells nor Brian Wilson have anything to worry about — I have not become a latter-day tree-hugger. However, it is important that the needs of the Department of the Environment — and, indeed, some of the relevant commitments that are included in the Programme for Government and the investment strategy — be embraced and welcomed.

The first of the aforementioned four matters is the commitment in the Programme for Government to reduce landfill significantly by creating a network of new waste-treatment facilities at council level by 2011. North Down Borough Council, on which I and others in the Chamber serve, has been very much ahead of the game in that respect. Indeed, we have tried to make progress on a state-of-the-art waste-transfer station, which we hope will soon be open. However, realistically, the need to tackle the landfill problem operates on both environmental and financial levels.

It is clear that at an environmental level we cannot simply continue to fill landfill sites ad infinitum. That is not sustainable in the long run. Consequently, we must be at the cutting edge of waste-treatment technology.

Secondly, there is a strong financial imperative on us in that failure to address the problem of waste will lead, in the relatively near future, to our getting infraction fines from Europe. Significant pressure on waste treatment has been exerted on a Europe-wide level. However, that pressure has been ignored, particularly by direct rule Ministers, for too long. For many years the level of waste-management support and investment that central Government provided was woefully inadequate. Waste management became the Cinderella service of Government: it always seemed to be put at the end of the agenda.

Even with the steps that have been taken, we are almost too late to start coherently tackling the problem of waste management. The years of neglect that are the legacy of direct rule mean that we must catch up quickly if we are to have a sustainable environment in the future. However, I welcome the commitment to prioritise the issue and to match the funding for those capital projects that will play a significant role in helping to address the problem in the future.

Thirdly, as will anyone who has served on local government, I welcome the commitment to carry out a fundamental review and overhaul of the Planning Service and the planning system by 2011. That review, as the Programme for Government states, balances the need for economic and social development with the necessity for environmental sustainability. Anyone who has been involved in the Planning Service at any level, whether at council meetings, or representing either residents or applicants, will be aware of the level of frustration that exists. Our system is cumbersome, and, with the best will in the world, it is not uniform across Northern Ireland. Members of the Committee for the Environment were recently shown figures from a report that gives details of, for example, the wide disparity of the acknowledgement of site meetings across the country. The planning system has long been in need of an overhaul, and I welcome the commitment to do that.

If we are to develop economic prosperity in Northern Ireland, we cannot have planning applications dragging on for years without reaching any conclusion. We live in a global market in which capital can move very easily, and we must provide a proper planning system. However, the system must also be environmentally friendly and sustainable. In the past, Members have raised the issues of garden-grabbing and the destruction of the green belt.

Those matters must be taken into account when developing a coherent planning system. The present system lacks proper democratic input and accountability and is therefore not sustainable in the long run. I welcome the proposals that may materialise from the emerging findings report, in that development control is likely to become a function of local government in the future. However, it must be ensured that when that happens, the system is fit for purpose, properly funded, and works coherently and fairly.

Fourthly, I welcome the commitment to deliver high-quality and efficient public services that will modernise the structure and powers of local government by 2011. Again, the direct rule RPA solution under Lord Rooker was particularly unpalatable for many of us, as it reflected neither the local needs nor the local identities of communities. The Executive will soon have an opportunity to develop a planning system that has appropriate mechanisms for supporting local government, or indeed, to have a form of local government that is the envy of the world in the twenty-first century.

6.15 pm

I hope that the RPA, while accepting that there must be economies of scale in order to ensure that public services are delivered to people efficiently, will give local government sufficient powers to ensure that what needs to be delivered locally can be delivered in a local and responsive manner.

Arguably the most important issue facing the Department of the Environment is road safety. We often use the cliché that something is a matter of life and death. However, it is difficult to find any subject that is more literally a matter of life and death than road safety. I welcome, under the priority “Promote tolerance, inclusion and health and well-being”, the commitment to reducing road deaths. The proposal is to reduce by 33% the overall number of people, and by 50% the number of children, killed or seriously injured on our roads. Since the draft Programme for Government was published in November 2007, statistics released have indicated that last year saw the fewest deaths on our roads for about 60 years. Those statistics should be welcomed, but the Minister of the Environment, the rest of the Executive and the Assembly must not be complacent, because, as anyone who has experience of death on our roads will know, one road death in a family is one too many. Lives are shattered, so anything that we can do to reduce those statistics further is to be welcomed.

The Minister of the Environment, Arlene Foster, is taking proactive steps to tackle the issue of road safety. A review of the road safety strategy, which was not due to be renewed until 2012, is under way. I believe that the Committee for the Environment will support her in looking at a range of issues that will have a bearing on road safety. The driving test may need to be looked at, and restrictions may need to be placed on very young drivers. The level of alcohol in the blood at which disqualification from driving occurs requires further examination, and the permitted limit may need to be reduced in order to bring us much more into line with Western democracies throughout Europe.

We must also re-examine the number of penalty points that are awarded for speeding, and, in particular, we must target the incidences of speeding that lead to fatal road accidents. A wide range of measures is to be looked at. Those will be examined in a greater degree of detail, but it is important that we are seen to be proactive in trying to reduce the number of deaths on our roads, because, for many of our constituents, there is no greater issue before the Assembly than road safety.

The Programme for Government and the investment strategy give strong commitments to the Department of the Environment. Indeed, they set a series of targets for the Department. Moreover, the Programme for Govern­ment as a whole offers a positive way forward for Northern Ireland, and I commend it to the House.

Mr McHugh: Go raibh maith agat. Like many others, I welcome the opportunity to speak in this debate. I may find myself covering ground that other Members have already covered; nevertheless, it is as important to raise as many different issues as possible as it is to speak about the entire Programme for Government.

I have difficulties with endorsing the investment strategy and the Programme for Government as they stand. The UUP amendment, which asks that there be ongoing review of the two documents, is not out of place, and elements of the Alliance Party’s amendment merit consideration.

The Assembly has been given a somewhat soft landing, what with freezes on moneys for three years, and so on, and one asks oneself where the money is going to come from, given that no real massive gains were made from Whitehall in the first place. Someone must pay some time, and perhaps pay a great deal more in the long run. It used to be Labour Party policy to borrow as much as it could and pay for it later, and, to a certain extent, we appear to be following suit. However, that will only get us into deep trouble in three years’ time, or in five years’ time. Putting off the evil day will not solve anyone’s problems.

A review of those issues is required. The RPA will have a significant impact, and educational matters must be reviewed. That is a case in point — we must get the strategy for post 11-plus education right; I am not sure that we have the right ideas in that respect.

One issue in respect of regional development was mentioned by my colleague from Fermanagh and South Tyrone Mr Gallagher, namely a balanced regional economy. We need balanced development. The north-west does not just constitute the corridor from here to Derry. People forget that Fermanagh is part of the west; and due west of the Bann points largely in the direction of Fermanagh, Tyrone and the rest of Ireland, including Galway and other areas.

I turn to the issue of roads. There is no Enniskillen bypass, and that causes massive congestion in that town. There is no future strategic direction to address any of the problems that I have raised. I accept that the Budget is limited, and I know that work on the A4 will be of benefit to people travelling from Fermanagh. However, in Fermanagh itself, the maintenance budget for the roads is totally inadequate. That is despite the fact that County Fermanagh has a greater number of B roads than any other county. There has been a significant underspend in the last few years; somebody is going to have to pay, and it is usually the local people. We need an Enniskillen bypass to be part of a strategy, but it does not seem to be part of any current plan. If that is not part of a reasonable short-term plan, it is highly unlikely that that bypass will be built.

There is an increasing amount of expenditure on rail and other public transport. That would normally be an appropriate area in which to have an increase in Government expenditure, but — as far as Fermanagh is concerned — neither rail travel nor bus travel is available. People who live there have absolutely no option but to drive their own vehicles. It takes people three hours to travel 80 miles to Belfast by public transport. It costs £50 for a family of four to travel to either Derry or Belfast, and back home to Fermanagh by public transport. That means that it is cheaper for people to travel by car, so there is no incentive for people to dispense with their cars — and we are well aware of how destructive four-by-four vehicles are to the environment.

Fermanagh, and indeed the west of the Bann, should be thought of as the gateway to the rest of Ireland, rather than land’s end. That is the message that is conveyed when one looks at the strategies that have been drawn up, and the spending plans in respect of that region. One of the aims of the regional development strategy was to maintain and develop the public road and rail network in order to ensure a modern and efficient sustainable transportation system that facilitates economic growth and social inclusion.

It is not possible two meet any of those objectives unless the roads are fit for purpose. It is not possible for businesses to thrive and prosper in the likes of Fermanagh or Tyrone unless the infrastructure is of a sufficient standard. It costs 30% more for someone to run a business in Fermanagh than it does in Belfast because of the amount of time that they have to spend on roads, either heading to Belfast and back, or, indeed, sitting in traffic. Therefore, there is no equality of access in the Six Counties, and that is what we need, particularly from the Department for Regional Develop­ment. Future strategy must start to deliver on that — it is not currently.

I do not wish to go into a great amount of detail, because I will not leave myself enough time to talk about other issues, but I am disappointed with what the Programme for Government has to say on agriculture. I agree with some of the points that were made by Tom Elliott, and by the Chairperson of the Agriculture Committee. Farmers will not be particularly impressed with some of the delivery at ministerial or departmental level.

The agriculture industry does not have the sort of competitiveness that Members keep talking about, and much of the £45 million will be spent on administration and will keep people in well-paid jobs in Belfast, rather than help farmers. Where are the outcomes? They are certainly not in the document. There are targets in the document, but they are never met.

For example, there is a target to reduce TB by 27%. TB should have been eradicated long ago, and farmers are being asked to pay part of the cost of the current situation. There is no eradication programme to deliver results for them: they still have to test cattle all year round and bear the massive costs involved.

We should also be examining land use: at least the Minister is looking at environmental issues relating to alternative land use. We must also look at the food situation worldwide, from the point of view of the expense of transporting foodstuffs over great distances when much of it could be produced here. Those matters must be considered.

I take the points that have been made about the education system, quangos and the Department of Education. However, savings will not be made, because the new system will be just as difficult to maintain as the present one. We must look at the number of schools that we have and decide whether we need them all. For example, should the integrated and Catholic maintained sectors look after their own interests when massive savings could be made? According to the demographics, pupil numbers are falling; yet we are proposing to build new schools that will cost millions of pounds. I am not sure that we need them at all. That issue must be examined.

When post-primary education was being considered, we should have examined the mistakes that were made in the English system and learned from them. We may find that we will have a two-tier system along the lines of the English system in which only children who are well off will get a good education. Some people in Enniskillen and Fermanagh are already moving towards postcode education, because they are buying houses in the catchment areas of academic schools so that their children will be able to go to them when the new system is introduced. Others will find that they are in unfair situations in places such as Fermanagh. That may not affect the Budget, but it will cost us dearly in the long run if we do not get it right. Ministers must take that point into consideration. At the moment, there is no indication that we are getting it right. People want to know where they stand, and those in the rural parts of Fermanagh will find themselves in a much more difficult situation than will others.

I recommend the aforementioned amendments, and I do not endorse the full Budget at this time. Go raibh maith agat.

Mr Deputy Speaker: The Member’s time is up.

Mr Cree: I fully support the two cross-cutting themes in the Programme for Government: a better future with fairness, inclusion and equality of opportunity for all, and a sustainable future for our economic, social and environmental policies and programmes. I am pleased that a growing, dynamic economy has been given top priority, as everything else will flow from that. In saying that, I accept that economic development and social welfare are not mutually exclusive, and both should be working together for the greater good.

We are all labouring under the problem of having no financial package, and, therefore, the resources for the Budget have been particularly tight. We must decrease the productivity gap that exists between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom. Although our employment rate is high, we cannot rest on our laurels. Those issues are recognised in the Programme for Government. However, I am still concerned that Departments will fail to meet their efficiency targets. Achievement of those targets is crucial, as they will provide a significant element of the funding mix and will have a direct impact on the delivery of services by the Departments.

(Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr Molloy] in the Chair)

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We need to be able to monitor those efficiencies in a transparent manner. The Executive must ensure that their investment delivery plans are ready before the commencement of the new financial year.

From the responses to the Programme for Govern­ment, several important points were made and need to be included. Many Members pointed to the Planning Service as an agency unfit for purpose; we can no longer tolerate the delays and inconsistencies of that organisation. A dynamic economy needs a responsive service that recognises its needs and can turn around applications promptly. The review of the Planning Service must be completed long before the 2011 date set. That is linked to the review of public administration, which should also be agreed by the same date.

Roads maintenance remains underfunded and more needs to be done to correct the shortfall. The industry has serious concerns about its future, and there is evidence of the appalling condition of roads and streets throughout the Province — and not just, as my colleague said, in Fermanagh, although I am sure that need there is great.

The target for the number of tourists to visit Northern Ireland is conservative: 1·98 million, increasing to 2·5 by 2011, despite our political stability. It is much lower than the previous Northern Ireland Tourist Board figure and does not constitute a serious target.

The programme for education — if we can call it that — remains woolly; and the target for school-leavers is less ambitious than that set by the direct rule Administration. We await the Education Minister’s strategy for a new transfer system. The matter is now crucial: education professionals and parents alike have no clear understanding of what is meant to happen. However, according to Mr Sammy Wilson, the Minister may be cooking up a cunning plan. We await that with interest.

Another concern is child poverty. The target is to reduce child poverty by 50% by 2010 and to eradicate it by 2020; those targets do nothing more than repeat the UK goal. They fail to identify the children in severest poverty. Government statistics show that all actions taken since 1994 have failed those children. We cannot allow that to continue.

I turn to environmental aspects of the Programme for Government. The volume of electricity to be generated from renewable sources is to be 12% by 2012. That target is not new; it was set in 2004. There is a target for halting the loss of indigenous species and habitats by 2015, which falls behind the UK and EU targets of 2010. In the final Programme for Government, the target is changed to 2016, which means that we fall even further behind UK and EU targets. The forestry and woodland strategy aims at doubling the current 6% of afforested area in Northern Ireland. However, the addition of 1,650 hectares amounts to only 2·7%.

Despite all that, the shortcomings of the Programme for Government can be reviewed and the necessary revisions made. For that reason, I am prepared to support the motion, as amended by the Ulster Unionist Party.

Mr Shannon: I endorse the Programme for Government and the investment strategy, and I urge Members to do likewise.

I am a member of the Committee for the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister, which has considered the proposals for schemes and listened to presentations, all of which were comprehensive and well put together. Many different groups made their views known to the Committee on the best possible road to the best possible future for the Province.

The Committee has seen the hard work and dedication of those people who have thought long and hard about how to bring Northern Ireland forward. The job has not been easy. How can the Assembly combat child poverty and other forms of social poverty while retaining a low-taxation economy? How can it invest heavily in infrastructure while encouraging economic growth and investment? How can it move towards the future while remembering and honouring the past? Those are three issues that the Committee felt were priorities. They have been dealt with well in the strategy.

The targets that have been set for child poverty — reduction by 50% by 2010 and eradication by 2020 — are commendable and, more importantly, are achievable through that structure, particularly when it is taken into consideration that in Northern Ireland, despite its being a small country, over 100,000 children live in some degree of poverty — 44,000 of whom live in severe poverty. Members have heard those statistics before and are well aware of them. However, they are just as shocking today as they were the first time that we heard them. The investment strategy provides the mechanism for changing the lives of those children and for the implementation of measures that will mean the end of child poverty.

As Members are aware, I represent the Strangford area — the Ards Peninsula in particular. An old saying states that if you give a man a fish, you feed him for a day; give him a net and he can feed himself for a lifetime. As much as it is imperative that funding is set aside specifically for the reduction of child poverty and for the elderly, it is vital that a system is put in place that will foster a Northern Ireland where there is higher employment through bigger business investment. That will create higher incomes and will thereby reduce family poverty.

In order to build a better Northern Ireland, a better economy must be built. That matter has been well addressed by both the programme and the strategy. The DUP’s stance in favour of low taxation, capping industrial rates and encouraging business growth has been displayed in the programme through the fact that businesses are being encouraged not only to remain in the Province, but to be enhanced. A policy that will allow business expansions to be processed in six months, subject to pre-application consultations, is a way to achieve that and to encourage new businesses to come to the Province.

The strategy will improve economic competitiveness; will improve tourism, and will overhaul the planning system — and, boy, does it need it. It underlines the need for a well-educated workforce; and provides infrastructure investment of £5·6 billion over three years, which amounts to £18 billion during the next decade. The Assembly looks forward to the investment conference in spring 2008, which it hopes will put Northern Ireland in a good position as a competitive business location for US companies.

The Programme for Government supports rural businesses. By 2013, £45 million will have been spent to improve the competitiveness of the agricultural sector; £10 million will have been spent on the modernisation of farms; at least 16,000 people will be employed in the agrifood sector; there will be a 27% reduction in annual herd incidents of tuberculosis; a 20% reduction in annual herd incidents of brucellosis. The Assembly looks forward to the conversion of an additional 1,650 hectares of land — both agricultural and non-agricultural — to forest and woodland. Those are all pluses — positive objectives.

The strategy seeks to increase tourism through a £229 million capital investment programme for arts, sports, museums and libraries; to increase tourism revenue from visitors to £520 million, which is achievable; and to increase the number of visitors every year to 2·5 million. It aims to make lives better by reducing the number of long-stay patients in mental health hospitals by 10% and in learning disability institutions by 25%, to add an additional 200 respite packages each year, and to alleviate fuel poverty in approximately 9,000 households by implementing energy and efficiency measures.

The Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure will seek to increase the number of visitors to national museums to 585,000 by 2009; to have a public library network with at least six public access workstations for every 10,000 of the population; to provide a minimum of 10 new or upgraded facilities that will support Northern Ireland player and athlete development in Olympic and paralympic sports, and which are available for use by communities and schools; and by 2012, to attract 10 nations that are competing in the Olympic and Paralympic Games for pre-games training or acclimatisation.

Those are many ideas that have been proposed that are achievable. There is no quick-fix for our problems, or for problems in other countries. However, having sat through many Committee meetings, we believe that there is a solution. It is entirely proper to say that the Northern Ireland in which we live today will not necessarily be the Northern Ireland in which our grandchildren will be raised. That will be achieved through proper thought and through proper application of the programme that has been put in place through the strategy.

It is my firm belief that the strategy, working in tandem with the excellent Budget that the Finance Minister and his team have proposed, will bring Northern Ireland forward in leaps and bounds. As previously stated, the aims of the investment strategy and the draft Programme for Government are not a wish list. They are methods for achieving a credible goal, that of a peaceful, fair and prosperous society in Northern Ireland, with respect for the rule of law by all.

Of course, there may be some issues that do not have the high profile that some people believe that they should have. However, I believe that the strategy caters for the essentials, and the rest can be added once the foundation has been put in place. The strategy builds a firm basis through which those aims can reasonably be achieved. The four parties in the Executive have contributed to the Programme for Government.

We have been pushing for a commissioner for the elderly. I hope that a commissioner will soon be appointed who will ensure that the needs of the elderly are not overlooked and that proper representation is given at every level, ensuring that our elderly people will never again feel as if they are on their own and have been forgotten. There will be free transport for those aged over 60, and other benefits for the older generation, which will mean that they will no longer have to choose between dinner and warmth.

Dr Farry: What happened to the issue of free personal care for the elderly, which was included in the DUP’s manifesto of last March?

Mr Shannon: Dr Farry is the man who could produce all those things, if he could tax people as much as he would like to. By adopting the Alliance Party’s ideas on taxation, we could do almost anything in that land of make believe in which Dr Farry lives.

Many aims and key goals have been set out — far too many for me to talk about in detail. However, I stress that the framework is one through which those goals can, and will, be achieved. All the ingredients are available in the appropriate measures, and that the ultimate end dish will rely on the ability of the individual chefs in each Department, and the Ministers, to deliver. I hope that it will no longer be a case of “Can’t Cook, Won’t Cook”, which has been the attitude of some of the top chefs in some of the Departments thus far.

I fully support the Programme for Government and commend the dedication of those who have worked so hard to produce it. The people of Northern Ireland will thank us for it in years to come, as they reap the benefits. I urge Members to support the Programme for Government.

Mr McCausland: I support the Programme for Government, which has been agreed by the four-party mandatory coalition that includes the SDLP and the Ulster Unionist Party. I am glad that it has been endorsed by all Ministers from the four political parties in the Executive.

The overarching aim of the Programme for Government is to build a peaceful, fair and prosperous society in Northern Ireland, with respect for the rule of law. That is a vision to which all reasonable people would subscribe. We want fairness, prosperity, peace and respect for the rule of law.

The document refers on a number of occasions to developing a better future for Northern Ireland. That, again, is a good prospect. Clearly built into the document is the idea of a prosperous future in which we have employment for our young people and a dynamic and strong economy that is set on a firm foundation. The document goes beyond that, clearly stating that it will not only be a better future, but a shared and better future. A shared future is a future where there is equality — which is in the document — and diversity. We respect the differences and the diversity in our society.

As other Members have said, a shared future also includes the concept of interdependence. Therefore, I am glad that the Programme for Government states:

“we will bring forward a programme of cohesion and integration for this shared and better future to address the divisions within our society and achieve measurable reductions in sectarianism, racism and hate crime.”

6.45 pm

That programme, which will be developed by the Executive and the Assembly, is an important part of building a better future. Importantly, the programme will be created under the ownership of the Assembly; it will not be cobbled together by someone else or produced by civil servants, as was the case under direct rule. It will be a programme of cohesion and integration that has the endorsement, the buy-in and the commitment of the Members of this Assembly.

I want to comment on some of the specific elements of the programme, particularly the commitment of £229 million to cultural infrastructure — arts, sport, museums and libraries. Over the years, there has not been enough investment in capital infrastructure. Therefore, the commitment of such a substantial amount of money to those sectors is particularly welcome.

Most of us recognise that there is a need for new libraries. Throughout the world — and certainly in the United Kingdom — there has been a decline in the use of libraries. Fewer books are being borrowed because people can access books much more cheaply and have other means of communication — for instance, the Internet. There has been a reduction in the number of books that are borrowed as people tend now to buy books for themselves. If the libraries are to be sustained, investment must be put in place to develop attractive libraries that people will want to use and that are fitted to the present century.

The same can be said of museums, which are important, not only for tourism, but for our own people. One of the elements of creating a shared future is for people to have a sense of place and belonging, an understanding of our history and how we have come to be where we are. The role of museums is important in that.

I welcome the investment in the arts and sports infrastructure. I also welcome the references that the document makes to getting more people involved in culture. The Programme for Government aims to increase the number of people who visit our national museums to 585,000 by 2009. Through the National Museums and Galleries of Northern Ireland, we have an excellent network of museums; there are 31 small independent museums across Northern Ireland. That element of our cultural wealth is often overlooked. Therefore, I welcome the fact that the Programme for Government encourages people to use the museums.

One of the sad aspects of direct rule was that there was never a strategy for museums in Northern Ireland. There was large investment in museums, and we have an excellent network, but the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure never got round to creating a strategy during all the years of direct rule. I find that absolutely incredible, and I said so at the time. Sports and libraries, like any other sector, need a strategy to work from, but the civil servants never got round to putting one in place. Therefore, the development of policies and implementation of policies and strategies taking place under devolution is a step forward.

The aim of increasing the number of people who participate in or attend arts events by 2% over the next three years is also to be encouraged. In addition to supporting the arts by increasing the funding for arts projects, it is important that the arts have a source of income through people coming through the door. When people come through the door, they pay an entrance fee, and that is an important source of income. The arts should not be dependent solely on grant aid; they should benefit from people’s supporting their events.

There is a commitment to increase the number of tourists to 2·5 million over the next three years. Tourism is an important part of our economy, not only because of the number of people who visit, but because of the amount of money that they spend when they are here. Therefore, the more we build up our cultural infras­tructure — our museums, libraries, and so on — the more opportunities there will be for people to spend money when they come here. We want the tourists to come, and we want them to stay for longer. They will stay for longer if there are more things to see and do, and more money will be spent if there are more things to see and do. The connection must exist between the cultural infrastructure, which is the tourism product, and the number of visitors.

In the past, Northern Ireland relied on certain industries, but they have declined a great deal. Therefore, cultural tourism should be one of the top priorities if we are seeking to build a prosperous economy and a better future.

Finally, the Programme for Government refers to four projects in Belfast, and I am glad that they have been referred to. The first project is the development of the Crumlin Road jail and Girdwood Army barracks, in line with an agreed master plan. There are many areas of agreement in respect of that project. However, when we were developing the master plan, it struck me that no one, at any time, said that it should not be a shared site. There was total unanimity that it must be a shared site if the project were to work. The commitment exists for regeneration of the site, but the Programme for Government states that it will be a 10-year project. The developments at Laganside and at the gasworks in Belfast took many years, and the Crumlin Road jail project will also take a long time. However, it is a marvellous, unique opportunity to have such a large site close to the centre of our capital city. That will not only bring economic and other benefits to the people of north Belfast and the greater Shankill area, but to the whole of Belfast and the wider area.

There is also a reference to the regeneration of the north-east quarter. We are about to see the opening of the Victoria Square development. However, other areas on the northern outskirts of the city centre must be developed, and the north-east quarter is one of those. I am glad that the Programme for Government contains a commitment to implement a programme for the development of the public realm in Belfast city centre. There is a great opportunity to reshape the city centre to make it more attractive not only for local shoppers, but for visitors and tourists. That will benefit those in the commercial sector, independent traders, major city-centre traders, and particularly smaller retailers. I also noticed that there is a commitment to carry forward and deliver the overall objectives of the West Belfast and Greater Shankill Task Force, and that is to be encouraged.

I am running out of time, but I wish to mention the references in the Programme for Government to addressing binge drinking, not only among adults, but among young people. We need a coherent strategy for tackling alcohol abuse in Northern Ireland, but that is not mentioned in the Programme for Government.

Mr Armstrong: I welcome the opportunity to give my view on some problems with the Programme for Government. We have heard much talk about joined-up government, but we have seen little delivery in practice.

As a member of the Committee for the Environment, I welcome the fact that the Programme for Government addresses real, pressing environmental concerns, but much more is required than fine words. We need real delivery and leadership. As the twenty-first century progresses, there is no doubt that environ­mental issues and concerns are rising rapidly up the political agenda worldwide, and Northern Ireland is no exception.

The Programme for Government states that we are determined to play our part in addressing the challenge of climate change, recognising that we have the lowest levels on these islands of electricity that is generated from renewable sources, and our carbon footprint is relatively large, and well beyond a level that is sustainable in the long term.

For far too long in Northern Ireland, we have been content to send vast amounts of waste to landfill sites. I am a great supporter of the concept of “waste to energy” — of turning waste product, be it domestic or agricultural, to good use, by turning it into energy and power. We can no longer treat our waste as rubbish.

A change in attitude is required if we are to see waste as a source of energy. An initiative to convert waste to energy must be centrally directed and not done piecemeal. Local councils cannot be left to do their own thing. The draft Programme for Government states:

“We will reduce landfill significantly by creating a network of new Waste Treatment facilities at Council level by 2011.”

The public service agreement’s commitment to comply with the EU landfill directive target to reduce the amount of biodegradable municipal waste sent to landfill to 75% of 1995 levels by 2010 is not good enough.

For too long, waste has been regarded as rubbish that people throw out without a care as to where it ends up — usually landfill. People now know that that is wrong and that such an approach is no longer sustainable or desirable. Aside from the large tracts of land that are used for landfill, there are problems if local water sources are polluted as a result of the dumping of waste. Increased rainfall, global warming and rising water levels mean that such dangers are on the increase.

I welcome the announcement that the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment will receive an additional £14 million to fund projects, such as the promotion of investment in innovation among local firms, the commercial exploration of research projects in the renewable energy sector and research into renewable technology.

Two of Northern Ireland’s leading poultry firms, Moy Park and O’Kane Poultry, recently proposed the establishment of a waste-to-energy plant in Glenavy, County Antrim. That is the sort of development that is required. It is an innovative project that has the potential to create jobs and to generate enough power for a town the size of Larne, using a product that was, previously, regarded as animal waste. Such projects can only help to meet the public service agreement target to secure 12% of energy consumption in Northern Ireland from indigenous renewable sources.

The draft Programme for Government recognises that the scale of climate change requires action interna­tionally, and, in Northern Ireland, only the Executive are equipped to show leadership and to give a clear direction as to how to seek out and harness alternative sources of energy and to turn our waste into power.

The Department of the Environment deals with waste, and the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment deals with energy; however, the two Departments must work more closely together and realise that waste and energy are not mutually exclusive. A strategy must be put in place to ensure that they take ownership of the issue and give leadership.

The Committee for the Environment is looking to set an example by increasing its use of laptop computers and emails, and it is seeking other ways of reducing the number of hard-copy documents that it circulates. If leadership and action are not forthcoming, the situation will continue to drift. The restoration of devolution has given the Assembly and the Executive a chance to make changes to benefit the people of Northern Ireland. This is one issue on which we cannot afford to be found wanting — or wasting.

Mr Neeson: I support the Alliance Party’s amendment and oppose the draft Programme for Government as agreed by the Executive. The draft Programme for Government represents a DUP vision for society, tacked on to New Labour policies. I congratulate the DUP on using its strong position to drive through its vision for Northern Ireland, but I am surprised that the other three parties were so meek as to allow it to do so.

The draft Programme for Government is a vision of a society where social divisions remain the norm: only the rich can afford proper healthcare, and we become ever more dependent on the car. So much for a shared future, a better future and sustainability: our vision is somewhat different. For the Alliance Party, a shared future means tackling segregation so that everyone can work and live, without fear, wherever they wish. A better future is one in which the economy will be rebalanced so that everyone is judged on merit and can create and share in wealth.

Sustainability means public services that are based on integrated and long-term thinking in order that we become a healthier and more knowledgeable society that is able to compete with the best. The Alliance party does not wish to push Northern Ireland down; we wish to drive it up.

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The Programme for Government laudably states that the Executive will:

“develop new and innovative measures that will address existing patterns of socio-economic disadvantage and target resources and efforts towards those in greatest objective need.”

Where is the evidence for that? Cutting rates may or may not be good policy, but developing those measures will reduce capacity and take money from those resources.

The Executive also have an obligation to demonstrate their commitment to sustainability by their actions. How does removing the requirement for new homes to be energy efficient meet that commitment? How does shifting still more money from public transport to roads meet that commitment?

Few people would have much difficulty with what is in the Programme for Government — new-found commitments to the arts and people with disabilities are better late than never. However, people do have difficulties with what is missing. There is nothing on the subject of integrated education, on reforming our economic targeting of high-tech industries, or on changing society in order to reduce pollution.

Furthermore, the actions outlined in annexe A indicate a clear lack of ambition. We are merely working towards eradicating child poverty, rather than getting rid of it altogether. We compare ourselves economically with the UK, but exclude its most prosperous regions. We aim to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by just 25% from 1990-2025, despite suffering from the worst pollution in the UK — and so it continues. We will only reduce brucellosis and tuberculosis — not eradicate it. We will deliver free public transport for the over 60s, but not for students. Rather than beginning immediately to introduce a wide-ranging light-rail system for all the people in greater Belfast, the public-private transport balance will worsen, and we are still in the dark about the outcome of the review of public administration, the schools estates and the devolution of policing and justice.

Leslie Cree raised the matter of ensuring that 12% of electricity is generated from indigenous renewable resources by 2012. That is modest indeed, and is way below the targets that were set by the Committee for Enterprise, Trade and Investment in its report on the energy inquiry in 2002.

I welcome the aim of growing the economy, which is important for creating greater political stability. Hopefully, tourism will substantially increase. Once again, the target is modest. A major aspect of tourism in Northern Ireland is maritime heritage. Nelson McCausland wisely concentrated on the development and importance of museums in Northern Ireland.

Mr Deputy Speaker, at this stage, I should declare an interest, because I sit on the Advisory Committee on National Historic Ships and the Nomadic Trust in Belfast.

The promotion and development of maritime heritage is of the utmost importance; however, although we have two ships that form part of the National Historic Ships core collection — HMS Caroline and the schooner Result, which is the last ship to be built in Carrickfergus — no Department in Northern Ireland has any responsibility for maritime heritage. In addition, I hope that the Nomadic will be included in the core collection. That important aspect of tourism has largely been ignored, and Nelson McCausland is right to point out the need to develop a proper strategy for heritage in Northern Ireland.

I welcome the fact that there has been an increase in the budget for social housing. It will be a very difficult task, but every effort must be made to make new social housing more integrated. I realise that there are problems, and that even in the private sector in Belfast, many private developments are divided along religious lines. It is a big issue, but if we are to move forward and create the shared future that we all aspire to, it is an issue that must be taken into consideration.

The Alliance Party believes in keeping its election promises. That is why we will continue to promote free personal care for the elderly, as has been achieved in Scotland. Hopefully, at some stage, we will obtain the support of the other parties in the Assembly for that objective.

We must have joined-up government if the Programme for Government is to succeed. To be honest, 10 Departments is too many, and there is a great deal of inefficiency. When people raise issues such as flooding, and ask who is responsible, they have to engage with a raft of Departments. The review of public administration should have provided an opportunity to examine central Government as well. We must create efficient and effective government.

The Alliance Party has taken a lot of criticism from all sides today. Nevertheless, I firmly believe that our amendment can be supported by at least three other parties in the Assembly. I put them to the test, if they are serious about creating an opposition in the Assembly. I know that David Burnside recently raised the issue of a proper opposition. The Alliance Party will continue to provide a constructive opposition. I support the Alliance Party amendment.

Mr Burnside: There are three areas of the Programme for Government that I would like to touch on, and which I regard as priorities. It is on these areas that I will make a judgement on whether this devolved Assembly and Executive are working. It does not take one year, two years or three years to make that judgement.

The first area that I wish to explore is the future of our education system, and, especially, the future of our grammar schools. By the summer of this year, if our Education Minister has continued to try to run her Department like an independent fiefdom, and, for the first time, we have independently financed grammar schools, perhaps using their own selection criteria, cut off from taxpayers’ money — which was always one of the great selling points for Northern Ireland — it would be a dreadful admission and example of failure of the Executive. The jury is out on the Education Minister, and a decision must be made by the summer. The uncertainty in the primary, secondary and further education sectors must be ended to the benefit of all that is good in the grammar school system in Northern Ireland. Of all the decisions to be made in this House over the next six months, I regard that as paramount.

Secondly, the targets for investment into Northern Ireland that have been set for the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment are not terribly adventurous. There is another judgement for me and others in the community to make. We will consider the American investment conference that was promoted in the United States by the First Minister and deputy First Minister. If it was not for the American presidential election, we would be in deep recession. The only things that will prevent the world from going into recession, for both the Republicans and the Democrats, are the cutting of three quarters of a point off interest rates by the Federal Reserve, trying to make money cheaper, and dealing with the credit and debt crises in the American and the world banking systems. In the wake of last weekend’s great brainstorm on the ski slopes of Davos, all the major economists and monetary commentators are predicting a recession.

Northern Ireland will not be separate from that recession. A large number of American industrialists and financiers will be coming here for the spring conference, and I hope that Minister Dodds and DETI will put a lot of work into that conference, because a lot more work is required to meet even the low investment targets that have been set in the Programme for Government.

There is too much borrowing in the corporate system, and there is too much borrowing from Gordon Brown. The situation has grown out of control nationally; there is too much personal borrowing in the system. I say that as someone who believes in the merits of a proper capitalist system. The banks have behaved absolutely disgracefully by financing parts of the United States sub-prime market that they should never have touched. Other people will pay for that.

Northern Rock does not need to be nationalised. The Bank of England should pull in all the other banks and tell them to take a pro rata equity share in Northern Rock and bail it out. The banking system should be told to bail itself out to stop the steamroller effect of other banks being put under pressure. Thus, the second major test of the Programme for Government will be whether it can successfully attract industrial and financial investment into Northern Ireland in what will be a period of near recession, if not actual recession.

The third issue is the size of Government, to which my colleague in the Alliance Party also referred. Of course, much depends on how one defines public sector and private sector; in recent years, there have been a great many PFIs, which I define as being public-sector finance. The Programme for Government is full of great objectives and talk about reviving the private sector and the economy, and reducing the size of the public sector and setting targets to make it more efficient. However, in six months’ time, let us look at the criteria and see how many people are employed by central Government, the Assembly, local government and the quango industry in Northern Ireland.

I read Sammy Wilson’s piece in yesterday’s ‘Sunday Life’ about the targets for reducing the number of MLAs in the Assembly. Let us see whether we are big enough to vote for a reduction in our own numbers. In 1972, there were 52 Members in this House, and 26 in the Senate. A membership of somewhere in the 60s may be enough. The Government here is far too big. We are all a cost and a burden to the taxpayer, and the Assembly can be made more efficient.

Let us look at the entire role of Government: nationally, across the whole of the United Kingdom, here in Stormont, in local government, in the quango and public-private financing sectors, and let us then make ourselves more efficient. I will make a prediction: I guarantee that the public sector will be no smaller in six months’ time than it is now. I will come to the Chamber then to ask the Finance Minister about that. The public sector is a self-perpetuating, growing bureaucracy, and if we experience a recession, it, rather than the private sector, will grow even bigger.

In conclusion, first, I hope that there will be a Programme for Government that will solve the problems in our education system, put an end to the uncertainty and instability that it is experiencing, and defend all that is good in the grammar schools.

Secondly, I hope that the United States/Northern Ireland investment conference will be a great success, but a great deal more work is needed to make it so and to ensure that we use what opportunities we can get in a presidential year. I do not care whether it is the Irish-American vote or the Ulster-Scots vote; let us milk this opportunity as much as we can, and if we can get investment into Northern Ireland, let us try to achieve it in an American presidential year.

Thirdly, let us see whether we really can reform ourselves. I have my doubts, but I would love to see the Assembly vote to make itself smaller in its Executive function and more co-ordinated as a democratic body. As I have said here many times before, there should be weighted majorities, and there should be a voluntary coalition based on policies and agreement, not the post-conflict mandatory coalition that currently exists. We all need to think about that issue. Such changes would make for a better, more democratic and accountable system. Furthermore, our efforts would help to fulfil the overall objective to reduce the size of the public sector and would enable the private sector to produce more wealth to pay for the services that we all want in education and health and to help the other areas that need the support of a successful, wealth-creating sector.

7.15 pm

Ms Purvis: I am thankful for the opportunity to contribute to today’s debate. During the debate on 26 November 2007, I stated that the draft Programme for Government was economically unjust, and that it and the draft Budget concentrated too heavily on the economy and big business, at the expense of the working man and woman. My sentiments were echoed during the consultation process. I am glad that, as a result, the Programme for Government has improved.

On Radio Ulster recently, an economist said that the focus of the final Programme for Government and Budget had moved away from the economy towards the people. That is good news to me, and for the people whom I represent — the working class and the most disadvantaged in society — it is surely a result. The argument that benefits to the general public would trickle down from the top proved unconvincing, and changes have had to be made. The most disadvantaged need more than a trickle to function in our society.

I pay tribute to all those who made submissions during the consultation process and to everyone who, by pressurising and lobbying the Minister of Finance and Personnel and the Executive, helped to ensure a better deal for areas in which it is sorely needed. Ministers Empey, McGimpsey and Ritchie should be justifiably pleased, because they have proven themselves to be worthy negotiators for their respective Departments. They demonstrated that even those in tentative positions of opposition can achieve success against the two-party oligarchy.

I am glad that the Department for Social Development has been allocated increased resources to help it to achieve the Executive’s goal of providing at least 10,000 new social homes within the time frame laid out in the Programme for Government. I hope that Minister Ritchie will also find enough money in her new allocation to maintain and develop the warm homes scheme and the heating replacement programme, because tackling fuel poverty will continue to save the Health Service money and will undoubtedly save lives.

However, I do not want the Minister of Finance and Personnel to think that I am now in total agreement with him and his colleagues on the Executive. After all, it was he and his colleagues who dubbed me “Red Dawn”. If that reflects the fact that I hold the interests of people above everything else, I am guilty as charged. Someone once said to me, with tongue planted in cheek, that politicians are those clever, grey men who talk and talk but do not bloody listen. It seems that some politicians have started to listen, but there is still a long way to go.

Sadly, the criticisms that I voiced in November remain valid. Although positive changes have been made to the draft Budget and the draft Programme for Government, I remain concerned about the Executive’s priorities. The draft and final Budgets have looked after big business and the private sector first, while the ordinary working taxpayer has had to beg for scraps from the Chancellor’s table. Social housing and the Health Service should not have had to wait for additional funding.

Why did it require a redraft to recognise the importance of the community and voluntary sector? Why did pensioners who live in freezing conditions have to wait? Why was a rethink required to recognise that people are living in a divided society and need a shared future? Most alarmingly, why are children and young people still waiting for their share of the Budget, with bowl outstretched, as in the scene from ‘Oliver Twist’?

Despite the increases in funding to the Department of Education for youth and community services, the Executive continue to ignore children and young people. Huge inequalities run throughout the education system: children from working-class backgrounds achieve less in primary school; they do worse in the 11-plus; they get lower GCSE grades; and they are much less likely to go on to further and higher education.

Too many children in Northern Ireland leave education with no qualifications and, worse still, unable to read and write. Such children benefit from the Executive’s children’s fund. However, because many projects have not been completely ring-fenced or mainstreamed, a potential consequence is that, rather than our meeting the target of eliminating child poverty by 2020, more children will be forced into poverty.

We need more detail on how many of those programmes and projects have been mainstreamed or allocated funding through the relevant Departments and what exactly has been, or will be, lost. Only then can we better gauge how far off the child poverty targets this Executive will be.

I note with disappointment that, between the draft and final versions of the document, the Executive are only working towards eliminating child poverty, rather than eradicating it. Perhaps that is just as well because, given the focus of resources, the priorities stated in the draft Programme for Government were unreal. If we are serious about taking on child poverty, resources and focus must be directed at the multiple causes of deprivation and not at Invest NI.

The introduction of water charges will seriously add to child poverty in Northern Ireland. My party is opposed to their introduction and, regardless of the outcome of the Executive’s review, which was published today, the most vulnerable and disadvantaged in our society are still being asked to pay for one of life’s essentials. Depending on whom one talks to, the average family will have to pay around £6 a week. Some Members may think that that is not a lot, but if you are living on a tight budget, that £6 can be the equivalent of almost three meals, half a bag of coal, or a few days’ heating and hot water.

Allowing the asset-rich and income-poor to defer payment does not work either. It was introduced in England and Wales for payment of rates, and the take-up rate was negligible. Why? Because our elderly see it as a debt constantly increasing over their heads. Instead of deferring payment, they go without something else — usually heating — in order to pay for water.

There are other areas in relation to child poverty where action is required. I am aware that the Committee for the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister is producing a report on the sorts of actions that are required. It is up to our Executive to listen to the findings of that inquiry and to ensure that moneys are available to resource the delivery of its forthcoming recommendations.

Gender inequality was almost completely ignored in the draft Programme for Government. Thankfully, during the consultation process, someone noticed that there is gender inequality in Northern Ireland, that there is a gender pay gap and that domestic violence does exist and is unacceptable. However, noticing that those issues exist does not solve them. It certainly does not deserve the plaudits of this House or of the woman on the street. We need action plans and targets to ensure that the situation improves.

One in five women in Northern Ireland has experienced domestic violence. Incident rates are not falling; conviction rates are not increasing. The human costs are considerable, as are the financial costs — £180 million every year. Where is the political will to eradicate domestic violence?

I look forward to seeing the proposals on how the Executive plan to close the gender pay gap — there is little detail in the Programme for Government. I also look forward to the promised gender equality strategy, as I am sure many other Members do also.

Childcare was an issue that went AWOL in the draft documents. Again, thankfully, someone belatedly realised that childcare is vital not only in addressing gender inequalities, but in reducing the numbers of economically inactive people. With that in mind, I suggest that childcare provision be given greater priority. I also call for consideration to be given to ensuring that childcare becomes a cross-departmental issue. It is not a matter solely for the Department of Education. The Department for Employment and Learning should be prioritising childcare to help encourage more parents back into further education and back into the job market.

I remain concerned that environmental issues have still not been given the attention that they deserve and require in order that we can enhance and protect the world in which we live. It is vital that, as a country, we recognise that we cannot afford to continue consuming resources at the current rate and that we have a responsibility to reduce our negative impact on the environment. Although it has been stated as an objective in the Programme for Government, there are no policies in place to make a significant difference. In fact, other policies seem to counter that stated ideal.

Somewhere between the draft and final versions of the Programme for Government, it was realised that we live in a divided society. Perhaps the First Minister and the deputy First Minister took note of the many submissions, including that of the Community Relations Council.

I look forward to seeing a programme of cohesion and integration for a shared and better future, and I look forward to seeing action plans, targets and resources to implement that. I am sure that those who are involved in parading would like to see that, along with those who live at interfaces and along the border, individuals and families who are subject to racial abuse, and children who are bullied, or worse, because of their sexual orientation.

In closing —

Mr Deputy Speaker: Your time is up.

Mr Ford: I apologise to the House for my missing the early part of the debate, owing to family reasons. Nonetheless, I am here because I believe that it is important to take part in this debate, which is vital to the future of the Assembly.

I understand that the First Minister began his speech by stating that this is a society that was divided by conflict. In fact, the conflict was caused by division. That is why tackling division must be the first priority for every one of us. The Executive’s failure to take that obligation seriously is the fundamental reason for the United Community group’s opposition to the Programme for Government, and for our demanding a fundamental rewrite of it.

It is simply not enough to manage our divisions — as has been the prevailing policy for some time. We must strive to overcome those divisions if we are ever to create a society and an economy that can make progress. Anyone who is committed to ending the sectarianism, segregation and division that defines this society will surely back our amendment.

The Executive’s statement on the Programme for Government was such that the economy was their first priority. Other than tackling sectarianism and segregation, we certainly agree. However, it is action and policy direction that count, not aspirations.

I was interested in the comments of Mr Burnside on matters such as the size of Government. I agree with much of what he said, although I might not reduce the size of the House’s membership by quite so much as he advocated. Perhaps 52 Members, plus another 26, would represent a reasonable number. However, the key point that he failed to mention was the fact that we have 11 Departments when, in the past, this society could manage with six. That is a key issue that must be addressed. That is a matter that is directly within Executive responsibility, but of which they have failed to take any notice.

When the Programme for Government was published in draft form, the Executive briefly had the business sector fooled. The business sector thought that the Executive had made a serious commitment to making Northern Ireland fit to compete with the best in the world. However, in fact, the objectives are merely to compete with the poorer regions of the UK, not the richer ones, and not with the Republic. That is not exactly ambitious.

The Programme for Government is concerned with issues such as free public transport for the over 60s — because that is politically high profile — but not for many others who need it, such as students or those who are seeking work.

There are real problems that face some parties in this Chamber. For example, when Mr Kennedy points out — as he frequently does — that Ulster Unionist Ministers are responsible for half of the Budget, he is absolutely correct. However, the real question is whether, on that basis, his party will accept that it is part of the Executive, or whether it will genuinely become part of an opposition, as my colleague Sean Neeson has said. A zigzag policy characterised by one minute in, and one minute out, is not going to be any more sustainable than Executive plans for public transport.

The underlying vision of the Programme for Government started with the DUP, and has been bought into by other Executive parties. That is a vision whereby we remain divided in silos, whereby we compete only with poor regions, and whereby our public services remain bureaucratic and segregated.

As Naomi Long said, that is not the vision that we share. Divided versus united; weak versus prosperous; defensive versus ambitious; Executive versus opposition — that is where we stand. We want to see a genuine tackling of sectarianism and division, and real action.

It is not just the Alliance Party, as some in the Chamber claim, who are saying that. Neither is it just the five north Belfast clergy who were mentioned earlier. It is the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors, which has pointed out the need for shared housing; 81% of parents, who back integrated education; and Church leaders on general social policy.

We must see real movement. The points that are being made by organisations such as NICVA, the business sector and the trade unions on the need for an integrated society to be a prosperous society must be taken account of. That is why I find the type of comments of some Ulster Unionists bizarre. The Alliance Party has adopted the same stance since the time of the first Assembly, when we opposed Programmes for Government twice, not because they failed to mention vague aspirations about a shared future, but because they failed to provide the means of delivery on a shared future.

Mr Burnside: Perhaps the Member can enlighten us: if the Alliance Party had won enough seats to join the Executive, would it be in the Executive and from where would the opposition have then come?

7.30 pm

Mr Ford: The Member asks an interesting question. However, given that the Alliance Party never gave any commitment to participating in an Executive, and would have been prepared to be involved in an Executive only if a Programme for Government that would genuinely advance this society’s needs were implemented, it is a fairly hypothetical question. That said, one never knows. It may be a question that will arise after the next Assembly election. We shall leave it for the Ulster Unionists to decide whether they expect to be in the Executive before, during or after that election. It seems to me that the Ulster Unionist Party has bought the DUP’s line that it is simply not moving anywhere on the concept of a shared future.

I agree with Mr Burnside on the structures of government, but we disagree on the point that he has just raised.

I shall deal with two issues that are of particular concern to me. However, allow me first to declare an interest: I am a former social worker, although I doubt whether the Northern Health and Social Care Trust will ever take me back now. In the budget for health, there has been a dramatic increase in funding: instead of there being a 3·8% increase, it is 3·9%. Lip service has been paid in the Chamber on countless occasions to the Bamford Review and to the need to do something about mental-health services, yet we know that those funding levels will not keep up with demands for acute hospital services. The inevitable result is that mental-health, childcare and community-care services will cease to be funded properly, because acute hospitals will always be seen to be the priority.

Members will also know that fundamental problems need to be tackled in acute hospitals. Infections such as MRSA and clostridium difficile arise out of a failure to deal properly with structural and managerial problems. Given my personal circumstances today, I see a certain irony in the fact that I had tabled a question for oral answer earlier about continued palliative care in the northern area, where the supply is totally inadequate.

As a member of the Committee for the Environment, I shall now deal with some environmental concerns. We might welcome the advancement of the sustainable development strategy, but simply developing a strategy is not enough. Rather, delivery must be provided, and there is little sign of that happening. The Programme for Government talks about halting the loss of indigenous species and habitats by 2015, yet the necessary funding is simply not available. It intends to declare 200 new areas of special scientific interest (ASSIs) by 2016, yet all the non-governmental organisations involved know that many of those ASSIs will be damaged before we even get to 2016. There is real slippage there.

It would be fine to say that the Belfast sewerage project is a key goal were it not for the fact that the problem has existed for years and was being tackled under direct rule anyway. Therefore, for the Executive merely to continue with what was already being dug when they came into power is not much of a claim.

Many Members have talked about public transport, yet we persist with a policy that bizarrely tries to solve Belfast’s commuter problems through initiatives such as the widening of the M2 rather than through developing public transport.

What we have is neither a business-friendly plan nor an environmentally friendly plan, and it is definitely not a community-friendly plan. We on these Benches have ambition for Northern Ireland, and we will not settle for the limited vision of the Executive.

Lord Morrow took time to criticise the Alliance Party when he wondered why if four parties can agree on something, a fifth cannot. Other Members, from the DUP Benches in particular, said that if we are to have government at all, we must have a Programme for Government. The suggestion is being made — hinted at in the Chamber and perhaps seriously suggested in the media — that if the motion is somehow not passed tonight, the entire House will collapse. That is simply not the case. The Alliance Party will not agree to the Programme for Government because we have ambitions, and they amount to a great deal more than managing a cosy, sectarian carve-up, much like what was witnessed in the statement on the appointment of the victims’ commissioners — plural — earlier today. We want to see a society that is integrated, moving forward and really ambitious. Let me be absolutely clear: if our amendment is agreed, it will represent not that the House will collapse but a simple call to the Executive that they must do better, because the people of Northern Ireland expect better and deserve better under a devolved Government.

The range of consultation responses submitted may have initially included some positive comments on the Programme for Government, but, once they had delved into the detail, people pointed out its social failings, its economic failings and its inability to bring society together. Those views came from every sector of society, and that is why the Programme for Government is simply not good enough for our people.

Some Members: Hear, hear.

Mr McGlone: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Although SDLP Members welcome many aspirations in the Programme for Government, we have strong reservations about the capability of the proposed actions, targets and budgets to deliver the glowing vision that has been presented to us. We also believe that the structure of the documents will make it difficult to track and monitor progress.

There are serious gaps in key policy areas and inadequate treatment of existing commitments. For example, statutory commitments to build good relations are not being reflected in the public service agreements. In addition, there is an obvious disconnection between the Programme for Government and the Budget that is meant to support and implement it. In fact, the Budget is not even structured to reflect, or complement, the Programme for Government.

The SDLP welcomes the stated commitment to work in partnership in and beyond the Executive to rebuild society and regenerate the economy. We believe that a dynamic and meaningful partnership spanning the community and our social partners is required. That is the only way that the major challenges — an underfunded public infrastructure and an underdeveloped private sector — can be tackled.

Better engagement than has been possible, in what has been a restricted timeframe, is required to establish such a partnership, but its benefits will be considerable. Better engagement will lead to broad-based consensus, which will enable strategic long-term planning, stable decision-making and creative thinking. Strategic partnerships can help us to mirror some of the successes of the South, and they will be particularly important during this period of budgetary constraint and proposed efficiency programmes.

Given the restrictions that we face, such as lack of fiscal discretion and being outside the euro zone, it is important for us to be proactive where possible. The SDLP believes that the Programme for Government reflects a shift in emphasis towards a much more right-of-centre approach: indeed, some have described it as Thatcherite political ideology.

Although we welcome the renewed emphasis on growing the economy, the SDLP manifesto is built around interdependent commitments to economic growth, social justice, environmental protection and cultural vitality. We believe firmly that sustainable and sustained growth requires balanced social and economic investments.

Some Members’ comments today show that they are moving towards the hokey-cokey of politics — I am not sure whether they are for or against the Programme for Government. In particular, I listened intently to the Chairperson of the Committee for Agriculture and Rural Development. He referred to vague, unchallenging priorities. He also said that the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development has forgotten that she has an agriculture portfolio, and that, with a heavy heart, he could not commend the Programme for Government. Having given such public commitments today, it will be interesting to see how he votes. Then again, that is not unusual for the DUP; I am told that they also vote against Budgets at Westminster.

Mr Wells voiced concerns about water charging and the lack of clarity in the Programme for Government. Ms Anderson of Sinn Féin referred to the need to address social and economic needs in our society, support for the community and voluntary sector, regional develop­ment and underpinning equality — almost exactly the words used in the SDLP’s amendment, which I hope will be successful. Again, when the chips are down, we will see how she actually votes.

The SDLP is not persuaded that the details in the public service agreements, the Budget and the investment strategy are consistent or can deliver on the warm words of the Programme for Government. That is most notable in the cuts in children’s funding, pressures on the Health Service, lack of investment in social housing and the failure to budget for, or even refer to, the reform of post-primary education.

Strangely, despite the shift in emphasis, many of the policies trumpeted as drivers of change remain the same as those initiated during the previous period of devolution. They include a joined-up investment strategy to be overseen by a strategic investment board, infrastructure priorities to be supported by borrowing power and a positive stress on the strategic regeneration opportunities of former military and prison sites. All of those concepts were developed by the previous Executive in the reinvestment and reform initiative, and all of them were opposed by Sinn Féin or the DUP; yet all of them are now centrepieces in the Programme for Government.

Although it would be hard to take issue with the overarching aims, principle strategic priorities or cross-cutting themes outlined in the Programme for Government, it is difficult to see a natural flow or connection between the detailed commitments in the various sections and documents.

That begs the question of whether the identified priorities genuinely drove the —

Mr Deputy Speaker: The Member’s time is up.

Mr McGlone: Go raibh maith agat. Molaim an leasú. I support the SDLP amendment.

Mr Kennedy: At this late stage in the debate, I am reminded of the old adage about long meetings — everything has been said, but it has not quite been said by everybody. [Laughter.]

Many speeches in the debate have been the well-honed and crafted words of Assembly Clerks or party staff. Regardless, the contributions provided by those people and delivered by the Members have been very good.

As part of this long debate, there has been the usual lecture from the Alliance Party representatives on how everyone should run Government, except them. The Alliance Party does not really want to be part of Govern­ment, and will never get there because of its electoral strength. It is also a party of high taxation, so heaven help the people of Northern Ireland if they are ever faced with the Alliance Party in control of Government.

Rather than frozen and rigid plans, the Programme for Government and the investment strategy should be living documents — which is the basis of the Ulster Unionist Party amendment. I am glad that our amend­ment appears to be gaining substantial support in the House. The programme must be subject to continued revision, and be flexible and capable of change in light of altered circumstances. I earlier stated that the Programme for Government and the investment strategy should regularly feature on the agenda of the Committee for the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister. If that were the case, the Assembly could create a mechanism for revision and flexible updating, which would involve the Assembly as well as the Executive.

The Assembly must seek ways to bring decision-making to the people, as far as possible. The wider the consensus for a decision, the more legitimate it is and the wider its public acceptance. Many decisions have to be constantly reviewed in public debate on the Floor, which can only effectively take place through a system of OFMDFM Committee referral.

Members must use the opportunity to see what can be done to bring the Programme for Government and the investment strategy into the living rooms of the people that we represent. I ask all Members and the Executive to consider that, because the Ulster Unionist Party amendment ultimately seeks to strengthen the operation of the Assembly and the flexibility and effect­iveness of Government in the Province. Therefore, the amendment is proposed in a positive manner, and it is designed for the benefit of all, which is why I commend it to the House and ask Members to support it for the good of the Assembly and the Executive, rather than in any narrow or partisan sense.

Any measure that promotes better procedure, more democracy, better democratic control and a more responsible and flexible system of Government must be welcomed by everyone.

In my initial remarks, I reminded the House that the Ulster Unionist Party is a responsible political party that is used to exercising control and responsibility in Government. We continue to undertake those duties in the Executive and the Assembly, and we do not apologise for that. We will not be sidelined or marginalised, and we will offer leadership. That is why we offer our amendment to the House.

7.45 pm

Dr Farry: We support individual aspects of the Programme for Government, but overall, it is a flawed document. Our amendment sets out three clear reasons why it is flawed and must be reviewed.

The Ulster Unionist Party amendment simply states what is obvious and what will happen anyway. It is a pointless amendment, which, no doubt is the reason that the DUP and Sinn Féin masters in the Assembly are prepared to accept it. Clearly, after the fuss of the past few months, the UUP has thrown in its lot with the Executive. Although the SDLP amendment contains some major criticisms of the Programme for Govern­ment, it still endorses a flawed document.

The Alliance Party has been accused of being negative today, but frankly, there is much to be negative about. I am concerned at the lack of respect that has been shown in the Chamber for the concept of opposition and at the lack of acceptance that a document can be criticised in any way. Given what we so-called democrats have fought for over the past number of years, the failure to recognise the importance of opposition in a democratic Chamber is a matter of extreme concern for the whole community.

The Alliance Party is ambitious for Northern Ireland, and that is the reason that we are fundamentally disappointed by the document. It is noticeable that few Members sought to engage with the criticisms that Members of my party voiced today. The only exception was Mr McClarty, who attempted — and I stress the word “attempted” — to criticise us over the cost of segregation. The Alliance Party did not claim that it was possible to unlock the cost of segregation in one fell swoop; indeed, there are areas where it would be undesirable to shift spending. That said, we must make a start.

When we look back at David Trimble’s foot dragging when he was last in office, we can see the Ulster Unionist Party’s record on a shared future. Indeed, the shared future strategy sat on the shelf for an entire year until direct rule Ministers published it.

The Ulster Unionists seem to have bought into the populist approach to taxation, which was voiced by the DUP, when it was chasing a few cheap votes. The price that we will pay for that is an underfunded Health Service.

The Ulster Unionists have been sold a pup by the DUP, and the people of Northern Ireland will suffer in health — [Interruption.]

The document has been criticised by Members in all corners of the House, including some DUP Members, notably Sammy Wilson and Willie McCrea. It is strange that those criticisms reflect the inability of the DUP to control the Executive. I understood that the DUP had negotiated new measures through St Andrews to control everything that happened and to ensure that nothing would ever come out of the Executive that did not have the DUP stamp on it. Now it seems to be the other way around: DUP Members talk about the education and skills authority with which they are not happy, and they have now signed up to promoting Irish-medium education.

Sinn Féin seemed confused about whether the document helps or hinders the need to address equality and balanced regional development. Judging by comments that different UUP Members made throughout the day, that party does not know whether it is for or against the programme. Mr Basil McCrea, the self-styled leader of the opposition in the Ulster Unionist Party, voiced considerable criticisms.

Mr Kennedy: What planet is the Member on? [Laughter.]

Dr Farry: I am very much on planet earth; I do not know where he is coming from, mind you.

The Programme for Government represents the lowest-common denominator, and only the issues on which the parties agree are acted on. Major areas of public policy lie outside the document. For example, will nothing happen on the single equality Bill over the next few years, the environmental protection agency, free personal care for the elderly, which was promised by all the Executive parties in their Assembly manifestos— [Interruption.]

A Member: That was only a manifesto.

Dr Farry: What does that matter?

There is no mention of post-primary education, which is the most controversial issue facing the Assembly. What are the people of Northern Ireland supposed to make of that? There are no formal action plans for the shared future strategy, which has been marginalised. A list of actions was approved for that strategy that could have easily been acted on, but nothing happened. The goalposts are now being shifted on the economy and on managing our productivity gap.

Other fundamental issues have also been raised, such as lack of funding for transport, child services, the health budget, and funding for mental-health services for which no commitment to implement the Bamford Review in all its forms has been made.

We must take a second look at the Programme for Government with a view to reviewing it. I therefore urge the House to support our amendment.

The deputy First Minister (Mr M McGuinness): Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. We have had a wide-ranging debate on the draft Programme for Government and investment strategy, covering many different issues. The interest in the documents reinforces the First Minister’s remarks about the importance of functioning political institutions. We must demonstrate that the Executive can and will make a difference.

Although we are a local Executive and Assembly, we know that we must look outside ourselves; we cannot afford to be inward looking or to ignore developments elsewhere. Global and international events can and do affect us.

We must not develop our programmes and priorities in isolation. This twenty-first-century world is moving faster than we could have imagined or thought possible. Technology and modern communications mean that we are interconnected to a vast global network. Our economy is directly affected by developments elsewhere. Economic upturns — or downturns — on the other side of the world affect our economy, and the events on the world’s economic stage over recent weeks demonstrate that very clearly.

Similarly, people look to developments in societies elsewhere and expect to see similar progress here. We are influenced by what we know is happening in other areas. We may be a small part of the world, but we are part of the wider picture. There is no reason why we cannot be a world leader, promoting the social and economic rights of all our people.

As we are a small area, it is imperative that we build partnerships with those who are willing to help. When the First Minister and I visited the United States of America recently, we attempted to deliver the message that we were open for business and ready to meet the challenges ahead. That visit was hugely important for our economy, as it provided an excellent opportunity to highlight the benefits of investing here to a high-level audience of senior US business and political leaders. Our Programme for Government, investment strategy and Budget are vital in demonstrating that those are not empty words, but that we have thought out where our focus should be.

Following on from our visit to the US, we plan to host a US investment conference in May of this year. That conference will allow us to position ourselves as a competitive business location for US companies on information communication technology and financial and business services sectors and to showcase what we have to offer. We continue to work with the Barroso task force to explore areas in which our economy could benefit from EU policies and programmes. We are committed to working with Europe to help us to become a more entrepreneurial, a more sustainable and a more innovative economy.

We also need to progress areas where the two Governments on this small island can work together more effectively, and where we can usefully collaborate in areas of common interest to mutual benefit. The Programme for Government gives us an agreed basis on which to engage with those who wish to help. Our friends in the United States of America, Europe and elsewhere are willing to play a part, and we must be clear about the areas in which we would like that involvement and assistance.

We must also show that we are not just passively looking for assistance from others, but that we want to be in a genuine partnership, where both parties have something to offer. That is the key to building long-term, worthwhile relationships. We have much goodwill and support, both at home and abroad, including the United States and the European Union, to help us to realise the opportunities and address the challenges that we face. We are working to build on that goodwill and support to create a confident, vibrant region and to help to grow our economy.

I will now turn to some of the points raised this afternoon, and I will confine my remarks to matters of a strategic nature. Some of the more detailed points raised will be dealt with by my ministerial colleagues and, no doubt, they will respond in due course.

We have considered carefully all the issues that were raised during the consultation and they have informed our decisions on the final Programme for Government and investment strategy. I am pleased that several Members, including Naomi Long and Mark Durkan, recognised that we have sought to take account of those responses in the documents that we present today. We welcome the largely positive response to our priorities. In our draft Programme for Government we announced that our top priority was to grow a dynamic and innovative economy.

We want to build a successful economy that is charact­erised by high productivity, a highly skilled and flexible workforce and employment growth that delivers increased prosperity and tackles disadvantage and poverty.

Our economy has performed well in recent years; employment is at a record high, unemployment is at an historic low, and the private sector’s contribution to economic output is increasing. However, we still have much to do to build our skills base, increase prosperity and improve productivity. We must also address the problems of economic inactivity and ill health among the working-age population, and we must promote greater employment opportunities in rural areas and disadvantaged communities.

Equality is an important issue for the Executive and for society. Inequalities exist, and we must strive to eliminate all forms of inequality. We are determined that everyone, including the most vulnerable in society, will have the opportunity to contribute to, and benefit from, increased prosperity.

We recognise that economic growth and social progress cannot be taken forward in isolation from action to address poverty and disadvantage in order to build a fairer and more equitable society. I assure the House that the economy will not be developed at the expense of the disadvantaged members of society. We must take steps to address the needs of the most disadvantaged and the most vulnerable, as well as the communities that experience high levels of poverty, disadvantage and exclusion.

We also recognise and acknowledge the role that the community and voluntary sector has played, and can continue to play. The investment strategy will help us to deliver the infrastructure that will be essential to support our plans for economic development and job creation, as set out in the Programme for Government. We will also work with local industry bodies and the Sector Skills Council for construction to ensure that apprenticeships are put in place to enable people to develop sustainable skills.

It is anticipated that specific guidance on embedding equality of opportunity and sustainability, including consideration of social outcomes in procurement processes, will be issued to public bodies in the near future.

The importance of equality has been raised several times. As previously stated, equality, fairness, inclusion and the promotion of good relations will be watchwords for all Executive policies and programmes across Government. That places an overarching responsibility on us all to proactively change the existing patterns of social disadvantage by using increased prosperity and economic growth to tackle ongoing poverty, to develop new and innovative measures that will address existing patterns of socio-economic disadvantage and to target resources and efforts towards those in greatest objective need.

The Executive are fully committed to ensuring that equality is properly taken into account. As the First Minister confirmed, we will publish tomorrow a draft equality impact assessment carried out at a strategic level for 12 weeks’ consultation. In order to assess the potential equality and good relations implications of the Programme for Government, the Budget and investment strategy as a whole, the assessment is focused at the strategic level and aims to consider the overall impact that will be associated with the Executive’s priorities and the allocation of resources as set out in the Budget and investment strategy.

The delivery of policies, programmes and capital projects at departmental level will be informed by the outcome of the assessment. In addition, the Executive will seek to ensure that Departments, Government agencies and relevant statutory authorities continue to meet their obligations under section 75, including schedule 9.

The individual policies, programmes and capital projects that Departments will take forward will therefore continue to be subject to equality screening. Where appropriate, and in line with statutory duty, full equality impact assessments will be undertaken by Departments, their agencies and relevant statutory authorities.

The consultation on the draft equality impact assessment will be an important exercise. We look forward to active engagement with the Committee on that, and we will also seek to engage the wider public actively through widely advertised public meetings and other, more targeted, events. The Executive are determined that the consultation on the draft equality assessment will offer everyone the opportunity to have their say and to influence final decisions.

As the First Minister said, the Executive will take account of the final equality impact assessment carried out at a strategic level in the implementation of the Programme for Government and the investment strategy.

8.00 pm

As for the Budget, the final equality impact assessment will be taken into account in the future allocation of resources, including monitoring rounds.

Several Members have raised the issue of promoting good relations. I assure Members that the Executive are determined to address divisions in our society and to build a shared and better future for all. We have sought to clarify that commitment in a document that has a shared and better future for all as a key, cross-cutting theme.

I assure Naomi Long that we recognise that that goal will not be achieved without a robust policy framework and clear actions. To suggest otherwise fails to take account of our clear commitment, in the Programme for Government, to advance a programme of cohesion and integration for a shared and better future for all.

The issue of child poverty was raised by Danny Kennedy, Dolores Kelly and other Members. That is, rightly, a matter about which we should all be concerned. In the Programme for Government, the Executive have outlined clear commitments to work towards the elimination of child poverty by 2020; improve educational outcomes, particularly for the most disadvantaged children; and to ensure that all our children are cared for, live in safety and are protected from abuse. Those commitments were warmly welcomed in the responses to the consultation, and it is right that we set challenging targets if we are to eliminate poverty, which blights so many lives. We are determined to make real progress on that issue.

We will tackle poverty, including child poverty, by applying Executive policies and programmes, particularly those aimed at giving people the best chance of decent jobs, along with tax and benefit policies. We will use 1998 as the baseline from which progress will be measured; and we know that reductions in child poverty have already been made against that. As for those who challenge our targets as unambitious, or not tailored to this area’s specific needs, we point out that our target to eliminate severe child poverty here by 2012 was widely welcomed as the first of its kind on these islands.

On the issue of regional balance, two of the most fascinating contributions came from Claire McGill and Lord Morrow. The degree of common ground between them on conditions west of the Bann was very striking. Through our Programme for Government and investment strategy, we have clearly set out that promoting regional balance and addressing existing regional disparities are key objectives for the Executive. As Martina Anderson said, that is crucial if we are to realise our objectives of growing our economy and tackling disadvantage and exclusion. Our commitment to promote regional balance and address regional disparities is, by far, the strongest made by a locally elected Administration. That was warmly welcomed during consultation seminars, and I welcome the importance that Naomi Long and Mark Durkan attach to regional balance.

Concerns have been raised as to the priority attached to agriculture and rural development. Those are key issues for the Executive. We recognise the important contribution of the agricultural sector to the local economy and we will work with that sector to improve competitiveness. We have set out in the Programme for Government clear commitments and targets to that end, and, more widely, to improve the social and economic infrastructure of rural areas.

I take this opportunity to correct an answer that I gave during the debate on the draft Programme for Government on 25 October 2007, in relation to the introduction of concessionary fares on rural services. For clarity: bids for that were not successful. Available funding will be used to provide free travel on mainstream public transport for those aged 60 to 64.

Several Members — including Naomi Long, Mark Durkan and Mitchel McLaughlin — have rightly highlighted issues of sustainability. I welcome the importance that they attach to that subject. A key objective of the Programme for Government is to deliver a better and more sustainable future for all our people. Although the economy is our top priority, we recognise that economic growth and social progress must be advanced in a manner that protects our environment and resources for future generations. In the Programme for Government, we give a clear commitment that the principles of sustainable develop­ment will underpin the approach to all our activities. That is also reflected clearly in the investment strategy. Building a sustainable future will be a key requirement for our economic, social and environmental programmes.

At a strategic level, we are working on a new sustainable development implementation plan for 2008-11. The new plan will align closely with the Programme for Government. In addition to continuing to work towards several targets in the sustainable development strategy, the Executive will incorporate relevant targets from the Programme for Government and the public service agreements into the plan. The new implemen­tation plan will, therefore, set out clearly the Executive’s approach to sustainable development, along with what we are trying to achieve and how we plan to go about it. It will also set out the specific monitoring arrangements that will apply to all the targets in the plan.

Mark Durkan suggested that the Executive’s targets and goals are too focused on cross-cutting areas. I acknowledge his concerns. However, it must be recognised that the key challenges that we face in building a shared, better future for everyone are cross-cutting in nature. It is only right that the Executive’s focus is on dealing with those challenges and making a difference, rather than on departmental boundaries. Indeed, some of the criticisms of the previous Admin­istration relate to the lack of a joined-up approach on cross-cutting issues. Nevertheless, we accept that each Department’s contribution to the achievement of the targets must be made clear. The Executive have sought to do that through the public service agreements, which set out the actions and targets that Departments will seek to deliver in support of the Executive’s priorities.

Another topic in which there has been keen interest is how the Executive will monitor their progress. That is a key issue for the Executive and for the Assembly. We all want to ensure that priorities and programmes are delivered and improve people’s lives. In line with the Executive’s different approach to the Programme for Government, we have decided to introduce new monitoring arrangements. The Executive believe that we can be most effective by concentrating on the overall delivery of priorities. We will focus on key goals and commitments. Lead Ministers and senior responsible officers will be identified. Progress will be monitored and reported to the Executive at regular intervals.

Individual Ministers will have a key role to play in that. However, they will also separately monitor their own Department’s progress against a range of other targets and objectives. Departments will also publish detailed delivery agreements for each of the public service agreements. We will send the Committee for the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister progress reports on a six-monthly basis. We will also publish an end-year report that sets out progress.

With regard to the investment strategy, Departments will, in the coming weeks, publish their individual investment delivery plans, which will provide more detail about the projects to be undertaken. The Executive are aware that those plans are keenly awaited. We have asked all Departments to ensure that they are published by 31 March. Finally, I emphasise that the Executive are determined to see the delivery of those investment plans to completion. We will, therefore, put in place robust monitoring mechanisms to ensure that delivery takes place.

Specific concerns have been raised about the review process for the Programme for Government. I can confirm that, although the programme provides a framework for the next three years, it will be reviewed annually. We will, therefore, have an opportunity to streamline it and to make whatever amendments prove necessary as we move through the first year of its implementation. By reviewing and amending the Programme for Government to take account of changing circumstances, the Executive will ensure that it remains up to date and relevant. Although it provides us with a framework, it is not set in stone.

If we are to make improvements on some of the process’s features, it will not be long before we must turn our thoughts to the annual review. In reviewing the Programme for Government, we must strike a balance between maintaining the course that we are on and responding to new developments or, indeed, experience on the ground. This year’s process was hampered to some extent by the tight time frame within which we were working. The process for next year will be different: there will be no significant new resources available, as this is not a spending review year. Departments already have their allocations in place. Any revision to the Programme for Government must take account of that.

The Executive must consider carefully how best to manage the review of the Programme for Government. However, there are some strong pointers from the current process. We will aim to take the views of the Assembly and its Committees at the earliest possible stage. We will consider how best the Committees, in particular, might be engaged. We welcome Members’ views on how that might best be achieved.

The Executive recognise that there is a good deal of expertise and knowledge among MLAs, particularly in Committees. We wish to take full benefit of that, and of their assessment of progress on the ground, against the PSA framework. In light of that, we will support the Ulster Unionist amendment to ensure ongoing review and subsequent necessary revision. Similarly, we support the call from SDLP, Sinn Féin and DUP Members for the investment strategy to best deliver balanced regional development and to underpin equality.

We intend to publish a people-friendly version of the Programme for Government and the investment strategy. It is vital that people on the ground — and throughout the community — are able to connect with the work in which we are engaged and, more importantly, to understand the language.

Many constructive and positive contributions were made during the course of today’s debate from Members of all the parties. The one disappointment has been the Alliance Party. Under direct rule, the Alliance Party was a yes party. Since the direct rule Ministers left, the Alliance Party has become a no party.

Mrs Long: Will the Member give way?

Mr M McGuinness: No, I will not give way.

Since the direct rulers have gone, the Alliance Party has become a no party. Indeed, it is the most negative party in the Assembly. There is no point in the Alliance Party’s yearning for the old days, because the old days have gone and they are not coming back.

Mrs Long: That is good news.

Mr M McGuinness: In conclusion, the debate has been exceptionally wide-ranging. Many of the Members comments will be helpful, as we move forward. Many of the Members — from all parties — who spoke have been positive. The Executive should be proud of their achievement in preparing those documents and putting in place a strong framework for action over the next three years.

Basil McCrea, who sometimes harks back to the direct rule Ministers, commented constructively that:

“vision without delivery is a daydream”.

That is why action must be a key word for the Executive. We are aware of the need to deliver on the policies and programmes that are set out in the Programme for Government and the investment strategy. We must now turn our attention to achieving the goals and targets that we have set for ourselves. We know that that will not be easy. However, we are committed to beginning the task. Today, therefore, marks the beginning of a process. Members, and the wider public, will want to know how we are doing. I fully expect that our year-end report will be subject to much scrutiny and question. That may be a difficult and challenging process for the Executive, but it is important, because it is democracy at work.

Our overall aim is to have a Programme for Government that takes us in the right direction. The Executive believe that the Programme for Government, with the investment strategy that we have produced, gives us a firm foundation on which to plan, develop and deliver our policies. The road ahead will not be easy. We must deal with, and overcome, the legacy of the past. We must work to achieve a shared and better future. There is no doubt that many challenges lie ahead. We firmly believe that those can be overcome.

At the heart of our Programme for Government and the investment strategy are the people who live here. As an Executive, it is our responsibility to build a better and brighter future for everyone. We will welcome the Assembly’s support for the motion and the amendment that was put forward by the Ulster Unionist Party. Go raibh maith agat.

Mr Deputy Speaker: Before I put the Question, I advise Members that if amendment No 1 is made, all other amendments will fall. If an amendment is made, I will put the Question on the motion as amended.

The Question is that amendment No 1, standing in the names of Mr David Ford, Mrs Naomi Long, Mr Kieran McCarthy and Dr Stephen Farry, be made.

All those in favour say Aye.

Some Members: Aye.

Mr Deputy Speaker: Contrary, if any, say No.

Some Members: No.

Some Members: Aye.

Mr Deputy Speaker: The Noes may have it. However, there is some doubt. Clear the Lobbies. The Question will be put in three minutes.

Division Bells rung.

Mr Deputy Speaker: The Question is that amendment No 1 be made. All those in favour say Aye.

Some Members: Aye.

Mr Deputy Speaker: All those to the contrary say No.

Some Members: No.

Mr Deputy Speaker: The Noes have it. [Interruption.]

Do we have Tellers?

8.15 pm

Mr A Maginness: On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. Will you rule on whether amendment No 3 will fall if amendment No 2 is passed? I put it to you that amendment No 3 is not incompatible with amendment No 2. If amendment No 2 is passed, amendment No 3 should be put to the House: there is no reason why it cannot be voted on. Amendment No 3 simply adds to amendment No 2, and there should be a vote on amendment No 3. It should not fall.

Mr Deputy Speaker: The Speaker has made a ruling regarding the order of business and it is that if amendment No 1 is made, all others will fall. Similarly, if amendment No 2 were made, amendment No 3 would fall. Any Member is entitled to challenge the Speaker’s ruling, but those are the guidelines that I have been given to work with in tonight’s vote.

We will deal with this issue first. Tellers have been appointed: for the Ayes, they will be Trevor Lunn and Kieran McCarthy; for the Noes, they will be Paul Maskey and Jim Shannon.

The House divided.

Mr A Maginness: On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker.

Mr Deputy Speaker: I cannot take a point of order in the middle of a Division.

Mr A Maginness: Mr Deputy Speaker, you said that the Noes had it; therefore, no vote should have been taken.

Mr Deputy Speaker: No. I asked for Tellers, as there was a dispute over the Question, then I had to take the vote. I have no option — it is in Standing Orders.

Question put, That amendment No 1 be made.

The Assembly divided: Ayes 9; Noes 59.


Dr Farry, Mr Ford, Ms Lo, Mrs Long, Mr Lunn, Mr McCarthy, Mr Neeson, Ms Purvis, Mr B Wilson.

Tellers for the Ayes: Mr Lunn and Mr McCarthy.


Mr Adams, Ms Anderson, Mr Armstrong, Mr Beggs, Mr Boylan, Mr Brady, Mr Bresland, Mr Brolly, Lord Browne, Mr Buchanan, Mr Burnside, Mr T Clarke, Mr Cobain, Mr Craig, Mr Cree, Mr Dodds, Mr Doherty, Mr Donaldson, Mr Elliott, Sir Reg Empey, Mrs Foster, Mr Hamilton, Mr Hilditch, Mr Irwin, Mr G Kelly, Mr Kennedy, Mr P Maskey, Mr McCallister, Ms J McCann, Mr McCartney, Mr McCausland, Mr I McCrea, Mr McElduff, Mr McFarland, Mrs McGill, Mr McGimpsey, Mr M McGuinness, Miss McIlveen, Mr McKay, Mr McLaughlin, Mr McNarry, Mr McQuillan, Lord Morrow, Mr Moutray, Mr Newton, Ms Ní Chuilín, Mrs O’Neill, Rev Dr Ian Paisley, Ms S Ramsey, Mr G Robinson, Mrs I Robinson, Mr K Robinson, Mr P Robinson, Mr Ross, Mr Shannon, Mr Spratt, Mr Storey, Mr Weir, Mr Wells .

Tellers for the Noes: Mr P Maskey and Mr Shannon.

Question accordingly negatived.

8.30 pm

Mr Deputy Speaker: The Question is that amendment No 2, in the names of Mr Danny Kennedy and Mr David McNarry, be made. All those in favour say Aye.

Some Members: Aye.

Mr Deputy Speaker: To the contrary, if any, say No.

Some Members: No.

Some Members: Aye.

Mr Deputy Speaker: The Ayes have it. The Question is that the motion, as amended, be agreed. All those in favour say Aye.

Some Members: Aye.

Mr Deputy Speaker: To the contrary, if any, say No.

Some Members: No.

Mr Deputy Speaker: The Ayes have it.

Mr Ford: Mr Deputy Speaker, Noes were said, but you did not allow the opportunity for a partial decision. On the basis of precedent, we should have the right to insist on a Division.

Mr Deputy Speaker: Based on the previous vote, and on the Ayes and Noes, I assessed that the Ayes had it.

Mr Ford: You did not say that you believed that the Ayes had it. You said that the Ayes had it, giving no chance — in accordance with Standing Orders — for a challenge to your initial opinion.

Mr Deputy Speaker: Is the Member challenging my opinion?

Mr Ford: I thought that that was fairly clear, Mr Deputy Speaker. Yes, I am.

Mr Deputy Speaker: The normal way to do that would be to say Aye or No. As no one shouted No, I assumed that Members accepted my decision. However, I will accept the Member’s challenge. That means that there will be a vote.

Question put, That amendment No 2 be made.

The Assembly divided: Ayes 59; Noes 24.


Mr Adams, Ms Anderson, Mr Armstrong, Mr Beggs, Mr Boylan, Mr Brady, Mr Bresland, Mr Brolly, Lord Browne, Mr Buchanan, Mr Burnside, Mr T Clarke, Mr Cobain, Mr Craig, Mr Cree, Mr Dodds, Mr Doherty, Mr Donaldson, Mr Elliott, Sir Reg Empey, Mrs Foster, Mr Hamilton, Mr Hilditch, Mr Irwin, Mr G Kelly, Mr Kennedy, Mr P Maskey, Mr McCallister, Ms J McCann, Mr McCartney, Mr McCausland, Mr I McCrea, Mr McElduff, Mr McFarland, Mrs McGill, Mr McGimpsey, Mr M McGuinness, Miss McIlveen, Mr McKay, Mr McLaughlin, Mr McNarry, Mr McQuillan, Lord Morrow, Mr Moutray, Mr Newton, Ms Ní Chuilín, Mrs O’Neill, Rev Dr Ian Paisley, Ms S Ramsey, Mr G Robinson, Mrs I Robinson, Mr K Robinson, Mr P Robinson, Mr Ross, Mr Shannon, Mr Spratt, Mr Storey, Mr Weir, Mr Wells.

Tellers for the Ayes: Mr Armstrong and Mr K Robinson.


Mr Attwood, Mr D Bradley, Mrs M Bradley, Mr P J Bradley, Mr Burns, Mr Durkan, Dr Farry, Mr Ford, Mr Gallagher, Mrs Hanna, Mrs D Kelly, Ms Lo, Mrs Long, Mr Lunn, Mr A Maginness, Mr McCarthy, Dr McDonnell, Mr McGlone, Mr McHugh, Mr Neeson, Mr O’Loan, Ms Purvis, Mr P Ramsey, Mr B Wilson.

Tellers for the Noes: Mr Gallagher and Mr McCarthy.

Question accordingly agreed to.

Main Question, as amended, put.

The Assembly divided: Ayes 60; Noes 24.


Mr Adams, Ms Anderson, Mr Armstrong, Mr Beggs, Mr Boylan, Mr Brady, Mr Bresland, Mr Brolly, Lord Browne, Mr Buchanan, Mr Burnside, Mr T Clarke, Mr Cobain, Mr Craig, Mr Cree, Mr Dodds, Mr Doherty, Mr Donaldson, Mr Elliott, Sir Reg Empey, Mrs Foster, Mr Hamilton, Mr Hilditch, Mr Irwin, Mr G Kelly, Mr Kennedy, Mr P Maskey, Mr McCallister, Ms J McCann, Mr McCartney, Mr McCausland, Mr I McCrea, Mr McElduff, Mr McFarland, Mrs McGill, Mr McGimpsey, Mr M McGuinness, Miss McIlveen, Mr McKay, Mr McLaughlin, Mr McNarry, Mr McQuillan, Lord Morrow, Mr Moutray, Mr Newton, Ms Ní Chuilín, Mrs O’Neill, Rev Dr Ian Paisley, Ms S Ramsey, Ms Ritchie, Mr G Robinson, Mrs I Robinson, Mr K Robinson, Mr P Robinson, Mr Ross, Mr Shannon, Mr Spratt, Mr Storey, Mr Weir, Mr Wells.

Tellers for the Ayes: Mr Armstrong and Mr K Robinson.


Mr Attwood, Mr D Bradley, Mrs M Bradley, Mr P J Bradley, Mr Burns, Mr Durkan, Dr Farry, Mr Ford, Mr Gallagher, Mrs Hanna, Mrs D Kelly, Ms Lo, Mrs Long, Mr Lunn, Mr A Maginness, Mr McCarthy, Dr McDonnell, Mr McGlone, Mr McHugh, Mr Neeson, Mr O’Loan, Ms Purvis, Mr P Ramsey, Mr B Wilson.

Tellers for the Noes: Dr Farry and Mr McCarthy.

Main Question, as amended, accordingly agreed to.


That this Assembly endorses the Programme for Government and investment strategy for Northern Ireland agreed by the Executive; and calls on the Executive to ensure ongoing review and subsequent necessary revision.

committee business

Standing Committee Membership

Mr Deputy Speaker: The next item on the Order Paper is the motion on membership of the Committee on Standards and Privileges. As with similar motions, this motion will be treated as a business motion; therefore, there will be no debate.


That Mrs Claire McGill be appointed as a member of the Committee on Standards and Privileges. — [Ms Ní Chuilín.]

Report of the Ad Hoc Committee on the draft Criminal Justice
(Northern Ireland) Order 2007

Mr Deputy Speaker: The Business Committee has agreed to allow up to two hours for this debate. The proposer of the motion will have 10 minutes in which to propose and 10 minutes in which to make a winding-up speech. All other Members who wish to speak will have five minutes.

The Chairperson of the Ad Hoc Committee on the draft Criminal Justice (Northern Ireland) Order 2007 (Mr A Maginness): I beg to move

That the Assembly approves the Report of the Ad Hoc Committee set up to consider the draft Criminal Justice (Northern Ireland) Order 2007, and agrees that it should be submitted to the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland as a report of the Northern Ireland Assembly.

Mr Kennedy: All those in favour say Aye. [Laughter.]

Mr Deputy Speaker: Order, please.

Mr A Maginness: I remind Members that the draft Order was referred to the Assembly for consideration by the Secretary of State under section 85 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998. If approved, the Committee’s report, along with the Hansard report of this debate, will form the Assembly’s response to the Secretary of State and the NIO on the draft Criminal Justice (Northern Ireland) Order 2007.

The NIO has, of course, been conducting a wider consultation on the draft Order, which ends on 31 January 2008. However, the Committee expects the views of the Assembly to carry a lot of weight when the NIO and other Departments consider responses to the consultation.

(Mr Speaker in the Chair)

9.00 pm

As is usually the case with Ad Hoc Committees, we are working to a very tight timescale on the draft Order and the fact that we straddled the Christmas holidays provided its own difficulties. I acknowledge the time and commitment to the task given by all the Committee members, the Committee Clerk and the support staff. On behalf of the Committee, I thank the NIO officials and the representatives of all the other key organisations who provided the Committee with information and evidence over the past couple of months.

The draft Order is a significant piece of law and order legislation and is, I understand, the largest criminal justice Order ever introduced in Northern Ireland. It covers a wide range of issues, some of which are too often in the news because of the negative impact that they have across our society.

The proposals in the draft Order are designed to increase public protection and confidence in the criminal justice system at a range of levels. The draft Order contains new indeterminate and extended custodial sentencing for dangerous sexual and violent offenders. It also provides for new release-on-licence conditions and the ending of unconditional 50% remission. There will be new curfew powers and arrangements for monitoring offenders electronically in the community and more supervision of offenders following their release from prison. Parole commissioners will take over the role of the Life Sentence Review Commissioners and will have an extended role in advising the Secretary of State on the release of prisoners serving life or one of the new indeterminate or extended custodial sentences.

The draft Order also puts on a statutory footing the arrangements already made for the multi-agency risk assessment and management of sex offenders, and it will extend those arrangements to cover violent offenders as well.

The draft Order introduces new supervised activity orders, which provide a community alternative to custody for people who default on fines — a significant development, as quite a number of people in the prison population are there simply for defaulting on fines. That should remedy the problem. There is also a range of new road-traffic offences and a new power to allow police to seize vehicles such as quad bikes and mini-scooters that are being used to cause a nuisance. There are new powers to address the problems associated with the sale of alcohol to minors and to tackle alcohol-related disorder in public places more effectively.

There is a range of miscellaneous provisions that covers increased penalties for offences relating to knives, the extension of the use of live links to give evidence in court, and proposed changes in relation to ASBOs, youth justice and the proving of arrest warrants in courts.

It will not be possible for me to cover everything, but I will address some of the more important issues in the draft legislation and in the Committee’s report. On sentencing, the criminal-justice agencies, such as the Prison Service, the Probation Board for Northern Ireland and Criminal Justice Inspection Northern Ireland, all supported significant changes, including the new indeterminate sentence and extended custodial sentence arrangements being introduced to deal with dangerous sexual and violent offenders.

The Committee heard concerns expressed by others, including the chairperson of the Life Sentence Review Commissioners, that the new sentencing arrangements, which already exist in Britain, had not been based on research or evidence by penologists, but were instead a political reaction to public concern about dangerous crime and the risk of serious harm to the public. We were informed that the prison and probation services in England and Wales had been initially overwhelmed by the imposition of some inappropriate short-tariff indeterminate sentences. We also received evidence that, when the legislation was being drafted for Northern Ireland, proper account had been taken of those negative experiences in Britain.

I am pleased that that latter point is borne out on examination of articles 4, 5 and 6 of the draft Order: they remove the presumption of dangerousness, which exists in Britain but not here, and therefore must be determined by the prosecution in court; they give courts here more discretion in choosing between an extended custodial sentence and an indeterminate sentence; they provide for a minimum one-year tariff for an extended sentence and a minimum two-year tariff for an indeterminate sentence; and they provide that those sentences would be able to be imposed only on indictment, mostly in the Crown Courts.

The Committee was content that the lessons have been learnt and that our legislation is more tightly drafted as a result of the experience of the equivalent sentencing arrangements in Britain.

In light of all the evidence received and considered, the Committee gave a general broad welcome to the proposals covering the new sentencing arrangements and the ending of unconditional 50% remission. The Committee also supported the new parole and licence arrangements, including the role of the parole comm­issioners, the curfew and electronic monitoring of some offenders, and the compulsory supervision of all offenders on licence after release.

The Committee also recommended that guidelines and courses should be developed to assist the judiciary in the introduction of those new sentencing measures. I have already mentioned supervised activity orders; they should remedy the problem of fine defaulters.

I have mentioned the proposal to extend risk assess­ment and management procedures to cover violent as well as sex offenders; we strongly support those provisions and have made a recommendation that the proposal for a co-located public-protection team should be developed and implemented as soon as possible. For the record, the Committee appreciates the excellent work that is already going on in organisations such as the police, the Probation Board, the Housing Executive, Departments, the health trusts and the NSPCC on the sharing of information to minimise the risk to the public posed by some of the more dangerous offenders. We heard evidence that we already have some of the best arrangements in place, but we cannot be complacent, and so the proposed co-located public-protection team is an essential development.

The provisions in the draft Order do not always bite directly on the Probation Board and the Prison Service, but the work of those two agencies, and their partnership in coping with the increased workload flowing from the new arrangements, will be crucial.

The chairperson of the Life Sentence Review Commissioners, the Criminal Justice Inspection, the Human Rights Commission and the Northern Ireland Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders (NIACRO) all pointed to the potential for legal challenges if prisoners cannot avail of behaviour-change programmes due to lack of resources. A recent court case in Britain — R (on the application of Wells) v The Parole Board — has highlighted the problem of non-delivery of programmes for prisoners serving public-protection sentences, and the Committee heard that similar problems could arise here.

The lesson to be learnt, and the recommendation that we are making, is that the Prison Service and Probation Board should ensure that all relevant prisoners have access to appropriate basic-skills training and behaviour-change programmes and that the necessary resources are made available to achieve that. Putting resources into all those changes is vital.

There are other significant matters, such as the alcohol interlock-ignition scheme, which is helpful and creative in dealing with the problem of drink-drivers. There is also the power of seizure of vehicles, such as quads or mini scooters, that cause alarm, distress or annoyance.

There was some discussion in the Committee on the test purchasing of alcohol, and we were minded that there should be strict safeguards on the use of that particular power. The Human Rights Commission expressed concern about that, and we took that on board. There was also considerable debate about alcohol consumption at designated public places, which I do not have time to go into, but the Committee welcomed the powers that would allow the police to confiscate alcohol or impose fixed penalties, initially to be set at £50. The Committee also calls on the Department for Social Development to review that scheme as it is enacted in the coming months.

I commend the report, which was agreed by all the parties in the House.

Mr Weir: On behalf of the DUP, I thank the Chairperson and all those who gave evidence, and the staff who produced the report, because the draft Order is wide-ranging; a lot was thrown into it by the Northern Ireland Office, and, therefore, there was much ground to cover.

It was refreshing to find that, although there were differences of opinion among various Committee members, the overall conclusions demonstrated common sense in an attempt to reach a consensus. There was an attempt to keep the level of dogma from all sides to a minimum.

On behalf of the DUP, I welcome the general thrust of the legislation and the report on the introduction of indeterminate sentencing. We will see the much-vaunted end to automatic 50% remission, which will bring us into line with the rest of the UK and, as has been indicated, we can take advantage and learn lessons from the rest of the country in areas where matters were not established as well as they should have been. The key concepts of public protection and public safety, particularly in relation to violent and sexual offenders, will be at the heart of sentencing, and it is right that that is reflected in the legislation.

I shall emphasise two notes of caution on the matter of sentencing. First, the evidence that we received time and again from a range of witnesses was that, although the system was generally welcomed by most in the various professions, the strong message came across that if sentencing is to work effectively, it must be properly resourced by Government. That is a key message for Government in respect of implementation. Secondly, the Committee realised that Government must have the maximum amount of public information available on that matter.

There is a danger that public expectations will reach unrealistic proportions. It should be noted that when the provisions are introduced, they will have an effect on any future sentencing. Prisoners who are already in prison will not be affected by those conditions, and it is important that that message be understood. Unless the Government make that clear, there will, at some stage, be public outrage over the release of some violent offender who does not fall under the terms of the sentencing because his or her sentence pre-dates it.

Mr Dodds: In welcoming the provision to end automatic 50% remission, I am reminded of the petition, in which I played a role, delivered on behalf of ‘Belfast Telegraph’ readers to 10 Downing Street. Does the Member agree that one of the reasons why there may be unrealistic public expectation is due to the NIO’s delay in introducing that measure, which has been called for for so long, and which should have been introduced long ago?

Mr Weir: The speed of response from the Northern Ireland Office was disappointing. It is clear that a limited amount can be done in matters such as the Attracta Harron case. However, we hope to ensure that if such terrible circumstances occur again, there will be provision to ensure that —

Mr A Maginness: I thank the Member for giving way. Mr Dodds referred to the NIO delay and, although it was regrettable, it was, in some ways, beneficial. The problems that occurred in Britain were highlighted in evidence sessions, and that helped the Committee’s deliberations.

Mr Weir: As in all such matters, we must consider the issue of balance. However, I am not convinced that the NIO got the balance right.

The Chairperson of the Committee referred to a wide range of other issues that are mentioned in the report. We welcome the additional legislation on traffic offences, alcohol interlock-ignition schemes and the scourge of mini-scooters, which I suspect one of my colleagues will refer to later. There was much discussion in the Committee on the issue of test purchasing of alcohol, which caused problems for some witnesses. However, if we are to provide the proper level of protection for our young people, sensible guidelines and sensible constraints are required to ensure that we can combat the scourge of underage drinking.

Concern was expressed on the issue of alcohol consumption in public places. Although the Committee welcomed the additional powers of confiscation and the new fixed penalties, there was concern that the legislation, as currently drafted, replaces current by-laws rather than adding to them. Given the scourge of yobs drinking in public places, there is a need to ensure that the power to clamp down on such behaviour remains. My party feels that that power should primarily be exercised by the police, rather than council officials, and that there must be an examination of a wider ban at a later stage.

9.15 pm

One issue that divided opinion in the Committee, but which the DUP welcomed, was the introduction of emergency antisocial behaviour orders. That was the only issue on which there was an agreement to disagree. I commend the report to the Assembly.

Mr Speaker: The Member’s time is up.

Ms Ní Chuilín: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Like the Member who spoke previously, I thank the Committee, the staff and all the witnesses for their work in compiling the report. Sinn Féin has been working to create a new atmosphere among the local community, the PSNI and criminal justice agencies so that we can all work together in a constructive manner. It is, therefore, crucial that all sections of the criminal justice system fulfil their obligations to uphold the rights of all citizens to live in safety and peace, free from intimidation and threat.

Due process must take its course in the courts, and lessons must be learnt, in practice and policy, on how criminal justice agencies work with the local community to uphold people’s rights. Those involved at grass-roots level, local families and local groups are well placed to highlight the way in which the criminal justice system has failed and, unfortunately, in some cases, is still failing. Those people are often the most inventive in proposing radical and practical changes.

It is well known from studies around the world that making a community stronger makes it safer. Equally, a safer community will be a stronger community. That said, every citizen is entitled to an effective and representative policing and justice system that is community-based, imbued with human rights and democratically accountable. That is what my party is working to achieve.

One aspect of the draft legislation that has been highlighted more than most is the proposal relating to the end of 50% remission. That issue came to prominence after the murder of Attracta Harron, who was sexually assaulted and murdered by Trevor Hamilton — a serial sex offender who had been released and was supposed to have been under strict supervision by the relevant criminal justice agencies.

The draft Justice Order was broadly welcomed in paragraph 62 of the Committee’s report, as was the end of unconditional 50% remission for specified sexual offences in particular. However, concerns were raised by the Human Rights Commission and other civil liberties organisations about some of the provisions of the draft Order that are not in the Criminal Justice Act 2003, primarily the minimum two-year tariff and the introduction of extended custodial sentences. The concern is that people who are prosecuted for relatively minor offences could be subject to indeterminate custodial sentences. Sinn Féin shares some of those concerns and intends to raise the issue directly with the NIO, particularly Paul Goggins, and possibly others.

We must deal with the crisis in confidence in the criminal justice system and in the approach to sentencing and punishment of sex crime and the treatment and supervision of sex offenders. The proposed legislation would increase public protection, ensure more appropriate sentences for serious sexual and violent offenders and establish post-release supervision.

Proposals to introduce the use of electronic tagging have raised some human rights concerns. However, they are mitigated to some degree by the proposal that the use of such a provision should be based on the consent of the individual.

As another Member mentioned, the consumption of alcohol in public places is a problem that must be tackled. There is a need for effective preventive and enforcement mechanisms and many community-based initiatives that will work well. However, the expansion of police powers contained in the NIO draft Order is not well explained. In evidence to the Committee, the PSNI stated that policing the consumption of alcohol in public places is not a priority. The PSNI also expressed concerns about the enforcement of such provisions, stating that councils should be responsible for enforce­ment. There is much unclear thinking on the matter.

With regard to the use of test purchasing powers, Sinn Féin does not consider it to be in the interest of any child to be used to promote the commission of a criminal offence in an entrapment situation.

My party is concerned that a vulnerable child who is known to the police may be asked to participate in a test-purchase case to avoid caution, prosecution or an ASBO. What, other than avoidance of prosecution, would induce a parent or guardian to consent to his or her child being used in such a manner? That provision requires an equality impact assessment.

Sinn Féin has listened, and will continue to listen, to what others have to say. The Committee welcomed the Order, although on some issues, full consensus was not achieved. Nevertheless, all parties agree that it is in the interests of all that such matters be investigated and legislated on by the Assembly and that the transfer of policing and justice powers to local, democratically accountable authorities must be a priority. Go raibh maith agat.

Mr McFarland: I welcome the report. I thank the Chairperson, the Deputy Chairperson, the Committee members, the staff, and all who gave evidence. Colleagues have covered several areas, so I will be a little more precise on some other aspects.

The review of sentencing guidelines is very welcome, especially the removal of 50% remission.


A Member: Wishful thinking.

Mr McFarland: That is my other Committee.

I turn to the issue of the licensing system. Interim custody and extended orders require that prisoners come before a parole board before they can be released. That puts an enormous strain on the parole commissioners. The Committee was worried about that, and sought guidance from the NIO that proper resources would be put in place; otherwise, it would not work. As was said earlier, if prisoners have not attended courses in prison, they cannot be released. That was a source of concern to the Committee. Therefore, training must be provided for the Probation Board and for the Prison Service, and financing must be provided for parole commissioners.

The Committee turned to road traffic, on which there were interesting developments. The Order will crack down on yobboes driving badly. The police are now allowed to seize vehicles that are causing alarm, distress and annoyance; they can seize quad bikes and mini-scooters that race up and down the street. The new offences of “failure to stop” and “furious driving” — which particularly appeals to me — will be introduced.

The police can also introduce hospital and roadside breath tests: they can simply stop one and test one’s breath.

A delightful alcohol ignition-interlock device is being trialled. If a person has had a problem with alcohol and has been caught driving over the legal limit, he or she will be required to blow into a machine on getting into the car: unless that person’s breath is clear of alcohol, the machine will prevent the ignition from working. That is interesting.


The Committee had a healthy debate on the age at which children should be allowed to purchase alcohol. Clear guidelines are required on that.

The Committee had a major discussion on drinking alcohol in public places. It is disturbing that it is no longer illegal to drink in public, and the Committee was deeply concerned about that.

The Committee had a long debate about whether councils should continue to have to designate areas where drinking is not allowed. There was a degree of pressure: we agreed to revisit, in a year’s time, the question of whether all of Northern Ireland should be dry and councils should then choose where drinking will be allowed. That is a controversial issue, and, luckily, the Committee ducked it in the end; no doubt it will arise again. However, it is an issue for many councils.

The powers in the Order allow the police to order people to stop drinking; seize alcohol from people over 18, which the police cannot do; and move people on.

The Committee’s view is that the prohibition on drinking in public places, which the Order seeks to remove, should be retained. That is important. However, the additional powers that the Order introduces should be kept, as that would provide a much more robust system for dealing with drunken yobboes wrecking places on a Saturday night. That is a concern in all our constituencies.

The Order contains interesting provisions on prisons. There are new caveats and measures to prevent phones, drugs and weapons from getting in. Anyone who has examined some of the material that has been taken out of prisons after recent searches would be amazed as to how it ever got in.

I am particularly interested in the crackdown on knives and on people’s carrying knives when they go out socially at night. There is no excuse for a young person to be armed with a six-inch bowie knife when he or she goes out for a social event. Although the penalties go some way towards tackling the problem, I am afraid that they do not go far enough. There must be stiffer penalties that deter people from carrying knives because they know that the risk will be too great for them.

Finally, I welcome in absentia ASBOs. Whereas previously the little twerp had to be found before he or she could be given an ASBO, now he or she can be issued with an ASBO without being found.

I commend the report to the Assembly.

Dr Farry: I join other Members in thanking the Chairperson, the Committee staff and those who gave evidence. I have no difficulty in endorsing the Committee’s report without prejudice to the wider issues of the devolution of policing and justice that have yet to be debated. The manner in which the Committee worked collectively on major criminal justice issues in Northern Ireland is an encouraging sign for the future.

Most focus will fall on the new sentencing framework, which includes the removal of automatic 50% remission. It will certainly be welcomed across the community. However, expectations of that must be managed, given that that removal will not apply retrospectively, and, indeed, there will still be circumstances in which some people are released after having served only 50% of their sentence.

The new sentencing framework represents a change in emphasis. There is now a stronger focus on deciding whether someone’s potential to reoffend is a criterion that influences whether that person is released. There has been an interesting debate as to whether the Assembly is continuing to accept the balance of factors that, at present, favour the protection of wider society, or whether it is heading towards a fundamental shift of emphasis into new territory. Only time will tell.

Other Members have mentioned the controversy over the non-evidence based introduction of PPOs in England and Wales. I am glad that with respect to the future application of PPOs in Northern Ireland, lessons seem to have been learnt from some of the mistakes that were made in England and Wales. There will, nonetheless, be challenges for Northern Ireland: resources will be an issue, as will ensuring that sufficient provision is made to allow prisoners the opportunity to prove that they are no longer a threat. Prisoners who serve shorter sentences may be a bigger resourcing issue than those who serve long-term sentences. Obviously, the severity of the offences and the threat of long-term prisoners to society is greater.

The Assembly must be conscious of a much wider resource issue. The legislation will have a major effect on the prison population. At present, it is about 1,500 and rising. The prison population has risen since the Good Friday Agreement’s early release scheme, and it is projected to reach somewhere close to 2,700 by 2022. That is a major leap, and the Assembly must be conscious of the implications of that. The current plans to create additional prison places in Northern Ireland deal only with short-term problems. Much more consideration must be given to how the problem is tackled in the long term. The Assembly must also be conscious of the fact that Northern Ireland’s prisons are currently more inefficient than prisons elsewhere in these islands. That may be for good reasons, such as the small size of Northern Ireland and the fact that separate wings are still operated in some prisons. However, it presents a challenge.

It is major indictment of the criminal justice system that 40% of prisoners are on remand rather than sentenced. The Assembly must speed up the justice process. At present, there are too many fine defaulters in prison. There is almost a revolving-door policy for those prisoners, and the legislation will help to deal with that.

When criminal justice matters are devolved to the Assembly, difficult choices must be made with regard to competing priorities in the Northern Ireland block grant. The Assembly must be alert to those issues and plan well in advance.

I am pleased that the Committee recommends that there should be a default assumption that young offenders who are under 18 years of age are automa­tically referred to the juvenile justice centre at Bangor rather than to Hydebank Wood Young Offenders Centre, notwithstanding the problems that occurred there at the weekend. That is in the interests of young people.

9.30 pm

There was a lively debate about test purchases of alcohol. I am comfortable with using young people, in extreme circumstances, to undertake the test purchasing of alcohol. The Human Rights Commission has been over-zealous in its arguments. The Scottish guidelines on the matter, which allow for the test-purchase of alcohol, have been proofed against the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. That is an encouraging lesson that can reassure Northern Ireland.

I share other Members’ concerns about public drinking. On the one hand, the legislation strengthens the powers on, for example, unopened drinks; on the other, perhaps it adds to the burden of determining the areas in which alcohol bans may be imposed. We must be able to make more blanket designations of non-alcohol drinking areas in order to ensure public safety. I support the report.

Mr McCausland: I support the report. The draft Criminal Justice (Northern Ireland) Order 2007 is a wide-ranging piece of legislation that covers a diverse range of issues that are all of public concern. It has already been said that it is a significant piece of legislation. In general, I welcome the legislation — with the caveats in our party’s response.

The indeterminate sentences for serious violent and sexual crime and the end of the automatic 50% remission of sentences are welcome; they are issues of genuine, deeply felt and well-justified public concern. That was highlighted by my colleague Nigel Dodds in what he said about the petition that was initiated by the ‘Belfast Telegraph’ after the murder of Attracta Harron. Too often, culprits have been released only to reoffend in a terrible way.

I wish to raise three matters in the draft Order. The first is the test purchasing of alcohol by minors. I was disappointed by what my colleague Stephen Farry described as the over-zealous response of the Human Rights Commission. That Commission argued that using children to detect breaches in the law would be an infringement of their rights. The evidence is clear that such measures are effective in tackling the problem of the sale of alcohol to children; we have seen that in the past in PSNI operations. There is substantial evidence of the success of such measures in Scotland and England.

I do not believe that any child will be put in a difficult situation or be exploited through his or her involvement in test purchasing alcohol. There are clear guidelines on the operation of test purchasing. Experience suggests that the children of officials — whether of police or council members — are used to make test purchases of alcohol or cigarettes. It should also be taken into account that the number of those operations would be limited; a child would probably not be used more than once for such activities.

The Committee also identified and commended other measures to tackle the problem of the sale of alcohol to minors. The overriding concern should be to address the problem of the illegal sale of alcohol and cigarettes to minors, which is detrimental to all children. If we are interested in the welfare of children, that should be our priority.

The consumption of alcohol in public places also receives attention in the report. We welcome the additional powers on the seizure of alcohol and fixed penalty fines. However, a concern over the proposed legislation has already been identified. The Committee recommended that the draft Criminal Justice (Northern Ireland) Order 2007 be amended to retain the prohibition on drinking in designated public places, as is the case in the current by-laws. The proposal that it would become an offence to drink in public only when the police had asked someone to refrain from it is a ludicrous one that we agreed to oppose.

Mr Wells: Will the honourable Member accept that it could lead to a ridiculous situation whereby a pensioner reports a threatening gang of underage drinkers outside her home, but because the police do not arrive in time to confront the gang to ask it to dispose of the alcohol, no crime has been committed? A crime would only be instigated when the police had instructed the gang to stop drinking.

Mr McCausland: I thank the Member for his comments, and I agree with him, particularly when one considers police response times. On many occasions, an elderly person could be left for several hours, troubled in that way. Antisocial behaviour, much of it fuelled by alcohol, is a major concern in my constituency of North Belfast, and people are often disappointed with the response of the police, and they want more to be done in that regard.

The draft Order proposes powers for the seizure of mini-scooters, quad bikes and other similar vehicles. Such vehicles are perfectly suitable for use on private grounds, farms and other appropriate places. However, driving them in residential areas, in many cases on the pavements, is totally unacceptable. They are a danger to other traffic. I have seen a number of incidents in which people have been overtaken by someone on a quad bike: it happened to me when I was slowing down —

Mr Weir: That says more about the Member’s driving.

Mr McCausland: On one or two occasions, I have been passed by people on quad bikes as I turned into my office on the Ballysillan Road.

They are a danger to other traffic and to the children who often use them. For all those reasons, we should strongly welcome those additional powers, given that the existing powers have proved to be less than effective. Finally, I hope that the problems of alcohol consumption in public places and quad bikes will be met with a commitment from the police to enforce those measures.

The response that the Committee received from the police on alcohol consumption was disappointing; they seemed to be intent on ensuring that it was left to everyone but them to enforce the law.

Mr Wells: I thank the Chairperson of the Ad Hoc Committee, Mr Alban Maginness, for the way in which he directed us through the minutiae of the draft legislation. If we had had to pay him for his services, we would have had to add several pence to the rates to cover his fees. We were fortunate to have someone of his legal experience in the Chair; he should have a job for life on all future ad hoc Committees on law reform.

The DUP welcomes the draft Order; much of it updates, consolidates and reflects on what has happened in the rest of the United Kingdom. The legislation will benefit from the scrutiny of the Ad Hoc Committee, and I thank all those who gave evidence to the Committee.

We all welcome the end of automatic 50% remission. There was a terrible sense of injustice throughout the community in situations where people were attacked and murdered by those who would not have been freed, but for the iniquitous system.

The Committee was pleased with the provisions for the seizure of vehicles that are being used in a manner that causes alarm. I do not know where parents get the money to buy quad bikes for their children. I could not afford to buy my children a quad bike for Christmas, yet it never ceases to amaze me that, in working-class estates in our towns and cities, iseems to be almost compulsory that children between eight and 14 have quad bikes. They cause a great deal of disturbance to residents, particularly elderly people, and the provision to seize those vehicles is welcome.

The Committee had a lively debate on what I feel is the single biggest problem facing our community. It is ironic that, this morning, I have been dealing with the press after a serious outbreak of alcohol-related violence in Newcastle in my constituency of South Down. That problem is a major plague on society. Some of the provisions in the draft Order will tackle the problem well, but the Committee had a lively debate, and some doubts, about other provisions.

I hope that we all welcome the provisions for test purchasing. Such provisions have worked effectively in the rest of the United Kingdom and have led to a dramatic fall in the amount of underage drinking for two reasons. First, there have been more prosecutions of those who are responsible for selling alcohol to minors. Secondly, a strong signal has been sent to the licensing trade that those who do that have every chance of being caught. If test purchasing has worked in the rest of the UK, it must be considered for Northern Ireland, with all the safeguards that have been outlined.

I strongly welcome the provisions that would give the police the power to seize and dispose of alcohol. I take the points that were made by the Member for North Down Mr McFarland that the best aspects of the present legislation should be combined with those that are being proposed in the draft Order.

There was a debate on areas where alcohol could be consumed, and witnesses kept coming up with the image of people wishing to enjoy their Chardonnay and cucumber sandwiches on the streets of our towns and cities. Perhaps I am terribly mistaken, but I have yet to find anyone outside a pub in Kilkeel or Newcastle at 2.00 am demanding the right to enjoy their Chardonnay and cucumber sandwiches — it just does not happen. The type of drinking that I witness —

Mr Weir: At least the Chardonnay would be appropriately chilled at 2.00 am at this time of the year.

Mr Wells: The drink that is consumed in Kilkeel square on Saturday nights is much stronger than wine, and it is not consumed as an ancillary to a light meal — it is binge drinking. Therefore, during the Committee sessions, I argued strongly for a blanket ban on public drinking in Northern Ireland. It would be unnecessary for councils to go round designating areas where alcohol could be consumed, if it were automatically assumed that it was illegal to consume alcohol in all public places in Northern Ireland. Organisations and individuals could apply to opt in, and areas could be designated for the consumption of alcohol. I thought that that was a neater solution.

Down District Council spends a huge amount of money identifying and advertising areas where drink cannot be consumed. Signs are erected on all lamp posts; therefore, those who wish to involve themselves in that antisocial activity simply move down the street, away from the designated area. To some extent, the Committee kicked the issue into touch, and will come back to it; however, the long-term solution is to have a blanket ban on drinking in public places, otherwise our towns and cities will simply become no-go areas on weekend nights. That certainly would not be attractive to inward investors or to the tourism industry.

Mr Attwood: I, too, thank the witnesses who contributed to the Committee evidence sessions and, in particular, I thank those who provided service to the Committee. Without prejudice to any party’s view on the devolution of policing and justice powers, the deliberations of the Committee crystallised the need for their devolution. It would be better if we could legislate as we see fit, rather than comment on legislation that the British Government see fit to apply to the North of Ireland, particularly when there is no guarantee that, if we were to dissent from the British Government’s view, our view would prevail.

In taking forward the draft Order, the Committee was mindful of what happened in July 2007 in the High Court in England. It found that, in one case, there had been a “general and systemic failure” in the operation of the indeterminate sentence provisions. Therefore, it would be better if we were in control of our own affairs when it comes to criminal justice issues.

In taking forward the draft Order, we must be mindful that we do not duplicate the problems that have been experienced in Britain. Although the legislation protects us from some of what was experienced in Britain, it is important that the Assembly is acutely vigilant about its future operation. Otherwise, we could end up with a new regime whereby sentence provisions would provide a mechanism for holding people in prison for offences that they may not have committed, which is the scenario envisaged by the Northern Ireland Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders.

I wish to emphasise my colleagues’ comments in respect of resources. The Probation Board for Northern Ireland has assessed that, under the provisions of the draft legislation, its workload will increase from 4,000 to 6,000 offenders. Representatives from Criminal Justice Inspection stated in an evidence session that their main concern was not about the legislation, but about the resources to ensure that the legislation applies.

Others, including the chairperson of the Life Sentence Review Commission — which will become the parole commission — emphasised the issue of resources. We acknowledge that Paul Goggins, as the Minister responsible, has provided resources for prisons and the Probation Service under the comprehensive spending review, partly in anticipation of the new regime. Despite that, the Assembly must guarantee that in the event of the devolution of justice and policing, a grab-all attitude does not prevail to budget negotiations, with the result that funds for important provisions such as public protection sentences go to the wall.

9.45 pm

A move towards rehabilitative provisions in and around prisons is a theme that is developing from the legislation, and I welcome that. In their evidence to the Committee, representatives from the Probation Service and the director of the Prison Service in the North, Robin Masefield, said that that was the direction in which they wished to go. If we want to go in that direction, which we should, and if we want to change the culture of prisons, we must move towards having an open prison, as suggested by Peter Smith QC, the chairperson of the Life Sentence Review Commission. When proposals for the new prison are being drawn up, I urge the powers that be to consider an open facility at Magilligan. A completely open or a partially open facility would be worthwhile.

I would like to comment on many other issues, but suffice it to say that the Ad Hoc Committee has fulfilled its public, as well as its political, duty. The conclusions of the Committee’s report reflected the views of many of those who provided evidence to the Committee.

Mr Speaker: I advise the Member that his time is up.

Mr McCartney: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. We have had a useful and interesting debate on a draft Order that covers a range of measures that are important to us all given that they address problems that affect society and local communities. Similar to other Members, I acknowledge the work of the Chairperson, the staff, and those who provided written and oral evidence to the Committee.

The draft Order is timely and relevant to the protection and safety of our communities. The Chairperson, Alban Maginness, gave the main reasons why such legislation is required. Communities are concerned with the serious risks that dangerous and violent sex offenders pose, and communities are, rightly, concerned about the illegal sales of alcohol to children and about the increase in knife crime among young people. It is unfortunate that many parts of our towns and cities are blighted by the nuisance and disorder that are caused by drinking in public.

Several Members raised concerns about drinking in public places. Perhaps, however, they were confused about the matter. The Committee recommends that the draft Order be amended in order to retain the power to enforce the prohibition of drinking in designated public places, and it proposes that new provisions regarding confiscation and fixed penalties be obtained.

We also recommended that the Department for Social Development examines the operation and effectiveness of the new law after it has been in operation for one year. I think that it was Nelson McCausland who said that the PSNI representatives informed the Committee that the councils, rather than the police, should be the lead agency on that.

Everyone agreed that the PSNI and the Policing Board should consider making it a policy priority to address any potential disorder that arises from inappropriate drinking in public places.

The Committee has also recommended that an equality impact assessment be carried out on test-purchase schemes, and I think that Nelson McCausland also mentioned that point. Tight procedural guidelines must control those schemes, and the experiences in England and Wales in that regard should be examined and understood. The Committee also stated the importance of advance publicity of the schemes, so that people will know that they are imminent, with the result that the sale of alcohol to underage children may not be as shocking as one might predict.

Peter Weir highlighted antisocial behaviour orders, which we did not disagree on and can come back to.

We were generally supportive of the juvenile-justice measures, and we proposed that the Order should presume that a 17-year-old male should be sent to a juvenile centre rather than a young offenders’ facility — unless there is no room for him.

Other miscellaneous matters — such as legal aid, penalties, some additional police powers and arrange­ments for proving the execution of arrest warrants — were raised.

Alex Attwood mentioned resources, and the Committee agrees with the view put forward by all the organisations that gave evidence that full and proper implementation of those significant measures will rely, in the short, medium and long term, on the provision of adequate resources.

Stephen Farry and Alex Attwood spoke about open prisons, and the Prison Service faces some challenges there. However, the Committee was reassured by the high level of co-operation between the Probation Board and the Prison Service, and recommends progress on the implementation of good prison courses that will allow prisoners a proper opportunity for rehabilitation, rather than the piecemeal approach that was adopted in the past.

Mr Speaker, I am sure that you are only too aware of the inappropriate use of quad bikes and mini-scooters, although there are perhaps not as many as some people think. However, they do pose a problem that must be addressed.

The draft Order addresses all those problems and more, and, therefore, the Committee welcomes the majority of its proposals. We have made 22 specific recommendations, most of which are concerned with the Order’s practical implementation and the importance of providing adequate resources in order to implement the new measures.

The Committee also recommends that certain parts of the draft Order should be changed or redrafted before it is laid before the British Parliament at Westminster. The Chairperson and others have indicated the importance of informing the general public about those changes in order that there will be little or no room for confusion. That is particularly relevant to the new sentencing practices. As the Order progresses through the legislative process, we expect the British Secretary of State and the NIO to take full account of the Committee’s report and recommendations.

I do not intend to speak for much longer on this subject. It has been a long day, and a long trip home to Derry is still to come. Therefore, on behalf of the Ad Hoc Committee, I commend the report to the House and ask Members to approve it as the Assembly’s official response to the draft Criminal Justice (NI) Order 2007. Go raibh maith agat.

Question put and agreed to.


That the Assembly approves the Report of the Ad Hoc Committee set up to consider the draft Criminal Justice (Northern Ireland) Order 2007, and agrees that it should be submitted to the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland as a report of the Northern Ireland Assembly.

Adjourned at 9.53 pm.

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