Official Report (Hansard)

Session: 2011/2012

Date: Wednesday, 01 October 2008

Members present for all or part of the proceedings: 
Mr Danny Kennedy (Chairperson) 
Mrs Naomi Long (Deputy Chairperson) 
Ms Martina Anderson 
Mr Tom Elliott 
Mr Ian McCrea 
Mr Francie Molloy 
Mr Stephen Moutray 
Mr Jim Shannon 
Mr Jimmy Spratt

Witnesses: 
The First Minister 
The deputy First Minister 
Mr Gerry Kelly, junior Minister 
Mr Jeffrey Donaldson, junior Minister

The Chairperson (Mr Kennedy):
I welcome the First Minister, the deputy First Minister, the junior Ministers and their accompanying officials to the Committee’s discussion about the Programme for Government progress report.

The deputy First Minister (Mr M McGuinness):
The First Minister and I welcome this opportunity to meet the Committee. I understand that the Committee has received a short written report on OFMDFM’s progress to date on its Programme for Government commitments, and that Bruce Robinson met the Committee last week to discuss some of those priorities.

In general, OFMDFM is making good progress against its Programme for Government targets. OFMDFM has responsibility for just over 40 targets as set out in the Programme for Government’s public service agreement (PSA) framework.

OFMDFM has responsibility for three key targets in the area of international relations. The main aim is to establish a comprehensive international relations strategy that will incorporate our proposed engagement with Europe, as well as with the rest of the world. That strategy is a work in progress.

The European aspect of the strategy will centre on the action plan in the EU task force report, which will be the Executive’s formal response to the Barroso task force report. For the first time, we will have a comprehensive, cross-departmental and ambitious strategy and action plan, which has the potential to increase European funding to this region by millions of pounds. We await ministerial clearance for departmental input and, as soon as that is received, we will forward the strategy and action plan to the Committee for detailed consideration.

The strategy will address how we can increase our benefit from Europe through better integration, the secondment of staff, greater uptake of the Erasmus programme and similar educational schemes and how best to form economically beneficial networks and relationships with our European neighbours.

PSA 1 outlines three key targets, on all of which we have made good progress. We have extended the Northern Ireland Bureau’s representation to New York with the appointment of Lorraine Turner, who has excellent business and diplomatic links in New York. Work is ongoing to prepare the path for representation in the Far East, the progress of which we will keep the Committee fully informed.

There is a PSA target that commits us to increasing the number of consulate representatives here; we have two confirmed appointments of consulate representatives for Malta and Saint Vincent and the Grenadines. We want such appointments to continue and are working to ensure that they do.

Through the Washington Ireland programme, we have delivered on the PSA target to place young third-level education students from disadvantaged backgrounds in influential offices in Washington DC. The programme has more than 10 years’ experience in placing students in high-profile offices, including those of Senator Obama, Senator Clinton and Senator McCain.

The issues that affect children and young peoples have been a key priority for the Department and the Committee over the past year. PSA 6 committed us to improving the 10-year strategy for children and young people. Considerable work has been carried out over the past year to compile a comprehensive second action plan, which builds on, and improves, the first action plan. The strategy review group has convened and has already discussed that plan, and we await its detailed comments.

We will also send the Committee a copy of the draft plan this week for its detailed consideration. We want the comments of the Committee and the strategy review group and the observations of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) before we agree a final plan in November 2008.

PSA 6 also committed us to re-establishing the ministerial subcommittee by April 2008, which we did in January 2008. The subcommittee has already met on three occasions and agreed six key cross-cutting priorities, one of which focuses on child poverty. The recommendations in the Committee’s recent report on child poverty will be beneficial to the work of the subcommittee in that area. The subcommittee has also agreed to the voice of young people informing the development of its actions and underpinning all its work.

As the Committee heard last week, all Departments have nominated a champion for children and young people to liaise on children’s issues and to encourage Departments to ensure that the interests of children and young people are fostered and that their views are sought on policy and strategic issues. We look forward to implementing the play and leisure policy for children and young people, which will place play and leisure on the agenda for policy makers and enable our children and young people to enjoy their childhoods as much as possible. That will also open a new avenue for partnership with local government in the delivery of actions.

The safety of our children is paramount. Officials in our Department are developing a cross-departmental safeguarding policy statement. The First Minister and I have ensured that that issue has been place on the agendas of the British-Irish Council (BIC) and the North/South Ministerial Council (NSMC) to improve the consistency of arrangements across all jurisdictions. At the BIC summit meeting on 26 September, it was agreed that the various proposals for additional work streams, including our proposal on child protection, should be subject to further work and taken forward for decision at the next summit meeting.

At the NSMC plenary meeting in February 2008, it was agreed that the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety and the Office of the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs would establish and co-chair a cross-border group of officials to intensify co-operation on child protection. Ministers have now developed a work programme, which includes a cross-border awareness-raising campaign in conjunction with non-governmental organisations to consider the increasing problems that are associated with the Internet and social networking.

PSA 6, objective 7, commits us to developing strategic recommendations to promote social inclusion for specified groups, including those with a disability, to work across government to remove barriers to participation and achieve measurable improvement in their lives by 2012. The promoting social inclusion working group on disabilities has been working on those issues since 2004, and a full report is expected before Christmas. We anticipate that that report will highlight and identify specific actions that we, as a Government, can take forward to remove the barriers to full participation. We look forward to that report, and we will forward it to the Committee for full consideration.

Since the return of devolution, we have passed five pieces of disability discrimination legislation, and work is ongoing to remove the exemption for transport. We hope that those changes have made, and will make, a tangible difference to people with disabilities.

The establishment of an older people’s commissioner or advocate has been another key priority for OFMDFM. We are keen to ensure that momentum towards achieving that is maintained. OFMDFM officials are finalising arrangements to secure the services of a suitable individual who will act as an older people’s advocate, pending the appointment of an older people’s commissioner.

The older people’s advocate will be responsible for providing independent advice to Ministers on issues that are important to older people. The post will be part-time, and the recruitment process has been monitored by the Office of the Commissioner for Public Appointments. We hope to make an announcement on the appointment of an advocate by mid-October.

PSA 6, objective 2, commits the Executive to delivering a strong, independent voice for older people. The Committee will be aware that we commissioned an independent report, which was carried out by Deloitte. The final report was received in May 2008, and the Committee has had an opportunity to examine it. The report confirmed our view that that strong voice was best delivered by way of an older people’s commissioner with strong statutory powers. The legislative process is long and complex, but it has started.

Since we did not want older people to be without a voice pending the passing of the legislation, we agreed to appoint an older people’s advocate. That advocate will be in position until the commissioner is appointed and will give advice to Ministers and provide a voice for older people. PSA 6 also commits us to ensuring more effective statutory protection for older people. We are examining the possibility of extending protection against discrimination in the provision of goods, services and facilities to the area of age.

We are fully committed to good community and good race relations. The Executive’s clear commitment is demonstrated by the fact that we are investing an additional £7·5 million in that area over the comprehensive spending review period. Our total investment in good relations will be approximately £29 million, which includes a substantial increase in funding for ethnic minority communities.

PSA 6, objective 5, commits us to implementing a programme of cohesion and integration for a shared and better future for all. We felt strongly that that would send out a clear and strong message to tackle sectarianism, racism, hate crime and inequality. The strategy is at an advanced stage, and we hope to get it to the Committee shortly. We acknowledge that it has been a long process, but I assure you that that has been because of the considerable hard work that has been carried out on the strategy.

The strategy will not shy from tackling hard issues head on, and we hope to get it to the Committee before the Hallowe’en recess. We assure the Committee that much good work has continued in the area of good relations and race relations. Funding for ethnic minorities has been increased by 33%. That additional funding will directly target areas that are blighted by racism and sectarianism, to deliver continued improvement in relationships and to address the challenges that face new and host communities.

The Committee is aware that we are finalising a draft programme for cohesion, sharing and integration to tackle issues of sectarianism and racism, and we hope to put that before the Committee by Hallowe’en. The junior Ministers chaired a taskforce on north Belfast interface issues which included the PSNI, Belfast City Council and the Community Relations Council (CRC). The group met regularly over the summer and it was such a successful model that we are examining the possibility of replicating it for other areas.

Supported by funding from OFMDFM, the CRC has continued to work with local councils on a range of community relations issues, including bonfire initiatives, working with the police on the flags protocol and many other projects.

PSA 11 committed us to a wide range of targets with respect to sustainable development, many of which concentrated on the implementation of the strategy. On detailed consideration of the strategy, we felt that, in line with our approach to a range of other inherited strategies, we wanted to revise and update it to ensure that it was fit for purpose. The Committee was made aware of that at the end of May 2008. Over the summer, officials worked to produce a redrafted strategy, which we are now considering. The communications strategy will require updating once the strategy has been agreed. PSA 6 included a target to ensure continued funding for the Sustainable Development Commission until 2011. That has been ensured, and therefore the target was achieved.

The First Minister (Mr P Robinson):
First, I thank the Chairman for his welcome on my first appearance before the Committee. That is not a plea for mercy; I waive the right that a maiden speaker usually has of not being handed difficult questions and interventions.

There has been a great deal of public comment on the challenge of the credit crunch and the escalating cost-of-living pressures. In this economic storm, our twin aims should be to protect local people and businesses and to maintain services, and to try to sustain local consumer and business confidence.

The Programme for Government and investment strategy offer us a great opportunity. Used intelligently, public spending can provide some local resilience in the present economic crisis. Effective local response to the crisis will require concerted action across the full width of Government. That is why, in our investment strategy, we set out the issue of sustainable development and, in February, the Executive agreed a strategy for public procurement. The economic turmoil that is driving up the cost of living is a global phenomenon. We have a small, open economy and cannot remain immune from global economic events. We are keenly aware that the combination of restricted access to credit, falling property prices, increasing inflation, rising food and energy prices may, in the short term, undermine business and consumer confidence, increase the cost of essential services and seriously affect the well-being of local people.

The deputy First Minister and I have been keen to hear directly from local stakeholders and have their view on the particular impacts that the economic slowdown is having. To date, we have met representatives of the banking and lending community, as well as the construction sector, the Institute of Directors, the energy regulator and the energy companies themselves. We also plan to meet representatives of the voluntary and community sector, the trades unions and consumer and business champions. Those meetings were extremely useful, and they helped the deputy First Minister and me to identify core problems and formulate ideas for mitigating action.

PSA 7 commits us to producing an anti-poverty strategy and to specific targets on reducing child poverty. The Committee considered the Lifetime Opportunities strategy that now awaits formal Executive clearance. When that has been obtained, we will set up an anti-poverty ministerial subcommittee to take forward our targets on child poverty and the life cycle approach.

In the meantime, we will continue to monitor and to measure child poverty and also to examine ways of reducing that further. The child-poverty targets are some of our most difficult and challenging. The present global economic climate will inevitably affect the progress made thus far. We will keep the Committee updated on the Department’s examination of the scale of the possible effect.

We have compiled a comprehensive response to the Committee’s poverty inquiry. Once we have obtained Executive endorsement of that response, we will forward it to the Committee. The ministerial subcommittee on children and young people is also examining the issue of child poverty. The Committee has also examined longer-term policies that will affect child poverty, such as educational aspiration and school-age childcare.

We will continue to oversee the delivery of the investment strategy for Northern Ireland, which the Assembly approved earlier this year. The significant downturn in commercial and domestic property markets since the publication of the strategy has affected the construction industry. We are, of course, conscious of the industry’s increased reliance on public works, and we are making every effort to ensure that the momentum of infrastructure investment programmes is maintained.

Indeed, during the British Irish Council meeting in Edinburgh, the deputy First Minister and I heard about the efforts of other jurisdictions to reschedule their capital bill programme to assist their construction industries. Recently, we met representatives from the construction industry here to discuss the impact on the sector of difficulties in the financial markets as well as in the commercial and the domestic property markets. We had a useful discussion, and follow-up work was planned involving the Department of Finance and Personnel (DFP) and the Strategic Investment Board (SIB), particularly aimed at obtaining clearer information about the actual construction costs involved in major projects, and addressing timetabling issues and delays.

The construction industry was also keen to see a more efficient responsive planning system put in place. The deputy First Minister and I promised to do whatever we could to encourage the banks and the construction industry to adopt a collaborative approach to addressing the economic difficulties affecting the sector.

PSA 11, objective 1, committed us to agreeing and to implementing an investment strategy that was agreed by the SIB. The delivery and monitoring frameworks of the strategy are at an advanced stage. Considerable work has been carried out to develop key regeneration sites. The Malone Road site was sold to a private developer and has been fully developed. Proceeds from the sale of the Malone Road site have been ring-fenced to fund the redevelopment of Crumlin Road Gaol, which will help to regenerate the economy in one of Belfast’s poorest wards. A master plan for the gaol is under consideration.

Progress is in line with the targets set out in PSA 11, objective 2. We are finalising the sale of the army barracks at Magherafelt, where it is proposed that a new school campus will be built by the North Eastern Education and Library Board. Demolition is now complete on the Ebrington site, where infrastructure development plans are under way. Design approval has been granted for the site, and two more business cases for additional proposals at the site are under consideration. Recently, Sir Roy McNulty, chairman of Ilex, presented us with a report of his review of the site. That is under consideration.

Members of the Committee will be aware that the issue of the Maze/Long Kesh site is under discussion. Phase 1 of the site’s demolition is complete, and a business case for phase 2 of the remediation is awaiting DFP approval. Options for the redevelopment of the Maze/Long Kesh site are being considered; we both agree that the Maze/Long Kesh site is too valuable to be left undeveloped.

It is also important to note that the delay in obtaining a decision from the British Government on the gifting of more sites has not affected plans for the redevelopment of other former military sites. For example, the Strategic Investment Board, in conjunction with Omagh District Council and the Western Education and Library Board, is close to finalising a business case for the redevelopment of the former military site at Lisanelly, in Omagh. That proposal has cross-party support and will be of considerable benefit to Omagh and its environs. The Committee has previously shown a keen interest in the Planning Appeals Commission and in easing the backlog of planning appeal cases.

In recognition of the challenges and pressures facing the Planning Appeals Commission and the Water Appeals Commission, we have committed additional spending power of about £2 million over the three years 2008–11. Since April 2008, that additional funding has provided the chief commissioner with 14 additional fee-paid panel commissioners, along with increased capacity at senior levels in the planning and water appeals commissions. Those new commissioners can focus on addressing the backlog of planning appeal cases. The situation will be kept under review in order to assess the impact of our actions so far and to ensure that further will be taken if it is required.

PSA 6, objective 6, committed OFMDFM to publishing a new strategy for victims and survivors. That strategy has been published, and the consultation process has just finished. Officials in the Department are considering the responses, and a summary document will be provided shortly. Much work has been completed in that area, which emphasises how much of a key priority the issue is for the Department. The new commission has been established, and its members are working constructively together. Their consultation on the draft work plan has been completed and will soon be finalised. The work plan includes plans for the formation of a forum, which was itself a PSA target. Plans for the new scheme are under way, and Ministers are considering a detailed paper on a proposed victims’ service. That paper will be forwarded to the Committee shortly for its consideration.

There has been some slippage in the dates as published in PSA 6 of the Programme for Government, but significant decisions and good progress have been made. The interim funding package announced at the beginning of the summer has meant that all groups, projects and individuals could access increased and enhanced funding. Strong and steady progress has been made on all aspects the Department’s work with victims and survivors.

I hope that this introductory outline has been helpful to the Committee, and we are, of course, willing to answer any questions that members may have. I stress that we are continuing to deliver on our Programme for Government objectives and that we have either completed or commenced work on at least 30 of the 40 PSA targets in the Programme for Government. The remainder is under active consideration.

The Chairperson:
I thank the First Minister and deputy First Minister for that presentation. Ministers are aware that there is a considerable number of outstanding documents, waiting for either departmental clearance or for Executive clearance. You have given some examples, including documents dealing with the Lifetime Opportunities strategy, the performance management framework, investment plans, and of course, the Departmental response to the Committee’s report on child poverty. They have been caught in some kind of blockage, either at departmental or at Executive level. When will those documents be released? Will the Executive meet tomorrow? If it does not meet tomorrow, when is it likely to meet? Will it release any of the papers that have been referred to?

The First Minister:
This question, of course, comes as a complete surprise to us. I will deal with some of the aspects of it. First, following our meeting with you, Mr Chairman, and with the Deputy Chairperson, at which you raised issues about delays in the process, departmental officials have been asked to examine the possibility of establishing new mechanisms in the Department so that outstanding issues can be streamlined and fast-tracked and that there can be a smooth process from here on in.

We have established a procedure mechanism to deal with what is a very complex Department. It is not like any other Department; by its very nature, the requirement for joint agreements makes it subject to processes that no other Department has to face. Therefore, procedures are being put in place to allow us to overcome those difficulties.

There is a general view that, if documents have not been produced by OFMDFM, they are being held up awaiting an Executive decision. All documents and papers produced by the Department are dealt with by a procedure that, in the first instance, involves a brokerage process to ensure that both the deputy First Minister and I are content with the content or that we seek some changes to it. Many of the papers to which you refer will be undergoing that brokerage process.

Some papers have been agreed by both of us and are awaiting an Executive meeting; others have been agreed by only one of the Ministers involved and await approval by the other Ministers in the Executive. Some papers have even been discussed by both of us and we have sent questions to the relevant Ministers. It should not be automatically assumed that if a paper has not come out at one end, it must somehow be stuck because of the Executive process. Nevertheless, we cannot dodge the fact that the Executive must meet to deal with various issues.

The deputy First Minister and I are in agreement on one matter: when we began this process, we all knew that we would face times such as the present one. However, we are not about to give up or give in. The issues before us are difficult and must be resolved, but the only way of doing that is through dialogue, discussion and negotiation. We have a four-party coalition in the Executive and we want to have the thoughts and views of the other parties concerned

I want the Executive to meet tomorrow; I am up for it and I have a view on a wide-range of issues that could be discussed. I would be very happy if the Executive met on Thursday to allow us to get things moving.

The Chairperson:
Deputy First Minister, would you like to add anything further?

The deputy First Minister:
There is no disguising the reality that there are difficulties at the moment. However, I come from the school of thought that tells me that all those difficulties can be overcome; I am a problem-solver and a solution-seeker. A way through must be found.

These issues are important and a mechanism exists to deal with some of them through urgent and written procedure. However, that is not the ideal situation; the ideal situation is for the Executive to meet, and I want that to happen.

The papers under discussion will be dealt with at the next meeting of the Executive. It is our duty and responsibility to make that happen. However the First Minister and the deputy First Minister also have a responsibility to agree an agenda for meetings. The practice up until now, and one that pertained throughout the first Executive, was to get agreement on issues so that they can be given the authority of Executive approval. What we must do is to agree an agenda for an Executive meeting. However, we must also agree on the issues, which has been the practice of the Office of the First Minister and the deputy First Minister, so that we do not have interminable meetings of the Executive. That is the challenge for us in the time ahead and we will find a way through that will deal with all the issues to the satisfaction of everyone.

The First Minister and I are not going to fall out over those issues. We are not huffers who sulk in a corner and give up on the process. We will not do that; we will continue to work to find a way through. That is my solemn commitment to the Committee today.

The Chairperson:
Neither of you said when you expected an Executive meeting to take place. Is there any certainty on that issue?

The First Minister:
I am ready for it to take place tomorrow.

The deputy First Minister:
That meeting could take place tomorrow if an agenda could be agreed. However, as I said on the news last night, that it is unlikely, as not enough progress has been made on issues that are of tremendous importance to our entire community. Therefore, we must continue to work at the process and not give up on it.

The Chairperson:
The Committee has a role in scrutinising the work of both BIC and NSMC. If the Executive do not meet tomorrow, is it reasonable to assume that the NSMC meeting planned for Friday will not take place? What would be the implications of that?

The First Minister:
I spoke to Brian Cowan this morning and I made it clear that I hope that the Executive and the North/South Ministerial Council meetings take place. It is important that they do. I am committed to operating all the institutions that we agreed, including the Assembly, the Executive, the BIC and the NSMC. It would be unfortunate if the work of any of those institutions was stalled.

The North/South Ministerial Council papers must be cleared by the Executive. People can take as much legal advice on that matter as the deputy First Minister and I have. Our understanding of the code is that if an Executive meeting is scheduled, the papers for a North/South Ministerial meeting will be cleared at that meeting. There is an Executive meeting scheduled for tomorrow. I hope that it takes place and that those papers are cleared so that the meeting of the North/South Ministerial Council can take place as planned.

The deputy First Minister:
I will resist taking a legalistic approach to the matter, for the simple reason that it would not get us anywhere. The meeting of the North/South Ministerial Council that is scheduled for Friday should take place. The First Minister and I attended the meeting of the British-Irish Council in Edinburgh last Friday. We were very honoured to attend and work with our colleagues from other jurisdictions to find a way forward that best serves the interests of the people whom all of us represent.

I also spoke to the Taoiseach last night and I had a meeting with officials from the Taoiseach’s office this morning in Stormont Castle. There is no reason why the meeting of the North-South Ministerial Council cannot take place on Friday; however, if it does not, the challenge is still there, as there is a problem that needs to be resolved. My colleagues in Sinn Féin and I will work in a very determined fashion — as we have shown from the beginning of this process — with our unionist colleagues to find a way through.

Mr Spratt:
I thank the First Minister and deputy First Minister for their presentation to the Committee. PSA 21 commits the First Minister and the deputy First Minister to providing effective support and advice to the Executive and to assisting Ministers in fulfilling their responsibilities to the institutions that were established under the agreement.

Will the First Minister and the deputy First Minister confirm that important business will be dealt with when required?

The First Minister:
Listening to some radio presenters, one would think that the Assembly was not meeting, never mind the Executive; one would think that Ministers were not doing their jobs in their Departments. It must be made clear that Ministers continue to operate in their Departments on the basis of existing legislation and policies.

The role of the Executive is to deal with new policy direction, legislation, and areas that are cross-cutting and thus require Executive approval. Many issues proceed as normal. We can use urgent procedure to address urgent matters as required, although I agree with the deputy First Minister that that is much less satisfactory than having an Executive meeting. However, urgent procedure is used only if an Executive meeting does not take place. During the summer, we used the procedure mechanism to release papers to Ministers so that they could proceed in their Departments.

The truth is that some issues, particularly cross-cutting ones, require Ministers to sit down and work out how they might make progress. At present, the key issue is the economy. People wonder whether they will be able to heat their homes or get enough food on the table over coming months. That is a cross-cutting issue that needs agreement across Departments so that we might formulate a package to alleviate the hardships that people face. There is an urgent procedure that can be used to take urgent decisions, but — as the deputy First Minister said — it is far less satisfactory than the Executive sitting down and doing the job.

Mrs Long:
PSA 21 is about enabling efficient government. The First Minister referred to a backlog of papers and several processes that could delay their progress. Given that some of the mechanisms governing the speed with which this Committee will see papers are to be dealt with, it would be useful if the Committee could have some idea of what papers are being held up in the various parts of that process. We have never had a clear explanation as to what the delay is predicated on; therefore, it would be helpful to know what stage of the process the different papers are at.

The deputy First Minister:
There are issues. The draft programme of cohesion, sharing and integration is with OFMDFM; Committee consideration of that has been deferred several times. The Committee has been informed that the draft programme will be submitted by the Hallowe’en recess.

The Lifetime Opportunities strategy is awaiting Executive approval. The response to the Committee’s child poverty report is with OFMDFM. Input from other Departments has been cleared by Ministers, and that will require Executive approval. The Executive’s response to the Barroso taskforce is with OFMDFM and will require consultation with ministerial colleagues before it can be submitted to the Committee. The disability transport regulations are awaiting Executive approval. The PFG delivery framework is with OFMDFM and will require Executive approval.

However, lest there be a misunderstanding that there has not been an Executive meeting because those issues present problems and difficulties — and I acknowledge that some of them require final agreement, further work and advisor’s input to them — other issues exist that have not come to the Executive but which are of critical importance to the entire community. For example, issues such as the Maze/Long Kesh site, education, and the transfer of policing and justice powers are all of tremendous concern to the community. We must crunch those issues in a way that is acceptable to everyone.

We will not disguise the fact that there are difficulties between us; however, we must resolve those difficulties and I hope that we can do that in the coming period. It will take a determined effort to ensure that we do not have an unbalanced approach to the Executive agenda. There must be balance and recognition of all the issues that are of concern to all the Ministers in the Executive.

The First Minister:
As a former Finance Minister, perhaps I can give some statistical idea of where those issues stand, with a tolerance of one or two in either direction.

Approximately a dozen papers have been approved both by the deputy First Minister and me and can, therefore, be on the agenda of any meeting. There are 12 or 13 issues that have been approved by me but not by the deputy First Minister. There are at least two issues — both relating to education, I believe — that have been approved by the deputy First Minister but not by me. Approximately two or three issues are still in the brokerage process, and there are some on which both the deputy First Minister and I have asked other Ministers for further information. Those, roughly, are the statistics.

I agree with the deputy First Minister that the smoother operation of the Executive is helped if issues have been agreed for an Executive meeting. However, if we are in a gridlock, it does no harm for us to have an agenda without any restrictions so that we can discuss those matters and take input from Executive colleagues on how we can progress. Matters will not be resolved without dialogue and without negotiation. The Executive is one of the areas where that can happen.

Mrs Long:
An alternative to the Lifetime Opportunities strategy is being produced by the Office of the First Minister and the deputy First Minister, and you said that until such a document is properly approved, you would continue to monitor and measure progress. Given that the delivery of such a strategy will require co-operation between Departments, how do you foresee that being achieved?

Furthermore, given the fact that the Lifetime Opportunities strategy has not been adopted, the alternative is stuck in a logjam, and it is OFMDFM’s responsibility to make progress on alleviating child, and general, poverty, what specific actions are being taken in the interim?

The deputy First Minister:
We expect the Executive, in line with the St Andrews Agreement, to consider and adopt soon the Lifetime Opportunities strategy in order to tackle poverty and deprivation based on objective need.

Work on child poverty is already under way through the ministerial subcommittee on children and young people, which focuses on developing a cohesive approach to tackling the unacceptably high levels of child poverty in the North. On Monday, in the Assembly I answered questions about that matter, which is a priority for us.

We received the report of the Committee for the Office of the First Minister and the deputy First Minister, which has been considered in detail, and a response is being finalised. Before the formal response is forwarded to the Committee, it must be submitted to our Executive colleagues for approval.

The subcommittee on children and young people has agreed its key priorities and has established six cross-departmental subgroups that will report to it. One of those subgroups is considering child poverty, with a view to ensuring a holistic, cross-departmental approach. The group has been set up; its first meeting has been held, and we hope that speedy progress can be made in the near future.

Mrs Long:
We were told today that the programme of cohesion, sharing and integration will be with us by the Hallowe’en recess; however, for months, we have been told that it is imminent. Can you offer us some insight about why it has taken so long? Moreover, given that a year has been wasted, when we get the programme, will it just be a strategy or will it include an action plan — will we get the whole ready-to-go package or will we have to await the outcome of a further tug of war?

The deputy First Minister:
We are sorry that we did not meet our commitment to submit detailed proposals for the programme of cohesion, sharing and integration. We hope that the Committee will appreciate that we want the policy to be sufficiently developed so that we can submit meaningful proposals to the Committee to consider. The draft strategy will definitely be submitted before the Hallowe’en recess, and it will be subject to full consultation and an equality impact assessment.

I believe — as I am sure everyone on the Committee believes — that the programme is important. Therefore, it is essential that we produce accurate and considered proposals that reflect our shared understanding of the matters involved. The draft programme of cohesion, sharing and integration will build on some excellent work — particularly by district councils and community organisations — to address the challenges faced by local communities.

As I said on Monday, actions to tackle racism, sectarianism and localised intolerance are at the core of the proposals, which will include arrangements to develop action plans at central and local-government levels to address problems with good relations and good race relations.

At regional level, the Community Relations Council is expected to play a lead role in the delivery of the good relations action plan, and, locally, it will support the actions of district councils.

The cross-cutting theme of good relations and good race relations is reflected in the Programme for Government; and the promotion of good relations will be watchwords for all Government policies and programmes. Moreover, Departments must integrate good relations principles and objectives into policy developments and service-delivery arrangements.

We must get it right, and that has taken time, but much hard work has gone into it. We hope that you will see the results in the near future.

Ms Anderson:
Go raibh maith agaibh. I thank you both for your presentations. Unlike during the previous Executive, when the Office of the First Minister and the deputy First Minister did not appear before the Committee at all, this is the second time that the Office has appeared, and we welcome that.

Has an assessment been made of the EQIA on the Programme for Government and the Budget? Are the Executive still committed, as we have been told in the Programme for Government, to direct their resources to those who are in greatest need? The First Minister and the deputy First Minister have both commented in recent weeks about how people are struggling in the present fiscal climate.

PSA 21 is about ensuring that public expenditure is effectively managed. Are the projects and programmes in the Programme for Government tackling disadvantage and building prosperity? What action is OFMDFM taking to ensure that an investment strategy, to which the First Minister referred, will ensure delivery on the twin commitments of building prosperity and tackling disadvantage?

A great deal of public money is skewed towards the Strategic Investment Board. Since it uses so much public money, I want to ensure that it delivers, particularly in the present climate. Given that people are struggling — and both the First Minister and the deputy First Minister referred to that — how can we ensure that we deliver the money effectively and efficiently despite the limitations?

The First Minister:
This is an issue on which we are very much agreed. If devolution is to be meaningful to people in Northern Ireland, it must improve the lives of everyone — it cannot simply be good for the business community or for the middle class: it has to make a difference for everyone.

The member is aware that there are specific difficulties in an EQIA that relates to the Programme for Government as a whole; there are EQIAs for projects and for each of the Departments and its contribution. We have agreed to a high-level EQIA that will allow us to look at the overall balance to ensure that those who are in greatest need are getting assistance. It is evident from what Ministers have said recently — given the changes in the economy and the recognition that some people will be in much greater need — that they are starting to skew policies in their Departments to reach out to those who are hurting most. That is the kind of evidence that Ministers are taking seriously: the issues of need and equality, and the desire to ensure that resources go directly to those who need them most.

The deputy First Minister:
We are absolutely committed to taking action to address the key differentials in our society to ensure that everyone can contribute to and benefit from a better future. That is why the focus of the EQIA audit, taken at a strategic level, was on identifying the areas where there was potential for the delivery of policies and programmes to have a positive impact on equality and good relations.

The Department will take account of the assessment and delivery of policies and programmes and the Executive will monitor the impact of delivery on key inequalities. The draft EQIA following consultation is under consideration, and we are determined that it will be published. Officials are engaged with the Equality Commission to see how we can learn from the process.

The First Minister:
The other element of the question related to the investment strategy. The investment strategy has taken into account equality and needs issues. However, we need to be careful. If elements of the investment strategy are delayed because of funds not coming through the sale of assets, we need to make sure that any reductions take account of equality and needs issues, even if some schemes are stopped while others continue.

It is an ongoing issue, which we will take into account. I am sure that Executive colleagues will be mindful of those matters in their own Departments.

Mr Moutray:
I thank the First Minister and the deputy First Minister for their attendance. First Minister, given the lack of Executive meetings, are you doing all in your power to help those most in need and most affected by the credit crunch?

The First Minister:
The credit crunch and the resulting standard-of-living issues are global matters. We are a devolved institution without tax-raising powers and with few fiscal instruments at our disposal to deal with major issues. However, some matters are our responsibility, and we can take steps to lessen our fellow citizens’ pain. For instance, the Minister for Social Development has submitted a paper to tackle fuel poverty, and the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety has indicated an intention to remove prescription charges.

Before the credit crunch, the Executive took the decision to freeze the regional household rate for the next three years. If the regional rate had increased and water charges had been introduced — and we experienced a credit crunch on top of that — people would now be in dire straits. Furthermore, Conor Murphy announced the free-fares scheme for the over-60s. We are taking numerous steps and considering a package of measures, which will include Margaret Ritchie’s paper. However, circumstances are not ideal; we are dealing with the matter by remote control rather than around the table with colleagues.

Mr I McCrea:
Both of your presentations refer to the PSA targets on international development. Given the global downturn and the difficulties in America, is it still beneficial for Northern Ireland to strengthen its links with America?

The First Minister:
Yes. Anybody that knows business knows that it involves long-term planning. The successful US/NI investment conference attracted considerable support from US firms. Invest Northern Ireland is following up those parties that expressed an interest during their visit. It may not be the ideal time to open a company or industry in Northern Ireland, but if people recognise Northern Ireland’s benefits, they will come when the time is right.

There are distinct advantages; it is not all gloom. At present, if a business — anywhere in the world — is experiencing financial difficulties, the chief executive officer will first examine the cost base. In doing so, they will find that, for many of the high-value-added areas of employment — such as financial services — Northern Ireland is one of the best and most cost-effective places. For that reason, Dermot Desmond will bring a large contingent from the International Financial Services Centre in Dublin to examine what Northern Ireland has to offer. Despite the global downturn, Northern Ireland can present itself as a place with skills. Jobs are available, people are capable of carrying out the work, and we have a lower cost base than, probably, most places in Europe.

The deputy First Minister:
I reiterate the First Minister’s comments. The investment conference was critical in attracting foreign direct investment.

The people who came here sensed that the United States was approaching economic difficulty. We had discussions with representatives of the Administration who were reluctant to use the “R” word and who argued that the United States was not experiencing a recession. There can be debate about whether there was a recession in the middle part of this year. A serious situation has developed on Wall Street, and big decisions are being made that will impact hugely on the economy of the entire world in the coming period.

For all the reasons that the First Minister stated, we remain confident about the benefits that will flow from the economic investment conference. The people who came here understand that we still have an attractive package to offer. In a funny way, I am optimistic about taking advantage of the difficulties in world economics. People will have to reassess their operations in the United States, and I hope that we can benefit from that by being an attractive location in which to invest.

Mr Molloy:
I thank both Ministers for the presentation, which dealt with issues including the cost of living, sustainable development and procurement. You have met representatives of the local construction industry, and that industry has major problems. The First Minister said that the necessary investment was available for the Crumlin Road site. Is there an opportunity to progress with the development of the Long Kesh site to benefit the construction industry? The experience of developing the Crumlin Road Gaol and making it a visitor attraction shows that such projects can be beneficial. Developing the Long Kesh site was a topic of discussion long before any reduction in the number of Executive meetings.

How confident are you that an advocate for older people will be appointed in October? How long will it be until a commissioner for older people is in place?

Children’s safety was on the agenda at the most recent British-Irish Council meeting. Will children’s safety be on the agenda at the next North/South Ministerial Council meeting? How would that issue be affected if the next North/South meeting does not happen? Had the Executive agreed an agenda before the British-Irish Council meeting? What is the situation regarding the agreement of an agenda for the North/South meeting?

The First Minister: 
The deputy First Minister will deal with some of those points.

Everything is in line with our initial timetables for appointing an advocate for older people. The Office of the First Minister and the deputy First Minister wants to have a commissioner for older people in place, but that involves a legal process — drafting a Bill and putting it before the Assembly — that usually takes 18 months or two years. Occasionally, depending on the amount of other legislative work, such processes can be quicker.

However, the commissioner process had to go through the normal timeframe. Therefore, rather than waiting until a commissioner could be appointed, we felt that it was appropriate to have an advocate who could be a voice for older people. An advocate can be appointed under existing legislation, and we do not expect the process to encounter any major difficulty.

You asked about the difference between the British-Irish Council and the North/South Ministerial Council. There was no scheduled meeting of the Executive that would have been capable of preparing papers of the British-Irish Council meeting, so those papers went through the urgent procedure.

However, the Executive are scheduled to meet before the North/South Ministerial Council. Those papers could be dealt with at that meeting.

The deputy First Minister:
A proposal that child protection be included as a large work stream was made at the BIC summit in Edinburgh last Friday. Ministers will be making statements to the Assembly about that meeting, which included an update on the BIC work streams. Progress on child protection arrangements in the NSMC will be considered at the next NSMC plenary, and Ministers will make statements to the Assembly on that matter also.

It is fair to say that it is recognised, North and South, that we must ensure the best possible legislative approach to child protection on the island. Although it is a reserved matter — I know that NIO Minister Paul Goggins has been involved — we are, in many ways, a bit ahead of the South on that issue. We must move with all speed to put in place a proper process that will ensure the greatest possible protection for our children.

Mr Molloy:
We have been told that the Long Kesh site has created opportunities for jobs for construction workers. On the issue of procurement, is there a mechanism that can be put in place to secure local jobs for construction businesses? The European procurement contracts sometimes result in there being no local input for contractors and their workforces.

The First Minister:
I am afraid that that is one of the disadvantages of European Community membership. We cannot specify in a procurement contract that local people must be used. I should probably not say this in public session, but creative use of the process can ensure that the specification is such that it might be more attractive for local people to get those jobs and projects.

The Chairperson:
I will be keen to study Hansard on that.

The First Minister:
I think that I got round it.

The deputy First Minister:
Let us hope so.

The First Minister:
We will know in the morning when we lift the post.

The procurement process itself can be used to assist in certain policy directions as well. However, the one thing the deputy First Minister and I will take away from the Edinburgh meeting of the BIC was the extent to which each Administration or jurisdiction was using its capital programme to take up some of the slack in the construction industry.

Northern Ireland’s investment strategy is a sizeable one. The investment strategy that was in place during the previous comprehensive spending review period was the vehicle for the allocation of a little over £700 million a year. That has grown to nearly £2 billion a year. This is the largest investment strategy that we have ever had. We should be able to tweak that in a way that allows the construction industry to continue employing people and to take account of the downturn in the residential market. The Maze/Long Kesh project, along with all the other ventures, can provide additional work for the construction industry and, beyond that, to the companies that might be placed there.

The Chairperson:
Are there any early prospects that the Maze/Long Kesh venture will become a working project?

The First Minister:
We have had detailed discussions about the Maze/Long Kesh project, and the two junior Ministers have been involved in moving that forward. Progress is being made, but there are still considerable details to go through.

The deputy First Minister:
It is not lost on any of us that it is an important site, which, if properly developed, can create thousands of construction jobs and thousands more permanent jobs in the aftermath of the building programme. The other exciting prospect is the one west of the Bann in Omagh, at the St Lucia/Lisanelly site. All the parties in the Assembly and all the MLAs in the West Tyrone constituency are in favour of that educational project, which was proposed and supported by the local education authority and by Omagh District Council.

That site can create huge permanent employment opportunities in the aftermath of the construction of the buildings with the coming together of the entire community through siting six schools on an educational campus where all sorts of advantage can be taken of shared facilities, especially sporting facilities. However, that scares the life out of many of us not from County Tyrone, because that means that, as the best Gaelic football county in Ireland at the moment, they will be even better whenever they get that educational campus and those facilities.

The Chairperson:
I am not sure that that is being disputed. [Laughter.]

The First Minister:
I would not be able to dispute it. [Laughter.] The Lisanelly and St Lucia site is of considerable size, beyond even the educational programme. Because it sweeps into the town, there are commercial aspects that one could envisage for the site which would considerably improve the Omagh area.

Mr Shannon:
First Minister and deputy First Minister, it is good to see you. For your maiden visit, First Minister, I will ask you some questions that will not be too testing.

This Committee has many concerns, and one of them has been about the Planning Appeals Commission. I am sure you are aware, First Minister, that planning appeals take two and a half to three years to be heard, planning departments are quick to refer applications rather than make decisions on appeal, and the list of Planning Appeals Commission referrals continues to grow. It is vital that economic growth, coming on the back of planning applications being processed, take place.

In your submission to the Committee you said that sufficient funding has been allocated to the Planning Appeals Commission. Is that significant increase in allocated funding sufficient to reduce waiting times and to speed up the planning appeals process?

The First Minister:
It is critical for the Executive’s first priority — the economy — that we improve the performance of planning generally, and that applies to the Department of the Environment’s Planning Service as well as to the Planning Appeals Commission.

There is an unacceptable backlog in the Planning Appeals Commission. That was recognised by my predecessor, and the deputy First Minister, at the time of the discussions on the Budget. As Finance Minister, I was prevailed upon to provide additional funds in order that improvements could be made. The funds were provided, and, as I pointed out in my initial remarks, we already have in place a considerable increase in the number of available fee-paid commissioners.

When I answered a question on this issue probably just over a fortnight ago in the Assembly, the view at that stage was that it would probably be about a year before any improvement was seen because there was a training period. I met the chief commissioner of the Planning Appeals Commission and was pleased that she was able to inform me that, in fact, the commission had people with sufficient experience in place and that the programme will not be delayed.

Therefore, I expect that there will be a considerable reduction in the backlog. Sadly, another factor that will reduce the backlog is that there is not at present great enthusiasm among property developers and others for submitting planning applications. However, the resources have been put in place, and the planning appeals commissioner has confidently assured me that the backlog will reduce as a result. However, in order to do the job properly for Northern Ireland plc, we must have a system that requires a few months rather than a few years to get through it.

Mr Shannon:
Three years is a long time for an application; once the officers are in place, will we see a reduction in the waiting list or is it too early to say?

The First Minister:
The Planning Appeals Commission will be strongly independent and it is probably proper to give it a few months to see a change in the statistics before that question is asked. After an appreciable period, however, the Planning Appeals Commission will be happy to supply those statistics as soon as they are available.

Mr Elliott: 
I thank the First Minister, the deputy First Minister and the junior Ministers for their attendance; I suppose a special welcome should be extended to the First Minster, as this is his first time at the Committee. I congratulate them for putting on such brave faces. Given the present stand-off, they have done exceptionally well, and have even said that they have agreed on several points. We will look forward to that developing over the next few weeks.

Is there an offer from the UK Government on how to resolve the current impasse? When the victims’ and survivors’ strategy was going through the Assembly, the junior Minister said that it would be the victims’ forum, I think, that would discuss the definition of “victim”. However, there has been no progress, and I am curious to know whether there is any interim measure in place to look at that process.

The deputy First Minister mentioned St Lucia and Lisanelly in Omagh; have all the schools that were originally planned to go on that site agreed to move there, or is there still some indecision about how many of those schools will participate in the scheme?

The Chairperson:
Before we go on, I have to say that Mr Elliot’s first question is not strictly within the remit of the Committee, but it is up to you if you wish to respond.

The deputy First Minister:
The Irish and the British Governments are taking a keen interest at where things are, and we will see what develops.

The First Minister:
Was Mr Elliott’s question about the credit crunch and the contribution that the UK Government could make?

Mr Elliott:
That was the basis of my question.

The First Minister:
The Chancellor, I think, has been in touch with the Prime Minister and the Treasury to indicate various areas where support and assistance could be given to Northern Ireland. That is never a fast process, but it is one that the Finance Minster will continue to pursue. The British Government will have to look very closely at mirroring the steps taken by the Irish Government to guarantee bank deposits. That decision could have an effect on banks in Northern Ireland, which would not be able to get such a guarantee, and that would give us a playing field that is not entirely level. That is one area that we will be asking the British Government to have a very serious look at.

It was agreed by my predecessor and the deputy First Minister that the task of defining a victim would be given to the forum. We have not received a report from it; however, I have every reason to believe that the forum is taking it seriously and will come back to us with a view. Of course, we will talk to the Committee when we have something on that front. The deputy First Minister will be better able than I a to answer the question about Omagh

The deputy First Minister:
At the risk of being corrected, I am working on the understanding that the six schools that have expressed an interest in relocating to that site are still very keenly interested. Perhaps you know something I do not.

The First Minister:
OFMDFM has a wide range of responsibilities, and the suggestion that we cannot work together or agree on anything is preposterous and ridiculous.

The fact that we cannot see a way forward on one particular area at present should not allow anyone to run away with the view that we can agree on nothing and are at a complete standstill. The one aspect on which we need a ruling is the Executive. All of us want progress on a series of outstanding issues. I am up for having a meeting of the Executive and making that progress.

Mr Elliott:
I did not suggest that nothing could be agreed. I merely said that agreement was previously indicated on several issues that are under discussion today.

The Chairperson:
We have almost reached the end of members’ questions. Martina, please be brief.

Ms Anderson:
I want to return to the comments made about Ilex. Whatever may be said about the creative use of procurement, a model is developing in Derry that incorporates the social requirements built into procurement contracts. There is much frustration in the city that nothing has happened to date. However, following the appointment of Roy McNulty, and due to the work that is being done, two events have raised expectations: the best practice seminar that will bring together several stakeholders and the Future Search project called Changing Patterns, Changing Outcomes.

Through the procurement contracts, and the social requirements in them, support could be given to people in working-class, hard-to-reach areas across the North. Those people are struggling and feeling the credit crunch, particularly with the cost of electricity rising by 33% from this week. If people knew that construction is due to take place on sites, the capacity for skilled apprenticeships will increase in those areas. When the opportunity —

The Chairperson:
You are beginning to stretch my indulgence.

Ms Anderson:
Opportunities exist all around us to assist people during difficult times, and I recommend that the model development in Derry that is working locally should be used for Crumlin Road, for whatever happens in Long Kesh, and for all the sites to be developed.

The First Minister:
Both the deputy First Minister and I met Sir Roy McNulty, in whom we have a formidable champion for the project; Ilex is fortunate to have him. He told me of the wide support in the environs for the project, which is being considered by officials from OFMDFM and the Department for Social Development. OFMDFM will not drag its feet in giving assistance to progress those projects.

Mrs Long:
When the Sustainable Development Commission (SDC) came before the Committee during the inquiry into sustainable development, it raised the issue of the memorandum of understanding that it had forwarded to OFMDFM to be signed. Some negotiation took place before the memorandum was submitted, and it was not anticipated that its signing would take long. However, I understand that it has not yet been signed, or is still in the process of being signed. Will you provide an update?

The deputy First Minister:
We are considering a draft memorandum of understanding between OFMDFM and the Sustainable Development Commission. We are taking account of the proposed change of status of the SDC from an advisory to an executive non-departmental public body and any implications that such a change may have on governance and legal or financial matters.

The Chairperson:
Either the deputy First Minister or the First Minister mentioned the wider perception and concern of the general community. Given your responsibility to enable efficient Government under PSA 21, have you considered bringing together the leaders of the political parties in the Assembly to consider how to resolve issues?

The deputy First Minister:
Both our parties are committed to ongoing engagement with the leaders of all parties in the Assembly, and that is important. At this stage, it is critical to find a way through the present difficulty, and everyone understands that responsibility for that rests with the First Minister and me. It is our duty to find that way through, and I am determined to play my part in trying to ensure that the work of the institutions continues for the benefit of all the people whom we represent.

We need to remind ourselves consistently that what has happened here in this part of the world has been nothing less than spectacular. It is one of the most successful peace processes in the world today. However, we did not come into the process under the illusion that it would be all plain sailing; we always understood that difficult issues would need to be resolved. We have gone a long way towards resolving many of those issues. The decision by the DUP and Sinn Féin to go into Government together was probably the highlight of the past 13 or 14 years for many people. As I have said consistently, if we can take that decision together, everything else that we face will be of lesser importance in crunching out issues and making decisions about how we move forward. That is the spirit in which I am approaching the situation.

We must remind ourselves, and remind our community, that we have come an awful long way and that life is far better for all our people. The prospects for the future — in spite of the difficult financial situation — are still incredibly good for us in this part of the world. We must continue to work together and respect each other’s mandate and recognise that the most effective way to work is in partnership.

The First Minister:
I agree entirely that there is a duty on each of us to bend our efforts to ensure that we can resolve the outstanding issues that are causing difficulty. It is worth noting that we have — even with the difficulties — been able to sustain the Assembly and Executive. The previous attempt at devolution collapsed three times. We have improved matters considerably. Overcoming the present difficulties will be a test for all of us.

Apart from the meetings that I have had with the deputy First Minister, I have had bilateral meetings with the leadership of the Ulster Unionist Party, the SDLP and the Alliance Party. If there is a suggestion for a collective meeting, I will be happy to attend.

The Chairperson:
You have both spoken about the political problems that have been evident. How do matters stand on a personal basis? The deputy First Minister will be aware of the question, and your predecessor was asked famously how the situation was going.

The deputy First Minister:
We will resist being dragged back to the Chuckle brothers.

The First Minister:
We are both sufficiently mature to do business. We recognise that we come from very different backgrounds, we have very different outlooks and, indeed, we have very different goals. However, we are both determined to get the very best deal that we can for the people of Northern Ireland, whom we both represent. I hope that we will have the Committee’s support in doing that.

The Chairperson:
Thank you very much for attending the Committee.

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