Official Report (Hansard)

Session: 2011/2012

Date: 20 June 2007

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

Witnesses:
Rev Dr Ian Paisley (First Minister) 
Mr Martin McGuinness (Deputy First Minister) 
Mr Gerry Kelly (Junior Minister) 
Mr Ian Paisley Jnr (Junior Minister)

The Chairperson (Mr Kennedy):
Good afternoon, ladies, gentlemen and officials. I welcome the First Minister, Deputy First Minister, junior Ministers and departmental officials to this public session of the Committee for the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister. Members will be aware of the Committee’s new name, as decided by the Assembly.

We are looking forward to a useful discussion. For the record, the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister are supported by the junior Ministers Mr Paisley Jnr and Mr Kelly. The attending officials are John McMillen, Paul Priestly, Cynthia Smith and Rosalie Flanagan. I also thank them for their attendance.

The Committee hopes that this will be a constructive session, and that it will be of value to the Assembly, the Executive and members of the Committee. This meeting represents the commencement of a process to develop the Assembly’s first Programme for Government. The Committee welcomes the willingness of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister to attend this meeting to discuss that process and the emerging priorities. We hope that we can play a useful role in working with the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister, and with other Committees, to ensure that the Programme for Government is truly joined up and addresses effectively key cross-cutting policy issues.

The First Minister (Rev Dr Ian Paisley):
Mr Chairman and members of the Committee, thank you very much for your invitation to come to this meeting. We welcome the Chairman’s words about wanting to do good by working together for the betterment of all the people of Northern Ireland.

We are keen to hear the Committee’s views on the key challenges and priorities to be addressed by our Department, both this afternoon and, formally, through the consultation stage of the Budget process in the autumn.

Devolution is seven weeks old. Some would say that it is a healthy baby, and some would, perhaps, wish its demise. However, I trust that, as the days proceed, it will become healthier and, when it is weaned from milk, it will taste meat and become strong.

We continue to operate within the spending plans established under the direct rule arrangements for the 2007-08 financial year. However, we now commence a process of engagement with our Executive colleagues, and with the wider public and community, which will finish with the autumn consultation on how future spending plans will determine the priority issues.

The Executive have initiated work to produce a Programme for Government for 2008 and beyond, which will be in line with the comprehensive spending review settlement and will set policy and spending priorities and plans from 2008 to 2011. The Executive’s aim is to design and take forward a process that is clearly focused on, and facilitates, an effective response to address the key challenges facing Northern Ireland. This approach is necessary if we are to build a future — and a better future at that.

The approach that we have initiated takes account of perceived weaknesses in previous Programme for Government processes, particularly in relation to how the Programme for Government facilitated a joined-up response to addressing strategic challenges. Given the indication that the comprehensive spending review is likely to result in a much tighter financial settlement, that is particularly important. The Executive will be required to take difficult decisions, and we must ensure that our actions and resources are properly focused to address needs and ensure maximum benefits.

The Programme for Government for 2008 and beyond will, therefore, take a fundamentally different approach to that of previous exercises, and will be driven by a clear focus on addressing key challenges and delivering a better future for all our people. It cannot be driven, as in the past, by existing Budgets and broadly defined priorities that simply did not achieve real prioritisation of resources and actions. We propose to take forward a process that is more strategically focused, with a clear alignment between the policy priorities outlined in the Programme for Government and the supporting spending priorities and allocations in the Budget and the investment strategy for Northern Ireland.

Another key difference is that the Programme for Government and Budget will cover a three-year time frame and will be reviewed annually by the Executive. That will provide for planning certainty and recognises that many of the key challenges faced require action over the longer term. It will allow the Executive to set longer-term priorities while responding to changing needs.

The first key stage in the development of the Programme for Government is the identification of key priorities and associated public-service agreements. Work on that area is at an early stage. However, five emerging strategic priorities have been identified. They are: growing a dynamic, innovative economy; building a peaceful, just and stable society; invest to rebuild our infrastructure; deliver modern, high-quality and efficient public services; and protect and enhance our environment and natural resources.

Those priorities reflect the Executive’s assessment of the key social, economic and environmental challenges facing Northern Ireland. In the coming weeks, we aim to further develop those emerging priorities and to bring forward areas where public-service agreement targets and key performance indicators may be set to support them. We hope to share the outcome of that work with the Committee at an early stage.

Through the Programme for Government, the Executive will play a key role in working with Departments to ensure that actions and resources are clearly aligned with the Executive’s priorities. In addition, the Executive’s emerging priorities will also relate directly to the key work areas for which the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister (OFMDFM) is strategically responsible.

It must be recognised that, although the Executive have inherited the spending allocations and policy programmes set by the previous Administration, a number of important issues must be resolved ahead of the finalisation of the Programme for Government. The Executive are determined to address those difficult issues and have already announced reviews of water charging, rates, and elements of the review of public administration. We also aim to address constructively the question of school transfer for children at age 11.

In conclusion, the Executive are working towards the publication of a draft Programme for Government by the autumn. The challenges should not be underestimated; there are no easy answers and the process is at its beginning. In that context, we welcome the Committee’s views and the opportunity to engage with members on the important subject of the immediate challenges.

I now move on to the process for developing the ‘Priorities and Budget 2007’ and the challenges facing Ministers with responsibility for a spending Department. The comprehensive spending review has determined the opening financial baselines for the next three years and the efficiency savings that Departments must deliver. The financial environment that Ministers must operate in is difficult. There are many competing demands and many things that Ministers wish to achieve. However, we must be realistic: resources are finite, and it will not be possible to deliver everything. A focus on priorities and key outcomes will be essential.

‘Priorities and Budget 2007’ will provide the context for our work programme for the next three years. As an internal process, it will determine the resources at our disposal. As a published document, it will communicate how we will meet our commitments in the Programme for Government and the outcomes that we plan to deliver across the spending period.

We plan to register several bids for additional funding. Bids for additional resources will reflect key issues that must be addressed in the spending period. These include: victims; community relations; the single equality Bill; the proposed commissioner for older people; t he Planning Appeals Commission and Water Appeals Commission (PAC/WAC); and sustainable development. We will wish to discuss several of those issues with the Committee.

The Deputy First Minister (Mr M McGuinness):
We will take forward the equality issue. To secure a better future, we must build a just and stable society that is at peace with itself. In short, we must build an equal and shared future for all. That means valuing diversity, showing respect and tolerance for differences and recognising our interdependence.

As we work to build a more peaceful, stable and prosperous community, we must also work to ensure that all citizens can enjoy the benefits that that will bring. That means tackling poverty and social disadvantage and targeting the efforts of all programmes at the most vulnerable and excluded groups. The policy-development, legislative and co-ordination roles of OFMDFM will be pivotal to that process.

On 4 June, the Assembly debate on a shared future framework, with an emphasis on good relations, was positive and productive. The fact that Members concluded unanimously to endorse the amended motion reflects the importance that all parties attach to the goal of a shared future and a prosperous, peaceful and shared society.

Work in that area requires longer-term projects, which, in turn, require ongoing action to address contentious and difficult issues. Much has already been achieved by key interventions, many of which are good works that have been taken forward by other Departments and district councils.

There is no doubt that a shared society must be created, and I believe that we can all agree that that would be an atmosphere in which children could play together, people could work together and families could live happily side by side, regardless of their community or ethnic backgrounds or religious beliefs. That makes sense and is good business, but, more importantly, it is the right thing to do.

All Members recognise that there is much to do. In this society, widespread conflict is, thankfully, a thing of the past. However, problems still exist. Conflict and violence have left a profound legacy, not just for those who have suffered as victims and survivors, but in damage to relationships between people across the divide. Time is required to mend those relationships, heal wounds and repair fractured communities. Intolerance, sectarianism, racism and violence have no place in this or any other society. Each Member of the Assembly has a responsibility to create a society that is at ease with individual and community diversity.

The event for minority ethnic groups, which the Assembly recently hosted, demonstrated to me and, I believe, the First Minister, the contribution that people who come here can make to our society. It also demonstrated the value of each Member recognising, in his or her own way, the talents of, and contributions made by, people who live here, whether they have arrived recently or were born here, and whatever their community background. That is the basis of a shared, equal and inclusive future.

When the Assembly debated good relations and a shared future, Members confirmed that the Executive must review carefully the progress on ‘A Shared Future’ and, importantly, its sister document on the racial equality strategy. Furthermore, the Assembly and the Committee for the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister will wish to consider progress on their implementation, and what more has to, and should, be done to ensure racial equality and good relations. Shortly, there will be an opportunity to do that when progress reports on actions in the first year are brought before the Committee.

The Executive have already recognised the importance of creating a shared society. We must build on the present situation, so that the words and principles in those policies become actions. That will mean that everyone can feel at home and, some day, those problems can be fully consigned to history.

The creation of a shared society is good business; it is also the right thing to do. An inclusive, cohesive society, founded on the principles of equality of treatment and opportunity for all, is a key ingredient for a vibrant, growing economy and prosperity for all. The good relations vision fits with our equality responsibilities and, for example, with our anti-poverty strategy.

As we look to the future, we cannot ignore the fact that we are emerging from conflict. We wish to give a high priority to matters that affect victims and survivors. In the short term, a key part of our approach will be the appointment of a victims and survivors’ commissioner, which we hope to make before the summer recess. We are also considering how policy might be progressed in a way that recognises all the pain and suffering and which gives practical support to individuals, victims’ groups and others working in that area.

The Committee will be aware of the sensitivities surrounding the subject, and it has indicated that it wants to examine victims’ issues, particularly those touching on the past. At this stage, we need the right approach to address the needs of victims and survivors, and we look forward to working with the Committee in bringing forward policy proposals in the autumn.

We recognise the importance of sustainable development. The principle of seeking to meet the needs of the present, without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs, is consistent with our aspirations for this region. This is a challenging area, in that we are in an unusual position, and we will have to play our part. We will also seek to embed the principles of sustainable development in our approach to the sustainable development strategy and to build on the work that has already done on the strategy and implementation plan.

As with all inherited policies, we will wish to review the details of these documents, but we will embrace the broad themes and overall approach and expect to embed sustainable development in the Programme for Government. All Departments must play their parts in the successful delivery of sustainable development, and the Executive will wish to consider several areas.

We will also work to produce a new sustainable development implementation plan to cover the period from 2008 onwards. We will consult on that in due course and will seek the Committee’s views early in the process.

We thank you, Mr Chairman, for affording us the opportunity to give the Committee an overview of our emerging priorities after our initial weeks in office. We are happy to answer any questions that members may have.

The Chairperson:
I thank the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister for that overview.

In order to give some structure to the meeting, it might be helpful if we deal first with the strategic priorities for the Executive under the Programme for Government and then move to the departmental responsibilities. I hope that that is sensible. I remind members to structure and focus their questions, and, given the time constraints, I will allow each member to ask one question.

Mrs Long:
My first question about the timetable for the appointment of a victims’ commissioner was answered by the Deputy First Minister’s comments, which I welcome. Three of the cross-cutting themes that are the responsibility of OFMDFM are the good relations strategy; sustainability; and the anti-poverty strategy. What specific measures is OFMDFM taking to ensure that those are prioritised in Departments as part of the process of producing the comprehensive spending review, the Programme for Government and the investment strategy for Northern Ireland?

The First Minister:
The member will be aware that we are only a few weeks into business, and we are working hard with all Departments to establish the level of need to take action on the matters that she has raised. We hope and trust that we will be able to come to an agreement that will cover those Departments that, of necessity, have the power and authority to deal with certain aspects of the issues that she has raised. This Committee will be included in discussions afterwards. When we get somewhere with the matter, we will talk to the Committee again.

As the Deputy First Minister said, we want to press on with the appointment of a commissioner for victims, but it has not been as easy as it might seem. As members will be aware, the past Administration, from another place, were not expert in the matter, and certain decisions caused litigation to be taken against them. We do not intend to become involved in similar problems. We intend to do a good clean job and make it easy for the person who is appointed by ensuring that he or she does not come to the post with any baggage.

The Chairperson:
Given the public interest in the matter, can you confirm that you expect to make that announcement before recess?

The First Minister:
Yes.

The Deputy First Minister:
Absolutely.

Mr Spratt:
What progress has been made on the agenda for older people and the possibility of a commissioner or a champion for them?

The Deputy First Minister:
The junior Ministers have an important role to play: they are responsible for the co-ordination of policy for older people. They will also develop OFMDFM’s responsibilities as the champion of older people’s issues in Government and will drive the delivery of Ageing in an Inclusive Society, the cross-departmental strategy for older people.

Those are important strands in the delivery of effective devolved Government, and we will be considering the case for the establishment of a commissioner for older people. The fact that one of the first decisions taken was to give junior Ministers that role should clearly demonstrate to everyone how important the issue is to us. The junior Ministers will listen very carefully to all recommendations and will progress the matter.

As First Minister and Deputy First Minister, we are conscious of our responsibility to ensure that our fingers are on the pulse of a vital issue.

The First Minister:
I must plead guilty that I have a special interest in the matter, being an older person, especially older than the Chairman.

The Chairperson: 
First Minister, you are in a unique position.

Mr Shannon:
This is a particularly historic occasion. In the previous Assembly, I was a member of this Committee along with the Member for West Tyrone Mr McElduff. The First Minister and the Deputy First Minister never attended together as they have today. It is good news. I really —

The Chairperson:
Be careful of your time, and please focus on the question.

Mr Shannon:
I will focus on my question. I wanted simply to make the point that this is a historic occasion.

The First Minister mentioned strategic approaches several times. Although members are encouraged to hear about the strategic approach being taken by him on the development of the Programme for Government and associated Budget, how will that work fit in with the investment strategy, which is particularly important also?

The First Minister:
We will have to see how it goes. I feel very strongly that we need to give earnest consideration to the matter because if it were to work in the way that we would like it to, we could move to easier management of the finances of the Executive. However, we wait patiently for the new Prime Minister, whom I spoke to about this matter in the past week. I also spoke to the retiring Prime Minister. We need to know, finally, what they are going to do for us. They know that that is our position. I have told them that the investment strategy must be finalised. They cannot keep us dangling on a string. We must know what we will have and in what form we will have it.

Mr Shannon: 
Are the incoming Prime Minister and the retiring Prime Minister speaking to each other?

The First Minister:
All I can say is that I speak to both of them.

Mr McElduff:
I welcome the assurance that fundamentally different approaches are being taken in devising the Programme for Government and that those approaches, perhaps, differ from the priorities that were identified by — and inherited from — Mr Peter Hain in 2007-08.

In light of the increasing numbers of young people who are taking their own lives, and the huge tragedy that that represents for individuals and their families — and given the strategic and overarching role of the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister — what programmes may be taken forward, and what lessons may be learned from other jurisdictions or other societies on how to address the growing problem of young suicides?

The Deputy First Minister:
The First Minister and I met the Children’s Commissioner this morning. That was a very useful engagement. It will not surprise anyone to learn that the vast bulk of that meeting was taken up by a discussion about the unacceptably high numbers of young people who are taking their own lives, particularly in recent times. That is a terrible tragedy, and we are very conscious of our responsibilities in dealing with that matter. That is a big issue for the Executive, and it is a cross-cutting one, because it affects many Departments. Therefore, there must be a joined-up approach.

The Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister is approaching the issue of young suicides with considerable seriousness because of the anxiety and the terrible trauma that many families and communities endure because of it.

Recently, not far from where I live, a young man took his own life. I attended his wake, at which there was a huge turnout of young people — hundreds queued up to attend it. I was very concerned about the psychological and mental effects that the phenomenon of young suicides has on young people. There are many serious issues that arise from that phenomenon. The First Minister and I are conscious of our responsibility as leaders of the Executive, with a responsibility for the overarching policies of the Executive, to treat the matter with the seriousness that it deserves. The Executive will spend some important time in addressing the matter — not just in sympathising with people — by developing strategies that will counteract the unacceptably high level of suicide among young people.

The First Minister:
The Children’s Commissioner, the Deputy First Minister and I were in full agreement. We sketched out a list of ideas to address that matter. The Deputy First Minister and I will consider those ideas and will return to the Children’s Commissioner. That is an urgent matter, because young people in a suicidal state of mind do not communicate with anyone. We must communicate with those young people so that when they tell us what they are thinking of doing, they are not laughed at, mocked, or told that they are peculiar, but, instead, helped. The Children’s Commissioner and ourselves were in full agreement on that. We had a very good meeting, and I endorse all that the Deputy First Minister has said.

The Deputy First Minister:
We were also very seriously concerned about the recent use of the Internet. In your own West Tyrone constituency, there was a terrible tragedy in which two young people, who had never previously met, came together and took their own lives. That is a very worrying development.

Mrs D Kelly:
The First Minister and the Deputy First Minister spoke of the promotion of good relations, building equality and tolerance, and moving forward. I welcome those comments. In moving forward, we must also remember the victims. I am interested in the views of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister on how we are going to deal with the past. The great and the good may hold talks about drawing a line under the past, but we owe truth and justice to the victims. As for ‘Building a Better Future’ and the promotion of good relations, we must examine the needs of gay and lesbian communities. I would like to hear the views of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister on those issues, in particular.

The First Minister:
Those are matters that must be faced in an honest way. If you cover things up, you do not face them honestly. That is my conviction. There are certain things that we have to leave aside because they have already been looked at and nobody is going to be satisfied with the findings. We must concentrate on areas where we can find agreement and take action, which needs to be, in the main, preventative action, so that difficulties do not recur. We want to resolve matters finally. We all, in our various ways, have responsibility there. It is a very important matter, and we need to set our minds to it, because it does need to be conquered.

The Deputy First Minister:
I agree with everything that the First Minister has said. The issue of victims is a priority for us. Many thousands of people in our society have suffered and continue to suffer as a result of the conflict, and we want to help them as best we can. Work is under way on a strategy for victims that can bring the various relevant strands together.

This is a highly vexed issue, and it has been one of the outstanding failures of the process from as far back as 1998. There has been a collective failure to face up to it. There may be some developments on that shortly, and we await them with interest. It is effectively outside the remit of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister, but it is important, and we need to have a comprehensive approach that will deal with the anxieties and concerns that people have, some of which have been articulated through the questions. We are very conscious of all of that.

The First Minister:
I would not like people to think that these matters are not to the fore. I have had very frank discussions with the Deputy First Minister on matters that concern me personally about missing people and missing bodies. There is also the murder that took place in Short Strand. We speak fully and frankly; I have made strong representations to him and to the leader of his party, and I will continue to do so.

We cannot hide away from these things. However, if we can deal with matters that are more easily solved, we will be building a better foundation for greater movement. I would be concerned if the Government wanted to push us down the road towards a terrible lot of legal cases, because those do good only to the lawyers, not the community.

The Deputy First Minister:
I agree with everything that the First Minister has said. This issue has concerned us greatly, and we have had discussions and jointly communicated with some of the families who have missing bodies. Clearly, nobody should be under any illusion about what we are doing. We are appealing to everyone who has any scrap of information that might assist the Independent Commission for the Location of Victims’ Remains and the forensic scientists who are trying to recover the bodies to give whatever information they can and to give it as quickly as possible. How we deal with that is of tremendous importance.

Reference was made to the gay and lesbian community. The First Minister clearly articulated the view of OFMDFM about standing up for the rights of people during Question Time last Monday, and I reiterate what he said.

The Chairperson:
The Committee is already considering how best it might make a contribution to the important debate on dealing with the past. It is likely that at some point in the early autumn the Committee will instigate a review. Many people have never had truth or justice, or attention paid to them.

We are mindful that although certain high-profile cases have received publicity, many people have had to endure private suffering. Can we have an assurance that the Executive and the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister will make adequate funding available to facilitate a fair and proper process?

The First Minister:
We cannot make a commitment to funding at present. However, if the matter were raised and aired, and agreement resulted, the Executive and the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister would want to provide the required money. The matter of money presents difficulties, although some people think that we just have to wink, and the money appears.

There are approximately 200 unresolved murders; if there is the possibility of funding a process that might help those affected, and if the Assembly, the Executive and the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister decide to move in that direction, we will have to find money in the Budget.

The Deputy First Minister:
It is important that people realise that, at present, that matter is a direct rule responsibility. The Executive will have to take account of the resultant financial implications, but we cannot prejudge the outcome. Any initiative will have to be taken very seriously.

The First Minister:
Peter Hain set up a new group to study that issue, without having consulted the Assembly. I do not believe that anyone was even asked about it, so, if he is going to run that group on his own, he will have to pay for it using his own funding.

The Chairperson:
I am sure that that advice will be well received.

Mr Wells:
Planning is an issue that OFMDFM has inherited and which could strangle development in the Province if it is not sorted out. At the Planning Appeals Commission, appeals are running at six times the normal level. There are 2,800 appeals in the system, and around 800 a year are being processed. It does not take a genius to realise that that will cause difficulties for developers throughout the country. What can OFMDFM do to alleviate that logjam, which threatens the future development of the Province?

The First Minister:
That is an important matter. The appeal workload is rising sharply: according to the figures I have received, in 2006-07, 2,765 appeals were received, of which 362 were added in the last reckoning. That is a 600% increase. Faced with such an increase, the question is when those cases will be resolved. The matter has been raised in the past with OFMDFM. We are all concerned about it, because our future depends on it. If the job cannot be done, and the Planning Service is not getting plans through, people will not be able to build, and our infrastructure will not be developed.

Also during 2006-07, the number of full-time commissioners has risen from 14 to 21, placing further demands on the Planning Appeals Commission’s budget, which, over a five-year period, has been increased from £1·2 million to £2 million.

The number of planning applications is starting to fall, but there is a significant backlog that must be addressed. That matter concerns us all, and OFMDFM will consider it carefully to see whether it can be resolved. Planning is probably one of the worst problems that we have to deal with. Even if all other matters are settled, but planning remains a problem, development will be stymied. How it ever got into this state, I do not know.

Mr Molloy:
I welcome the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister to this important meeting. Several victims and survivors are present in the Senate Chamber. What message can be given to them about how the past will be dealt with realistically with regard to collusion, state violence and the conflict from which we are emerging? What role can victims, survivors and their families have — in a forum, for example — that will enable them to have input into how the past is dealt with and with how progress in dealing with their needs is made in the aftermath of the conflict?

The First Minister:
That is a serious problem. Much thought must be given to how it will be resolved, because it would have to be done successfully. If it did not succeed, we would be back in the same state, only worse. Given that simple fact, there are weighty arguments against some of the remedies that have been proposed. However, the matter must be faced.

Like planning, it is difficult and cannot be solved overnight. The Deputy First Minister and I are concerned about that and we are applying our hearts and minds to it. I wish that some clever person would come and tell us how to get out of that particular rut. It is a deep rut: in fact, it has become a grave to many people, with their worries, cares and trials.

The Deputy First Minister:
It is an area of legitimate and obvious concern right across every section of the community. Victims and victims’ groups have expressed total dissatisfaction with the inability of the political process to come to terms with their needs. Therefore, whatever mechanism is established must first take account of those peoples’ views. Given the conflict, and the accusations and allegations that flow around, it will be very difficult.

Whatever body is established to deal with the past, it will fail miserably unless it consults properly with all those people, many of whom have expressed grave reservations about the ability of the political process to uncover the truth of their individual situations. That must be a key priority for the Assembly as it moves forward.

Mr Moutray:
What work has been done to develop relationships with other devolved Administrations, primarily on an east-west basis?

The First Minister:
OFMDFM seeks to develop relationships as best it can, especially along the lines of the British-Irish Council. We had a useful visit from the First Minister of Scotland. I do not want to prophesy; however, I believe that there can be a remedy to the education problem, which will be a major step forward for people who wish to study in Scottish universities. The Scottish First Minister and those who accompanied him were favourably disposed to that. The outcome might go a different way. However, if that were achieved for the people of Northern Ireland, it would be a great thing.

I have also met the First Minister of Wales, with whom I had a good conversation. The three of us are to meet to discuss progress. I am sure that the Deputy First Minister will agree that we had a useful discussion with the Scottish First Minister, which covered several issues. Afterwards, we signed a pact that covered many issues. We intend to press on with those pledges.

There is no point having a British-Irish Council meeting unless the new Prime Minister is there. We will not deal with secondary people; we will deal with the top man, and my party has said that it will not go to a meeting of the British-Irish Council unless the Prime Minister is there. He must be there. The Council is an important body, and the man to chair its meeting is the Prime Minister, not someone else.

The Deputy First Minister:
There have recently been elections in Scotland and Wales, as well as here, and the political landscape in Scotland has changed. There will probably be a coalition Government of Labour and Plaid Cymru in Wales. It is clear from initial discussions with those Administrations that they recognise the importance of working closely with us on many of the matters to be negotiated with Downing Street. We are as anxious as they are to work in a spirit of co-operation.

Furthermore, we must work with the other devolved Administrations on how our economic prospects can be boosted, and we all recognise the importance of ensuring that any economic advance in the South of Ireland will happen for people in the North as well. There are projects and ideas on how best to develop that relationship, and the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment, Nigel Dodds, has been to the forefront of an all-Ireland economic approach to energy and the gas pipeline. Where economic benefits might flow, it makes sense for all of us to work closely together.

The heartening thing, particularly in the context of the momentous breakthrough in the North, is that there is a tremendous amount of goodwill out there. Many people from all over the world have visited recently and have applauded the political developments. That shows that this is the right time for us to strike to bring economic benefits and inward investment to this part of our country.

The First Minister:
Might I mention that, in North Antrim, we want the boat to go across to Scotland? That matter was raised with the Scottish First Minister, and we heard some very good suggestions from him. We could get nothing out of the Ministers from Westminster, but now we have some hope. Two or three good breaks like that would be wonderful. Three devolved Governments coming together with one unifying note will be very hard to reject. Westminster will not be happy.

The Deputy First Minister:
We are prepared to jointly captain the ship. [Laughter.]

The First Minister:
You might run us into Rathlin Island.

The Deputy First Minister:
You would like that. [Laughter.]

 

The Chairperson:
To digress slightly, what is the relationship between you guys?

The Deputy First Minister:
It is not a love-in: it is a work-in.

The Chairperson:
Dr Paisley, do you want to comment?

The First Minister:
What did you say?

The Chairperson:
What is the current state of your relationship with the Deputy First Minister?

The First Minister:
It is what it always was. There has been no change. Not an inch, and no surrender. [Laughter.]

The Chairperson:
You did not quite say that when you were asked before.

The First Minister:
I heard you say that at a meeting.

The Chairperson:
I may well have copied you, Dr Paisley.

The First Minister:
You could not copy a better person.

The Junior Minister (Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister) (Mr Paisley Jnr):
Plagiarism.

Mr Elliott:
I am interested in Bertha McDougall’s interim report, ‘Support for Victims and Survivors: Addressing the Human Legacy’, and several of its recommendations. I am pleased to hear that a new Commissioner for Victims and Survivors will be appointed before the summer recess. That is good news. I am concerned, however, that some of the Interim Commissioner’s recommendations may be lost in the process, or be absorbed into the new commission without being implemented. Are there any plans to immediately — or reasonably quickly — implement or develop any of the recommendations of the Interim Commissioner for Victims and Survivors?

In light of last night’s ‘Spotlight’ programme, do the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister believe that it would be helpful if there were greater public openness on the part of many people who were affected by the conflict, such as Terry McCormick, who was featured on the TV programme? Would it be helpful if more people adopted such an approach?

The First Minister:
I agree with you about Bertha McDougall’s recommendations, which are all very important. We held a very useful meeting this morning on that matter, during which the consensus — in my opinion — was that Mrs McDougall’s report must form the basis of what happens under the new Commissioner.

The new Commissioner will not, of course, be bound by Mrs McDougall’s recommendations, which are not the law of the Medes and Persians. On the other hand, we must give direction on some of those matters, and our direction will be very much in line with what has been set out by Bertha McDougall. We are all indebted to her for the hard work that she carried out under very difficult circumstances. However, there can be movement on some of the recommendations.

The difficulty is that, unfortunately, there was no devolved Government when the post of Commissioner for Victims and Survivors was advertised or when the appointment was made. We must wait and see what happens with the new appointment. However, it will not be our fault if someone is not appointed before the summer recess. We want to see that appointment made, and we will push for that to happen.

The Deputy First Minister:
I did not see last night’s ‘Spotlight’ programme but I am told — and I do not know whether it is accurate — that two people appeared on the programme who indicated that they had some involvement in the killing of Captain Nairac. I do not know who those people are. I do not know their bona fides or whether they were actually there. I do not know whether they are Walter Mittys. I do not know whether there is any validity to the case that they made on that programme.

Obviously, the most vexed aspect of this issue, as it relates to Captain Nairac and other missing people, is the need to ensure that the bodies are returned to their families. Whether it be Captain Nairac or anyone else, if people have information, they should come forward with it. We will be vociferous in advocating that people have such a duty and a responsibility, particularly in the context of the enormous political breakthroughs that have occurred here in recent times.

Clearly, people are hurting as a result of not having bodies returned to them. All of us who are involved in the political process, not least ourselves, and everyone who may not be involved in — or who is detached from — the political process, but who has information about those matters should bring that information forward as a matter of great urgency.

Ms Anderson:
I welcome you both to the meeting. Save the Children launched a campaign at Stormont today to end child poverty, and in light of that and of today’s release of the particularly disturbing labour force survey, what specific measures will be taken to change existing patterns of discrimination and inequality? Earlier, reference was made to fundamentally changing the situation here and to doing things differently. That labour force survey report demonstrates once again, and unfortunately, that Catholics remain 2·5 times more likely than Protestants to be unemployed. That is in the context of the Save the Children campaign to end child poverty.

The long-term unemployment rates are also higher. According to the NIO report, every social and economic indicator shows that the unemployment rate among Catholic females is getting worse. Here we are, 30 years on from the start of the conflict, and report after report — whether it is geographical deprivation, ‘The Bare Necessities’ or ‘The Rhetoric and the Reality’ — tells us that, despite programmes that are meant to address inequality and disadvantage, the outcomes are not improving. People from the Catholic community are two and a half times more likely to be unemployed.

I am sure that the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister find that totally unacceptable, regardless of which community a person comes from. There is something fundamentally wrong with the system, and I welcome the fact that the First Minister has said that this Administration will take a fundamentally different approach.

The Chairperson:
Although I understand the importance of the question, I must point out that it took some time.

The First Minister:
The point is that there is a very important difference here: one side says that it is discriminated against, and the other side says that it is discriminated against. I have figures for various employment areas that show that Protestants are not in any way favoured. In fact, they are disfavoured. I am rather suspicious of figures because one side of the community can produce figures — some are even Government figures — to prove that Protestants have been discriminated against. On the other hand, Ms Anderson says that there are difficulties with the employment of Roman Catholic women.

All I can say is that I want to see people employed on the basis of their ability, not their religion. Appointments to office should be based on a person’s ability to do the job. I do not believe that people should be discriminated against because of their religion. Of course, looking to the South of Ireland, I do not think that there is one Protestant in the Dáil now.

The Chairperson:
Not to be too personal about it, but there are a couple, as far as I know.

The First Minister:
Well, there is one.

The Chairperson:
There are at least two.

The First Minister:
He is a green man. [Laughter.]

The Chairperson:
Yes, of a type.

The First Minister:
Yes.

The Chairperson:
There is at least one other of whom I am aware. Anyway, we are not counting Protestants in the Dáil.

The Deputy First Minister:
We have not seen the report yet. As Ms Anderson said, it was just published today.

The Chairperson:
The document appears to be an official press release issued by OFMDFM — it bears your imprimatur.

The Deputy First Minister:
By the same token, we need to study the document in great detail. It has been brought forward by officials. We are conscious that, as Ms Anderson said, over the course of many years, various reports have highlighted the difficulties in employment practices. The crucial issue for us in dealing with all that is to ensure that through the single equality Bill, which we are committed to introducing, we promote equality of opportunity, as the First Minister said. We will soon be considering proposals to harmonise, in a single equality Bill, around 30 years of equality law, in so far as is practicable, and at the same time — and where appropriate — extend and update existing equality legislation. The Committee will be consulted throughout that process.

The Chairperson:
That completes the formal questions from members.

Will the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister, as the leaders of the Executive, ensure that the planned consultations on the Programme for Government are prefaced by a pre-public consultation with all the Committees, including the Committee for the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister?

The Deputy First Minister:
We are committed to ensuring that intense consultations take place with all Committees. We are moving forward with a new, strategic approach that is bound up with the comprehensive spending review, the Programme for Government and the investment strategy, and the priorities that will emerge from those exercises. Those are big issues not only for the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister but for every Member. With the help of the Committees, we are determined to ensure that proper and sufficient consultations take place.

The First Minister:
We are prepared to appear before Committees, if that is their wish. They cannot force us, but we are willing to meet them and explain our views. I am glad that this meeting took place today, because we need to meet the Committee only once more to beat the record of those who came before us. We are very happy about that.

Some Members:
Hear, hear.

The Chairperson:
It has been a useful discussion, and we are delighted that both of you were able to attend. In addition, we will expect to engage in full consultation on the priorities of the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister.

The First Minister:
We can promise that there will be full consultation between the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister and this Committee, and we will answer any questions as we see them. We cannot promise that the Committee will like our answers, but we will do our best. The First Minister and the Deputy First Minister — and the junior Ministers — need to have a close relationship with this Committee; we need to know your views before we do anything. After all, we are democrats. Let us all speak out.

This meeting has been profitable. There was much media speculation about the meeting and how it would turn out, but I am glad that my friends in the press are going home biting the ends of their little pencils because they did not get their story. They predicted holy war, but we have had a nice time at this meeting. Good questions have been asked, and the meeting has been helpful to all of us.

The Deputy First Minister:
It might not be as nice the next time, now that you have said that.

The Chairperson:
I did not see any of the trailers that predicted holy war, but on behalf of the Committee, may I say that the meeting has been useful. I thank both of you for attending, and the junior Ministers for their decorative value and their wisdom as well. We look forward to a productive relationship in the future. Thank you and good afternoon.

The First Minister:
Thank you very much.

The Deputy First Minister:
Thanks, everybody.

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