Official Report (Hansard)

Session: 2011/2012

Date: 25 May 2011

PDF version of this report (213.09 kb)

Committee for the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister

 

First Day Brief

 

The Chairperson:

Good afternoon. First and deputy First Ministers and junior Ministers, you are all very welcome. None of you is a stranger to the Committee, and one of you is a former longstanding member. I congratulate the four of you on your appointment. I have just told the Committee that we look forward to having a positive working relationship where possible. I assume that it will sometimes bring us into minor disagreement or conflict.

Mr M McGuinness (The deputy First Minister):

I find that hard to believe. [Laughter.]

The Chairperson:

We look forward to working together. I ask you to brief us and then leave yourselves available for members’ questions.

Mr P Robinson (The First Minister):

Thanks very much indeed, Mr Chairman. We welcome the opportunity to meet the Committee at its first meeting of the new mandate. Like you, we hope that we will have a constructive relationship. We congratulate all of you: some on your appointment to the Committee and some on your reappointment. We look forward to working with you in a positive way.

I am sure that we share recognition of the need to increase people’s confidence in the institutions of government and the need to be seen to deliver a good outcome for all the people whom we collectively represent. Committee members have received a copy of the first day brief, which sets out the key issues that the deputy First Minister and I, as Ministers in charge of the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister (OFMDFM), will have to consider during the mandate.

The cross-cutting nature of many of the departmental issues has wide-ranging effects for other ministerial colleagues. In that regard, we and our Executive colleagues are determined to resolve issues in a collective and positive manner. We fully acknowledge the importance of all the departmental issues that will require our prompt consideration. Other issues will undoubtedly emerge during the course of the next four years. Today, however, we intend to highlight to the Committee our early priorities and those matters that require early discussion.

I would like to start with the economy, which remains our top priority. The latest economic indicators suggest that there is still little sign of upturn in our local economy. Our labour markets continue to be adversely affected by the recession. The latest evidence reports that the local economy was the only UK region not to have experienced private sector output growth in the past three months. The weaknesses of our economy, such as low levels of enterprise, innovation and R&D, high levels of economic inactivity, and a dependency on the public sector, are well documented. We are making it our priority to address those weaknesses.

We, along with Minister Foster and Minister Wilson, met David Gauke and Owen Paterson at the start of this year to give them our thoughts on rebalancing our economy here in Northern Ireland. The UK Government published their consultation document on the issue on 24 March 2011. The consultation period runs out on 24 June 2011. The paper considers mainly the impact of lowering the corporation tax rate here but also includes references to other fiscal measures, such as the extension of the national insurance holiday, enhanced R&D tax credits and increased capital allowances.

The adoption of the main proposal to reduce the level of corporation tax here would come at a cost. We would be required, under an EU ruling — the Azores ruling — to pay any lost corporation tax revenue to the Exchequer, which would result in a reduction in our annual block grant. It is difficult for us at this stage to put a figure on the exact revenue loss, but the paper submitted by the Government presents a range of outcomes. Of course, however much the final cost of that proposal turns out to be, it needs to be balanced against the potential additional economic opportunities that lower corporation tax presents, such as increased investment, jobs and growth, and financial benefits, including the extra tax revenue generated from new investments in the form of VAT, excise duties, national insurance contributions and, of course, income tax revenue. This is a complex issue, and there is a lot to consider. We are encouraging all interested stakeholders to respond to the issues and questions raised in the consultation paper. Consultation events involving Executive Ministers, the Secretary of State and the Exchequer Secretary to the Treasury are currently being arranged.

I will move now to the new Programme for Government. Work is being taken forward on that matter as a top priority. Important preparatory work has already been done, and discussions about the approach and content of the new programme have taken place with ministerial colleagues and party leaders. At this albeit early point, our thinking is that the next Programme for Government should aim to offer a fresh and accessible framework to present the Executive’s policies and programmes. It should be more clearly focused and easy to understand, while placing a greater emphasis on the delivery of meaningful and practical outcomes for everyone. It will build on the achievements of the previous Programme for Government but will also take forward new initiatives designed to address economic and social needs. A precise timetable for drafting the final Programme for Government is not yet set. However, we are mindful of the important contribution that the OFMDFM Committee can make to the development of the final programme. To that end, we welcome your views on the draft programme during that exercise.

Preparatory work is also under way on an investment strategy for 2011-2021. That work is being supported by advice from the Strategic Investment Board, which is consulting the Department of Finance and Personnel and other Departments on drawing up options for consideration by the Executive as a whole. The first three years of the previous investment strategy delivered record levels of investment of some £5 billion. Although, due to the coalition Government spending cuts, we will not be able to achieve such levels over the next few years, the Executive will need to maximise their capital spending to help deliver their objectives and produce urgently needed economic and social benefits. The investment strategy will have a critical role in that.

Moving to international relations: we will continue to use every available opportunity to promote investment, encourage trade and help the tourism industry through our work on the international stage. In March this year, we represented the Executive at a series of St Patrick’s Day events in Washington. We showcased the creative industries at a well-attended breakfast organised by the Northern Ireland Bureau and were the key speakers at an economic round table sponsored by Declan Kelly. We also held separate meetings with President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton. That level of access can be maintained only by regular visits to meet the key people who are willing to support our drive to improve the economy.

We wish to record our gratitude to Declan Kelly for the work that he has done over the past 18 months to promote inward investment from the United States. His work has been invaluable and we were deeply saddened to learn of his resignation. Indeed, we have written to Secretary Clinton to acknowledge our gratitude to her for appointing Mr Kelly. We also raised with her the possibility of a replacement who would continue the excellent work that Declan has started.

We may be a small European region but we enjoy an unprecedented level of access in Washington DC, on Wall Street and in the major movie production studios on the west coast. HBO’s decision to film ‘Game of Thrones’ in Northern Ireland was a massive boost for our reputation as a location for film-making and for our economy in general and underscored the importance of our getting directly involved in securing projects from the United States. We continue to work with HBO to secure the second series for Northern Ireland.

Turning to Europe: we trust that both the returning and new members of the Committee are aware of our meeting last December with President Barroso in Brussels and the joint commitment that we made to renew the European Commission’s task force. The Barroso task force working group, comprising senior civil servants from each Department, has been actively taking that work forward. It has agreed four priority themes for 2011-12 and has established cross-departmental subgroups to identify priorities and to take forward the work. A discussion document outlining a plan for European engagement for the year has been developed. Those previously on the Committee will have seen a draft of that document last February.

A refined version of the document was used was used as a framework for discussions during the visit by Commission task force officials to Belfast between 30 March and 1 April. Building on the momentum of that visit, the discussion paper is being developed into a statement of regional European policy priorities for 2011-12, which we will bring to the Executive. Our priorities statement will be a more strategic document than previous European action plans. We are confident that this changed format will provide clearer direction for Departments to plan their own detailed European engagement. This flexibility will also permit us to respond more effectively to external developments, such as the publication of the Commission’s multi-annual financial framework for 2014-2020, which is expected at the end of next month.

I now hand over to my colleague, the deputy First Minister.

Mr M McGuinness:

Thank you, Peter. I also congratulate all members of the Committee on their re-election and their appointment to the OFMDFM Committee.

I will carry on from where Peter left off. We carried out an extensive consultation exercise on the programme for cohesion, sharing and integration last year. The responses have been analysed independently and a report provided. The five main political parties have agreed to appoint representatives to a working group that will seek consensus on issues that will enable the publication of a cohesion, sharing and integration strategy. That group will consider the consultation responses, and all Departments will be asked for their input. All consultation responses will be shared with the working group as well as the Committee. A road map that sets out the steps and timetable for the strategy and a robust action plan will be brought forward. It is anticipated that the strategy and action plan will be ready for the autumn and December respectively.

I will now speak about the social investment fund. We all recognise the efforts that have already been made to tackle poverty and deprivation and to improve the lives of those in our society who need it most. However, none of us will argue that persistent patterns of socio-economic deprivation across sections of the community do not remain. The delivery of economic and social improvements in such areas through investment and employment will be the primary aim of the £80 million social investment fund. It will include resource and capital projects. We fully appreciate the challenges that that will bring. Key to its success will be joined-up working across the Executive and the realisation that projects and services need to be strategically planned to meet the priority needs of the area. Indeed, the communities in the social investment zones identified will have a key role to play in developing strategic plans and identifying priorities. Therefore, an element of the funding will be to support that work through capacity building and technical assistance. Our officials have already been engaging with colleagues across Departments and have held discussions with interested parties to help to inform how the fund can best be managed to deliver maximum impact. Members may have already seen the strategic document that was published on 24 March that outlines the high-level vision for the fund. We are now working to produce a consultation document that will provide further detail around the application process, key themes and management framework. We will, of course, bring that to the Committee for comment. We hope to be in a position to issue that for consultation in the coming weeks.

The social protection fund (SPF) is another important fund that was agreed in the run-in to the Budget. It was agreed by the Budget review group to mitigate the impact of the comprehensive spending review on those who are most vulnerable in our society. It will operate as an Executive programme fund that targets individuals and families who face severe hardship owing to the current economic downturn. We will work closely with other Departments to identify the most appropriate and effective means of targeting interventions. We will, of course, engage with the Committee as we further develop the operation of the fund, and we welcome your suggestions and views.

You will be aware that work is progressing in the Department towards the establishment of a victims’ and survivors’ service within a two-year agreed time frame. Our overall aim is to establish a service that will provide support for all victims and survivors in a co-ordinated and efficient manner. In line with our commitment to deliver the highest level of support and services to victims, the service will listen and be responsive to their needs and will work closely with the Commission for Victims and Survivors and the forum. Over the past year, considerable progress has been made on the design of the service. The focus over the coming months will be on the approval of the business case for the organisational model of the service; the recruitment of the chief executive, followed by other key personnel; the establishment of the organisation; the approval of the individual assessment process; and communication in the sector to ensure that we get the design of the service right. Although the development process is ongoing, we will continue to deliver support and funding to victims and survivors. We have allocated £50 million in the Budget to meet the needs of victims and survivors over the next four years.

We have consistently acknowledged the cross-cutting importance of sustainable development. We were disappointed by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs’ decision to stand down the Sustainable Development Commission. Nevertheless, we have in hand arrangements to allow work in that area to continue effectively. Our intention is to compensate for the loss of the commission by making more use of other established groups and sources of expertise. We already have an official-led sustainable development champions’ network, and we hope to enhance the work of the Minister-led sustainability steering group that was established to oversee the development of the sustainable development implementation plan, which was published in March. We anticipate that the recruitment of sustainability steering group members will be completed within the next few weeks, and we are looking for four members to be appointed on a two-year basis.

As many people know, the Executive, in December of last year, announced the establishment of an interdepartmental task force to consider the issue of historical institutional abuse and make recommendations on the nature of an inquiry. As an issue that touches on responsibilities across a number of Departments, OFMDFM has taken on the role of co-ordinating the work of the task force. Since the inception of the task force, it has met on a number of occasions, and extensive work is now under way in scoping out the options for an inquiry. The task force has not underestimated the complexity of the issues involved, and it has taken time to consider carefully the approaches taken to historical institutional abuse in other places. There is much for us to learn from the experiences of other jurisdictions, and it is important that we draw on the knowledge of those areas in developing an approach that best meets the needs of victims and survivors in the context here. We hope that the task force’s recommendations will be submitted to the Executive before the summer recess, and, of course, the Committee will continue to be updated on developments in the work of the task force.

OFMDFM is co-ordinating the discussions on future childcare options. A policy and economic appraisal was completed during 2010, and the report was circulated most recently to Ministers and Departments in February 2011. The report envisages a 10-year strategy based on existing levels of funded provision plus an additional annual sum, estimated at £3 million per annum, to support the development of childcare. You will be aware that we secured that funding in the budget allocation. In addition to the proposed strategic actions, the report recommends that, although they are not primarily childcare services, the operation of Sure Start and extended schools as key supports to childcare should be subject to review.

To allow some initial progress, eight strategic actions have been suggested as a starting point for whichever Department leads the work. Taking those proposals forward to implementation will require a joined-up approach across government — hence the importance of the Executive identifying a lead organisation. Actions proposed include the implementation of a childminder start-up package and improved registration and inspection of childminding services; the expansion of out-of-schools clubs; and improved take-up of the childcare element of working tax credit for low- and middle-income families in work.

Considerable progress continues to be made at each of the regeneration sites. However, I intend to mention only a few areas today. The important remediation programme to remove contaminants from the Maze/Long Kesh site will be completed in the summer, and it is expected that the Maze/Long Kesh development corporation will be operational before the end of the year. The regeneration of the site will make a significant impact on the economy here, and, hopefully, it will be a catalyst for economic and social regeneration and growth. The regeneration of the Ebrington parade ground by Ilex is set to finish in the autumn, which will produce an exceptional destination space and incorporate an area of the parade ground for public performances and events. Social clauses have been included in the contract, and, to date, a total of three jobs has been created. In addition, the regeneration plan for Derry, ‘One City, One Plan, One Voice’, is due to be finalised shortly, and the peace bridge is due to be opened officially to the public on 25 June.

The Executive are now taking over former military sites transferred from the Ministry of Defence (MOD) under the Hillsborough Castle Agreement, and the Department of Education has taken possession of the land in Omagh needed for the development of a schools campus. OFMDFM is now in possession of other land in Omagh and St Patrick’s Barracks in Ballymena. The former Shackleton base at Ballykelly has been sold by the MOD, which will transfer the sale proceeds to the Executive. The disposal of those sites will be a priority for the Department, and a disposal strategy is under way. However, we are realistic in our expectations for the sale of the sites in the current market.

I hope that we have provided the Committee with a brief summary of the immediate priorities and considerations that the First Minister and I hope to be undertaken within the next few months. Thank you.

The Chairperson:

Thank you very much for that comprehensive run-through. We will take a number of questions. I note that you said that an independent analysis of the cohesion, sharing and integration (CSI) strategy has been carried out. Is it possible that the Committee could get sight of that analysis?

Mr P Robinson:

Our general view is that we will be as forthcoming as we can in all these matters. That includes the individual responses to it that we have received, as well as a commentary by our officials on each of the responses that we received. We see no point in leaving the Committee to duplicate the kind of stuff that we have already carried out, so we will provide you with as much information as possible.

The Chairperson:

To be fair, the previous Committee received a copy of the responses, but I was concentrating on the independent analysis that has been carried out on that consultation.

Mr P Robinson:

As I understand it, the analysis is much the same as the kind of analysis that you have already received. I am not sure that the Committee has received the detailed responses thus far; you received only an analysis of them. We will provide that analysis for you. I do not think that there will be any difficulty on our part in doing so, and, on top of that, we will give you the detailed responses, which may be of greater interest to you.

Mr M McGuinness:

We received something like 290 written responses to the consultation exercise, and we are considering the independent report and the responses to allow us to develop a strategy for CSI in a responsive way. Clearly, Ministers will wish to review the work that they have done before they make decisions. However, all the written responses will be made available to the Committee.

If you are looking for a sign of what I hope will be real progress, you should take heart from the fact that, in the meetings that the First Minister and I conducted with party leaders in the aftermath of the re-establishment of these institutions, there was common cause, in that we all needed to work together. I think the fact that we have appointed representatives from each of the parties to try to achieve a consensus leads us to believe that we can come out at the other end with a CSI strategy that is acceptable to all the main parties in the Assembly.

Mr P Robinson:

You will also be aware that we have agreed with the party leaders a route map to take us through that process.

Mr M McGuinness:

We will publish a timeline shortly that sets out the next steps.

The Chairperson:

In the meantime, will we get a copy of the responses and the analysis?

Mr M McGuinness:

Yes.

The Chairperson:

Thank you.

I will turn now to the social investment fund. I noticed that you said that it would go out for consultation over the summer. The normal practice is that the Committee is given a pre-consultation briefing. Can I assume that we will get that?

Mr P Robinson:

We are happy to do that, and we have already had pre-consultation meetings with some of the stakeholders. We have not gone firm on the details, and we will not do so until we have had the opportunity to hear the Committee’s views.

The Chairperson:

I noticed that the part of your briefing that deals with the Programme for Government states that:

“Ministers will need to decide if the Committee should continue to undertake this role”.

That refers to the role of co-ordinating the Committee consultation process for the Programme for Government. Is it not for Committees to decide what their role is, as opposed to Ministers deciding it?

Mr P Robinson:

A difficulty arises where a role is undertaken across a number of Committees. For example, should this Committee co-ordinate the activities of the others, or should each Committee input directly into the process? We do not mind what way we receive that input, but we want to receive it. I assume that that is a matter for the Assembly, or perhaps for the Business Committee, to decide.

The Chairperson:

Would it not be better for the Committees to decide that, as opposed to Ministers deciding and directing Committees? From the way that the paragraph is worded, it almost sounds as though Ministers will direct the Committees. I would have assumed that, prior to this point, the Committees decided whether the OFMDFM Committee should provide that central role.

Mr P Robinson:

I do not think that we have any hard-and-fast view as to how that input comes to us. I suppose that the mechanism will have to be decided by the Business Committee. I think that that is the only body that is capable of determining whether the material should be provided by individual Committees or whether the OFMDFM Committee should bring it forward.

The Chairperson:

OK, but do you accept that it is not a directive from Ministers? That is the point that I am trying to get at. The paragraph reads as though Ministers will direct how Committees should scrutinise the process.

Mr P Robinson:

We always encourage people to provide us with their views, but we never force them to do so.

Mr Humphrey:

Thank you for the presentation. I will focus on the social investment fund (SIF). Mention was made of the requirement for that to be joined up across Departments at Stormont, the Northern Ireland Office, local councils and statutory agencies, and I welcome that. Greater efficiency and focus is needed in many areas.

There has been criticism of the social investment fund from some. My view is that it provides a great opportunity for hard-to-reach communities, such as the communities that I represent in North Belfast. Others can speak for their constituencies. Can you provide more meat on the bones as to how you believe the SIF can reach those hard-to-reach communities and make a lasting difference, with a legacy that builds capacity and confidence in those communities?

Mr P Robinson:

You will have seen in the Budget that we have identified £80 million over the four years, although the allocation will build up incrementally to a higher figure in the latter years. That allows for a lot of planning and preparation in the first year. It would be wrong for us to be too dogmatic on what we want to do until we have had the views of the Assembly, its Committees and, indeed, the various sectors that are involved. We have looked at, in draft form, how we can deliver, and there is a general view that there is not any great purpose in our reinventing the wheel. Where there are existing delivery mechanisms, they should be used.

You raised the issue of joining it all up. The Department of Education and DSD will have a role. Indeed, it is hard to think of a Department that might not have a role when you look at the breadth of the themes involved. Not only do we need to join it up in government but, clearly, local government will have an interest. The extent to which local government is prepared to work with us will impact on how we move the fund forward.

Also, we would like a number of funding agencies to get involved. Martin and I had conversations with Hillary Clinton about the use of International Fund for Ireland funding from the United States, which, it has to be said, we are still fighting for. That fund may have a similar agenda to ours. We can tap in to other funds, for example, the American Ireland Fund, to increase resources and deliver much more on the ground. We will have officials make a presentation to the Committee on the issue, and we will be very keen to hear the Committee’s views on where work should be focused and how it should be delivered.

Mr M McGuinness:

It is very important that we understand the need to avoid duplication and that we move forward, principally, in a way that sees designated areas deciding their own priorities. Obviously, that will involve them taking account of the need to avoid duplication.

Mr Spratt:

I thank both Ministers for their presentations. The First Minister mentioned the visit to Washington, the work with the creative industries and the many benefits to the Northern Ireland economy as a result. What is the possibility of future investment in the creative industries? From other discussions that you had in Washington, do you think it likely that there will be other economic benefits in the not-too-distant future?

Mr P Robinson:

There are two aspects. One is our outreach work, in which we try to encourage people to use Northern Ireland as a base. Every episode of ‘Game of Thrones’ that is seen assists in putting Northern Ireland’s marker down for future location work. Potentially, there could be seven separate series of ‘Game of Thrones’. We have succeeded in securing the first series. I would hope that we are in the front line to secure the second series. That work is ongoing. Clearly, it has to be nailed down. Indeed, I hope that we will be able to nail down future episodes. The key issue for us is to provide on-the-ground facilities that make Northern Ireland a more attractive place than elsewhere. The Paint Hall, unquestionably, provides a large, covered area, which does not, perhaps, have an equal anywhere else in Europe. We have spent money to upgrade it. However, there is further work to do.

Along with Titanic Quarter Limited and Belfast Harbour Commissioners, we are looking at the prospect of further studios on that site and indeed, perhaps, a bit further down the line, the potential of a media and creative industries village in the area, which would enhance significantly our opportunity to bring business here. It is made all the easier because of the ability to transfer data from Northern Ireland to North America at vast speeds, which means that work can be done on film today and sent instantly to the west coast or elsewhere in North America for further work. Therefore, we have many advantages. As a result of work that has been done with both Universal Studios and HBO, 700 people have been employed. Therefore, there is already a pool of talent. I am not talking only of actors and actresses when we look at that; the list includes gardeners, carpenters, the catering trade and so on. Therefore, the film industry provides massive opportunities to bring in new jobs in a fairly well-paid sector of the economy.

Mr M McGuinness:

We all appreciate how important the creative industries are to the economy. As we all know, we are lucky because we have many very creative people who are involved on an ongoing basis in providing much-needed employment for artists and, indeed, many others. Peter makes the point, which I do not believe should be lost on anybody, that some 700 people were employed at the Paint Hall. When we visited there, many skills were available. It was absolutely incredible to watch machinists create costumes that looked as though they were from the seventeenth century. Others were involved in flower arranging. All of those people were local. I found it interesting that the people who were employed came from all over the North. They were not just based in Belfast or east Belfast — with all due respect to Peter. They came from all sections of the community and had incredible skills.

The fact that we appear to be going in the direction of developing a film-making campus in that area as a result of decisions that have been taken in recent times, particularly by Universal Studios and HBO, should encourage all those in the creative industries that we can build on what we have at present and go forward in a way that can provide even more jobs for people. We are, probably, in pole position to get the second series of ‘Game of Thrones’. If we do, that will be further encouragement to many people that a bright future is available to them in the creative industries.

The only unfortunate thing about those movies is that they have unfortunate titles, such as ‘Your Highness’ and ‘Game of Thrones’. However, I can live with that. [Laughter.]

The Chairperson:

Please do that.

Mr Lyttle:

I add my thanks to the Ministers for their early briefing on their key aims. I welcome the recognition that the key priority for the Assembly has to be delivery to address the economic and social needs of local people. I will go one further than the Chairman did and seek a commitment that we will receive a copy of the CSI analysis and a briefing on the social investment fund in the next few weeks prior to the summer recess to give us time to respond constructively to both key policies.

Some worrying figures were released stating that child poverty in Northern Ireland has increased by 2% recently. It would be great to hear your thoughts on why that has happened and to get an update on the measures that your Department has taken to address that key issue.

Mr M McGuinness:

In respect of the first part of your question, we have agreed that we are going to be co-operative, and we will supply as much information as we possibly can to the Committee. We have agreed to supply the analysis of the CSI strategy, and all the submissions that were made as a result of the consultation process will also be made available to you. From our perspective, we recognise and understand that tackling child poverty has a direct relationship to our primary objective in the Programme for Government, which is developing our economy. It is absolutely vital that we can do that in a way that impacts on the unacceptable levels of child poverty that exist in our society. We accept that, but the economic difficulties that we are faced with as a result of the comprehensive spending review make that all the more challenging for us.

People will be aware that the First Minister and I have been very critical of the fact that the coalition Government have effectively reneged on a vital financial commitment of around £18 billion through to 2017, which we secured with the support of the Ulster Unionist Party and the SDLP prior to the establishment of the institutions in 2007. Even though the Secretary of State, Owen Paterson, protests that it will be delivered, we do not have any confidence in his assurances that it will be delivered towards the latter end of that time frame.

People will also be very conscious that the First Minister and I are clearly unhappy about the refusal of David Cameron to meet us. He has been in office for almost a year, and we met him in the immediate aftermath of his election, but we have not met him since. We have good cause to seek that meeting given that we have been at the Joint Ministerial Committee and have effectively lodged our official dispute with the Government in London over their failure to deliver the financial package and agreement, which Gordon Brown described on the very day that Ian Paisley and I stood up for the first time as First Minister and deputy First Minister in May 2007 as being both ring-fenced and guaranteed. Nothing could now be further from the truth. It will be the subject of a continuing area of unhappiness between us and the British Government over important infrastructural projects that are vital for the development of our economy.

All of that relates to how the funds that are very limited to our Executive can be disposed of. If those funds that were promised to us were made available, they would go a long way towards assisting us in developing all sorts of strategies, including a more effective attack on child poverty. That is an ongoing area of work between us. In the aftermath of the election, we had a phone call from David Cameron, and I took the opportunity to reinforce my criticism of his failure to meet us. He said that he will be coming here within the next few weeks, so we look forward to that engagement.

Mr P Robinson:

First of all, the headline figures for poverty are based on the UK median, as opposed to the Northern Ireland median. That obviously leads to us having a lower figure. At the end of the day, when you talk about child poverty, you are effectively talking about family poverty, because that is the corollary of it. The best way out of poverty for a family is for someone in it to find a decent job. That is our priority in turning around our unemployment figures.

Today, we have an unemployment rate that is just under the UK average, which is a considerable feat when you consider all of the disadvantages that our economy has had. Our unemployment rate is probably half that of the South.

It is also worth pointing out that we put in place two funds to assist in that area. The SIF and the SPF are intended to be used and directed in such a way that they make life easier and improve the day-to-day lives of people who are in difficulty.

When we went away as an Executive to look at what we would be facing with the spending review, we recognised that those who were already having difficulty making ends meet would find life an awful lot more difficult and would be joined by many others. The social protection fund is one of the areas in which we can give some assistance, and we need to look long and hard at how we do that. Obviously, we will want to do that in conjunction with the Department for Social Development, which will have proposals. However, I suspect that other Departments will have proposals to put forward as well.

We have identified some funds, recognising that there will be particular hardship. Hopefully, some of the funding that we have made available will assist us in if not reducing then holding those figures down while we go through the most difficult period for those who are in poverty.

Mr Molloy:

Thank you very much for the presentation. I want to ask about an area of work that the First Minister and deputy First Minister had been leading on but which did not come up in the opening remarks; the work around the Budget review group. Will you outline what work is happening on the review of the arm’s-length bodies? Will the work that was going on before the election be picked up now and continued after the election?

Mr M McGuinness:

It is certainly our intention to continue with the work of the Budget review group. In the run-up to the Budget, that was a very useful exercise, given that we managed to add to the very limited funds that we were allocated as a result of the comprehensive spending review. That obviously relieved the burden on departmental spend in some areas. However, the Executive have agreed criteria and arrangements for the review of arm’s-length bodies across all Departments. Those were announced at the time of the draft Budget statement in December.

The Budget review group, supported by officials from OFMDFM and the Department of Finance and Personnel, will review the arm’s-length bodies against those criteria on the basis of information supplied by Departments and will bring recommendations to the Executive in due course. In relation to assessment criteria, a process aimed at establishing which arm’s-length bodies might be abolished, integrated into parent departments or merged with other arm’s-length bodies will be considered.

On the scope of the review, the list of over 100 bodies ranges widely from advisory committees to major public utility undertakings. Data relating to each arm’s-length body has been cleared by relevant Ministers before consideration by the Budget review group. The recommendations of the Budget review group will then be finalised for Executive consideration.

The second part of your question was whether outstanding issues will be followed through on. The answer is yes. All Ministers are aware of the financial constraints within which they have to operate, so it is in all of our interests that we receive maximum co-operation as we seek to make savings where we can but also raise new revenues to help us to support vital front line services.

So, we would like to see greater resources going into health, education and construction, and we are aware that the issue of student fees is exercising the minds of many of our young people, who need reassurances about their opportunities if we are to encourage them to remain in education and become the wealth creators of the future.

The Chairperson:

Deputy First Minister, you indicated the review of arm’s-length bodies. You did not give us a timescale of when you expect that to be complete.

Mr M McGuinness:

That is all work in progress. Given the need for urgency against the backdrop of the challenges that we face ahead, we are hoping that that will be done within the next couple of months.

Mr P Robinson:

The deputy First Minister is right. It is work in progress, but that indicates that some of the work has already been done. Even in our Department, you will probably be aware that some changes have already taken place among arm’s-length bodies. For instance, the Older People’s Advocate has moved into the same building as the Equality Commission and will be joined by the Victims’ Commission. We are looking at other shared services within our Department that will help to save money.

I note that other Ministers are looking at bringing some of their arm’s-length bodies into their Departments and believe that that can be done without additional personnel in the Civil Service as it presently stands. That will be an ongoing piece of work. In each case, it may not save mountains of money, but, collectively, it will be a considerable saving.

In relation to the original question, we were faced with £4 billion of cuts from our Budget. We quite simply were not prepared to simply be the allocators of a reduced Budget by the Government, and we sought ways to augment the Budget that was being made available to us from the Treasury. We identified £1∙6 billion of potential additional funding. We allocated about £1 billion of that in the Budget that Sammy Wilson brought to the Assembly while the Budget review group continued to look at how safe it was to make further allocations. The Budget review group will continue with that work, which, I suspect, will be ongoing for the four or five years of this Assembly term.

By no means is it a case of simply looking at where we had previously identified some additional revenue-raising projects. We will continue to look to see where savings can be made. Reviews are already being carried out in several Departments — the Department of Health is a case in point — and if there are any opportunities to do things for a lesser cost, or to do better at the same cost, we will certainly jump all over them.

The Chairperson:

First Minister, you mentioned the Older People’s Advocate. As a matter of interest, is there any progress on the appointment of the Commissioner for Older People?

Mr P Robinson:

Yes; we decided that we would not do that over the election period but that we would get down to it immediately afterwards, so I expect that we will move full steam ahead with that in the very near future.

Mr M McGuinness:

The interviews actually began yesterday and are taking place again today.

The Chairperson:

When you mentioned it, it refreshed my memory.

Mr Molloy:

You mentioned the Barroso task force and the fact that that has been restructured again. Is there an opportunity there for the various Departments to draw down further European funding to augment the funding already in the Department?

Mr P Robinson:

When the two of us went over and met the commissioners, we came back with a view that there were a number of opportunities that had not been taken up. Afterwards, when we started to ferret around to see why that was so, we found that the form-filling and application process seems to frighten away a number of officials. I think that it requires Ministers to bear down on officials to make sure that that work is done, because it could bring considerable rewards. We are not getting anything like the percentage that the Republic of Ireland is getting out of Europe per capita, so there is a lot of work to do, and a lot of benefit could be gained.

Mr M McGuinness:

That point has been made very forcibly to all Departments and officials, because it is quite clear from what Máire Geoghegan-Quinn, in particular, said in relation to her remit that much more can be done. We need to up our game in relation to contact with Europe; we recognise that. It is also a big challenge for small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), because, as Peter said, a lot of SMEs are frightened off by the levels of commitment that they have to make in relation to form-filling etc. If people can get over all that, there are opportunities. We are working with people in Europe who are trying to smooth the way as best as they possibly can to make it easier for us to access funds that are clearly there and will be available to us if we can ensure that all our people have upped their game and are in the process of further developing their already good relationships with people in Europe.

Mr P Robinson:

I am told, Tom, that we have new targets, but I was reluctant to tell you that in case you would ask me the next question: what are they? We will find out what the new targets are and we will let you know.

Ms Ruane:

Go raibh maith agat, a Chathaoirligh. Comhghairdeas do gach duine den cheathrar agaibh. Aontaím go bhfuil an eacnamaíocht agus sochaí atá cothrom do gach duine an-tábhachtach.

Congratulations to the four of you. I very much look forward to working with you all. I agree with the comments made by Peter and Martin about the economy. The economy has to be a priority, but it has to be an equal economy. You both talked about people facing educational disadvantage and economic and social disadvantage when seeking jobs.

My question relates to the historical inquiries on child abuse. I know that you mentioned it, deputy First Minister. We had the Ryan inquiry, and there are lessons to be learned from that, obviously. We do not want to add insult to injury by making the survivors who have suffered so dreadfully to have to go through the same mistakes. Could you outline the shape and form of the inquiry and the work that has been done, in addition to what you have already said?

Mr M McGuinness:

Obviously, this is a hugely important and sensitive issue. All of our Ministers at the table have met victims of historical child abuse. That is a credit to the junior Ministers, who have been in post only a matter of days. However, prior to that, Peter and I were involved in difficult meetings. There is no doubt that there is a lot of hurt out there in those groups. None of us left any of the meetings that we were involved in without feeling disturbed and even angry and shocked at what we were hearing. Most of all, we left the meetings with the resolve that we will do everything in our power to ensure that those who suffered that terrible abuse will receive justice.

As we all know, the issues raised are highly complex and sensitive. We are conscious that many of the victims have waited for a very long time. We want to move quickly to address the suffering that they have endured for so long. However, we must be careful to strike the necessary balance between acting quickly and designing a robust, sensitive and tailored approach that meets the specific needs of victims here. We announced the establishment of a task force to draw together the information that has been gathered over the past number of months. The views of victims will be very important.

You mentioned the Ryan report, and there was the Murphy report. People are waiting for more information on the situation in Ferns, for example, and not a day goes by without us opening our newspapers and finding new revelations about that. We are conscious of the need to get this right and ensure that we learn from the experiences of others, whether that is south of the border, in Scotland or other places. The task force recognises its responsibility to ensure that we do that as efficiently as we can, in a way that is consistent with meeting the needs of those who are suffering intolerably. However, they have taken a lot of succour from the urgency with which we have worked. Since Peter and I met the first group, I do not think that there has been a period when there has not been contact between our officials and the representatives of those who have been abused. Contact has been on an almost monthly basis. We are seized by the reality that it is now coming very close to make-your-mind-up time on how we do it. We are determined to do it, and to do it in a way that delivers for those people.

Mr P Robinson:

The only other thing — leaving to one side the necessity of having a proper inquiry, and one that does not put an excessive burden on the Administration — is that we recognised that there were needs among those who had suffered institutional abuse that had not been properly catered for. We wanted to ensure that work would be done to make sure that there was support for those who have suffered from mental illness as a result. In many cases, you will find that people have not been as active in the job market as may otherwise have been the case. It is not simply a case of somebody having suffered when they were young and having some memory of what occurred. It has affected the whole of their life. Therefore, it is a whole-of-life requirement that we have to address in dealing with the issue.

Ms M Anderson (Junior Minister, Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister):

As Martin said, Jonathan and I had our first official meeting with the survivors and victims of historical institutional abuse on Monday. It was very good for us, as incoming junior Ministers, to hear their thoughts on the paper they had submitted because, on our first reading of it, we were not sure whether they were looking for a replication of the Ryan inquiry, and we were very conscious of the re-traumatisation that you spoke about. However, we got a very clear understanding from them of what they were looking for as victims and survivors.

This does raise issues that are very sensitive and emotive. The victims and survivors were very much of the view that we need to get it right — to take our time and get it right — and to work with them. They were very clear that the previous engagement with the task force and with the First and deputy First Ministers gave them a degree of comfort, as did our prioritising this as our first meeting.

It was a very emotional meeting. When you hear details of that kind of abuse relayed by victims and survivors, it makes you very determined to get it right. Jonathan and I left the meeting with the determination to help them in any way that we could.

Mr Bell (Junior Minister, Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister):

I support all that. For every day of my professional life — nearly 21 years — I worked with the victims of child sexual abuse. It will be impossible to design a one-size-fits-all approach. We wanted to actively listen to the victims and to ensure that we heard what they had to say. There are major risks, as has been pointed out by past experience. One example is a young person who gave evidence in the Ryan report, who was then confronted with a police file to say that the abuse had not occurred within a home but within his own family home. That young person had not been made aware of that. That young person was made aware of that for the first time in a public forum, in a public setting. In our approach, we want to ensure that we do no more harm than has already been done.

We should have some information back before summer recess. We will then discuss any recommendations directly with the victims and survivors. We want to ensure that the process does no harm — or as little harm as possible — understands the mistakes that have been made in other areas and is very much person-centred on the needs of the victims.

Mr M McGuinness:

That is a very important point. Whatever we do, we have to do it in a way that does not make the people involved feel that they are being abused again. That is the last thing that we want.

Mr Eastwood:

I know there was mention of it in the brief, but I want to ask the Ministers about the sexual orientation strategy. Is there a time frame for when we will be likely to see the draft proposals?

Mr P Robinson:

Before I respond to that, I will give you the answer to the question that I posed earlier. The target is a 20% increase from European funding. You can hang that around our necks at a later stage if we do not meet it.

The sexual orientation strategy —

The Chairperson:

Sorry. I am assuming that you had some basis for setting that 20% target.

Mr P Robinson:

I assume that it relates to what has been achieved elsewhere. So, if it can be achieved elsewhere, it can be achieved here.

First, we made it clear publicly that we will proceed with the publication of a strategy but indicated that that will not happen before 2011. We agreed that we should not wait until the tail end of 2011 and that work already under way should be brought to Ministers within a reasonable period of time. So, that is under active consideration in the Department and will be brought to Ministers as soon as possible. Will it be 2012?

Mr Bell:

Yes, 2012.

Mr P Robinson:

So, we are perhaps moving beyond the speed that was originally intended. There is clearly an interest from that sector, particularly in the context of our work on the CSI strategy. People in the sector were of the view that there should have been a greater inclusion of issues relating to that area of activity. I do not want to get into the section 75(1) and 75(2) arguments about equality and good relations, but we attempted to use the CSI strategy to deal with issues of sectarianism and racism. That is why we specifically identified the need to bring out a separate strategy, and it is our intention to do so. We had a discussion about that three or four days ago, so it is under active consideration in the Department.

Mr T Clarke:

On the back of something that was asked about survivors and victims of abuse, there are obviously other victims a lot of us here seem to forget. I apologise; I am new to this Committee and cannot remember the exact figure, but I think £30 million was spent on victims and survivors in the past four years, and I want to put on record today how glad I am that that has been increased to, I think, £50 million.

First, are you satisfied that money is being directed in the right way, so that the recipients are victims and survivors and not some of the organisations that have been set up? Is the money actually getting to the people who need it rather than the organisations?

Secondly, in the First Minister’s opening remarks, he made a point about the economy. That issue is on all our minds today given the present climate. He also referred to the trips to America and to their importance. I think that he was referring particularly to the one for St Patrick’s Day. Will the First Minister give us an idea of the new investment that those trips have brought in the past four years? You made an announcement today, and I think that a target has been set. Do you have any good news today about any investment in the very near future?

Mr P Robinson:

I will take the first question about victims. When I was Finance Minister, I substantially increased the amount of money available to victims compared with what was available during direct rule. We have continued to make that a priority. The Committee will be well aware that issues within the victims’ sector need to be addressed. We are dealing with public money that has been identified for a particular purpose, and we are accountable for how that money is spent.

In the first instance, the Community Relations Council, the victims’ commissioners and others will have a role to play. From our point of view, we want to make sure that the money allocated is used for the intended purpose. The victims’ commissioners have been looking at proposals that would give those who have not been associated with groups a much greater ability to benefit. Most of the money heretofore has effectively gone to groups, and I think that it is important that individuals either who, locationally, are not close to where a group is or who do not wish to be part of a wider group, should have the ability to benefit. We do that through the memorial fund and other sources at present. The intention is to make much greater use of that.

In relation to the economy, I think that most people recognise that, over the past number of years, firms have had to batten down the hatches and deal with much reduced profits. As a result, many decided to put on hold proposals to invest around the world. Despite that, we became the second best region of the United Kingdom, second only to London, at bringing in investment. That is a compliment to Invest Northern Ireland, the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment and its Minister, and the work that we in OFMDFM have done to promote business for Northern Ireland. We succeeded in bringing in jobs from Citigroup, the New York Stock Exchange, Terex, the Dow Chemical Company, Universal, HBO and so forth. A long list of American companies, in particular, has come to Northern Ireland.

It is exciting to see companies coming in from outside Northern Ireland, and we all tend to look at that; however, it is also very important that, at the same time, we support the indigenous business community in Northern Ireland. There are some very good examples of that. For instance, the deputy First Minister and I had the pleasure of going to First Derivatives, a company that started business by getting a £5,000 credit union loan and which now has about 1,000 staff. We have much to be proud of in the work of our homemade businesspeople.

As for the future, the deputy First Minister and I hope to go to the States in the next number of weeks, as Invest Northern Ireland would like us to meet some people. However, for commercial reasons, it would be unwise for us to say anything further.

Mr M McGuinness:

Your first point about making sure that funds are targeted where they are required and that they are used properly is very important. The new strategic support fund means that funding will be better targeted at victims’ needs. It is a very important fund. In relation to the funding given to groups under the strategic support fund, we can confirm that letters of offer and contracts for 2011-12 have been issued to groups.

Funding will be released to groups when they return their signed contracts to the Community Relations Council. The council received its letter of offer for funding for victims and survivors’ groups from the Department on 21 April. That provided the council with an indicative budget of £7·3 million and a confirmed allocation of £3·65 million, which is 50% of the total available budget. Confirmation for the second six months is subject to an approved business case, and the aim is to have the business case approved by the end of June.

The letters of offer that have been issued to victims and survivors’ groups reflect the Community Relations Council’s letter of offer from the Department. The letters provide groups with confirmed budgets for the first six months and planning figures for the full year. The groups that applied to the strategic support fund for an 18-month programme of services from October 2010 to March 2012 have been notified of revised funding awards for 2011-12. The revision of those awards was necessary to ensure that both the 18-month and 12-month funding groups received a fair and equitable proportion of the 2011-12 strategic support fund budget.

When groups applied for the 18-month programme of services, they were told that their budgets would be confirmed only up to March 2011 and that, thereafter, only a provisional offer for 2011-12 would be available. You can see that progress is being made.

Mr P Robinson:

Just one further piece of information. I referred to the memorial fund when I talked about the individual assistance that is being made available to victims and survivors. The latest call to the Northern Ireland Memorial Fund resulted in £4·3 million of funding, which is more than four times what was received pre-devolution.

The Chairperson:

As regards victims’ funding, I know that there has been frustration in the sector about delays in establishing certain aspects of the victims’ strategy. One area is the victims’ service that the deputy First Minister mentioned. I think that he indicated — I noted it down somewhere — that 30 June is the target date for the approval of the business case. Is there any chance of the Committee being given sight of the business case?

Mr M McGuinness:

Well, we can look at that. It is anticipated that we will have the service established as an organisation and with key personnel in post by autumn 2011, with our assessments starting shortly afterwards. We are still awaiting the completion of the comprehensive needs assessment by the commissioners. Of course, it is vital to identify and develop the support necessary for victims and for the work of the service. However, we have received a detailed assessment. Significant changes are going to be made this year to the funding schemes for individual victims and victims’ groups to move them towards a needs-based approach in preparation for the establishment of the service. As I said earlier, we have allocated £50 million in the draft Budget to meet the needs of victims and survivors over the next year. We will take on board your query and see whether we can fulfil it.

The Chairperson:

Will you come back to us on that?

Mr M McGuinness:

Yes.

The Chairperson:

To go back to your final point, I assume that funding will change from a grants-led approach to a needs-led approach, as worded in your document. Have all the groups and individuals, including the Northern Ireland Memorial Fund, been informed of that change in priority?

Mr M McGuinness:

Yes. It is my understanding that they have.

The Chairperson:

OK.

Mrs Overend:

Thank you very much for your briefing. I appreciate that the first priority is the economy, because it has overarching effects on the lives of everyone here and on the improvement of so many aspects of life. On the economy, are you able to give us details of any future plans that you have to increase foreign direct investment? What trips do you plan to take in the future?

I also want to ask about strengthening women’s voices in government. What work is ongoing at the moment in that regard? The election has been and gone, and the number of women in government has increased slightly. What plans do you have to engage with women to try to increase the number of women’s voices in government?

Mr P Robinson:

First, Invest Northern Ireland is keen that we meet some people that it has been talking to very seriously for a period. We have to see whether we can fit that into the rest of our schedule, and we hope to do that in June, if possible.

In the context of the economy, we need to recognise that if we are looking for a game changer, which was the phrase that was used often throughout the past weeks and months, that game changer is a lower level of corporation tax or an intention, at least, to reduce it. When we were in the United States, where Hillary Clinton provided us with a platform in Washington at a major economic conference, the messages were very clear that we had a very good and attractive package for many people as things stood, particularly for those who were looking for mid-office and back-office support. However, where people were going to be looking for jobs here for front line products from which the profit was going to be realised in Northern Ireland, it was clear that having a lower level of corporation tax was going to be a very significant factor.

A number of people told us that if we could get close to the Republic of Ireland’s level of corporation tax, that would be very attractive to them. We need to take that issue seriously. There is a downside to it. We were looking at how we might best manage that by indicating that we would, perhaps, consider identifying the starting point for the reduction or even doing it on a staged basis so that we do not have to have a reduction in our block grant for several years. That is because it will be several years before any new business will come to Northern Ireland, and several years before they make a profit. We will look at that, because it is very important for us to take those powers. I say that to the Committee, because it will be useful if the Committee itself were to respond to the Government’s document on balancing the economy.

It is fairly clear to me that there is not a high level of enthusiasm in the Treasury for this offer being made to Northern Ireland, and if we do not grasp it at this stage, it may never come to us again. So, in the context of what can make a difference to our economy, a lower level of corporation tax can make a difference, and our one chance of getting it is here and now.

Mr M McGuinness:

Obviously, we help fund women into politics. We have approved a major EU Peace III project for the Training for Women Network that will involve Women into Politics and the education of women. We all welcome the fact that there has been an increase in the number of women MLAs as a result of the recent election. Sandra and I were involved in quite a number of discussions in the Mid Ulster constituency prior to the election during which that issue frequently came up, and she very ably put the case. I was pleased to see that more women were elected to the Assembly in this election than in the previous one.

Apart from our responsibility at governmental level to fund projects, the chief responsibility for getting women into politics goes back to political parties. All of us would concede that we need to do more. As a result of the important debate around the whole issue of equality, I am pleased to see that we appear to be beginning to do just that: we are beginning to do more to encourage women and to make it easier for them to get into politics — and not just into politics or into the Assembly, but into key positions in the Executive.

The Chairperson:

I will raise just a couple of quick points. It was indicated to the previous Committee that the Maze/Long Kesh Development Corporation board would be up and running by the summer. I notice that it is now suggested that that will probably not happen until December or the end of this year. Is there any reason for that slippage?

Mr P Robinson:

I assume it was the election. We were about to reach a stage of agreeing the panel that would take it to the next stage. I think that the deputy First Minister and I now have names to consider for the panel that will interview people who may be on the corporation. Therefore, it is moving forward; there is no obstacle in the way. Of course, work is still going on with the interim group that is there at present. If you were at the Balmoral show, I am sure that you will have noticed that there was some lobbying of most Members, because its organisers are fairly keen to get that issue resolved.

The Chairperson:

On that point, is that realistic? There has been quite a bit of talk about having the show moved there for 2012.

Mr M McGuinness:

I think that we would all like to see it there by 2012. It may be that 2013 is more realistic.

The Chairperson:

Is there an acceptance, at this stage, that it will not be?

Mr M McGuinness:

No, definitely not.

Mr P Robinson:

It will not be our decision; it will be their decision. Agreement could be reached in time to allow them to use the show. Their difficulty would be that there would not be permanent buildings at that stage. That is a decision that they would have to take and a choice that they will have.

Mr M McGuinness:

Discussions are at a fairly sensitive stage but, hopefully, will be concluded shortly. We and the RUAS are as anxious as anybody else to get them on site as quickly as possible. The aim should still be to try to do that by 2012.

The Chairperson:

The point I was making was that, if the corporation board is not in place by the end of the year — we had expected it to be in place by the summer — unless there is significant progress prior to that, 2012 will not be achievable.

Mr M McGuinness:

The key thing is that we are conscious of the need not to lose momentum in what we are trying to do about delivery in the interim, and the Maze/Long Kesh programme delivery unit, which is led by former Laganside Corporation chief Kyle Alexander, continues to work on key projects and the preparation of a development framework. So, I am happy enough that work is continuing.

The Chairperson:

OK. I have one final query. What is happening about the issue of the chief executive of the Strategic Investment Board?

Mr M McGuinness:

My information is that that position will be re-advertised. We hope to see who comes forward.

The Chairperson:

There is no timescale for that, is there?

Mr M McGuinness:

I am told that it is pressing; it is almost imminent.

Mr P Robinson:

There are documents in the Department that need to be approved, but issues such as salary are yet to be resolved.

The Chairperson:

Thank you very much for that presentation and for answering the Committee’s questions. Hopefully, you will come back with information about the matters that we queried.

Find Your MLA

tools-map.png

Locate your local MLA

Find MLA

News and Media Centre

tools-media.png

Read press releases, watch live and archived video

Find out more

Follow the Assembly

tools-social.png

Keep up to date with what’s happening at the Assem

Find out more

Contact information

tools-newsletter.png

Contact us for further information about our work.

Contact us