“A Programme for Government is vital for any government to communicate its vision, priorities and commitments to provide direction and hope to a community. Our system of mandatory coalition government is; however, not always conducive to joined up delivery.
I welcome the cross cutting nature of each of the five main priorities in this programme and I hope that they will encourage a more collaborative, cross departmental approach.
The Alliance Party would go further to ensure joined up government by placing a statutory duty on Departments to cooperate. This legislative duty would further promote the joined up working vital for policy delivery in key areas such as poverty and social exclusion, children and young people’s issues and older people’s issues.
We are all Members of a Legislative Assembly. I would also share concerns for the absence of a legislative programme in this document. The programme for government makes frequent reference to strategies but few commitments to specific legislation. Whilst strategies and action plans are of course important for policy delivery, there are key areas where legislation is essential.
The Alliance Party published a legislative programme identifying bills, which the Assembly should bring forward.
Other organisations have also identified areas such as race relations and disability rights where legislative change is urgently needed to ensure that people in Northern Ireland have the same protection as the rest of these islands.
I of course welcome the priority this Programme for Government has placed on rebuilding the economy. It is clear we must work together to deliver long-term sustainable wealth and job creation for Northern Ireland.
I particularly welcome commitments to achieve increased investment, improved skills delivery, increased qualifications and increase uptake of STEM subjects. These commitments are vital if we are to create a relevantly skilled workforce and attract investment to Northern Ireland. I also welcome measures to support economic growth including the extension of the small business rates relief scheme, support for social enterprise and support to set our tourism product on the world stage.
It is important that we give hope to our young people. I welcome the Executive strategy to promote education, training and employment for young people and support proposals from the Minister of Employment for a specific youth employment intervention.
A key aspect of rebuilding our economy and welfare reform is to help people back into work. A significant barrier to employment for many people is a lack of affordable childcare. I, therefore, welcome the commitment to bring deliver the long overdue Childcare Strategy; however, as with other strategies such as Child Poverty it is essential that there is no delay in bringing forward an action plan in this area.
I would hope and expect that any Childcare Strategy and Action Plan will encourage parents to make use of childcare vouchers and promote the uptake of the childcare element of Working Tax Credits; almost £6m of which it is estimated goes unclaimed each year.
Mr Speaker, Northern Ireland has an ageing population. Thankfully we are living longer. It is regrettable, therefore, that older people have not been given greater recognition within the Programme for Government.
Poverty and social exclusion amongst older people is a serious issue; however, simple and inexpensive measures can lift older people out of poverty. Every week up to £2m in Pension Credit goes unclaimed, money which could mean the difference between living above or below the poverty line, money which could benefit the health and well-being of an older person and money which is lost from our economy.
I would like to see our government taking the initiative and committing not only to raising awareness of benefit entitlement but also initiatives such as trials for the automatic payment of pension credit.
I welcome the commitment to implement reforms to our social care system. It is vital that any reforms ensure social care for older people are based on rights, entitlements and fairness. Again, investing in preventative measures can ensure that older people can remain at home.
As a member of the Alliance Party I welcome the fact this Programme for Government makes building a strong, shared and united community a key and explicit aim.
My party has stood for cross community cooperation and delivery since our foundation and persistently argued against the human and economic waste caused by division. We will continue to hold this government to account for its practical action in pursuit of a better and shared future for all.
I believe the Programme for Government should explicitly acknowledge that duplication of services is no longer sustainable or acceptable in a shared community.
I welcome the long overdue commitment to make the Education Skills Authority operational by 2013. Indeed the target date set by the Programme for Government for 2008-11 for the establishment of a single educational skills authority was 2009.
The Alliance Party has consistently called for the establishment of this single body and long campaigned for increased sharing and integration within the education system. We do not believe it is sustainable or desirable to keep our children segregated on the basis of religion. I would, therefore reiterate my concern that inclusion of the controlled and maintained sectors is explicit in the proposed ESA with no apparent mechanism for the integrated sector.
This has done little to address doubts as to the ability of some Ministers to deliver not just words but action on a shared future.
The programme also fails to resolve unregulated post primary transfer. We continue to fail our children & young people every year until this issue is addressed.
Mr Speaker, I believe Government should be proactive rather than reactive. I therefore also disappointed that this programme has not placed greater focus on early intervention and preventative measures.
Investment in early intervention and prevention is more cost effective than addressing problems when they fully develop. There needs to be a shift in balance in favour of early intervention. Early intervention is vital to tackling issues such as poverty, social exclusion and health inequalities. For example, it costs approximately £100,000 per annum to keep a child in care; however, Sure Start and Home Start early interventions cost less than £2,000 per intervention and assist families before they reach crisis point.
I endorse the Executive’s commitment to develop long term approaches to dealing with issues such as fuel poverty; however, whilst the one off payment provided from the Social Protection Fund was of assistance to many vulnerable people this year, it is essential more sustainable, long term measures are developed including investing in the Green New Deal to provide double glazing, energy efficiency and environmentally friendly heating and insulation.
It would, therefore, have been helpful to have an explicit commitment to implement the Green New Deal as a means not only of tackling fuel poverty and reducing our carbon emissions but also to create much needed jobs within our construction industry. Northern Ireland is now behind Scotland, England and Wales where specific Green Economy Strategies have been released for public consultation.
Mr Speaker, the Alliance party priority commitment remains the delivery of a shared and better future for all in Northern Ireland. I welcome the commitment this programme gives to the delivery of an overarching cross-departmental strategy to build a cohesive, shared and integrated community in Northern Ireland. A devolved Office of First & deputy First Minister has yet to deliver on this issue and I sincerely hope this Executive can be the first to action meaningful and fundamental change on integrated education, mixed housing and make all public space in Northern Ireland shared for all to enjoy.
I also believe that if we are to build a united community we must deal with a past that has a profound impact on our divided present. I believe this Assembly and the British & Irish governments have the collective creativity to agree a comprehensive mechanism to progress this sensitive issue and that the programme for government should include a strong commitment for an overarching process involving all parties to deal with the past.
I welcome the revision of this programme to set more ambitious targets for delivery. They must be measurable and monitored in an open and transparent manner. I have made my concerns known as to how progress against the last programme for government was reported.
Progress should be monitored in an open and transparent manner.
I do, therefore, have concerns for the proposed implementation and monitoring framework for this programme.
I am concerned that no mention is made of the role, which committees can play in scrutinising delivery of key commitments by considering mid-year progress reports for their relevant departments. The OFMdFM Committee and this Assembly should also receive mid year and end year reports in public session on overall progress of the programme. It is a hallmark of any good government that members are able to hold it to account and surely essential that we publicly review whether we are doing the job the public have put us here to do.
The Alliance Party has been put in government by the electorate to play a constructive role. Whilst I have expressed some of our concerns and how we would do things differently my party remains committed to leading positive change for our community and broadly endorses this Programme for Government.
We will continue to argue for our approach and ideas to be included in delivery but we believe this document provides an opportunity for to rebuild our economy, to protect the most vulnerable in our society and to progress towards a united community & better future for all in Northern Ireland.