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29 November 2007 Edition

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Budget debate - limitations should not limit thinking

The debates in the Six County Assembly on the draft Programme for Government, Investment Strategy and Budget raged over almost 11 hours on Monday and Tuesday this week. It was the platform for serious debate about the key issues for the power-sharing Executive. Sadly it was also a space for much political posturing by the SDLP and UUP who seem incapable of reconciling themselves to the fact that there is a new political landscape in the North.
Speaking in the main hall deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness expressed concern at the approach of the three Ministers from these parties and their willingness to play political games. Highlighting these changed political fortunes McGuinness expressed “great regret – that it appears to me that the Ulster Unionist Party and SDLP are now becoming the problem parties in this Assembly”.
Leading off the debate for the party, Equality Spokesperson Martina Anderson said that tackling inequality must be a priority for the Executive.
She highlighted shocking statistics in the Six counties that include:

  • 31% of 16 to 60-year-olds lack paid work;
  • 22% of the workforce is low paid;
  • nearly 25% of households are unable to afford adequate home heating;
  • nearly 100,000 children and 50,000 pensioners are living in income poverty;
  • and there are 3,000 premature deaths each year because of disadvantage and poverty.

“It has been only six months since the transfer of powers, and it will take time to throw off the shackles of direct rule. Of course, Sinn Féin wants to throw those shackles off entirely.
“The comprehensive spending review results in Ministers making difficult budgetary choices. The limitation of the draft Budget should not limit thinking,” said Anderson, who added, “The economic and financial future of this part of the island will not be resolved in the context of the Six Counties.”
She also highlighted the fact that Sinn Féin Agriculture Minister Michelle Gildernew had come up with initiatives to tackle the lack of financial resources for the Farm Nutrient Management Scheme which benefits both local farmers and the environment by looking at the available land assets.
Challenging SDLP Housing Minister Margaret Ritchie to stop telling people what she couldn’t do Anderson added;
“Within the confines of the block Budget from Westminster, the Minister for Social Development, like all Ministers, has to make choices. The question must be asked whether she has made the right choice.
Health spokesperson Ní Chuilín focused on difficulties in trying to reconcile the differences between departmental bids and aspirations. She also called on the UUP Health Minister Michael McGimpsey and every member of the Executive to fully implement Bairbre de Brún’s Investing for Health strategy, saying that “we need to decide on an approach to healthy living, as opposed to solely tackling ill health.
“Our approach to health provision and social care is deficient, and is in how we tackle that,” said Ní Chuilín. “Prevention should be at the heart of our approach to the inequalities in health and how they can be addressed. Forty-eight per cent of the overall Budget is dedicated to health and social care.”
Concerns about the Department for Social Development were also raised by many Assembly members. Although DSD received an additional £27 million a few weeks ago in the last monitoring round the SDLP are proposing to cut the Warm Homes Scheme Budget by £10 million and are now saying that there will be no new social homes built in 2008 despite the fact that there are some 36,000 people on the housing waiting lists in the Six Counties.
However, Housing spokesperson Fra McCann said:
“The promises contained in the draft Programme for Government and draft investment strategy do not contain the resources necessary to deal with the housing crisis in the immediate or long term. I said that, over the next 15 years, a well-funded, well-resourced and well-thought-out strategy was required to allow us to plan the type of communities in which we want to live. It is not simply about building houses in isolation but about building communities.”
It is essential that at least 2,500 new homes be built every year for the foreseeable future in order to deal with the legacy of neglect. In 1971, the Housing Executive built 9,500 houses.
Criticising the Housing Minister McCann added:
“The Minister must trawl her own budget to ensure that she maximises her resources. She must ensure that there is no wastage. She is the Minister; she must show leadership rather than place the blame elsewhere for the problems that fall within her remit. That is what leadership is about.
The voluntary and community sectors, most of which provide excellent and invaluable support, require services that need to be supported on a long-term basis instead of the piecemeal approach. The overarching responsibility of the Executive is to proactively change the existing patterns of social disadvantage, not to replicate them.
Caral Ní Chuílín added:
“Everyone agrees that there is not enough money in the draft Budget. We must examine the legacy of underfunding, and deprivation in infrastructure and social services. Every Department faces tough decisions. There is a need to show creativity and imagination – and no need for scaremongering. We need leadership, and not emotional blackmail. The unofficial opposition must tell us what they intend to do, instead of what they do not.”
Sinn Féin Chair of the Employment and Learning Committee expressed ‘grave concerns’ that there would not be the investment in providing our young people with the essential skills they need; she also said that UUP leader Reg Empey “could be losing control of significant social goals”.
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