1 November 2007 Edition
Programme for Government : Addressing poverty and disadvantage a key priority
Tackling inequality at heart of Government Programme
BY LAURA FRIEL
THE Programme for Government and investment strategy announced at Stormont last week puts tackling poverty and disadvantage at the heart of governance in the Six Counties. Addressing the Assembly, Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness MP spoke of a “seismic shift”, declaring “this place” to be “truly under new management”.
The programme outlines the Executive’s agreed priorities and the basis on which to move forward. It took just six months to draft and, following a period of consultation, should be finalised and agreed upon in early January, ready for implementation in the new financial year.
“We have inherited huge challenges from direct rule but we are determined to address them and to give our people the modern services and facilities they need,” said McGuinness. Investment to build a modern, 21st Century infrastructure will be a priority, the Sinn Féin Deputy First Minister told the Assembly.
Earlier, First Minister Ian Paisley MP described the launch of the draft programme as “another momentous day” for the Executive.
“Our destiny is now in our own hands,” Ian Paisley said. “We have a tremendous opportunity to shape our future and we are determined to seize that chance with both hands.”
The theme of a new beginning continued with Finance Minister Peter Robinson describing the budget as marking “a clear break from the days when direct-rule ministers decided how much we should pay in local taxes and how available resources should be spent”. Instead, we can now make our own decisions.”
Entitled Building a Better Future, the document has a progressive theme that poses challenges for unionists and republicans to meet and move forward together on.
The programme itself says:
“Working together, we can build a better future for all, a society which is at ease with itself and where everyone shares and enjoys the benefits of this new opportunity. This is our commitment to you.”
The Executive is “determined to seize this unprecedented opportunity to deliver a better and more sustainable future for all our people”.
“We aim to build a prosperous, fair and inclusive society, supported by a vibrant and dynamic economy and a rich and sustainable environmental heritage.”
The programme accepts that “inequality exists” and the Executive “must strive to eliminate it”. The watchwords for all of its policies and programmes will be “fairness, inclusion and equality of opportunity”.
The Executive promises to “proactively change the existing patterns of social disadvantage by using increasing prosperity and economic growth to tackle ongoing poverty” and “target resources and efforts towards those in greatest objective need”.
“At a time when the potential for economic growth is at its greatest, it is crucial that we use this growth to tackle inequality and use prosperity to end poverty,” says the document.
Specific goals “to create a fairer society and look after our most disadvantaged” include a promise to reduce child poverty by 50 per cent in 2010 and eradicate it by 2020, investing £500 million in regenerating disadvantaged communities, neighbourhoods, towns and cities by 2012.
The Office of the First and Deputy First Minister (OFMDFM) flagged up the distinction between this Programme for Government and that adopted by the last UUP/SDLP-dominated executive and this is not just party politicking rhetoric.
Ministers are determined to build a stronger and more vibrant economy but, most significantly, both the DUP and Sinn Féin identify a thriving economy as a means to an end and not an end in itself.
Amongst the priorities they set themselves are addressing poverty, disadvantage and exclusion. As Peter Robinson put it, the Executive is looking to “deliver high-quality public services, especially to the young, old and other vulnerable members of our community”.
In the words of the OFDFM there is an “over-arching responsibility on the Executive to proactively change the existing patterns of social disadvantage by using increasing prosperity and economic growth to tackle ongoing poverty”.
But that’s not all. Addressing disadvantage, exclusion and inequality as a mechanism is vital to the task of building a vibrant economy.
For example, the programme is not simply looking to increase the number of school leavers with five or more good-grade GCSEs; it is also targeting the most disadvantaged groups to raise the overall educational standards.
A key goal amongst a range of targets identified as working “to create a fairer society and look after our most disadvantaged” is increasing the percentage of good-grade GCSE passes amongst children entitled to free school meals.
Martin McGuinness said:
“All members of the Assembly will know of the challenges we face in this: schools that have gone beyond their useful life, children who are still being taught in temporary classrooms or schools in dire need of refurbishment and modernisation.
“Communities in need of new healthcare facilities, young families looking for social and affordable housing, a business community that needs better roads and modern information and communication links, and the legacy of a long history of neglect and under-investment in our basic water and sewerage infrastructure. All of these issues are fundamental to health and well-being.”
First Minister Ian Paisley said:
“As an Executive, we are determined to make a difference by building a better future for all. We will not be satisfied unless we produce results that supersede all that has happened over recent decades. We want to deliver.”
The goal of the Programme for Government is to build a “peaceful, fair and prosperous society”, said the First Minister.
“Our policies and programmes must work towards building a better future. They must demonstrate fairness, inclusion and equality of opportunity.”
Commenting of the Programme for Government and the investment strategy, Sinn Féin President Gerry Adams MP said it reflected Sinn Féin’s commitment to equality and eradicating poverty and discrimination.
“There is a clear priority on tackling poverty, in recognising the need to tackle existing patterns of poverty and discrimination. The principle of equality is central to these documents in a way not seen before. This is a significant advance.
“I am pleased with the explicit commitment that economic growth and public procurement, the buying power of the departments, will now be used to address inequality and tackle poverty.
“There is also a commitment to tackle regional disparity and poverty and sustainable development. These are draft documents and Sinn Féin will seek to bring forward improvements where necessary.
“Our priority will be to ensure that frontline services are protected, resources are allocated on the basis of equality, poverty and disadvantage is tackled and that we impact directly on the lives of people, especially the most vulnerable and those most in need.”