Debate of the Week: Question Time with Arlene Foster
For those who don’t know, a key part of Stormont’s plenary sessions is ministerial question time. Every Monday and Every Tuesday, two departments put up their ministers for both pre-prepared and off-the-cuff questions from MLAs.
The new mandate’s departmental rationalistion means that ministers find themselves under the spotlight nearly once every two weeks, an increase on the previous scrutiny.
The only exception to this is the Executive Office’s time on the floor, simply because the department has four ministers, and they take it in turns to front up to their fellow Assembly Members. Luckily for us, however, it was the First Minister herself who took on the question we are looking at.
Alliance MLA for Strangford Kellie Armstrong asked the First Minister “to outline the specific proposals and methods of evaluation that have been developed to meet recommendation D2 of the Fresh Start panel report on the 'Disbandment of Paramilitary Groups' to measurably reduce segregation in education and housing and set ambitious targets and milestones to achieve measurable progress as quickly as possible.”
The First Minister said the Executive action plan, published in July, sets out plans for implementation of “all the recommendations in the three-person panel report,” as well as arrangements for reporting progress.
She also said that Fresh Start will try and build on existing programmes, noting the 10 shared education campuses planned under Together: Building a United Community – with five sites identified, including: Moy, Limavady, Ballycastle, Brookeborough and Duneane/Moneynick, and further announcements expected in May 2017 following a third call for applications.
Delivering Social Change is also expected to help advance Fresh Start; Mrs Foster said the £25m project to incentivise sharing projects between schools and to boost opportunities for children and young people to learn together “regardless of their religious or cultural background” will help, and noted that 314 schools are currently involved in 134 partnerships, with a further call for applications ongoing.
“The shared neighbourhoods programme is also progressing well. Two schemes at Ballynafoy Close on the Ravenhill Road and Manse Court in Saintfield have been completed. A further two schemes are near completion and six others are under construction. The Executive will consider in due course how to build on this significant success.”
Ms Armstrong asked if there had been any impact on implementation stemming from the fact Westminster withheld their contribution to funding the action plan. The First Minister said shared education is progressing well and she is “pleased with the number of projects for which funding has been made available”, adding:
“Of course, there is always more that we would like to do, but we will continue to push ahead on this agenda.”
Ulster Unionist Philip Smith noted Housing Executive figures that, in the past year, 400 people who claimed homelessness cited paramilitary activity, and asked how the strategy would deal with this “given that the first draft has already been rejected by the Government as falling short”.
Mrs Foster said she disagreed with that “characterisation” of the UK government position but agreed that these statistics are “alarming”, but said the HE had been able to draw down nearly £500k under Fresh Start allocations to deal with three programmes – “one on community empowerment; one on re-imaging communities, which will try to deal with some of the issues that led to those people being rehoused; and one on bonfire management, which always becomes a very topical issue at a particular time of the year, not just in the House but in councils across the piece.”
She said that politicians have a further role to play in trying to minimise these incidents.
Alex Attwood of the SDLP noted the Finance Minister’s report that “London will not release in-year moneys to deal with the issue because of the lack of a detailed action plan” alongside the fact that Fresh Start was announced a year prior – with “a fanfare of promotion” – before asking the First Minister if she felt “embarrassed”.
Mrs Foster said she did not and that the withheld money will be rolled forward into next year and that she would “much rather that the programme be the correct one and that it really can deliver for communities” than rush things and get them wrong.
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