Debate of the Week: Social Strategy

9 Dec 2016 Ryan Miller    Last updated: 9 Dec 2016

In the last Stormont focus before Christmas recess, we look at what the Communities Minister is and isn’t saying about his plans for a social strategy.

The few weeks between a new election and the summer break barely register in terms of policy. New representatives are still finding their desks let along getting their feet underneath.

The term running from September to December is when the real sparring begins - both the first period of any substance but also light on any meaty specifics in policy, particularly in the period before final agreement on a Programme for Government.

This applies to many of the overarching strategies upon which ministers will rely. In this context, UUP MLA Harold McKee asked the Communities Minister “when he plans to bring the draft social strategy to the Executive”.

Minister and DUP MLA Paul Givan did not answer the question as asked, avoiding any estimate of a timescale, but did say a few things about how he wants to construct the strategy.

“The social strategy will promote opportunity and tackle poverty, social exclusion and patterns of deprivation based on objective need… The most recent figures tell us that 22% of the population in Northern Ireland is living in relative poverty before housing costs.

“It is worth noting that, over the last decade and despite significant investment, the overall number in poverty remains the same. We need to reduce poverty and its impact on people. 

“The social strategy will set out a new approach. It will identify, for example, those in poverty and outline specific interventions to support them. The strategy will address issues in a more coordinated and structured way, mainstreaming this work into the new Programme for Government. Our focus is now firmly on delivering better outcomes for people, outcomes that matter most and can make a real difference.”

Following on

Mr McKee then asked if the strategy will contain “robust targets” to tackle poverty, and what resources will be available to make this happen.

The minister said there is “a very detailed plan to address the causation factors that can drive people into poverty” and it will feature tailored programmes to meet the needs of both individuals and areas, as identified.

“This will be very different from how the Government has tackled poverty in the past and will make sure that those who most need help get it. The strategy will address the issues that drive people into poverty and all the issues that are then caused by those who have to live in poverty.”

Democratic Unionist Christopher Stalford asked the minister who he consulted while developing his strategy, and was told that several events took place supporting the new approach to the Programme for Government, which were “well attended by representatives of local and central government, the voluntary and community sector, the business community and section 75 organisations.”

Further questions

Sinead Bradley, of the SDLP, asked again about the timescale – calling for the minister to “explain the delay” in bringing the strategy to the Executive and to provide a timetable for when it will appear.

Mr Givan said there has been “no undue delay”, noting the PfG remains out for consultation, and the economic investment strategy also still has to go to the Executive.

“Parallel to that is the social strategy. We want to make sure that our economic strategy dovetails with and is tailored to the social strategy, which is about addressing poverty. It is important that we get that right. As soon as that process is completed, we will be able to move to a public consultation process.”

Sinn Fein’s Michelle Gildernew asked if harder-to-reach rural communities would be fully included in the consultation, and how the minister would ensure they are adequately spoken with.

The minister said rural poverty is an important issue, and areas of deprivation “are often difficult to identify” and can be masked by more affluent areas, before saying he would ensure rural communities will be included in the process.

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