Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 16 April 2014

Agreement at last on education bill... but not on welfare

The Executive has finally agreed a bill to streamline the education system under a single Education and Skills Authority (ESA).

However, the DUP and Sinn Fein have clashed over Welfare reform.

The ESA has been years in the planning and reaching agreement — unanimously — will be seen as a major achievement by the power- sharing parties. They are all expected to back it when it reaches the floor of the Assembly.

Speaking after yesterday's Executive meeting, Education Minister John O'Dowd said agreement on the ESA bill marked “a significant step forward in the strategic planning and delivery of our education system”.

Mr O’Dowd added: “The creation of a single authority, able to plan, deliver, support and challenge schools and other providers, will also ensure we are better able to enhance the role played by education in developing our economy.”

More worrying, however, is the continued impasse over the implementation of Welfare reform.

The Executive has agreed to put forward legislation which largely mirrors the controversial legislation at Westminster.

However, Sinn Fein has warned that they will oppose it in its present form when it is actually debated.

Assembly member Alex Maskey said: “Sinn Fein is fundamentally opposed to the austerity policies and cuts agenda of the British Tory Government.

“The Tory’s Welfare Reform Bill is unacceptable to us in its current form.”

He described the proposed cuts contained in the reform bill as “bad for communities and they are bad for public services”

The difficulty for the Executive now lies in the fact that the block grant from Westminster will be based on the assumption that Stormont accepts the UK legislation.

Background

The Education and Skills Authority is expected to improve efficiency and reduce costs by replacing eight existing authorities. They are the five Education and Library Boards, the Council for Catholic Maintained Schools, the Staff Commission and the Youth Council. ESA has already run up a bill of over £40m in terms of redundancies and costs.

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