Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 20 December 2014

Stormont to bring in new skills authority... but still no sign of shared future policy

Stormont ministers are to press ahead with the new Education and Skills Authority — three years after it was originally intended to be up and running.

The commitment came as the Executive outlined its plans for the year ahead — and mounted a stout defence of its legislative record.

As the Assembly held its last plenary session before its nine-week summer break, MLAs were told to expect to be busier than they have been in the past year.

For between this September and next June they can expect to have to deal with 26 Bills — more than twice the total since the May election of last year.

And new proposals include promotion of a ‘pavement cafe’ culture, sanctions against illegal tobacco sales and the management of reservoirs to help minimise the risk of flooding.

But there were still major gaps in the programme unveiled by Junior Minister Jonathan Bell, who insisted: “We are not focusing on artificial targets for the number of Bills that can be introduced. It is about quality not quantity.”

The missing aspects included any firm announcement on the already long-delayed ‘shared future’ policy — the Cohesion, Sharing and Integration (CSI) document being drawn up by a working group which Alliance recently quit over lack of progress.

Robin Wilson of campaign group Platform for Change – which via the Belfast Telegraph attacked the original CSI proposals two years ago — said: “The original draft was the lowest-common-denominator product of pro-|tracted private negotiations between DUP and Sinn Fein special advisers. It would prove wholly pointless if, five years after dumping the widely-supported A Shared Future policy, OFMDFM were now to deliver another inferior alternative.”

But a statement from First Minister Peter Robinson and Deputy FM Martin McGuinness’s office said: “The First Minister and deputy First Minister have asked the Working Group to conclude its deliberations within the next few weeks in advance of providing a report to them for discussion at a meeting of party leaders.”

Also missing was a timetable for dismantling the Department of Employment and Learning.

No legislation is envisaged on the crucial reduction of Corporation Tax and there were no bills announced from Sinn Fein Minister Caral Ni Chuilin’s Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure.

A statement from it said: “(We) are currently working on bringing forward two language strategies and an Irish Language Act. We are also consulting on salmon conservation and if necessary will take steps to introduce legislation.”

There was support from some MLAs and criticism from others. Former Sinn Fein Education Minister Caitriona Ruane said: “Some people (say) that very little legislation is going through the Assembly, but this report nails that.”

DUP chairman Lord Morrow said, while there are sceptics about the Assembly’s achievements, “I am not among them”.

UUP leader Mike Nesbitt said given that a year has passed with little or no legislation there are voters now beginning to think “that the DUP’s plan was simply to get power for power’s sake”.

Party colleague Danny Kinahan remarked that without action Mr Bell was the “waffle king”.

Mr Bell retorted: “There is a line from an old hymn: ‘The rich man in his castle, the poor man at his gate’. I did not believe that people lived in castles until Mr Kinahan came along with that status.”

The TUV’s Jim Allister said he could “see now why this Executive will need every one of the 161 staff in their Press offices to spin this as achievement”.

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