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Alliance leader calls for an economic revolution

The Alliance Party has called for an "economic revolution" with a focus on the development of skills.

Party leader David Ford said the Executive must come up with a 'road map' for revamping the economy by the summer recess, as he addressed the last of a series of economic talks by the leaders of the five main political parties.

He said that while all the parties agreed on their desire to cut corporation tax, they did not agree on other ways of helping the economy.

The number of departments in the Executive should be cut from 12 to eight, Mr Ford said, with a new Department for the Economy carrying out the functions of Enterprise, Trade and Investment and Employment and Learning departments, and some of the functions of Agriculture and Rural Development.

But Mr Ford, who is also Justice Minister, said investment in skills was "a most critical driver for the local economy".

"Currently workers here receive less training while in employment than in any other region of the UK," Mr Ford said.

The Executive should consider a cost-effective way of investment in training, he added, suggesting employer networks to plan and purchase training as an option.

Alliance was committed to pressurising banks to increase credit to small businesses, he said, and that the Executive should be innovative in helping finance business, such as venture capitalists.

But cutting corporation tax would "best and most quickly facilitate a step change in the local economy".

He reiterated the party's opposition to duplication of services for the main religious communities in the province, while "hard decisions" had to be taken on water charging.

Mr Ford added that as Justice Minister he had tackled legal aid and reform of prison system. One member of the audience claimed his legal aid reform was "tinkering" which did not address the "gravy train" of legal aid.

"If you think it's tinkering, then I think it's a bit more than that," Mr Ford said of the reforms, which introduced a 25% cut in fees for criminal cases and the end of higher legal fees for big money cases.

The Five Leaders, Five Days series was hosted by the Northern Ireland Chamber of Commerce at the Boat in Belfast.