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Assembly Speech- Spring Estimates 16/2/2009

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Mr Speaker / Deputy Speaker

I am pleased as the Deputy Chair of the Employment and Learning Committee to speak in this Supply Resolution Debate and participate in the overall discussion.

The members of the Committee noted the proposal the Department for Employment and Learning had made to DFP and I have composed some remarks regarding the Department for Employment and Learning’s reduced requirements.

In this Monitoring Round the Committee members noted that  under spends for particular projects and programmes were not large and in fact did appear to be comparatively small scale regarding the total amount allocated to the department, however, the percentages the under spends stand for in provision to specific budgets for projects or programmes can be vitally important.
The Committee members have already established that shortfalls in spending in areas of skills and preparation for work programmes, these demand-led programmes, are as a result of problems of associated with time lags ahead of involvement in these programmes becoming obligatory for eligible clients. The Chair of the Committee has already mentioned this point.

A case in point, within in this monitoring round, the Department for Employment and Learning is confirming a reduced requirement of  circa £700,000. This is due to the demand for the New Deal/Steps to Work programme not having reached the reached forecast take up levels.  The programme is not mandatory for those aged 18 years to 24 years.  It is not possible to go into the programme before they have been enrolled on the Jobseekers Allowance for a minimum of 6 months. For those over 25 the period is 18 months.  The Committee members have in the past queried the requirement for this qualifying time of 18 months.

As a result of this time lag and bearing in mind the numbers of those out of work have shot up it may well be time for the Minister to give this consideration.
There is every expectation that levels of funding for this and other demand-led skills training programmes directly related to increasing unemployment will need to be increased.  The members would draw the attention of this to Minister Dodds and implore him to be accommodating with funding for these essential schemes when the demand increases.

Committee members have emphasised to the department officials the need for a highly skilled workforce and the need for investment in up skilling and reskilling of all our young people, and indeed those who need retraining.  A failure to do so will not enable us to be ready for the economic better days by having a well qualified, motivated and highly skilled workforce which will be attractive to foreign investors and for the most progressive of local firms as they exploit business opportunities for growth.   These skill gaps cannot be allowed to continue and must be addressed.

I believe I am right in saying that the Committee members will be supportive of bids for funds submitted by the department for programmes and would ask Minister Dodds would bear this in mind with regard to future upskilling and reskilling of the Northern Ireland labour force.

It is probably the case that the worst hit sector of industry is the construction sector. The number of apprentices paid off during this period and unable to complete their apprentices is now in the hundreds.  Unfortunately the scheme developed by the Minister Empey “The Fostering Scheme” has not been taken up by the sector and we will lose these young people from our skilled workforce if the opportunity is not provided to them to gain their qualifications.  Members expressed concerns on this matter.  This must be addressed by the Minister and will require funding.  Again in the future I would implore the Finance Committee to consider funding for increased quality of apprenticeship training.

The Employment and Learning committee has always taken a responsible position in its relationship with the Department.

The Committee has in the past been supportive of the Department and again is supportive on this occasion.
However this should not be accepted as meekness or an unwillingness to criticise the Department when necessary.  The Committee will make the necessary demands from the Department and will be critical as and when necessary. 

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