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Ring-fenced Funds

Volume 450: debated on Wednesday 11 October 2006

2. What assessment he has made of the merits of using ring-fenced funds to target specific policy areas in Northern Ireland. (92586)

I have established three ring-fenced priority funding packages—children and young people, skills and science and environment and energy—to redirect resources specifically to improve the prospects and life chances of future generations in Northern Ireland.

I am sure that the House will be pleased to hear about the progress of that approach, but are there other ways in which different Departments can work together—for instance, through cross-cutting budgets in respect of areas such as renewable energy?

There are indeed and I welcome my hon. Friend’s point. That is exactly what is happening. For example, we are seeing £60 million invested in renewable energy schemes and environmental protection schemes to make Northern Ireland the leader of the green agenda in the United Kingdom. There are also 100 per cent. grants to low-income households to install solar panels on their roofs, alternative microgeneration schemes and a change in building regulations, so that, from April 2008, no new build in Northern Ireland—whether it be a hospital, a school, a factory, an office or a home—can proceed without microgeneration designed in from the beginning. That will contribute to the fight against climate change, as well as reduce bills.

The Secretary of State will be aware that the DUP was the only party to argue for a reduction in the number of Government Departments. Does he agree that it is imperative for the funding for the distribution of essential life-improving drugs such as Herceptin, beta interferon, Enbrel and Remicade on the one hand, and for mental health provision on the other, to be ring-fenced? Sadly, in those two areas, money is often siphoned off when there are shortfalls within the national health service.

The hon. Lady will know that the Labour Government have doubled in real terms the health budget in Northern Ireland, but she has made strong arguments on those matters and I pay tribute to her. It is exactly the joined-up government approach that we are carrying forward and I hope that the devolved Executive will also carry it forward—and sooner rather than later.

I congratulate the Secretary of State on the ring-fenced funding and I ask him to think seriously about further ring-fenced funding for education. While there are wards in North Down where 70 per cent. of young people go to university, only 4 per cent. do so in the Shankhill. Such disparities cannot go on and extra ring-fenced funding will help to overcome them.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Although Northern Ireland has excellence at the top of our schools system, it has a very poor achievement rate down the ability ladder. What we need is everyone having opportunities in schools so that Northern Ireland can be world class. That is why I have ring-fenced funding for children and young people. For example, I have provided extra money directly to head teachers in about 400 schools in the most disadvantaged areas—including the one that my hon. Friend mentioned—to enable them to run breakfast and after-school clubs, providing high-quality care, so that parents can work if they wish to and children can get a better start in life. We are also offering a new pre-apprenticeship programme to young people at 14, so that they stay engaged in education and are fully prepared for further vocational education. That is our agenda.