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Dickson Speaks in Favour of Skills Fund Motion in the Assembly Chamber

Stewart spoke in the Chamber on the 1st November in support of a motion and an amendment on the need for a Northern Irish Skills Fund. His full speech is detailed below.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. I rise to support the motion and the amendment, which I think pushes efforts in a more sensible direction.

We cannot pay lip service to improving the living standards of people in Northern Ireland by not investing in the development of their skills. We must encourage and support people to reach their full potential if we are to create a fair, equal and inclusive society.

The skills and talents of our citizens are the foundation for economic success. They are what attracts our industry, our jobs and our investment. We must create a skills framework to secure future jobs. More than ever, we have the opportunity to invest in the green economy, an economy that prioritises the wellbeing of our people, our country and our planet.

Before anything, we need to finalise the new Skills Strategy and understand that this is a cross-cutting Executive responsibility. We need more investment into Skills across the board, in fact, Alliance believes that the executive must be investing at least another £100 million per annum. A skills fund will have a role, but it should only be one piece of a larger offering.

Just 20 years ago, many of the jobs we have today didn't exist. We must use investment as the key driver of economic growth and consider skills, research and infrastructure through a greener lens. They are the building blocks to a more sustainable economy.

Alliances’ Green New Deal represents this. It recognises that we must build a secure and thriving green economy. An economy that delivers for everyone through a revolutionary shift in policy, by focusing on promoting sustainability and reducing inequalities.

Our Green New Deal has the potential to create a new skills strategy for our citizens, through a reformed and employer-driven apprenticeship system. It will combat youth unemployment and present them with new, fresh and sustainable opportunities.

A decrease in economic activity has hit our young people, school leavers and the lowest qualified the hardest. In the last year, youth employment for 16 to 24-year-olds has faced the most significant drop.

An ageing population and technological changes have created a two-tiered labour market, providing those lucky enough to have ‘in demand’ skills with flexibility and security while many other traditional roles face uncertainty. We must address this by investing in skills and social development.

More than this, we need to retain our students in Northern Ireland. We need to prove to them that they are better off staying here. We must ensure that our Further Education colleges are a first choice alternative for those who do not get into local universities. The reality is that it represents a better alternative for many students, and we have an excellent Further Education Sector, one that we will need moving forward.

Overlooking the deepening disparities and inequalities in our society, will only lead to more hardship. The Northern Ireland Index of Multiple Deprivation Measures reported that in some of our communities, up to 80 per cent of school leavers are not gaining a level two qualification, and over 60 per cent of working-age people in these communities have little or no qualifications. They suggested that its impact on low employment, high deprivation rates, and crime, were detrimental for these communities.

The Skills Strategy must place a focus on ending these inequalities. It must enable more individuals the opportunity to gain skills if we are to ensure a more balanced economy. We must engage with those who have ‘missed out’ so that we do not ‘miss out’ on them.

An all-encompassing skills strategy is needed more than ever before, although, I must say, I have some reservations about making a ring-fenced fund. Ministers should be capable of managing their budgets across a range of headings. A ring-fenced fund does indeed provide a statement of intent but may also create difficulties when underspend occurs.

Too often, long-term cross-departmental planning is a weakness in this Executive. The lack of engagement with other departments on the Economic Recovery Plan shows this, and limits its impact. It is time to emphasise action, not strategy; to focus on our people, society, and economy.

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