NI’s Stark Choices – response

The Belfast Telegraph ran a long article entitled “Stark Choices” last week which is worth analysing.

Governance

The priorities of the article are a little strange, objectively. The immediate focus is on the direct cost of governance, i.e. the operation of the Assembly. Yet in fact Assembly running costs account for only 0.4% of Current Departmental Expenditure – and Current Departmental Expenditure accounts for less than half all public spending in Northern Ireland.

Perhaps MLAs should take a “normative” approach and show some willingness to share the pain, but the fact is moving from 108 to 90 MLAs or reducing their Office Costs Allowance further would make next to zero difference in the general scheme of things.

Economy

The article refers to the “highs of 2007” and even hints at wanting to get “recapture” those highs, but this is a false analysis.

2007 saw an apparent (but at best unsustainable and at worst plain illusionary) “boom” based on huge rises in public spending and a property binge. The Northern Irish were at one stage spending more money per week than any other UK region, despite earning around 10% below average (and producing 20% less per head). Therefore, the economy was in a shocking state in 2007 based on mass borrowing which inevitably led to mass indebtedness (including negative equity) and a tougher recession than anywhere else in the UK. We most certainly do not want to “recapture” that!

In fact, wealth is created by innovation and export, not bureaucracy and asset bubbles. This means that we need more businesses focused on innovation and export to create jobs to cover those which will inevitably now be lost from our bloated bureaucracy. It is certainly true that a big issue for investors and entrepreneurs when choosing location is political stability – but so is global connectivity and workforce skills. Our record on those is at best mixed.

Health

The section on “Health” was excellent – there is too little journalism like it these days!

It should be noted, however, that the “£75 per head” extra spending in Northern Ireland still sees us spending less on Health as a share of overall public spending than England does, and the gap is increasing (now around 19% in Northern Ireland and Scotland versus 22% in England).

What we do spend on Health is indeed spent far too disproportionately on bureaucracy. As noted, there are 42% more bureaucrats in NI’s Health System than in England, but fewer clinicians and nurses.

There are problems with pay too. GP pay has soared in the past decade even though GPs now work fewer hours (the days of the midnight call-out) are passed. However, nurses are indisputably comparatively underpaid (not least because there are too few of them) – the gap in Northern Ireland between doctor and nurse pay is one of the highest in the world.

Another issue, common across the public service but most common in Health, is the poor standard of management. Management techniques are among the least advanced in the Western World in NI – the boom in agency staff is just one example of where it has all gone wrong; another example is the failure to evaluate transparently the development of many of the Transforming Your Care reform plans.

Education

The situation in Education is not as bad as is being suggested, but the article is fundamentally right about the shocking political mismanagement of the education system. An attempt to stop transfer tests merely made them more pressurised; an attempt to merge Education & Library Boards into a single Authority took eight years; and progress on integration is snail-like. Worst of all is the underlying idea that schools with different academic intakes should just teach the same curriculum, with no thought for vocational linkages.

The Past / Policing

It is a cruel truth that the vast majority would prefer police resources spent on the present, to the absolute exclusion of the past if needs be.

One area omitted from discussion in the article is prisons. A successful reform has largely been carried out, but costs per prisoner remain high. “Patten-style” reform would be a good idea in practice, but seems politically impossible.

Local Government

It is hard to see where the projected savings of £12-£21 million per year in the new Councils come from. Fundamentally, the same number of bins need collected, and the original ideal of “co-terminosity” (shared boundaries with the likes of Health Trusts or police districts) has been abandoned for the sake of a grubby political deal. There are also issues around staff in mergers which are likely to cost ratepayers more, not less; and this is before we get to the £30 million set aside to subsidise rates in areas where they are going up rapidly as a result of merger.

Infrastructure

What isn’t made clear in the article is that the Budget cuts are coming off Current, not Capital, spending. As noted, this means that reductions in the Regional Development budget affect maintenance, not new building. The Maze has only been stopped because of politicking, and proposals Desertcreat need revised.

Arts

Spending on the Arts was already comparatively low. They are seen as an easy cut.

They are in fact nothing of the sort. A vibrant arts scene is central to the quality of life of any city or region, and actually a big reason people choose to invest or not invest in any given location.

This is to leave quite aside that orchestras, musical societies and drama groups are almost universally effortlessly cross-community, and provide in particular genuine skills – from teamwork to presenting to project managing – for young people.

On the contrary, if we wish NI to thrive as an integrated society which wants to keep hold of its young people, arts spending should be dramatically increased.

Political Alienation

There is a tendency to see political alienation as unique to Northern Ireland. However, elections in recent weeks from Latvia to Romania to America have all seen turnout fall.

Frankly, we have all come to expect politicians to perform miracles. We elect people often with no experience of anything outside the entirely theoretical world of political research or similar, and demand that they deliver complex public services of ever higher quality despite increasing strains on resources but we will not pay a penny more for those services. It’s ludicrous – but the electorate gets the politicians it chooses (or allows others to choose), and thus has only itself to blame.

Equality

This is described in the article as a “hefty price tag”, but it really isn’t, at 0.1% of public spending for an area which was the crux of the civil rights disputes in the first place.

The real issue is not the cost but the quality of Equality advice and services. It is concerning that Equality and Community Relations are to merge when logic (and experience from other jurisdictions) would suggest it should be Equality and Human Rights. Community Relations are an entirely separate matter from Equality, and the conflation of the two damages each.

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