When one correspondent noted after one day at the Talks last week that there was “still a gap between the parties on finance“, I felt obliged to respond that the gap is “between those who understand finance and those who do not“!
I fear it may be even worse than that, as a I suspect some parties know perfectly well that the case they are making is a complete dud. They are essentially kicking the can down the road and hoping the UK Government is polite enough not to notice it still sitting in the street making the street as dirty as it ever was.
I would love to be clearer about precisely what the numbers are, but going by amounts mentioned by both BBC NI and UTV correspondents the “£2.16 billion package” breaks down in part as:
- £500 million for “Shared Education Projects” (unclear whether borrowed) – my concern here is the word “projects”, as it would be a much safer investment simply to put money towards an entirely integrated education system;
- £200 million for “Dealing with the Past” – this seems reasonable as the relevant powers are (arguably at least) reserved to the UK Government anyway, although it does mean the UK Government would control the process;
- £214 million for “writing off welfare fines” – this one is arguable, but as the Executive will now be implementing welfare reform I can see why they would make a case; and
- £300 million for “infrastructure projects” (borrowed, presumably) – it is worth noting that this sum could be raised without borrowing in just two years by gradual implementation of water charges (which are for infrastructure).
There is also £90 million of the Executive’s own budget to be set aside for “alleviating the effects of welfare reform”. I’d love to hear more about that…
And then there is the big one – £800 million (borrowed, I think) to cover the cost of the “civil service voluntary exit”… oh dear. I am highly alarmed by this, for a few reasons:
- either the “voluntary exit” will offer terms so generous that no one can refuse and thus “succeed” (but very expensively), or it will offer terms which are insufficient to garner enough interest, thus by necessity becoming a “compulsory exit”;
- this is an acceptance that thousands of civil servants currently being paid an average of £24,000 are in fact literally redundant (in that we don’t need them), which poses serious questions as to why this wasn’t long planned for;
- managing the “exit” in this way means that those departing the service will be determined by those who want the package (almost entirely by age, therefore, in practice), rather than by performance or indeed by where civil servants offer the best contribution; and
- the civil service is a tiny fraction of the overall public sector (less than 15%) – it does not include, for example, Health administrators (in a Health Service which the CEO of the Health and Social Care Board has already openly admitted is over bureaucratic) or Education administrators after the Boards merge (a less bureaucratic Education system is necessary to stop the ludicrous cuts currently being proposed for schools).
Therefore, I can see at least that some thinking has gone into the “ask”. However, a lot of it remains fanciful.
Most of all, let us note the logical admissions such as the need to proceed with welfare reform and the fact thousands of civil servants are already redundant. The DUP and Sinn Fein have now accepted these, having long since denied them. They have mismanaged Northern Ireland. The electorate needs to engage, not disengage, and make that obvious point in May.