NI parties put ideology first, evidence nowhere

I had understood there was a project under way in Northern Ireland this year promoting “evidence-based policy making”, but it has not made itself evident. Instead, even the better elected representatives are being dragged down into Stormont’s crazy Fantasyland.

One MLA had an article in the Belfast Telegraph on Monday suggesting, if my understanding of it was correct, that the “voluntary exit” scheme was an opportunity to pay the “Living Wage” to all civil servants. The article made no mention of how many civil servants are not currently on the “Living Wage” and would thus stand to gain from this – which is a shame, because a series of Assembly Questions in late 2014 revealed the figure. It was zero.

This point is on the public record within the Assembly itself – a series of questions to another MLA last year established it.

It is true that this figure does not include Health Trusts or such like, staffed strictly speaking by public servants rather than civil servants (but there is no reason to believe they are any different). The average public sector wage in Northern Ireland is the same as it is in Great Britain; but, interestingly, the average wage in the junior grades is actually higher in Northern Ireland. So there is no reason to believe that any public sector workers at all in Northern Ireland are on below Living Wage (especially as “discretionary” low-wage services such as cleaning offices are being phased out), and if there are any it is a tiny number (and indeed, no reason not to fix that as it would cost almost nothing).

So, in terms of the public sector (the one affected by the “voluntary exit scheme”), this is literally a non-issue.

The difficulty I have with this is that the MLA involved had clearly chosen not even to seek any evidence before making his case. He simply put a pre-existing ideology on to an issue without any regard for the actual facts. It is hard to come up with real-world solutions if you cannot even assess correctly the real-world problems.

The real-world problem is the precise contrary to the one implied in the article. Two essential points were missed – no doubt because they did not suit the left-leaning and frankly simplistic ideology the article sought to articulate. Firstly, the “voluntary exit scheme” is necessitated by the very fact that public sector workers will not tolerate lower wages here than in Great Britain, leaving the only option available a reduction in public sector jobs (the assumption that jobs should go before wages is arguable either way, but that is the debate we should be having). Secondly, to be totally straightforward about this, low pay is an issue in the private sector, not the public (and so it is increasing private sector pay, unmentioned in the article, which is the real priority here).

On the first of these, it remains a bizarre trait of those who claim to be of the “left” that they continue to focus the pay argument around those who are the best paid. A family of public sector workers in Northern Ireland not only takes home the same average pay as their equivalent in Great Britain, but actually pays far lower household taxes – leaving it, on average, around 7% better off (and still gaining from above-average spend on public services). A family of private sector workers, on the other hand, will on average be 12% worse off even after those lower household taxes. Why on earth is the “left” so obsessed with the former and so ignorant of the latter?!

On the second, the worst issue about all of this is that politicians are desperate to pretend there are simple answers to complex problems. It is, after all, easy to say “the private sector should pay more”; the problem is that Northern Ireland is overburdened with industries which are becoming unproductive faster than those which predominate elsewhere in the UK and Ireland; and an inevitable consequence of that lack of productivity is stalled growth and ever lower wages (comparatively). To put this right requires a complete re-shaping of the Northern Ireland economy away from low-value, (increasingly) unproductive sectors.

Re-shaping the economy away from low-value, unproductive sectors? That sounds, you know, hard! No votes in hard stuff! Never mind the evidence, let us just agree it is much easier to moan about “banks” and suggest people who are already paying the “Living Wage” should, er, pay the “Living Wage”… while the people who are really low paid continue to suffer.


6 thoughts on “NI parties put ideology first, evidence nowhere

  1. korhomme says:

    Evidence based policy? Evidence based law making?

    Not in N Ireland, where large numbers of MLAs seem to live in a fantasy theocracy, an ‘idealised world’ where reality is denied. Who then needs evidence when you have ‘faith’?

  2. Hi Ian. Great post and of course not just a problem in NI but also internationally. I am working on a project to exchange evidence across the UK but you may be interested in the work of the Alliance for Useful Evidence which promotes the use of evidence in public policy and practice and undertook a manifesto checker campaign (with Conversation UK). More info here

    We will be running a number of webinars and masterclasses in the autumn on evidence exchange so please sign up for free membership!

    You will no doubt be aware that KESS also work in this area…..

    Happy to meet up and discuss further

  3. andyboal says:

    There are a few things arising.

    Firstly, the fact that the lowest point of the NICS pay scales is above the Living Wage is an accident of history. Until the Equal Pay settlement, when the bottom two grades had their rates of pay increased to match equivalent technical grades, the bottom point of the pay scale was barely above the legal minimum wage (and indeed, some staff had to be given emergency pay rises due to the time lag between increases in the minimum wage and the annual pay settlement.

    Secondly, there is no guarantee that the bottom of the payscales will remain above the Living Wage, partly because Management Side withdrew from a previous agreement that all staff would be able to go up the payscale each year, and partly because this year they might choose to give staff their increment but not take points off the bottom of the payscale.

    Thirdly, the health service, council and education staff haven’t been through an Equal Pay process. It’s therefore very likely that they do have staff below the Living Wage.

  4. Ian, I think you are being harsh. I would almost be an apologist for the assertion that the campaign for the living wage was ideological, but you might agree that might infer there was some sort of idea that they knew civil servants are paid well above the living wage (of course they want to reduce their salaries to the living wage).

    Civil Servants put evidence before ideology, and this would probably have been a Civil Servant driven proposal, but trade unions and some politicians from other sectors do not understand that.

    However, one potential argument against the voluntary exit scheme is that although no one loses their job involuntarily, that job, that work, that place for someone to contribute their labour for a little purchase power which was previously filled, will no longer be open for anyone else. We have a young unemployed unnetworked yet qualified section of our community who will see public sector and in particular civil servant jobs as one means to get on the rung.

    But this rather valid argument isn’t the one being made. I know unemployed people who have failed to get into the civil service but they are simply trying to find jobs elsewhere not looking for Stormont to ring-fence the number of workers that are in the civil service.

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