Category Archives: Uncategorized

Debt defines the economic situation

The headline here, that the UK has the fourth highest household debt in the world, is slightly misleading but the basic point stands: household debt is a huge problem – perhaps more so than government debt.

We talk a lot about government debt or “national debt” and rightly: ultimately in comparison with elsewhere the government can only spend what it can raise (including what it can borrow), and if it loses control of its debt it will run out of money altogether – cf. Greece and Venezuela.

However, the key there is “what it can raise”, most of which still comes from you and me. If you and I are ourselves hugely indebted, however, we are practically limited in what we can pay – in other wises, significant tax rises become impossible.

The figures are unclear, but all the evidence suggests that Northern Ireland is in an even worse place, in terms of household debt, than England, Scotland or Wales. This makes sense – spending in Northern Ireland is 4% higher than the UK average but household income is 4% lower (each excluding household taxes, as they are effectively irrelevant to the comparison).

Advice Centre will confirm the huge numbers coming through their doors with debt problems – from problems arising from endless pay-day loans right through to desperate attempts to cancel phone or TV contracts. This problem is largely classless too, affecting all social backgrounds.

A lot of this does come down to expectations. The accepted “middle-class” lifestyle – several holidays a year, premium-brand cars on the driveway (and there is a driveway), household mod-cons, regular changes of furniture and frequent nights out and city breaks – costs considerably more than the average “middle-class” household actually earns. The pressure to keep up with (or even access) this lifestyle is evident – pressure which can result not in sensible restructuring of household finance but in the development of addictions as a way of escaping the reality of the debt, which themselves add to the debt. Everyone in Northern Ireland will know people in this predicament.

This is no one’s fault in particular – it is the inevitable consequence of a consumerist culture.

The best we can do for now is identify the issue and try to be more honest about it. All thoughts welcome!

Just because something is unpalatable, doesn’t make it untrue

“Just because something is unpalatable, doesn’t make it untrue”. So said former world record triple jumper Jonathan Edwards about losing his faith, as it happens. However, the phrase has sprung to mind very often since I first read it, not least when looking at the local and global economy we live in.

As they got out the begging bowl to the UK Government in the Stormont Castle Agreement in mid-December, the DUP, Sinn Fein, SDLP and Ulster Unionists all put their name to a document which states:

  • “Structural level social divisions create inefficiency” (Paragraph 44)
  • “Additional costs have been driven by duplicating services” (Paragraph 44)
  • “Division tends to impact disproportionately on those who experience poverty” (Paragraph 45)
  • “Initiatives which would assist…[would include] acceleration of integrated and shared education” (Paragraph 47)
  • “[Shared education will] bring about future savings in the Budget” (Paragraph 48)

It’s magnificent stuff – go and read it yourself.

Of course, one obvious thing you would need to do to address “societal divisions” is ensure teachers in schools are themselves well acquainted with the diverse society in which we live. Another obvious thing to do would be to stop the inefficiency of small teacher training colleges which require subsidies (leaving quite aside the fact they train too many students anyway). No doubt, we would particularly want to do this because of the particular penalty paid for those divisions by those experiencing poverty, say, in places like West Belfast. Naturally, to maximise the investment in “integrated and shared education” you will want teachers who themselves were trained in integrated and shared settings. And it goes without saying that merging, say, teacher training into a single University campus would not just deliver all the above benefits, but also future savings to the budget.

Here’s an odd thing though – when the Employment Minister specifically set out a reform programme of teacher training to achieve all of these things, exactly as the other four parties wanted in an Agreement they all supported, the other four parties went out of their way within two months to block him doing so. Just because something’s (electorally) unpalatable…

I mean, anyone would think those four parties aren’t serious about tackling the costs of division and the inevitable inefficiencies and poverty that goes with them! But that couldn’t be, could it…?



BBC must remember “public service” ethos

Further to yesterday’s blog, I did subsequently appear on the Nolan Show on BBC Radio Ulster to challenge why his TV show had on as a “commentator” somebody who was thoroughly uninformed and just outright abusive. The defence was that he was taking positions a lot of the public take – but that is fundamentally not the purpose of a commentator.

If there are views held by the public which are uninformed, it is the role of the public service broadcaster to challenge them through people who are informed, not to pay people with our licence fees to regurgitate them in a particularly insulting manner.

The BBC seems to have forgotten that “impartiality” does not mean letting a deliberately insulting view on air and then trying to counter it with someone from the opposite extreme. It requires informed debate.

There would have been no difficulty if this “commentator” had competed equally with others for his platform. He is entitled to his views and to express them freely. In fact, however, he was elevated beyond others and deliberately given a much greater say than anyone else – despite the fact he had not a single qualification for that say (having no demonstrable expertise in the subject, no evidence of detailed practical understanding of the implications of the reforms, and no electoral mandate).

It does so happen that I spent many years, mostly voluntarily but sometimes with a prominent think tank, researching welfare issues. However, I can think of countless articulate people – at our Universities, at NICVA, in the Law Centre, in independent consultancies – who would have provided an informed view. To be clear, this may very well have differed from my view, but it would have constituted legitimate opinion rather than gratuitous insult. In short, they would have provided a public service.

The BBC also has a role not to encourage stigmatisation. It is correct that the reprehensible and groundless views expressed were challenged on air, and that other people with informed views were invited to speak. However, the real issue is why someone of such resounding idiocy was given preferential billing even to those other people. He was in fact invited on deliberately to be provocatively ignorant. It is simply not the BBC’s business to do that, particularly when it risks increasing the stigma felt by people who are genuinely vulnerable.

As it happens, I have almost never come across someone who fundamentally did not want to work (yes of course there are those who do not fancy discipline, or getting up for 9am or whatever, but that is not quite the same thing). Yet I have come across hundreds, maybe thousands, whose lives could be transformed even by a relatively minor, targeted intervention in mental health. This is an informed opinion based on lengthy research backed up by many others, and it deserved an airing much more than the ignorant ranting of an egomaniac.

The BBC must stop sacrificing the “informed” for the sake of the apparently “impartial” in the quest for ratings. If that must be done, leave it to commercial broadcasters. The BBC has a public service duty to inform and educate – and therefore not to elevate the deliberately ignorant and insulting. There is no excuse for a single one of its programmes not to pay heed to that at all times.

Welfare Reform debate misses point

I was called in to appear on the BBC Nolan TV show last week only for the debate to degenerate into a disgusting and abusive rant about people with genuine mental health problems from the supposed “commentator”. Unfortunately treating such debates as despicable entertainment rather than informed debate is one of many things which contributes to our democratic deficit.

What I would have said, as someone with some real expertise on the subject, is that Northern Ireland may actually have a pretty good deal on welfare reform now. However, this depends on how the “£565 million” for “mitigation” is spent.

If it is spent on a scatter-gun basis with no proper targeting of resources or medium-term plan, the outcome will be disastrous. It will mean we get the worst not of all worlds, but of most – a system based on assumptions which don’t apply here putting pressure on housing which is inadequate and on people to get jobs which can’t exist. We should be very, very clear about that.

On the other hand, we now have six years and £565 million to do something to tackle poverty for real. Given the right policies, that will be enough to make a good start.

Northern Ireland has three areas of particular difference from Great Britain which need particular attention – childcare, housing and jobs.

First, the Welfare Reform Bill assumes more wide-ranging state-sponsored childcare than we have here. It is no good pushing people into work if they literally cannot afford to do it! We need specific mitigation for parents, at least those on low income.

Second, the “Bedroom Tax” assumes that it is relatively easy to move social house. The legacy of conflict, sectarian segregation and other issues mean that is simply untrue in Northern Ireland. It is important that the derogation on this remains in place until the policy is abolished by the UK Government (which it will be, as it is unworkable even in Great Britain).

Third, we need to recognise that the only way to create jobs is through the private sector. We have not yet got around to understanding this. Public money is not going to continue to create “government posts” the way it did 10-20 years ago because there simply isn’t as much of it and we are not the special case we pretend we are anyway. The only way to create real work is through innovation and export. We must invest in the skills and training which will achieve this, so that at the end of the six-year period the jobs exist, well matched, for people to move into.

The fundamental problem with the debate is that it allows mouthpieces from both “Left” and “Right” completely to misrepresent what the Welfare system is. It is NOT a means of compensating people for being poor; it is a means of giving them a helping hand up from poverty. That is what it was designed to achieve. It is time we shifted the debate to recognise that basic point.

The *actively* sectarian nature of 80% of the NI Executive

The debate about teacher training places really is an incredibly simple one.

How many teachers do we need to train in Northern Ireland? Taking account demographics, retirement rates, later pension age and so on, certainly not more than 400.

The question then becomes, simply, how is this done most efficiently? By training them, as they do in similar locations like Glasgow and Dublin, within existing local Universities.

The Minister should now proceed to do that, with full Executive support.

That is, of course, where it all goes wrong. As a country recovering from decades, nay centuries, of sectarian conflict, for some reason 85% of those we elect (and thus 80% of our devolved government) think it is a brilliant idea to continue to educate our children along those same sectarian lines. In order to do this, it is apparently also a brilliant idea to train those who educate them along those same sectarian lines.

For decades, we have had money from elsewhere pumped into ‘peace’ funds on the assumption that Northern Ireland would obviously now proceed to break down the sectarian barriers which divided it and left it conflicted for so long. Instead, 80% of those we elect think it is a brilliant idea deliberately to maintain those barriers, from the age of four, and to secure them in place in terms of those teaching our children until about age 23. Far from bringing down the barriers, the Executive and 85% of the Assembly want to copperfasten them in place.

Which brings us to the next obvious question: why?

Just weeks after they went to the UK Government with the mother of all begging bowls pleading “special circumstances” because of the divided nature of our society, 80% of our Executive parties now thing we should bolt down those “special circumstances” and ensure the divisions remain in place for another generation. Apparently, this will bring us all to peace and the promised land.

Our sectarian politicians stamp their feet and rant and rave when they are not given money that they “need”. Yet when they are given the chance to prove they could spend money efficiently, they opt not just to spend it inefficiently, but to do so while maintaining in place the very conditions which led to conflict – actively and deliberately.

We would prefer to train 180 teachers we will never need (who will never ever be able to get a job in their chosen vocation here) in conditions deliberately segregated along sectarian lines than train 250 engineers in an integrated setting to provide skills which will encourage jobs and wealth for the same price.

That’s the bitter, inefficient and actively sectarian Executive 85% of you elected, folks. Today, they will no doubt prove it…

SDLP abortion stance a thundering disgrace

On Saturday SDLP Leader Alasdair McDonnell committed not just himself but also his party to absolute opposition to any change in abortion law.

This is disgraceful enough, but he would not even be open about the real reason. Abusing his GP credentials, he tried to argue that he knew that you could never be sure that a fatal abnormality was fatal. Of course, there are some cases of doubt, but it is a matter of fact that sometimes doctors can be 100% sure that the abnormality is fatal. So he is frankly making up myths to create a dodgy “practical” reason for what is in fact a profoundly and fundamentally religious stance.

Even if we were foolish enough to accept Mr McDonnell’s reasoning based on his professional experience, he committed his party to absolute opposition to any change in abortion law – meaning that the SDLP joins the DUP in rejecting access to abortion services in cases of rape.

Let us be clear here, there is absolutely nobody who opposes abortion in case of rape – except on religious grounds. You cannot be human and believe that a victim of rape should be forced to carry a foetus which reminds her hourly of the very horror that she has just been through. This is, therefore, an invasion into civic space of an exclusively religious argument – i.e. where religious arguments have no place. It is an attempt to impose an exclusively religious view on a diverse, secular society. That is exactly what the Conscience Clause is designed to do too. It is unacceptable.

Remember, no one would be forced to have an abortion under the Department of Justice proposals, even if these were specifically extended to include cases of rape. People of religious view would have every right not to have them. But let us be very clear what Alasdair McDonnell is saying to rape victims here: “I, a man, have a religious view; and that means you, a woman and a victim, should be deprived of any choice. Oh, and my personal religious views are more important than your emotional wellbeing.”

This, of course, came at the end of a week when the SDLP had already disgracefully defended single-denomination teacher training, committing us to another generation of schooling along sectarian lines in a society recovering from conflict along sectarian lines (and to removing student places just so we can subsidise trainee teachers, around a third of whom we know we will never need). The SDLP is, therefore, content for students to be deprived of places on courses across Northern Ireland and for sectarian educational division to be maintained as long as specifically Catholic teacher training continues to be subsidised by our rates and taxes. This is from a party which laughably claims the title “progressive”?!

This would all be a thundering disgrace at the best of times, but let us also remind ourselves that the abortion issue is one which directly affects only women. Men are never faced with the lonely choice, the lonely decision, and the lonely recovery. The SDLP – and let us be clear that Mr McDonnell spoke for the whole party – is putting Catholic rights ahead of women’s rights. It’s so very telling, and it’s utterly contemptible.

NI needs direct links for business coming in, not tourists going out

The good news – Belfast “International” Airport is indeed to become more international over the next few months. The bad news – the “international” links are to, er, Iceland and, er, Florida… oh yes, and Croatia. Iceland and Florida and Croatia are delightful and remarkable places – but this is yet again an example of setting up routes for Northern Ireland tourists to take money out, not for foreign business to bring money in. Northern Ireland will, almost embarrassingly, have direct air links to two of Western Europe’s smallest countries – Malta and Iceland – but not to its largest. No, Germany remains off the map – available only from Dublin or via Great Britain. A quick glance down Assembly questions shows that MLAs continue to miss the point. “What about the link to Toronto?” they ask. They omit to mention that the Northern Ireland ratepayer is already subsidising the link to New York – a link which does not now even operate all year round; and they omit to mention that the flight to Orlando will also be subsidised and only be open to the rich – costing as it does fully £400 more than the equivalent flight/package from Manchester. Most of those paying that subsidy gain almost nothing from it – focused as it is on taking a select few Northern Ireland people out (particularly in the case of Orlando), not the reverse. As it happens, places like Germany and Sweden are every bit as interesting as Iceland and Florida. But we’ll not be easily able to find that out as residents of Northern Ireland, because there’s no direct air route from Belfast. The problem is much more significant than the difficulty it causes us, however. The real issue is that if you are a German or Swedish businessperson planning your next investment, you are not likely to plan it for somewhere you can’t actually get to! We are therefore making it incredibly difficult for us to trade with the people who are our most obvious trading partners. In fact, Northern Ireland’s trade with the Netherlands, a country with which it has a direct air link, is worth almost exactly the same (in terms both of exports and imports) as its trade with Germany – despite the fact the Netherlands has only a fifth of Germany’s population! If we could increase trade with Germany to the same level proportionately, it would literally be worth billions to Northern Ireland – each and every year – making the whole Corporation Tax debate look like small change! We would add further hundreds of millions to this if we did the same with the countries beside or near Germany – Austria, Denmark and Sweden for example. Mixed in with this huge boost would be thousands of jobs, many well paid. Of course, it would take a little more than a direct air link to secure this (actually teaching German at our main University would be a good idea for a start); but without a direct air link, it certainly will not happen. It remains truly astonishing that our efforts are so focused on taking money out of Northern Ireland when surely the objective is to bring money in! It is time we straightened up our flying priorities!

2015 Preview – Economy

Sneaked out quietly on Christmas Eve was news that the UK’s economy had not grown 3.0% over the year, but rather 2.6%. This is still well ahead of any comparable European country, but it is a significant downgrade. Unfortunately, it is indicative of a global economy (and, particularly, a European economy) which is not even midway through the economic re-set required after the 2007/8 crash.

The beginning of 2014 saw a sense that the Great Recession was over. Unfortunately, 2015 will prove that it is not. In the West, particularly in Europe, we are still spending vastly more than we are earning – with Health and Welfare systems built to a much vaster extent that we can pay for, given competition for export markets from emerging markets in the Far East whose populations work longer and expect less (in the sense that they save for their own Health and Old Age). It cannot be reliably predicted when the next economic shudder will take place, but it will likely be this decade and possibly in the next twelve months. The shudder will be predicated on debt – personal, corporate and/or national – and is made even more definite by crazed and baseless rises in property prices in cities such as London and Dublin, where we should rest assured (but will ignore) that a crash some time is absolutely certain.

The Eurozone will return to the doldrums during the year, on the back of political chaos in Greece, electoral instability in Spain and administrative inaction in France, all complemented by uncertainty in Germany. Popular pressure will focus on the Euro itself, but the economic problems are more fundamental – unfortunately, the measures needed to deal with these problems are unlikely to be electorally popular. This is why Europe is in serious decline, and will remain so not just in 2015 but for at least the rest of the decade.

In Northern Ireland, unfortunately, the outlook is extremely bleak. The Executive failed completely to prepare for a financial readjustment which has been necessary since 2007 and is now urgent; and the Stormont House Agreement has not really created any new money at all, merely allowing for further delay to the fundamental financial and economic reform required. The mess being made of the public finances is even more relevant here than in most places given the number of jobs which rely upon the public purse – those do not just include direct public sector jobs and indeed it is the public-funded non-public sector jobs which will be hit first. Third (particularly Community) Sector organisations will close and others will lose funding with severe jobs cuts during the coming financial year. Direct public sector jobs will begin to be paid off too, but this pay-off will take funds away from Capital Funds which will delay infrastructure projects and destroy any prospect of a significant return to employment creation by the construction sector. Furthermore, a decline in the Eurozone will harm the Irish economy, and thus limit the buying potential of our largest export market. The only silver lining will be in the ICT, media and professional services sectors where Northern Ireland is carving out high-quality low-cost niches which will actually see average wages of those in private sector employment rise, but will not come close to compensating for public-funded employment lost. The good side to this is it may check the rise in property prices, which in fact disadvantages more people than it helps.

That is a downbeat way to end the year, but it is well to be prepared unfortunately. The unwillingness and inability to tackle the fundamental economic and financial problems we face is marked in every democracy in the world, because those proposing the correct medicine are rendered unelectable purely by so doing. Northern Ireland is just one example of this, but for complex reasons will disproportionately pay the penalty in 2015, having largely avoided it (in comparison with the rest of the British Isles) until now.

For all that, have a Happy Hogmanay.

2015 Preview – Politics

To continue the preview of the year and really embarrass myself in advance, how about attempting to predict the year in politics?!

Perhaps the biggest election anywhere in 2015 is the UK General Election. My own instinct is this will see a surprisingly similar outcome (in terms, at least, of seats) as the last one. The Liberal Democrats will lose votes of course, but they will retain most of their support in seats they hold (particularly where the incumbent is defending) and thus 40 seats is not beyond them despite all. The SNP will pick up seats, but the swing will be nothing like as uniform as projections are suggesting and thus they are unlikely to make as many gains as some suspect – indeed an SNP/Labour split may see the Conservatives nick a couple of extra seats north of the border. Similar Labour/LibDem splits will also see the Conservatives gain a few seats in England, but there will also be some tactical voting by former Liberals for Labour candidates which will see Labour take some Conservative seats to repair some or all of the damage from seats lost to Nationalists in Scotland. UKIP will likely prove a headache more than anything, and may win one or two seats on the back of split votes between two or even three of the other parties, but a serious breakthrough is improbable. The outcome, therefore, will be much as you were.

What will change in the UK is Government formation. It is possible that a continuance of the current coalition will be the only possible majority, yet the Liberal Democrats cannot afford to walk into another one. The usual price would be electoral reform, but actually the current system will probably have favoured them, so they may suddenly be less keen on that. A deal for a minority Conservative government with support on “confidence and supply” from the LibDems (which could be a good thing as it would restore real power to Parliament) or outright instability (less good, but nothing like the apocalypse some suggest) are the likeliest outcomes.

A country which has the same electoral system as the UK and which has already gone through all the projected types of chaos we can expect (from Nationalists as main Opposition, splits on the Right and baffling third party breakthroughs) is Canada, whose election is due by October. This should see the end of Stephen Harper’s long Premiership and the return of the Liberals and another Trudeau.

If you want real instability, however, try Sweden (which is now not re-running this year’s election as originally planned in March, but will nevertheless struggle for stability) or, better still, Spain, where a start-up populist party has emerged atop the polls. No one would dare make any predictions there!

Closer to home, local parties will already have started to breach the timeline of the “Stormont House Agreement” by May, by which time they will also have defaulted to rowing about flags. The Alliance Party is the only party with any prospects of stemming the inevitable subsequent flow to the extremes, and even then only if it shifts from the “middle” to “way out in front”. Wherever “Unionist Unity” is attempted it will fail, as it always does. The rest of the year will see the timetable of the Agreement slip even further, with the consequent withdrawal of the £500m for “Shared Education” due to lack of agreement between OFMDFM and the UK Government, and open suggestions of a delay to the transfer of Corporation Tax powers. The year may well also see the UK Government agree to transfer Corporation Tax powers to Scotland (not least with the SNP stronger at Westminster post-May), rendering that offer less useful to Northern Ireland in any case.

What say you?!

Deal… or no deal?

The “Stormont House Agreement” was agreed yesterday – a Christmas Miracle!

It’s not, of course. Much of what was “agreed” was the only realistic option on the table. Nevertheless, I am more hopeful than I was – the section on Institutions is big step in the right direction; I personally am glad to see Welfare Reform implemented within 18 months; and the financial “ask” isn’t unreasonable.

There is still an awful lot, however, around parades and the past in particular, which has simply been kicked into touch. I was on BBC Talkback yesterday to emphasise two important further points:

  • we are too focused on the political and not enough on the social - peace and stability are about interpersonal relationships and is thus built as much at a civic level as a political one; and
  • the “deal” will not be binding or long-term because it shuffles off too many key points to Commissions or simply down the track (thus inevitably there will be similar talks, and indeed financial crises, even if these are [somewhat conveniently] delayed to mid-2016).

There are a lot of other issues of course – borrowed money must be repaid; issues not managed can soon come back to bite us; the fundamental point that parties have different narratives concerning the past and thus dare not let the truth get in the way of them…

Let’s not let the mind boggle too much – let’s focus on having a very Merry Christmas in the hope of a more prosperous New Year!


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