Six ways the Executive can lead Northern Ireland to a fresh start

JRF’s manifesto briefing for a prosperous, poverty-free Northern Ireland highlights opportunities for positive change at every stage of life, says Claire Shanks.

Northern Ireland is unique in the UK. The difficult history of this place and the years of conflict left a legacy of fractious political agreement, societal division and a weak economy. This weakness became ever more apparent with the recession in the late 2000s; Northern Ireland was hit the hardest, the longest.

Average pay in Northern Ireland has dropped over the last decade. Pay is lower than in Great Britain and low-paid workers are falling further behind. Childcare provision is patchy and costs remain at a record high, pricing parents out of quality provision and even out of employment. There continue to be worrying achievement gaps in education, with children from poorer families leaving school with lower levels of educational attainment.

Despite recent figures showing some improvement, the local labour market remains challenging. Efforts to diversify this public-sector-heavy economy have reaped some reward in a growing professional services sector, amongst others, but there remains a real disparity between the demands of the job market and the education and training that is offered to those looking for work, particularly young and disabled people, whose employment rate falls far below the UK average.

But lamenting these facts will change nothing. Only through concerted effort and action will we be able to lift the burden of poverty from the people of Northern Ireland.

JRF believes the time for action is now. The reform of the Northern Ireland Executive departments and 11 local councils, the 2016 Assembly elections and compilation of a new Programme for Government together provide the perfect opportunity to promote a fresh approach to poverty.

JRF’s manifesto briefing for a prosperous, poverty-free Northern Ireland recommends the next Executive takes the following steps to help ensure work provides a route out of poverty and improve life chances of the next generation:

  • develop industrial strategies with business for low-paid sectors in retail, hospitality and care to increase pay and productivity, with all major public sector bodies over time becoming accredited Living Wage employers;
  • establish an Apprenticeships Charter – drawn up with employers and apprentices – to drive up quality. A proportion of apprenticeship funding should be contingent on whether apprentices are employed six months after the apprenticeship and on evidence of progression to higher-level training or more responsibility and pay at work;
  • reform the childcare system to provide higher-quality provision and a better-paid, graduate-led early years workforce;
  • encourage schools to use the ‘London Challenge’ model to close the attainment gap between poor and better-off pupils, and use inspections to assess whether schools are doing enough to raise the attainment of their low-income pupils;
  • create job and training opportunities for those furthest away from the labour market using public sector procurement;
  • introduce specialist programmes for people with mental and physical disabilities that ensure long-term work engagement.

There are opportunities for positive intervention at every stage and major transition point in a person’s life: whether in the form of high-quality care in early years; facilitating access to education and high-quality training; preparing people for the workplace and to progress in work; and support towards comfortable retirement in old age. At every age and stage of life, we want to see a Northern Ireland where everyone can play their part in the positive development of a thriving society.

The latest political agreement reached by the parties here promised a “fresh start” for Northern Ireland. This manifesto briefing, if enacted, will go some way to deliver on that promise.