Northern Ireland risks falling behind Great Britain in economic recovery

The Northern Ireland economy is falling behind the rest of the United Kingdom, according to a new report for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) written by the New Policy Institute (NPI), with significantly lower employment and levels of pay hindering attempts to address poverty.

The findings come as JRF also publishes its manifesto briefing, Towards a prosperous, poverty-free Northern Ireland, setting out the urgent case for political parties to address poverty in their manifestos. It also outlines how the next Stormont Executive could put poverty reduction at the heart of its blueprint for government.

In its monitoring report, showing the extent and nature of poverty in Northern Ireland, the research found 360,000 people living in poverty (around one in five). It also highlights:

Northern Ireland has not experienced the same strong employment performance as Great Britain (GB), only now reaching pre-recession levels. Since 2011, the working-age employment rate has increased by 0.6 percentage points to reach 68 per cent, compared with a 3.0 percentage point increase in GB, where employment is at a record high 73 per cent.
Average pay in Northern Ireland at the bottom and in the middle is lower than a decade ago by around £20 a week. Pay is lower than in Great Britain and low paid workers are falling further behind.
Certain groups face a greater employment disadvantage than their equivalents in Great Britain. The employment rate for disabled people in Northern Ireland is 15 percentage points lower than it is in GB, while for both young people and lone parents it is 12 percentage points lower.
Young people from low income backgrounds face worse prospects than their peers. Around 60 per cent of boys eligible for free school meals do not get five good GCSEs, compared with 30 per cent of those not eligible; for girls, the figures are 51 per cent and 22 per cent respectively.

In its manifesto briefing, JRF recommends the next Executive take the following steps to help ensure work provides a route out of poverty and improve life chances of the next generation:

  • Develops industrial strategies with business for low-paid sectors in retail, hospitality and care to increase pay and productivity and all major public sector bodies over time become 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.
  • Reforming the childcare system to provide higher quality provision and a better-paid, graduate-led early years workforce.
  • Encourage schools to use the ‘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.

Creating job and training opportunities for those furthest away from the labour market using public sector procurement.
Introducing specialist programmes for people with mental and physical disabilities that ensure long-term work engagement.

Helen Barnard, head of analysis at JRF, said:

“Poverty is a problem that can be solved, but the foundations to reduce poverty in Northern Ireland – more jobs and good levels of pay – appear to be much weaker in comparison to the rest of the United Kingdom. To ensure work provides a route out of poverty and improve the life chances of the next generation, we need the next administration to adopt a comprehensive plan to address poverty for all ages, so people in Northern Ireland can play in their part in a prosperous, poverty-free society.”

Adam Tinson, a Senior Researcher at NPI, said:

“Disabled people and lone parents are far less likely to have a job if they are in Northern Ireland than if they are in Great Britain. The next Executive must focus on providing proper support for all of those looking for the work. It also needs to respond to the way that poverty is shifting towards younger adults and private renters. Schools, colleges and businesses, not just the government, have a major role to play.”