Thursday, 2 September 2010

Breakthrough and Ritchie - Updated

I dandered up the Belmont Road this morning to attend the Centre for Social Justice launch of its Breakthrough Northern Ireland report.  CSJ stands apart from pretty much all the other UK think tanks by having representation here and with this trying to tailor its work.

Slugger provides a reasonable summary of the social and economic issues it is seeking to highlight.  In the press blurb it makes the standard no brainer statement about devolution:

“The political system in Northern Ireland, primarily concerned with the necessity of delivering political stability, must begin to provide answers to the severe social problems outlined here, with the aim of reversing intergenerational social breakdown,”

The media has focused upon this but I trust they will remember the term "intergenerational".  Hence, not be queuing up to condemn devolution next March because it hasn't got them solved yet.  Also it is something of a disservice to the work of CSJ to present its approach as "There is a problem, government must do something".  It is more sophisticated than that.

However, its the answers that interest me more, I haven't read the report in full just done some speed reading of its conclusions.  It by and large makes the case for the solutions it has identified elsewhere to be introduced here, some driven from London e.g. benefit reform or outlining how some existing policies could be tailored to do so e.g. addiction and mental health services.

It had a high powered panel there to launch the report including the SDLP leader Margaret Ritchie and Iain Duncan Smith.  Ritchie contribution was a bit odd not getting the pitch right. She was aiming for critical friend but missed.  She tried to make the point of the nominal perverse incentive in the funding of Stormont and tackling the issue of benefit depedency (although it got a bit mangled).  Benefits come out of Annual Managed Expenditure (AME) while programmes come out of Departmental Expenditure Limits.  Successful DEL spending provides an AME saving plus extra tax revenues for the Treasury (Tax and NIC).  Essentially she argued for some mechanism to compensate for any 'loss' to Northern Ireland.

However, this argument is not seeing the wood for the trees.  For a party that presents itself as having a social conscience their focus should be on the positive outcome for the person who is in work and off benefits not how it chalks up on the government spending scoreboard.  A person in a job injects a wage into the economy that otherwise wouldn't be and they will have better social and health outcomes providing other potential savings to DEL expenditure. 

It also highlights the need for some focus.  What are the strongest and genuine cases were Northern Ireland are special?  It will be pretty damn hard in the present circumstances to make a special case for anything and a scattergun approach will be doomed to failure.  So what case or case(s) do we try to make?  Policing to ensure the dissident threat remains stifled?  Mechanisms to expand the private sector?  Social need programmes? Or some mixture of these? Others?

UPDATE Chekov offers his perspective on the SDLP and reforms.

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