Belfast Telegraph

Dozing Northern Ireland needs an economic wake-up call

New taskforce kick-starts plan to tackle economic inactivity

by margaret canning

A move by the Executive to tackle economic inactivity in Northern Ireland must itself result in meaningful activity, an economist has said.

Enterprise and Employment ministers Arlene Foster and Stephen Farry yesterday announced a "strategic framework" to look at economic inactivity.

For decades, the Northern Ireland economy has been dogged by the highest rate of economic inactivity among 12 UK regions, with at least 550,000 people out of the workforce for reasons including retirement, illness, the need to look after the home or relatives, or some other reason.

Enterprise Minister Arlene Foster said high levels of economic inactivity had been a "persistent feature of the local economy over the past 30 years", regardless of the state of the economy.

Dr Farry said the framework would be part of the Programme for Government commitment to cut economic inactivity through skills, training incentives and job creation, leading to a stable rate of over 70% by 2023. The labour force survey for July to September showed an employment rate of 67.2%.

Increasing the rate to 70% would entail bringing 30,000 people designated as inactive back into employment, he said. "These figures outline the scale of the challenge we face."

The framework included increasing job opportunities and addressing "wider barriers" by helping those at risk from alienation from the jobs market.

He added: "I fully recognise that there are many individuals, who, for a range of complex personal and health reasons, will never be able to engage with the labour market.

"However, there are also many individuals, who, with the right level of support, will be able to participate in some way in meaningful work. The aim of the strategy will be to support people to make transitions when they opt to do so – this is not about compulsion."

Economist John Simpson, a former chairman of the Greater Shankill Taskforce, said he was "encouraged" that something was being done but said it had to come up with more than "unintegrated ideas".

He described a consultation which will be held as part of the taskforce as "very wide-ranging". "The new focus on the excessive degree of economic inactivity in Northern Ireland is an overdue element in the evolution of a stronger regional economic strategy."

But he added: "There is a risk that this will develop into a loosely-focused series of unintegrated ideas.

"Ministers Foster and Farry should either themselves agree to give this strategy active direct leadership or should select a small leadership group (of possibly no more than three people) to give this strategy direct leverage.

"The risk is that there will be a confusion of talking shops, instead of coherent action on well-targeted priority actions."

Mr Simpson had served as chairman of the Greater Shankill Taskforce, the findings of which eventually fed into a report for Greater Shankill and west Belfast, which was sent to the two ministers.

"To my disappointment, very little direct action was taken."

BACKGROUND

People are classed as economically inactive if they haven't worked in the last four weeks, aren't claiming unemployment benefits and will not be seeking work in the next two weeks.

Some of them may want to find work but will be unable due to other demands on their time, such as looking after relatives.

Northern Ireland has been bearing the UK's highest rate of economic inactivity for decades, and the present rate is 27.4%. In the labour force survey for July to September, around 27% of the economically inactive of working age in Northern Ireland were students, 26% were sick/disabled, 26% were looking after the family/home, 12% were retired and 9% were inactive for some other reason. In total, there were 558,000 economically inactive people – a fall of 9,000 on quarter before.

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