Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 21 August 2014

Time for action rather than words

Autumn agenda: Stormont needs business decisions
Autumn agenda: Stormont needs business decisions

Ministers are now back to face the autumn agenda. Testing questions, of the kind that could be parked or postponed until after the summer, are bearing down on ministers, politicians and civil servants.

Whether or not ministers in the Executive would agree, there is a perception of delay and unwillingness to tackle unpopular (but necessary) decisions. Northern Ireland has the legislative capacity to be a progressive and radical devolved administration. A reputation for conservative inaction is counter-productive.

What is less clear to business observers is the mixture of motives and causation where ministerial decisions and Assembly votes are awaited. To what extent are ministers too cautious when the political precedents suggest that parity with decisions in Great Britain is more a protection than a threat? To what extent are ministers ready to bite the bullet to bring about reform?

Northern Ireland is less successfully governed because there is no strong bond of 'Executive collegiality'. As elsewhere, a coalition between parties can only function even moderately successfully if some differences are, by agreement, put to one side or accepted in compromises.

If ministers were to be influenced by the opinions of the business community there would not necessarily be a universal consensus but (at the risk of a challenge) ministers might be advised, quickly, to take action on six issues.

1. The Planning Bill should be completed and enforced expeditiously. Admittedly the last amendments to the Bill were divisive when the First Ministers won a vote to give them the authority, with the partial exclusion of the Environment Minister, to determine the location and role of enterprise zones. However, even as amended, the Bill is an overdue improvement in the general application of planning principles. There are important implications for the operation of the new local authorities.

2. Legislate to adopt the principles of welfare reform as in Great Britain. There can be minor administrative variations but the principle that Northern Ireland is funded by the block grant to pay for social security at parity levels is overriding. To abandon parity, as has been threatened, is to justify an inability to finance parity in other public services. The Treasury is ready to impose Northern Ireland penalty clauses.

3. To cushion the transition to the new Great Britain rules on housing benefit, devise a three year phasing-in period. The 'bedroom tax' feature of the amended housing benefit may have a higher impact in Northern Ireland than some other parts of Great Britain. Local ministers could legislate to give households, who are likely to lose on lower benefit because of an extra bedroom, a three-year transition period in which to adjust. This would ease immediate tensions and also acknowledge that the £600m a year cost of housing benefit has become unsustainable.

4. A critical feature of the employment market is that Northern Ireland should reasonably be able to claim that businesses here are no less favourably treated than they are in Great Britain. Recently, changes in employment regulation in Great Britain mean that there are a growing number of differences. Alongside the requirements of the Fair Employment legislation, Northern Ireland awaits clarity on the code for the employment of people with 'Troubles-related' convictions. There is also concern that the qualifying period to be able to claim unfair dismissal remains at one year, compared to two in Great Britain.

5. Several important public agencies are trapped within unhelpful public sector rules as public corporations. The effect is that the financial discretion of the governing agencies is fettered into the overall Stormont capital budgeting. With appropriate devolved legislation, financial governance could be eased. In particular, ministers should plan to change the reporting status of the further education colleges, the Belfast Harbour Commissioners and the Housing Executive.

6. An action plan to restructure the Housing Executive is needed to allow an enhanced programme of social housing to be implemented.

To ministers: are you ready to move from speeches to actions?

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