Belfast Telegraph

Labour review targets inequality

The Labour Party has launched an expert review on tackling inequality in Northern Ireland and vowed the results should inspire hope.

The Heenan-Anderson Commission will address issues ranging from improving early childhood development and educational attainment to promoting more new businesses.

It will focus on the implications of efforts to encourage the growth of the private sector following decades of violence which deterred entrepreneurs from setting up in Northern Ireland.

Shadow Northern Ireland Secretary Ivan Lewis said: "It seems to me it is crucial that when people look at these recommendations they believe that they will add value and make a real difference and signal, where necessary, a different course.

"It is incredibly important that the recommendations inspire people, fill people with optimism and hope."

The commission will be chaired by University of Ulster Professor Deirdre Heenan and advertising businessman Colin Anderson. It will draw on expertise from the business, social housing, voluntary, small trading, academic and trade unionist sectors in Northern Ireland and is expected to report back by February or March in time for its recommendations to form part of Labour's general election manifesto.

Labour will use the findings to consider how the "economic pact" between the Westminster Government and Northern Ireland Executive - intended to promote the private sector and correct over-reliance on public jobs - can develop a sharper focus on reducing inequality.

The research is intended to help identify how best practice can be shared and find opportunities to work together on innovation which will benefit Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.

Labour leader Ed Miliband said: "The people of Northern Ireland deserve to have an equal stake in prosperity and the opportunities that will give them a chance to shape their lives for the better.

"The Heenan-Anderson Commission will look comprehensively at ways to improve opportunities for the most disadvantaged communities in Northern Ireland."

Mr Lewis said people needed to have a stake in society and warned against delay in creating a shared future between Catholics and Protestants.

"If people don't have a stake in society they will always feel that the shared society is not for them."

Mr Anderson said Northern Ireland had made enormous strides during his many years as a business leader who founded an advertising firm.

"But not everyone has benefited from the progress that has been made.

"Looking at ways to increase skills and aspiration for people across Northern Ireland will bring a new lease of life to the economy."

Professor Heenan has published research on education, health and social care. She said too many of the young people she worked with wanted to leave.

"Many more lack hope and opportunities, and do not have the option to leave.

"This leaves them open to exploitation by paramilitaries and sectarian mindsets.

"Our commission will find innovative ways to bring a peace dividend to everyone in Northern Ireland."

While Northern Ireland has recorded some of the best performance by top A-level students in the UK it has also experienced high levels of unemployment in some areas where a significant number of young people left school without basic qualifications.

Sinn Fein has consistently called for measures to produce greater equality but recent comments by president Gerry Adams that this represented a "Trojan Horse", that the demand for equality will bring unification with the Irish Republic, have angered unionists.

Talks between the Stormont parties on issues left outstanding from the peace process are continuing but Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers has said the chances of clinching a final deal look slim.

The Conservatives are considering devolving the power to set corporation tax levels in Belfast in an effort to compete for foreign direct investment with the Irish Republic.

A Conservative spokesman said Labour had no long term economic plan for Northern Ireland.

"With just six months to go to a general election, all Ed Miliband has to offer is yet another policy commission. This a clear admission of failure.

"People in Northern Ireland will rightly be sceptical about a Labour party that five years ago brought the UK to the brink of financial and economic collapse and left us with the largest income inequality between the rich and poor in modern times."

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