Belfast Telegraph

Friday 28 November 2014

Public engagement is the key to cashing in on PfG

As the Executive publishes its Programme for Government, citizen participation is more important than ever, says Antoinette McKeown

Northern Ireland citizens are feeling under pressure from a range of price-hikes on everyday essentials, which is why the Consumer Council is focusing on financial capability and helping to educate and enable people to get the most out of their money.

Consumers' annual energy bills here are about £1,200 higher than the next most expensive in Britain (Cardiff), we pay some of the highest prices in Europe for petrol and diesel, the highest car insurance prices in the UK and higher air passenger duty than our GB counterparts. In addition, our bus and rail fares have just increased.

The double-whammy for consumers here is that, as well as paying more for many essentials, Consumer Council-commissioned research shows that we don't manage our money effectively. We are the worst in the UK at spending wisely and making money stretch.

Being financially capable means having the skills and confidence to manage your money and use it wisely. It means being prepared for a rainy day, saving in a safe place, getting all the financial help to which you are entitled and having the appropriate insurance cover.

Consumers tell us how relentless rises in the cost of everyday household essentials, such as food, energy, fuel and insurance, have hit their pockets.

So when the Executive consulted on its draft Programme for Government (PfG), the council sought two key actions; practical interventions to support people in fuel poverty; and a commitment to developing a financial capability strategy for Northern Ireland.

This region has the lowest levels of financial capability in the UK and yet is the only region not to have a Government-supported financial capability strategy.

That is why we were so pleased the Executive heeded our calls and the final PfG was published with a commitment to such a strategy.

While the Consumer Council often criticises Government and constantly challenges it to do more, it is not reticent in saying well done to the Executive.

This process has proved that public consultation does work; policy proposals are not always a fait accompli.

But what is the wider commitment to public engagement here? David Cameron is committed to the Big Society, getting local communities involved in public services, and in Northern Ireland we consult more than the Government at Westminster. The Consumer Council wanted widespread citizen engagement so that those impacted most by the PfG could have their say.

But our public sector needs to become more effective at engaging. Real time, real issues, the right information and the right conversation would all make a huge difference to citizen participation.

The inclusion of a last-minute commitment to develop financial capability skills shows that political leaders do change policy when they see that citizens need it.

But the biggest coup in this decision will be the many struggling families, older people and vulnerable consumers who will get the life-skills they need.

The Government strategy on financial capability will add much value to on-going work. The Consumer Council leads the Financial Capability Partnership, a group of more than 30 organisations working together to deliver financial capability skills in Northern Ireland.

Its members include our main banks and financial institutions, non-Government organisations and Government sectors and advice and education agencies - all co-operating to provide a range of financial capability training to trainers, businesses, schools and communities.

Effective targeting and delivery of scant Government resources is critical to success; the right financial capability strategy can strengthen the economy, reduce personal debt in the long-term and boost consumer confidence, which accounts for more than 60% of the UK's GDP.

Essentially, financial capability is the Government's way of helping citizens to keep scant money in their pockets - and that is something worth welcoming in any Programme for Government.

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