Belfast Telegraph

Margaret Ritchie's 25-year economic blueprint

It doesn't matter to the Northern Ireland economy whether people are employed or not, because of the current 'crazy' links with the London exchequer, the SDLP leader Margaret Ritchie has said.

Ms Ritchie was speaking at the third of the Northern Ireland Chamber of Commerce's '5 Leaders 5 Days' series - where the main political parties set out their economic stalls in front of Northern Ireland business leaders - at McGrigors law firm in Belfast.

Ms Ritchie has proposed a 25-year framework economic and financial agreement with the Treasury to gain tax-varying powers, the creation of Northern Ireland's own social security system and the long-term delivery of the block grant, where political parties would undertake to gradually reduce the subsidy in the long-term. However, this would be with a guaranteed level of Treasury support, even if the constitutional position of the region should change in the meantime.

Ms Ritchie called the plan a 'legacy guarantee' and added: "This is the only way we can truly take control of our own future."

She has also called for privatisation of many of the agencies in the hands of the public sector.

"Every time we take someone out of unemployment and give them a job, that is undoubtedly a good thing," she said. "Yet nearly all the benefit accrues to the London exchequer. London saves the unemployment benefit they would otherwise be paying and London scoops the extra income tax from the new member of the workforce.

"Look at it the other way round - every time someone becomes unemployed, London loses their previous income tax receipts and picks up the tab for the new benefit claimant. So in terms of benefits to Northern Ireland, it nearly doesn't matter whether people are employed or unemployed, and that is crazy.

"We must be the only modern economy where there is no incentive to get people into work. Yet we spend hundreds of millions on helping people into work."

Ms Ritchie said that the SDLP's document 'New Priorities in Difficult Times' published after the downturn hit in 2008, was not endorsed by the Executive, although it later implemented some of the proposals.

She added: "Our paper 'Partnership and Economic Renewal' not only showed where the extra resources should be found, it was also full of proposals, many quite radical, for rebalancing the economy - there is no irritating ideology, I call it privatisation."