Belfast Telegraph

Pivotal's Ann Watt: 'We hope to use our evidence to help NI'

Schools here have areas of excellence but are failing many students
Schools here have areas of excellence but are failing many students

By Ann Watt, Director of Pivotal Public Policy Forum NI

The health service is crumbling. Our schools have areas of excellence yet suffer from major inequalities and fail far too many children.

The local economy is spluttering and lags behind the rest of the UK.

One in four local children live in poverty. Division between communities remains entrenched. We are not playing our part in tackling climate change.

In policy terms, we are unprepared for the many challenges we face.

Pivotal is a new organisation, an independent think-tank based in and focused on Northern Ireland.

Our first report was published last week. 'Moving forward - putting Northern Ireland on track for the future' takes a look at Northern Ireland as it is today.

We have the highest percentage of low-paying jobs of any UK region. Our rate of economic inactivity is the highest in the UK at 25.8% - meaning over a quarter of all adults are neither in work nor looking for work - and the gap between our public spending and the tax revenue we raise is £4,939 per year, per person.

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Health and social care is in crisis. In March this year, there were 1,154 people who had been waiting over a year for planned care in England. In Wales that number was 4,176. In Northern Ireland, it was 120,201.

The proportion of students getting 'good' GCSEs - at least five A*-C, including English and maths - is 94% in grammar schools but only 52% in secondary schools.

Almost half our schools ran over budget this year, with a total shortfall of £62.6m.

Northern Ireland has set no carbon emissions targets. In the decade since the UK Climate Change Act came into force, emissions here have fallen by just 9% compared with 27% across the UK in general.

Social division cuts across every debate we have. Public services like education and housing divide along lines of perceived culture and community.

However, sectarianism is not the only problem. There is a racially motivated hate crime an average of three times a day, despite the relatively small number of people here from ethnic minorities or from other countries.

A Westminster election is coming up, Brexit uncertainty continues and, of course, the collapse of Stormont is approaching its third anniversary.

Whatever happens in the short term, in this time of political upheaval, our core concerns as a society will remain the same.

Strain on the health service will continue to get worse, schools' funding will remain stretched, and climate change will carry on.

The only way to tackle these issues is through significant reform. Whoever is tasked with making these important decisions - whether that is an Executive at Stormont or someone else - must take action. Tough choices are required. It will not be easy but it is essential.

While we face significant challenges, we should be positive and ambitious. Northern Ireland can change course.

We can make a better future for ourselves.

Pivotal hopes to play a role in this. We have no political alignment.

Our work is about evidence and analysis. Our aim is to help improve public policy, and make our society and economy the best they can be.

Everyone has a stake in this, politicians, civil servants, businesses, charities and the general public. Everyone should get involved.

A think-tank is not a cure all but Pivotal does aim to help. This starts with moving forward - and the clear need for change.

  • Ann Watt is a former civil servant with 20 years experience in Belfast and London. Most recently Ms Watt was head of the Electoral Commission in Northern Ireland. Before this she worked in London in the Treasury, Cabinet Office and Home Office

Belfast Telegraph