Belfast Telegraph

Action needed to prevent Northern Ireland public services crisis getting worse, says new Think Tank Pivotal

Northern Ireland's health service is one of a number of areas under pressure. (Niall Carson/PA)
Northern Ireland's health service is one of a number of areas under pressure. (Niall Carson/PA)
Gareth Cross

By Gareth Cross

The director of a new think tank aiming to improve life in Northern Ireland has said action needs to be taken to prevent the current public services crisis from getting worse.

The group aims to improve public policy and is thought to be one of the first of its kind in Northern Ireland. It published its first report Moving forward - putting Northern Ireland on track for the future, on Tuesday.

Ann Watt is the director of Pivotal. She was a former head of the Electoral Commission in Northern Ireland.

Mrs Watt admitted that the report made for depressing reading, but said the point was to "shine a light" on Northern Ireland's problems and compel those with power into acting.

She said that the issues could be addressed and that was what Pivotal was trying to contribute to through policy changes.

"We want to give these issues momentum and raise their profile, " she said.

She said that the report had been published during campaigning for the upcoming General Elections and that politicians should look at it because it highlights the issues that matter to voters.

The report broke Northern Ireland's issues into economy, health and social care, education, poverty and disadvantage, climate and biodiversity and community relations.

The report said that the absence of an Assembly and Executive, immediate strains on public services and Brexit uncertainty are all causing significant concerns.

However, it stated that "to build truly prosperous and sustainable society we all must look deeper and think further into the future".

Ann Watt.
Ann Watt.

The report highlighted that despite record levels of employment the amount of economic in-activity remains the highest in the UK at 25.8%.

Northern Ireland also has the highest percentage of low-paying jobs of all UK regions. Pivotal noted that even with a functioning government Northern Ireland has few options to improve its economy.

It warned that Northern Ireland has a low-skills base, but given a low demand for skills it would prove difficult to break the cycle.

Pivotal said that Northern Ireland's health system is "crumbling around us", with 120,201 people waiting over a year for planned care, compared with 4,176 in Wales and 1,154 in England.

Northern Ireland is also dealing with an aging population with the numbers of people aged over 65 and over 85 projected to rise by 56.2% and 106.4% respectively by 2043.

In education 451 of Northern Ireland's schools went over budget with a funding shortfall of £62.6million.

Students getting at least five GCSE's A*-C including English and Maths is 42% higher in grammar schools compared to secondary schools.

The report also highlighted that a fifth of Northern Ireland's population, including one quarter of children live in poverty.

It said there was an "immediate need" for a government to decide what to do when welfare reform mitigations run out in March 2020.

Northern Ireland also falls behind the rest of the UK when it comes to climate change, with no set emissions targets.

Since the UK Climate Change Act was introduced in 2008 emissions from Northern Ireland have fallen by just 9% compared with 27% across the UK in general.

The report also said that sectarian division "deters investment and drives talent out of Northern Ireland".

It called for efforts to address sectarianism focusing on children and young people, with roles for business and civic society and noted the "concerning levels" of hate motivated incidents and crimes, with sectarian incidents rising in 2018/19.

Pivotal is backed by a wide-range of figures from across Northern Ireland society, former Assistant Chief Constable Peter Sheridan is a Trustee, while former MLAs Dawn Purvis, John McCallister and Alastair Ross are in the think tank's reference group.

Also in the reference group are Chief Executive of Belfast City Council Suzanne Wylie, former Rugby player and solicitor Trevor Ringland and QUB Education Dean David Phinnemore.

Mrs Watt said that while most people wanted an effective government in place the collapse of Stormont was not the only issue.

"It would be easier to address these issues if we had a government there, but whether we have a government or not these issues still need to be addressed and we will be willing to work with anyone who can influence the issues," She said.

"A government in place is not the main issue on the minds of people on hospital waiting lists and those in poverty."

Mrs Watt said that Think Tanks were common across the world and their purpose was not to "point the finger".

"They serve a useful purpose working externally to governments to promote independent thought," she said.

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