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Hospitals and schools are key issues on the doorstep

With the countdown to polling day almost over, the Belfast Telegraph examines the stances of the Northern Ireland parties on two vitally important policy areas — health and education. Lisa Smyth examines the different manifestos on the NHS while Noel McAdam scrutinises the commitments on education

HEALTH

The big issues?

Not surprisingly, how best to finance the NHS is the big talking point for our Westminster hopefuls, although there are massive divides in proposals to tackle it. Some argue for more funding and for the health budget to be ringfenced, with others claiming more efficiencies must be found. Mental health services, cancer care, bureaucracy, public health and support for carers also figure high on the list of priorities.

What stands out?

UCUNF (Ulster Unionist Conservative Joint Committee) wants to increase the number of single rooms in hospitals as a way of tackling superbugs, but given the current financial climate it could be argued money would be better spent driving up hygiene standards. Sinn Fein’s manifesto calls for resistance to attempts to privatise healthcare and the introduction of the carer’s allowance as a standalone benefit. The DUP wants to introduce presumed consent for organ donation and, as part of an efficiency strategy, alternatives to oral contraceptives — but the manifesto does not provide further detail on how this would be achieved. With the NHS in Northern Ireland in crisis, the Alliance Party reiterates its commitment to retaining a health service that is free to all at the point of entry.

The TUV concentrates largely on bed closures and reconfiguration of services. While it recognises a need for change in the way the health service is delivered, it says no hospital should close until replacement beds have been established in other hospitals. The party also wants to see Trust boundaries altered, with a recommendation the Belfast Trust should be split in two. Following the media storm over so-called legal highs such as mephedrone, the SDLP wants an overhaul of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971. The party also expresses an intention to press for an independent inquiry into institutional child abuse in Northern Ireland. Compulsory front-of-packet labelling and an immediate ban on the display of tobacco products at the point of sale also feature.

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Pie in the sky?

Some of the parties make big promises — reconfiguration of Trust boundaries and the introduction of presumed organ consent are a few that spring to mind — but how realistic are they? At the end of the day, the outcome hinges on money and that is in very short supply in the health service. Ultimately, Westminster controls the purse-strings and our MPs will have to lobby hard to defend the block grant for Northern Ireland. The parties have laid down their visions for the health service in Northern Ireland. But, without the support of Westminster, many of the promises could turn out to be nothing but unachievable pipe dreams.

EDUCATION

Hasn’t quite been a case of ‘education, education, education’, has it?

No, but this could be an indication of developing political maturity and bedding-down of the Stormont institutions, since education is a devolved responsibility and much more likely to feature heavily in next year’s Assembly elections than the current Westminster battle. Yet it is somewhat surprising that the ongoing transfer debacle and embarrassing delays to the new Education and Skills Authority did not feature more in the campaign over the last few weeks. Having said that, all parties have devoted sections of their manifestoes to education against a backdrop of fears over spending reductions in which health and other “front-line” services, as well as security, are likely to be prioritised over schools, colleges and the two universities.

What stands out?

Sinn Fein pledged to work for the “harmonisation of the two education systems” on the island of Ireland while continuing the “radical restructuring” of education within the ‘six counties’. The DUP wants child-parent centres based on the successful model in Chicago, where comprehensive educational and family support is provided to economically disadvantaged children and their parents, to be piloted in major cities and then compared to the existing Surestart programme.

The Ulster Unionists and Conservatives want the Stormont Executive to publish a cross-cutting early years strategy to tackle educational underachievement and the extension of the specialist schools programme to make every post-primary school outside the grammar sector a specialist school. The SDLP said it would press for better provision for early years “the stage where many children fall behind” and fight to ensure parity of Surestart levels of provision with England. Alliance argued economic and education policy needs to be better integrated, including encouraging more students to specialise in STEM subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) and business skills. Traditional Unionist Voice warned the planned Education and Skills Authority here will “centralise control of education in the hands of the so-called progressives who have driven the anti-transfer agenda and curriculum”.

The Green Party insisted it will increase funding for education to be directed at improving staff-student ratios in schools, expanding pre-school care and replacing student loans with maintenance grants.

How have the manifesto proposals of the parties gone down with the professionals — the teachers?

The National Association of Schoolmasters/ Union of Women Teachers (NAS/UWT) liked the SDLP’s policy to support young teachers to obtain full time employment which could halt the province’s “wastage of teacher talent” and the Alliance Party’s commitment “to direct resources efficiently into servicing pupils and assisting teachers.” While noting Sinn Fein’s pledge to “continue investment in the school estate”, the union said a clear commitment is needed from republicans to protect school funding. It said the next most critical step is to secure parity of pay and conditions with teachers in England and Wales “to achieve a fair deal for teachers and to secure the best educational outcomes for all pupils in Northern Ireland’s schools”.


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