How to achieve a decent life for all
“We all want people living in Northern Ireland to have a decent life, now and in the future. For most of us that means having enough to eat, a good home and job, opportunities to learn and develop, good health, a voice in decisions that affect us, and enough money to allow us to make choices. We want to be part of communities that are cohesive, supportive, safe and culturally rich, and to live in attractive and sustainable environments.”
There is nothing even remotely controversial about this aspiration, so well expressed in the Social Change Initiative’s latest policy report– the great mystery is that we’re nowhere near achieving it.
Of course it would be absurd to pretend that there is no link between the poverty and inequality we see all around us and central government policy.
But the SCI report, which draws on practical examples from elsewhere, is about what could be done in Northern Ireland by a functioning Executive and Assembly to draw up legislation to bring the dream of a decent life for all a little closer.
The sad fact is that the cost of living crisis and the pandemic have served not just to highlight the extent of inequality but also the widen the gap still further between those who have wealth and those who do not.
The SCI report highlights some of the consequences. For example consider the life expectancy gaps of 11.8 years for men and 14.9 for women between the most deprived and least deprived parts of Northern Ireland. Public policies designed to address inequalities have also failed. The report cites a 2021 NI audit report showing no significant change in the gap between those children who got free school meals and those who did not over the past 15 years, despite a £138 million investment in narrowing gaps in educational attainment.
The ideas SCI examines that have the potential to make a difference fall into three categories. The first is the kind of legislation that would reduce inequality and increase wellbeing; the second is what is needed to strengthen accountability and reporting and thirdly how duties to enforce new ways of working might work.
Based on its survey of practice elsewhere it concludes: “It is the combination of these three things that is important - intent plus effective delivery plus strong accountability.”
A government plan is not enough, there must also be legislation. Legislation is important, the report says because: “it transcends the interests of the government of the day and provides continued direction in the event of any political hiatus.”
Therefore even if a government were not be able to form because of a political boycott, for example, civil servants would not have to worry quite so much about their mandate to act because a direction had already been set by that legislation.
The report explains that anoverarching legislative commitment to tackling disadvantage and improving societal wellbeing:
confers duty across all government departments, agencies, public bodies;
underpins the design and delivery of outcome-based government legislation, programme for government, service provision and resource allocation; and
provides a guiding light to reducing inequalities of outcome and improving wellbeing for current and future government administrations.
The report’s authors did not have far to look for relevant legislation: Wales. The 2015 Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015 has previously featured in Scope. Essentially it requires Welsh authorities undertake sustainable development, so that what is done now does not compromise the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. Scope has written about this in the past: here and here.
The House of Commons is currently considering a similar bill for England, and both Scotland and the Irish Republic are considering legislation addressing the issue.
Scotland has also placed a legal responsibility on some public bodies to pay due regard to how they can reduce inequalities of outcome caused by socio-economic disadvantage when making strategic decisions and to publish written assessment demonstrating what they have done to achieve this. This duty now also applies in Wales.
So there is already a route map to be followed. No local political party has expressed opposition.
And the report also identifies important duties that need to underpin a requirement on government and public bodies to improve wellbeing and reduce inequality.
• Sustainability – taking a longer term, strategic perspective on impact of current decisions on policy development, service design and delivery of the needs of future generations;
• Collaboration – working collectively across the public sector, civil society and other stakeholders to improve outcomes; and
• Involvement and Participation – ensuring meaningful, timely, inclusive, empowered and supported participation by the public in design, delivery and oversight of public policy and services.”
There is precedent elsewhere and indeed in Northern Ireland for collaboration and public involvement in policy.
For example the Health and Social Services (Reform) Northern Ireland Act 2009, requires all those responsible for health and social care services to involve service users, carers and the public actively and effectively. This could be extended to involve citizens across all our public services.
The report quotes the old adage: “What gets measured gets managed” and there’s no doubt that works as far as public services are concerned. This would be the first step in ensuring services meet the needs they have been set up for and particularly in this case for people who are disadvantaged.
An example of how this works is again with the Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015 which set up a Commissioner to be guardian of sustainable development and wellbeing outcomes. She or he publishes a progress report before elections and public bodies are required to produce a “wellbeing statement” setting out their objectives and application of the Sustainable Development Principle.
At the moment there are some examples of good collaboration across government but they tend to be piecemeal and are certainly not seen as the natural way of working.
New Zealand has pioneered how this might be done.
There new entities can be created to deliver services or carry out the regulatory functions of two or more departments. They are led by a board of departmental chief executives, jointly responsible to a nominated minister. They can hold assets, employ staff and enter contracts.
These new bodies have been created to deal with complex, cross-cutting priority issues such as sexual violence. They help to combat the silo mentality endemic within the public sector which so often hampers to deal with problems that cut across departments.
The Deputy Director of Social Change Initiative Pádraic Quirk said: “We have an opportunity to take a visionary step together. Making a commitment in legislation to improving wellbeing and tackling inequalities in Northern Ireland would be something to be proud of.
“As our report examines, we have seen government move forward in Wales, with the ground-breaking ‘Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015’. We also point to new approaches in Scotland, New Zealand, Finland and elsewhere.
“We want to start a conversation on drawing inspiration from these positive initiatives. We need to adopt long-term thinking. We need to support and encourage government to work in a different way.
“At a time of political uncertainty in Northern Ireland, we need to encourage a cultural shift towards more collaborative, sustainable and citizen-involved ways of working towards our goals.”
For that to happen, however, we will need a functioning Executive and Assembly. And whether or not we get one remains to be seen.
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