Is a public services meltdown on the cards?
Good public services are an investment. That doesn’t just apply to infrastructure. All good services should provide a boost to society, in some way or other, and the consequences of those boosts tends to persist.
The Secretary of State has delivered a punishing budget to Northern Ireland. Its consequences will go far beyond this financial year. Whenever a valuable initiative shrinks or disappears, so do its consequences.
The detail of this budget will be picked over in the coming days and weeks. However, some of its consequences are already in the open.
One of the clearest examples of how public services are an investment is in children’s services, including education.
Northern Ireland has a long, unfortunate history of failing to properly assist vulnerable children, such as those with special educational needs or those who live with other challenges, such as sight or hearing loss.
Now that lack of support is expanding outwards to cover all children.
Educational services are falling like dominoes. The outlook is bleak. To truly understand why, it’s not enough to list the services that are disappearing – it’s worth outlining the consequences of those services that are vanishing at the same time.
In the past few weeks, funding for several programmes has been withdrawn. Here are some of the things we are choosing not to do:
Extended Schools Programme – established in 2006, this supported wraparound activities at schools, such as breakfast clubs and homework clubs, and involved extracurricular activities including sports and the creative arts. As things stand, this will vanish at the end of June – along with the benefits, including fitter and healthier children, broad access to drama and other artistic endeavours and, for some of the most vulnerable children, a healthy meal they might otherwise miss. All this amounts to social and creative learning that, after more than 15 years, is now gone.
Engage – this was launched in the autumn of 2020 to help children back into school and full-time learning, following the most stringent lockdowns at the start of the Covid-19 pandemic. Pupils missed months and months of school. The quality of any remote learning that took place depended not just on the ability of individual schools to make this work – but also on childrens’ home lives. It is inconceivable that all the negative educational impacts of the pandemic have been mitigated. In choosing to end Engage, we are choosing to let those impacts persist.
Holiday hunger schemes – many children live in poverty (in NI, children are more likely to live in poverty than adults), a lot of those children are entitled to free school meals. Holiday hunger payments were implemented in July 2020 so that children who receive free meals during term time do not go hungry in the holidays. Almost 100,000 children received £27 every two weeks during the holidays. Proper nourishment is very important, it makes everything else better – physical health, mental health, ability to learn, all of which are immensely important to a child’s life prospects.
Happy Healthy Minds – launched in November 2021, this was a pilot scheme that gave children in primary schools and special schools access to a broad range of therapeutic interventions “including play, drama, music, art and equine assisted therapy and learning”. NI’s mental health outcomes are dire and, like everything else, fostering good mental health is easier when the focus is on early interventions or preventative measures. NI’s Mental Health Champion Siobhan O’Neill was a huge advocate of this scheme, its long-term effectiveness, and its value. Funding has been withdrawn.
Bookstart Baby Programme – this ensured the family of every baby born in NI received one or two books suitable for babies and toddlers. Reading is a crucial part of early years development and, while many families would not rely on Bookstart, the families that do are clearly amongst the most vulnerable already.
Pathway Fund - speaking of early years, this fund is open to all registered settings that provide education or learning for children aged 0-4. Established in 2016, its mission is to “improve the development of children who are at risk of not reaching their full educational potential” and “enhance sustainability of the Early Years sector”. The fund is set to close, although Early Years (the local organisation that administers the fund) has started a petition calling for funding to continue, and plans to present this to the Secretary of State and Department of Education. Early years development is critical for children’s outcomes as the grow up. This covers health, education, wellbeing, future earnings – everything. Early development, whether good or bad, sticks with people for life.
Capital works – this is perhaps less concerning than everything else, but no new school buildings or school extensions will be started in 2023-24. If early years, mental health and holiday hunger schemes are going to disappear, it’s probably right that capital works are paused too – but good school buildings do make a difference. This is another investment that will not proceed.
How do local young people feel about all this? You can guess the answer. No-one should be happy about this. Even the most fatalistic pessimist must think this is a lot of bad things happening at once.
It will be a miserable year for public services but, more importantly than that, the effects will linger. The problems and pain we are signing up for will last for years and decades.
As David Sterling, former head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service, said at the weekend, public services cannot be turned off and on “with the flick of a switch.”
“There are public service bodies, there are charities all over the place now, who are having to plan to lay people off, capacity will be lost. Irreversible damage will be done.”
Education is vital, but all the specifics above outline the work of one department (more or less, obviously mental wellbeing overlaps with health, getting children into the arts is relevant to the Department of Communities, and so on).
Education saw a 2.4% drop in its budget, which is higher than the average fall (of 0.7%). However, the high rate of inflation means that even breaking even, in cash terms, means a significant real-terms reduction. As a result, every department will see real-terms cuts that could set your hair on fire.
What could Stormont have done about this? Well, there has been no Executive for four of the past six years. When Westminster sends over a half-empty purse, there is only so much Stormont can do. But limited options do not mean no options. Plenty of decisions could have been taken over the past few years to make the next few years easier.
Instead, we may even see civil servants signing off on the spending plans of an austerity budget. That is not their job, they shouldn’t have to do it, our own MLAs should be taking responsibility.
Which brings us back to David Sterling: “I think public services and departments are collateral damage in the struggle the government is having to get the institutions up and running again.
“In real terms, the cuts will be very large in many areas. And as I've said before, and many of my former colleagues have said, this is fundamentally undemocratic, it's fundamentally unconstitutional.”
All of these cuts are choices. Different choices are available.
Some unpleasant decisions are inevitable, in the current financial situation, but there is a fundamental lack of accountability in what is happening right now.
Stormont can only work with the budget it is given. Austerity is, once again, Westminster’s decision. But that still leaves some local choices. Some services have to suffer but it should be us, via democracy, who choose what is left to wither, and us who choose what remains.
It should be us – meaning political representatives chosen by the public, not civil servants – who decide our own actions, and the consequences of those actions.
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