NICVA publishes manifesto ahead of elections

19 Feb 2016 Ryan Miller    Last updated: 24 Feb 2016

Illustration by Patrick Sanders
Illustration by Patrick Sanders

Election seasons is upon us and Scope will have a heavy focus on policy. This week NICVA published its own paper. We highlight their ideas.

The Assembly elections are now just weeks away - and so begins manifesto season.

 NICVA has this week published its own document, Untapping the potential, ahead of polling day in early May.

The worst kind of manifesto would have been something that focused purely on the concerns of the third sector – or, rather, within the sector – and thankfully this is close to the opposite.

Indeed, while community and voluntary organisations obviously need to look after themselves, and can achieve very little when structurally weak or doomed, the danger is that they become a closed loop concerned mainly or only about self-perpetuity rather than the wider civic mission which should be their ultimate aim.

NICVA – which funds Scope, it should be said – has instead opted for something more comprehensive.

While it has a third-sector focus and is certainly upbeat about the “untapped potential” therein, it is also an attempt to address the issues facing Northern Ireland as a society and a political jurisdiction, rather than just a wish list for the third sector.

For the future

The election will come and go but there is something to be said about a manifesto free from the shackles of trying to win votes – and probably something to be said against it, as well, though nothing is perfect – and NICVA will surely take some of their ideas into the new mandate to inform Stormont’s next Programme for Government.

The organisation has even taken the time to write an article looking at how the manifesto came about, from canvasing opinion to creating a coherent paper.

But what does it say?

The manifesto has recommendations in three main tranches:

  1. Prevention and Early Intervention in Key Areas of Public Spending
  2. Reducing Poverty and Making Work Pay
  3. Good Government and a strong society

Each tranche has several more specific areas of recommendation that we will summarise below. In the coming weeks Scope will provide a more in-depth focus on some areas of interest.

Prevention and Early Intervention in Key Areas of Public Spending

Of the nine subsections here, five have a health theme – reflecting the strain on services under the existing model and the unfortunately steep rise in demand that shows no end.

Reduce obesity levels; a cross sectoral approach to better health; preparing for an ageing population; adoption of a positive approach to relationships, sex and sexual health; and reducing the harm caused by alcohol and drug addiction are all laudable aims.

Each of them also has obvious and potentially massive positive implications for public provision in future. A healthier approach now could mean a much healthier population in the future.

Other suggestions include “radically” reducing reoffending (through the effective but publicly unpopular method of significant rehabilitation and education programmes after offending), protection of the environment, the movement of STEM to STEAM (inclusion of arts, often wrongly considered an economic black hole), and universal early years provision for 0-4-year-olds (not the only young person initiative, as will be explained shortly).

Of course, everyone in politics likes to talk about long-term planning, spending now to save later and all the rest, but the realities of democracy and chasing votes can work against this.

Big spending programmes with relatively limited short-term benefits simply do not suit five-year election cycles where being able to show results while re-canvassing for your seat is part of the game.

Reducing Poverty and Making Work Pay

Here NICVA is suggesting a living wage for all workers (to be decided – and set! – by a Low Pay Commission for NI); for equal access to skills development, training and education for all ages; measures taken to end the educational attainment gap (in socioeconomic terms); and moves to ensure everyone has quality, appropriate and affordable housing.

However, their biggest ask is the rather massive – but transformational – introduction of universal childcare for 1- to 14-year-olds by the 2022-2026 Assembly Term.

Here the ask dovetails to a certain degree with that for universal early years provision because, if both policies were to be taken forward, for those aged 1-4 it would make sense that they overlap as much as possible.

Good Government and a strong society

The subsections here are probably much less financially significant but, as the name suggests, attempt to work towards a Northern Ireland that operates more smoothly.

Effective devolution for 2016 and beyond (a review of the fiscal relationship with the Treasury/wider UK; a Stormont opposition, reform of the shamelessly abused Petitions of Concern); more open data and a more transparent policy-making process; the introduction of a rating system based on land not buildings; maximised impact of public procurement (better use of the £2.6bn spent by Stormont on goods and services each year, including a Social Value Act and the encouragement of innovation); support for active citizenship and voluntary action; legislate for fairness and equality (including marriage equality).

It’s easy to put to a lot of lovely-sounding ideas in a row and call it a manifesto. But NICVA has put together some costings, including a genuine look at the feasibility of universal free childcare – which would be a monumental achievement in Northern Ireland and potentially fantastic for the economy.

This article, however, simply represents an overview. Scope will look at policy ideas from NICVA, the major political parties and others with a more critical focus over the coming weeks.

Elections should be about policy in the broadest sense but rarely are.

Tightened public finances mean Northern Ireland has less room for profligacy during the next mandate than at any time since the Good Friday Agreement.

No doubt identity politics and things that happened a hundred years ago will shape much of the campaign – but we all need to remember what our representatives are really there to do.

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