Will May read the Vital Signs?

7 Oct 2016 Nick Garbutt    Last updated: 30 Jul 2018

It’s ironic that the Vital Signs survey was published the very day Prime Minister Theresa May made her speech at the Conservative Party conference. 

May indicated that her party was moving away from the neo-Liberal policies of her predecessor David Cameron. Austerity and the key mantra of balancing the books has been abandoned, it would appear. Government will intervene to stimulate the economy, and to encourage social mobility.

May may have been addressing the disaffection that fuelled the Brexit vote in England. She also seems to have shifted her party into the kind of policy space Labour occupied before Jeremy Corbyn shifted it leftwards.

Whether her words translate into action remain to be seen. In any event it would appear that the Westminster government is beginning to wake up to the damage that has been caused to individuals and communities who have borne the brunt of cuts imposed to tackle the banking crash.

As she was still on the podium, the Northern Ireland Vital Signs were published, revealing the scale of the task faced, at least in this part of the world.

Vital Signs is a global survey designed to help inform funding decisions by philanthropists. In Northern Ireland it is run by the Community Foundation for Northern Ireland.

It is a sort of health check, examining nine areas that affect quality of life, and thus influence how we feel about our lives.

These areas are: Arts and Culture; Civic Engagement; Community Safety; Education and Skills; Environment; Poverty; Health and Well Being, Housing and Homelessness and Economy and Work.

Key statistics for each area are collated and then qualitative research is conducted to explore how people feel about their quality of life against each area.

This year the Northern Ireland results demonstrate the impact austerity is having, and suggests that although economic recovery might be a statistical fact, it is not showing through in most peoples’ lives.

Poverty was one of the areas, but it hangs over all the others like an ever-darkening cloud, affecting attitudes, restricting opportunities, denying life chances.

Today Northern Ireland has 13,000 millionaires, enough to fill Windsor Park. They are the beneficiaries of economic recovery. Yet there are 365,000 in poverty, 100,000 of these, to our collective shame, are children.

Yet work, sometimes naively seen as a route out of poverty, is not necessarily working: zero hour contracts and minimum wage, has seen to that. We are seeing a growth in the working poor in Northern Ireland and people resent it. Northern Ireland has the sharpest rise in food banks of anywhere in the UK, and respondents are increasingly frustrated about being cut off from prosperity.

Given the link between poverty and ill-health it is hardly surprising that health and lack of investment in it and paucity of mental health provision feature starkly. The link between poor physical and mental health and poverty is well established and neatly illustrated in the longevity research which demonstrates that females in Lisburn and Castlereagh can expect to live two and a half years longer than females in neighbouring Belfast and almost eight years longer than Belfast males.

There is also criticism of back to work schemes with young people in the so-called NEET category (Not in education, employment or training) believing that such schemes are neither fit-for-purpose or relevant. This is backed by the statistics which demonstrate that of the 28,850 young people who took part in Training For Success between 2008 and 2016, only 30% got into employment.

It is little wonder that people are becoming increasingly disaffected with the political process. The survey reminds us that Assembly voter turnout has declined from 70% in 1998 to just 54.9% in 2016 – a fall of 15% and nudging us dangerously close to a situation where the disaffected are in a majority.

Add together all the grades given across the categories and you get five Cs and four Ds, where C means “Okay” and D means “things aren’t going very well.” That’s not good. In health terms, we’re not in intensive care, but we will be unless action is taken soon.

CFNI and other funding organisations will be doing what they can, but only government can make the difference because only it has the resources to invest at the levels demanded.

It will be interesting to see if May’s words are translated into action when the next block grant to Northern Ireland is allocated.



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