Untapping the Potential - Policy Manifesto 2016

The voluntary, community and social enterprise sector is good for Northern Ireland.
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Individual organisations and groups make life-changing contributions to the people and communities they work with. The collective impact of the sector is an important asset that wider Northern Ireland society can be proud of.  And yet the sector is capable of so much more. The untapped potential of voluntary, community and social enterprise organisations to contribute to social good in Northern Ireland is incredibly exciting.

All across Northern Ireland the voluntary, community and social enterprise sector workforce, both paid and voluntary, are raising issues, identifying need and stepping up to deliver services that government or other sectors can’t.  Individually they are genuine social innovators. Collectively the sector is a factory of ideas and experience.

This document is rooted in that experience. We looked at key social, economic and environmental issues both now and in the near future.

Through research, focused conversations and practical experience we have developed headline activities we think will make a real difference.

Our manifesto isn’t an alternative budget or Programme for Government. It is a collection of ideas and recommendations. Some are interlinked and some stand alone, but all present politicians and their parties with positive solutions to a range of important challenges.

Where our recommendations require significant new or increased public spending we have estimated these costs and listed how we have arrived at them in the reference section. We have also listed the numerous documents and reports we have referred to in making our recommendations.

Our recommendations are by no means a complete collection of the ideas and opinions of the sector.

Many other organisations are campaigning on their own priorities and areas of expertise and that itself is a good thing.  Nor can we in NICVA expect full agreement across all of our members. That’s rarely possible from the tumbling mass of ideas that comprise our sector.

However, we are confident that our recommendations present a positive agenda to untap the potential of the voluntary, community & social enterprise sector and of the people and communities we work with.

Summary of Recommendations

 1   Prevention and Early Intervention in Key Areas of Public Spending

We are making recommendations on how to deliver better outcomes across a series of key public policy issues and major areas of public spending.

 2   Reducing Poverty and Making Work Pay 

We are making recommendations on steps that can be taken in Northern Ireland to positively transform public and personal finances.

 3   Good Government and a strong society

We are making recommendations that will strengthen the scope and impact of devolution and support a healthy civic society.


 1   Prevention and Early Intervention in Key Areas of Public Spending

There is a strong financial and social case for shifting the focus of public spending towards investing early so as to avoid expensive, less effective remedial interventions.Reducing budgets mean every penny government spends needs to be spent as effectively and efficiently as possible. Services should be fit for purpose and deliver the best possible outcomes for the people who rely on them. While rhetoric indicates most political parties agree with this approach, we know that prevention and early intervention programmes were hit first in recent budget cuts.

Based on research, expert advice and good practice already developed in Northern Ireland, we are making recommendations on how to deliver better outcomes across a series of key public policy issues and major areas of public spending.

 1.1   Universal early years provision for all 0-4 year olds

Investment in 0-4 year olds leads to better educational, health, social and economic outcomes for individuals and Northern Ireland as a whole. There is a compelling public finance case for focusing investment in early years as opposed to more costly interventions later in life.  Traditionally early years provision has been focused on areas of deprivation. However access to early years provision will have a positive impact on all children in Northern Ireland.

  • There should be universal early years provision for all 0 – 4 year olds in Northern Ireland.

Using current government spending on Sure Start as a basis, it is estimated that access to pre-school provision for all 0-4 year olds would cost an additional £36.9million per annum.

 1.2   Reduce obesity levels

Obesity costs the Northern Ireland economy £370million per year. 61% of adults and 28% of children in Northern Ireland are obese or overweight. Around 20% of the health budget is spent on obesity and related conditions.

To reduce obesity levels in Northern Ireland we should:

  • Embed healthy eating habits in families through universal early years provision.
  • Establish good eating habits early in life and ensure children have a healthy start to the school day by expanding breakfast clubs.
  • Follow the example of London Borough Councils, such as Tower Hamlets, and reform Planning Policy to take a strategic public health approach to the location of fast food provision.
  • Support moves at EU level to introduce calorie labelling on all alcoholic drinks. In the interim the Public Health Agency should develop an awareness raising campaign on this issue.

 1.3   Take a cross sectoral approach to better health

The key challenges facing health and social care in Northern Ireland mean that cross-sectoral working makes more sense than ever before.   Each sector has a role to play in developing a shared vision of a world-class health service and a healthy, fit population.

  • Introduce a cross sectoral approach to achieving better health outcomes. Government should work with environmental NGOs and other organisations to develop a social prescription programme, through which patients can be prescribed nature related activities, self-help groups and other community based projects to tackle mental and physical health conditions.

 1.4   Prepare for an ageing population

Declining birth rates and increasing life expectancy are radically altering the age profile of Northern Ireland. In the next 15 years 28% of people living in Northern Ireland will be over 60 years old. This has implications for public finance which we need to begin planning for now. Research has shown that the most effective way to deal with the financial pressures of an ageing population is to invest in ensuring older people are healthier, financially secure and able to remain independent as long as possible.

To prepare for an ageing population we should:

  • Work collectively across the health and social care family to invest in prevention and early intervention and ensure people stay well for longer.
  • Develop a specific employment scheme for people over 50 years old based on the learning from the three year pilot scheme funded by Atlantic Philanthropies.

 1.5   A positive approach to relationships, sex and sexual health

Young people are becoming sexually active earlier. Youth workers and other professionals are reporting worrying trends on what is considered acceptable behaviour in relationships. It is clear that Northern Ireland needs to adopt a more positive and realistic approach to sex, relationships and talking about and treating STI’s.

To adopt a positive approach to relationships, sex and sexual health;

  • Schools in Northern Ireland should be required to provide standardised Relationship and Sex Education.
  • Relationship and Sex Education should be part of teacher and youth worker training.
  • An online Health and Social Care approved one stop shop for information on sex, relationships and STI’s should be developed.
  • Following the public health approach developed by organisations like the Brook Clinic and Rainbow Project expand provision of STI testing.

 1.6    Reduce the harm caused by alcohol and drug misuse

In Northern Ireland, alcohol-related harm is estimated to cost society up to £900 million every year, around one-tenth of the entire block grant the NI Executive receives from Westminster. The annual cost of alcohol misuse to the Health and Social Care (HSC) sector alone is estimated to be around £250 million.

Drug misuse is also a significant and growing problem in Northern Ireland.

To reduce addiction related harm we should:

  • Review and examine referral and treatment pathways to all alcohol and drug services: NI Executive should review how funding is spent on alcohol and drugs services and whether current referral pathways are client centred. This review should cover both the voluntary and community sector and statutory sector provision.

  • Make every contact count: Commissioners should ensure effective screening for alcohol and drug misuse and ensure that frontline staff are effectively trained to deliver advice and are aware of local referral pathways to specialist support. This should take place in every GP practice and at all other available ‘gateways’ where alcohol misuse can be identified. If identified, an integrated care pathway should be introduced.

  • ​Increase in tax on alcohol: as a consequence of minimum unit pricing being ruled unlawful and uncompetitive, a higher tax could be placed on alcohol products with the revenue generated ring fenced to fund programmes that mitigate the harms caused by alcohol.

 1.7    Radically reduce reoffending

To increase public safety and mitigate trauma for victims of crime we need to reduce offending. 45.8% of adults who have been released from custody in Northern Ireland will reoffend within 12 months. Its costs around £58,000 per year to keep a person in prison in Northern Ireland.  Research has shown that housing, employment and social support are crucial in preventing reoffending.

To radically reduce reoffending:

  • Everyone leaving custody and serving community supervision sentences in Northern Ireland should have access to a comprehensive support programme for at least 12 months from date of release. Based on similar programmes run by NIACRO we estimate this will cost £2.8million.

 1.8    Protect our environment

2.8% of the UK population live in Northern Ireland yet we produce 4% of UK’s greenhouse gas emissions and are the only region with no climate change legislation of our own. Rising sea levels mean we will see increased coastal erosion and flooding which will impact significantly on those who live, work and visit the coast. Just as our coast is an important asset so too is land, and both are under pressure from increasing and competing demands. Our system of overall environmental regulation is not sufficiently independent or efficient as responsibility lays  across a number of departments and agencies.

To protect the environment in Northern Ireland we should:

  • Introduce a Northern Ireland Climate Change Act.
  • Create an independent Environmental Protection Agency.
  • Produce a Land Use Strategy for Northern Ireland.
  • Establish shoreline plans for Northern Ireland and map coastal erosion.

 1.9    Support the move from STEM to STEAM

Northern Ireland has always been internationally recognised for our contribution to music, arts and sport. We now have an unprecedented opportunity to capitalise on this success at home and abroad. The Creative Industries ranging from film and fashion to technology and research contribute £800million GVA to the Northern Ireland economy and provide 43,000 jobs. However the potential contribution of arts and creative industries is being undermined by cuts to funding and differing policy priorities, pitting one type of art against another.

  • The focus on and resources for STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and maths) should be enhanced to include arts and creative industries, moving from STEM to STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts and maths).
  • A talent development plan should be implemented to support local artists and attract international talent.


 2   Reduce Poverty and Make Work Pay

It is right that people who cannot work should be supported by the welfare system to have a decent standard of living.

Most people in poverty in Northern Ireland are in work. We have the largest percentage of workers earning below the living wage in the UK and high levels of children living in poor families.

Alongside the introduction of an anti-poverty strategy, as a matter of priority, there are some steps that can be taken in Northern Ireland to positively transform public and personal finances.

 2.1    Universal childcare for 1- 14 year olds by 2022

Access to universal affordable childcare will transform both the Northern Ireland economy and finances of families. On average families in Northern Ireland spend 45% of their weekly earnings on childcare. The cost and availability of childcare have consistently been cited as significant barriers for parents who want to move from social security into employment. This is particularly the case for women and lone parents. Yet no strategy or programme so far has been able to comprehensively deal with this issue.

It is also true that the introduction of universal subsidised childcare will transform women’s finances as well as opening a range of new opportunities at home and at work. In fact it is hard to think of another economic proposal with such potential to radically transform the choices open to women across Northern Ireland.

Research has also shown the potential of universal childcare provision in Northern Ireland to lift 30,000 children out of poverty.

While the economic and social benefits of universal childcare have been proven, our research has shown that additional positive outcomes in areas such as child development are dependent on quality of the childcare provided.

  • Northern Ireland should aim to introduce universal childcare for 1 – 14 year olds in the 2022-2027 Assembly term.
  • However it is unrealistic to assume we could implement this aim immediately.  And given the relatively high public expenditure outlay we need to be certain of what will work and what will not. With this in mind, a pilot study of universal childcare across Neighbourhood Renewal and equivalent rural areas should be carried out in the 2016-2021 Assembly term.

 2.2   A living wage for all workers

The high levels of low wages are a drain on both personal and public finances.  We recommend that all workers Northern Ireland should be earning at least the Living Wage.  However, we recognise that achieving this is much easier for some employers than others. Also, despite our research showing a long term net gain in employment should a Living Wage be introduced in Northern Ireland, there is a need to be careful to ensure that an increase in wages does not simply translate into job losses in the short term.

  • A Northern Ireland Low Pay Commission should be established. Like the UK LPC, the NILPC would bring together employers, employees and independent advisors.

                 However it would differ from the existing LPC in three main respects:

  • It would have the power to set a Living Wage that recognises the economic circumstances of Northern Ireland including the relativly high number of jobs dependent on public expenditure.
  • It will have the long term objective of ensuring that all workers in Northern Ireland are paid the Living Wage.
  • It would adopt a proactive approach to realising this goal by advising government and employers on how the conditions could be created to enable firms to pay the Living Wage.
  • Use of zero hours contracts in Northern Ireland should be reviewed.  No one seeking work should be required to move from benefits to a zero hours contract and should not face benefit sanctions for refusing to do so.

 2.3   End the educational attainment gap

As shown by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) 2013 review, the retention of academic selection maintains and accentuates social division in Northern Ireland.  Additionally the present system of multiple unofficial academic selection tests places undue stress on the shoulders of teachers, parents and most notably children.

Low income families struggle to meet the costs of education such as school uniforms, books and other required equipment like sports kits. The cost associated with certain subjects, such as art and music, mean children from low income families cannot afford to participate.

As the success of free school meals has shown, children from low income families will do better at school if they are able to participate in all aspects of school life on an equal basis. Schools have a responsibility not to place undue financial pressure on the families of children.

  • We could reduce the cost of school for low income families by ensuring that children entitled to free school meals receive financial assistance to meet the costs of school uniforms, books, supplies and equipment.
  • Free school uniforms: additional £8.7million per annum
  • Books and supplies: £5.2million per annum
  • Sports kit: £6.6million per annum
  • The Department of Education should also provide stronger guidance to schools on their uniform and equipment requirements.
  • The Department should robustly enforce its decision to end academic selection at eleven years old including, if necessary, taking steps to prohibit publically funded schools from introducing their own selection tests.

 2.4   Ensure equal access to skills development, training and education for all ages

In order to meet the social and economic challenges ahead Northern Ireland needs a skilled workforce. This will involve providing citizens with a range of training, education and skills development options.  In recent years funding to community based education and training delivered by voluntary sector organisations has been rolled back in favour of more ‘mainstream’ provision.  This is despite the fact that community based education can achieve better results.

In order to ensure equal access to skills development, training and education for all ages, we should:

  • Stop the move towards the centralisation of education and training provision to statutory providers.
  • Recognise the importance of adult learning as part of anti-poverty policies and the social pillar of Programme for Government.
  • Equalise recognition and resources for all levels of qualifications both academic and vocational.

 2.5   Ensure everyone has quality, appropriate and affordable housing

Helping people live independently in the community is an important part of the solution to many public policy and health issues such as an ageing population and the delivery of better outcomes for people with disabilities. We know from research into Supporting People that it also makes good financial sense. Supporting People saves the public purse £125.05m per annum, compared to its 2013/14 cost of £65.6m

One key aspect of the drive towards providing more social and affordable housing is the need to identify and release more land for building.

To ensure everyone who lives here has an appropriate home we should:

Develop a land use strategy.

  • Protect and uplift the Supporting People budget.
  • Increase the new build programme to meet the target of 2,000 new homes per annum.
  • Include a commitment to end homelessness in the Programme for Government and facilitate this by multi agency needs assessment and information sharing.

 3   Effective government and strong civil society

Northern Ireland in 2016 is a very different place to when the Good Friday Agreement created the structures of our government. After two successive full terms of the NI Assembly, now is the time to revisit how the structures work in practice and their capability to deliver better outcomes for the people of Northern Ireland.

The strength of civil society is an internationally recognized measure of the health of a democracy.

2015 was a difficult year for the voluntary and community sector in Northern Ireland. Organisations were first in line for cuts from the public sector and faced job losses on an unprecedented scale. Our recent survey found that organisations across the sector are deeply worried about their future.

We are making a number of recommendations which will strengthen the scope and impact of devolution and support a healthy civic society.

 3.1   Devolution for 2016 and beyond

Reducing the number of government departments, while welcome, does not guarantee cooperation.  The current fiscal relationship with the UK government means that many of the financial benefits of new public spending in areas such as job creation and raising incomes for people revert to the Treasury.  This could act as a barrier to any new public spending programmes in Northern Ireland such as more spending on childcare as suggested in this document.

To secure effective devolution for 2016 and beyond:

  • An independent commission should be established to review the fiscal powers available to the Northern Ireland Executive.
  • The Northern Ireland Executive should reform its fiscal relationship with HMT to retain the public finance benefit of new spending programmes.
  • The Northern Ireland Assembly should be reformed to include an official opposition.
  • The use of Petitions of Concern should be reformed.
  • Cross-departmental collaboration should be hardwired into the culture, budgets, operating systems and performance management of government and its agencies.
  • The Northern Ireland Executive should operate with collective responsibility for the decisions it takes and the implementation of the Programme for Government.

 3.2   Open data and open the policy making process

Government policy decisions should be based on robust data and evidence.  Across the world the open data movement is driving innovation in the public, private and voluntary and community sectors and creating closer links between citizens and the decisions that affect them. New and exciting Open Policy Making techniques have been tested and are now being mainstreamed across Whitehall Departments.

To open data and the policy making process we should:

  • Establish an Open Policy Making Team in the Executive Office.
  • Ensure local and central government publish the data and evidence they have used to make policy decisions.
  • Train relevant staff in local and central government in data publication.
  • Make Land and Property Services NI Pointer Data open and freely available.
  • Carry out a data audit to fill information gaps in key areas such as the economy and land ownership and use.
  • Ensure that NI specific data can be disaggregated from UK level government data.
  • Ensure the Government Funders Database records all funding to voluntary and community organisations.

 3.3   A rating system based on land not buildings

The current rating system is based on the value of property not the land it is built on. Changing this to tax land not buildings encourages development and reduces dereliction; reflects the cost of public investment in infrastructure; guards against unsustainable increases in the value of land; and discourages land banking.

NICVA research shows that in Northern Ireland, Land Value Tax would be a progressive tax when measured against multiple deprivation indicators. Like all taxes, Land Value Tax may include exemptions based on NI policy objectives.

  • A feasibility study should be conducted to establish the cost of adapting the present system to a system of Land Value Tax.
  • The next revaluation from Land and Property Services should include a disaggregation of land and building values and include non-developed land.

 3.4   Maximise the impact of public procurement

Government in Northern Ireland spends around £2.6billion on procuring goods and services every year. This spending power could drive innovation and target effective services that produce better results and ultimately save money.  When used well and introduced early in the procurement process, Social Clauses have been effective in maximising the impact of contracts. However, we know from research that procurement in Northern Ireland has become focused on short term costs at the expense of quality and overall value for money. The bureaucratic and risk averse nature of procurement acts as a barrier to innovation in public service delivery.

To release the potential of procurement we should:

  • Introduce a Social Value Act.
  • Establish a cross departmental Executive Innovation Fund.
  • Create an online Social Innovation Platform where suppliers and buyers can engage.
  • Arrange a series of sector specific Meet the Buyer days.
  • Establish an independent administrative complaints procedure for procurement to provide an alternative to litigation for anyone who wants to challenge a procurement process or decision. It could provide independent, low cost advice to suppliers before going to the expense of a full legal challenge. This has been successful in other European Countries.

 3.5   Support active citizenship and voluntary action

Active citizenship and voluntary action are key components of a healthy society. Social movements shape public opinion. Voluntary and community organisations develop and deliver services in areas and with groups where the state and the market have failed. Government should have a framework for supporting voluntary action.

To support active citizenship and voluntary action we should:

  • Issue clear guidance on appropriate use of grant, grant-in-aid and procurement for funding voluntary and community organisations.
  • Stop the erosion of core and grant funding for voluntary and community organisations.
  • Produce a White Paper on Active Citizenship and Voluntary Action.
  • Establish the Civic Advisory Panel agreed in ‘A Fresh Start.’

 3.6   Legislate for fairness and equality

As well as the need to legislate for a Northern Ireland Bill of Rights, there are a number of key areas in which new legislation or changes to existing legislation could promote equality and fairness for people across Northern Ireland.

Northern Ireland is now the only place on these islands where same sex couples cannot get married.  It is clear that public opinion in Northern Ireland supports same sex marriage with an Ipsos MORI poll from July 2015 showing 68% support same-sex marriage, with just 28% against.

Recent proposals to extended protection from discrimination in the provision of goods and services to cover older people is warmly welcome.  However the failure of this piece of anti-discrimination legislation to cover under 16s was a missed opportunity.

In a similar vein, how we treat children within the criminal justice system is different to how we treat them in other areas of life. While the law in most areas recognises that children do not have the same capacity as adults to make decisions, when it comes to criminal law, we bestow adult type responsibility from the age of 10.

With over 500,000 older people abused in the UK each year there is increasing awareness of the risks and impacts of elder abuse.  Elder abuse can occur anywhere. This includes in someone’s own home, a residential home, or a hospital. Both older men and women can be at risk of abuse, though a majority of victims are women over the age of 70.  Yet, in Northern Ireland we do not have adult protection legislation and elder abuse is not defined as a specific crime.

In order to legislate for fairness and equality we should:

  • Introduce Marriage Equality Legislation
  • Introduce Age Discrimination Legislation relating to goods, facilities and services and ensure it includes people under 16.
  • Introduce legislation to raise the age of criminal responsibility to 12.
  • Introduce a legal definition of elder abuse, define elder abuse as a specific crime and introduce Adult Protection Legislation.

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