Improving productivity

It is great to have government again, and many of the ministerial statements made so far have been very positive.

One example is new Economy Minister Conor Murphy recognising how central comprehensive childcare provision is to female participation in the workforce, raising productivity and reducing economic inactivity.

Similar comments were made by the incoming First and Deputy First Ministers, Michelle O’Neill and Emma Little-Pengelly. Childcare is a responsibility of the Department of Education, under the leadership of its minister Paul Givan.

So within days of government again becoming operational, we have a perfect example of how policy delivery is cross-cutting. It requires engagement and partnership between ministers and their departments — in this instance, between ministers who represent Sinn Fein and the DUP.

But there are lots of other examples. Backlogs in the courts system and capacity pressures in prisons are claimed to be a significant factor in the massive increase in demand for short-term homeless accommodation, including for people on remand away from their normal residence.

Annual total spend on temporary accommodation in Northern Ireland has jumped from £5.8m in 2018/19 to £23.7m in 2022/23. The increase in the Derry City and Strabane council area has been sixfold, from less than £1m to just short of £6m in a mere four years.

The bill for this is picked up by the Department for Communities, under the leadership of DUP minister Gordon Lyons.

The situation also creates additional challenges for health services, the PSNI and affects tourism, through a loss of available accommodation.

While policy on courts and prisons comes under Alliance Party Justice Minister Naomi Long, the impacts fall on various departments.

Let us then come to one of the very biggest challenges facing Economy Minister Conor Murphy: economic inactivity. This is vastly greater in Northern Ireland than in the rest of the UK.

The lack of available and affordable childcare is one factor in this. There is also a correlation between skills levels and economic activity — we have lots of people without basic skills, who are statistically more likely to be economically inactive.

But there is another important factor in Northern Ireland’s high level of economic inactivity, which the whole of the Executive must address: our healthcare crisis.

The UK’s economic inactivity level in January of this year was 20.8%, while that in NI was 25.8%.

The higher level here is very disturbing. But drilling down into the causes makes clear the scale of the challenge.

Across the whole of the UK, some 29.7% of the economic inactive were long-term sick. In Northern Ireland the disparity was stark — it is 39.3%. Some 10.2% of our working-age population are unavailable for work because they are on health waiting lists, or otherwise too ill to be employed.

It is obvious from these figures that addressing NI’s low productivity and high economic inactivity problems must involve rescuing our NHS, parts of which are in a state of near collapse.

One implication is that the capacity of Economy Minister Conor Murphy to deliver some of his objectives relies on the ability of Ulster Unionist Health Minister Robin Swann to turn around the NHS here.

Some years ago the then NI Secretary of State Theresa Villiers issued a public call on Executive ministers to work in closer partnership, operating together more effectively. I phoned one of the then ministers — long since departed — to ask their view. That minister was almost apoplectic: “We are in government with people we… don’t like, what more does she expect?!”

I’ve heard it suggested that a government comprising four parties — Sinn Fein, the DUP, Alliance and the UUP — is the equivalent of expecting the UK to be effectively governed under the joint leadership of Jeremy Corbyn and Nigel Farage, with the Scottish Nationalists and Plaid Cymru making unhelpful noises round the table.

The comparison is clearly an exaggeration, but it does usefully illustrate the scale of making government work when it comprises conflicting perspectives and priorities.

Moreover, this is only one element of the challenge involved in making Northern Ireland operate more effectively. Our administration is notoriously split into silos, which have serious difficulty working together. Much of the responsibility for that sits with the leadership of the Northern Ireland Civil Service, which must ensure that the permanent secretaries are engaged in collective endeavour, even if sometimes their ministers are not.

Having ministers is a good start, but good government requires very much more than having ministers sitting at their desks. They actually need to work collectively. As the old saying goes, they either need to hang together, or else they will hang separately. As will the rest of us.

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