The shadow Secretary of State Ivan Lewis established the Heenan-Anderson Independent Commission this time last year (and the group formally launched in November) to make recommendations on intergenerational poverty and social exclusion in Northern Ireland. Ed Miliband addressed one of their public meetings in the UU Belfast campus in January.
On Tuesday morning the co-chairs Deirdre Heenan and Colin Anderson delivered their report [PDF], based on written and oral evidence gathered from over 600 participants
Deirdre commented that while poverty and exclusion are multi-layered, complex problems they cannot simply be assigned to the ‘too difficult’ box.
The report contains five overarching recommendations:
1. Northern Ireland requires an agreed long-term vision, a “roadmap to prosperity ad social justice” that will “galvanise government, business, civil society and communities to work together in unison towards collective goals”.
2. Five ways identified for Westminster Government and NI Executive to work more closely together to tackle poverty and intergenerational deprivation. Methods include devolution of Corporation Tax and development of “a City Deal in Derry-Londonderry to address regional inequalities and disparities”.
3. To overcome our current forte of being “good at identifying problems but less skjlled at identifying solutions”, a Leadership Academy should be created: a partnership between private and public sectors as well as and civil society.
4. Urgently address the lack of an anti-poverty strategy.
5. Prioritise mental well-being. “There are substantial economic and social benefits not only from providing timely and efficacious treatments for mental disorders, but also from investing in people as potential parents and producing a social environment conducive to positive mental health and positive parenting.”
- Shifting the focus of policy and programmes “from dealing with the social and economic cost of failure to intervening at the earliest stage possible to support individuals and families before they reach crisis point in their lives”.
- Endorsing the 2025 targets in the NI Executive’s recent draft Childcare Strategy to increase childcare places from 56,000 to 100,000.
- Using sport to “build social confidence and self-esteem, and instil pride, respect and understanding for one another”.
- Support for academic leadership and moving the Education and Training Inspectorate out from under the Department of Education to become an independent agency. Unblock the stalled attempts to raise educational attainment and “close the gap between children who are most and least disadvantaged”. End the 11+ impasse through “alternative ways to assess children including the use of results from continual assessment”.
There’s something wrong in a society … that separates our children into Catholic and Protestant schools at the age of 4 or 5, keeps them separate, and then tells me as a businessman “you’ve got to bring them together, and if you don’t bring them together you’ll be fined for discrimination”. What sort of society do we have? It’s morally wrong to separate in my opinion.
The 15 member of the commission also called for “the UK Government to work with employers to ensure all workers in Northern Ireland earn a full Living Wage” with initial employer tax incentives. Research is required to ascertain why NI has the lowest 5-year survival rate of business start-ups by region in the UK.
My impression is that there is little that is earth-shattering about the final Heenan-Anderson report. However, that’s not a bad thing. It helpfully pulls together many different strands of analysis and answers into the one document, and addresses the key problem of poverty and social exclusion that have blighted communities in Northern Ireland for generations.
One of the report’s successes is that no one recommendation stands out above all the rest, neither positively nor negatively. This enhances the value and currency of the report, since it cannot be written off in the way the Eames-Bradley group’s recommendations were collectively drowned all because of the one about payments for victims.
Most of what has been published could be lifted and shifted into a Programme for Government if the Executive returns after the next elections. In fact pressure should be put on the Executive parties to state which recommendations they’d be happy to adopt into their manifestos.
I’m struck that the fifty page report with its 20 recommendations is the kind of output that the now defunct Platform for Change was set up to produce. Colin, Deirdre and their team have succeeded where others have failed.
So this was an opportunity for “the best Secretary of State we never had” (as one person at the report launch informally remarked) to speak bluntly, perhaps in part responding to the variety of input he heard at the British Irish Association last weekend.
Ivan welcomed the publication of the report and insisted that its ideas and content should be owned by all governments and all people and not left to gather dust. He then went on to address the current political situation in Northern Ireland a call for a new “social covenant … for change” (which translates to a body that looks a lot liek a civic forum organised independent of politicians):
I have grown to love Northern Ireland and care about its future as much as my own constituency. Many of your leading politicians are individually people of high calibre who want to do the right thing. Much has been achieved in a society which, it has to be remembered, is still emerging from conflict.
However, after the initial hope and a promising period of power sharing we have to acknowledge that in recent years things have gone badly wrong. A culture of crisis leading to cycle of despair has become ingrained. A political class who collectively and sometimes inadvertently all too often elevate disagreement and complexity to the status of crisis, which in turn drowns out any sense of hope and fuels the cynicism which either causes people to hang on to the life jacket of sectarianism, or to confine their grievances to the dinner parties of the leafy suburbs and shun the ballot box. [emphasis added]
During the summer I read a thought-provoking book by Lord Jonathan Sachs the former Chief Rabbi. In “The Home We Build Together” Lord Sachs attempts to define a new approach replacing both assimilation which seeks to make everyone the same and multiculturalism which celebrates difference and can fuel separation.
I believe there are three elements of this approach which could help to put Northern Ireland back on track.
Firstly, the concept of “common good” where people from different cultures/ faiths make a commitment to work together in the interests of the greater good uninhibited by one’s own identity, individual preferences or political prejudices.
Secondly, a “social covenant” which is different to a social contract because it is not about the relationship between the state and citizen but relationships between people and the groups they establish through shared interests underpinned by shared values.
Thirdly, people working together to build change not by engaging face to face but working together side by side. Always thinking carefully about the differences between the two. Of course, I continue to call on Northern Ireland’s politicians to make the necessary compromises, to find a way forward.
But today I issue a different challenge to the businesses, civil society organisations, Trade Unions, churches, grassroots community leaders and individual citizens of Northern Ireland. It’s time for you to come together. To sit side by side, not face to face and build a new public movement for change.
To build that vision of a common good through a new social covenant which delivers change, demands a new kind of politics but also creates the space for those politicians irrespective of party who are ready to provide bold and visionary leadership.
It is not for political parties to agree on the establishment of such a forum.
Create your own, don’t wait for permission. But make sure it is neither a talking shop or a vehicle for a narrow wish list whether from nationalist or loyalist; left or right. From the beginning it must ensure through its membership, leadership, actions and objectives it is different and determined not to become the latest symbol of cynicism, division and inertia.
Come together to develop a new social covenant which recognises that political institutions and politicians cannot alone build the better future Northern Ireland deserves.
Successive agreements which established and strengthened peace were negotiated by politicians and civil servants sitting face to face. The next era of transformational economic and social change needs people and groups sat side by side in a new public movement for change committed to the common good.