Direct rule Budget is a betrayal
Sinn Féin national Chairperson Mitchel McLaughlin speaking at the launch of the party's response to the draft Budget and Priorities for 2005-08 has said that the proposals are a betrayal of the priorities and commitments agreed by local elected representatives in the Assembly and Executive. Speaking in Belfast Mr McLaughlin said:
"This draft is a betrayal of the direction, priorities and commitments agreed by local elected representatives. It will have a devastating long-term impact on vital services particularly for the most vulnerable and marginalised people in our society. Across a range of areas services will be devastated, particularly for our children and young, in our health and education systems and in the priority for tackling poverty.
"It also demonstrates the British governments' determination to force us down the road to privatisation of services and greater dependency on PFI and PPP. It will tie the Assembly into a policy straitjacket and severely restrict the freedom of any future Assembly and Executive.
"The reliance on the Investment Strategy and the SIB is a matter of concern. We are being required to take much of this in good faith. This is not good governance. Essentially an entire section of the economy and the Programme for Government is being handed over to an unelected, unaccountable non-transparent body.
Sinn Féin spokesperson Equality, Human Rights and Women, South Down MLA Catriona Ruane has said that the decision to end the Children's Fund was fatally flawed and called for its reintroduction. Ms Ruane said:
"This is not a budget for the future of the 6 counties. It is a budget that betrays the responsibility of British direct rule ministers to develop and maintain services, to address the major infrastructural deficit created by their own failure to invest adequately for decades and to support the most vulnerable and marginalised in our society.
"The Children's Fund recognised the historical under-funding of children's services in the six counties and higher levels of family and children's poverty. Direct rule ministers gave a commitment to continue to build on the progress made by the Executive yet NIO ministers have unjustifiably moved away from these commitments. They are reneging on commitments to children made by democratically elected politicians. Axing the Fund involves a loss of £27m and is a blow to necessary services for children and young people that rely on the Fund and will lead to a reduction in services for the most vulnerable children.
"There is also an attempt within the Draft Priorities and Budget to ignore legal equality requirements to skew resources on the basis of objective need and instead to introduce a criteria on the basis of 'particular difficulties in Protestant working class areas'. Catholic working class areas also have particular difficulties stemming from the structural and institutional discrimination practised by the state. Across all the deprivation indicators Catholic/nationalists are worse off. There is a statutory equality duty on government to target resources on the basis of objective need. That is not being done and will result in the skewing of resources even further away from nationalist areas.
Sinn Fein Spokesperson on Employment and Learning, West Belfast MLA Michael Ferguson added:
"Sinn Féin is also extremely concerned with the insufficient resources allocated to Education in the draft budget. It is imperative that monies allocated improve services rather than just maintaining the current position.
"Across all services that are vital to the future of our young people - funded through the Children's Fund or through the education and health systems - there are huge pressures because of under funding. These proposals betray the future of our young people.
"The proposals to end Worktrack funding by 2006 will impact adversely on areas with a history of high unemployment. 1220 participants on Worktrack will simply stay on the benefits system and 150-200 permanent jobs - which are supported through the Worktrack programme - will be lost.
It is acknowledged in the Draft Priorities and Budget that "over 20% of the adult population.. perform at the lowest level of literacy and numeracy" in the north and that "high numbers of young people, particularly from disadvantaged backgrounds . leave school with low levels of qualifications". The ending of programmes such as Worktrack and Learn Direct, which teach literacy and numeracy, increase self-esteem and increase individual employability, will exacerbate this situation.
The plans to impose Variable Fees are also deeply flawed. Top-up fees will reduce access rather than increase it and increase inequalities.
"Government must rethink the allocations for the education sector. The far-reaching plans that are underway with regard to the curriculum programme, SEN and Costello need adequate financing to be successful. It is imperative also that the ELB situation be taken in hand realistically yet not to the detriment of front line services and the children who avail of them.
"Cuts in Education and Library Board budgets are unacceptable as they are already facing financial crisis because they do not have enough resources to provide crucial services. Rather than the Department trying to strong arm ELBs to slash their services, the budget allocation for education should be reassessed. It is imperative that there are real increases in spending beyond those swallowed up by inflationary pressures. Quality of service is a core issue."
Sinn Féin Health Spokesperson, Upper Bann MLA John O'Dowd added:
"It is clear that despite year on year increases that the budget allocated to the DHSSPS is not sufficient to meet our health and social care needs.
"The linkage between levels of deprivation, ill-health and morbidity, including mental health problems, also weakened our position in respect of relative health spending. While proportionately more children require social services here than in England relative spending in England on children's social services is some 35% higher than here.
"Given the significant differential need over many years, and the continuing and devastating pattern of under-investment it has been estimated that spending here should be some 17% higher than those levels in England to achieve parity in meeting needs. That would have equated to, at least, an extra £190 million being made available to the DHSSPS budget.
"There are already enormous and increasing pressures on staff in the health service, growing labour market shortages across all disciplines and fundamental inequalities and gaps in the provision of training. It also remains to be seen if sufficient resources are available within the proposed budget to meet and underpin Agenda for Change.
"Each Board is expecting shortfalls in service funding to occur next year (£25m is a conservative estimate, possibly up to £65m). Even if Boards can remain static in maintaining present levels of delivery of services in year 1, by years 2&3, the situation could be well be one of decline.
"Learning Disability, Resettlement and Mental Health are other areas where further under-funding will have negative knock-on effects through possible loss of community care packages. Child-care and family services could face a major deficit, and requirements needed to fund the Children's Order were not met. There are also major consequences arising out of the instruction to Trusts that no new service development funding will be available for at least two years.
"The current proposals put a future Executive in the untenable position of imposing health cuts without effective revenue raising powers. Direct Rule Ministers have clearly failed to obtain the resources necessary to support our society and the political delivery of a peace dividend."
Commenting on the economic aspects of the draft proposals Mr McLaughlin said:
"The entire chapter on North/South, East/West and International Relations has disappeared from this document. It is a clear breach of the Good Friday Agreement that there is no all-Ireland economic strategy in this consultation. Partition and the existence of two economies on such a small island have had a detrimental effect on economic growth and wealth creation on the Island of Ireland.
"Instead there is a focus on the north as a separate political and economic entity that can compete on a global scale. This is an absurd as it is clear that the economy of the north of Ireland is not sustainable on its own. The lack of an all-Ireland economic agenda with the south viewed as a rival rather than working to a common agenda is not an acceptable approach. Competition between north and south is costing money. Island wide strategies that avoid duplication and make the most of finite resources is the most sensible approach to adopt.
"The poor infrastructure, high levels of unemployment and lack of job density west of the Bann is ignored within this document. This inequality between east and west of the Bann needs to be addressed as a matter of urgency. The focus is solely on economic competitiveness as opposed to economic regeneration and job creation. There is a failure recognise the potential of the social economy in developing small to medium size enterprises and as a means of job creation particularly in the more disadvantaged areas.
"The net outcome of this budget will be cuts in public services. This will have a detrimental impact particularly on health and education. The policies of successive British and unionist administrations have resulted in huge infrastructural deficits with the failure to invest in essential services such as water and sewage, transport, hospitals and education. In addition, we are a society emerging from decades of conflict. All of these require a peace dividend and greater levels of public expenditure.
In conclusion Mitchel McLaughlin said:
"No response to these draft proposals would be complete without raising concerns about the issue of water charges. The proposals are to raise this revenue through water rates. The budget states clearly that it intends: 'to implement a programme of reform of the delivery of water and sewerage services in Northern Ireland which will secure full self financing arrangements for these services by 2008/9 and provide a sustainable and long term funding arrangement to meet future investment needs'.
"The main drive behind the upgrading is from EU Directives and Environmental Heritage Services calls for clean and healthy water supply. This is disingenuous - there is no EU imperative on how funding should be raised. Sinn Féin remains opposed to the imposition of this new, regressive tax. We do not believe that people living here should be penalised for British Government negligence in its duty to maintain and improve this system over the last decades. The net outcome of these proposals will be a double tax on Water and Sewerage services." ENDS