Sunday, October 31, 2010

Why I didn’t sign the Platform for Change statement on Cohesion, Sharing and Integration

On Friday, the Belfast Telegraph published a letter, co-ordinated by Platform for Change, criticising OFMDFM’s draft Cohesion, Sharing and Integration strategy. Consultation on the CSI document was due to end on that day, but I gather the deadline has been extended by a week until Friday 5th November.

I’ve helped to write Labour’s response, and there’s no question that the consultation draft is of very poor quality (separate post on this to follow). I agree with the vast majority of what’s in the Platform for Change statement – but I didn’t feel able to sign it due to the paragraph stating that the Community Relations Council should be retained.

There is a very powerful argument for including some kind of non-governmental body in the CSI implementation structure. Northern Ireland’s government at regional level institutionalises the divisions CSI sets out to abolish. It’s important to remember that the previous good relations policy, A Shared Future, was introduced under Direct Rule. It’s not surprising that the Northern Ireland Executive has struggled with CSI, because a political system based on communal division cannot provide the leadership to implement a policy to abolish such division. Because state structures are inadequate, we must look outside the state for an organisation to assist with aspects of policy advice, project management, and monitoring and evaluation (although I’m not so sure about the administration of funding).

However, Platform for Change confuses strategy with tactics by being so specific about the nature of this non-governmental organisation in their statement. Form and function should follow the requirements of the policy, which are hard to fathom in the draft. If these can be clarified, so can the implementation structure. That’s why Labour’s response says ‘we lack the knowledge and information to assess whether the Community Relations Council in its present form would be the most appropriate organisation to carry out this role’.

I have nothing against the CRC, of course, and they have provided a cracking response to CSI. I was very pleased to see that it includes the very same point about implementation:

‘The CSI document does not contain a formal review of current delivery mechanisms. This makes any assessment of the proposals difficult, as no evidential base for change is provided' (p.48); and ‘a review of existing structures should follow the publication of policy principles with a mandate to ensure that the structures which emerge are fit for purpose, effective and efficient for the critical tasks required, broadly reflective of the whole community, honest, independent and transparent’ (p.50).

Anyway, here is the Platform for Change statement which I would have signed:

We, citizens of Northern Ireland from diverse backgrounds, believe that the only viable future for this region is as an integrated society in which individuals are free to define their unique identities in their interactions with others, in a culture of tolerance which can enrich the lives of all.

In this context, we express our deep dissatisfaction with the poverty of vision in the consultation document Cohesion, Sharing and Integration, which holds out only a future of sustained segregation, defying the clear public aspiration that we live, work and are educated in common.

The document dispiritingly assumes that Northern Ireland’s conventional politically-driven identities will survive indefinitely—and indeed should command respect—without regard to the much more fluid multi-ethnic and multi-faith world we now inhabit.

We call for the rewriting of this document, in collaboration with independent experts, with clear aims and objectives and concrete programmes and projects to realise them.

We are conscious that no issue can currently be discussed outside of the economic crisis and the prospect of unprecedented public expenditure cuts.

This makes it imperative that Northern Ireland become a culturally dynamic and open society, with effective and efficient public services accessible to all.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Be careful what you vote for

We won’t know the full picture on the Coalition cuts proposals until 20th October, but a number of firm proposals, leaks, or indications of possible options, have appeared since the summer. This week we were deafened by middle class bleating about the announcement that child benefit would be cut for higher rate taxpayers from 2013. And today we hear that university fees in England are likely to increase, now that the LibDems have been told to put their proposal for a graduate tax back in the toy box. And who laps up the majority of university places? Yes, it’s still the offspring of the more privileged sections of society.

The anomaly in the proposed child benefit cut, which permits dual earners to retain the payment whilst single earners in a household lose it, was astonishingly inept. Therefore it was surprising to read yesterday that a survey for the Daily Telegraph still shows support for the child benefit proposal by 53% of the population, although this has decreased from 83% just after the announcement. It’s also important to remember that the Coalition is still supported by the majority. But the press coverage shows who shouts loudest when their interests are affected. And they have influence too, with a number of wobbles over the past few days , especially from the LibDems but also including the Chancellor reminding us that his cuts package will be spread over four years.

Well that’s enough gloating, because sadly the bleaters are right. Whether you take the mainstream Labour view that the deficit must be reduced but at a slower rate, or you believe there’s an alternative approach, the argument for universal benefits remains that they inspire a genuine sense of ‘we’re all in this together’. It’s important to remember that universal benefits include the NHS and the primary and secondary education system, as well as cash benefits such as the state pension. Despite undoubted flaws in the quality of some state provision, and minority use of the private sector particularly for secondary education, there is still a consensus about the value of very large part of the UK’s welfare system. And of course the other side of the argument is that such provision should be paid for by progressive taxation. Once the better off become distanced from the welfare state, this case is weakened.

Labour’s new Shadow Cabinet must now take the opportunity to defend the concept of a universal benefits system paid for by taxation. Those who voted in the last election for a party that promised cuts in the national interest, without thinking they might be affected, should think about rediscovering the advantages of communal provision. The middle classes could learn a lesson from this. Be careful what you vote for, in case you get it.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Northern Ireland needs Labour

The Labour Party in Northern Ireland has launched a petition to show the Party’s National Executive Committee that there is wider support for its members to contest elections in Northern Ireland.

It’s the right time. The Northern Ireland Executive isn’t working. It couldn’t resolve the problems with the transfer test decision. It couldn’t decide how to reduce the number of local councils. It spent years coming up with a laughably bad draft community relations policy. Planning policy is driving investment away. How on earth the Executive is going to agree on a budget next year I cannot imagine. We also need new blood in local councils, which will also have difficult decisions to make over the next few years.

So please sign the petition.

You don’t have to live in Northern Ireland, we are also looking for support from elsewhere.

You don’t have to be a Labour supporter to sign.

You just have to support democracy.