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Response to DoF Briefing on Northern Ireland Budgetary Outlook

19/01/2018

This is CiNI's response to the Department of Finance briefing on Northern Ireland Budgetary Outlook

You can download our response here or read below:

CiNI welcomes this opportunity to provide some feedback on the Northern
Ireland Budgetary Outlook.
We trust that our comments will be positively used to inform the next
step in the process.


Overview

Firstly, we welcome the direction of travel outlined in the briefing, in that,
in order to balance the budget, we must look at options of increasing
revenue using the limited fiscal powers available to Northern Ireland such
as the introduction of a fairer rating system, further environmental
charges (plastic bag tax levy) and the re-introduction of prescription
charges.


While we applaud the Department of Finance in its effort to list options,
we cannot support any such options until consideration is given to the
effects (both immediate and cumulative) of these. Children in Northern
Ireland feel that the options lack sufficient information to allow for a
reasoned and informed response about how the cuts will impact on the
lives of children and young people and their families in Northern Ireland.
We would also remind the Department of its legal and statutory
obligations under Section 75. A full equality impact assessment which
takes account of any budget decision needs to be completed as soon as
possible. This information would provide clarity to any budget decision
and would allow a strategic overview to ensure those most in need are
not adversely impacted by any of these options.


Comments
We believe a cost benefit analysis should be carried out on the effects any
budget decision has on those living in Northern Ireland, particularly the
most vulnerable. Looking at child poverty, throughout the UK it is
expected to rise; it has become apparent that the 2020 statutory targets
to end child poverty will be missed by a huge distance. In Northern
Ireland the latest figures show that in 2016/15 21% of children are living
in relative poverty and 18% in absolute poverty before housing costs.1
The Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) forecasts that one in three children
will be living below the poverty line by 2020, and economic modelling
commissioned by Save the Children predicts that relative child poverty
levels will increase to 38% (AHC) by 2020.2


Evidence outlined in Beneath the Surface: Child Poverty in Northern
Ireland3 presented a bleak picture about the state of child poverty in
Northern Ireland. If trends continue as forecast, child poverty, income
inequality and social mobility will get worse. The figures above may not
even represent the full picture because the disability sector argues that
counting disability benefits as income masks the true extent of child
poverty. The report went on to suggest that the harsh reality of
inadequate incomes is forcing families into debt and an increased reliance
on food banks. Save the Children has long highlighted the fact that it costs more to be poor because low income families often pay a ‘poverty
premium’ or additional costs for basic necessities, such as energy,
insurance and household goods, amounting to over £1700 each year.
We therefore need a budget which is fairly shared not only to grow the
economy but also to raise revenue and at the same time supporting those
most in need.


Children’s Sector / Community & Voluntary Sector
The community and voluntary sector plays an important role to society in
Northern Ireland, not only do we deliver public services on behalf of
government, we provide additional support for communities, families and
children and young people. It is our view therefore, that the sector
should not bear the brunt of or be subjected to disproportionate
cuts when decisions on the budget are made as this would be
counter-productive and prove more costly in the long term.


Any budget cuts to the sector will have profound ramifications across the
whole population. We would like a strong commitment when decisions
about budgets are made that there will be no top slicing budgets, no inyear cuts or disproportionate cuts to the community and voluntary sector
as a starting point for decisions. We appreciate the difficult economic
climate; however, we must strongly advocate that disproportionate cuts
in services for children and young people is counter-productive.
We would like to see further commitment to the likes of projects that
could increase income such as childcare. At a time of economic austerity,
the benefits of investing early in a child’s life are well-documented.


However, the converse is also true: tremendous opportunities are lost
when sufficient resources are not made available to meet the needs of
children and young people. The timeline of a child’s life means that
occasions for intervention are short and the consequences of absent,
unclear, or inadequate policies can be significant. CiNI recommends that
consideration is given to long-term, evidence-informed investment in
childcare services for children and young people, rather than the current
piece-meal approach.


Children in Northern Ireland are concerned that decisions will be taken
that will reverse any good practice. Moreover, there has been growing
momentum within and across government in support of early intervention
and preventative spending to secure better outcomes for children, young
people, and families. The research evidence in support of such an
approach continues to grow and the economic case in support of utilising
scarce resources to best effect is well acknowledged. CiNI would highlight
the RLS Research Paper4 which, reflecting on the Scottish Finance
Committee Inquiry into Preventative Spending, notes that while Northern
Ireland is one of the most economically deprived regions of the UK, each
year government spends a significant amount of money treating the
outcomes associated with deprivation rather than on preventative
solutions aimed at breaking the cycle. All the evidence to the Scottish
Inquiry attested to preventative spending as the key to breaking the
cycle of deprivation, expressed concern regarding the insufficient
investment in preventative spend, and pointed to the real and lasting
savings that are possible if government were to adopt a preventative
spending approach.


The Scottish Inquiry identified three ideas for financing preventative
spending:
A proportional shift in the emphasis of government spending
towards preventative programmes, with the savings increasingly
reinvested in preventative schemes
Greater use of ‘pooled’ cross departmental budgets set aside to
tackle issues
Frontloading social investment with the issue of social impact bonds
Critically the RLS Research Paper concludes that ‘cross-departmental
partnership and joined up government are the required foundations for
preventative spending interventions’. Given these conclusions, it is
therefore imperative that spending on early intervention and prevention
should not be lost.


Indeed, we need to remind you of the Children’s Services Co-operation
Act that places a duty on Departments to work together and pool budgets
to improve outcomes for children and young people. So much more could
be achieved if there were greater levels of awareness and joined up
working. If we are to ensure the best outcomes for all children and young
people and their families, there must be a shift.


Prioritise Children and Young People
As a signatory to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child
(UNCRC) the UK Government is obliged to deliver all the Convention
rights for children and young people in Northern Ireland in a manner that
is non-discriminatory (article 2), protects and promotes their best
interests (article 3), ensures their survival and maximum development
(article 6); and ensures their voices are heard and given due weight in
decision making processes (article 12).


Any decisions on budgets should be in line with the consideration and
recommendations of the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child. The
Committee upholds the concept of investing in children as a widely
accepted best guarantee for achieving equitable and sustainable human
development and a fundamental requirement for social and economic
priorities of any government5 It’s most recent recommendation
Investing in Children: Breaking the Cycle of Disadvantage must be
adhered to.


Acknowledging that investment in children has high economic return the
Committee recommends that government
a) make children a priority in the budgetary allocations as a means to
ensure the highest return of the limited available resources; and
make investment in children visible in the State budget through
detailed compilation of the resources allocated to them;
b) consider using rights-based budget monitoring and analysis, as well
as child impact assessments on how investments in any sector may
serve “the best interests of the child”
We would highlight the particular relevance and importance of article 4 of
the UNCRC which states:
“State parties shall undertake all legislative, administrative and other
measures for the implementation of the rights recognised in the present
Convention. With regard to economic, social, and cultural rights, State
parties shall undertake such measures to the maximum extent of their available resources, and, where needed, within the framework of
international co-operation.”


The Committee stated in its 2008 Concluding Observations, that while
noting with appreciation the increases in expenditure on children, it
remained concerned that the increases were not sufficient to eradicate
poverty and tackle inequalities. The Committee also noted that the lack of
budgetary analysis and child rights impact assessment make it difficult to
identify how much expenditure is allocated to children.


In view of these observations the Committee recommended that the State
Party, “in accordance with article 4 of the Convention, allocate the
maximum extent of available resources for the implementation of
children’s rights, with a special focus on eradicating poverty and reducing
inequalities across all jurisdictions … child rights impact assessment
should be regularly conducted to evaluate how the allocation of budget is
proportionate to the realisation of policy developments and the
implementation of legislation”.


Commenting specifically on article 4, the UN Committee on the Rights of
the Child does state that article 4 reflects a realistic acceptance that lack
of resources – financial and other resources – can hamper the realisation
of economic, social, and cultural rights in some States, however it
introduces the concept of ‘progressive realisation’ of these rights. States
need to be able to demonstrate that they have implemented to the
maximum extent of their available resources.


The Committee is very clear in its view that “even where the available
resources are demonstrably inadequate, the obligation remains
for a State party to strive to ensure the widest possible enjoying
of the relevant rights under the prevailing circumstances”.


As a signatory to the Convention decisions regarding the Northern Ireland
budget, “whatever their economic circumstances, are required to
undertake all possible measures towards the realisation of the rights of
the child, paying special attention to the most disadvantaged groups”6.
The Committee has further called for children to be made visible in
budgets commenting “no state can tell whether it is fulfilling children’s
economic, social and cultural rights, to the maximum extent of available
resources, as it is required to do under article 4, unless it can identify the
proportion of national or other budgets allocated to the social sector, and
within that, to children, both directly and indirectly. Some states have
claimed it is not possible to analyse budgets in this way. But others have
done it and publish annual children’s budgets”.


It is our strong view that in light of the obligations of the Child Poverty
Act, the budget decisions must deliver a ‘special focus on eradicating child
poverty and reducing inequalities’ within a framework to ensure
progressive realisation of all of the Convention rights, free of any caveats
relating to the prevailing economic circumstances.


Increasing Revenue
We are supportive of increasing revenue otherwise we would have a very
one-sided budget. However, policies which have benefited the better-off
must be looked at. Consideration should be given to a progressive rating
system, progressive water charges, the reintroduction of prescription
charges, redistribution from those who are well-paid out of the public
purse and targeting EU Funding at a more progressive level.

There must also be consideration of how Government Departments will
work together to save costs, for example Departments should be
encouraged to share premises with others while empty government
buildings should be leased/rented to provide an income stream.
Reductions in the number of Departments and the number of MLAs must
also be considered. Every single payment made from the public purse
must be scrutinised including the levels of pension pot increases, the
amount being paid in legal aid, the amount paid to consultants and the
duplication of work within departments.


Equality Legislation Duty
Obviously and budget decisions will have an impact upon children and
young people. We suggest that consultation should be carried out with
children and young people when the proposals are at that stage. Such
consultation is essential not only in ensuring compliance with Section 75,
but also in ensuring the Government’s compliance with Article 12 of the
UNCRC, one of the principles of the UNCRC - Respect for the views of the
Child. In examining the government’s compliance with Article 12, the
UNCRC Committee recommended that the government,
“...take further steps to promote, facilitate and monitor systematic,
meaningful and effective participation of all groups of children in
society.”7


Also, the Equality Commission’s, “Guidance for Implementing Section 75
of the Northern Ireland Act 1998” states that consultation should take
place in accordance with its stated Guiding Principles on Consultation,
“...specific consideration is given to how best to communicate information
to children and young people...”[3]
We understand that a full EQIA has not been undertaken at this stage.
There is a need for full and proper adherence to statutory equality duties
and to the common law duty to consult, including adequate time for full
public consultation and engagement, particularly with affected groups and
individuals to ensure that proper consideration is given to how potential
adverse impact for equality categories can be effectively mitigated. It is
extremely difficult, if not impossible, to make informed comment on the
implications for equality of opportunity through the budget scenarios if
such EQIA information is not made available to as part of this process.


Conclusion
We are deeply concerned about the many issues outlined above which will
lead to other more severe problems as a result of previous cuts and any
decision taken in a vacuum could ultimately impact upon the local
economy leading to a downward spiral.
We advocate working together to prevent this happening which is why we
hope the above comments will improve the outcome. We very much
welcome the opportunity to respond to this briefing.
 


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