Stormont vacuum leaves NI public services in crisis: Think tank report

Multiple areas of Northern Ireland are already in crisis or heading towards breakdown, with urgent action required – yet with no devolved government for more than 1,000 days.

Tuesday, 19th November 2019, 12:01 am
As Parliament Buildings lies idle, critical damage is being done to some public services

That is the message from a report to be published today by a new non-partisan Northern Ireland think tank which has examined the state of public services, the economy and society.

The report overwhelmingly draws on material which is already known and it is not an in-depth examination of each of the issues.

However, it presents a grim picture of a society in which massive decisions are in many cases not even being discussed, still less being taken, because there are neither devolved nor direct rule government ministers to take them.

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It warned that Northern Ireland is “unprepared for a fast-changing world and faces serious problems unless there are big changes in policy”.

Among a series of areas of concern, the report by the think tank Pivotal sets out how:

• The mental health system is “creaking”;

• A rapidly ageing population where the number of people aged 85 and older is projected to grow by 106% but the total population grows by less than 6% between 2018 and 2043, bringing knock-on impacts on public services;

• Of the just over 1,000 schools in Northern Ireland, this year 451 of them went over budget, with a total funding shortfall of £62.6m;

• A decade after the UK Climate Change Act, Northern Ireland has set no emissions targets – unlike Scotland and Wales – and enacted no legislation, with far poorer performance in protecting the environment than in the rest of the UK.

Nine months ago, the head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service, David Sterling, spoke of the “slow decay and stagnation” in public services in the absence of ministers.

Mr Sterling, who is now the most senior government decision-maker but is democratically unaccountable, said he was concerned that the absence of ministers could “become the new normal”.

Pivotal director Ann Watt said: “This report shows just how urgently Northern Ireland needs new thinking and new policies.

“We have serious problems in areas like health and education where long-term issues are coming to a head.

“Crises like a crumbling health service, and schools going over budget, are not on the horizon – they are here.

“We have had no government for almost three years and uncertainty around Brexit continues.

“Most of our political discussion focuses on those issues – which are, of course, important – but unfortunately at the same time our other problems are getting worse.”