Labour’s economy commission

CTBTO Conference agendaNi sums up the remit of the Heenan-Anderson commission on the local economy.

Labour has announced an independent commission on the Northern Ireland economy to help shape its policy as the general election approaches.

The commission will be co-chaired by University of Ulster Pro-Vice Chancellor Deirdre Heenan and Colin Anderson, Chief Executive of Belfast-based advertising agency ASG. The other members are due to be announced in the autumn and a final report is to be published by 28 February next year. This will allow a month of debate before Parliament is dissolved on 30 March. The general election will follow on 7 May.

Shadow Secretary of State Ivan Lewis noted that Northern Ireland has had the highest regional rate of benefit claimants for 49 consecutive months.

“Growth still lags behind most of the UK, inequality is above average and the private sector needs rapid growth,” he stated. “Too many are trapped in worklessness and the victims of intergenerational poverty. Youth unemployment is worse today than in the early years of the peace process.”

The resulting alienation was not unique to Northern Ireland but the stakes were higher as paramilitary organisations and political extremists were ready to exploit people. Lewis maintained that peace and stability was depended on training and jobs being available.

Labour’s commission would look at how to improve opportunities for “those who currently have no stake in the economy and are at the margins of their communities” and also how a Labour Government and the Northern Ireland Executive could work together on that remit.

The Coalition Government carried out a consultation on rebalancing the economy between March and July 2011, which resulted in the setting up of a joint ministerial working group on economic matters and a promise to consider the devolution of corporation tax. Labour is more cautious on that move and instead emphasises the need to stabilise the political process.

Ivan Lewis said that “mistrust and growing public dissatisfaction” was fuelled by the unionist parties’ withdrawal from cross-party talks, the threat of a “graduated response” to the Parades Commission decision in Ardoyne, and the unwillingness of Sinn Féin and the SDLP to move forward on welfare reform.

He called on David Cameron to “work intensively to end the current stalemate” alongside the Irish and US governments but Northern Ireland’s political leaders also needed to face up to their responsibilities.

This included finding the middle ground on parades and flags and establishing protocols that responded to the needs of victims. During the Haass process, Labour suggested an appeals process for parading decisions, the flying of flags on designated days from council buildings, and localised forums on dealing with the past.

Labour plans to repeal the ‘bedroom tax’ but was also prepared to consider other aspects of welfare reform: “Refusing to implement any reform despite the terms of devolution cannot be right and runs the risk of precipitating a financial and political crisis.”

At present, 59,000 people in Northern Ireland are unemployed with another 50,000 wanting to work but not seeking a job – often due to low confidence. HMRC data indicate that 74,000 people earn less than £10,000 per year.

The full membership of the panel and its terms of reference will be announced in Belfast during November.

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