As the practical implications of the Executive’s first budget begin to filter through its neo-liberal and anti-working class character becomes ever clearer. For example, last week the Social Development Minister Margaret Ritchie told her Assembly scrutiny committee the draft budget allocated to her department was completely inadequate and not sufficient to tackle homelessness or the number of people in housing stress. She revealed that the Housing Executive maintenance and upgrade budget could be slashed by fifty per cent.
Another organisation, also within the Department for Social Development, whose budget is facing cuts, is National Energy Action (NEA). It has responsibility for tackling fuel poverty. This is a particularly pressing issue in the north which has the highest level of fuel poverty in the UK. There are 154,000 households classed as fuel-poor, and each year more than 2,000 people die because of the cold. Fuel poverty also has a disproportionate impact on the elderly with over 50 per cent of cold homes occupied by older people. It is a problem which is escalating. The results from the 2006 House Condition Survey, which are out soon, are expected to say that this figure has risen to above 210,000 households. That means that 36 per cent of all households in Northern Ireland are experiencing fuel poverty - a jump of 5 percent from 2001. NEA’s director Pat Austin has described the decision to halve its budget as a "dangerous" and "draconian". The clear implication is that suffering will increase and people more people will die.
Another area to feel the squeeze has been health. Spending on the health service in the north is already the lowest in the UK, and the allocation of funds in the budget means it will fall even further behind. This is despite the fact that the population is in poorer state of health and demands on services are greater. Budget restraints mean that the Department’s new mental health strategy cannot be launched, and that the new women and children's hospital, promised for Belfast since 2000, will be further delayed.
Some of the proposals in the Executive’s budget wouldn’t seem out of place in Swift’s Modest Proposal (maybe the finance minister is hoping that more elderly people dying of cold will ease pressure on health service!). Unfortunately, Peter Robinson is no Jonathon Swift. His proposals aren’t biting satire designed to expose injustice, but his vision of how society in north should develop.
What is at the heart of this vision is inequality. So alongside the parsimonious approach to addressing health and housing needs, we have the business class being encouraged to milk the public purse for all its worth. Recent examples of this include the revelation that the fees paid to by Government departments to consultancy firms have gone up from £13m per year to just over £40m. NI Water alone has spent than £16m on consultancy fees since April.
Often the people awarding these contracts are directly linked to the companies that benefit. In one case, the Strategic Investment Board (SIB), which is overseeing the roll out of PFIs in the north, paid the company of one of its own board members more than £2m in fees for his and a colleague's services. By happy coincidence (for him) James Stewart is the chief executive of Partnerships UK plc (PUK), a company which provides public and private sector commercial expertise for public private partnerships.
These examples of the soaking of the poor and the featherbedding of the wealthy are scandalous. But they are not apparitions or mistakes. Rather, they are a direct and deliberate result of the policy, which all the parties have signed up to, of shifting the north’s economy in a neo-liberal direction. They exemplify what glib phrases such as “rebalancing the economy” or “growing the private sector” (which flow feely from the mouths of minsters) actually mean in practice. And this is just the start!