Covid-19 and the Duty to Build Back Better -- Even on a Shoe-String Budget

PPR responds to the NI Executive's draft budget 2021-22 and the the Department for Communities' equality assessment Paige Jennings  |  Thu Feb 25 2021
The UK government's failure to provide sufficient resources to deliver recovery and transformational programs here may disappoint our Executive, but can hardly surprise them.

Consultations are less than gripping. But at PPR, where the heart of the work is in the activists who come together to devise inventive, moving, funny and pointed ways of pushing for the changes they need to make their lives better, paper exercises seem even more removed from what matters.

Today feels different. The current round of consultations, juxtaposing the Executive's budget for the coming year with its departments' equality assessments of their allocations, and both of those with the draft Programme for Government outcomes, is jarring.

At intervals over the past year, key voices have called for us to stop, take stock, and organise to emerge on the other side of the pandemic with fundamentally different priorities.

In May the NI Committee of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions called for rebuilding on grounds of solidarity, fairness, equality and sustainability. More recently the UK's Institute of Health Equity and Institute for Fiscal Studies have documented how the virus and government's response to it have amplified inequalities, and signposted what needs to change.

Parts of the draft Programme for Government -- most notably the outcome "we have a caring society that supports people throughout their lives", with the elderly, housing, tackling disadvantage and mental health and wellbeing named as priorities -- read as a welcome response by the Executive to where we are now, a commitment to change based on fairness.

The background noises are loud though. The UK government continues to make ongoing direct payments through Covid income support, benefit and related programmes, as before -- but the Department of Finance's budget states baldly that last year's extra funding to launch New Decade New Approach was spent on meeting "ongoing pressures in departments" and won’t be repeated. It says this year's allocation, rather than "the stimulus needed to kick-start a strong economic recovery", is "a stand still position in cash terms", with the result that departmental budgets have largely been rolled over from last year's as well.

Of course a static financial position does not necessarily mean being stuck in the status quo. Departments can still use existing budgets to do things differently, and a read of the Department for Communities' equality assessment of the budget, for example, could still indicate a sense of purposeful change moving forward. Except that it doesn't really, and it's not alone.

The Department for Communities' assessment makes plain officials' feeling that they have little room for manoeuvre. The bulk of its budget comes as ‘Resource DEL’ (Departmental Expenditure Limits) funding, 92% of which, it reports, is "required to meet areas of protected, contractual, inescapable and statutory spend", leaving it with discretion over just 8%. The priority, rightly, is frontline services. With no additional money for things like the sweeping Housing Transformation announced in October, it feels its ability to "reconfigure services and introduce new services or policy initiatives will also be reduced". Its social housing build target (funded under Capital DEL, which rose slightly on last year's) is a modest 1,900.

Last year’s funding for the independent advice sector, to help people get the benefits to which they are entitled amidst welfare change, has not been repeated -- this will be especially felt as need for Universal Credit rises with the end of the furlough scheme. In addition, three programmes developed as a response to the UK Chancellor's July "Plan for Jobs" have been postponed due to lack of funding. The Department for Communities predicted:

With further increases in unemployment forecast, NI will be the only region on these islands that will not be adequately resourced to support people who face unemployment in the middle of the biggest economic crisis faced in our lifetime.

The thing is, the current Westminster government was never going to be a force for change. 'Building back fairer' is simply not its goal. As an example, just this week the Children's Commissioner for England pulled no punches in denouncing what she called its "institutional bias against children". Its failure to ensure recovery and transformational programs in Northern Ireland may disappoint our Executive, but can hardly surprise them.

With the pandemic laying bare the extent of inequality caused by years of under-investment and policy-based assaults on the marginalised, alongside pending climate breakdown requiring historically unprecedented responses globally, fundamental changes to our societies are imperative. The lack of designated funding for progressive policies doesn't let duty bearers, or the rest of us, off the hook. It just means that change is currently being shaped by people – like the Westminster government – opposed to this agenda. It just means we have to be bolder and more innovative -- a bit more inventive and pointed, too.

It’s a good thing our communities have these traits in abundance.

Paige Jennings is a policy officer for PPR. She has worked in human rights and development roles in Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean, for a range of local, international and United Nations organisations. She has been an Amnesty International researcher and has written for Minority Rights Group, Child Soldiers International, UNDP and UNHCR.