‘A haemorrhaging of public servants out of Northern Ireland’: The impact of years without a govt
Without political input, many important decisions on budgets and public sector pay have been impossible to pass.
Successive suspensions at Stormont over the years have contributed to long-term issues in the public sector, with impacts seen across all areas of public services.
But perhaps nowhere more so than in the health and social care sector.
There are over 420,000 people currently waiting for their first consultant-led outpatient appointment following referral, an increase of more than fivefold since 2008.
While some individuals may appear on the list more than once awaiting separate treatments, this is still a huge figure in a population of 1.9 million.
In the latest available figures to the end of September, half of these had been waiting for more than a year to see a consultant, up from 5% in June 2015.
And nearly one in three patients had been waiting for more than two years for their initial consultation, up from 0.1% in September 2015.
Health and Social Care Northern Ireland’s figures are not directly comparable with NHS England, which uses a different measure (from referral to treatment rather than to first appointment).
However, as a broad comparison, while waiting times have also been poor in England in November, only 4.7% had been waiting more than a year to complete their entire treatment journey following initial referral and less than 0.01% for more than two years.
Meadbhba Monaghan, chief executive of the Patient and Client Council (PCC), told Sky News: “The issues facing Health and Social Care (HSC) services in Northern Ireland are significant and varied; they have been building over a long period of time, and will not be fixed overnight.
“Through our work in supporting the public, we can clearly see many people are concerned about how they are communicated with, and how they experience services. This includes the quality of care they are receiving and how long they have to wait to access that care.
“Our physical and mental health is fundamental to our wellbeing, the current pressures on the HSC system and staff will be having a negative impact on individuals and their families.”
What has happened in the political vacuum
The devolved government has been suspended on five other occasions since it first sat in 1999 following the Good Friday peace agreement, with the longest suspension lasting for four-and-a-half years between October 2002 and May 2007.
However, in the context of post-pandemic recovery and an unprecedented cost of living crisis, the recent suspension has been “vastly more difficult”, according to recently retired senior civil servant Andrew McCormick.
The former director general of international relations in the Executive Office and ex-permanent secretary at the Department for the Economy told Sky News: “Civil servants can make some routine decisions to keep things going as best they can, but it’s very limited.
“I know that my former colleagues have found it incredibly, incredibly difficult this last couple of years, with the cost of living and inflation making the situation much more fraught [than the last suspension of 2017-2020].
“It’s been a ridiculous position to be in and a complete abdication of responsibility.”
In the absence of ministers in Stormont, the Westminster parliament can still pass legislation and have taken responsibility for budgets and other ad hoc areas of legislation.
In the past two years, departmental budgets have plateaued despite exceptionally high levels of inflation.
And there has been a vacuum in which civil servants cannot take day-to-day decisions which are political in nature.
This includes coming to public sector pay deals because any commitments would take departments over current budgets.
Public sector pay
Last month saw one of the biggest strikes in Northern Ireland’s history, with an estimated 150,000 public sector workers joining marches and picket lines across the country to demand a resolution to pay disputes.
Median pay for public sector workers in the UK as a whole increased by 20% from £30,540 to £36,708 between 2016 and 2023. In Northern Ireland, pay has increased at a slower rate of 16.1% over the same period from £31,570 to £36,651 and is now below the UK average.
In its latest employee earnings report, the Department for the Economy noted real earnings in the public sector fell by 7.2% in the year to 2023, compared with an increase of 1.4% in the private sector.
Carmel Gates, general secretary of Northern Ireland’s largest public sector union NIPSA, which has around 45,000 members, told Sky News: “Quite frankly, what we are witnessing is haemorrhaging of public servants out of Northern Ireland, either to different parts of these islands where they’re better paid or to further abroad.
“It isn’t just in the last two years that the problems emerge, Northern Ireland has been underfunded for quite a period of time.
“The strikes on 18 September is the most galvanised and unified the trade union movement here has been probably ever and involved almost all public service unions.”
After many years of disruption over Brexit, COVID, the cost of living crisis, and prolonged periods without governance, many are hoping for swift and decisive action from the newly resumed executive in the coming days to stabilise the situation in Northern Ireland.
“When they get back they will need to set a budget very quickly, and that will help a lot in the short term,” says Andrew McCormick.
“They then have to face up to the longer-term issues. Much more needs to be done on stabilising public services.”
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Budget 2024: Rishi Sunak hints at further national insurance tax cut – citing boost for union
A reduction in national insurance would be a “union tax cut”, the prime minister has said ahead of the budget next week.
Rishi Sunak told journalists at the Scottish Conservative conference in Aberdeen on Friday that while he could not comment on what the chancellor Jeremy Hunt will announce on 6 March, he could see the case for trimming the levy – which is paid by workers across the UK – over income tax.
When asked about the fact a cut in the headline rate of income tax may not benefit voters in Scotland if the SNP government chooses not to pass it on, he said national insurance had been cut in January because it is a “tax on work” and benefits all parts of the nation.
“I’m sure people will appreciate that I can’t comment on any fiscal policy in advance of the budget,” he said.
“But to your broader point, the chancellor and UK government chose to cut national insurance, for lots of reasons but first and foremost because it’s a tax on work and I believe in a country and society where hard work is rewarded.”
He added: “It’s also important to us to be a government that delivers for people in every part of the United Kingdom.
“It’s a union tax cut and a tax cut for everyone in work and the contrast between what we’re doing and what the SNP are doing couldn’t be starker.
“I want to make life easier for people, I want to give them the peace of mind there’s a brighter future for them and their families.”
Some Conservative MPs have been pushing for a pre-election cut to income tax in the hope of boosting the Conservatives’ flagging popularity.
It was also one of the promises of Mr Sunak’s leadership campaign.
In Scotland, where the Conservatives are up against the SNP in all of the seats they hold and are targeting, the prime minister has dubbed the SNP the “high tax capital of the United Kingdom”, with Scots earning around £28,000 a year already paying more income tax than those who live in England due to policy decisions at Holyrood.
MSPs passed the final budget for the next financial year this week, including a new income tax band being created, which will see those on a salary between £75,000 and £125,140 paying 45%; while a 1% increase to the highest rate of tax – for those earning more than £125,140 – will take it to 48p in the pound.
In passing the budget, deputy first minister Shona Robison insisted Scotland’s tax system was “progressive” and will provide £500m in funding for the NHS.
Scotland Secretary Alister Jack confirmed he had been lobbying the chancellor for a cut in national insurance – rather than income tax.
Mr Sunak would not comment on reports the government is considering raising revenue by increasing the windfall tax on oil and gas companies, or may force “non-doms” to pay UK tax on foreign income – both ideas Labour has put forward.
PM rails against ‘extremist forces trying to tear us apart’ in Downing Street address
Rishi Sunak has railed against “extremist forces trying to tear us apart” during a Downing Street address to the nation.
The prime minister said there has been a “shocking increase in extremist disruption and criminality” and added that “now our democracy itself is a target”.
He also described the Rochdale by-election result on Thursday night as “beyond alarming”, and claimed “our streets have been hijacked by small groups who are hostile to our values” as he urged the need to “beat this poison”.
His surprise speech came after the victory of maverick politician George Galloway in the Greater Manchester seat, following a campaign dominated by the highly-emotive issue of Gaza and dogged by accusations of abuse and intimidation.
In response, Mr Galloway told Sky News he “despised” the prime minister and did not care what he thought as he had won “a free and fair election”.
Community tensions in the UK have heightened against the backdrop of the Israel-Hamas conflict, triggered by the militant attack on 7 October.
In the face of ongoing pro-Palestinian protests, MPs have spoken of their experiences of receiving death threats and their concerns for the safety of their families, prompting the government to announce an extra £31m to protect elected representatives.
It followed chaotic scenes in Westminster over the vote on a ceasefire in Gaza, when Commons Speaker Sir Lindsay Hoyle broke with precedent in his handling of proceedings because he had concerns about the intimidation suffered by some parliamentarians, sparking a backlash.
But critics argue members of the ruling party have stoked divisions, highlighting former deputy Tory chairman Lee Anderson being stripped of the party whip after he accused London mayor Sadiq Khan of being controlled by Islamists, and former home secretary Suella Braverman referring to protests as “hate marches”.
Mr Sunak said: “In recent weeks and months, we have seen a shocking increase in extremist disruption and criminality.
“What started as protests on our streets have descended into intimidation, threats and planned acts of violence.
“Jewish children fearful to wear their school uniform lest it reveals their identity. Muslim women abused in the street for the actions of a terrorist group they have no connection with.
“Now our democracy itself is a target. Council meetings and local events have been stormed. MPs do not feel safe in their homes. Long-standing parliamentary conventions have been upended because of safety concerns.
“And it’s beyond alarming that last night, the Rochdale by-election returned a candidate that dismisses the horror of what happened on 7 October, who glorifies Hezbollah and is endorsed by Nick Griffin, the racist former leader of the BNP.”
He added: “We are a country where we love our neighbours and we are building Britain together.
“But I fear that our great achievement in building the world’s most successful multi-ethnic, multi-faith democracy is being deliberately undermined.
“There are forces here at home trying to tear us apart.”
He went on: “Islamist extremists and far rights groups are spreading a poison, that poison is extremism.”
Mr Sunak announced a “new robust framework” would be introduced to “ensure we are dealing with the root cause of this problem”.
The prime minister said ministers would redouble their support for the anti-terrorism Prevent programme, demand universities stop extremist activity on campus and act to prevent people from entering the country whose “aim is to undermine its values”.
In an appeal to those taking part in pro-Palestinian protests, Mr Sunak said: “Don’t let the extremists hijack your marches. You have a chance in the coming weeks to show that you can protest decently, peacefully and with empathy for your fellow citizens.
“Let’s prove these extremists wrong and show that even when we disagree we will never be disunited from our common values of decency and respect.
“I love this country, my family and I owe it so much. The time has now come for us all to stand together to combat the forces of division and beat this poison.”
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer backed Mr Sunak’s call.
In a statement, he said: “The prime minister is right to advocate unity and to condemn the unacceptable and intimidatory behaviour that we have seen recently.
“It is an important task of leadership to defend our values and the common bonds that hold us together.
“Citizens have a right to go about their business without intimidation and elected representatives should be able to do their jobs and cast their votes without fear or favour.
“This is something agreed across the parties and which we should all defend.”
Electoral Dysfunction: How big a threat is Galloway and Gaza to Starmer’s Labour?
George Galloway will be back in parliament on Monday with his megaphone and a new platform to rail against Labour.
His theme is Gaza and his menace is clear.
As he accepted victory in the Rochdale by-election at around 3.30am (at a rally in a Subaru car showroom of all places), the veteran left-wing agitator warned Sir Keir Starmer “[his] problems just got 100 times more serious than they were before today”.
In Mr Galloway’s world, his win was the beginning of an earthquake that would flatten Sir Keir’s Labour.
“This is going to spark a movement, a landslide, a shifting of the tectonic plates in scores of parliamentary constituencies,” he said.
Labour, he said, was “on notice that they have lost the confidence of millions of their voters who loyally and traditionally voted for them”.
It is something that Ms Phillips, who has a large Muslim community in her Birmingham Yardley constituency, feels very strongly about.
She resigned from the Labour frontbench last year after deciding she couldn’t support the party over the Israel-Hamas war.
And she is fuming over what she sees as Mr Galloway’s sanctimony as he purports to be fighting for the people of Gaza when all he really wants to do is to sock it to Labour, as he has been trying to do in various seats for various political parties since he was kicked out of the party more than 20 years ago.
Ms Phillips said: “He is not a legitimate voice for the people of Gaza.
“He’s just trying to attack Keir Starmer.
“Knock yourself out. Attack Keir Starmer. That’s politics. I’m here for that. But don’t pretend to people who care about something that you’re going to change something.”
Mr Galloway would reject the suggestion he is not a “legitimate voice” for the people of Gaza, having campaigned on behalf of the Palestinian cause for decades. Speaking to Sky News in the wake of his victory last night, he said his views on the issue were “quite well known”.
As for whether Labour would have lost this seat to Mr Galloway regardless of whether its suspended candidate Azhar Ali had stood for Labour or not – a view of some in the party – Ms Phillips says she doesn’t know.
But what she does acknowledge is Mr Galloway’s near 6,000 majority is “testament to a broader problem” for the party.
She said: “There is a clear problem with Muslim communities feeling represented currently by the Labour movement.
“Muslim people do not want to be represented by total charlatans.
“They also want to come to you for help and need decent representation and good, good people, both from within and without their community.
“They have been saying for some time, we are losing faith, if only we noticed it.”
I don’t buy Mr Galloway’s assertion that he is triggering a “movement” across “scores” of Labour seats – not least because these divisions have been in plain sight for months, with councillors and activists quitting Labour because of the tensions over Gaza.
In some Labour seats it is undoubtedly a real problem, but what doesn’t follow is that these difficulties lead to electoral failure in a general election across a number of seats.
The by-election swings in all other races tell a very different story, with over half of Labour’s biggest by-election swings ever happening in the last couple of years.
“Rochdale was the anomaly and not any kind of indication of where we are,” says one senior Labour figure.
“At the beginning of the [Rochdale] campaign it was clear that some previous Labour voters had moved away from us on the issue of Gaza but at the same time we were picking up a lot of previous Tory voters.”
While Ms Phillips is clearly frustrated with her party leadership over Gaza, Ms Davidson says she feels “a little bit sorry” for Sir Keir, who she thinks had no option but to be fulsome in support of Israel against the backdrop of a Labour party that had been so badly tarnished by the rows over antisemitism in its ranks during the Jeremy Corbyn years.
“I think what the Gaza situation thing has exploded about is the fact that Keir Starmer had so much work to do off of Jeremy Corbyn to try and rebuild trust with Jewish communities across this country,” says Ms Davidson.
“He had to do that if he was going to be a credible candidate for the prime minister of this country; he had to make that reparation.
“And that is now being used against him. The bit [from Galloway’s election flyers], which was about Starmer being this great friend of Israel, is being used as a stick to beat him with.”
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