Part One: Challenging the Official Narrative of Job Creation & Unemployment
Amidst the recurring discord at Stormont, there is one priority on which our political representatives seem to agree. Job Creation. It is the number one commitment in the current Programme for Government and in recent months job announcements have been churned out with increasing frequency by the Department for Enterprise, Trade and Investment’s press office (there have been at least 16 since April of this year if you’re curious…)
Added to this is the official government articulation of the level of unemployment, with monthly statistical bulletins released from the Department for Enterprise, Trade and Investment; the key department with responsibility for job creation. The , which were released last week (13th August) (and which were accompanied as usual by a ) stated that the number of people here in receipt of unemployment benefit is falling (by 1,400 in one month and 9,700 across the whole year). The announcement was trumpeted as the 19th consecutive month during which this has occurred.
The subtext to all this is an official narrative which says; ‘we are doing our job, by reducing unemployment and creating jobs for you’. It aligns neatly with the official Westminster welfare reform narrative which espouses the position that those who are out of work and on benefits are ‘shirkers’ or ‘scroungers’ since they have not made the most of opportunities created for them by a government concerned primarily with job creation.
In the first of two articles, we align an assessment of this ‘official’ narrative with the evidence and ask; ‘is the government doing enough to create jobs’?
Unemployment & Long Term Unemployment
Rarely focussed upon in official governmental press releases detailing the reductions in unemployment is that the reductions in the numbers of people claiming unemployment benefit, in the vast majority of cases are not as a result of people getting a job.
According to , last month only one third (33.8%) of those who stopped claiming benefit did so because they found work. Other reasons include that a person has gone into education/training or emigrated for example or in 13% of cases last month, the reason is recorded as ‘unknown’.
Looking at the figures over the course of a full year (from July 2013- August 2014) reveals that the situation for people who are long term unemployed (defined as having been unemployed for one year or longer) is even more depressing. In the last year less than a quarter (22%) of these people who stopped claiming benefit did so because they found work and for those who have been unemployed for over five years, this dropped further with only 9% of these people able to stop claiming unemployment benefit because they got a job.
The much trumpeted successive reductions in the numbers of people claiming unemployment benefit therefore is not as reflective of the situation on the ground for those looking for a job as one would initially think.
Similarly unconsidered is the fact that if you or I become unemployed today, it’s now more likely that we’ll remain so for longer than we have in the past for two related reasons: firstly because insufficient jobs are being created and secondly, those that are, are not being targeted at people and areas experiencing chronic employment deprivation.
According to government statistics (), ending up in long term unemployment is now over twice as likely as it was in 2009 for anyone who becomes unemployed. In fact, according to these statistics, over one third of all unemployment claimants are now classified as long term unemployed; compared to 14% back in 2009.
Also, unlike DETI’s unemployment bulletins, there is no Ministerial commentary to accompany the largely unreported news that 2014 is on course to be the fifth consecutive year that there has been a rise in the numbers of unemployment claimants who haven’t been able to get a job for over a year.
Directing resources where they are needed
It does not take an economic analyst to understand that the apparent mismatch between economic development, jobs creation and skills development is producing a chronic problem of long term unemployment that, coupled with reductions in our welfare provision, will result in growing poverty and embedded patterns of social and economic inequality.
Of course, the obligation to create jobs and tackle unemployment is not simply a Programme for Government commitment; rather both are also levers in the delivery of an overarching government obligation to tackle disadvantage, promote equality and target objective need.
These obligations have been a policy commitment of the Executive since the early 1990s and were given further effect with their inclusion in the St Andrews Agreement in 2006. Essentially, their inclusion in our governance structures codifies the requirement that resources and efforts are directed at those individuals, groups and areas that are most in need (according to an objective assessment of the facts). This was appropriately acknowledged by the in May 2013, when it was concluded that the Committee considered “the most meaningful performance measure in this area to be the extent to which people living in disadvantaged areas secure employment in Invest NI supported projects”.
It is clear therefore, that any assessment of the official narrative on this issue must be scrutinised against how it is delivering on these legislative commitments by delivering jobs for those most in need; in this case those furthest from the labour market – the long term unemployed.
With this in mind, getting to the core of what the official narrative doesn’t say; reveals a perturbing paradigm of how the functions of our government are carried out.
Ring-fencing under the Fair Employment and Treatment (NI) Order
Government mettle on job creation is tested by examining its use of legislation which empowers them to target and take action to assist the long term unemployed.
In addition to strong anti-discrimination legislation in terms of gender, religious belief, race etc, specific legal provision exists to allow employers to reserve a quota of jobs for those who have been unemployed for long periods of time. (FETO) for example, allows employers to ring fence posts for applicants who have been long term unemployed.
To identify what steps government Departments had taken to make use of this provision, given the substantial increase in long term unemployment, a Freedom of Information request was submitted requesting the number of vacancies advertised in which the legislation was used to ringfence jobs for the long term unemployed.
Also requested was a copy of all requests for advice Departments had made to the Equality Commission to enable them to appropriately make use of the capacity to ring fence fobs for the long term unemployed.
The Equality Commission’s guidance on the use of the FETO provisions “Reserving Job Vacancies for People who are Unemployed” notes that whilst employers do not need the Equality Commission’s approval before taking action under FETO, it “strongly recommend(s) that you nevertheless seek our advice first”.
Between March and April of this year, all but one of the Departments responded to the Freedom of Information request (the Department for Justice response remains outstanding). Of the remaining eleven Departments, none had used the legislation to ring fence jobs for the long term unemployed in any of the vacancies advertised or filled in the last three years. Furthermore, in what would seem to indicate that none of the Departments had even considered using the provisions, the Freedom of Information responses received demonstrated that none had requested advice from the Equality Commission on the use of the legislation.
That speaks volumes for the pro-active use of legislation by Departments.
A key factor in the capacity of Invest NI, the government funded economic development agency, to attract large companies to set up here is Northern Ireland’s entitlement to 100% assisted status from the Westminster government and the EU special Regional Aid status. Were such assistance to be withdrawn, it would, as the Public Accounts Committee report (May 2013) noted “curtail significantly Invest NI’s ability to offer assistance, particularly to larger companies”. Significantly in the month after the Public Accounts Committee report was released, which ensured that both measures would be retained.
Critically, however, since control of these measures largely remains outside of the Executive’s remit, the permanency of these assisted statuses will always be subject to change and negotiation and as the Committee also pointed out “there is little tangible evidence that they [Invest NI and the Department for Enterprise, Trade and Investment] have been active in developing alternative strategies for promoting economic development”.
In May 2014 Invest NI, released a announcing that 17,779 jobs had been created in the previous three years. The announcement was treated as significant by many commentators in that for the first time, detail on jobs created (jobs which have actually been filled) as opposed to jobs promoted (jobs that are expected to be created) had been provided.
With detail now available on jobs actually created, a Freedom of Information request was submitted in June of this year, to identify further details on the job creation which, according to the FOI response, cost the public purse £124.37 million. To identify the extent to which government obligations to target objective need, this request sought to identify where and what type of jobs were created in this period.
In an apparent contrast with the of the First and deputy First Ministers on the publication of the most recent Programme for Government which noted that “It is the delivery on the ground, not the words in the document on which we will all ultimately be judged” (November 2011) this basic information was withheld by Invest NI.
Invest NI cited Section 22(1) of the Freedom of Information Act 2000; which allows public authorities to withhold information from release if they intend to publish it themselves at a future date (whether determined or not).
Invest NI were clear that they viewed the release of this information, relating to publicly funded subsidies to private companies, as an issue “to be handled in line with our agreements with businesses.”
Similarly, a request for information regarding how many of the almost 18,000 jobs created in the three year period had went to those most in need, the long term unemployed, was also submitted to Invest NI.
Accessing this information was the only way assessments regarding whether job creation by Invest NI was impacting long term unemployment and areas of high deprivation.
We wanted to know if, for example, Invest NI had targeted job creation in areas in the Newry & Mourne District, where the highest levels of long term unemployment amongst claimants have been found for the last four years.
Incredibly, Invest NI’s response to a request for this information under the Freedom of Information also failed to bear fruit – the response was; “Invest NI does not hold this information”.
If information which allows the public to assess the impact of government job creation policy can be withheld, or worse still not collected at all by Invest NI, against which barometer is success being measured?
Aligning ‘narrative’ with the facts…
Job creation and tackling unemployment through the targeting of objective need are core to the functioning delivery of our government’s commitments at national and international levels. They are also vital to make concrete and positive improvements in people’s lives.
If our system of government is to be capable of seriously tackling disadvantage and addressing need, it has to use the legal and policy mechanisms which give them the power to do so. On the basis of current evidence a few things are clear. On job creation- there is a reluctance to publicly state where and for whom jobs are created. On ringfencing – there is little or no appetite to make use of dynamic legislation which enables this.
In contrast, one area which has provoked enthusiasm in government is social clauses – there are many examples of departments keenly promoting social clauses in government contracts as a vehicle for change. As Part 2 of this article will discuss however – there are very few examples of these social clauses operating in a meaningful way that produce real outcomes for people in most need.
Kate Ward | You can follow Kate on Twitter