Facts es­sen­tial in fi­nan­cial in­clu­sion

Belfast Telegraph - Business Telegraph - - Platform - By Guy Op­per­man, MP Guy Op­per­man is Min­is­ter for Pen­sions and Fi­nan­cial In­clu­sion

North­ern Ire­land is a sym­bol of in­dus­try and in­no­va­tion and I was struck by the en­deav­our of the peo­ple I met on my visit to Belfast last month.

Dur­ing this visit I had the plea­sure of meet­ing with the Con­sumer Coun­cil, and a range of fi­nan­cial ser­vice providers, to dis­cuss with them the is­sues that peo­ple in North­ern Ire­land face when it comes to ac­cess­ing the help and fi­nan­cial ser­vices they need.

I hope that in do­ing so, the con­ver­sa­tion about fi­nan­cial in­clu­sion and ca­pa­bil­ity — and what is needed to sup­port the peo­ple there — has been opened up.

Fi­nan­cial in­clu­sion is about hav­ing ac­cess to es­sen­tial fi­nan­cial ser­vices like bank ac­counts, debit and credit cards.

It’s vi­tal that our fi­nan­cial ser­vices in­dus­try is ac­ces­si­ble to every­one who needs it, re­gard­less of back­ground or cir­cum­stance, if we want to build an econ­omy that works for every­one.

And it’s an is­sue that’s very close to my heart, which is why I am work­ing with the Trea­sury, and jointly chair­ing the Fi­nan­cial In­clu­sion Pol­icy Forum.

The forum brings to­gether in­dus­try lead­ers in fi­nance, con­sumer groups, and the reg­u­la­tors to en­sure that in­di­vid­u­als — re- gard­less of their back­ground or in­come — have ac­cess to use­ful and af­ford­able fi­nan­cial prod­ucts and ser­vices.

Fol­low­ing the forum’s first meet­ing on March 19 we have set up a sub-group which is cur­rently look­ing at ac­cess to af­ford­able credit and driv­ing for­ward the work in this area, which will be a key fo­cus for the next forum meet­ing in Oc­to­ber.

While the gov­ern­ment is strongly com­mit­ted to tack­ling fi­nan­cial ex­clu­sion, it also be­lieves fi­nan­cial ed­u­ca­tion is key in help­ing peo­ple in­crease their fi­nan­cial ca­pa­bil­ity and build up their fi­nan­cial re­silience.

Work to im­prove fi­nan­cial ca­pa­bil­ity is cur­rently led by the Money Ad­vice Ser­vice (MAS), which will soon be merged into the Sin­gle Fi­nan­cial Guid­ance Body.

This will build on MAS’ good work and help peo­ple to make more sense of their fi­nances in these in­creas­ingly com­plex times.

Cur­rently the Money Ad­vice Ser­vice, the Pen­sions Ad­vi­sory Ser­vice and Pen­sion Wise help peo­ple get free and im­par­tial debt ad­vice as well as in­for­ma­tion and guid­ance on is­sues re­lat­ing to fi­nances and their pen­sions. These ser­vices help hun­dreds of thou­sands of peo­ple ev­ery year.

By bring­ing these ser­vices un­der one roof, the process of get­ting the help you need with your press­ing money ques­tions will be eas­ier, mean­ing that peo­ple will get the help and guid­ance they need, when they need it.

Ed­u­ca­tion is key in help­ing peo­ple in­crease their fi­nan­cial ca­pa­bil­ity and fi­nan­cial re­silience

Any trade union or busi­ness ne­go­tia­tor will tell you that there are five things you need to be cer­tain of when you are ne­go­ti­at­ing (say) a pay in­crease and re­struc­tur­ing or even (say) ex­tri­cat­ing your coun­try from the EU.

You need to know what you want. What you want has to be achiev­able. You have to have a thought-out strat­egy to achieve it. You have to bring your peo­ple with you.

Fi­nally, the un­der­stand­ing that you don’t have to like the peo­ple you are ne­go­ti­at­ing with, but they have to know what will ul­ti­mately set­tle the is­sue. On each of these five ar­eas the Tories have failed mis­er­ably.

This Brexit de­ba­cle and the sus­pen­sion of Stor­mont should be spark­ing a de­bate in how we or­gan­ise our af­fairs here. Last week the Nevin Eco­nomic Re­search In­sti­tute (NERI) pub­lished key re­search — Bad Jobs and Pro­duc­tiv­ity: the Flex­i­bil­ity Paradox. The pa­per charts the mantra known as the Washington Con­sen­sus that emerged in the 1980s and 1990s with its apos­tle Mar­garet Thatcher purs­ing an in­sa­tiable drive for dereg­u­la­tion and a one-sided flex­i­bil­ity from work­ers.

It pro­moted a move away from what has been tra­di­tion­ally viewed as stan­dard, per­ma­nent full-time em­ploy­ment, which is se­cure (in as much as any­thing can be), to a po­si­tion whereby labour costs were more flex­i­ble and lower and em­ploy­ment con­tracts were in­cred­i­bly loose.

Its sup­port­ers ar­gued that this ap­proach is a key driver of eco­nomic growth and pro­duc­tiv­ity. The NERI pa­per clearly de­bunks this myth, and finds that dereg­u­la­tion could ac­tu­ally be a drag on our pro­duc­tiv­ity.

The re­search makes the point that there are a num­ber of fac­tors re­quired for any econ­omy and society to pros­per and the data around NI clearly shows that we are not. Many com­men­ta­tors will say unem­ploy­ment is very low and yes it is. But let’s look at the qual­ity of the jobs as op­posed to the quan­tity. The data shows that:

l 1 in 3 work­ers in North­ern Ire­land to­day deem their job to be inse­cure;

l 4 in 10 are in non-stan­dard con­tracts of em­ploy­ment;

l 1 in 5 work­ers earn be­low the real liv­ing wage;

l 4 in 10 earn be­low the real liv­ing wage whole­sale and re­tail, our largest em­ploy­ment sec­tor;

l 7 in 10 earn be­low this wage in our ac­com­mo­da­tion and hos­pi­tal­ity sec­tor.

Pro­duc­tiv­ity in North­ern Ire­land is weak and con­tin­ues to lag con­sis­tently be­hind the rest of the UK and the EU av­er­age. There­fore, it is clear that things are not work­ing.

It has been said that one should never waste a good cri­sis and merely be­moan­ing our dif­fi­cult and chal­leng­ing cir­cum­stances is not good enough. That is why the ICTU in North­ern Ire­land which rep­re­sents 24 trade unions that or­gan­ise over 200,000 work­ers is run­ning the Bet­ter Work Bet­ter Lives cam­paign.

We are en­gag­ing with work­ers, politi­cians and other rep­re­sen­ta­tive or­gan­i­sa­tions right across the so­cial and eco­nomic spec­trum. Along with a range of pol­icy op­tions that we feel can im­prove our econ­omy and society, we are seek­ing sup­port from all for a new in­sti­tu­tional forum of so­cial di­a­logue here in North­ern Ire­land.

Such a forum could have the ca­pac­ity and po­ten­tial to bring key so­cial part­ners and rep­re­sen­ta­tive bod­ies to­gether in a struc­tured way to work with a fu­ture de­volved gov­ern­ment on key ini­tia­tives.

Done well, this should make North­ern Ire­land an in­no­va­tive and great place to do busi­ness, with im­proved pro­duc­tiv­ity and where work­ers have bet­ter pay and more se­cure con­di­tions of em­ploy­ment with the op­por­tu­nity to in­vest in their skills.

It is not nor can it be an ei­ther/ or, but must be both. Such a forum could bring to­gether key voices of work­ers, em­ploy­ers and the com­mu­nity and vol­un­tary pil­lar to share ideas to seek to im­prove the econ­omy and society we live in. This pro­posal is not rad­i­cal or in­deed novel but en­tirely log­i­cal and sen­si­ble.

It is im­por­tant that we re­store de­vo­lu­tion whereby our politi­cians again share power, but this time not just hor­i­zon­tally, but ver­ti­cally as well.

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