By Sara Boyce

Sara Boyce examines why large scale infrastructure projects are not delivering in the way that they should for the disadvantaged

Members of the Assembly’s Finance and Personnel Committee were recently updated by officials on how government departments have been integrating ‘social benefits’ into public contracts.
The use of ‘social clauses’ was first championed here over 10 years ago by the late human rights campaigner, Inez McCormick, and was included as a commitment in the 2011 Programme for Government with the accompanying legal guidance. This means that all departments are obligated to include social clauses in all of their public contracts. We are talking about significant amounts of money here – around £3 billion is spent annually by government on public procurement.
In recent years there have been a number of projects, including the Peace Bridge in Derry, the Titanic Building and the Ravenhill redevelopment, all of which have included community and social benefits; it should be noted, however, that there have been serious criticisms of the extent to which such major infrastructure projects have actually delivered benefits to local disadvantaged communities. So what does all this actually mean for people looking for a job?
Well, one of the largest areas for potential social benefit centres around the idea of ‘setting aside’ or ‘ring-fencing’ jobs for underrepresented or disadvantaged people. In order to genuinely benefit the long term unemployed and other disadvantaged groups such a policy needs to be applied in every opportunity and across all types of contracts including supplies and services.
An example of how this could work in practice is the upcoming construction project on the Royal Victoria Hospital site. If, for example, the project were to cost £20 million over a two-year period, then perhaps 10 long-term unemployed people would be required to make up the workforce of, for example, 50 employees that may complete the contract. Jobs are then advertised through local job centres and applicants are required to go through the standard process – provided they meet the criteria – which as it stands would mean being ‘unemployed for 12 months or more’, but this can be agreed at the beginning of a contract tender.
While the Committee heard about some positive examples of success, such as Health and Social Care Trusts providing opportunities for young people leaving care, it was clear also that the Programme for Government target is far from being achieved, leaving many potential opportunities untapped.
One of the most glaring weaknesses in the overall implementation of social clauses is the lack of data on just who is benefitting from opportunities being created. Under Section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 all government departments, in line with their statutory equality schemes, are required to collect information across a number of equality categories in relation to people moving into employment. Yet when pressed by MLAs Máirtín Ó Muilleoir and John McAllister, officials were unable to provide this information and readily acknowledged this it is not being collected. What this means is that in addition to a lack of compliance with Section 75 duties, at present we simply do not know if those most in need are benefitting from social clauses. Officials indicated that this issue will come within the remit of an upcoming review of social clause practice, to be conducted by the Strategic Investment Board (SIB) and completed by summer 2015. Collection, analysis and monitoring of equality data is fundamental to assessing whether social clauses are in fact doing what it says on the tin –that is, delivering social benefits from public spending. It will be vital for the SIB review to come up with clear proposals to fix this serious problem in relation to the implementation and monitoring of social clauses by government departments.
But we can also look closer to home. Bertie Atkinson, a long term unemployed man from the Shankill Road, has been campaigning for effective social clauses with other unemployed people as part of the Right to Work: Right to Welfare group. Their REAL JOBS NOW! motion was passed by Belfast City Council a year ago and it made it mandatory for Council to ring-fence fully-paid jobs and apprenticeships for the long term unemployed in all contracts with private companies. One year on, and with a social clauses consultation currently out by City Council, Bertie said: “The social clauses aren’t working yet, the people most in need are not getting the jobs and apprenticeships promised – we’ve been told that only 24 people will get jobs out of a total £150m to be spent by Council. Political leaders can change that but it needs a bit of will from our politicians and they need to listen to our voices. Council passed our motion last year and we need results now.”
You can find out more detail on current developments on the government’s recently launched website, including the benefits, case studies and a guide, which is at www.buysocialni.org

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