The Andersonstown News has been reporting on Bertie Atkinson’s trip to Geneva to give evidence to the UN on the impact of unemployment and benefit sanctions. Read the articles here and here

Bertie is part of the Right to Work; Right to Welfare (R2W) group. He travelled with other activists to share his understanding of and solutions to these problems. The NI Executive, by contrast, didn’t even show up. In his concluding remarks the Committee’s Nicholas Schrijver (member from the Netherlands), noted that “I have met people from Northern Ireland from the Right to Work; Right to Welfare campaign, if they can make it there can be little excuse for the government”.

One solution Bertie shared with the UN Committee is the REAL JOBS NOW campaign to use public procurement as a tool by which the NI Executive can create real jobs and apprenticeships. Every year the NI Executive spends around £3-4 billion buying goods and services.

REAL JOBS NOW requires contract conditions that ring fence jobs and apprenticeships for the long term unemployed when government spends money this way. The UN Committee member from Portugal, Ms. Virginia Brás-Gomes, praised the model to other Committee members and the UK Government representatives who did turn up. She commented simply that ‘it makes sense’.

Back in 2013 Bertie and other members of the R2W secured local support for this model at Belfast City Council. Over 1,600 people, the majority of whom were unemployed, and 50 community groups’ city wide endorsed the campaign. In January 2014, the REAL JOBS NOW motion was proposed by Sinn Féin, seconded by the SDLP and enjoyed the support of a majority of councillors including, not one but two, Lord mayors. Belfast City Council agreed to adopt the REAL JOBS NOW model.

However, securing a policy change is one thing. Getting change on the ground is another thing entirely!  Since the REAL JOBS NOW motion was passed R2W have been working hard to hold Belfast City Council to its commitment.

A critical part of monitoring the implementation of REAL JOBS NOW is knowing simple things 

like; what jobs have been created, where and who got them? Because of consistent failures by council to provide this information R2W were forced to carry out a Freedom of Information request earlier this year. It was initially denied by council officials citing ‘commercial sensitivity’. Sinn Féin, SDLP, PBP and PUP councillors agreed to get to the bottom of it. In any case this week the council finally responded.

The information provided is that; since the motion was passed on the 6th January 2014 there have been a total of 220 contracts awarded at a value of £219,908,291.82 in tax payer’s money. 2026 ‘employment weeks’ or approximately 39 jobs for a year have been created for the long term unemployed in areas of greatest objective need. That’s one 12 month job for every £5,638,674 of public money. Not a single contractor has been sanctioned for failure to comply with their social clause obligations.

Clearly much, much more now needs to be done by Belfast City Council to ensure ongoing massive public investments make a difference to the lives of people in working class communities like west Belfast.

If there was any doubt we need only look to the latest figures. In June 2016 the long term unemployed made up 50.2% of the overall unemployed population, up from 47.8% in February 2016. Belfast City Council and the NI Executive have the opportunity to use existing resources and budgets to turn these figures around. One way they can do this is through implementing REAL JOBS NOW.