While the standard of state education on the Island is outstanding, funding for education has been cut year on year for about eight years now. Although schools have been protected they are under strain struggling to make budgets work and because of rising staff costs, employer contributions, pay awards etc.
Meanwhile cuts to preschool education, nurture teachers and student funding should all be reviewed. There are pockets of real deprivation and lack of social capital, particularly in some rural areas. Early years support and parenting classes can help with this to a certain extent and free preschool provision for the poorest in society is necessary. Government’s recent doubling of the preschool credit does not go far enough.
Swingeing budget cuts have affected all departments and I can sympathise with the Department of Education and Children because they faced terrible choices. However, education is one area where a whole-Island view should have been taken with education budgets ring-fenced.
Savings were supposed to be made by centralising certain services such as caretakers, school catering. Some centralisation has worked but for others has led to an increase in bureaucracy and less effective working. There is less flexibility for schools to improve infrastructure and innovate. At a time of massive curriculum change and technological developments this is problematic. There are a number of processes which are unduly lengthy and bureaucratic and which require more people to process, for example in the handling of requests for absence through the centralised Office of Human Resources.
Recruitment is becoming an issue for schools (as it is for key health workers and police officers) and we need to ensure that uncertainty over pensions, student grants, and even partner’s work permits is removed.
Academies in England offer incentives such as repayment of student loans, help with housing, enhanced salaries etc, and perhaps this is something that can be copied to attract the brightest of our students to return for a career in education or health.
Uncertainty over pensions is also a real threat. Lack of certainty puts people off moving to Island schools from England. The next administration must provide that certainty. Closing the scheme to new entrants would make the existing scheme unworkable – the best solution is to follow the English model for teachers’ pensions. This has a phased implementation and would be sustainable.
Let’s start with a positive – we enjoy easy access to good health care, wonderful hospital facilities and primary care, i.e. GPs, ambulance service, dentists etc. But it has to be acknowledged that costs cannot continue to rise to deliver that service.
This area needs an urgent but thorough review of how it is delivered. We should look at the Scottish islands and the Channel Islands’ provision.
I don’t agree with the £10 charge to see a GP that has been floated by recent health roadshows. If charges are introduced they have a habit of being increased and extended.
I do accept that the cost of heathcare must be brought under control and that we need to consider what is provided on the Island and what treatments are – or could be – provided off Island or by UK based medics flying in for one day clinics here. That would mean access to the best surgeons in centres of excellence without maintaining whole departments and support teams at Noble’s Hospital.
Recent efforts to review the service have been carried out by the West Midlands Review. I believe their contract has run out and has not been reviewed. If not, why not? Their report on Noble’s Women’s and Children’s department was very critical. It suggested maternity services are at crisis point. I haven’t seen any follow-up responses from the Department of Health and Social Care as to how these failings are being addressed.
In the area of community care, there needs to be more support in the community to free up hospital beds.
The proposed development of regional hubs needs to happen. This brings GPs, physios, occupational therapists and even pharmacists into local heath centres to deliver care without patients needing to go through a GP.
The Island should also develop more intermediate care provision, convalescent centres to enable people to be discharged more quickly following hospital treatment for acute conditions. This has the twin advantages of removing the patient from potential hospital-caught infections and enables a speedier rehabilitation; much better for the patient and a potential significant cost saving.
The review should start at grass roots – ask the patients to detail their experiences and suggest where and how improvements could be made. Ask the porters what needs to be done in porter services; occupational therapists about delivery of the OT service, etc. Staff in each area know what is wrong and often have good suggestions about how to fix it. Who is listening to them?
Farmers act as custodians of our countryside but have for many years been disadvantaged against EU producers. Previously we had a subsidy-led industry on a headage system but that changed in 2009 with farmers receiving support unrelated to the amount they produce. The red meat derogation stopped in 2010 and many farmers have struggled since, feeling unsupported by recent government policies. Future policies need to empower farm businesses to be able to compete with neighbouring jurisdictions, they need to obtain equivalent returns to their UK counterparts. It is worrying that the price for a lamb now is less than in 2008 yet costs of production have risen.
The public perception of the rich farmer is out of step with the reality for many working long hours for diminishing returns. I believe we must secure the local food supply and retain our ability to produce our own food. Producers must be profitable in order to invest and deliver that food security. Government should also work with producers to establish and enforce a meaningful Manx provenance label to enable consumers to have certainty when purchasing Manx produced quality products. A label that states ‘locally sourced’ does not necessarily mean Manx produce.
The Isle of Man winning UNESCO Biosphere reserve status is an honour that has enormous potential in terms of promoting our countryside, the environment and generally for tourism but it seems to have been too little exploited. It should be celebrated by local farmers as custodians of our landscape and provides an enormous opportunity for increased consumption of Manx food locally and potential exports.
Although only providing 1% of our GDP (gross domestic product), agriculture is an economic generator for a range of other industries, making the Island attractive to business investment, tourism etc. We have to find a balance with strategies that support and encourage food production and the maintenance of our countryside. The likely impact of climate change on the Island also needs assessing and addressing in an agri-renewable strategy. This is an area where there is potential to provide agricultural businesses with a diversified income source through the production of renewable energy. Government needs to listen and respond to farmers or their representative union.
The Island has the lowest crime rate in the British Isles, with recorded offences falling to levels last seen in 1970 and a police force that is fully engaged with the community. The security of the Island is one of our biggest successes but its funding needs to be assured to maintain recent achievements. The low level of crime is a major selling point for the Island for inward investment and for tourism.
The Chief Constable’s Annual Report makes interesting reading, however. Gary Roberts several times makes the point that he should not have to make operational choices between investigating drug offences or child abuse, but that has happened. Also the need for training specialist firearms officers reduces staffing levels in the neighbourhoods and the number of detectives available. The impact of cuts in recent years may mean a reduction in the community policing level that has most likely contributed to its current success. The amount of police involvement in mental health issues also needs awareness and the constabulary should be supported in their efforts to work in partnership with the mental health service. There also needs to be more support for the Youth Justice Team in its programme for assisting young offenders away from a life of crime.
Reducing over-severe punishment for low level drug possession and maintaining the establishment of police officers should also be priorities, along with the development of a road safety strategy.