A bleak midwinter beckons

15 Dec 2022 Nick Garbutt    Last updated: 15 Dec 2022

New research shows how the cost of living crisis is beginning to impact people in Northern Ireland.

Just as we face into a bitterly cold snap the Action for Children survey shows that seven in ten working parents have cut back on heating. Many will face a long cold wait until the UK-wide Energy Support Payment reach households in Northern Ireland in the New Year.

This is just one of several alarming findings which suggest that the festive season will not be remembered by many of one of comfort and joy.

 ·       Two fifths (40%) of working parents are worrying they can’t afford Christmas presents their children are asking for, with the same amount worrying they’ll disappoint their children due to money struggles.

·       Seven in ten (70%) of children surveyed said they had seen their parents worrying about money in the past six months

·       Almost all (97%) of Northern Ireland’s working parents polled have worried about money in past six months, with almost half (46%) having worried often.

Of those:

  • 51% have had trouble sleeping
  • 45% have tried to hide their money worries
  • 38% have noticed their mental health worsen
  • 25% have become upset or stressed in front of their children
  • 17% have lost their temper with their children, and
  • 40% have had an argument with a partner due to financial worries

Some of the anecdotes related by Action for Children staff are even more alarming. For example the family having to pawn all their electricals to buy food for their children, a child with no bed sleeping on blankets and a single parent with children with additional needs working seven days a week just to survive.

They also quote one mother as saying: “We only put the heating on for the little one so she can have her bath… we use candles in the evening to light the [living] room just to save on electricity, and luckily that also generates some heat.”

And report that one of their workers asked a young girl  if there was anything she would like from Santa this year, to which she replied: “Some oil so mummy doesn't have to worry about keeping us warm while we're home from school for Christmas.”

The stress and worries have had a distressing effect on children: 

  • 70% had seen their parents worry about money in the last six months
  • Over a quarter of those who’d seen their parents worry in the last six months had also seen their parents become upset or stressed in front of them due to money worries (27%) and over one in five (21%) experienced their parents losing their temper with them.
  • 33% of the children and young people reported thinking their parents can’t afford everything needed to celebrate Christmas, and
  • More than a quarter (28%) thought their parents will be worried about not having enough money to pay usual household bills over the festive period

The survey will not have come as a surprise to Action for Children staff. They were surveyed in a separate poll last month which found that 69% of them are currently supporting a child, young person or family that is experiencing poverty or extreme financial hardship. Whilst 45% of them reported they were extremely worried about the health and wellbeing of the children, young people and families they support due to their financial situation, and 10% had even donated their own household items or clothing to families, such is the urgent need.


Lorna Ballard, national director for Northern Ireland at Action for Children, said:

“Instead of enjoying a safe and happy time, many children in Northern Ireland will wake up on Christmas morning to no presents, food or warmth. Every day our frontline workers are helping families keep their heads above water, making sure they have the basics like hot meals and proper winter clothes, as well as offering emergency support to keep homes warm and help families pay the bills. 

“We need to ensure household incomes are enough for families to afford heating, be able to eat healthy, nutritious food, and fully participate in community life - a huge part of what Christmas should look like. But instead, we are seeing families choosing to cut back on heating their homes, food, celebrations, buying gifts for their partners and children, deciding not to travel to see loved ones and minimising days out as a family.

 “All these cuts have an impact on mental and physical health of a population and Northern Ireland is already disproportionately impacted by poorer outcomes in these areas. Without an Executive, it is difficult to watch the effect of missed opportunities to meaningfully support families with children through this Winter. This crisis is being allowed to grow deeper and wider and we are hugely dissatisfied with the political situation in Northern Ireland. Babies, children, young people and their parents cannot keep paying the price.”

The survey was commissioned to help launch the charity’s Secret Santa campaign through which donors can buy Christmas presents, toys and books, or warm winter clothes for children in need.

It follows an extremely disturbing BBC Spotlight report which claims food bank users in Northern Ireland are being targeted by paramilitary loan sharks.

One man told the programme loan sharks cold-called him and gave him a £500 loan after seeing him at a food bank. A month later he was told he owed them £1,300.

Sadly what we are seeing is just the beginning. It will take a little longer before the full impact of the cost of living crisis plays out. But given the high levels of poverty that already exist in Northern Ireland, the likely impact on charities as they try to respond, the lack of a functioning devolved government, and central government policies that seem to prioritise the wealthy we can expect cold comfort and a very bleak winter.




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