More elections, more politics, and the cost of living

6 Oct 2022 Ryan Miller    Last updated: 6 Oct 2022

As food, fuel and housing costs rise, pressure grows on households. The third sector is on the frontline of helping people – however, it faces its own pressures. Politics is supposed to help but right now it’s getting in the way.


Prime Minister Liz Truss says there is no reason the NI Assembly should not be up and running right now.

The PM has also echoed comments from her Secretary of State for NI, Chris Heaton-Harris MP, that an election will be called at the end of this month, if no Executive is formed.

Will that happen? The chance of an Executive coming together is barely zero and, while an election isn’t certain, it makes some sense. The new Prime Minister has enough to deal with without having to worry about Northern Ireland. Calling an election means she can put that particular ball in someone else’s court.

But none of this solves any problems. The likeliest outcome from new Assembly elections is that nothing changes.

Politics is the vehicle for enacting policy. It exists for the benefit of people and society, and it is supposed to react to the challenges of the day. Right now, politics is more a barrier than a facilitator.

Inflation is high, right now. Energy prices are rocketing, right now and, with October upon us and darker nights coming, energy use will have to rise. Housing costs are going to shoot up for more and more people imminently.

These are immediate concerns with few ways to immediately address them. Northern Ireland is an unusual place. It is supposed to have two governments, Stormont handling most domestic affairs, and Westminster taking care of the rest while providing light oversight of devolution – but the latter is a basket case and the former doesn’t exist.

This is a shame. The rising cost of living cannot exactly be fixed, given the underlying challenges are both so deep and wide, but they can be eased. However, this requires functionality where currently there is none.

The only thing guaranteed by an election is the fact that more time will pass with little or nothing being done.

Third sector

Community and voluntary organisations exist to help people in need. However, to do this effectively, those organisations need to be functional themselves.

The rising cost of living will lead to increased demand for charitable services. However, it is also placing strain on the third sector.

NICVA has carried out research amongst the sector to see what challenges it faces.

It recently surveyed all heads of Voluntary, Community and Social Enterprise (VCSE) sector member organisations in NI, with 79.9% of respondents saying their chief worry was the cost of living, in particular food and energy.

Organisations have said the price of fuel has hurt the recruitment and retention of volunteers. Per NICVA: “Additional concerns included the wellbeing of staff/volunteers (66.5%) often resulting in an increase in staff sick leave due to stress and anxiety. The potential increase of staff wages (52.1%) and expenses (staff/volunteers) (45.9%) was concerning with staff requesting uplifts in salary and milage allowance. Increasing cost of insurance (44.8%) was burdensome for many, with some organisations facing at least a 50% increase in their premium.”

And, while demand for services is going up, so far 14% of organisations have said they have had to reduce services, including “counselling and support groups for children and adults, programmes and activities for young people, befriending services, community events, door to door transport services and free food parcels.”

The third sector is a scrappy place and seeking funding is something community and voluntary groups know about only too well. However, even in boom times this is hard work – and right now almost 60% of orgs are using their reserves to cover costs, while over 25% have had to increase charges for services.

“Organisations were also experiencing a decrease in financial support and a decrease in donations. Consequently, many are spending more time on grant applications to source additional funding; others are collaboration in an attempt to share costs and keep their organisations afloat.”

The third sector, like everything else, is being squeezed. That squeeze can’t carry on forever.

Cost of living

The Joint Forum between the Government and the Voluntary and Community Sector NI (usually called just the Joint Forum) is comprised of representatives from central and local government (Public Sector Group) and the voluntary and community sector (Voluntary and Community Sector Panel) in Northern Ireland.

Last month, the Voluntary and Community Sector Panel met and agreed a joint statement on the cost-of-living crisis.

“Access to the means to live a life of personal dignity is now beyond the reach of too many people in Northern Ireland (NI). Crisis, heaped upon crisis is decimating the personal and collective health, wealth, and well-being of the community at large.

“Many families barely survive on the margins of social security, with access to quality public services declining at an alarming rate. Economic inactivity and inter-generational unemployment are a lived experience for many people and employment opportunities, where they are to be found, are in a low wage economy populated by the new working poor. Now we are told that middle income earners will also experience financial pressures due to the increased ‘cost of living’, now labelled as our latest crisis…

“We face into this crisis against a backdrop of years of decimation to funding of the sector, in capital investment and in revenue. There are limited opportunities for full cost recovery in service delivery, inflationary uplifts or ability to utilise underspend. We face the continued expectation that the voluntary and community sector, do more for less and plug growing gaps in our wider public sector services…

“Without adequate means to attract and retain staff we limit our capacity to meet need head on. If organisations are forced to close community buildings due to the soaring costs of energy or heat, we lose the ability to deliver vital services. The Voluntary and Community Sector is at the front end of the crisis to come but it needs help to respond. If it is to triage the problem and provide solutions it needs immediate assistance.”

To help with this, the panel has called for three things:

  1. Immediate restoration of the Executive – with the production of a multi-year budget to allow for proper planning, and target emergency measures for the cost of living.
  2. Dedicated financial support for the voluntary and community sector – including an immediate inflationary/cost of living uplift to all public sector contracts, and a rate hiatus for community owned and managed assets, as well as strategic planning to address growing energy costs in the long term.
  3. Targeted Support for Individuals and Families most acutely at risk – including help for those on low incomes or who rely on social security, with upratings in line with inflation, the removal of the two-child limit and benefit cap, and investment in energy efficiency to lower home energy costs over time.

The thing about politics is that it, however bleak it gets, it cannot be ignored. The state can’t do everything but governments are crucial, especially when times are tough. Whether at Stormont or Westminster, or preferably both, something needs to change.

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