Poverty: why local politicians need to get back to work

11 Aug 2022 Nick Garbutt    Last updated: 11 Aug 2022

Pic: Matt Collam, Unsplash

Northern Ireland is supposed to have a strategy “to tackle poverty, social exclusion and patterns of deprivation based on objective need.”

The obligation was created under the 1998 Northern Ireland Act. As a result a panel of experts was brought together and reported its findings in 2020.

As Northern Ireland prepares for a bitter winter with many households unable to afford to heat their homes, or even to cook their food, it continues to gather dust.

The Poverty Strategy has fallen victim to the stand-off over the protocol.

It cannot be implemented without a functioning government - you might have thought that that fact alone would be enough for those currently boycotting the Assembly to return to it.

After all those suffering include their constituents and those most vulnerable to the desperation and misery of poverty now face the prospect of having nobody to act on their behalf, nobody to vote through measures to help them in their plight.

Those who object to the Northern Ireland protocol do so on principled grounds. There will be those who agree with them and those who do not.

However, the logic of supporting the veto is to assert that this principled objection to a legal agreement is of such importance that it supersedes the moral obligation to alleviate the suffering of those unable to heat their homes, buy clothing and cook their food.

As the summer ends, the nights draw in and fuel prices rocket upwards this will feel even harder to justify than it does now. After all whatever the deficiencies of the protocol the right to be free from hunger, is the most basic right of all.

Before explaining the key recommendations of the poverty panel it is important to make a distinction between the development of an anti-poverty strategy and measures to mitigate some of the effects of the fuel crisis.

The British government has committed to a £400 discount in energy bills for people across the UK. It has a practical problem implementing this in Northern Ireland because of the lack of a functioning executive. But the government is determined to make sure people here get the benefits and a way will be found whether there is an executive or not.

Having a poverty strategy is a very different matter that will require a functioning Executive and Assembly because it requires them to be ratified and also to enact its recommendations – and also to pass an Act which sets out its responsibilities.

Furthermore as the British government has no discernible desire to reduce poverty, indeed seems to be determined to increase it, there is a need to strong advocacy from devolved governments. Both Scotland and Wales have championed the cause. Northern Ireland needs to join its voice to theirs.

The proposals are straightforward and were costed, although these costs were estimated in 2020 so will need to be revisited.

The first step would be for the Assembly to pass an Anti-Poverty Act which includes a duty to reduce child poverty, and sets targets and timetables for 2030 and beyond.

Under the Act public bodies would have a ‘socio-economic duty’ requiring them to take account of socio-economic disadvantage when making strategic decisions and age discrimination should also be made unlawful.

The report also states that the Executive should take the lead on addressing low pay by declaring NI Government as a Real Living Wage and a ‘Living Hours’ employer. This was agreed in the New Decade New Approach deal and its implementation is very long overdue.

A key challenge in implementing it will be to ensure that all contractors and sub-contractors undertaking public service work on behalf of government departments comply. This in turn will require government to change the business model for some services, most particularly child care and social care. The responsibility of government for creating and sustaining poverty in these areas cannot be shirked any longer.

The main thrust of the report is around raising the income of those who are currently below an agreed, objectively defined poverty level, and concern raising incomes but there are also proposals to help ensure people can work more and raise living standards that way.

It is important to note that most of those living in poverty are families with children and the majority of these families have someone in work, mainly part-time.

In 2020 there were around 370,000 people living below the poverty line in Northern Ireland  – that is one in every five persons. Just under a third of them are children. Along with their parents/carers, they make up nearly three out of every five people living below the poverty line.

That’s why childcare is so important. For children whose parents are working to some extent, the amount of work which their parents can undertake is crucial.

The report found that less than 10,000 children in poverty are in households,  where one parent works full-time, and the other parent works either full-time or part-time.

This leaves around 70,000 children with parents who lack sufficient work and hours.

The report concludes: “Increasing the availability of work, the rate of pay for that work and supports such as affordable childcare to facilitate more hours of working, will all contribute to improving the living standards of these households.

Alongside better-quality and better-paid jobs, and more working hours, improving social security benefits for children will be essential.”

Further specific proposals from the report include:

  • ensuring participation in school is cost-free, by extending free school meals provision to include school holidays;
  • expanding funding for breakfast and homework clubs;
  • expanding Sure Start provision.

The report also contains costings. These need to be updated as they were based on 2020 prices.

The bottom line is that the cost of lifting people out of poverty in Northern Ireland is £780 million per year. If that sounds a lot it is worth pointing out that it is less  than was spent subsidising restaurant-goers in August 2020 in Rishi Sunak’s Eat Out to Help Out scheme. It also amounts to about 3.5% of total Northern Ireland public expenditure.

There are no estimates provided as to the cost of not acting on poverty in terms of deteriorating mental and physical health and longevity.

Doing whatever it can to alleviate poverty, pressuring central government to do more and raising the issue as one of the most urgent and important priorities of the day, is surely an imperative for public representatives.

The poverty crisis is not one they can turn their back on whilst many of those who voted for them suffer.

 

 

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