Tackling poverty will require long-term planning as well as emergency measures
Among the many issues that face the people and communities of Northern Ireland, the most urgent is probably poverty.
Health and social care has immediate pressures and requires long-term reform. Education is inefficient and over budget. We have climate change targets but need real plans.
However, right now the cost of living is getting the most attention, and understandably so. Given the rising cost of food, energy and housing, and the crazy turbulence of the UK economy, the question around poverty is not whether there is a crisis but instead how large it will be – and how long it will last.
Thankfully, that question is to be determined. Plenty of things could be done to help people, families (and businesses).
This week, members of the Department for Communities (DfC) Anti-Poverty Strategy Co Design Group released a position paper detailing their key recommendations for an NI Anti-Poverty Strategy.
The Co Design Group features representatives from across civil society, including the community and voluntary sector, faith-based organisations, trades unions, and the offices of the Children’s Commissioner and the Equality Commission. It was established by DfC in December 2020 with the aim of helping the department develop a new cross-departmental Anti-Poverty Strategy.
However, the work of that group has not been entirely smooth. The position paper released this week has 21 organisations (including NICVA) as signatories – which is not the whole group. Per the report:
“As members of the Co-Design Group, we became increasingly concerned at progress on the development of a draft strategy. Most significantly, group members were concerned with the co-design process, including a lack of clarity as to how the Co-Design Group’s contribution was to be considered and reflected in any recommendations to the Northern Ireland Executive on the Anti-Poverty Strategy’s direction and content. This included those key actions that we felt should be prioritised and taken forward within an Anti-Poverty Strategy…
“Following a series of letters and meetings with the Communities Minister, an agreement was reached between members of the Co-Design Group and the Minister, that members would take forward the development of a recommendations paper independently to the Department… Please note, due to a range of circumstances, not all members of the Anti-Poverty Strategy Co-Design Group, as originally appointed by the Department for Communities, have contributed to and/or endorsed this paper.”
So, this new paper has been published with the agreement of DfC, yet the paper itself is independent of the department. But what does it say?
The paper has ambitions. Its central goal is “eradicating poverty in Northern Ireland by 2040 at its core.”
The report’s starting point for this is a reaffirmation of the mission statement of the whole Anti-Poverty Strategy Co Design Group, which says: “Northern Ireland is an equal society where poverty and its impacts are eradicated, and that respects, protects, promotes and fulfils the rights of those at risk of poverty to ensure they achieve their aspirations.”
To achieve that vision, the paper recommends that any Anti-Poverty Strategy commits to six high-level outcomes:
Outcome 1 - The creation of an Anti-Poverty Act which will ensure that the rights of people experiencing or at risk of poverty are promoted, protected, and realised
The position paper is a lengthy document (almost 80 pages, not including annexes) and each outcome has its own section with a discussion on what should be done to achieve the outcome, including calls to action.
The calls for action under this first outcome include the creation of an act including statutory commitments and objective measures to eradicate poverty over twenty years; clear, time-bound targets for the reduction of poverty by fifty percent over ten years; and the establishment of an independent Anti-Poverty Commissioner to monitor and promote the eradication of poverty and income inequality.
Outcome 2 - Working towards eradication by 2040, child poverty will be reduced by half over the lifetime of this Strategy.
This should include a new weekly child payment to all children in poverty; restoration of child-related social security to levels prior to austerity; reduction of family outgoings (meaning cheaper school uniforms, possible expansion of free school meals, and ensuring essential tech for digital access is available to all families) and making education cost free.
It also a new childcare strategy ensuring quality and sustainable provision, and targeted interventions for children with specific vulnerabilities.
Outcome 3 - No working age person shall live in poverty, regardless of whether they are in work, seeking work or unable to work. All those of working age will have sufficient income to participate fully in society and can access services and pathways to sustained and meaningful employment.
The calls here are to address low pay and precarious work, through a wide range of economic measures including stronger social-value clauses, better childcare options that allow parents to work, and encouragement for the Real Living Wage; and ensuring people do not live in poverty thanks to a “robust, transparent and human rights-based” social security system.
Outcome 4 - No older person shall be in poverty: Rates of poverty among older people should be reduced by 30%, or more if poverty levels rise, working towards eradication within the lifetime of the Strategy. Older people experiencing or at risk of poverty will have adequate income and support in relation to their economic, physical, and mental wellbeing to ensure their equal participation in society.
The strategy should include efforts to lobby Westminster to maintain and improve financial support: protect social welfare benefits, re-instate Triple Lock, review adequacy of State Pension; ensure addressing poverty in later life is a priority for any local Programme for Government; help maximise access to benefits, and include support measures for “older people of working age”.
It should also make sure better data is collected on poverty amongst older people.
Outcome 5 - We have attractive, safe, accessible, welcoming, and sustainable environments in the most deprived areas.
Investment is required in the 20% most multi-deprived communities to help people move out of poverty. All communities should have a say in how this is done in their area. A focus needs to be placed on rural poverty, in particular – and community wealth building (which is similar to the Preston Model) needs investment.
Outcome 6 - All people experiencing or at risk of poverty have equal access to high quality public services that meet their needs in a timely manner and are based on dignity, fairness, and respect.
This outcome cuts across wider aspects of any anti-poverty schemes. People need good housing, they need access to transport, and digital connectivity that allows them to take part in the modern world.
Back to the context
The position paper is focused more on the longer-term than the short. Strategies tend to work that way. However, it is not without ideas for immediate help – strengthening social security and making sure all benefits are uprated in line with inflation are measures that can help people right now.
Nor does the strategy conflict with any possible emergency measures that could be put together in Westminster or at Stormont to help people get though the next six-, 12- or 18-month period (all of which look dicey).
At the same time, the paper is aware that the immediate crisis only strengthens the case for better long-term planning: “The current cost of living crisis underlies the critical importance of urgent agreement and implementation of a robust Anti-Poverty Strategy that can provide long term solutions and approaches to addressing poverty, leading to systemic change, so that when similar crises emerge, our support systems are robust enough to minimise impact on those placed most acutely at risk.”
It goes on: “We are mindful that there is a great level of interest across civil society regarding the ongoing development of the Anti-Poverty Strategy and increasing calls to see meaningful progress. This has only been compounded by growing political, social, and economic challenges, impacted, not least, by the continued political vacuum at Stormont and the cost-of-living emergency…
“We consider this paper to be one stage in the process of informing development of the Anti-Poverty Strategy; it is an ‘opening position statement’, which we hope will add momentum to the Strategy’s continued progress… We are keen to work in partnership with the Department for Communities, wider government departments and otherkey stakeholders to further consider and refine our proposals…
“The global and local context in which the Anti-Poverty Strategy must now be developed, finalised, and actioned, is both complex and unpredictable. The continued impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, the UK’s exit from the European Union, our growing climate emergency, a decade of austerity and antipathy to income redistribution5, coupled with a wholly inadequate social security support system all present profound economic, political, and societal pressures, which only serve to compound levels of poverty and its related impacts. Therefore, over its lifetime, the Anti-Poverty Strategy must have the capacity to respond and adapt to societal change and be dynamic and encompassing enough in its approach to actioning and delivering on key proposals.”
The very creation of this paper is emblematic of the fractured state of policy in both Northern Ireland and the UK. Dysfunction has been normalised. Westminster is in unimaginable chaos, Stormont can’t even get started.
The position paper, unsurprisingly, urges all NI’s political parties to form an Executive and establish an Assembly proper. It has its eyes open about the extent of the cost-of-living crisis, but also correctly notes that “the continued absence of a functioning Northern Ireland Executive greatly impedes the Anti-Poverty Strategy’s progress” and that “in the absence of a fully implemented Anti-Poverty Strategy, a Northern Ireland Executive, if in place, would have significant policy-making powers with particular regard to social security, that could be deployed to mitigate some of the worst poverty impacts”.
This is the truth of the challenges we face (not just in poverty, but in health, climate and elsewhere). There are immediate concerns and they are significant, but the problems we face as individuals and collectively are growing, and they are long term. Inaction is inexcusable.
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