Poverty and welfare reform in Northern Ireland
In Belfast earlier this week we launched our latest report on poverty in Northern Ireland. The launch is an opportunity for us to disseminate the findings of research, but also see how well they fit with people’s current experiences.
The report is part of a series we produce with the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. The last one came out in the depths of the recession, in 2009. Job losses had been substantial at the start of the recession, with the construction sector hit especially hard. Since then, the picture on employment remained unchanged.
The report suggested that Northern Ireland is in a kind of holding pattern following the recession, but before the effects of the public sector cuts and welfare reform had been felt. But in Belfast, we found that while it is true that the cuts are yet to be decided on, welfare reform is affecting people’s lives already.
Most notably, the migrations from Incapacity Benefit to Employment Support Allowance have begun. As have the changes to Local Housing Allowance, meaning the number of private rental properties that are affordable to low income families has shrunk. Recent stories on housing benefit reform focus on London as its epicentre, but people in Belfast were keen to point out that Northern Ireland was being hit hard as well.
The second point that emerged is that the context in which this report was launched is very different from that of the 2009 report, or indeed any report before that. In previous years, we may have been critical of governments across the UK for moving too slowly to tackle poverty, of not doing enough, or of focussing too narrowly on one group at the expense of others. But the criticism was that the measures taken were insufficient rather than harmful.
This is no longer true. Take, for instance, the recent changes to Working Tax Credit. One of our attendees pointed out that the recent rise in the minimum number of hours a couple need to work in order to claim working tax credit from 16 to 24 has made 20,000 households in Northern Ireland poorer by up to £70 per week. This is a policy which makes things worse for people who are already poor. This is new.
These conclusions apply as much to Great Britain as they do Northern Ireland. Indeed one of the main points arising from the discussions around the report was how much commonality there is. But Northern Ireland is different – its history is different and its system of government is different.
Most importantly, it is within the power of the Northern Ireland government to change legislation coming from Westminster. This means it can mitigate the worst impacts of the Welfare Reform Bill - even if the principles are the same, the implementation could be very different.
For instance, the work programme could be designed to offer different support to 21 year olds and 61 year olds. The childcare aspects of Universal Credit could be paid to the principal carer by default, addressing the potential for gender imbalance in the proposals as they stand. It could be paid weekly rather than monthly, helping low income families manage their money as they do at the moment.
These may sound like small changes but they have the potential to make a big difference. The Northern Ireland government has set up an advisory group to “assist Ministers in alleviating hardship including any implications of the UK Government’s Welfare Reform Programme”. Northern Ireland has a high proportion of people claiming benefits, so will feel the effects of welfare reform even more than other parts of the UK.
Even if this were not the case, there is plenty that can be changed, fixed or improved in the Welfare Reform Act. This is an opportunity for the Northern Ireland government to make a bad system better.