Poverty programme should dominate the next Assembly

It’s great to see pressure mounting on what are misleadingly called ”  the bread and butter issues” – misleading, because of a growing shortage of ” bread and butter.”  The Social Justice Network is one of too few cross community  and interfaith bodies who  regularly lobby  the Assembly parties for their causes – on practical  stuff like their Heat and Eat campaign last Christmas, as well as policy. The chair of the network is the Head of the School of Law at Queen’s Colin Harvey, who also argues strongly for a more rights- based society. The group insist there is in fact a problem requiring urgent attention ( not  the tired old scroungers argument I presume they mean, or any blind belief that poverty problems will be solved by Iain Duncan Smith’s welfare to work policies,  even though they enjoy quite a lot of cross party support at Westminster and will actually lead to higher costs in ther short run).

The Network is linked to Church Action on Poverty which has issued its own manifesto.

The chorus of anti poverty campaigners is growing  louder as the election draws nearer. Age Concern are calling for a social tariff for those ballooning energy costs While everyone in NI knows the facts they’re still worth putting on the record.

But  Fuel poverty for the elderly is far from the only factor. The Catholic bishops are pitching on child poverty..  Citizen’s Advice’s manifesto resembles the Social Network’s.  The Network itself acknowledge that

the term ‘social justice’ is contested; with meanings which range from modest reform of existing policies, to more radical agendas for social change. At best we believe the concept can provide an agreed basis for concerted and targeted action to achieve meaningful social, political and economic change in Northern Ireland.

Will this case influence  priorities at a time of £4 billion budget cuts over four years and when welfare policy remains reserved to Westminster?  In their election manifesto, the network couch their demands in positive terms but we know what they mean. On the doorstep and on the box, voters and interviewers could do worse than  grill politicians of all parties on what they mean to do about it – like cutting the costs of government and beginning to reduce the added costs of community division for example? Let’s try a  idealism for a change instead of beating the drum!

The principle that social justice should be the cornerstone of the new Programme for Government.

Development of a Programme for Government that contains detailed costed proposals on how poverty
and social exclusion are to be eradicated. These proposals must contain key milestones and targets.

The principle that cross-departmental collaboration on all social justice issues should be an in-built requirement of any future strategies.

Development of a robust and transparent system of ministerial and collective accountability to ensure the effective outcome of any social justice agenda can be realised.

The urgency of adopting such a collaborative and inclusive approach is evidenced by the growing problem of specific forms of poverty. For example, fuel poverty in Northern Ireland is amongst the highest in northern Europe and last year there were 1,000 deaths attributable to cold weather, in addition to over 5,000 individuals admitted to A&E suffering from cold-related illness. Shockingly, the situation this year is set to get worse as the recently announced 39.1% increase in domestic gas prices will force already vulnerable people into deeper poverty and potential ill-health. Such a scenario is neither acceptable nor inevitable and we therefore call on our political parties to engage in innovative thinking aimed at securing a more socially just future for all.