“Those with the least capacity to suffer cuts should not be made to suffer more.”

We want to respectfully challenge those who hold authority in civil society to act with justice and to show compassion to those most in need. Those with the least capacity to suffer cuts should not be made to suffer more.

Those were the words of Cardinal Brady at an event tonight looking at welfare reform in Northern Ireland involving the main church leaders along with the Secretary of State Owen Paterson and Social Development Minister Nelson McCausland. The evening was part of the wider community dialogue on how Northern Ireland should implement – or modify – Westminister’s welfare reform.

The Irish Catholic leader was joined by Dr Richard Clarke (President of the Irish Council of Churches), Archbishop Alan Harper (Church of Ireland), Rev Ian Henderson (Methodist President), Dr Ivan Patterson (Presbyterian Moderator) as well as a panel of interest groups who will be affected by any legislative changes.

In June 2004, Cardinal Brady (who was then still just an Archbishop) attended the opening night of the General Assembly as a personal guest of the incoming moderator Dr Ken Newell, attracting mild protest. Back in the same hall this evening, Archbishop of Armagh Cardinal Seán Brady opened his remarks by commenting on his surroundings:

[Presbyterian Assembly Buildings] symbolises the mix of deep Christian conviction, human genius and hard work that made Belfast one of the fastest growing economic hubs of the industrial revolution. It is a reminder of past achievements and also of the many opportunities that lie ahead.

He went on to point out the parallels between the stained glass windows behind him (representing Moses and the Ten Commandments, and four Gospel parables) and the subject of Social Welfare Reform that was under discussion. The parable of the talents was a reminder that “sitting back and letting others take all the burden is not an option in the Christian vision of work, welfare and society”.

In another panel we have perhaps the best known parable of the Gospels, the story of the Good Samaritan. This parable reminds us that for each and every one of us life can throw up any number of unexpected set- backs and challenges. We are reminded that, through no fault of their own, many in our society have to cope with unforeseen events that leave them vulnerable and in need. We cannot walk by on the other side, as if we have no responsibility. We have a duty to help. Their need may be short term or long term, depending on their circumstances. But there can be no doubt that caring for those who are vulnerable and in need is a fundamental duty of a Christian society.

As well as highlighting the role of “thousands of volunteers, clergy and church workers are engaged every day in responding to the social and economic challenges of their local community”. He drew attention to “initiatives like the Skainos project and organisations like the Society of Saint Vincent de Paul” that highlighted “the potentially dramatic implications of Social Welfare reform for Northern Ireland”.

In all our representations to politicians in Westminster and the local Assembly to date, our primary concern as Church leaders has been to clarify the implications of the Social Welfare reforms passing through Westminster for the people of Northern Ireland.

We want to respectfully challenge those who hold authority in civil society to act with justice and to show compassion to those most in need. Those with the least capacity to suffer cuts should not be made to suffer more. We want to express our concern at the potentially dramatic and negative consequences for some of the most vulnerable in our society and for the wider economy in Northern Ireland.

Brady highlighted the Institute for Fiscal Studies belief that “after London (because it is a high rent area), Northern Ireland will be the region hardest hit by these reforms”. The high numbers of people in receipt of Disability Living Allowance, high number of families with children on benefits, made the issues being discussed “critically important for literally tens of thousands of people across all sections of our community”.

We have drawn attention to the high levels of economic disadvantage which may be further compounded by the dramatic withdrawal of over half a billion pounds a year from a struggling Northern Ireland economy.

In particular we expressed concern about the implications for childhood poverty in Northern Ireland. We already have the highest level of child poverty in the UK, twice the rate of any other region.

We are the only region where child poverty is increasing. We have made a special appeal to the Secretary of State and others to ensure that whatever reforms are introduced are accompanied by pro-active measures to stem the increase in childhood poverty in Northern Ireland.

Tonight wasn’t the first time that the church leaders had spoken up about these issues. In December, they flew to London to meet Lord Freud, the minister drafting the legislation.

Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Owen Paterson, was expected to make remarks this evening that would put the onus on local politicians:

It is for the Executive in Northern Ireland to bring forward the legislation here once the Bill has been passed in Westminster, and for legal and practical reasons parity should be maintained. There will however be areas where the Executive will want flexibility to fit local circumstances and we will do whatever we can to accommodate that. That is why we have been meeting Nelson and his department officials and many other groups such as the churchleaders, so that we can help ensure that Northern Ireland’s specific issues are reflected where possible.

The local minister with responsibility for social development and zipwires Nelson McCausland reiterated his desire to find a local accommodation within the NI Executive “to find ways to minimize the most negative aspects of these reforms” while maintaining parity with the rest of the UK.

If we are to be successful in tackling poverty and growing a sustainable economy in Northern Ireland then the general direction of travel of these reforms is right.

The Minister for Social Development said that “most of us are supportive of the principles underpinning the reforms”, wanting to see “a welfare system that provides financial support for those unable to work due to illness or disability and, for those that can work but are unable to find work at a point in time”.

Reforming the welfare system is necessary for many reasons. The current system is too complex and all too often traps people in benefit dependency. This highly complex system involves an increasing level of expenditure which is no longer affordable.

Change is clearly necessary if we are to lift our people from often inter generational poverty, whilst at the same time growing the economy to bring long-term benefits.

We need to encourage a spirit of personal responsibility while ensuring that welfare support is seen as fair and just by those who pay for it, the tax payer. We must break down the barriers that stop people getting into work and make the experience of claiming benefits more akin to being in work. This is crucial in changing attitudes and behaviour so that more people can start taking greater control of their lives.

Public expenditure had to get “under control” and the welfare reform budget could not “simply grow and grow”. Currently the UK Exchequer funds £4.9 billion of social security and housing benefits to Northern Ireland. While “parity is not negotiable”, the minister said there were “significant areas where we can explore delivering welfare reform in a different way”.

The NI Executive has already established its Social Protection Fund “to provide some support where we discover changes implemented through welfare reform will have an adverse impact on those dependent on benefits”. In the future, the minister said he had raised at the Executive the potential for change around free school meals and the replacement for the Social Fund. (These benefits total £300 million and are under the control of the NI Executive.)

But the minister said his first priority is “to tackle poverty through growing the economy”.

Northern Ireland has a high level of economic inactivity. Almost 1 in 5 of people of working age are economically inactive here; the highest figure in the UK. Most of those people will be in receipt of Disability or Incapacity benefits.

Unemployment is a worrying factor however growth in the economy will begin to address unemployment, but not economic inactivity. During the last period of economic growth there was a substantial decrease in those unemployed but there was actually an increase in the economically inactive through disability. We must begin to understand why this is the case. And we must seek to address its cause.

In the hall, panellists included representatives from the Citizens Advice Bureau, St Vincent de Paul, the Skainos Project, Willowfield Parish Church social action project, the Salvation Army and the Presbyterian Church’s Social Witness Board.

Update – while not part of his released speech, Nelson McCausland is reported on the BBC as suggesting a number of potential areas in which savings could be made:

Free transport for better off pensioners may have to be withdrawn to help offset the impact of welfare reform in Northern Ireland, according to the Social Development Minister …

Mr McCausland conceded such a move would be radical.

However, he said it was time to start a debate about the future of things such as free transport and winter fuel payments.

UpdateRev Lesley Carroll has blogged her reflections on and impressions of the event.

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  • Turgon

    Alan,
    I must respectfully disagree with the Cardinal: firstly he split the infinitive in the first sentence – the horror.

    More relevantly Church House also symbolises the hypocrisy of my own (Presbyterian) church. Large sums of money were raised from the church (predominantly the country areas) to refurbish Church House some twenty years ago. The refurbishment was problematic to say the least with nnay of the rooms too hot in the summer. More importantly Spires shopping arcade was created which is home to amongst the most expensive shops in Belfast.

    Our Lord stated that one cannot serve both God and mammon and he drove the money changers out of the temple. The Presbyterian Church on the other hand seem to have rented space to them.

    Despite the work of the Borad of Social Witness etc. the Presbyterian Church is far too smug and middle class ever fully to understand let alone really to care and least of all do anything significant about poverty.

  • Splitting infinitives is ok in modern English. You need to more fully get down with the kidz! (Although I quoted that passage first, it was from the middle of his address.)

    Your ‘own’ Presbyterian church is in the process of completing another renovation of Church House, now renamed Assembly Buildings. If you’ve walked through Spires more recently, you’ll notice that the expensive shops are long gone and the Fair Trade shop is practically one of the anchor tenants.

  • Turgon

    Alan,
    No: one expensive shop Carter closed and there is now another equally expansive one with remarkably similar stuff in the windows.

    As to the renovation I know: they were told about the poor quality of their plans twenty years ago and ignored advice; now they are back for more money. Demanding more money to do up their “Assembly buildings” is hardly helping the poor and needy is it?

  • Turgon

    Alan,
    Here is the website of a shop in Church House: this expensive shop is far from long gone.

  • I must have walked past it and blanked it out many, many times!

  • cynic2

    NI is a high rent area because those rents are supported by disproportionately higher social benefit payments. If the benefits are cut the market will have to follow. With thousands of properties lying idle there is little upward pressure. In many areas housing benefit tenants ARE the market

  • The Raven

    Cynic, that’s great. And in the transition period, many end up homeless from short-sighted landlords who don’t see the bigger picture, and the bill just goes up in other areas of the overall budget. Many *already* have to make up their rent differences from other benefits, while they try to get back on to the labour ladder.

    Turgon – just by-the-by – would the Church still be occupying that space if it *hadn’t* rented shop space? Would that landmark building – in its entirety, now, not just the bits that could be used which didn’t have damp/rot/falling masonry – now be lying vacant or greatly underused, in the same way many other churches in the city are, or have been over various years? It’s just a thought.

  • Alias

    “We have made a special appeal to the Secretary of State and others to ensure that whatever reforms are introduced are accompanied by pro-active measures to stem the increase in childhood poverty in Northern Ireland.”

    The more benefits that are provided for that purpose the more the problem of state-dependent and not parent-dependent children increases since the state merely incentivises irresponsible people to have children by offering financial benefits when those people are in no financial position to be parents and should not therefore be encouraged or facilitated by the state to do so.

  • New Blue

    I raised the pont at this event that, while it is important that the Executive should attempt to squeeze as much flexibility out of the legislation as they can to address a number of ‘NI specific’ issues, they also should be looking at how they can free up additional money by finally addressing the cost of segregation.

    Even though there were no agreed figures regarding the cost of the Benefit Reform, the proposed saving of over £1bn per year that could be achieved by removing the segregation in our education system would enable the Executive to cover any impact of benefit reform AND provide funding to build thousands of additional social housing units to address the shortage of single person / small familiy provision.

    All it takes is for the Executive to step up and make some bold steps in dealing with the 80,000+ empty school desks in our segregated education system. Unless, of course, SF/DUP believe there is some benefit for them in keeping the system as it is…………..

  • cynic2

    ” many end up homeless from short-sighted landlords who don’t see the bigger picture”

    Well lets see. I think the market will react faster than that. Landlords know they cant get blood from a stone and when the benefits drop so will the rents.

    In any case, what would you prefer? That we continue to spend money supporting the local Rachman industry?

    You need to understand. Labour spent so much we are broke.

  • cynic2

    “All it takes is for the Executive to step up and make some bold steps in dealing with the 80,000+ empty school desks in our segregated education system.”

    ……..which is about as likely as the Pope announcing that he’s decided Luther was right all along

  • Tomas Gorman

    Cynic2, instead of capping the benefits at source why not cap the rents charged by the landlords to a more realistic level or even better, why not redirect the benefit money into more public housing stock?

    Alias, do you have any evidence to support your assumptions?

  • The Raven

    Cynic, let me tell you how the market reacts. I have one friend, a single mum who is at university with two kids, who has just had a month’s notice to quit served on her, because someone is able to pay more rent. No proper tenancy agreement, no laws to protect in place.

    Certainly, while not a Rachman rathole, it was a less than salubrious joint, but privately rented in a road of private houses. But, how silly of her to want to live in a better area, so that her kids don’t grow up/mix with dubious sorts a la The Estate.

    Of course, wasn’t it entirely inappropriate for her to take up with a man who would impregnate her twice before he f**ked off? I’m sure the fault lies with her. And her ilk. Eh, Alias?

    Capping the rents in the first place, as Tomas suggests, is not an option. Alas, it would probably be all that would work.

    It’s a shame that society isn’t as homogenous as those who usually “have” would like it to be. It’s a shame that everyone on benefit isn’t a chav; isn’t workshy; isn’t housing estate scum. It would make the issue of rent benefit so much easier. We could maybe put them all on Rathlin.

    For the sake of some extra rent – £50 a month – a woman who is trying to better herself, and raise two children in an environment that’s a *little* better than what HM Government or indeed the average Daily Mail reader would have her live in, has to move out.

    She wants to live in that nicer area at my – and your – tax expense. I wouldn’t deny her it, after hearing of what and where the social housing options are, being presented to her.

    By the way, the happy ending is that some of us visited the landlord and made him an offer he couldn’t refuse. Financially, I mean. There wasn’t a bottle of Genco Olive Oil in sight.

  • Alias

    “Of course, wasn’t it entirely inappropriate for her to take up with a man who would impregnate her twice before he f**ked off? I’m sure the fault lies with her. And her ilk. Eh, Alias? ”

    Actually, it was. I don’t see it as my responsibility as a taxpayer (not in NI, luckily) to fund other peoples’ desires to be parents. Kids cost money, and they’re not just for Christmas. Don’t have them unless you can support them. How hard is it to figure that out?

  • carl marks

    Alias.
    I suspect that your attitude would change if you became unemployed and had to resort to goverment aid in keeping you going.
    Tell me since neither you or i know the circumstances of Raven’s friend and how she became a single parent whats make you think you can judge her.

  • Alias

    It’s not a case of judging Ms X. She is anonymous. There is no need for weep for pixels, or for your fine heart to bleed onto your keyboard.

    You have to be responsible for your own actions. If it was up to me, you wouldn’t get a sinle penny of my money to pay for your mistakes.

    In many ways having a kid is like taking out a 300k mortgage on house: don’t do it unless you’re sure that you can afford the repayments.

  • Alias

    Incidentally, in regard to “oh, you mustn’t judge” spiel. Where does such asinine nonsense come from? Of course you must judge those who want your money: you must judge whether they are worthy of your charity or not.

    No one has a right to my money as a taxpayer unless the nation collectively decides to implement a policy of unqualified entitlement. As we still live in a (partial) democracy, the welfare state is one aspect that is still under the nation’s democratic remit.

    It is this deranged culture of unqualified and unquestioned entitlement that has created a subclass who are state-dependent and whose children must also therefore be state-dependent.

  • carl marks

    Such asinine nonsense would come from a moral code that is espoused in most religions and philosophies, and of course you judged her you said she shouldn’t have had children if she could not afford them, ( I believe she is going to uni hardly a standard member of the underclass then)
    By the way how would you deal with her children?

  • carl marks

    oh and by the way as you pointed out you don’t pay into the pot so it’s a bit cheeky for you to get anal about what the pot is used for.

  • Alias

    “Such asinine nonsense would come from a moral code…”

    There implement your own moral code at your own discretion by donating your income to the appropriate charity.

    Why do you seek to enforce your particular fetish onto others? Surely if the majority shared your bleeding heart there would be no need to enforce such a code by taxation?

  • carl marks

    Alias

    I realise that your argument is not only wrong but immoral and you are unable to maintain it.. however if you must quote me quote me properly the statement was,
    “Such asinine nonsense would come from a moral code that is espoused in most religions and philosophies,
    not
    ” “Such asinine nonsense would come from a moral code,”
    I didnt make it up Buddha Jesus and Mohammad, the real Carl Marx and a few others got there before me.
    the Majority voted in the goverment who brought in the welfare state and i would guess that the majority support the welfare state.

  • The Raven

    “Kids cost money, and they’re not just for Christmas. Don’t have them unless you can support them. How hard is it to figure that out?”

    Your assumption is that this was some sort of free love arrangement. *Mrs* X came home from work to find him gone. I guess that notion of til death do us part occurs to some but not to others.

    You’ll be wanting to do away with the NHS next, because you haven’t needed it for years, and your hard-earned goes towards heart bypasses and Alzheimer’s medication for those inconvenient elderly people who – darn it – just won’t die quick enough.

    *whispers* You know you pay for street lights which are more than just the one outside your house…??