At the NICVA offices along the Duncairn Gardens on Wednesday, an important conference was held to open up debate about the future of welfare reform in Northern Ireland. It was one of those crisp autumn days which one likes to think of as typical of the atmosphere of cool, reasoned thinking. After heated debate over welfare reform and the budget throughout the summer, which seemed to rock the foundations of our devolved political institutions, the conference, titled, “Welfare Reform: The Reality,” created a calmer space outside of the political environment to examine these fraught issues.
It wasn’t lost on the hundreds of people gathered in the room that this conference coincided with the arrival of US envoy Gary Hart, who began meetings with Northern Ireland politicians today in order to help plot a path towards a sustainable resolution on a series of outstanding issues, among which, in addition to the legacy of the Troubles, include welfare and the budget. The talks, a continuation of last years failed Haass-O’Sullivan talks, formed much of the subtext of the day. As some have pointed out already, if the Assembly collapses, welfare reform can be implemented in its entirety, immediately, and without any of the mitigating measures negotiated previously.
To open the day’s proceedings, a video montage was shown, which juxtaposed clips of Prime Minister David Cameron speaking on the necessity of welfare reform and getting people back to work with images of protest and discontent. The video captured the first major theme of the day: the radical disconnect between the policy makers in Westminster and those that suffer the unintended consequences of the coalition Goverment’s reforms. The BBC’s Karen Patterson, who hosted the conference, introduced NICVA Chief Executive, Seamus McAleavey, who in turn welcomed the audience. McAleavey made one very interesting point before he returned to his seat. He said, the problem of welfare reform was “not an issue of the making by the parties in the Northern Ireland Executive. They effectively are left to deal with the issue by a decision that was made by the coalition in Westminster.” This theme, the second major them of the day, returned repeatedly: that the Executive is left to minimise the damage of dysfunctional welfare reforms not of its own creation while at the same time balance its own budget and steer the government out of the red—a task that may prove insurmountable.
Storey, giving one of his first major speeches as a minister, seemed genuinely open to debate and discussion. “The issues that are raised here today will be listened to and will not be ignored,” he told the crowd. “We need to move the debate beyond the financial consequences, and to how to best use the welfare system to tackle poverty and bring people back into employment.” He said that he understood the concerns raised by NICVA and others in the room about the dangers of rolling out welfare reform and how it would affect the most vulnerable in Northern Ireland. Then very soberly, he said, “We are now at the stage where the financial consequences of not doing welfare reform are so high that continuing to simply say no is not an option. At this point, we should be debating how best to change the social security system in Northern Ireland, rather than refusing to reform the system.”
His speech laid out for the first time in detail the mitigating measures that former DSD Minister, Nelson McCausland, negotiated with the Department for Work and Pensions to help shape how welfare reform could be implemented in Northern Ireland. These mitigating measures include default bi-weekly universal credit payments (they are paid once a month in Britain), flexibility for lone parents (who are often sanctioned for not taking up offers for work in Britain), and direct payments to landlords (in Britain, the benefits recipient is to pay the landlord out of their single monthly payment). He also said he would protect against the worst aspects of the bedroom tax by creating a separate fund of over £17 million for each of the first years of the policy which will be used to protect current tenants from any reductions. Most of this was welcomed by those in attendance.
But the question and answer period that followed the speech was limited to one question, which came from a representative of Tar Isteach, an organisation that provides welfare advice in North Belfast. The woman’s voice, strained with anger, but also laden with grave concern, asked how the minister planned to protect 37 individuals who she works on behalf of, all over the age of 55, whose households will lose £6,000 a year under the current plans, and who have no access to hardship funds. To this the minister attempted to bring the mood back to one of exploration and optimism, but he couldn’t. The tone for the day had been set. The anger, despair, and hopelessness under the surface seeped into the room. Northern Ireland, no matter how you break it down, is facing a welfare disaster when it implements the proposed cuts. The minister apologised for having to leave early, and left to attend meetings elsewhere.
What ensued were three devastating presentations from advice workers from England, Scotland, and Northern Ireland, all with a single message: these cuts push people beyond their ability to cope and don’t accomplish what they were set up to do. Steve Cullen from Warrington CAB walked the audience through the guiding principles—simplify an overly complex British welfare system and get people into work—and the intended consequences of the reforms. The reforms are meant to reduce face to face claimant interviews through more online interaction. They’re meant to give more personal responsibility for household finances; increase use of bank accounts and direct debit; draw down benefits fraud and minimise error; and create a system more responsive to up-to-date and accurate personal data. All of this is grounded in the principle DSD Minister Storey had outlined earlier: that we need “a welfare system that promotes personal and social responsibility and which strengthens individuals, families and local communities.”
But the current reforms are not working as intended in Britain. As Warren explained, the unintended consequences of the bedroom tax, universal credit, sanctions and other measures instituted through the reforms are problems such as increased levels of household debt, increased homelessness, decreased levels of household spending, family breakup, domestic abuse, and severe impacts on mental health. In Scotland, said Lynn Williams, the charity sector has seen a rise in the use of food banks, with many people reporting delays in benefits as the main reason for need.
The speakers all drew attention to a wider context of a stagnant economy, cuts to public spending, and the rising costs of essentials like gas, electricity and food. They pointed out that neither wages nor social security payments are rising in line with inflation, meaning they have much less to spend every year. And they pointed out that the majority of people on benefits live in a household where at least one person works full time. The poor, it was emphasised, are working, but they’re not paid enough to meet basic needs. “It sounds like a complete horror show,” Karen Patterson said as Cullen finished his presentation.
Warren made a side comment that I thought stood out. He mentioned our own welfare reform mitigations here in Northern Ireland and lamented that they were unable to negotiate these for England. To me this suggests our politicians have succeeded, to some extent, to resist the worst of the coalition Government’s reforms, and protect Northern Ireland, with all of our unique issues, from even further damage. But Mary McManus, the manager of East Belfast Independent Advice Centre, gave voice to a common feeling in the room as she ended her talk. She said, “Why would you introduce something that’s not working. That causes harm. It just doesn’t make sense.”
Which brings us back to Storey’s argument that we are now at the stage where the financial consequences of not implementing the reforms, because of the penalties we’ll incur, are so high that continuing to simply say no is not an option. Newton Emerson, a critic of the voluntary sector and largely skeptical of measurements of UK poverty, Tweeted out during the conference:
Nicva should have faced up to its misrepresentation of welfare reform costs before organising another conference on the subject. Shameless.
— Newton Emerson (@NewtonEmerson) October 29, 2014
Emerson has been critical of NICVA claims that welfare reform will take £750m out of the local economy. But as one of the speakers pointed out, there’s another question that needs answering. How has the Treasury calculated its £87m in 2014 and £114m in 2015 fines for not implementing welfare reform? Not even the Secretary of State knows how the fines are calculated.
At the end of the conference, I caught up with McAleavey to see if there was anything to be hopeful about—was there anything other than despair to take away from the day. Northern Ireland, having control of welfare and social security, can make a difference, McAleavey told me. “I think the hope is that the debate around welfare reform, no matter what happens, no matter what the next stages are in Northern Ireland, the debate is going to continue to go on. And it will continue to go on in England, Scotland, and Wales. The social security system will continue to change. And I think there’s a lot there to be argued for that people start changing it to be better. So it will not end, it will not stop just because the government now introduces a certain set of proposals. That can all be changed again in the future.”
[I’ll makes a full recording of the conference available in this post tomorrow, please check back if you are interested]
I write about faith, democracy and culture from a Christian and centre-left perspective.