Joseph Rowntree Foundation’s Julia Unwin: “Why Fight Poverty?” (Law Centre NI lecture)

LawCentreNI squareThe Law Centre NI’s 2015 social justice lecture was delivered on Monday evening in the Belfast harbour Commissioner’s Office by Julia Unwin, chief executive of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation.

If you want to find out more about Joseph Rowntree, the man with a sweet tooth and social conscience, and his continuing legacy listen to this short interview with JRF’s Julia Unwin.

Law Centre director Glenn Jordan’s introduction reflected on the phrase “the poor will always be with you” and set out some of the (alarming) statistics:

23% of children in Northern Ireland live in poverty. [Latest figures for 2013/4 were released in September.] The UK average is 17%. Figures for children in West Belfast rise to 40%. Child poverty in Northern Ireland is now highest amongst working families.

Julia Unwin began by noting her impression of Northern Ireland’s resilience throughout her regular visits over many years. Away from politics and violence, she also referred to a resilience demonstrated by those experiencing poverty.

She called for a new social settlement to ensure that the poor are not the first to be negatively impacted by new state policies. She argued that while digital change brings opportunity, it also proffers great risk with the atomisation of lives, risks to privacy, the connectiveness of those who can wreck havoc (particularly on the most vulnerable).

Child poverty costs the UK government £29bn annually.

Wider than government policies and processes, even systems of retail/utility charging can penalise those who can’t pay in advance and have to pay extra to top up. Eye watering offers of goods for a small amount per month over several years offer instant reward but a route into debt.

Rather than waiting for government, Julia Unwin encouraged society to vary the conditions they are already free to alter. HR policies could be poverty-proofed. (Statistics show that four out of five people going into poorly paid work are still in poorly paid ten years later.) Businesses could screen their charging policies to avoid biting hardest on the poor.

She made suggestions around 3Ps: Pockets, Prospects and Place.

In conclusion, Northern Ireland has an opportunity to organise around social justice and against poverty. When people make bad decisions or suffer bad circumstances, intervention should help make these brief and not the causes of lasting poverty. Business and government should work on their resilience: aware and ready for global shocks and surprises. Services should be designed and implemented so that people on low incomes can live decently.

JRF is focussing on what’s needed for whole of UK to be free of poverty and prosperous.

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