Rachel Woods is the Green Party MLA for North Down
Christmas is around the corner and once again big business is doing a great job telling us about the luxurious Christmas food we should be eating, the fines wines and spirits that will enhance the festive spirit and the expensive presents that will glitter and glow under the Christmas tree.
Christmas can be a particularly difficult time for families living on low incomes. However, the reality for many is that the pressure doesn’t just come during the months leading up to Christmas. Families are enduring a year round struggle to put food on the table and maintain a decent standard of living in the face of rising costs, stagnate wages and changes to the benefits system.
Indeed, the number of people using food banks across Northern Ireland has risen by 29%. Figures from The Trussell Trust documented that from April-September this year, 17,571 three-day emergency food supply packages were issued and half of these (7,260) went to families with children.
Sadly, these figures only provide a snapshot of the problem because we know that many other people rely on other local food banks or emergency support network. The number of people using foodbanks across Northern Ireland is significantly higher.
There should be no shame in using a food bank but it’s a sad indictment of our society that food poverty is endemic. There are many cruel manifestations of food poverty – for example, the reality of holiday hunger whereby children and young people miss out on meals in the absence of school meals during school holidays. Recently, Children in Northern Ireland revealed that they have encountered young people who have shoplifted, sold drugs or eaten tissue paper to minimise hunger.
The impact of food poverty is stark – good nutrition is vital to development and plays a crucial role in growth, development and learning. Financial insecurity and food poverty are inherently stressful experiences and exposure to chronic stress takes its toll on physical and mental health.
We know that food poverty and food bank need is driven by in work poverty, rising costs and changes to the benefits system. On the social security front the worst is yet to come. I’ve been working on a cross party basis to address the cliff edge situation we face whereby in March 2020 welfare benefit payment top ups are due to come to an end.
The ending of these mitigations will spell disaster for many, particularly families already facing hardship. Single parent families and people with disabilities are set to be impacted the most when mitigation measures come to an end next March. These are the very people we ought to be protecting, not penalising through the reform of the welfare system.
The experience of welfare claimants should sound the alarm for us here in Northern Ireland of what could be down the line. People across the UK have had to wait five weeks or more for benefit payments, are in receipt of low benefit payments or have experienced a change in their payments and as a result, food bank usage has rocketed. Without the continuation of the mitigations, let alone reform of the welfare system, even more claimants across Northern Ireland will be hit hard.
That’s why I, along with colleagues from other local parties, have written to the Secretary of State asking for urgent action to extend the mitigation package beyond March 2020.
The Secretary of State can and should act on this matter, irrespective of whoever it is after this election. A Joint Inquiry on welfare policy in Northern Ireland by the Work and Pensions and Northern Ireland Affairs Committees reported that, “There is…no good reason why the UK Government cannot bring forward legislation to extend the mitigation package.”
People in need across Northern Ireland are facing increasing hardship as the government at Stormont continues to malfunction and the country is distracted by an unnecessary Westminster election and the shambles of Brexit. Unless urgent action is taken, worse is yet to come after March 2020.
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