There is no solace, there is no peace of mind. There is only stress and crippling anxiety.
Let me give you an idea of what it looks like – what it feels like. It’s becoming suicidal because you don’t have the money to buy a loaf of bread and milk to ensure your growing teenagers have something in their stomach before school. It’s living in a bleak flat without floor and wall coverings with a fridge you can’t afford to fix. It’s leaving prison without the means to buy clothes and a pair of shoes. It’s sitting in the dark and cold for three days because you don’t have the money for heat or power. It’s moving into a flat after being homeless for years and spreading a coat on the floor to sleep on. It’s not being able to send your child to school because you can’t afford the transport. It’s watering down baby formula as you need it to stretch. It’s going without food because your child needed a new coat. It’s borrowing a tenner to get your daughter a balloon and banner for her birthday. It’s texting a relative stranger for cash as you have no one else to ask for money.
Bearing witness to the effects of extreme poverty has cut through to the very core of my being. It has shaped an overwhelming and frankly dogged urge to fight against the policies that have effectively escalated a spiral into the darkness of destitution. This fight has quite suddenly become more urgent as inflation is forecast to rise to between 7 and 8%. The cost of goods and services will become more unattainable for many. The cost of gas and electricity has risen by astronomical proportions.
Price hikes have been compounded by the recent invasion of Ukraine by Russia. Russia is the second biggest producer of crude oil. The ongoing conflict is likely to cause shortages across the world. It’s also worth mentioning that the government is planning to go ahead with its plan to increase national insurance contributions to fund the NHS and tackle growing pandemic related backlogs. All these measures will hit those on the lowest incomes hardest. As Torston Bell, Chief Executive of the Resolution Foundation commented, “we can’t prevent Britain becoming poorer, but we have choices about how the pain is shared. Benefits are set for a £10bn real term cut in 2022–23 and that will mean destitution for thousands of families unless something changes urgently.”
Recent research from the National Institute of Economic and Social Research suggests that the cost-of-living crisis will hit different areas of the UK with varying veracity. Northern Ireland will suffer most, with destitution estimated to rise by 67% – twice the rate of other areas. This equates to around 25,000 more households being unable to meet their most basic needs. This research doesn’t account for another nauseating wave of political crisis in Northern Ireland.
On 3 February the DUP decided to withdraw Paul Givan as First Minister, collapsing the NI Executive over outstanding issues linked to the Northern Ireland Protocol. Just before the institutions fell, the Executive managed to pass a scheme devised by Minister for Communities, Deirdre Hargey (SF), to provide around 280,000 people in low-income households with a £200 grant. This is a start; however, such is the rapidity of the increasing cost of fuel and electricity that real value of the £200 has vastly decreased. 300 litres of oil have rocked from around £200 to more than £500.
The British Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, has provided the devolved nations with around £300m of funds to respond to the escalating cost of living crisis. However, Finance Minister Conor Murphy has underlined that legal advice received from the NI Attorney General and others dictates that allocating this money in the absence of an Executive will not be possible under s.64 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998. This has led to a unified call from all other political parties for the DUP to get back around the table to swiftly sign off measures to get support to those who need it, immediately. I have echoed this call. I strongly believe that the lack of political leadership is causing – and will continue to cause – untold levels of suffering right across our society.
And yet, the DUP has remained steadfast in its decision to paralyse government here. Rather than utilising the available cash, the DUP has suggested lowering domestic rates. But it won’t help those people who are teetering on the edge of destitution. People who will fall easily into darkness. I find it unforgivable that one political party should use those in poverty as political pawns. Precious time and energy is being wasted considering complicated workarounds. This will involve emergency legislation that requires intervention from Westminster. I’m finding it difficult to contain my frustration at such a clumsy approach to policy making, particularly when you look at what Scotland has been able to achieve on a tighter budget. Our devolved settlement is increasingly looking untenable.
I’ve considered retorts from keyboard commentators who have pointed to Sinn Fein’s protracted absence from government (and, yes, we all felt that pain too) but it fundamentally overlooks the scale and urgency of the present crisis that is falling upon every low-income household in Northern Ireland. Now is not the time for finger pointing. Now is the time for a united response and good governance for the benefit of all people across communities who are increasingly concerned about how they will cope with the onslaught of inflation.
I believe the DUP’s refusal to return to the Executive (even for one day, as suggested by the Alliance Leader, Naomi Long) is politically futile, as EU focus shifts to the developing war in Ukraine. Irish Prime Minister, Micheál Martin, interviewed on the BBC programme, Sunday Morning, suggested that negotiations on the NI protocol would now take a backseat. In addition, the current British Government have time and again shown its lack of reverence for the 1998 agreement. Jonathan Powell, Tony Blair’s chief negotiator said “they just don’t seem to care” following the resignation of Brexit Minister, Lord Frost.
The other parties are not blameless in this precipice. The Northern Ireland Executive has for far too long failed to implement an anti-poverty framework – a long-range plan to tackle poverty and social deprivation. A plan which should be at the heart of healing our societies wounds. In 2015, following a judicial review challenge from the Committee on Administration on Justice (CAJ), the High Court ruled that the NI Executive had failed in its duty to adopt a strategy under the Northern Ireland (St Andrews agreement) Act 2006. Since then, there has been a growing catalogue of research, consultations and expert panel reports but, without implementation, these reports are simply a painful reminder of more wasted time and shattered visions available from the Emergency Fuel Scheme from £100 to £300 to reflect the rising cost of living, and to provide a better avenue of support for low- income households who are not entitled to qualifying benefits.
Improvements and extra financial resource for the of a better future. Growing poverty has been Discretionary Support system would also be compounded by over a decade of Conservative beneficial, as it is not limited to benefit eligibility austerity, which has ripped through the social and can support low-income individuals who find security system. A new benefit, Universal Credit, was created by politicians who believed they knew what was ‘fair’ for claimants and in the process have caused huge hardship and whole host of legal challenges.
The lesson of the last two years is that social security policy can rapidly increase quality of life for the poor. The £20 increase to Universal Credit protected thousands of people from massive economic shock brought forth by the pandemic. The decision to cut it was a political one. UK charities and left/right wing economists are now calling on the Chancellor to raise benefits by at least 7% rather than the planned 3.1%. While this may seem dramatic to some, the £20 rise in Universal Credit for a single man at 25 equated to a 27% rise.
What is the answer to the current crisis in the absence of a Northern Ireland Executive? This is a question that all political parties are struggling with. As purdah swiftly approaches, the quickest route is to provide additional support is through existing schemes and mechanisms. Politicians could grant a further £200 from the energy payment support scheme in April to those entitled to qualifying benefits. In addition, they could seek to extend and improve the ‘Emergency Fuel Scheme’ administered by Bryson Charitable Group from the end of March to at least the end of April. They could ensure that more money is provided to the scheme along with additional administrative support (potentially via themselves in financial crisis due to the rising cost of living. I was part of an expert panel, chaired by Professor Gráinne McKeever, appointed to review Discretionary Support. We had hoped the review would be published and any recommendations translated into legislation to improve the system – but that has not yet happened. We still hope the review will be published this side of the elections, but any implementation will fall to a new Executive, a new Minister for Communities and a new Assembly. It is vital this system of critical support is improved so it is as good as it can be. But relying on cash limited schemes in crisis situations symbolises a move away from a rights based social security system.
Finally, with the upcoming summer holidays in view, politicians could ensure funding is released to direct free school meal payments to those families entitled through the school holidays and encourage all families to have their eligibility assessed to ensure maximum uptake. I agree that this scheme should continue to run as planned until 2025.
In terms of tackling poverty, the above measures are yet another sticking plaster. They might prevent some households teetering on the edge of the destitution from falling in, but they won’t provide the long-term hope that is so desperately required. Ultimately, we need to see implementation of the long-awaited anti-poverty strategy. More importantly, the voices and participation of those Discretionary Support). This would ensure maximum accessibility for those on a low income who are not eligible to receive the £200 energy support payment, such as those on Working/Child Tax Credit. They could also change the amount who have felt the suffering and trauma associated with living on the breadline should play a key role. Northern Ireland needs a society security policy is that is fit for all. People need this system now. All of us will need it in the future.