The Big Interview: Professor Eileen Evason talks to VIEW about welfare reform

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In a wide-ranging discussion, VIEW editor Brian Pelan talks to Professor Eileen Evason about poverty and welfare reform in Northern Ireland and the ongoing struggle to achieve equality and tackle inequality

VIEW: With regards to poverty, how far have we progressed in terms of equality for people in Northern Ireland who are suffering from the effects of it?

A: We have to distinguish between poverty and equality. You could have a society that has some inequality but doesn’t have any or very little poverty. And then you could have different kinds of societies where poverty is inevitable. Over the last 30 years the UK has moved to a neo-liberal model and that means high levels of inequality and growing poverty. Whilst pensioners are less likely to be in poverty now, we have had a growth in low pay and insecure employment. A major problem in Northern Ireland is families in working poverty. Alongside that we have the disability issue. That is not surprising as we have had 30 years of poverty alongside conflict. You then get a disproportionate concentration of people with ill health. Just as we were starting to move to a better place in the UK the economic crash happened in 2008 and that moved us back again. Another problem over the last 30 years is the way in which benefits and services have been cut. Austerity has come back with a vengeance.

Q: A recent study from Imperial College London and published in the medical journal The Lancet found that poverty and poor education are linked to ill health and early death. Will the welfare reform measures ease or exacerbate the situation in Northern Ireland in terms of equality and inequality.

A: What they will do is provide some help – a significant amount of help. The 2011 Welfare Reform Act was brought in for Great Britain but didn’t apply here initially. We then had a very long debate here, which was followed by a very long stalemate. I was then asked to produce a report on how we would mitigate the effects of the Welfare Reform Act in November 2015. I produced the report in about six or seven weeks and we now have a programme in place. We now have help to assist people from the effects of welfare reform, for example, the bedroom tax won’t apply here, The welfare mitigation package is a four-year programme and will be reviewed in three years’ time. We don’t know what will happen after that. The cuts have come in but we have had help. The effects of welfare reform are nothing like we have seen in Great Britain.

Q: Do you accept the criticism from Green Party leader Steven Agnew who said he feared people had been “conned” by measures designed to helped those most affected by welfare cuts and that the welfare mitigation package appeared to be “the renaming of an already existing budget”.

A: The Discretionary Support Scheme has now replaced what we use to call the Social Fund, but the Social Fund was a minute fragment of the benefits system. I don’t like and I am totally opposed to what the Conservative government has done over the last 10 years. However, it was becoming very clear by late 2015 that we had two options. Either we got welfare reform from England – tooth, nail and claw, or we got welfare reform with mitigation and alleviation. The sensible thing was to choose the second option. What would Steven Agnew have done?

Q: What happens after 2020 in terms of welfare mitigation?

A: There has to be a review. This is a time-limited package. It is up to community groups, voluntary organisations and women’s groups to follow what happens and decide which bits that work and which bits they are going to campaign to keep. I particularly didn’t want to do the report. My first thought was to get the plane out of here. But the fact of the matter was that something had to be done and I decided to do it.

Q: There have been some concerns expressed from those who work in front line advice services that the Welfare Reform Advice Services Consortium (made up of Citizens Advice, Advice NI and the Law Centre NI)) won’t be able to deal with the scale of numbers from people who need help with benefit decisions. What do you think?

A: It only started its work last November so I am surprised by those concerns. The criticisms may well be correct but we need to give it some time. My work on welfare mitigation had to be very fast to get agreement between the political parties. The process was very rushed and I would have preferred if we didn’t have to make the cuts in the first place. I would also have preferred if I’d had six months to complete my report.

Q: What about those critics who would say that you have a contradictory position on welfare reform in that you say you were opposed to it, but by delivering your report, you helped to deliver it.

A: The issue was would we get welfare reform without the mitigation. I was very concerned that we would end up saying to welfare claimants that we had a chance to get some help but we chucked it away.

Q: What are your views on the idea of a universal basic income being introduced in Northern Ireland (whereby all citizens or residents of a country regularly receive an unconditional sum of money, either from a government or some other public institution, in addition to any income received from elsewhere) to help alleviate poverty and address issues of equality and inequality.

A: We have to think very carefully about how we do social security and living in a society where so many people just can’t get work. The UK as a whole has a much more niggardly, mean attitude towards people in need. The philosophy is that nobody should get tuppence unless they can prove that they have a dire need for that tuppence. The idea of a universal basic income is simply counter to the attitude we have.

Q: New figures in the Northern Ireland Poverty Bulletin in 2016 have revealed that 25 percent of children were living in poverty in the year 2014/15. This is an increase compared to 23 per cent on the previous year. Are they being denied their equality rights?

A: It is a very serious situation to have a society where a quarter-of-a-million children are living in poverty. That is a consequence of inequality in income. This is also a consequence of a government making cut after cut.

Q: Does the film I, Daniel Blake (directed by Ken Loach), which looks at the effects on a man struggling with changes in welfare benefits, have a specific message for Northern Ireland.

A: The message is that we must maintain the advice and support services we have. We must also retain that structure after 2020. We also need to address equality in terms of employment and wages.

Q: What are your views on the effects of a hard Brexit being implemented in terms of the equality situation.

A: If we get a hard Brexit we will really be in trouble, especially in Northern Ireland. All bets will be off then. It’s like a perfect storm. I don’t know where we’ll be then in terms of welfare reform. I’m appalled by it. I haven’t felt so depressed by what’s happening around it in a long time.

Q: Where are we now in terms of implementing equality in Northern Ireland?

A: We know there has been progress in terms of employment. In terms of managing class and religious divisions, we have made much less progress. One of the things that always bothered me about the equality agenda is that it has never touched the real thing – which is class.

To see the latest issue of VIEW on equality, go to http://eepurl.com/cDo47P

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