By Dr Ciara Fitzpatrick, Lecturer in Law at Ulster University; Siobhán Harding, Women’s Regional Consortium; and Andy McClenaghan, Public Affairs, Policy and Communications Lead at British Association of Social Workers
A political vacuum
People in Northern Ireland are being crushed by the Cost-of-Living Crisis without the benefit of any socio-economic protection. We are victims of a country without a functioning Executive or Assembly, no caretaker Ministers in post and no direct rule from Westminster, with a near total breakdown in the governance of Northern Ireland. The political abandonment of citizens facing the severest financial crisis in decades is a major dereliction of responsibility. The fallout is significant, with many more people falling into the clutches of extreme poverty and unthinkable hardship, that we should not recognise in the 21st Century in one of the most prosperous economies in the world.
The lack of political stability in Northern Ireland over the last ten years coupled with Westminster Government-led austerity and cuts to public services means that the Cost-of-Living Crisis with inflation surpassing 10% has caused a bad situation to become completely catastrophic. The National Health Service is on its knees with patients struggling to get a basic standard of care in primary care and social care settings. Waiting times are the worst in the UK. “Economic inactivity” (28.3%) is higher here than in other UK regions (21.4% average), while wages are lower, the cost of childcare is higher in NI and poor mental health is endemic, with poor infrastructure preventing people getting the support they need – which some argue has led to increased drug related deaths.
Women are the shock absorbers of poverty
The female rate of economic inactivity (where women are more likely to rely on the social security system) has been consistently higher than the male rate. The proportion of women who are unable to work in the formal labour market due to looking after family is higher than the UK. Economic inactivity rates for women in the 25-34 age range with dependent children are higher than for those without dependent children. The difference in economic activity rate for men and women with a youngest child of pre-school age is 19.3%. Women who are relying on social security are further likely to impacted by punitive measures such as the two-child limit which limits the child element of Universal Credit (UC) and Child Tax Credit to the first two children born after April 2017. There are around 14,000 families in Northern Ireland currently impacted by this rule. The annual cut of around £3,000 per child fundamentally impacts the household’s ability to provide for the youngest members of society. It is most likely to be the mother who will go without food, heat and light in order to allow her children that dignity. The review of welfare reform mitigations, which was published just before Ministers left their posts, importantly recognised the impact of welfare reform on women and the need to effectively target women through mitigations. The review put mitigation of the two-child limit at the heart of its recommendations. Due to the lack of a NI Executive and the “black hole” in Stormont’s finances, it is unclear as to when implementation of the important recommendations in this review will be possible. We are pleased that the Chair of the Review Panel is contributing to this issue.
“Sometimes I struggle between turning the heating on and feeding the kids. As a mother you’d go without to make sure the kids have what they need. I’ve made dinner sometimes and there hasn’t been enough for everyone so I’ve lied and said it’s alright I’ve eaten so that I can try and make it stretch.”
Northern Ireland has habitually failed to develop and fund a Childcare Strategy, with consultation followed by delay after delay causing provision to lag behind every other jurisdiction. In England and Wales families can access up to 30 hours of free childcare per week for 3 and 4-year-olds. While in Northern Ireland children can access early education provided by the Department of Education’s Pre-School Education Programme, which only offers 12.5 hours per week. Notably, the Department of Education guidance stipulates that this is not to be regarded as free or funded childcare. While this is an important programme for children, its current design is rigid and the limited hours provided, means that it does not give the same flexibility to parents in Northern Ireland compared to similar schemes available in other parts of the UK.
“If I had to pay childcare I couldn’t work. I couldn’t afford £800-£900 out of my wages. Our parents share looking after the kids. I give them £200 a month and even though it’s not much it’s still a lot out of my pay. There’s no support for those working on low incomes.
The ability to work especially for women, is exacerbated by the crisis in social care which has seen unpaid carers have to assume care responsibilities which should be provided by formal services. It is estimated that one in five adults here now have some form of unpaid caring role, with women making up close to two thirds of the local carer population. Department of Health data shows that between October 2021 and August 2022 the number of people waiting for a home care package in Northern Ireland has risen by more than 60% reflecting the urgent need for reform of the system and another crisis in the social care workforce.
“Carers are the silent sufferers. Government don’t care about us, we’re just left to get on with it, they don’t value the work we do. Because you love the person you care for, you are going to do it anyway and Government know that.”
“Carers feel like they are beating their head against a wall after coming through a horrendous two years of a pandemic. Carers have crumbled and they don’t know how to come back up again. And now there’s no one at Stormont to do anything about it.”
“Carers can’t get the help they need, waiting lists are getting longer, they can’t get the equipment they need anywhere. They feel lost and they are getting nowhere, the system needs to change.”
The crisis in housing
As identified in the last issue of View Magazine; affordable housing is a perennial problem in Northern Ireland. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) found that Northern Ireland has a greater proportion of homeowners in poverty than the rest of the UK and that twice as many of Northern Ireland’s mortgaged households were behind with their mortgage repayments (14%) compared to the whole of the UK (7%). Due to the colossal waiting lists for social housing (43,971) more and more people are turning to the private rental sector. The NI Statistics and Research Agency (NISRA) outline that the average weekly rent in the private rental sector is £22 more than the social sector. For those people on UC and other income replacement benefits the situation is perilous. 82% of private renters relying on UC to afford their rent have a shortfall between the amount of support they receive from UC and the amount of rent they owe. The average shortfall is £119 per month. The Cost-of-Living Crisis which is increasing the price of basics will undoubtedly create additional pressure for both social and private rental tenants to meet their housing costs.
“I work full time and pay my taxes. It’s very hard when you’re doing everything society tells you to do and you’re still struggling. It would help if work paid better and there was some help for people working on low incomes especially with rent. I earn £950/month in wages and £500 of that comes out in rent which doesn’t leave much. Eviction is always a prospect. I got a letter saying I’d be evicted if I didn’t make arrangements to pay my rent arrears.”
Problems exacerbated by poverty are placing intense pressure on a wide range of public services. We are pleased Professor Ray Jones, Chair of the Independent Review of Children’s Social Care Services is contributing to this edition of View magazine. The once in a generation review he is leading comes at a time when the number of children in the care of social services is the highest on record since the introduction of the Children (Northern Ireland) Order 1995.
There is an established link between a family’s socio-economic circumstances and the chances that their children will experience neglect or abuse, with the likelihood and severity of neglect or abuse increasing as poverty worsens.
Research published in 2017 by Queen’s University Belfast, found that children living in the most deprived areas in Northern Ireland are six times more likely to be placed on the Child Protection Register and are four times more likely to become looked after by social services than those in the least deprived areas. Addressing poverty to alleviate both the human and financial costs associated with children and young people entering the care system has never been more urgent.
The Community and Voluntary Sector will bear the brunt of the crisis
The Community and Voluntary Sector (CVS) in Northern Ireland is accustomed to filling the gap that is left by the lack of political institutions, this is particularly acute in the context of the Cost-of-Living Crisis. However, yearly funding cycles coupled with the uncertainty and lack of transparency in respect of the Northern Ireland Secretary of State passing a Stormont budget in the absence of an Northern Ireland (NI) Executive has implications for staff morale and retention as the constant risk of redundancy looms for CVS workers.
At the recent ‘Crushed by the Cost of Living’ event in Stormont, the Reverend Brian Anderson from East Belfast Mission said of the Cost-of-Living Crisis: “It is impacting us at East Belfast Mission…we can’t afford to stand in the gap much longer…we will because of our Christian faith and who we are…but we can’t stand in the gap much longer, we need help from the government not for us but for the community.” Also speaking at the event, Trása Canavan, Head of Policy at Barnardos NI said: “When I think about the Covid Emergency there was a feeling that we were all in this together…our Assembly was there and delivering a lifeline to NI families, businesses, and schools…and what is happening now? The Cost-of-Living Crisis is here on our doorsteps…with nothing in the way to protect them.” Without a NI Executive, and the progression of key strategies (such as the Anti-Poverty Strategy) the CVS is further curtailed in responding to the needs of the people they support as they are forced to focus their energies on tackling the persistent social symptoms of political stagnation.
The perils of dealing with the symptoms of poverty and the Cost-of-Living Crisis is clearly demonstrated through the latest foodbank figures from Trussell Trust which show that charitable food aid is increasing in NI. Mid-year statistics reveal that the distribution of emergency food parcels went up 25% compared to the same period (April-September) last year. The figures also revealed that 10,000 people have been forced to turn to a foodbank in the Trussell Trust Network for the first time – which is a startling indication of what is to come. Foodbanks face ‘breaking point’ as they struggle to meet the demand of those who can’t afford to put food on the table.
Problems Compounded by the Cost-of-Living Crisis
The recent Northern Ireland Life and Times Survey (NILT, 2022) provided a worrying baseline in respect of the financial health of the population. The survey, which had a section on attitudes to poverty, economic hardship and social security took place during the final quarter of 2021 before the current Cost-of-Living Crisis really started to bite. The NILT found that 26% of the respondents participating reported a decline in household income. In addition, the most common means of dealing with dealing with financial hardship was to borrow from friends and family (44.6%) or to increase credit card debt (26.6%).
The findings from the NILT in respect of borrowing and credit align to a report carried out by the Women’s Regional Consortium which found that women used a range of borrowing, much of it high-cost credit, as well as a significant amount of informal borrowing from family/friends. The research found that the Cost-of-Living Crisis was the issue most reported as impacting on the participants debts and on their ability to make ends meet more generally. Informal lending through family and friends is likely to be impacted, with wider support circles increasingly struggling with the Cost-of-Living Crisis and therefore, people may be increasingly forced to seek financial support from more expensive or illegal lenders including paramilitaries. The association between debt and poor mental health issues was also evident in this research. Many women were struggling to not only deal with their debts, the impact of the Cost-of-Living Crisis but the anxiety and mental health issues that accompany these pressures.
“There are nights I’ve sat and cried when no one else is around worrying how I’m going to cope. The next day you just have to get up and get on with it. If I fell apart the whole house would fall apart.”
“There’s nothing to lift the stress. I don’t buy anything for myself, I will go until things are threadbare. I don’t go out, I don’t smoke, I don’t drink, I just can’t afford it. I just go to my work and come home and that’s all there is.”
The risk of destitution is increasing across the UK. Destitution means that the member(s) of a household are unable to meet their most basic needs (heating, eating, keeping warm, turning on the lights and maintaining a basic level of hygiene). The National Institute of Economic and Social Research (NIESR) has used economic modelling to estimate how inflation will impact on different parts of the UK. Northern Ireland is projected to have more than twice the average increase in destitution. The UK headline projection is 30% because of the differential impact of inflation upon those in poverty – in Northern Ireland the figure is 67%. This would bring the total number of destitute households to around 25,000. The NI Consumer Council’s Expenditure Income Tracker underscores the point that destitution is a real risk for many households. In September 2022, when inflation reached 10.1%, it found that NI’s “lowest earning households” (an average income of £12,200) have been left with only £29 per week after paying bills and costs, meaning that one unexpected bill could plummet individuals into destitution. The NI Consumer Council points to fuel, food, and transport as the financial pressure points.
Fuel poverty (a household is said to be in fuel poverty if it needs to spend more than 10% of its income on energy costs) is set to be concentrated in Northern Ireland. Research carried out by the University of York found that over half of households in the UK will be in fuel poverty by January 2023 – with significant regional differences – the figure in Northern Ireland came in at almost 72%. It is acknowledged that this research was published before Prime Minister Liz Truss announced the ‘Energy Price Guarantee’ scheme. However, certain pinch points contribute to the likelihood that Northern Ireland will experience disproportionate fuel poverty. Firstly, there remains a lack of clarity on the administration of the £400 Energy Bills Support Payment and the £200 payment for oil heating. It has been suggested by the Utility Regulator that it could be January 2023 before any payment is made. Two-thirds of the Northern Ireland population rely on oil heating, compared to around 5% in the rest of the UK. It has therefore been widely acknowledged that the £200 support payment suggested for oil heating will not be sufficient to meet the needs of the population. Finally, while the Energy Price Guarantee scheme will release pressure on those struggling to pay for energy, the NI Consumer Council has outlined that energy bills are more than double what they were a year ago, and in some cases, almost three times what they were. Research by the NI Consumer Council published in October 2022 estimates that around 34% of households (247,000) are currently in fuel poverty. This means that significant challenges remain, particularly for those who are most marginalised, such as those with disabilities. There was some relief when it was revealed that pensions and work-age benefits would rise with inflation, but this will not happen until the new financial year. It is unclear how households who rely on the social security system will cope in the meantime.
“Some weeks I either get electric or gas but I can’t get both. Some weeks I just have to put coats on and use hot water bottles for heat. I use about three to keep me warm. If I prioritise the electric then I go without heat. I am struggling with the increases in the energy bills especially electric which has more than doubled for me.”
The draft budget, which was passed in Westminster, by the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland provided cold comfort for those living in the grip of this Crisis. The overriding message was that Government Departments must “live within their means.” The Education budget seems to be in the firing line, with the Department expected to make significant efficiencies. Representatives from the sector have warned that this will impact schools’ ability to provide resources for pupils. These efficiencies are to be made in the context that the education budget in Northern Ireland has fallen in real terms by 5% (since 2009/10). The reductions in spending coupled with 6% population growth will culminate in even larger spending cuts per pupil. The Covid learning gaps will be compounded by the mental and material pressures mounting on parents and children because of the Cost-of-Living Crisis. Educational underachievement, particularly amongst working class boys will remain a significant problem.
A bleak mid-winter
The picture is incredibly bleak for many people, children and families in Northern Ireland. There is no light at the end of the tunnel for those who are crushed by the Cost-of-Living Crisis. We can’t continue in this cycle of perpetual crisis, which is characterised by division and bitterness. The implications of the current poverty purgatory are the compromised futures of thousands of our children and young people who are feeling the pain and the indignity delivered by lack of resources and disadvantage. We need political leadership, and we need it now.
“This Winter I am more or less petrified because of the Cost of Living Crisis. I got a letter in from the gas saying it’s going to go up again – that’s another increase and paying more for units of gas is really worrying me. I’m worried about the fact that we’ll have to choose whether to feed my baby or heat the house and it’s really worrying me as a first time mum. I’m really stressed as I’m off on maternity leave and we don’t have enough income coming into the house.
I’m just really worrying about this Cost of Living Crisis and where it’s going to leave me and also with my mental health, I’m struggling with anxiety after a traumatic birth.
So I’d really appreciate it if Stormont could actually step in and do something about it and help all the single parents and families and people that are working out there because this is a Crisis.”