What Northern Ireland can tell us about welfare reform

By Bernadette Meaden
May 4, 2017

Imagine if, when Iain Duncan Smith began his welfare reforms, we had allocated an area of the UK where the reforms were not implemented, as a sort of control group for comparison. This would enable us to see how people would have fared without welfare reform. Well, to a large extent this actually happened - in Northern Ireland.

In Stormont, a refusal to accept welfare reform was one of several issues that caused a political crisis, resolved in November 2015 by the Fresh Start Agreement, between the DUP, Sinn Fein and the British and Irish governments. This meant that reforms introduced in Great Britain in 2012 only started to be implemented in in Northern Ireland in 2016. And the bedroom tax was simply rejected outright.

As the Belfast Telegraph reported, “The welfare impasse, caused by Sinn Fein's refusal to sign up to the proposals, has been overcome by the Executive committing to spend £585 million, over the next four years, to provide top-up payments to those losing out under changes to the benefits and tax credit systems. The DUP and Sinn Fein have insisted the controversial so-called bedroom tax will not be introduced in Northern Ireland.”

Professor Eileen Evason, who was clear that in Great Britain people were dying due to welfare reform, was appointed by Stormont to chair the Welfare Reform Mitigations Working Group to decide how to spend the extra funding.  

The Report recommended supplementary payments to assist carers, people with ill health or disability, and families – the main groups considered to be adversely affected financially by welfare reform.  It also proposed supporting and protecting those who may struggle with complex changes, through a robust structure of independent advice. It also made recommendations to protect claimants from the hardship that may occur as a result of the inappropriate application of sanctions.

On Universal Credit it said that in addition to the safeguards already secured - fortnightly payments, split payments and payments direct to landlords –there should be a scheme to assist those on low wages for whom Universal Credit will provide decreasing support. It also recommended that emergency payments should be available to prevent hardship arising from any problems with the IT system.

The Report was accepted in full by the NI Executive and passed to the Department for Social Development to implement the recommendations.

So, in Northern Ireland there will be no bedroom tax at all, and other reforms implemented in the rest of the UK several years ago only began to be rolled out in 2016. Universal Credit will not start in Northern Ireland until September 2017, so the soaring rent arrears, foodbank use and payday loans associated with the flagship of welfare reform are yet to be visited on Northern Ireland. Thanks to the sensible modifications secured by the Assembly it should not be as damaging as it is proving in the rest of the UK.

Is there any indication as to how the people of Northern Ireland have fared, practically unaffected by welfare reform?

One of the underlying assumptions of welfare reform was that many people were ‘workless’ as a lifestyle choice. So how does Northern Ireland compare to the rest of the UK as far as unemployment is concerned? According to the latest figures, the unemployment rate in Northern Ireland is lower than in London, the West Midlands, and the North East of England.  

And how is the welfare of people in Northern Ireland faring, in the absence of Universal Credit, the bedroom tax and benefit sanctions? According to Trussell Trust figures, foodbank use in Northern Ireland is lower per head of population than in many other regions of the UK. Interestingly the Trust says that the foodbank use that does occur is mainly driven by low income, whereas in the rest of the UK benefit changes, delays and sanctions are a big causal factor.

And whilst Northern Ireland was the area  of the UK hardest hit by the recession following the banking crisis, figures released today (4 May 2017) in an  ONS Poverty Bulletin show something remarkable. Whilst in the UK as a whole child poverty figures have been rising and are set to rise even more steeply, according to these figures, which relate to 2015/16, in Northern Ireland they were falling. To look at this Poverty Bulletin and see several graphs showing absolute poverty falling in every population group is remarkable. 

Of course this is just one set of figures, and a more detailed analysis is due to be released in June/July 2017. But if these figures are anything like a true reflection of the situation in Northern Ireland, they are very powerful evidence. It would indicate that by accepting welfare reform Great Britain has condemned its poorest and most disadvantaged people to increasing poverty, whilst Northern Ireland, by rejecting welfare reform for as long and as far as possible, has managed to protect them.

The Welfare Reform Mitigations Working Group’s report can be read here


© Bernadette Meaden has written about political, religious and social issues for some years, and is strongly influenced by Christian Socialism, liberation theology and the Catholic Worker movement. She is an Ekklesia associate and regular contributor. You can follow her on Twitter: @BernaMeaden 

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