Guest blog by Siobhán Harding, Policy and Research Officer at the Women’s Support Network. Siobhán is a member of the UK ESCR Network.
The combination of a lack of local government in Northern Ireland, the ongoing impact of welfare reform policies and a cost-of-living crisis has created a perfect storm pushing many people into poverty, debt and even destitution.
This was clearly highlighted in an event entitled ‘Crushed by the Cost of Living’ held in Stormont which brought together those with lived experience of poverty to call on local politicians to take urgent action.
The impact of the cost-of-living crisis
Steep rises in the costs of essential items have caused many to struggle to put food on the table and heat their homes. Recent Trussell Trust statistics show that between 30 April and 1 September 2023 nearly 10,000 people in Northern Ireland needed to turn to a foodbank for the first time, an increase of 10 percent on the same period the previous year.
We know that economic crises tend to hit women harder, and the cost-of-living crisis is no different. Research by the Women’s Regional Consortium and Ulster University paints a stark picture of women’s lives increasingly occupied with hunger, cold, debt and anxiety about themselves and their children.
We also know that this is a human rights issue. The UK has signed up to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR). This sets out that we all have certain human rights, like the right to adequate food and housing, the right to health, the right to social security, and the right to education. By signing up to this agreement, the UK Government and the devolved administration in Northern Ireland have a duty to uphold these rights, but this is clearly not being done.
Rising debt levels
Concerns over rising levels of personal debt are growing and the Northern Ireland Life and Times Survey shows the vulnerabilities in the financial health of the population. It found that around 25 percent of households could not afford to pay an unexpected £500 bill and that the most frequently reported means of dealing with financial hardship was to borrow from friends and family (44.6 percent) or to increase credit card debt (26.6 percent).
The Women’s Regional Consortium research on Women Living with Debt found that 60 percent of the women surveyed for the research reported difficulty meeting their repayments or missing repayments on their debts. It was clear that living on benefits or in low paid work often did not provide enough income for women to afford the essentials or meet their households’ bills without resorting to debt, despite the right to social security being protected under ICESCR.
What is even more concerning in Northern Ireland is the issue of paramilitary lending, where paramilitary groups offer illegal loans to communities living in poverty, including many single mothers struggling to make ends meet. This has not been helped by cuts to the Discretionary Support budget, meaning less help is available through the social security system for those in crisis situations. A report published by the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee into the effect of paramilitary activity in Northern Ireland highlighted how the structure of Universal Credit, the lack of a Northern Ireland childcare strategy and high cost of childcare all contribute to the precarious financial situation in which some families find themselves in.
Priorities for a restored Northern Ireland Assembly
We have an opportunity with a restored devolved Assembly to make a real difference in the fight against poverty and financial hardship in Northern Ireland. We need to see the urgent implementation of an Anti-Poverty Strategy with cross-departmental funding to tackle growing poverty levels. We also need to see progress on the recommendations of two important reviews published when the Assembly was collapsed, including:
- The Discretionary Support Review which recommended protecting the budget for Discretionary Support and found that it provides an important source of borrowing for those on the lowest incomes helping to divert people from illegal lending such as paramilitaries.
- The Welfare Mitigations Review which recommended a number of payments to low-income families including offsetting the two-child limit which is contributing to rising child poverty levels.
Taking actions in these areas would help to protect the everyday rights of people in Northern Ireland giving them the potential to thrive not merely survive.