As the devastating impact of Welfare Reform becomes clearer every day, Goretti Horgan looks at the specific impact of the cuts on women, and shows the alternative that Stormont could have taken to avoid these measures.
There are so many awful stories about what I Daniel Blake’s director Ken Loach described as the ‘conscious cruelty’ of welfare reform, that the everyday stories of trying to make impossible ends meet are rarely heard. Those stories are overwhelmingly the stories of mothers trying to manage an ever-shrinking budget. Cuts to social security benefits affect women more than men because women generally have a lower income, live for longer and have greater caring responsibilities.
Drastic cuts to certain tax credit elements and the introduction of Universal Credit (UC) will penalise many women as primary carers and secondary earners. UC brings together six benefits, including all the means-tested out of work benefits plus Housing Benefit, Working Tax Credits and Child Tax Credits. UC is designed to be a monthly payment to one person in a household. This monthly payment makes budgeting more difficult and increases the risk of financial abuse for women in controlling relationships. In the North and in Scotland, people can get their payments twice a month, but everywhere, they go to one person in the family – that is usually the man in a heterosexual couple. Even in the most equal of relationships, this is a disaster for women because she is left with no money of her own….something most of our mothers warned us never to let happen!
Cuts to child-related payments for third and subsequent children are unfair to children; these cuts hit the North harder than any other part of the UK since we have more families with children and more children in those families. In GB, it disproportionately hits the incomes of BAME women, who tend to have larger families. Families get much less in benefits under UC and part of the reason for that is cuts to housing benefits, made worse by rising private rents. A University of Ulster report from 2009 found that here in the North of Ireland, on average, people living in private rented homes had to pay £20 a week to their landlord on top of their Housing Benefit (HB). Since then, HB has been cut while rents have risen – how much more is being spent on rent that should go to heating or eating we don’t know.
It’s worth briefly looking at just one of the provisions of Universal Credit (UC) that is so obviously consciously designed to take money from people who are struggling already to make ends meet that there is no other explanation for them than ‘conscious cruelty’. The minimum 5-6 weeks wait for the first payment is bad enough for people who are working and need their low wages topped up by UC; for those living on benefits, and therefore just about getting by, this 5-6 week period of being expected to live on fresh air puts them into debt and rent arrears, forces them to depend on friends and families – and on food banks. Then, when their money finally comes through, there is no back pay, instead they have to re-pay any emergency payments they have got from their meagre benefit.
People in the South of Ireland are only just waking up to what benefit sanctions mean. In the North and Britain, stricter conditions and sanctions for not ‘complying’ with them have made life even more difficult for lone parents and disabled people. And, it probably goes without saying to readers of Rebel, these cuts have not been accompanied by support to find suitable employment and services such as childcare or housing. Indeed, the Stormont House Agreement, in which Sinn Féin and the DUP agreed to introduce Welfare Reform, included an agreement to cut up to 20,000 public sector jobs at the same time as putting a lot more pressure on people to find jobs. These job cuts will and have impacted most on women workers. Women make up 65% of the public sector workforce, which provides the best quality work for women; the gender pay gap for full time employees is half that in the private sector. Family-friendly policies are more available in the public sector. Even if jobs become available in the private sector for women, it is unlikely they will match the pay and conditions of the jobs lost. This will result in a widening of the overall gender pay gap and worsening levels of female poverty.
It’s a small wonder then that the Fawcett Society has said that women and children will bear the brunt of 82% of all austerity cuts brought in across the UK. In fact, the extent to which women are the group most impacted by welfare reform is such that Philip Alston, the UN Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty said “There is a really remarkable gender dimension to many of the reforms…If you got a group of misogynists together in a room and said ‘how can we make a system that works for men but not women?’ they wouldn’t have come up with too many other ideas than what’s in place.”
How did we get here and how do we get this scrapped?
The question of welfare reform says so much about the priorities of the main parties in Stormont, that is, all of the 5 larger parties. The first Welfare Reform Bill was introduced to the Assembly in 2007 by SDLP Minister Margaret Ritchie. This contained the change that brought in sanctions that would see people losing their benefits as well as the move from Incapacity Benefit to Employment and Support Allowance and the hated Work Capability Assessment. It also brought in the private rented sector version of the Bedroom Tax – meaning that Housing Benefit would no longer cover most rents in private rented and would have to be topped up. Every party in the Assembly at the time was complicit in this. How? They all agreed to give the Bill ‘accelerated passage’ – meaning that it went through all stages (which normally take months, even years) in one day.
But by the time the Welfare Reform 2012 Bill came to the floor of the Assembly, everyone knew that welfare reform is a means of taking from the poor to give to the rich. There was huge opposition and all parties, bar the DUP spoke against it. There was a lot of public posturing saying that there would be no support for the move from Disability Living Allowance (DLA) to the Personal Independence Payment (PIP) which is designed specifically to make it more difficult for disabled people, particularly those with mental health related disabilities, to qualify for the benefit. But, in spite of all the protests, in Nov 2012, the DUP/Sinn Féin government awarded Capita the contract – worth £59.25 million to carry out PIP assessments in NI. It was one of the most obvious signs of politicians speaking out of both sides of their mouths – protesting against the introduction of PIP while giving out the contracts necessary to introduce it.
In January 2015, the DUP/SF government agreed the Stormont House Agreement – they agreed to cut up to 20,000 public sector jobs and to bring in the Welfare Reform measures. In return, Westminster agreed to devolve corporation tax to Stormont. So, in order to make sure that their business buddies would get millions in tax breaks, they agreed to take millions from the people who voted them into government.
The impact welfare reform is having on individual families also impacts the local economy. In 2013, research from Sheffield University found that the North would be the worst hit region of the UK; £750m a year is being taken out of the Northern Ireland economy. This is equivalent to £650 a year for every adult of working age. The financial loss to Northern Ireland, per adult of working age, is substantially larger than in any other part of the UK. Belfast is hit harder by the reforms than any major city in Britain while individuals in the Derry City Council area will be the hardest hit of all by welfare reform – with an average loss of £900 a year by every single adult in the city. Since some people don’t get any benefits, that average of £900 means that some people – most of them families with children and disabled people – will lose 2,3 even 4 and a half thousand pounds a year. And this at a time when the cost of living is rising.
There was an Alternative
Stormont had powers over social security that Scotland and Wales envied; the DUP/Sinn Féin government could have stood up to the Tories and refused to inflict the cruelty of welfare cuts on their voters; such a refusal would have electrified the campaign against welfare reform in England, Scotland and Wales and seriously weakened the Tories ability to make even more cuts (as they have done since 2015). Instead, as part of the Stormont House Agreement, they voted to introduce the Tory legislation from Westminster, letting the Tories do their worst. The Alliance Party voted along with them.
It’s true that refusing to bring in Welfare Reform measures like Universal Credit and the Personal Independence Payment might have brought about a constitutional crisis leading to the collapse of the Assembly – but that would also have ensured that the inhumane welfare cuts were seen for what they are. Sinn Féin was willing to collapse the Assembly just a year later over the RHI scandal – why would they not collapse it to protect the livelihoods of their voters?
The DUP/Sinn Féin government was under pressure from Westminster to bring in the cuts and was being threatened with fines from the Treasury to cover the costs of the benefits they were refusing to cut. Those fines could have risen to hundreds of millions a year, which would have had to come out of the Block Grant. Establishment politicians are notoriously conservative, so it was probably too much to ask them to collapse the Assembly. But, if they were not willing to do that, they could have said “ok, we are unwilling to bring Stormont down about this but we will spend the hundreds of millions that corporation tax would have cost the Block Grant to pay the Treasury the costs of the differences that we will insist on to make sure that our voters are not flung into destitution” e.g. we will pay the 5/6 weeks where claimants get nothing out of the block grant; we won’t bring in the Bedroom Tax and we will take the hit to the block grant for that; we will do what Scotland have done now and refuse to bring in Capita or any of those profit-hungry private companies to do the medical assessments for PIP; and we will not implement a 2-child policy – we will treat all our children equally and let the block grant take the hit.”
Instead of protecting their voters, the DUP/ Sinn Féin government chose to put tax breaks for big business first and, with the help of the Alliance Party, allowed the Tories to bring in the worst catastrophe to hit the North since the Troubles.