Tuesday, 30 September 2014

Until I'm Blue in the Face!

Welfare reform is a term we hear quite frequently these days. This so called ‘reform’ is said to be designed to save money. This is not true, what welfare reform will do is label the unemployed and deflect from the failings of those in government by manipulating the unemployment figures. After all, if you’re on one of those ‘work for your dole’ schemes you are not technically unemployed. Furthermore welfare reform will impact harshly on the poorest and most vulnerable in our society.

Yesterdays announcement that Stormont now faces legal action over the lack of anti-poverty strategy as outlined as a key element in the 2006 St Andrews Agreement came as no surprise given we still await a Bill of Rights. CAJ Director Brian Gormley said "It is particularly important that there is a strategy to alleviate poverty and ensure resources are targeted at those most in objective need in times when budget cuts are being imposed from London and there is the spectre of so-called welfare reform impacting on the most vulnerable in our society."

Welfare reform

In an October 2013 report Report commissioned by the Northern Ireland Council for Voluntary Action it was found that Welfare Reform will see £750m a year taken out of the local economy. This money will be taken from the poorest and most vulnerable in society with an additional £214 million in penalty payments taken from the Stormont budget.

Annual cuts to the following benefits:

Incapacity benefits are to be cut by £230m,
Tax Credits will be cut by £135m,
The 1% up-rating of most working age benefits is to be reduced by £120m
Disability Living Allowance is to be cut by (£105m a year)
Housing Benefit reforms will mean a loss of an estimated £20m in the form of bedroom tax.

A real cause for concern comes from the introduction of a Universal Credit  which will replace many existing benefits and see multiple benefits paid to the claimant in one combined payment. The idea of a combined payment is a real cause for concern for families who have difficulty in managing their household budget. If you are given a lump sum and you have to decide between paying rent or buying your children clothes and food you are going to put the needs of your children first, which will then lead to an increase in rent arrears and the possibility of homelessness. What about someone with an alcohol addiction problem? Are they going to think about paying rent when they have money in hand to buy alcohol?

Let’s look at the facts.

There are now 55,500 unemployed people in Northern Ireland, which is 6.3% of the workforce. Derry currently has the highest unemployment rate with every third child said to be living below the poverty line.

Study shows that there is a direct link between suicide and unemployment. Research has also uncovered a link between suicidal behaviour and having experienced traumatic and conflict-related events. Additionally there is evidence to suggest that the North of Ireland has high levels of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder as a result of the Troubles, which in many cases remains untreated.

In a study published by the Prince's Trust it was found as many as 750,000 young people in the UK may feel that they have nothing to live for. It was also found that almost 1/3 of long-term unemployed young people have contemplated suicide.

3,288 suicides were registered in the North of Ireland from the beginning of 1998 to the end of 2012, these figures have dramatically increased over the past two years.

A record number of anti-depressants were prescribed here last year with more than 100m anti-depressant tablets given to patients. The 2013 figures show an increase of 37% from 2008 in the number of people taking anti-depressants.

With the seriousness of  these issues we need to question how the British Government and their Stormont cohorts can justify such savage cuts in the midst of such suffering. In 2011/2012 it was found that tax avoidance costs the taxpayer £4bn with tax evasion costing £5.1bn per annum. Combined these figures account for about 1/4 of the £35bn which is lost to the British Treasury each year through the "tax gap".
Surely it makes more sense to fill in these gaps than to penalise the poor for the failings of government 

Another obvious solution to Welfare Reform would be to abolish the Northern Ireland Assembly Gravy train, which is about as useful as chocolate fire guard.

Let's look at examples of money wasted and the money that could be saved:

Firstly the reckless borrowing through Private Finance Initiatives accounts for £250 million per annum from the budget. In a report from the Northern Ireland Audit Office in January 2014 it outlined 39 PFI schemes in Northern Ireland that will cost more than £7bn over the lifetime of the projects. One example of this at a local level is the joint cost of building two schools in Derry which was 45 Million pounds – the end cost to the public purse is around 185 Million pounds. They must have borrowed from those who operate on a par with pay-day lenders!

The Audit office in a 2014 report went as far as to raise concerns over the transparency and accountability and affordability of the use of PFI. Stating that ‘The Executive does not have a published and transparent borrowing strategy, which sets out to ensure that total capital investment remains within affordable and sustainable limits. It is important that the affordability of the long-term spending implications of RRI borrowing is taken into account by the Executive and made visible to the Assembly. In our view, both the Budget and Investment Strategy for Northern Ireland (ISNI) documents should be underpinned with a borrowing strategy that is transparent to the Assembly.’ 

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg!

The ESA scheme which has recently been scrapped with £17 million wasted over a seven year period.

Invest NI spent £12 million pounds on property that’s never been used.

The Office (OFMDFM) has twice as many staff as 10 Downing Street and nearly as many as the Whitehouse. In 2010 the Office of the First and Deputy First Minister spent £16m on staff. In September of this year it was revealed 12 staff in OFMDFM operating credit cards have spent a staggering £2.6million in seven years on travel and accommodation expenses.

161 people work in the Stormont Press offices.

We currently have 108 Members with Limited Authority/Ability (MLA's) each receiving £43,101.00 in wages with the First and Deputy First Minister each receiving £71,434.00. This money would go along way, coupled with the money that would be saved on expenses, trips abroad, golf tournaments, subsidised canteen facilities (£250,000 per annum) not forgetting the £50,000 spent each week on hospitality.

And the frightening thing is that these people stand to have more powers devolved to them. If they cannot balance the books now, what calamitous disaster awaits us if they get more powers?

Let’s get real.... the British Government still rule the roost here hence the minimal powers devolved to the Northern Ireland Assembly, so surely the ending of Indirect British Rule even in the short-term is an option. Look at this as a way of cutting out the middle man, because either way ordinary people are shafted no matter who holds, or pretends to hold the reins of power!

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