Back of the helping hand

Jim Larkin clipped Welfare reform will badly affect the working poor, John O’Farrell explains. The debate draws a false picture of people who need benefits.

As anyone who has had to deal with a small child or a fundamentalist will testify, the difficulty with stubborn people is that their inability to take in facts that contradict their perception just comes across as stupidity.

It is a mistake to think that sulking kids are stupid. Quite often, the little blighters are playing out a tactic which they know will work. This is less of an option with fanatics, as in the case of Iain Duncan Smith. It would be ludicrously easy for this column to attack IDS as a “venal and cynical” political opportunist using “bogus and even sinister” claims to support his ‘reforms’ of welfare. Anyway, this column did just that last January.

In the intervening year, the story has only moved on to the degree that welfare reform is a real live issue for Northern Ireland. Research carried out for NICVA by researchers at Sheffield Hallam University demonstrated the scale of the damage. Welfare ‘reform’ will inflict upon the economy. £750 million will be sucked out of local pockets and purses each year and redistributed to HM Treasury in London.

This eye-watering sum puts into context the open threats delivered by Mike Penning, a junior Minister at DWP, dispatched to Belfast last month to bully MLAs into accepting the cuts: “While this is ultimately a devolved matter, I am concerned about the lack of progress that has been made which has already cost over £30 million in lost savings and this figure is increasing by around £5 million every month.”

This led to a public row between the DUP and Sinn Féin – just as Mr Penning intended – but both parties are extremely nervous about alienating core parts of their vote and have been delaying for months the return of the Bill to the Assembly. If the changes are to happen under the declared timetable, they will have to be debated for the final legislative stages by January at the latest.

In his 2012 speech to the Conservative Party conference, George Osborne forged the image which encapsulates the entire debate, in all its vindictiveness and duplicity: “We think it’s unfair that when that person leaves their home early in the morning, they pull the door behind them, they’re going off to do their job, they’re looking at their next-door neighbour, the blinds are down, and that family is living a life on benefits.”

The duplicity of this comes from the fact that benefits for the working poor are under attack. The vindictiveness of this line comes from the assumption that most people do not know this.

Among those who should know better is Trevor Ringland, who uses his blog in the Belfast Telegraph to promote “a ‘Team Northern Ireland’ approach to tackling social, economic and political problems.”

Such as poor people. Trevor the Tory rowed in with the welfare reformers, attacking NIPSA for their ‘Grim Reality’ billboards. “NIPSA is guilty of frightening people about welfare changes which are fair and necessary,” Trevor explained. “The reforms are about targeting benefits at the people who need them most and ensuring that, for those who can work, taking a job is the most lucrative option.”

According to the NICVA research, cuts in tax credits will affect 165,000 Northern Ireland households. 54,000 homes will suffer from changes to housing benefit, with 33,000 fined by the ‘bedroom tax’. Many, if not most, of those households contain at least one working adult.

There are 5,000 vacancies for the 60,000 unemployed, and hardly any one-bedroom social homes for refugees from the bedroom tax to live in. If ‘Team NI’ want to do right by the working poor, they should agitate for a living wage. Or they could try telling the truth about welfare ‘reform’.

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