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28 October 2004 Edition

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British anti-poverty proposals rejected

BY LAURA FRIEL

Sinn Féin's Dara O'Hagan

Sinn Féin's Dara O'Hagan

In a week in which it has been confirmed that Catholics in the north are still at least two times as likely to be unemployed than their Protestant counterparts, the Six-County Council for Voluntary Action (NICVA) has condemned the British Government's latest proposals to tackle poverty and inequality. The umbrella group has recommended that the community and voluntary sector should reject the NIO consultation document, New TSN - the way forward.

After 13 years of the Targeting Social Need initiative, statistics have shown that there has been no impact on the lives of people living in poverty in the north of Ireland. Without targets, timetables and proper funding, the new proposals, drawn up by the NIO and presented earlier this year, have no chance of succeeding, insists NICVA.

"The current proposals continue to be based on the same failed premise that poverty can be successfully tackled by singling out certain hard cases and attempting to skew existing resources towards them," says NICVA.

Rather than addressing inequalities within the distribution of wealth as a whole, the NIO hopes to get away with simply redistributing funding already within the strapped-for-cash public purse. In other words, rather than cutting a bigger slice of the cake, the NIO hopes to divide the existing meagre slice more evenly.

The spurious claim of the political right that unfettered wealth retention by the rich (less taxes) somehow filters down to alleviate the poverty of the poor is just a convenient myth. But tragically, it remains a potent fantasy undermining many social initiatives.

Relative poverty, a widely accepted way of measuring poverty, is about gauging the gap between rich and poor. In other words, it is about inequality and the distribution of wealth and resources. It's hardly surprising that any initiative that shies away from addressing this fundamental relationship is doomed to failure.

But devoid of the urgency of democratic accountability, the conservative ethos of the NIO is reluctant to grasp that particular nettle. Rather, it prefers to seek "to alleviate some of the worst effects of poverty without really dealing with the root cause of poverty and social exclusion - inequality", says NICVA. "Unequal societies have more poverty and social exclusion. Northern Ireland is an extremely unequal society."

Despite the fact that unemployment has fallen by two thirds in the last decade and rates of pay on average have risen by 25%, "the gap between those who earn the most and those who earn the least has been widening", says NICVA.

The failure of the TSN strategy is most clearly illustrated by the fact that those areas experiencing the highest levels of unemployment and therefore targeted for the government's special anti-poverty measures, have fared the least well from general economic growth.

The gap between the rich and poor has increased across all indices, in terms of access to employment, income, educational attainment and health. A clear indicator of the failure of TSN to date is the fact that there has been no change over the last decade in the number of people in the lower economic groups who suffer with long-term illnesses.

For NICVA, inequality is rooted in social class, 'the haves and the have nots'. But what the recently published Labour Force Survey clearly demonstrates is that in the north of Ireland, class relations are mediated through mechanisms of sectarian discrimination. It is not unique for class to be filtered through other dynamics of exclusion. For example, class relations in Apartheid South Africa were mediated through the prism of racism. Clearly, radical change in the north of Ireland needs to address the issue of sectarian discrimination.

Una Gillespie is a newly appointed member of the Equality Commission and coordinator for the West Belfast Economic Forum (WBEF). For Una, mechanisms of sectarian discrimination are part of the dynamic of social exclusion in the north of Ireland.

"The fact is that for decades, Catholics have been at least twice as likely to be unemployed than Protestants. In recent years, more Catholics have been able to gain employment but not at a rate commensurate with the growth of the Catholic population," says Una.

"Variations of the British Government's Targeting Social Need policy have been in place since 1991. It was introduced as a complementary policy to fair employment legislation aimed at reducing community differentials. But the policy has proven to be worse than useless," says Una.

In a response to the New TSN document, the WBEF accuses British Government officials of utterly failing to define poverty. "Rebranding an already failed policy as an anti-poverty strategy is an attempt to fool everyone, including people living in poverty, that this government is sincere in its desire to eradicate poverty," says the Forum.

"An anti-poverty strategy should contain clear commitments to meet defined targets with real numbers attached. Aspirations are not enough." The document goes on to criticise the British Government's lack of political will.

"Political will to tackle unemployment and inequalities, particularly the religious differentials, has been noticeably absent for many years but even more under British Direct Rule ministers," says the Forum. The WBEF recommends adopting a definition that finds people are living in poverty "if their income and resources are so inadequate as to preclude them from having a standard of living that is regarded as acceptable by Irish society generally". The forum also recommends the development of an islandwide anti-poverty strategy.

Sinn Féin's Dara O'Hagan says an effective anti-poverty strategy has to be seen as part of the process of conflict resolution. "It is Sinn Féin's view that tackling poverty and inequality in the north of Ireland is both morally and politically crucial," says Dara. And it is consistent with commitments made by the British Government in the Good Friday Agreement.

Poverty and inequality aren't insurmountable problems, says Sinn Féin. Instead of "tinkering around the edges" and engaging in "palliative short term measures" extra resources, fairer taxation and distribution systems hold the key to addressing the issue.

"It's not difficult if the political will is there," says Dara. "The problems have been identified. We know that older people, lone parents, the sick and people with disabilities are amongst the poorest in our society.

"We know that those who are unemployed, particularly long term, suffer from multiple effects of poverty, that nationalists suffer disproportionate disadvantage across all the indicators and that there are pockets of unionist disadvantage.

"We know that the areas which suffered the greatest conflict suffer from the highest levels of poverty and inequality. It is high time to translate that knowledge into action," says Dara.

For Sinn Féin, the failure of earlier poverty and inequality strategies is partly because they were civil service based and lacked the necessary political leadership to drive the process forward. "There is no substitute for real democratic accountability to ensure the necessary political will to implement progressive change," says Dara.

"Partition and the existence of two economies has had a detrimental effect on economic growth and wealth creation on the island of Ireland. "Inequality and poverty throughout Ireland requires urgent and immediate attention. Instead of the piecemeal approach we have in this consultation document, we need an all-Ireland anti-poverty strategy to address the issue of economics of scale and duplication of resources on such a small island while there should be sharing of best practice."

Fact file

Poverty in the north of Ireland

• 38% of children live in poverty. Half the children in poverty are living in households where at least one adult is in employment. Over 50% of children in West Belfast live in poverty.

• One in three lone parents regularly go without food to enable their children to eat. Children born into poverty are more likely to have a low birth weight and die in infancy.

• The average family in the north of Ireland is living on 79% of the income of the average in Britain.

• 33% of households suffer from fuel poverty, compared with 16% in the rest of Ireland and 9% in England. On average, over 1,300 pensioners suffer cold-related deaths every year.

• The gap between the rich and poor has widened. In 1990, top earners secured on average £300 a week more than low paid workers. In 2003, that gap had risen to £500.

• Women's average earnings are only 84% of men's.

• Catholics are twice as likely to be unemployed than their Protestant counterparts. Three times more people suffer long term unemployment compared to Britain.

• Over two thirds (69%) of households living in interfaces earn less than £5,000 a year. Overall, 45% of households in the north of Ireland earn less than £5,000 a year.

• Destitute asylum seekers who apply for support and accommodation are only entitled to 70% income support rates, payable in the form of vouchers. Asylum seekers are prohibited from employment during the first six months.

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