#SluggerSoapbox: Who speaks for poor children in Northern Ireland?

Professor Paddy Hillyard occupies the chair in Social Policy at Queens University in Belfast. His most research has focused on poverty, conflict and inequality in Northern Ireland, and the range of the social harms which people experience from the cradle to the grave.

A draft budget has been circulated for consultation. The heads of some of our most powerful institutions have received extensive publicity on how the cuts will affect them. But who speaks up for poor and disadvantaged children in our society?

At the beginning of November,  the Child Poverty Alliance – a group of over 60 organisations in Northern Ireland working for or on behalf of children – launched a book in the Long Gallery in Stormont called  ‘Beneath the Surface:  Child Poverty in Northern Ireland’.

The event was supported by Chris Lyttle of the Alliance Party. There were presentations from Professor Mike Tomlinson, Goretti Horgan and myself. Dawn Purvis chaired a question session attended by Minister O’Dowd,  Junior Minister McCann and Emma Lewell Buck, MP – a member of the Labour Party NI team. Despite invitations, no other Ministers attended.

The next day not one of the main newspapers reported the event. Child poverty is clearly not high on the political agenda.

In the last decade, around 100,000 children in Northern Ireland each year have grown up in poverty according to the official definition. The Institute of Fiscal Studies predicts that this figure will increase to over 130,000 by 2020.

A report out this week show that the current government’s welfare cuts and changes in taxes have transferred a significant amount of income from the least well-off half of the population to the more affluent in the past four years.

The estimated cost of child poverty here is a staggering £757 million per year in extra spending on services to deal with the consequences of child poverty (£368m), extra benefits and lost taxes (£151m) and loss of earnings to individuals (£218m).

But the cost of eliminating child poverty is less. It is estimated at £675million – around of 7% of the total Northern Ireland budget.

To eradicate child poverty we must increase the resource to poor families and reduce their outgoings.  At the same time, we need to promote the well-being of children and poor families. We can do this through the following essential measures.

We need to introduce a minimum income guarantee, give support to the living wage, regulate zero hours contracts, introduce environmental job creation schemes, including zero carbon social housing.

To reduce the outgoings of poor families with children we need universal child care, a free school day, breakfast clubs, access to affordable credit and advice, retrofitting insulation and other measures to reduce energy costs.

The wellbeing of poor children and young people can only be achieved if the wide educational gap is eliminated. This will require increasing the unit of resource to primary schools, ensuring the additional funding reaches the poorest pupils, expanding Sure Start, and expanding programmes to help parents support their children’s learning.

How is it to be paid for?

  • First, the immediate priority must be to poverty-proof every proposed cut in the NI budget. For example, it makes no sense to maintain the unit of resource to universities while slashing the budget to further education colleges which provide educational opportunities to the poor and disadvantaged.
  • Second, we need to reverse a number of key Executive policies that have distributed resources to, or reduced the contribution of, the more affluent, such as the abolition of prescription charges and the cap on the rates.
  • Third, we must increase the amount which the better-off contribute through local charges and taxes. Powers are limited and require creativity, but a progressive rating system or the introduction of a Land Value Tax, would be a start.
  • Fourth, we must unpack the policies and structures which lead to a sizeable proportion of the existing budget rewarding the better-off.

This level of public welfare to the more affluent cannot be fair, when so many of our children are raised in poverty. Here are a few examples.

In the legal profession in 2013/14, one prosecuting officer’s pension pot was increased by a staggering £470,000, 10 barristers were paid £4 million from the legal aid fund, with one barrister receiving over £1 million.

In the health service, one manager retired on a pension of £75,000 per year – five times the average – together with a lump sum of £205,000. In a 5 year period, up to 2010/11, 657 consultants received £57 million in clinical excellence awards.

In education, the number of QUB staff earning over £100,000 increased by one fifth over the last 5 years.

Unfortunately, despite numerous and often confusing changes in the strategies to deal with the problem, reflecting the different attitudes and opinions about child poverty in the two dominant political parties, Northern Ireland still does not have a comprehensive, integrated, evidence-based, outcome-focused and above all,‘costed’ strategy to end child poverty.

Poverty has become a matter of statistics. We need urgently to give a voice to children behind the figures. If our politicians will not do it, civil society must.



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