The Benefits Crunch Spotlight


The Benefits Crunch

Hard-hitting investigations. Julian O'Neill investigates whether welfare reforms will break the benefits culture or push the poor to the margins.


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Transcript


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We are one of the poorest parts of the UK and big change is coming. In

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the midst of economic gloom, or we face cutbacks in benefit payments.

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How dependent do you feel on the welfare state? 100 %. There is no

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other way I could get an income. The national government cannot

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afford the current welfare bill, so it needs to find ways to cut it

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down. But it is hard times for the hard up. You can't buy what you

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want when you want it. And Northern Ireland's four main churches are

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worried? It there are no jobs, why are we penalising them for not

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getting into work? Northern Ireland is facing a Perfect Storm. It is

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the biggest ever shake-up of our benefit system as the Government

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slashes welfare spending to tackle the deficit. It also meant to

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encourage people to work at a time of growing unemployment. Stormont

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has endorsed the cut, but what they used it and if they do, at what

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I am visiting a scheme which is keeping families above the

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breadline. This warehouse in Dunmurry on outskirts of Belfast

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axe as a fee is centre operated by a church run a charity. Its

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volunteers are sorting emergency suppliers for delivery to people

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struggling to get by. People do get benefits, but it does not meet the

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need of their household. Families are choosing between heating their

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home and eating. The his initiative is small compared to the scale of

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our problems, but it helps 60 households in Belfast each week.

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But food is being parcelled up for collection by individual charities.

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This place have been busy for the last hour or so. You get a sense

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that yes, there is a benefit system which helps many people, but in

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some cases it is simply not enough and many people have become

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dependent on this kind of charity. People have mortgages and net

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income. We have had families tried to sell their goods, at their car,

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put things on eBay, just to get by. -- their car. The entire UK economy

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is struggling and the downturn shows no sign of ending. The UK is

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in the red and the government is determined to get the deficit under

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control. In times of increasing hardship and high inflation, people

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are feeling the pinch. Pensioners like Alan and May McFarlane have

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seen the cost of living assault. They live in Rathcoole on the

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outskirts of north Belfast. haven't got a drop of oil. It is it

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their existence. People do not realise just how bad it is for

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pensioners. We do not like to talk about it. It is a taboo subject

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because if your family hears about it, they turn round and say, we

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will do this, we will do that. But it is depriving them if they do.

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This is a single heater. I go to bed early because I think upstairs

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is warmer. I got up there every night at 6 o'clock and bring a

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couple of hot water bottles with me. That is just the way it is.

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Electric has gone up, the oil has gone are, everything has gone up,

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except the pension. Saying that, they did give us a massive rise of

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�2. It is in this climate that the government has launched a

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widespread reform of our benefit system. Westminster is targeting

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savings in welfare by reforming disability allowances and housing

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benefit. Under the reforms the total that is being spent could be

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reduced by 500 million. Some say the full extent of the gloom is

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only beginning to emerge. There is a gradual a wakening of the impact

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of all of this. We know that inflation pressures are pushing up

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bills. Every household is finding it difficult to make ends meet.

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People have yet to realise the full extent of the cuts that are

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happening. As well as reducing spend, Westminster is determined to

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stamp out eight benefits culture. It promises a simpler, fairer

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system book she -- which aims to get people off benefits. People who

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think it is a lifestyle choice to be on benefits, it will come to an

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end. The what could it mean for us? One thing is clear, change will be

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felt in Northern Ireland where one in every 10 households is totally

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dependent on benefits. And this is one of them. It is a single-parent

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household. Are you not meant to be going for a sleep? Kirsty is 20

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years old, unemployed and raising a young toddler. The cost of

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childcare is one reason why she is in no hurry to find work. Kirsty

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lose in a Housing Executive property in Newtown art. She get

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�550 a month in benefits, but says it is not enough to live on.

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Newtownards. -- Newtownards. How dependent do you feel on benefits

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and the welfare state? 100 %. There is no other way I could get an

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income. I have to get my self in debt with family and staff to meet

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the needs of Kimberley and myself. The Government is targeting people

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like Kirsty. To its mind, she typified a welfare state which can

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sometimes be an easy alternative to working. But she disagrees and is

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going to night school to improve her chances in the job market.

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got a standard jobs with no qualifications, I would be worse

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off than what I am at the minute. By the time I was to pay for

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childcare, rents, essentials and everything else, if you are making

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200 a week, �70 will be gone on rent. After childcare, there is

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nothing. Do you get annoyed when you hear people talking about

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benefits punchers. Yes. Don't get me wrong, some people do it, but

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not everyone and we should not be stereotyped. They do not know how

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we are struggling. Hard times are really hard. They will not have a

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clue if they had bobbin on benefits. Little Kimberly was born into

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financial hardship. Just like her mother, her father is also

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supported by benefits. Her father, who has two other children, is on

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good terms with Kirsty, but lives separately. He says he's

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jobseeker's allowance pays hint sixes �7 every fortnight. Had he

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been living on benefits for a long time? - Mark �67. A for most of my

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life. How old are you now? 24th. ever since you left school? More or

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less. The money from the dull, you cannot live off of it. I would

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rather be working. I have got three children. I would rather be out

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working to support my children and myself rather than the state

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supporting them. The dull, it just isn't enough money to live off. --

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The statistics show how higher our reliance on benefits is in Northern

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Ireland. One in seven children live in a household where no-one is in

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employment. The number of households without an adult in a

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job stand at 121,000. Plans to reform the benefit system includes

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the creation of a universal credit. A welfare reform bill currently

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before Parliament will accelerate changes. The full impact is two

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years ago, but already reductions in social security are biting and

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it is uncertain how we will absorb the cuts, given hour level of

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poverty. Eileen Everson is an expert on the welfare state.

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think Northern Ireland is in the gravest position I have seen for

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many years. We are facing a Perfect Storm. First of all, we have got

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climate change. The prospect of another harsh winter. Secondly, we

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are still in recession and there is rising unemployment. Thirdly, the

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cut in benefits. It is a recipe for disaster. Others believe belt-

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tightening reform is necessary and argue it there is evidence the

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Even from the research that we have done, you will see people when they

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give you figures for how much money they would need to come back to

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work, you are talking �300, maybe �400 a week in some cases, because

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that is the equivalent money that they are able to get on the benefit

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system. Now, if we think about that, we have a society here where it is

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possible to get more money not working than it is in the minimum

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wage. The financial reality is that the national government can't

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afford the current welfare bill, so it needs to find ways, quite

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urgently, to get that cost down. One cost is specifically high on

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the hit list. It's Disability Living Allowance, or DLA, which

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last year in Northern Ireland set the Exchequer back �753 million.

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It's claimed by one in every 10 people, the highest proportion of

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the population anywhere in the UK. Primarily for this reason, the

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Institute for Fiscal Studies predicts we will be among the worst

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hit by reform measures in the years ahead. And the job of selling this

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benefits revolution is underway. I've about 20 minutes to outline

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the basic plans for the Welfare Reform Bill in Northern Ireland and

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I'm sure you appreciate that this Bill represents one of the largest

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pieces of legislation enacted in Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

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This event is organised by campaigners who want to protect DLA,

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which will be re-versioned as a Personal Independence Payment.

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Fewer people will qualify because of reassessments, in particular

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those with mental health problems who make up our largest proportion

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of DLA claimants. I've come here to find out more about the concerns of

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people like Alan and Heather Owens, both of whom are blind yet have to

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go through a process of re-testing. We are proud dignified people. This

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helps us to the proud, independent lives. I would like to say that Mr

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Cameron talks about benefits not being permanent. I would like to

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say our disabilities are permanent. The Coalition Government has

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announced last year in the Budget statement last year that it

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intended to see a reduction up to 20% in the expenses and costs of

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DLA. I'm not sure if that remains the policy intention, but they

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certainly are looking to ensure that the resources are focused on

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those most in need. At home in Belfast, Alan and Heather are

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uncertain if they will be worse off under the new benefit. But they are

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worried and have joined a national campaign called the hardest hit.

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went to London to lobby MPs at Westminster. I think if these

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proposals come into place there are a lot of people who are going to be

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very, very wary regarding their benefits. They could be vastly

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reduced, or even some of them could be removed. Yes, I worry. It is a

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big fear factor, it is a big unknown factor. It is the not

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knowing what's going to happen. It's being reassessed again. I

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would be very nervous, although I have nothing at all to hide. But I

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am very nervous in going through the process again because I have

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gone through it once. And, you know, it is the thought of answering

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questions, filling forms in, all this. It's just basically the fear

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of the unknown. We are not spongers. We are not chancers. We have a

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genuine disability. Some people are losing out already.

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Patricia Lyons works on the frontline of debt crisis. She's an

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advisor at the Citizens Advice Bureau on Belfast's Springfield

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Road. Hiya, Stephen. Are you in for your appointment? Take a wee seat.

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Almost half of the people helped through this office rely on

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benefits. I'll just give you these. I mean these forms are just a

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minefield. In my opinion, it's designed to actually confuse you

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and without these people, well, we'd just be going nowhere.

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workload has increased as a result of one of the benefit cuts already

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introduced. No, at the minute you are not entitled to any Housing

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Benefit at all. Your income is too high. OK. Sorry about that. No

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probs, 'Bye. The rates of housing benefit have been cut, so they have.

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And it is leaving them massive shortfalls for people to make up

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the rent. And where do they make it up? Because private landlords are

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increasing the rents year on year, they are not decreasing them. It is

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just a vicious circle at the minute. That change to Housing Benefit

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caused a stir at Stormont recently. It's all to do with the concept

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that benefit entitlements are identical throughout the UK. It's

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known as the principle of parity, but of the devolved administrations

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only Stormont has the autonomy to break it. It dates right back to

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the formation of Northern Ireland. So say, for example, the Assembly

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decided to make a particular payment more generous, or indeed

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ignore a benefit cut. Well, the cost of that difference would have

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to be found from within the Executive's block grant, not by the

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Treasury in London. Economist Esmond Birnie was once an MLA and a

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special advisor to an Executive Minister. The logic eventually may

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be that to some degree we begin to run our own system of social

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security and welfare benefits to, after all, reflect our own

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particular local circumstances which may not be, and certainly are

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not, identical to those in the South East of England. But it has

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to be said this is a big ask. And it will be very challenging, and it

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is ultimately a political decision and a political dilemma for the

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Executive in Stormont. DUP Minister Nelson McCausland is responsible

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for Social Security. He is the man who could drive any move to go it

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alone, but three weeks ago he backed the status quo. In the

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Assembly, Sinn Fein pushed to reject changing Housing Benefit but

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was rebuffed because it would have taken �9 million of Stormont money

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to fund annually. Parity is not rigid. Members should not treat the

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issue as though it is. It can be contested without being broken, and

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that is what we need to do. obvious consequences for the

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Northern Ireland block if parity were breached cannot be

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underestimated. Without parity and the associated funding, the

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Northern Ireland Social Security system would probably be

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unsustainable. So, the Minister has ruled out using Stormont's unique

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power to break with parity. But there is something Nelson

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McCausland is prepared to do, that's fight fraud. His department

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is cracking down on benefit cheats, with more than 50 convictions last

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month alone. Fraud seems to get us exercised. Members of the public

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were behind a third of tip-offs made about swindlers to the Social

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Security Agency last year. The sums involved added up to nearly �20

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million. Big money, but yet it's less than 0.5% of our total benefit

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spend. Nelson McCausland has his own blog and on it he says that

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welfare reform is one of the biggest issues facing Northern

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Ireland. He's not short of opinion, but he declined the opportunity to

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be interviewed by Spotlight. We wanted to talk to him about the

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issue of parity in particular. Instead, his office sent us a

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lengthy statement. In it he says he is very conscious of people's

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concerns. He believes that the Bill does afford Northern Ireland the

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opportunity to reduce the number of people dependent on benefits and,

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crucially, he says, that breaking parity could have serious

:19:52.:20:02.
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implications for Northern Ireland. He said that breaking parity could

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even lead to a situation where a claimant in Newcastle County Down

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could get less than another claimant in Newcastle and England.

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We can reveal concerns from another quarter. Our four main church

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leaders recently met Secretary of State Owen Paterson and told him

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the cutbacks would create greater hardship. In a joint statement made

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This cleric explains the thinking behind the meeting with Mr Paterson

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two weeks ago. Nobody wants the lifeboat of welfare to become a

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lifestyle, a permanent lifestyle for anybody, but here in Northern

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Ireland that lifeboat has over 100,000 children on income poverty

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in it, with their families. It has the highest levels of rural poverty

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fuel poverty and so on in the UK. Lets create opportunity, that's the

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challenge. If there are no jobs for these people to go to, why are we

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penalising them for not getting to work? There is no reason why

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welfare reform, which is a welcome development, shouldn't be sensitive

:21:29.:21:31.

to regional needs, not just in Northern Ireland, but in other

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parts of the United Kingdom. So, our politicians, either in

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Westminster or locally, should be lobbying for that and looking

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creatively at how they can address the needs of the incredible number

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of very vulnerable people here in Northern Ireland on welfare. Could

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Northern Ireland not argue that it's a special case? Therefore, it

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needs more money, not less? That's an argument that's been trotted out

:21:53.:21:57.

a lot and I have to be quite frank and say I don't think it can make a

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special case. I don't think it can make that case. If you spend any

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time in the North East of England or in Wales or in other parts of

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the economy there are places in just as much difficulty and

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economic challenge as we have here today. And we have almost got used

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to the idea that we have some sort of special dispensation. The honest

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answer is, we don't. And if we think we need to do something

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differently it's in our heads and not on the Westminster Government's.

:22:20.:22:23.

But our politicians stand accused of being uninspired, of failing to

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explore other practical ways to help. I think the Executive and the

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MLAs, the Assembly as a whole, need to understand what's going on, and

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then think about what they can do to alleviate the hardship we face.

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If we have a very harsh winter, the principle of parity does not mean

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we couldn't open up leisure centres and provide places for people who

:22:39.:22:43.

are elderly or disabled or whatever to go to so they are in a place

:22:43.:22:50.

that's safe, that's warm, where they can get a hot meal. While

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Stormont appears to feel helpless in the face of Westminster, the

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blow from benefit cuts is beginning to affect everyday lives. This is

:22:58.:23:01.

Tullycarnet in East Belfast, where the community centre is a venue for

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benefits advice clinics. Adrian Glackin is well-placed to offer a

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frank analysis. I would invite Mr McCausland to come to any of my

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advice clinics and actually see what it is like on the front line.

:23:20.:23:23.

I accept that the deficit budget does need to be reduced and the

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benefit budget probably is too high. But is it right that the Government

:23:26.:23:29.

save the money at the expense of the most vulnerable? That is the

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problem that I have with the benefit cuts. It's not the fact

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that the money needs to be saved. If it is in a fair way, and its

:23:36.:23:40.

phased in over a period, that people do not suffer, but at a time

:23:40.:23:43.

when inflation is now 5.2% and the cost of utilities has increased

:23:43.:23:46.

massively, and it's up maybe 30% in terms of things like electricity,

:23:46.:23:49.

and benefits are being cut, then individuals who are on benefits are

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being squeezed both sides. They are finding it hard to get benefits and

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they are also finding it hard to pay their bills, which they need to

:23:56.:23:59.

pay as a result of the benefit cuts. Our recovery from recession will

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lag behind the rest of the UK, costing more jobs. Unemployment has

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been rising. The recent figures show more than 61,000 people

:24:05.:24:14.

claimed unemployment benefit in September. It's going to be a hard

:24:14.:24:17.

cycle to break. I've come to a project in West Belfast to meet

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some longer-term unemployed. They're attending a course designed

:24:25.:24:31.

to boost their confidence and self- esteem. You have been out of work

:24:31.:24:35.

for about four years? Over four years now. Existing on benefits, is

:24:35.:24:43.

it an easy life? No, it's hard. Especially when you are used to

:24:43.:24:50.

your own independence and bringing in your own money. It's very hard.

:24:50.:24:54.

But you just have to get on with it. It wouldn't bother me at all taking

:24:54.:25:00.

a lower paid job. Just to get back to work again. But there are no

:25:00.:25:03.

jobs out there, virtually none, and if there is, there are usually

:25:03.:25:10.

about 300 or 400 in for the one job. Earlier on we had a chat about

:25:10.:25:14.

perceptions of the unemployed people. The mentors run these

:25:14.:25:16.

workshops regularly. They say the overwhelming mood is one of

:25:16.:25:21.

frustration. People genuinely don't want to live on benefits. I have

:25:21.:25:25.

yet to meet somebody who says, look, this is a brilliant way to be. I

:25:25.:25:28.

love this life! You don't hear those stories. These people

:25:28.:25:31.

genuinely want to get out and get into employment, but for whatever

:25:31.:25:34.

reason, and they are multiple, they haven't been given the support or

:25:34.:25:36.

backing. Whether that be financial and just through training, they

:25:36.:25:41.

haven't been given that support. The Government wants its benefits

:25:41.:25:45.

reform to encourage people back into work. But the timing couldn't

:25:45.:25:49.

be worse. The predictions are that the unemployment rate is going to

:25:49.:25:52.

increase. People are going to lose their jobs and become reliant on

:25:52.:25:56.

the benefits system and they may get a shock. I mean, our advisors

:25:56.:26:00.

hear on a daily basis for people that are new to the benefits system,

:26:00.:26:06.

they would hear clients say to them, is this it? But the squeeze is

:26:06.:26:10.

wider still. The bigger picture is there will be a lot less money in

:26:10.:26:15.

the local economy. The coalition in London is talking about reducing

:26:15.:26:18.

benefit spend in Great Britain by about �10 billion or more over the

:26:18.:26:23.

next four years. If you read that across to Northern Ireland, in very

:26:23.:26:27.

crude terms that could be �400 to �500 million per annum. Now that

:26:28.:26:30.

would be quite a challenge to the Northern Ireland economy in terms

:26:30.:26:33.

of reduction in, obviously the most notably, spending power and income

:26:33.:26:35.

for households and individuals, reading across into general

:26:35.:26:43.

conditions in the economy. Back at the charity food centre, they can

:26:43.:26:48.

only do so much. A bit like the welfare system, they are feeling

:26:48.:26:54.

the strain. We are finding people from every part of Belfast, and

:26:54.:26:58.

actually every sort of social group. We have had families that you would

:26:58.:27:02.

have probably called middle class who have found themselves in need.

:27:02.:27:05.

People who have never been on the benefits system before, people who

:27:05.:27:08.

have worked all their lives and through redundancy and through

:27:08.:27:14.

changes in lifestyle circumstances are in desperate need. At least the

:27:14.:27:18.

pension is safe from cuts and the Winter Fuel Grant will soon come to

:27:18.:27:22.

the rescue of Jimmy and May McFarland. But there's a catch.

:27:22.:27:27.

They'll be getting less thanks to the Chancellor's budget in March.

:27:27.:27:30.

And you're simply waiting it till you get your Winter Fuel Allowance?

:27:30.:27:34.

I am waiting until I get my Winter Fuel Allowance and then I will put

:27:34.:27:38.

that to what money we have saved to get a larger amount of oil at the

:27:38.:27:45.

best price we can. That's just where we are at the moment.

:27:45.:27:50.

long will that last you? That will probably last me, maybe with a bit

:27:50.:27:53.

of luck and if the winter is anything like last year, that will

:27:53.:27:58.

probably maybe last me up until about February. And then there will

:27:58.:28:04.

still be a lot of the winter to come, I would think. Back to square

:28:04.:28:09.

one. Back to square one, again. That's just the way it is for

:28:09.:28:14.

pensioners. You just don't look that far ahead. You just take every

:28:14.:28:19.

day as it comes. So, too, does Kirsty McChesney.

:28:19.:28:22.

Benefits dependency can affect a family generation to generation,

:28:22.:28:28.

but she has ambitions, both for herself and for Kimberley. Would

:28:28.:28:31.

you be concerned or worried that you will become dependent on

:28:31.:28:34.

benefits? There is a lot of talk about welfare, benefit dependency,

:28:34.:28:41.

being how that's all people know. No, I'm not worried that I will be

:28:41.:28:45.

on benefit for life. I don't want to be on benefit for life and I

:28:45.:28:48.

will make sure I am not. I will hopefully have some qualifications

:28:48.:28:53.

behind me to get a job to provide for myself and Kimberly. But at the

:28:53.:29:03.
:29:03.:29:06.

minute it's out of the question. Nelson McCausland has improved at

:29:06.:29:09.

Julian O'Neill investigates welfare reforms. Will they really break a benefits culture or push the poor to the margins?


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