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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


I am visiting a scheme which is keeping families above the


breadline. This warehouse in Dunmurry on outskirts of Belfast


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


volunteers are sorting emergency suppliers for delivery to people


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


need of their household. Families are choosing between heating their


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


widespread reform of our benefit system. Westminster is targeting


savings in welfare by reforming disability allowances and housing


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


working to support my children and myself rather than the state


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


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


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


employment. The number of households without an adult in a


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


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


before Parliament will accelerate changes. The full impact is two


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


tightening reform is necessary and argue it there is evidence the


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


Institute for Fiscal Studies predicts we will be among the worst


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


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


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


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


pieces of legislation enacted in Great Britain and Northern Ireland.


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


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


Fewer people will qualify because of reassessments, in particular


those with mental health problems who make up our largest proportion


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


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


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


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


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


say our disabilities are permanent. The Coalition Government has


announced last year in the Budget statement last year that it


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


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


certainly are looking to ensure that the resources are focused on


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


genuine disability. Some people are losing out already.


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


advisor at the Citizens Advice Bureau on Belfast's Springfield


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


Almost half of the people helped through this office rely on


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


decided to make a particular payment more generous, or indeed


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


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


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


special advisor to an Executive Minister. The logic eventually may


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


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


particular local circumstances which may not be, and certainly are


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


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


is ultimately a political decision and a political dilemma for the


Executive in Stormont. DUP Minister Nelson McCausland is responsible


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


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


Assembly, Sinn Fein pushed to reject changing Housing Benefit but


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


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


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


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


Northern Ireland block if parity were breached cannot be


underestimated. Without parity and the associated funding, the


Northern Ireland Social Security system would probably be


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


power to break with parity. But there is something Nelson


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


welfare reform is one of the biggest issues facing Northern


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


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


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


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


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


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


crucially, he says, that breaking parity could have serious


implications for Northern Ireland. He said that breaking parity could


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


could get less than another claimant in Newcastle and England.


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


leaders recently met Secretary of State Owen Paterson and told him


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


This cleric explains the thinking behind the meeting with Mr Paterson


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


Westminster or locally, should be lobbying for that and looking


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


the economy there are places in just as much difficulty and


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


perceptions of the unemployed people. The mentors run these


workshops regularly. They say the overwhelming mood is one of


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


for households and individuals, reading across into general


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


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


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


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


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


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


have worked all their lives and through redundancy and through


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


Benefits dependency can affect a family generation to generation,


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


you be concerned or worried that you will become dependent on


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


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


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


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


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


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


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

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