By Pat Lawlor,
The insincere declaration by Finance Minister Sammy Wilson that cutting rates relief payments as the “least worst option” will be of no comfort to the 40,000 low income families this will impact. Working class families are struggling and in many cases failing to meet the basic needs of daily living. According to the market research company Mintel, 80% of families in Northern Ireland have been forced to change how they shop, cook and eat as a direct response to price rises. This is before the recent hikes in electricity costs of near 18% slamming homes with an increase of £90 a year from July. Mintel further reported 23% of households state that they have no money left after paying bills each month; with 55% of families worrying about rising utility and grocery bills. Almost 10% of working families have bills in arrears, almost double for those unemployed (17%) with four in ten (37%) of unemployed homes with no money left each month after paying their bills.
The real devastating impact this cut will have on financially hard-hit families does not concern any of the political parties in the Assembly. The priorities for Sammy Wilson and his cohorts in the Assembly Executive are simple – how to make ordinary families pay for the financial crisis and the on-going recession created by the banking industry, big business and property developers. But rather than hold the banks and big business to account for their reckless gambling that has thrown thousands of people on the dole and into poverty, Sammy Wilson with the full support of all the political parties in the Executive sent a clear message which side they are all on.
In November 2012, they extended a range of rate relief measures for big businesses and property developers. In a scheme to safeguard profits for big businesses, they have been given a year’s discount of 50% on empty premises. This scheme has been extended for another two years to the end of the budget period of 2014/15. Property developers will also benefit from an extension of a scheme to exclude them from rates on empty homes. Even though it was the greed of unscrupulous property developers that was responsible for the initial crisis through the property crash of 2007, developers have been excluded from these charges as many have been left with large portfolios of unsold homes. Disgracefully, this exclusion has been extended for another 12 months and covers about 5,000 vacant properties that could be used to help house the 19,000 homeless households, 6,000 of whom have dependent children. Sammy Wilson has said the measures were designed to assist businesses in a difficult trading environment. No such measures have been put in place to assist families in need. For working class homes the opposite is the case, and this cut on rates relief payments is the most recent of many attacks on the poorest in our society.
Figures from 2010 from Save the Children (not the most recent) give us an idea of how bad the situation is for families in working class communities. They show 28% of children were growing up in poverty in Northern Ireland. The figure for the whole of the UK at that time was 20%. Figures in most regions of Britain actually fell 1-2% over the same period whereas they rose 3% in Northern Ireland. The figures are even more stark when they are broken down by council areas. In two councils (Derry at 44% and Limavady 34%), almost half the population are living in poverty. Of the 26 councils in Northern Ireland seven have 30% or more families living in poverty. Nearly a third of Northern Ireland’s working-age population is not in paid work. This figure is higher than any other region in Britain and men working full-time also earn 15% less than their counterparts in the rest of the UK. Families are forced into getting by on less than £7,000 a year for a lone parent with one child and less than £12,500 for a couple with two children. The reality of this means families are forced to sleep at night in homes with no heating, electricity and in many cases without eating a proper cooked meal. In 2012, Save the Children illustrated 1 in 10 children in Northern Ireland, approximately 40,000, are living in severe poverty with their families. This clearly shows for working class communities daily living standards have got far worse.
We have seen some political parties make ineffectual opportunistic sniping points with no real intent to oppose these attacks, as the Executive is in the process of making savage cuts in welfare and benefits. The Assembly Executive are attempting to ‘balance’ the extent of cuts they would like to make with the potential mass opposition this will provoke amongst communities across the North. This was a lesson the Assembly Executive learned when they tried to impose water charges and were defeated by the threat of a mass united and coordinated boycott in working class communities across Northern Ireland. Since then the Assembly parties have been cautious over potential issues that could unite a mass opposition to their cuts and austerity agenda. The implementation of the Welfare Reform Bill supported by all the Assembly parties is full of many such contentious issues for the Assembly Executive.
In particular, the implementation of the bedroom tax across the North could see elderly, disabled people and families being forced out of their homes. This again has the potential to be socially explosive, uniting people against this unjust tax and the Assembly Executive. It is for this reason only that the Executive will likely not implement this part of the Welfare Reform Bill – not because they support families in need. It shows how fearful the Assembly Executive really is of any potential opposition to their austerity agenda. This has forced the Assembly Executive to be imaginative on how they will make good on the demands of the Con-Dem government for a root and branch cut and privatisation of the welfare and benefit system. The proposed 10% cut in rates relief (estimated to be £18 million) taken from the welfare budget is for the Executive the least worst option.
But the reality for the Assembly Executive is their room to manoeuvre around the imposition of their cuts and austerity agenda is shrinking rapidly. They are preparing to implement the majority of cuts that they held back in the hope that the recession would be short lived. The cuts in rate relief are only the beginning of the attacks on welfare and benefits that will impact thousands of people. The most recent example of this is the turnaround the Assembly was forced to make over the scandal of the residential home closures. The campaign over the water charges was also an important example of a victory against their cuts and privatisation agenda. The Assembly Executive felt at this time more stable and in a stronger position but underestimated the mass opposition to water charges and were forced back. The Assembly is weak and their cuts can be stopped if a co-ordinated and united campaign across of trade unions, anti-cuts groups and communities is developed now.
It is essential for the trade unions to build confidence and prepare members for industrial action as part of this campaign. The agreement by the TUC to prepare for a 24-hour general strike against austerity must now be promoted in every workplace and union branch. The time has come for this to be organised into generalised and coordinated strike action. There is no real reason why trade union leaders cannot discuss together in order to set a date for a 24 hour general strike.
Alongside industrial action, a political challenge is necessary. Political support for the Executive is at an all-time low. The turnout in the Assembly election in 2011 was 56%, representing a continued decline from the 70% in the first Assembly election in 1998. Many more eligible voters are not on the electoral register. Over half the electorate have turned away from the political system, recognising the sectarian parties do not represent their interests. A new anti-sectarian, mass party of the working class is needed that can help organise mass opposition to austerity and fight for socialist policies.