Less well-off will pay for a crisis they did not create
A measure which will inflict severe damage on some of the least well-off in our society was introduced at Stormont last Monday. Hardly anyone noticed.
True, the first reading of any Bill is something of a formality. The Welfare Reform Bill will be discussed, as is usual, at the second reading next week and then at the Social Development committee.
But, even so, the fact that a plan for drastic cuts to a range of benefits had begun its passage towards the statute book might have merited some comment.
Of course, on the day that was in it, DSD minister Nelson McCausland and much of the Assembly were focused on the clash between the rights of gay couples to equality and the provisions of Genesis 19:5 and Leviticus 18:22, not to mention I Timothy 1:9.
The proposed Bill will affect housing benefit, employment and support allowance, child maintenance, lone parent's allowance, disability living allowance and much else.
The package is vigorously opposed by the trades unions and by voluntary groups dealing on a day-to-day basis with the difficulties already facing welfare recipients.
Three weeks ago, contingents from the ICTU, NIPSA and UNISON stood for an hour in the rain outside Stormont in an effort to draw attention to the imminent cuts.
Alarm at the effects of changes to housing entitlements, in particular, has come from the Simon Community, the Law Centre NI and the Northern Ireland Welfare Reform Group.
The changes would mean that people living in houses larger than they are deemed to need would see their housing benefit slashed and would have to choose between moving home, or making up the difference from their own resources.
People of working age in a house under-occupied by one room would see a 14% drop in benefit. Those under-occupying by two, or more, bedrooms would face a 25%.
These are breathtaking reductions. The numbers are not negligible. Sixty-five percent of homes rented from the Housing Executive are above the bedroom standard. Of these, 42% are under-occupied by one room, 23% by two, or more.
The reasons for under-occupancy have little to do with tenants grabbing houses too big for them. The most relevant factor is that houses matching family size are not available in anything like the numbers needed.
The present rules provide for one bedroom for each adult or couple. Children under 15 are expected to share with another of the same gender. Under-nines are expected to share with another - regardless of gender.
An additional room is allowed for a carer providing overnight support for the claimant, or partner. However, there is no reference to an additional room for overnight carers of disabled children.
There are no figures for the number of children living in under-occupied Housing Executive accommodation. Neither is it clear how older children are to be dealt with in calculating under-occupancy.
Already, social housing tenants are penalised for having adult children living with them - even when they are students, unemployed, or foster children who have remained in the foster home having 'grown out of care'.
Where is the justice in forcing families to move from homes where they have developed social networks, neighbourly relations and community support?
These things are not measurable in terms of space, or money, but they count for a great deal for a not inconsiderable number of families.
Many working parents depend on grandparents and family members for childcare, so they can go out to work. This is particularly the case for lone parents.
How does this fit with one of the main reasons given for the changes - that they will 'incentivise' tenants to work? This makes no sense.
What's happening is that families very likely to be already less-well-off are to be made to pay the price of a crisis in public finances which they played no part in creating.
Proceedings at the Assembly on Monday did suggest a solution - the use of a 'petition of concern'. This lays down that, if 30 or more MLAs insist, a proposal will be declared lost unless it wins the support of separate majorities of unionists and nationalists who vote. The
DUP invoked this provision in relation to 'gay marriage'. In June last year, Sinn Fein used the same strategy to stymie any challenge to the proposed A5 dual-carriageway.
There is surely at least as strong a case for use of the same provision in relation to housing and other benefit cuts.
Sinn Fein - with 29 MLAs - would need only one additional Assembly member to put a stop to the housing cuts. Or to the entire Bill, for that matter. Why not?