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The Big Conversation: Lloyds Banking Group initiative helping Northern Ireland's path to recovery


Jim McCooe

Jim McCooe

Jim McCooe

POLITICAL and charity leaders in Northern Ireland came together last week as part of a major national programme to aid recovery during the coronavirus pandemic.

The Big Conversation organised by Lloyds Banking Group, who operate Halifax in Northern Ireland, is a series of 12 events currently being held across the UK which are bringing together experts to discuss the challenges faced by communities across the regions.

Hosted by Lloyds Banking Group Ambassador’s for Northern Ireland, Jim McCooe, the virtual event was attended by DUP MLA Paula Bradley and Alliance MLA Paula Bradshaw as well as debt advice service and charity representatives.

The panel outlined some of the biggest challenges facing households in Northern Ireland this year, with many struggling to ask for help or understand the services available.

Mr McCooe said many figures in the current Northern Ireland economy made for “scary reading” including a 2.5% unemployment figure, which could rise as high as 13% due to coronavirus. He added that according to 2018 figures, Northern Ireland already suffered from the highest levels of personal debt in the UK.

Vanessa Northam is Head of Strategic Relationships at StepChange, the UK’s leading debt charity. She said the pandemic had been “a body blow” to those across the UK with the lowest financial resilience. As well as traditionally affected groups like women and those renting their homes, she said many more younger people aged 18-24 were approaching the charity for the first time.

Janice Maher from the Money and Pension Service in Northern Ireland said low income workers, young people, ethnic minorities and parents were most likely to struggle.

Teresa McCloskey from Apex Housing Association said that with around 80% of tenants on low income, benefit advisers were overwhelmed with calls from people worried about meeting household costs. In Derry, she said collaboration with the local council had helped to share resources like food programmes more effectively.

Alliance MLA for South Belfast, Paula Bradshaw, said the true impact of the first wave of the pandemic had been illustrated by the amount of affluent families turning to food banks for the first time.

“There’s probably a lot of hidden poverty out there with increased job losses and we’ve no idea of the extent of that,” she warned.

Another concern was vulnerable people who had been shielding and now felt under pressure to return to work. DUP MLA for North Belfast, Paula Bradley, said she understood the fear debt could cause and shared her own experience of facing repossession 25 years ago. Even though she had been working as a debt adviser at the time, she recalled still not feeling like she could admit there was a problem and ask for help.

"I think it's about breaking down that fear...because once you've been in that place it never leaves you," she said.

Also sharing her insight of small charities was Brenda McMullan, Executive Director of the Halifax Foundation NI, which grants over £1m a year to local charities in Northern Ireland. She said funding demands from food banks were "stark" with less donations coming from supermarket customers.

Customer Financial Assistance Director Nicola Bannister said customers who had taken payment holidays were also signposted to sources of appropriate advice and guidance.

Asked for possible solutions, Ms Maher from the Money and Pensions Service said increasing financial education for young people was vital to building financial resilience.

Elaine Black, Director of Operations at MindWise, one of four mental health charities support by Lloyds Banking Group, said those in debt often had to choose between paying rent and borrowing even more. She said tackling food poverty was one area which would ease pressure on struggling households.

Those with mental health issues, she added, could also lack the capability and capacity to properly understand how to access resources like Universal Credit.

Sinead Campbell from Advice NI said increased efforts had been made to help users access advice online.

She added that the benefit system in Northern Ireland needed to address issues like claimants waiting five weeks to get payments, and that smaller businesses needed more long-term support rather than just start up initiatives.

"People are coming into this recession with nothing, they're using credit for essentials. That's massive," she said.

"Now when they get into probably even more difficulties, they're not going to have access to any credit so there has to be alternatives."

The recommendations from The Big Conversation events will be published in a final report due to be published in December. To find out more visit

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