We are constantly being told that what is different about this particular economic crisis is that it is effecting us all. It is an especially tough time for those with low and middle incomes who are struggling to pay larger bills whilst their employers in turn tighten their own belts by denying salary increases. The economic imposition which has increased most exponentially for all households (and the effect is felt keenly by those on low and middle incomes) is paying energy bills for heat and light. Yet the Northern Ireland Executive’s much vaunted fuel poverty payment will apply only to those receiving pensions and income support!
It would be easy to come over a bit ‘Daily Mail’ on this issue, but frankly this package is not taking into consideration the peculiar circumstances of these straightened times. Those people who are already provided for by the state get more and those who are working hard but find themselves without enough money to pay the bills get nothing. Surely the executive could have devised a wider ranging, indeed a more just, system of assessing requirement for this payment?
Of course there will be people who have lost jobs, or who have been unable to find work, or who simply cannot work for whatever reason, and they require help. I would not for a minute suggest that they should be denied it. But income support is already a rather amorphous system and there will be a hardcore of professional ‘takers’ benefiting from the executive’s supposed largesse, whilst there will be those in real need who miss out.
Margaret Ritchie has raised further concerns about Nigel Dodds’ economic package, claiming that her budget has been raided in order to finance payments. Ritchie's reaction once again highlights the unaccountable nature of government here, where small parties’ ministers are locked into decisions which they disagree with, only to have the executive’s ‘unanimity’ thrown back in their faces if there is a murmur of dissent. They can either attract huge opprobrium by blocking executive business or else they must take shared responsibility for policy which the larger parties have imposed.
Whether Ritchie’s concerns are justified or not (and to be fair the income support qualification was her baby), this is a bad flawed scheme which does not deserve the laurels being heaped upon it. Devolution is actually working very badly.