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Cliff Edge Coalition representatives present key asks to Communities Committee

Representatives from the Cliff Edge Coalition gave evidence to the Assembly Committee for Communities at Stormont on Thursday 6 June.   

Sarah Corrigan from Law Centre NI, Siobhán Harding from the Women’s Support Network, Jonny Currie from The Trussell Trust and Stephen Morrison from Housing Rights spoke to Committee members about the Cliff Edge Coalition’s three key asks and how they would help to alleviate poverty in Northern Ireland.  

  • Key Ask #1 – Resolving the five-week wait in Universal Credit 
  • Key Ask #2 – Removing the two-child limit 
  • Key Ask #3 – Providing support for private renters

Inaction is not a viable option

Sarah Corrigan from Law Centre NI outlined how the ongoing cost-of-living crisis, further welfare reform measures and worsening poverty in Northern Ireland have made the Cliff Edge Coalition’s work even more urgent.  

She also highlighted how the cost of poverty impacts on health, housing, education and justice and inaction is not a viable option.  

Sarah referenced the Opposition Day debate on removing the two-child limit and issues which arose from that debate including barriers to mitigating the policy. Sarah emphasised that we need to know the detail around these barriers including financial and IT implications – and how the Northern Ireland Executive plans to overcome these.  

Key Ask #1 – Resolving the five-week wait in Universal Credit 

Universal Credit has put me into debt. At no point before this was I without electric, wondering how I was going to feed my kids for the next few days and sitting with no heat, but now with Universal Credit I am.  

Universal Credit – and particularly the five-week wait – has been described in research as a ‘driver’ for illegal lending. Siobhán Harding from the Women’s Support Network spoke to the Communities Committee about the impact that the five-week wait has had on people claiming Universal Credit and how some have had to go without food and heating, as well as getting into debt to cover essential bills.  

Siobhán outlined how the five-week wait is particularly dangerous for low-income families and women who often act as the shock absorbers of poverty in the home, shielding their children and other family members from its effects.  

Advance payments are available, but they remain part of the problem as they essentially mean that claimants start their Universal Credit journey in debt and can often experience difficulties in repaying advance payments.  

Siobhán also spoke about the Universal Credit Contingency Fund which provides a short-term living expenses grant to help with cost-of-living for those in financial hardship. She noted that it should be renamed to better reflect its purpose and should be better promoted, not just on the NI Direct website, but through other channels.  

Key Ask #2 – Removing the two-child limit 

“The Government does not limit access to education or the health service to the first two children in a family, so it shouldn’t be applying it to social security benefits.”  

The two-child limit results in a loss of £3,455 per child per year for third and subsequent children. Jonny Currie from The Trussell Trust highlighted how it is important to view the two-child policy within the prism of Northern Ireland. The unfairness of this policy is starker when you consider the average size in Northern Ireland is larger than in Great Britain with 21.4% of families here having three or more children compared to 14.7% in the UK.  

Jonny drew the Committee’s attention to new research by the End Child Poverty Coalition which shows that more than 45,000 children in Northern Ireland live in households impacted by the two-child limit.  

Highlighting how food banks are stepping in to mitigate the impacts of the two-child policy – churches, community groups, volunteers and the public – Jonny spoke about how this huge burden on civic society could be lifted by more compassionate policymaking. 

Jonny pointed to Scotland, which has a national plan to end the use of food banks, and emphasised how we need to listen to the voices of lived experience who should play a leading role in plans to tackle poverty.  

Key Ask #3 – Providing support for private renters 

Cuts to housing benefits in the private rented sector have made it increasingly difficult for low-income renters to keep their homes.  

Stephen Morrison from Housing Rights outlined the importance of providing support for private renters, noting that the existing mitigations for the bedroom tax in Northern Ireland are welcome, but no such safeguards exist for private renters.   

Loss of rented accommodation remains one of the top three causes of homelessness in Northern Ireland. Stephen outlined the Cliff Edge Coalition’s key ask to see funds set aside for a Financial Inclusion Service to provide support for private renters impacted by the shortfall in Local Housing Allowance.  

Stephen pointed out that Northern Ireland has powers to make mitigations that would support private renters, which would sustain tenancies and prevent homelessness.  

Next steps 

Several additional questions were asked at our evidence session by Committee Members. We have committed to answering these questions in writing and to also provide some further information. We will continue to share any further updates or information we have.  

We should be ambitious and strive to not just reduce poverty in Northern Ireland, but to eradicate it. The Northern Ireland Assembly has the power to prioritise this work and the Cliff Edge Coalition’s asks would go a long way to protecting those in Northern Ireland affected by financial hardship and poverty. We urgently ask the Communities Committee and other elected representatives to advocate for our three key asks in their daily work. 

We understand the budgetary pressure faced by the Department for Communities, but some actions recommended by the Cliff Edge Coalition are cost-free, including renaming the Universal Credit Contingency Fund. In addition, the question must be asked, what is the cost of not taking action? Undoubtedly, poverty has a knock-on effect on health and education. Failing to address poverty is not tackling the root cause of several issues in Northern Ireland.