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Stormont rubber-stamping British policy


StormontOn Tuesday [May 8], the Six-County Assembly again demonstrated its primary purpose as a rubber-stamp mechanism for implementing British government policy when its members voted to approve the Pensions Bill.

The Bill formally increases the state pension increase to age 66 and beyond. These increases to state pension age will also mean similar increases in the qualifying age for state pension credit and the winter fuel payment. Further plans are being put in place to raise the pensionable age even higher to age 68.

As the pension age rises, the proportion of retirement spent in poor health will increase.

There is a strong relationship between income level and healthy life expectancy. The poorer you are, the lower your healthy life expectancy after the age of 65.

The most deprived 40 per cent of the population spend on average 25-30 per cent of their retirement with a serious health problem, and 45 per cent with a disability.

All the official research suggests that an increase in the state pension age will mean a higher proportion of retirement spent in ill-health or with a disability.

Once again, the hardest hit will be the poorest.

As has consistently been the case in respect of the British government’s attacks on vital public services, on pay, on jobs and on benefits provision, Stormont has again proven to be incapable of offering any resistance to British government policy.

Extending the working life of older people is also likely to have a further adverse affect on employment prospects for younger people.

At present, almost 30 per cent of all those who are unemployed in the Six Counties are aged under 25.

The disparity is even greater for young males.

The current increase in state pension age for women from 60 to 65 years will tend to increase the unemployment rate for young adult females, as older women continuing in work reduce employment opportunities for younger women.

Increasing the state pension age further to 66 and over for both sexes is likely to reduce employment opportunities for young adults of both sexes, unless more employment opportunities in substantial numbers are created in the economy – another task which Stormont has failed to address.

As the monthly labour report for April demonstrated, the seasonally adjusted unemployed claimant count in March 2012 increased to 61,500 in the Six Counties.

Added to this figure is an estimated 50,000 other people who want to work but who are not classed as officially unemployed simply because they are in receipt of benefits other than Job Seekers Allowance. The stark but unspoken truth is that, under Stormont, a total of 111,500 people are seeking work in the Six Counties. In contrast, the same monthly labour report shows that the number of unfilled “live” vacancies available to jobseekers was a mere 2,012.

But it is not just those currently in work and those who are seeking to work that Stormont is failing. The needs of the youngest and the oldest are also being ignored.

In January of this year, a report published by the Campaign to End Child Poverty found that over 1 in 5 children in the Six County statelet were living below the poverty line – the point at which families struggle to pay for basic necessities such as food, heating and clothing. That figure increased to over 2 in 5 in West Belfast (where 46 per cent of children live in poverty) and North Belfast (41 per cent), with Derry close behind at 36 per cent.

Equally shameful figures released towards the end of last year showed that fuel poverty among older people in the Six Counties had reached crisis levels with 61.5 per cent of older people living in fuel poverty – an increase of almost 15 per cent since 2006. Even more alarming was the increase, from 62 per cent to more than 83 per cent, of older people living alone who are experiencing fuel poverty.

But Stormont's cuts are okay?Stormont’s response was to cut the level of the annual winter fuel payment to those in need, in some cases reducing the amount from £400 to £300.

Only after a massive outcry by a wide range of groups from across the community and voluntary sector did Stormont concede an additional one-off payment. However, not everyone affected by the original cut were entitled to that one-off payment.

As a right-wing coalition, willingly implementing the policies of their masters in the other right-wing coalition in Westminster, Stormont politicians can at least take comfort from the fact that their policies are paying massive dividends for some.

Under Stormont, the private sector rental market has grown dramatically with private landlords and property speculators raking in tens of millions of pounds each month.

In 2001, there were approximately 44,000 privately rented houses across the Six Counties. Over a ten year period, this has increased spectacularly to over 113,000 such properties in 2011, including one-, two- and three-bedroom properties. During the second half of 2011, private landlords and speculators were charging, on average, £436 per month for one bedroom properties, £517 for two bedrooms, and £578 for three bedrooms in the Belfast area.

Many of those forced to seek accommodation in the growing private landlord sector are young single people and young couples who cannot access homes within the social housing sector due to the high demand within that sector and the ever-decreasing number of social housing units available in the North.

Here again, Stormont is failing. In period from 2007/08 until 2010/11, not one penny was allocated to the North’s only statutory social housing provider, the Housing Executive, to enable new homes to be built. Little wonder that there are over 20,000 people officially classified as homeless in the Six Counties.

Single tenants under the age of 35 on low incomes or in receipt of welfare benefits are now also being subjected to Stormont’s cuts. They face reductions in the amount of housing benefit to which they were previously entitled. Many face reductions of £45 per week in their housing benefit, creating a situation where they will simply be unable to pay their rent and, as a consequence, will be forced into homelessness.

After partition, Stormont’s ruling elite showed little interest in defending the rights of the working class, the unemployed, the young, the elderly, and the vulnerable in society. Those who inhabit those marbled halls today show that they, too, have no interest in defending those rights.

The reality for people in the Six Counties is that Stormont’s policies are having a massive, negative impact on housing, employment, health and social services, with continued community disintegration and housing shortages, reduced services for the ill and vulnerable, and the driving down of public sector wages for nurses, classroom assistants, and many others.

In the struggle to defend jobs, working and living conditions, to protect public services that are so important to our communities, and in the struggle to create a new political and socio-economic order in Ireland, Stormont’s politicians have repeatedly shown that they have no progressive role to play – that they are part of the problem, not the solution.

The political elites who opted to participate in Stormont have consistently demonstrated that they chose the wrong values, made the wrong decisions and allowed the wrong priorities to take precedence.

It’s also time they accepted the blame.


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