26 May 2012     

At the cutting edge

By Lynda Walker

NIPSA, the largest public service union in Northern Ireland, representing more than 46,000 members in the health and public sector, have their union conference this coming week. Jobs, wages and pensions are a major concern; however, their agenda will address some of the main issues that are facing people as both workers and recipients of the public service.
     The vast majority of NIPSA workers are at the cutting edge of the policies being pushed through by the Con-Dem government and their regional satellite partners—in our case the Northern Ireland Assembly. It is public-sector workers who will have to implement the welfare reforms. From the intricate inaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaterpretation of the reforms to giving explanations to the “customers” whose benefits will be affected, NIPSA workers will be on the spot. They are the ones who will have to face the frustrated lone parent or unemployed homeless youth.
     Many of these workers also have family members who are affected by the changes, and it is not surprising to find that there are a number of motions on the NIPSA agenda that condemn the Welfare Reform Bill. It will affect “the well being of thousands of working and non-working families.” Greater numbers of children will be forced into poverty, and the adverse impact on women has been documented by numerous charitable and women’s organisations. In additions, more than £500 million a year will be taken out of the Northern Ireland economy.
     Of particular concern is the introduction of the Universal Benefit (UB)—a one-stop benefit to incorporate all benefits. This will affect low to middle-income families. The legislation proposes that the universal benefit be paid once a month to a household. Part of this cynical exercise is to prepare the “household” to become “salary-earners.” There is a fear that women will lose out again, as the benefits that they can claim in their own right are incorporated in the UB. It is possible that the Northern Ireland Assembly will order the payments to be made every two weeks, and to the main carer.
     However welcome this “humane act” is, it will not alleviate some of the worst effects of the Welfare Reform Bill. This includes the adverse effects on housing benefit, resulting in an increased incidence of homelessness, disability living allowance that has been replaced, the social fund that has been abolished, and changes to the child-care elements of tax credits for those working less than 24 hours a week.
     This will result in people not applying for jobs because of the poverty trap. At the present time, some in the community sector, for example women’s centres, have reported that people are not applying for jobs less than 24 hours per week.
     The call to oppose these developments and to build the campaign of opposition is to be welcomed, but the inertia of some within the trade union movement and the community will have to be challenged in creative and innovative ways. Whilst we oppose the Con-Dem notion that “we are all in it together,” we can take on board the fact that workers and unwaged are all going to be adversely affected by these changes.
     Unity sends greeting to those at the NIPSA conference and salutes the efforts of those who went on strike recently to save jobs and social services.

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