In recognition that many families are being pushed to the brink, Save the Children Northern Ireland sought to find out how the support people receive from the government (such as Universal Credit and other benefits) makes a difference in their lives. Undertaking research with 24 families across Northern Ireland, the evidence revealed that families are just about surviving when they should be thriving.

The first report revealed the financial support available wasn’t enough to meet costs, the system is impersonal, inflexible, and unable to adapt to the complicated lives therefore rather than helping often caused more harm.

In September 2023, the second report was published revealing families priorities for improving the social security system in Northern Ireland. The research showed that the social security system is often failing families and causing more harm to those already experiencing a precarious financial situation. Families highlighted three priorities for change.

Families want:

  • A system that is built around families’ needs and circumstances.
  • A system that is better connected and more accountable to families.
  • A system that offers agency, choice, and dignity for families.

A rigid and inflexible system doesn’t make room for complicated family life. There is no flexibility to adapt to individual family circumstances. The families we spoke to felt that a well-functioning social security system should be better connected and more accountable to the people it is intended to support. This priority built on a common feeling that the system is often harming, rather than helping families. Frequent miscommunication, complications or procedural errors drew many families into debt which caused untold harm both emotionally and financially.

“You know, if somebody had communicated it to me, I didn’t even know it existed …  I have been in debt since … And that was hanging over my head. You know, messaging, Universal Credit, constantly.”

Many revealed a picture of a system that removed agency, choice, and dignity. From the lack of face-to-face contact with work coaches, ‘work capability’ assessments, and the continuous need to provide evidence to fulfil complicated benefit applications, it was evident that for many their ability to exercise choice and autonomy was restricted. The expansion of communication channels, more empathy and understanding and an opportunity to speak to decision-makers were all seen as steps which could be taken to improve how families interact with the system.

It is important to highlight however, that while families wanted to see improvement to the social security system many stated that welfare support is only one piece of the puzzle to lifting children out of poverty. While the social security system is important, many of the root causes of poverty lie elsewhere. Access to secure jobs with fair pay, a well-functioning childcare system, and access to adequate and affordable housing were all seen as areas requiring significant progress.

To read the full report visit here.

Naomi McBurney is Policy and Public Affairs Adviser for Save the Children NI

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