Alison Blayney is the director of Kilcooley Women’s Centre and a member of the North Down and Ards Policing and Community Safety Partnership. With over 25 years experience in community development and women’s education, Alison has sat on numerous boards and worked in partnership with all statutory agencies.
Almost 8 months from the collapse of the NI Assembly, Northern Ireland politics seems to have adopted the attitude of fiddling whilst Rome burns. As austerity bites, and the prospect of full blown welfare reform being implemented seems ever more likely, the future looks bleak for those working in the community sector and in particular community based services for women and children.
One in four children in Northern Ireland are said to be living in poverty (Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health). The current political vacuum leaves those of us who lobby and campaign for improved services and changes in policy to improve the lives of children, with no one to turn to. We have no Ministers; no decisions can be taken. Everything bar the common cold is now blamed on the political impasse, which in some cases is probably true, in others, maybe a convenient excuse to maintain the status quo.
Child poverty will affect health, and will have a long-term impact on outcomes and life chances for those children living in challenging circumstances. More and more families are classed as ‘just managing’ or the ‘working poor’ who we are now referring to food banks. These are the issues the average woman accessing our services is prioritising. In addition, the dire state of community based training for women offers no way out of the poverty trap.
The results of the decision by former Department of Employment and Learning Minister, Dr Stephen Farry, to limit European Social Fund to cap training to a maximum Level 1 qualification has decimated the opportunities for women, who are currently being encouraged back to the workplace as part of welfare reform.
This decision was not financial, as it costs more or less the same to train someone to Level 2 (GCSE equivalent), the level most employers will be looking for. Many in the women’s sector are still trying to work out the rationale for this policy directive. Restricting women’s training to Level 1 will no doubt mean women can only access low level training and therefore low paid work, which no doubt will be reliant on some form of means tested benefit, and the cycle of poverty and disadvantage continues.
Often seen as the ‘Cinderella’ service of the community, women’s centres and groups are providing frontline services for vulnerable women and children, often in socially disadvantaged communities. Low lying fruit is easy to cut.
Even in the ‘good old days’ when politics in Northern Ireland was functioning, women’s projects limped from year to year, with short term ‘emergency’ funding for childcare and other services. Due to the nature of working with children and vulnerable adults, and complying with safeguarding legislation, a 3 month rolling contract just doesn’t work if you are recruiting or employing someone working in a role which requires vetting.
It is proving more and more challenging to recruit and retain experienced staff who are simply sick sore and tired of playing Russian roulette with their contracts. The nail biting annual charade of ‘if or when’ a new contract will be issued is painful enough.
It would not be uncommon for a new contract for a childcare worker being issued on the day the old one expires, which is unworkable in circumstances where an element of forward planning for personnel is required, not only for continuity, but to protect and safeguard some of the most vulnerable children in society.