As if the unemployed and the sick did not get it hard enough, being used as the scapegoats for all the ills of the economy, our Department of Social Development led by Minister Alex Attwood, has decided that it will discriminate against some of its 'customers' when it comes to distributing 'cold weather payments'.
At the risk of teaching egg sucking etc, 'Cold Weather Payments' are paid to those on low incomes at the rate of £25 per household for any week where the temperature has fallen to zero or below for 7 consecutive days. Since Northern Ireland has a record level of fuel poverty, ( where a household spends more than 10% of its income on heating), the £25 payment can make a huge difference to the well being of vulnerable people during the current Arctic weather conditions.
This Keynesian policy sounds very fair until you look at the method used by the DSD to determine when and where the payments should be made. There are several Meteorological stations scattered around Northern Ireland, these not only record daily temperatures but also make predictions on expected temperatures for 7 days in advance.
The DSD use the data of forecast temperatures at each Met station to determine if the post-code areas adjacent to that station are expected to have temperatures falling below zero during each day for 7 consecutive days.
The logic that predictions on the weather should be the basis of any Government policy is questionable, but for government departments to represent this data as scientific, considering the blunders caused in the past by the Met office getting their forecasts completely wrong is disingenuous to say the least. This method has been used to determine cold weather payments since 1987, (before that the temperature had to fall to below -1.5), and until now no-one has questioned the validity of the data collection method used to support this policy. This anomaly in this system came to my attention 3 years ago when a relative, who at that time qualified for cold weather Payments, noticed that water which they had left out for the birds had remained frozen for 11 consecutive days yet they had not received the payment. It then transpired that no-one in that particular post-code area had received the allowance in the previous 10 years.
We decided to ask the DSD why this post-code area was excluded from the payment while those in adjacent areas, suffering the same weather conditions, had received the allowance. The benefits officer explained how the system worked and that they had no power to decide who received the payment, that this was done automatically except when the Minister decided to over-ride the system.
Last year when Margaret Richie was DSD minister she decided to over-ride the system and pay the allowance to every qualifying household in N. Ireland for a period of three weeks. I believe that Ms. Richie did this because she saw that there was a flaw in the system.
The same flaw has appeared again in the past week, where the temperature has fallen below zero every day for the last 11 consecutive days in the post-code areas BT 41, BT45 and BT80, yet when the DSD announced through the media on Tuesday that cold weather payments would be paid to those qualifying households, these 3 post-code areas where absent from the list.
As a representative of the Unemployed Union, I wrote to Minister Attwood on Tuesday asking him to review the method used by his department to determine which post-code areas were eligible for the allowance and to use his discretion, and make a payment of two weeks of the allowance to those qualifying households in the named post-code areas. I expected to receive a response from the Minister's office but instead he handed my communication to the Social Security Agency, who wrote to me with the following, ' your letter has been referred to the SSA who have been asked for input into your final response. Would it be possible for you to provide us with some further information?'
This communication then went on to ask me if I am currently in receipt of benefits, if so which, and for my national insurance number etc.
None of this is relevant to the question asked of the Minister by the Unemployed Union, and shows just how the electorate can expect to be treated by those in power at Stormont.
The Minister and his civil servants have assumed that by personalising this issue, trying to reduce me to a 'mere benefit claimant', ( i.e. to be treated as a second class citizen) therefore not entitled to question the system or point out its flaws, that the issue will just go away.
Dear Mr. Attwood, the question needs to be answered and we intend to keep asking it until you review the post-code lottery which determines which households freeze this winter!