Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 23 August 2014

Quiet diplomacy the way forward for welfare reform

Nelson McCausland

Nelson McCausland, Minister for Social Development, estimates that the immediate impact of universal credit is that an extra £110m will be spent in Northern Ireland.

The changes will reduce benefit traps, enhance incentives to take a job and, for employers, make the labour market more flexible.

The fundamental principles underpinning the changes are sensible and welcome. When fully implemented, the welfare reform proposals are designed to strengthen the social and economic objectives of Government.

Even though the minister has reservations about some features, in his review to the Assembly, he said: "I believe that universal credit can help to tackle poverty, make people's lives better, support families and grow a more sustainable economy."

Later in his statement he added: "People who want to work are actually hindered from doing so by the current rules, whilst the poorest and most vulnerable suffer because the available resources are badly targeted. In the changes that are proposed, work will pay."

The welfare reform scheme is well-motivated. Whether the online links to people on benefit will all work acceptably remains to be proven.

However, with critical exceptions, the revised scheme is a big improvement on the inherited systems.

There is a fear that, as a Conservative Party idea, the welfare reform programme is a disguised method of cutting the social security budget.

There are some cuts but Nelson McCausland put the record straight with an estimate that universal credit will put an additional £110m back into the local economy.

The parity principle is still working to Northern Ireland's advantage.

Expressed rather differently, no individual who qualifies for social security benefits will be at a disadvantage over other similar individuals elsewhere in England.

There are legitimate concerns by community interest groups where there are examples of potentially unpopular benefit changes, on issues such as:

  • The application of housing benefit rules and payment rates, as well as whether payments should be made to landlords, rather than tenants;
  • The assessment methods leading to PIPs [Personal independence payments] replacing the DLA [Disability living allowance];
  • The timing and frequency of benefit payments;
  • The decisions on who in a household should receive benefit payments;
  • Mechanisms to meet exceptional social need, replacing the former social fund.

Whilst retaining the basic parity principles, these are local factors which suggest that in some circumstances individual needs are greater or, additionally, there are adaptations that would improve the procedures but at no significant extra cost?

Organisations such as the Law Centre, the Federation of Housing Associations, the Housing Rights Service, the Chartered Institute of Housing, Niacro, the Anti-Poverty Network, and the Simon Community have each made careful suggestions.

Local implementation would be improved if:

  • Housing benefit rules for 'under-occupied' bedrooms were implemented with a five year transition clause for householders now aged over 45;
  • Claims for housing benefit for younger adults were reduced, possibly moving the age barrier one year at a time, gradually reducing the numbers eligible;
  • Housing benefit could continue, as at present, to be paid directly to a landlord;
  • Assessments for Personal Independence Payments (replacing DLA) should be under-pinned by explicit consideration (more strongly) of local needs, including a broader assessment of mental health needs;
  • Universal credit payments intended to be monthly, should on request be paid on a weekly basis;
  • Universal credit payments should be made, by nomination, to a household member who carries the main household budget responsibility;
  • The reform regulations should make explicit provision for exceptional social needs. This might include giving immediate relief to new claimants such as ex-prisoners on release from prison.

These local variants would add only marginally to the social security bills. Westminster might even allow the changes without any formal extra budget cost to the local Exchequer.

Quiet diplomacy may be better than political bravado.

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